Water Closet or Bathroom: Restroom Design East & West


“Treasure night soil as if it were gold.” ~ Chinese Proverb highlighting the value – then and now – of our fecal waste….

http://www.discovery.com/video/surprise-toothbrush-minimyth/

Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Don't Brush where you Flush

Don’t Brush where you Flush

Every time I brush my teeth here in our Kwuirky Kondo I can’t help but think about just how much night soil matter may be involved. I know some people who suffer diarrhea of the mouth, but in a literal sense?! But it doesn’t have to be this way….

So why do the bathrooms of the East and West differ so dramatically? Why is it that engineering and architecture across cultures can diverge so significantly for the exact same biological processes that all humans share? Not to be “anal” about the subject, but “bearing down” the origins of modern design helps to “shower” us with more than a few reasons.

For most of recorded history people around the world got their water from springs, rivers or wells, which self-limited consumption to what could be carried. Since it was so hard to get and transport, water was treated much more as a scarce and valuable resource than it is today. Solid waste was kept in cesspits to be emptied by “night soil men” who would then sell it as fertilizer or otherwise dispose of the unwanted byproduct. Liquid waste from the home was sometimes thrown into the road, to which the French exclamation “gardyloo” (garde à l’eau), or “mind the water!” warning would alert passersby.

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In the West the Romans really kicked off our modern approach to toilets with massive civil engineering projects a few thousand years ago. The idea of Turkish and Asian baths placed the Middle and Far East on a much different trajectory. But it was a cholera epidemic in London in the mid-1800s that really brought the modern Western bathroom to bear. Realizing that excrement mixed with drinking water generally equaled death, the march was on to pump clean and safe water directly into homes. Pipes carrying clean water under pressure became the standard in the west, but with some rather unforeseen consequences.

Although the idea of a flush toilet had been around for many centuries, it was the convenient and 24/7 water supply that led to its explosion as the primary means of personal waste removal. People rushed to install handy flush toilets, and the demand and nature of the resulting necessary architectural engineering lead down a narrow path of thought.

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Initially the architects and homeowners of the late 19th century simply replaced bedroom washstands with sinks and taps, and had to “find” somewhere to place the toilet. Since they were literally often placed, in the early days, into closets, the origin of the term “water closet” becomes obvious. However, it was certainly easier and less expensive to run plumbing to one central location, rather than all over the house. Ah, the birth of the modern Western bathroom.

As this idea matured, wood was replaced with porcelain and tile (or other impermeable stone) in a nod to defeating microbes as more and more people realized the danger of germs. But such materials don’t come cheaply, and as the bathroom continued to become more and more mainstream, it necessarily got smaller and smaller in order to contain cost. Oh, and there certainly was no reason to keep the sinks, showers and toilets all in separate spaces; the plumbers instead simply lined all these features up in a row and ended up using much less pipe. By the early 20th century, the bathroom became more or less standardized and commonplace throughout the West, and relatively indistinguishable from the ones in use today.

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But in the East, the emphasis was placed on much different concerns than mere cost and convenience. Rather, the idea of cleanliness became paramount, and ritual and relaxation overruled economies of scale and installation. In short, human wants and needs took precedence over the dictations of plumbers. Oh, and they probably lacked those pesky trade unions that do little else but jack up prices and stretch a 4-hour job over two weeks.

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That's a kitchen counter.  Right next to the toilet!

That’s a kitchen counter. Right next to the toilet!

From an Eastern perspective, it’s hard to find things we Westerners actually got right in our bathrooms. The high toilets that we sit upon are contrary to the medical claim that our bodies were engineered to squat. Squat toilets remain commonplace throughout Asia, much to the chagrin of many a Western tourist. Sinks are generally much too low to facilitate washing, so much so that Jody and I, when we remodeled all three baths in our home in Pensacola, purposely put in kitchen counters to elevate our wash basins. Showers are generally severe fall hazards, especially the ones that require a high step over the edge of a tub. The tiny rooms we build and outfit are often inadequately ventilated, and then we proceed to fill that space with a densely toxic cloud of chemicals ranging from nail polish remover to bleach tile cleaner. When we flush solid waste down the toilet, we also unknowingly swoosh nasty fecal-bathed bacteria into the air, where it unfailingly lands on our toothbrush located just a meter away. And when we take a bath and bathe, we sit mired in our own muck, completely defeating the purpose of the bath to begin with.

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The American/Western shower is a source of incredible waste and inefficiency, even though it may feel amazing when you have the rain can, shower head, and all three body sprayers going at the same time. Thank about it – even when you don’t really need the water, like during lathering with soap or shampoo, the water continues to run constantly. One usually stands on tile or in a tiny restrictive porcelain tub that’s already slick when dry; such a surface can become downright dangerous when wet! When we actually do care about water waste, mostly based on cost as opposed to environmental concerns, we either take short showers, or install those really miserable low-flow shower heads that more spit on you than stream. In the Navy aboard ship we suffer BOTH insults.

Waterproof Bathing Room!

Waterproof Bathing Room!

However, things are different in the Far East. Here the Japanese flirt with their facilities in an ages-old ritual developed with much different aims in mind. The shower/bath is usually contained in a waterproof room. That’s right – WATERPROOF! I mean it is tiled floor to ceiling, and the ceiling itself is water-resistant. Aside from the bath’s drain, there is a drain for the room, the low point of the gently sloping floor. Light fixtures are sealed, and power receptacles have waterproof covers (and of course are grounded). It is a fabulous idea, both for cleaning your body, AND for cleaning the room!

So in the shower area – which is just a big open area of the room – one sits on a stool. A bucket, sponge, ladle and hand shower are available for washing. There is no shower curtain to get nasty with mold and mildew, and the hand shower is only turned on when needed. To shower, one fills the bucket with hot water from the spigot and ladles oneself wet. When done lathering, the ladle or the hand shower is used to rinse. Often to end the shower one simply dumps the remainder of the bucket over one’s head. Besides being a more relaxing experience (sitting versus standing), some claim that it only uses 10% of the water compared to a Western shower. Maybe. Way less in any case.

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan. It’s set about another foot into the ground.

But that is only half of the story. In that same room is a tub, but one much different from which Westerners are accustomed. Japanese bathtubs (ofuro) are not for cleaning; they are for soaking. In other words, Far Eastern tubs are for cleansing the spirit and mind, and only are used AFTER the body has been cleansed of more tangible dirt as described above. Thus, the tubs are DEEP but short in length. They are designed to be filled fully, and the soaker to sit with their heads back and knees close to their chests. The position is thought to heighten a sense of meditation, or at least relaxation. I can assure you this: I will, after having tried many Asian-sized deep-soak tubs, take depth over length any day! In fact, it makes me want to turn that deep sink back home into a soaking tub. Heck, the room is already almost waterproof as is…if only it had a floor drain.

Even Japanese cats Soak....

Even Japanese cats Soak….

By the way, there is another important difference in Japan’s baths: on-demand, gas-fired water heaters. Yeah, those tubs are deep and hold a LOT of water. But don’t fret. There is literally an unlimited supply of piping hot water in Japan, at least until your gas supply runs out. The water is heated almost instantaneously but only when demanded, and comes to temperature in seconds. A digital control panel allows you to specify the temperature exactly, and there generally are not any annoying anti-scalding devices between you and a 48 degree C bath. In Japan they like their water HOT, and won’t accept anything lukewarm. Yep, the Japanese actually trust you, a grown adult with a vast amount of experience in bathing, with ensuring your own bathing safety. Oh, and since the water remains clean, the water is re-used across the generations often present in a Japanese household.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Another aspect of Japanese bathrooms is quite noticeable and makes perfect sense: never, ever do you find the toilet in the same room as the tub and shower. In their minds, this is beyond logic. Why on earth would you do the dirtiest of deeds in the same room where you try to get the cleanest of cleans? Or, to make it cute:  don’t brush where you flush!  Makes you really think about Western bathroom design…. And the American solution of putting a tiny old-tyme W.C. within a larger bathroom? Doesn’t cut it in Japan.

