Infamous Infamy:  Prime Minister Hideki Tojo


“At the Imperial Conference on December 1 (1941), it was decided to make war against England and the United States.”  ~Hideki Tojo, General, Imperial Japanese Army

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

I used to work at United States Southern Command in Miami with a fellow Naval Aviation whose flier callsign was “Tojo.”  He was a Navy Commander, an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer, and of 100% Japanese descent and the first generation in his family to be born and raised in the United States.  While he is every bit as American as you or I, he bore a more than a casual resemblance to his namesake, especially when he touted a bushy mustache which is often did.  While I’m sure it was not a callsign of his choosing (they never are), he was rather good-natured about it, going so far as to hold his own “Pearl Harbor Atonement Day” every December 7th by catering in a huge lunch for the entire office.  But who was this man “Tojo,” and why don’t more Americans know about him and his role in Japan’s strike against Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the World War throughout the Pacific Basin?

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo)

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

Hideki Tojo (1884 – 1948) was a General of the Imperial Japanese Army and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan during much of World War II, from October 17, 1941, to July 22, 1944.  As Prime Minister, he was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor (with the Emperor Hirohito’s approval), which initiated war