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In many toilet facilities in Japan a separate dedicated pair of slippers are used only in the toilet area. While you may be wearing house slippers or socks while enjoying the home, a necessary switch to toilet slippers is required to use the toilet. These toilet slippers are considered soiled and are never allowed in any part of the home. In hotels with shared facilities or at some tourist attractions, this switching of footwear is a crucial part of bathroom etiquette.

Japan 2014, bathrooms, rocket-surgery electronic toilet control panel

Finally, even though you might be in a Japanese-style dwelling, it’s quite possible that a more Western style bathroom is provided. But even then, Japan’s toilets are high-tech, a fascinating aspect of the Far East to which I’ve already dedicated a blog: see Moaning Myrtle and Bowel Movements. In summary, a control panel like you might find on the Starship Enterprise offers various options, including music, bidet wash, hot-air blow dryer, seat warmer and other sound and olfactory systems designed to mask the smells and noises of a particularly troublesome session of #2.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

While we may not be able to import many of these aspects to our already built home back in the states, we will take with us perhaps the most radical, revolutionary change in bathroom engineering of the ages: heated toilet seats! Whether or not you agree with any of the differences thus discussed, there’s not one of you out there that’s going to turn their nose up at a nice, warm, padded throne.

Our non-slip sizeable shower.  We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

Our non-slip sizeable shower. We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

And if we ever have a home-built, Jody and I will refuse to be mere “stool” pigeons in accepting some run-of-the-mill bathroom design. No, instead we will “bear down” and “strain” ourselves in perfecting our water closet’s design, reworking the plans until we’re “cramping” from fatigue. We’ll reach deep into the “bowels” of our minds to remember these aspects of design, and “flush” them onto paper, preferably a little more durable than TP. And once finished, we will bask, bath, and yes – even defecate in the full glory of our water-centric facilities.

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And thanks to the blending of the best of East meets West, our toothbrushes will, for the most part, remain night soil-free. Can you say that about yours?!?

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Traces of War: The Demise of Ernie Pyle


“I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.” ~ Ernie Pyle

 

Our Okinawan guide, Setsuko, staring at Ernie Pyle’s monument, remarked in her very broken English, “He came here [Ie Island] because no fighting during ‘Honeymoon Landings’ at Okinawa.” The 25,000 crack Japanese troops tasked with fortifying and defending the landing beaches of Okinawa had, months previous to the invasion, been relocated to defend Formosa from a battle that never came.  We both thought, silently, how things might have been different for this one man if he had been content with less violence. But just as quickly, she beamed a smile our way and joked, her words choked by her infectious laugh, “Ernie Pyle, not Gomer Pyle!!”

The Monument Today

The Monument Today

Ernie should have been content with the landings on Okinawa, but then again, he had a job to do…which could only be done from the front, alongside the infantry that he had come to love so much.  And who loved him back for it.

Ernie doing what he did best.

Ernie doing what he did best.

Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist known for his columns during the bulk of WWII, written and sent from the front. Reporting from both the African, European and Pacific Theatres, he was killed in combat on Iejima during the Battle of Okinawa.

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“For me war has become a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.” ~ Ernie Pyle

By the spring of 1944 he enjoyed a following in some 300 newspapers and was among the best-known American war correspondents. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his spare, first-person reporting, which highlighted the role – and plight – of the common “dogface” infantry soldier, were written in a folksy style, much like a personal letter to a friend. Many were collected and published in Home Country (1947).

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“In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.” ~ Ernie Pyle

His columns, done in foxholes, brought home all the hurt, horror, loneliness and homesickness that every soldier felt. They were the perfect supplement to the soldiers’ own letters. Though he wrote of his own feelings and his own emotions as he watched men wounded, and saw the wounded die, he was merely interpreting the scene for the soldier. He got people at home to understand that life at the front “works itself into an emotional tapestry of one dull dead pattern–yesterday is tomorrow and, O God, I’m so tired.”

One of the doughboys.

One of the doughboys.

“There is no sense in the struggle, but there is no choice but to struggle.” ~ Ernie Pyle

He never made war look glamorous. He hated it and feared it. Blown out of press headquarters at Anzio, almost killed by our own planes at St. Lo, he told of the death, the heartache and the agony about him and always he named names of the kids around him, and got in their home town addresses.

Explanation at the monument

Explanation at the monument

“I try not to take any foolish chances, but there’s just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job” ~ Ernie Pyle

By September, 1944, he was a thin, sad-eyed little man gone gray at the temples, his face heavily creased, his reddish hair thinned. “I don’t think I could go on and keep sane,” he confided to his millions of readers.

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Portrayed on the silver screen

Portrayed on the silver screen

Hundreds of thousands of combat troops, from star-sprinkled generals to lowly infantrymen, knew him by sight, called “H’ya, Ernie?” when he passed. His books Here Is Your War and Brave Men, made up from his columns, hit the high spots on best-seller lists, made Hollywood, where Burgess Meredith impersonated him on the silver screen. He was acclaimed wherever he dared show himself in public.

Ernie Pyle 1 - memorial sign on Ie Shima, April 1945

“I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.” ~ Ernie Pyle, The God-Damned Infantry (1943)

He had frequent premonitions of death. He said, “You begin to feel that you can’t go on forever without being hit. I feel that I’ve used up all my chances, and I hate it. I don’t want to be killed. I’m going [to war] simply because there’s a war on and I’m part of it, and I’ve known all the time I was going back. I’m going simply because I’ve got to–and I hate it.”

Very worn road signage.

Very worn road signage.

“War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot

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In the Pacific he wrote with a soft touch of glorious Pacific dawns and sunsets at sea, of green islands and tremendous expanses of blue water. He journeyed to Iwo on a small carrier (the USS Cabot) and wrote about the carrier crew. Then he moved on to Okinawa and went in with the marines, and there were homely pieces about that. But Ernie Pyle came to the end of the line on tiny Ie, some 10,000 miles from his own white cottage and from his wife, “That Girl.”

In an odd connection, our wedding reception was on the deck of the USS Cabot!

In an odd connection, our wedding reception was on the deck of the USS Cabot!

“At last we are in it up to our necks, and everything is changed, even your outlook on life.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle is no more....

Ernie Pyle is no more….

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument plaque from the USS CabotTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument erected June 1945On April 18, 1945, Pyle died on Iejima (then known as Ie Shima), an island northwest of Okinawa Island, after being hit by Japanese machine-gun fire. He was traveling in a jeep with the commanding officer of the 305th Infantry Regiment and three other men. The road, which ran parallel to the beach two or three hundred yards inland, had been cleared of mines, and subsequently hundreds of vehicles had driven over it without incident. As the vehicle reached a road junction, Japanese troops open with machine guns located on a coral ridge about a third of a mile away. The initial burst missed, allowing the men to stop their vehicle and jump into a ditch. Pyle and the CO raised their heads to look around for the others, where Pyle smiled and spoke his last words to his ditch-mate: “Are you all right?” Another burst from the machine gun and Pyle was struck in the left temple. A medic was called for, and although one wasn’t available, it mattered not. Pyle had been killed instantly.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument lost a buddy 1945

“There are no atheists in the foxhole.” ~ Ernie Pyle

“The nation is quickly saddened again, by the death of Ernie Pyle,” then President Truman said. “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument at this spot

“Swinging first and swinging to kill is all that matters now.” ~ Ernie Pyle

“More than any other man, he became the spokesman of the ordinary American in arms doing so many extraordinary things. It was his genius that the mass and power of our military and naval forces never obscured the men who made them. He wrote about a people in arms as people still, but a people moving in a determination which did not need pretensions as a part of power. Nobody knows how many individuals in our forces and at home he helped with his writings. But all Americans understand now how wisely, how warm heartedly, how honestly he served his country and his profession. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

“If you go long enough without a bath, even the fleas will leave you alone.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument and stairsPyle was initially buried on Iejima with his helmet on, in a long row of graves among other soldiers, with an infantry private on one side and a combat engineer on the other. At the ten-minute service, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were all represented. Two months later, Americans erected a monument to him at the site of his demise. Pyle’s remains were later reinterred at an Army cemetery on Okinawa, and then again – for the last time – at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in Honolulu. Pyle was among the few American civilians killed during the war to be awarded the Purple Heart, which is noted on his gravestone.  None-the-less, he ultimately became just another victim of death by mass production….”

“Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.” ~ Ernie Pyle, from a draft column found in his pocket the day he was killed

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Selections from Ernie Pyle’s Obituary, April 19, 1945

Ernie Pyle Is Killed on Ie Island; Foe Fired When All Seemed Safe

Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES

GUAM, April, 18–Ernie Pyle died today on Ie Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about. The nationally known war correspondent was killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.

The slight, graying newspaper man, chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres, had gone forward early this morning to observe the advance of a well-known division of the Twenty-fourth Army Corps. He joined headquarters troops in the outskirts of the island’s chief town, Tegusugu. Our men had seemingly ironed out minor opposition at this point, and Mr. Pyle went over to talk to a regimental commanding officer. Suddenly enemy machine gunners opened fire; the war correspondent fell in the first burst. The commanding general of the troops on the island reported the death to headquarters as follows: “I regret to report that War Correspondent Ernie Pyle, who made such a great contribution to the morale of our foot soldier, was killed in the battle of Ie Shima [now called Ie Jima] today.”

AT A COMMAND POST, Ie Island, Ryukyus, April 18 (AP)–Ernie Pyle, the famed columnist who had reported the wars from Africa to Okinawa, met his death about a mile forward of the command post.

Mr. Pyle had just talked with a general commanding Army troops and Lieut. Col. James E. Landrum, executive officer of an infantry regiment, before “jeeping” to a forward command post with Lieut. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge., commanding officer of the regiment, to watch front-line action. Colonel Coolidge was alongside Mr. Pyle when he was killed. “We were moving down the road in our jeep,” related Colonel Coolidge. “Ernie was going with me to my new command post. At 10 o’clock we were fired on by a Jap machine gun on a ridge above us. We all jumped out of the jeep and dived into a roadside ditch.

“A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around. Another burst hit the road over our heads and I fell back into the ditch. I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit. He was killed almost instantly, the bullet entering his left temple just under his helmet.” “I crawled back to report the tragedy, leaving a man to watch the body. Ernie’s body will be brought back to Army grave registration officers. He will be buried here on Ie Jima unless we are notified otherwise.

“I was so impressed with Pyle’s coolness, calmness and his deep interest in enlisted men. They have lost their best friend.” Colonel Coolidge was visibly shaken as he told the facts of the columnist’s death. Almost tearfully, he described the tragedy. He said he knew the news would spread swiftly over the island. A short distance ahead enemy machine guns and intermingled with friendly fire, while artillery roared overhead and rattled all things around….

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting! Misconceptions about China


 

No, everybody was certainly not Kung Fu fighting. Nor were we tailed 24/7 by secret Chinese intelligence officials – which we were told would be the case by our American tour guide. And although our DNA may have been collected from one of our many wine glasses enjoyed along the way, I’m pretty ding-dang sure our suitcase weren’t rummaged through in our hotel rooms…as a counterintelligence friend of ours warned….

Aside from our touristy The Legend of Kung Fu show at the ritzy Red Theater in Beijing, we failed to sight even one local Chinese resident spontaneously breaking out into Kung Fu. Actually, I would hazard to guess that’s there probably a much higher probability of spotting such frivolity as part of some flash mob in “Some Town,” U.S. of A. And while we did take a plethora of wide-angle camera shots of surrounding crowds hoping to catch the spies that must have been surely in our midst, I am sad to report a complete lack of photogenic proof. But hey, that doesn’t stop the Sasquatch-Hunters or UFO-Believers, does it?!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

The Red Theater, where everybody WAS Kung Fu fighting!

While we really didn’t expect to see Kung Fu fighting in the streets on our recent foray into China, at the same time we really didn’t know quite what to expect; perhaps our things would be rifled and electronic devices all copied and implanted with bugs and other MI-6 eavesdropping devices. My parents went to China – twice – in the very early eighties, when it literally has just “opened-up” a few years after the crushing weight of the 1970s Cultural Revolution had finally been lifted. They, of course, informed my early opinions of that far-away land, one that we learned next-to-nothing about in all of my formal schooling. And that concept of China centered on horrible food, substandard lodgings, an almost complete lack of cars, and the ubiquitous use of the abacus in place of cash registers or calculators. Oh, and the tours back then were escorted by the military and party officials, quite transparently.

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

Everybody was exercising, Tai Chi style

That early concept of the Far East didn’t change too much over much of my early adult life. I did, at numerous times, get to enjoy Hong Kong and Macau, the latter first under Portuguese administration in 1999, and then as part of Chinese sovereignty in the 21st century under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. But it always was very clear that Hong Kong and Macau were not, and remain quite distinct from China. So, my early conceptual formulation, combined with decades of exposure to the indoctrinating fear and loathing of the U.S. political and military-industrial complex towards China, along with the arrogance and ignorance of most of my fellow Americans, resulted in several misconceptions about this intriguing continent-sized country, the most populous one on the planet, with the world’s second most powerful economy.

Chinese Flag

Chinese Flag

The first is its name: China’s name is not China …at least to the Chinese. We use China most likely because of its Sanskrit derivation from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) Kingdom, one of the first unified regions of today’s China that would have been reached via land-travel from the west in ancient times. Oddly unknown to the west, the Chinese peoples’ common name for their country is Zhōngguó (中国, meaning “Central Nation State.”

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The next most obvious thing? Chinese people don’t speak “Chinese.” Mainland China is made up mostly of the Han ethnicity, but includes large percentages of another 56 ethnic minorities (Tibetans perhaps being the most famous). Unlike many of its Asian neighbors like Japan, Korea or Vietnam, China is not homogeneous. One could say that China is more like the “Europe of Asia.” When we Westerners think of “The Chinese,” the Han majority is what we conjure, even without knowing it. And like most other places that aren’t the great melting pot that America once was, each minority in China retains its own traditions, costume and culture. And this includes language as well.

I've finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

I’ve finally found a way to learn eastern languages!

Mandarin is the “Chinese language” that we might commonly associate with what is spoken in mainland China. But the Chinese heard in movies and TV may more likely be Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong. Putonghua, as Mandarin is called in Mandarin, is the officially unifying language taught in schools and used by the central government and on national television and radio. But there are wide and sometimes huge differences between languages in China. For instance, people from Shanghai speak Shanghainese, which is by and large incompatible with Mandarin! Come to think of it, I reckon that’s not much different from a Californian trying to converse with someone from, say, the hills of Kentucky.

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And speaking of language, don’t believe the hype about the lack of English speakers in China. There is, in fact, a fair amount of English spoken, especially in and around tourist areas and attractions. However, while English may be spoken, it may not be understood. A danger here, experienced firsthand, is that service industry personnel will smile, say “yes” and happily agree with you, especially when they haven’t properly understood. Oh, and an important tip: taxi drivers don’t generally speak English (at all), so it’s always good to have your destination written down in Chinese. See notes on language above!

Chinese Beer.  Yummy.

Chinese Beer. Yummy.

KFC in China

KFC in China

China 2014, Shanghai, Chinese coke colaChinese food in China is NOT anything like Manchu Wok! “Duh,” I hear you say, I know, I know. But since I’ve been asked this particular question more than any other since traveling to China, I just have to include what should be fairly obvious. Chinese cuisine focuses on seafood, although beef and pork are widely available and served in quantity to Westerners. Most surprisingly, it’s chicken that is in most modern demand (see Thanksgiving in the Far East for more). Noodles are the staple starch in the north, replaced by rice is the south (where people are smaller in stature as a result, or so I’m told). The food was very good, and yes, Peking Duck is really so very much better in China!

One Child Policy

And what about the “one child policy” that we’ve all heard so much about? Well, many Chinese do have siblings, and it’s becoming more and more common. The Chinese Government’s One Child Policy was only recently put into effect in 1979, so most people born before very likely have at least one brother or sister. In the West, the policy seems like – and at times is one of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. But, in a country that was suffering unsustainable growth with well over 1 billion people at the time, such a measure of austerity make some logical sense, less the world have another Africa on its hands. Now numbers like billion don’t mean much to most people, but after a visit to China, one realizes just how many people China has! More than any other country in the world, in fact. In the mid-1970s, population models showed China’s growth spiraling out of control. Like anywhere else in the world, when there is an incongruity between people and resources, undesirable happenings like war, unrest, famine, and crime all can result. Personal sacrifice for general peace and harmony is a deep-seeded Chinese mindset stemming a long affair with Confucianism, where respect for elders (and family) and loyalty to the state are foremost above all else.

And, seldom noted in the West, the policy was never intended as blanket coverage; farmers and China’s ethnic minorities, typically much more blue-collar and agri-based, have always been allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you’ll find families with more than one child. Although the policy remains in force, reduced and stabilized birth-rates, combined with a now aging population, has resulted in shifts in the application of the rule. For instance, if two people born under the policy without siblings marry, they may be permitted to have two children.

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The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

The Free Market has never tasted to yummy!

How’bout capitalism and democracy there? Well, my own response is that even America isn’t a democracy – it’s a republic…. And our “free market” is heavily influenced and to some extent controlled by the state. China’s economy is forecasted by the International Monetary Fund to surpass that of the United States within a decade or two. Their national per capita income will double, placing once destitute China on par with European countries like Italy and Spain – without the current economic and/or political woes those two countries currently suffer from. China has been and continues to open to the global village, and while it’s a reasonable expectation that Western influences must result in change to China, China is smart enough to absorb the best of capitalism from afar while translating it into a uniquely Chinese context. Don’t confuse China’s recent economic revolution with Westernization. Those are two very different ideas.

'Quick, comrade, what is the latest party position on existence of dragons?'

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Santa is what may actually lead to the most change!

Popular protests don’t mean that the Socialist Party’s power is in decline. The government in China, while suffering from a brutality-infused past and still heavy-handed by Western standards, still garners respect on the street. Nationalism is strong, and people are proud. For instance, older senior leaders in the party have admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a terrible mistake, and have acknowledged that much reform is still needed moving forward. It seems that at least while good times continue to persist, China’s citizenry will continue to support their national leaders and their leadership…even if sometimes only grudgingly. In a country as large, diverse, and heavily populated as China, stability is valued over almost all else. One thing for certain, the future of China’s political system will not be dictated by Americanor anyone else in the world…except for the Chinese themselves.

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China 2014, there are cameras everywhere in China WM

This can only be described as...individualistic!

This can only be described as…individualistic!

While American-style individualism is just starting to take root, American-style individual freedoms are not. China’s pop culture is undergoing a booming revolution, and like any fast-paced and progressive change, it comes with a whole array of counter-culture features and trends, from tattoo parlors to non-conformist artists and musicians. However, self-expression does not equate to freedom or independence. The wider Chinese society still is centered on the loyal clan over the free individual, and traditional Chinese values are still held in high regard. While horrifically destructive to the Chinese, the recent Cultural Revolution nor their conversion to Socialism/Communism post WWII failed to purge their central principles of sanctity of family and loyalty to nation. For most Chinese (and just like in Japan), the greater good of social harmony remains a noble goal that continues to trump individualism. The trick for the new Chinese moving forward will be finding the right balance that will maintain harmony between the New China and the Old.

Individual yet Collective!

Individual yet Collective!

“But surely the internet must revolutionize China,” I hear you thinking. Sure, the internet can’t help but change China, and the change the Internet brings is mostly good. But rather than causing a revolution, wiring the country with the information superhighway is better characterized as an evolutionary change. The central government in Beijing allows wide and expansive access, but retains veto power when it senses a threat to the state. Sure, Facebook is blocked in China, but would you really miss your friend’s constant status updates and inane check-ins? I wouldn’t – and didn’t while in China for a week, where, by the way, Jody and I were completely digital-free…except for our cameras. And in terms of this blog, in 2014 I had almost ~28,000 views, with only 15 of those coming from China. But while Internet users may grumble about state censorship in China, few activists are really ready to rumble over it.

Who is really more militaristic?

Who is really more militaristic?

Don't worry, we have 12.  And they are super-sized....

Don’t worry, we have 12. And they are super-sized….

And finally, what about what we’re indoctrinated to fear as an aggressively militaristic China threatening the West? C’mon people. The America War Machine remains the most-funded, best-equipped, and most destructive force on the planet, and is used to violent effect without much restraint across the globe. I find it absolutely hilarious that we in America question the rise of the Chinese military. When we stop trying to be Team American: World Police (“Fuck Yeah!”), perhaps we can see China’s intent through a less clouded and distorting lens. Sure, China is building up its military, and yes they even have a fairly capable blue-water Navy. By why do we panic whenever any other country builds an aircraft carrier? China is not about to challenge the U.S. militarily anytime soon, or is it likely to invade its Asian neighbors.  While “pacifist” is too strong (or weak as it were) a word, the Chinese are not itching for a fight. Like we are, at least. “Hello Kettle, this is Pot….”

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However, more importantly, in a more philosophical context, China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does. The precepts of America – government by, for and of the people (even if it doesn’t work), our Bill of Rights and individual freedoms (when the NSA isn’t listening), and the very idea of the “American Dream” all touch hearts and win minds. China is simply too narrow-minded and self-centered which serves to continually isolate and insulate. There is little doubt that China will be a world economic power. But it’s hard to imagine it becoming a world cultural or political power on par with the United States.

What manufacturers' labels say in China....

What manufacturers’ labels say in China….

So, can we in the West look objectively at the Eastern Dragon without bias and misconceptions? In my own experience, having spent 20 years in the military-industrial complex – much of that serving in the Pacific – and having experienced China firsthand, however small a sliver that was, I believe that much of the Western analysis of China, particularly in the last decade, has been overly alarmist. It’s time to approach China more honestly, without fear – and without misconceptions. A genuinely cooperative and more open relationship could open an unprecedented phase of peace and prosperity, not just around the Pacific, but across the globe.

China 2014, Shanghai, The Bund, Kevin amazed by the cityscape

Traces of War: Life and Death in the Ahasha & Sennin Caves on Ie Island


 405512“Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true….” ~Josey Wales’ two tales of death and life, The Outlaw Josey Wales

“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of Ahashagama on Ie Jima. “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….” (See Loyal Soul Monument for more on the militarization of Okinawa in the years preceding WWII)  When war came to Okinawa, Setsuko was less than a year old and was hiding with her family on the main island of Okinawa. She had a remarkably chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you realize that words of life and death can be spoken in such casual ways as they were on Okinawa back in 1945.

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Okinawans continue to tell their wartime accounts least younger generations forget the appalling consequences of war. Like the oral traditions of just a few generations ago, such are the ways the Okinawans preserve the honor and memories of those who tragically lost their lives in such horrifically meaningless ways. With more and more of remaining firsthand witnesses to the carnage passing away, such frightful tales are necessarily being expressed more and more through memorial sites left for future contemplation. At the end of the day, to the Okinawans, the moral of all these chronicles and memorials is the same: the inescapable shocking costs of war.

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, coastal entranceTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, memorial stone 2Jody and I recently visited a nearby island to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Little did I realize the traces of war that remain so blatantly palpable on that tiny piece of earth. Ie Jima, a small island off central Okinawa’s west coast reachable only by boat, memorializes a tale of two caves utilized by the locals as shelter during the Battle of Okinawa. One cave’s narrative involves words of life. At Niya-Thiya Gama (gama means cave), over 1,000 people, while seeking sanctuary inside, survived the invasion and fight on Ie Island throughout the second half of April, 1945. The locals still refer to this cave as Sen-nin Gama, which translates loosely to “The Cave of 1000 People.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, Jody at a cave exit to the ocean

Fertility Stone

Fertility Stone

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, site marker plaqueBecause of this miracle of life during Okinawa’s Typhoon of Steel where roughly 1/3rd of all Okinawans died in a few short weeks, inside this cave is located a sacred stone, a fertility stone, sometimes called Kodakara-ishi (子宝石, “Child Stone”). Many come here to harness the “special power” that permeates such “Power Spots,” the phrase the very superstitious Okinawans use to describe such important locales. The stone here is believed to be imbued with a living god, and not only does it help those wishing to conceive new life, but it can foretell gender before birth. According to legend, if a woman who picks up the stone feels that it is heavy, her offspring will be a boy. If the stone feels light, the baby will be a girl.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, sacred power fertility stone and power spot

According to the Japanese sign on the outside of the Niya-Thiya Cave, around March of the Lunar Calendar each year a prayer ritual lead by a female priestess is held inside the cave, although I have not been able to confirm this.

Ahasha Gama

Ahasha Gama

wallTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, Jody negotiates an entrance to the cave 2The tale, however, takes a dark, somber turn at Ahashagama (Ahasha Cave) where there are only words of death. Seemingly forgotten after the war, the cave was sealed during the war and left unmolested for over two decades. Many probably wanted to forget what happened there. But finally, and rightfully, the cave was opened and excavated in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. In short order, the horrific rumors that locals knew to be true was confirmed by forensic analysis: the remains of about 150 people – civilian villagers including men, women and children – were still there, serving silent yet inescapable witness to the mass murder-suicide which occurred there. The Imperial Japanese Army had given the civilians grenades and ordered everyone to kill themselves in order to evade capture. Even so, a few people realized such folly and survived their cavemates’ dreadful demise. Unfortunately, words of death like these are not uncommon on Okinawa where mass suicides and murders were perpetrated over surrender and capture, sometimes by choice, mostly through coercion, and even by force.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, modern cave site 2

AJ201304250011MTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, plaque at the entranceOkinawa’s anguish over these widespread civilian suicides is sharpened by the horrible realization that soldiers from Japan’s main islands always encouraged suicide over capture. Worse, they often used intimidation and bullying to pressure many into taking such drastic actions, and at times murdered civilians who refused. In a diorama at Peace Prayer Park, the Okinawa memorial to WWII, a spotlight glints off a bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby’s cries. “At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other,” reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, entrance to the cave

On Geruma Island, part of the Kerama Islands just a few miles off Okinawa’s southwestern coast, Takejiro Nakamura attests first-hand to atrocities. In 1945, he was just a boy, a 15-year-old student when the American invasion started.

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

“For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them,” he states flatly. He claims that, as Japanese defenses crumbled on his home island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents there committed suicide. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he ended up in one small cave where ten of his fellow citizens had already killed themselves. They decided to do the same.

1,000 Person Cave

1,000 Person Cave

“I heard my sister calling out, ‘Kill me now, hurry’, ” Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her. Seeing this, he attempted the same. “I tried to also strangle myself with a rope,” he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. “But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself.” Minutes later, before his mother had time to kill him as well, the Americans took them captive.

Cave Alter

Cave Alter

His mother lived well into her 80’s. “We talked often about the war,” Mr. Nakamura said. “But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter….” The iron in such words of death would shatter her already broken heart, nor could it offer any lasting catharsis for her damaged soul. Instead, she, like all those who have suffered war, should always struggle to find words of life.

Words of Life Finally Work

Words of Life Finally Work

“I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another,” Josey says through gritted teeth, squinting but looking the Indian Chief squarely in the eyes.

Ten Bears, in full war paint with his scouts and warriors surrounding Josey, contemplates such words. “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death.”

“It shall be life.”

Xi’an’s Fortified City: Another Brick in the Wall


 Pink-Floyd-Wallpapers-2

“All alone, or in twos, The ones who really love you Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists Make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.” ~Pink Floyd, The Wall

“So is this fog, smog, or just outright pollution,” I asked our guide Jessie in Xi’an, China. “Yes,” he responded, smiling knowingly yet uncommitted.

The thick blanket of haze’s assault on our senses that windless morning initially obscured the majesty of Xian, as well as the sun. The pollution in urbanized China is at once offensive and inescapable. I will literally never complain about our Environmental Protection Agency ever again; clean air and water are worth the cost and bureaucratic oversight. It was that bad there….

China 2014, Xian, main gate of the old city wall illuminated at night WM

Although Xi’an is probably best known for the relatively recently discovered “Terracotta Army” on its outskirts, in my opinion it is the restored and refurbished ancient city wall and its surrounding City Park that are the premier attraction there.

China 2014, Xian, Jody riding the ancient city wall WM

China 2014,_2803China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall at night WMRiding on a modern mountain bike over cobblestone roadway that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, thoughts of what the wall has withstood cycled through my mind: war, famine, disease, earthquakes, political upheaval and the very rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Yet today, when you examine the wall’s surrounds, you realize that on both sides – inside and out – lies urbanization not too different from any other city that you’d see in Europe or America. The hustle and bustle of a city full of cars and commerce, and throngs of people rushing about in the chaos of their day. Of lovers and tourists walking hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand. And of tall apartment towers and swank condo buildings, but also of quiet residential areas and timeless temples of ages old.

China 2014, Xian, panoramic city wall from one corner WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody poses in front of the city wall nightThe fortifications of Xi’an (西安城墙), an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls, and one of the only centuries-old, large-scale complete walls left in the world. Construction of the first city wall there began in 194 BCE, and enclosed a large area of roughly 14 square miles. Although parts of the wall today date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, what we see today was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370, and encircles a much smaller city area of just over 5 square miles. The wall measures about 8.5 miles in total length, averages about 39 feet in height, and between 49-59 feet in thickness at its base. It remains one of the largest ancient military defenses in the world.

China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall illuminated WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the city wall WMEven after China’s capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold until contemporary times. Just like the Great Wall attempting to encircle the entire country (see Heroes of the Great Wall for our adventures on that fortification), the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers, a deep moat and drawbridges.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin exploring part of the massive old city wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in front of a wall watch towerChina 2014, Xian, flags decorating the old city wall WMEvery 120 meters or so there is a watchtower and rampart which extends out from the main wall, 98 in total. Each is designed with a sentry building to provide a sector defense from which soldiers could protect the city without exposing themselves to hostile forces. The distance between towers is critical; it is just about twice the distance of arrow flight back in the day of the wall, allowing soldiers from consecutive towers to completely cover the wall. On the outer side of the wall there are almost 6,000 crenellations, small holes from which troops could fire while remaining protected behind the cover of the wall. On the inner side, parapets provide fall protection. Corner ramparts and watch towers, higher and larger than the others, are located on each of the wall’s four corners due to their strategic importance in defending the salients of the fortification.

China 2014, Xian, Jody bikes the city wall early smoggy morning 2 WM

China 2014, Xian, Chinese latern on the old city wall WMWeapons 500 years ago lacked the power to break through such a wall. The only way to take such a fortified city was by attacking and entering through a wall gate. At Xian, the city wall includes four main gates: Changle (“eternal joy”) in the east, Anding (“harmony peace”) in the west, Yongning (“eternal peace”) in the south, and Anyuan (“forever harmony”) in the north.

China 2014, Xian, drawbridge illuminated at a city wall gate WM

China 2014, Xian, selfie in front of a city wall gateEach city gate has three gate towers called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outer most is Zhalou, used to raise and lower drawbridges that would span the moat. Jianlou is next and serves as a robust defensive outpost of the wall with many windows for firing arrows. Zhenglou is the inner and most massive tower, and serves as main entrances to the city at each gate.

China 2014, Xian, Jody at a city wall gate smiling

China 2014, Xian, beautiful Jody at a city wall gate smilingChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully finished and the site of important greeting ceremonies and other traditional pomp and circumstance. It was also the only gate used when armies returned victoriously from their expeditions afar. The South Gate Square was only recently improved and opened in the fall of 2014. Our hotel was located immediately adjacent to the gate’s square and City Park grounds, and we enjoyed beautiful evening views from our hotel bar on the 10th floor as the entire city wall is trimmed with gold lights and illuminated red Chinese lanterns in a perfect a mix of grandeur and elegance. There are regularly scheduled shows and performances held here, from warrior parades to orchestra recitals. Viewing of these performances is included in your ticket fee. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time available to enjoy any of these short but powerful 10-15 minute acts.

China 2014, Xian, Chinese decorations along the city's ancient inner wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody and Kevin at an old city wall gate selfieChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe City Wall has been rebuilt three times: in 1568 with bricks, in 1781 with today’s gate towers, and restored more recently in the 1980s. The impressive City Wall Park has been built between the high wall and deep moat. Beautifully landscaped and well-appointed with classical Chinese architecture accents the majesty of the wall, a stroll through the park is a must, both in the day and at night. The park has become a favorite spot for locals, and we enjoyed seeing the elderly doing their traditional Chinese exercises and meditation early in the morning, and then groups of people spontaneously dancing in the evening in what can only be described as some sort of folk-based jazzercise! Couples here walk hand-in-hand, and street vendors sell snacks and sweets at night, while the area is bordered with high-end cafes, coffee shops and tea houses open during the day. This park is really a great place to see the nature of local life in today’s Xi’an.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated old city wall WM

One of the best ways to experience the wall is by bicycle. Bicycles can be found for rent at the main gates, and perhaps is the most popular way to take in the entire length of this fortification, which takes 1½ to 2 hours at a reasonable pace (we double such guidelines since we stop and take photos so often). A cash deposit is required to rent a bike, and rentals are for 100 minutes, although you can ride longer by paying more for each additional 10 minutes spent riding. Both single and tandem rides are available to rent. Bicycles should be returned at the South Gate before 20:00; the other gate rental sites close at 1800.

China 2014, Xian, early morning bikes on the old city wall WM

While you will be cycling on relatively flat ground, as a centuries-old structure built without the assistance of modern equipment, the ride can get quite bumpy where the wall’s cobblestone surface is somewhat uneven. The wall also has a changing pitch depending on your location, although this is hardly noticeable. If you do have issues providing your own power or have small children in tow, wall sightseeing is also available by electric golf cart.

China 2014, Xian, early morning stroll along the old city walls WM

The Wall can be ascended from any of the gates, and once on the wall you can tour the whole rectangle it forms. Here is a hiking itinerary around the wall starting from the South Gate as a basic reference.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated city park along the old city wall WM

After visiting the wall by day and at night, and while enjoying an almost private bicycle ride with Jody along its wide elevated avenue, I was struck by how this fortification, designed and built as a physical barrier to obstruct those wishing the city harm, now serves as a symbolic connection between not just China’s past and present, but between the historically isolated China and the outside world.

China 2014, Xian, city wall gate at night WM

While this blog’s opening lyrics by Pink Floyd concern more personal struggles with intangible metaphorical walls, the moral of their rock-opera no less applies: though there will always be personal and social barriers erected out of fear, oppression, pain, and isolation, it’s the job of every socially conscious individual and community to never rest in their efforts to tear down the walls that separate us.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in the city's wall park

Visit the City Wall at Xi’an. Although still a physically imposing barricade, you’ll find that it now does more to bind us together…than split us apart as it historically has done.

Traces of War: Wreck of the USS Emmons


 

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, whale tail WM

USS Emmons, DD-457

USS Emmons, DD-457

It sounded as if they were grieving for the dead entombed in the ocean’s depths. The whale song, loud yet gently rolling in amplitude, was mesmerizing as I hung on the line decompressing from my first dive on the WWII war relic the USS Emmons. We had spotted the whales prior to entry, and they were close. They stayed close. It was as if they were also diving on the war grave, but unlike their terrestrial mammal-cousins, they could lend a uniquely solemn eulogy in fitting tribute to what turned out as a very emotional morning.

5 Inch 38 Caliber Mount forward on the bow

5 Inch 38 Caliber Mount forward on the bow

USS Emmons (DD-457/DMS-22) was a Gleaves-class destroyer of the United States Navy, named for the 19th century American Rear Admiral George F. Emmons. Emmons was authorized in the Navy Expansion Act of 1938, launched in the fall of 1941, built by Bath Iron Works, sponsored by Mrs. Francis Emmons Peacock, granddaughter of Admiral Emmons, and finally commissioned in December 1941, just as American was entering World War Two. Costing just under $5 million when her construction contract was let, she was later reconfigured and reclassified as a Destroyer Mine-Sweeper (DMS-22) in the fall of 1944 prior to her demise.

In February 2001, Emmons’ wreck was discovered at a depth approaching 150’ just north of Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula, one of the few American ships lost off Okinawan waters shallow enough for access by experienced divers. She rests on her starboard side, pretty much still in the condition of the day of her ruin. As such, live and unexploded ordnance can be found, and caution is in order visiting. Diving at this depth is at the extreme of every recreational scuba diving limit, and should only be accomplished by divers with some technical background or guidance from others that know the site and the hazards such diving entails. Having a technical background from diving the deep wrecks off South Florida at 200’ plus, I was more than comfortable diving at this sacred site.

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The Emmons in her original configuration prior to 1945

Emmons embodied the best in pre-WWII destroyer construction. As experiences of the war dictated, changes were made to adapt Emmons to changing conditions. Equipped with two geared turbines and four boilers, she was capable of generating 50,000 shaft-horsepower, pushing her through the water at more than 37.5 knots (43+ mph). At a length of 348’2″, beam 36’1″; and maximum draft of 15’8″, she was conceived to be crewed by a complement of just a handful of officers and about 250 enlisted. In her personnel she was typical of America at war. At commissioning half of her officers and nearly all of her enlisted crew were career personnel from the regular navy, but by the end of the war all but one of her officers and 80 percent of the crew were reservists, volunteers for the duration.

I was stationed on Okinawa (see Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys) when the wreck of the Emmons was “discovered.” At the time, there was quite a circus-like atmosphere surrounding the ship. Divers were getting “bent” (decompression sickness) in their overenthusiasm. People were stealing artifacts from the wreck, becoming nothing less than grave robbers. I lacked the proper equipment, training and experience at the time to conduct the decompression diving that allows a proper stay at 130’. So I left Okinawa in the summer of 2001 without experiencing this now historic wreck.

USS Emmons providing support at Normandy, 1944

USS Emmons providing support at Normandy, 1944

Almost from the beginning, Emmons was earmarked for service in the Atlantic as were most of her class of warship. 2,200 tons when fully loaded, her armament originally was optimized for anti-surface and submarine patrols and consisted of five 5 inch, 38 caliber (5”/38) Dual-Purpose (DP) guns for surface and airborne engagements, nine 21″ torpedoes to use against ships, six 50 caliber machine guns for general overall defense, and two depth charge tracks on the stern for antisubmarine warfare. However, experiences of the Americans and British early in the War of the Pacific necessitated changes while under construction, primarily in bolstering her anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities. Her armament was finalized to include four 5″/38 guns, five 21″ torpedoes, two twin 40mm anti-aircraft mounts, four 20mm anti-aircraft cannons, two depth charge racks, and one depth charge thrower amidships.

Me and David celebrate another deep dive together, ~2002

Me and David celebrate another deep dive together, ~2002

David in Tech Gear

David in Tech Gear

Me ready for a sunset deco dive, ~2003

Me ready for a sunset deco dive, ~2003

I was stationed in Miami from 2001-2004, and at the time met David Ryder, the man who led me over to the darker side of technical diving. David, and Irishman who grew up in commercial diving in the North Sea, was fairly indestructible in the water, and through his somewhat unorthodox mentorship and unrelenting pressure, I found myself purchasing the thousands of dollars of tanks, harnesses, regulators, computers, and wetsuits I would need to spend over an hour in the water at depths down to 200’ plus. David and I conducted a number of very deep dives between 2001 and 2004, experience that would provide me the skills and knowhow which would come un so handy this day on the Emmons.

USS Emmons at Normandy, 1944

USS Emmons at Normandy, 1944

After supporting the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944, the war in Europe was all but over, and Emmons shifted to face a new role in a new theater. She and many of her class were converted to high-speed Destroyer-Minesweepers and became party of Mine Sweeper Squadron 20, destination for the Western Pacific where they would help clear the way for the many invasions of Japanese islands that seem all but necessary at the time. In late 1944, DD457 had become DMS27, and during this conversion, LCDR Eugene Foss, USNR, became Commanding Officer of Emmons. By this time, the number of 20mm mounts had increased to seven, and her depth-charge system had been updated and improved. However, she lost one of her 5″/38 guns (mount No. 4 aft) during this update.

A sister-ship showing the 1945 Destroyer-Minesweeper configuration

A sister-ship showing the 1945 Destroyer-Minesweeper configuration

I found myself back on Okinawa in 2004 having volunteered to return to my old job. And this time I brought back all my deep-diving technical dive gear and knowhow, ready to explore the underwater war relics that the South Pacific provided for exploration. However, I also found myself on a no-notice, 8-month deployment to Iraq. No diving for this guy…. I returned to Okinawa to find my marriage in ruins (see Paradise Lost), and in all honesty, lost any love or drive for underwater exploration of this sort through my departure in late 2005. I again missed my opportunity to explore the Emmons.

Technical deep-diving gear on the North of Nago's charter

Technical deep-diving gear on the North of Nago’s charter

After a month’s intensive training Emmons and her squadron were temporarily broken up to escort the flood of ships concentrating in the Western Pacific for the upcoming spring 1945 Invasion of Okinawa. Emmons served as screen for convoys from Hawaii to Eniwetok and Ulithi, and from Ulithi to Okinawa where she joined the rest of her squadron. She put to sea 19 March 1945 for the dangerous, vital task of clearing Okinawa‘s waters to allow assault ships to close on the beaches for the landings scheduled to begin April 1st of 1945. Sweeping operations for the Okinawa offensive began around the Kerama Islands on March 24th. Experiencing a new ferocity of warfare at Okinawa, mine sweeping operations became the easiest and quite possibly safest task of the Destroyer-Mine-Sweeps, which as a class retained the screening, patrol, and radar-picket duties still expected of destroyers.

Quite unexpectedly, I found myself again stationed on Okinawa starting in 2013. However, this time I came to Okinawa as a retired, dependent spouse, who quickly got a job teaching scuba diving. And after almost losing my personal access to the waters of the world (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose), I decided not to let any more opportunities slip idly by. This time I had the gear, the experience, the time, and finally, the opportunity.

Sister-ship USS Rodman

Sister-ship USS Rodman

On 6 April 1945, Emmons and sister-ship Rodman joined to provide protection for Sweep Unit 11 then engaged in clearance operations between Ie Shima (island) and the northwest tip of Okinawa. On that day, Imperial Japan, in desperation over their impossible military position on Okinawa and facing an impending invasion of the Homeland, launched the largest suicide attacks (by aircraft) of the entire war against ships off Okinawa, amounting to some 355 suicide missions across 6 and 7 April. The Emmons and Rodman absorbed a good portion of that destructive folly.

Fellow divers with fair winds and following seas

Fellow divers with fair winds and following seas

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, deep diving WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, gun barrels WMI had planned two decompression dives for the day, both to 130’ for 14 minutes bottom time (17 minutes elapsed total time). I was diving a steel 100 cubic foot single cylinder, and carried a 40 cubic foot stag bottom full of 36% Enriched Air NITROX to accelerate my off-gassing on the way back to the surface. Since my dive buddy had banged out of the dive, and no one else had planned my particular dives, I ended up diving relatively solo, which although never a great or recommended way to dive, I found entirely refreshing. Experiencing this heroic ship and her lost crewmen in my own silent contemplation was…powerfully moving.

Kamikaze attacks were surprising, vicious, and very hard to defeat.

Kamikaze attacks were surprising, vicious, and very hard to defeat.

Damage to the USS Rodman

Damage to the USS Rodman

Kamikaze about to strike the USS Missouri

Kamikaze about to strike the USS Missouri

During one of the first of the massive kamikaze attacks, these two ships became floating targets, the focal point of Japan’s hopelessness. Although numerous raids were detected throughout the morning, the Japanese didn’t seek out these particular pickets until the middle of the afternoon. Perhaps because someone finally realized that these destroyers were actually serving as radar sentinels offering the rest of the fleet early warning, targeting priorities were shifted. Around 3:15 PM on April 6th the first of many attacks closed in on the Rodman and struck her directly on her forecastle, setting her ablaze. Emmons provided anti-aircraft covering fire as she closed at high speed to render assistance. Circling the Rodman like the good guys would in an old Western Cowboy and Indian matinée, Emmons provided the majority of protection against the now growing number of attackers in the area. Friendly fighters on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) from nearby aircraft carriers also arrived and began to engage the kamikaze. While the majority of the attackers were splashed, it wasn’t enough to change the fate of the Emmons that afternoon. As Emmons continued to circle the stricken Rodman, both sweeps were overwhelmed by suicide-murder-bent Japanese pilots and their explosive-ladened planes.

USS Emmons lays on her starboard side at ~150 feet

USS Emmons lies on her starboard side at ~150 feet

The dive boat was moored at the line attached amidships on the Emmons. As I decided in the chilly winter waters in a light current, the waters turned dark, the visibility reduced by a good deal of suspension in the vicinity. At one point I could no longer make out the surface and yet could see the wreck. But then she was there, emerging from the depths, lurking there like I imagine only a ghostly apparition would. Or could.

High School Girls wave away a Kamikaze

High School Girls wave away a Kamikaze

Kawasaki "Tony"

Kawasaki “Tony”

A Japanese "Val"

A Japanese “Val”

Japanese aircraft, including Tonys, Vals, and Zekes, continued to swarm and harass the American fleet. While Marine Corsairs and Navy Hellcats did their finest to screen the fleet, and Emmons herself shot down six of the enemy in short order that afternoon, she nonetheless took her first hit. Sheer numbers and fanatical frenzy finally ruled the day. At 1732 (5:32 PM), after over two hours of continuous intense combat, the first of five Japanese pilots crashed purposely into Emmons’ fantail. The “Divine Winds,” in a well-coordinated attack, impacted the ship in rapid succession within a two-minute timespan, hitting her fantail, pilot house, No. 3 five-inch mount on her waterline, and finally in the vicinity of her combat information center. She was quickly left crippled and ablaze. Four more attackers crashed in nearby in the waters surrounding the Emmons, all having missed their intended target but whose explosive concussions nonetheless caused additional damage.

One of the Emmons' two screws

One of the Emmons’ two screws

20mm cannon, still loaded and ready

20mm cannon, still loaded and ready

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 20mm mount 2 WMOn my first dive I proceeded towards the ship’s stern. Staying mostly above the side of her hull, I moved slowly, taking in her majesty as I focused on breathing and moving as effortlessly as possible. I realized I had failed to really study the ship; I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and only later when I researched the Emmons for this article did I realize that the majority of her fantail had been utterly destroyed. There were, however, a 20mm cannon, still loaded with an attached magazine, and a twin 40mm antiaircraft mount, both which appeared like there were still in action, pointing skyward, searching for the now and forever missing targets. I rounded her screws, and headed back to my ascent point along the Emmons’ weatherdeck.

A twin 40mm antiaircraft mount

A twin 40mm antiaircraft mount

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, illuminating the wreck WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 5 inch 38 gun mountOn the second hit aboard Emmons Captain Foss was blown off the bridge. Since the Executive Officer was missing, LT John Griffin, USNR, the gunnery officer, assumed command and countermanded the unofficial order to abandon ship which had been circulated from an unknown source. He assessed the serious damage. The aft hull was a mangled mess and the ship’s rudder had been almost completely blown off. That combined with one of two shafts and screws being inoperable, the ship was severely limited in its mobility, one of its primary defenses against air attack. The bridge was completely destroyed and fires raged all the way forward to Mount No. 1. Firefighting was nearly impossible as exploding 20 mm rounds and ready ammunition boxes started more fires as others were extinguished, and much of the fire-fighting equipment was either missing or damaged beyond service. A ten degree starboard list was visible evidence of serious flooding, as was the fact that the stern was settling into the sea.

One of Emmons' three 5-inch mounts

One of Emmons’ three 5-inch mounts

A 5"/38 Dual Purpose Gun on the Emmons

A 5″/38 Dual Purpose Gun on the Emmons

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, sights for a 40mm mount WMAfter more than an hour break on the surface, my second dive was much like the first in plan, but a wholly different experience. This time I proceeded from amidships to the bow, where I discovered the two 5”/38 gun mounts still in place and trained as if firing at attacking aircraft. These weapons, almost dwarfing the ship’s narrow structure, are the hallmark of a destroyer, still to this day. And seeing them there made the historical nature and horrific demise of this vessel hit home.

Casualties aboard the USS Emmons

Casualties aboard the USS Emmons

A memorial plaque to one of those lost

A memorial plaque to one of those lost

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, open escape scuttle WMAfter taking such a tremendous beating, the ship’s whaleboat began to pick up wounded in the water and deliver them to the nearby minesweepers. The more seriously wounded were kept aboard and taken care of as well as possible; those less injured were placed on rafts over the side to wait for later rescue. The surviving elements of Emmons’ damage control parties fought heroically to put out the fires and control flooding, and for a time it appeared that the ship might be saved. As the wounded were being transferred to ships alongside, a large explosion occurred in the handling room of Mount 2 forward. With ammunition exploding wholesale, Emmons found damage control a desperate, losing struggle, necessitating an official order to abandon ship. Casualties were heavy. Among nineteen officers, eight were killed or missing-in-action and five were wounded. Of the 254 members of the crew, almost ¼ each were killed and wounded, amounting to 52 KIA or missing in action and 65 wounded.

Humpbacks sharing the day with us

Humpbacks sharing the day with us

After our dives, the humpbacks surfaced and stayed close to our dive boat. Getting ready to dive deep and perhaps have their own private moments around the Emmons, mom and calf bid us adieu with waves of their tails.

USS Ellyson DMS-19

USS Ellyson DMS-19

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 5 inch 38 gun mountOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, deck gear WMThe crippled Emmons herself, however, refused to give up. The burning hulk drifted all night toward Ie Shima, still held by the enemy. Early next morning, Saturday, April 7, 1945, the Navy considered the possibility of salvaging her, but ultimately ordered that she be sunk to keep her from falling into enemy hands or becoming a hazard to navigation. Emmons’ sister ship, the USS Ellyson (DD-454/DMS-19), then proceeded to shell the Emmons with 5” gunfire, and finally succeeded in doing what the Japanese could not: send Emmons to her watery grave. A sad ending for a noble ship manned, loved, and fought by a noble crew for three years, four months and two days–5 December 1941 through 7 April 1945. But all the news wasn’t so repulsive; Emmons’ heroic defense of Rodman allowed the latter to survive, and ultimately be repaired and returned to service.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, gunsight WM

The U.S. Navy still maintains custody of the wreck. More importantly, the USS Emmons remains a United States Naval vessel and as such is protected by the United States Government. More importantly, however, because of the large number of American and Japanese men still entombed aboard this ship, Emmons is and must be treated as a war grave. It is unlawful for anyone to enter the ship by any means, as is removing any materials from the ship or the debris field. It should go without saying, but if you intend to visit, please show the utmost respect for the ship and the fallen warriors all which remain on eternal patrol.

book_457emmons

For me personally, the song of the humpbacks will forever be associated with my first visit to the USS Emmons. I only hope that our fallen comrades enjoyed their lyrical tribute as much as I did, now and forever.

http://www.ussemmons.org/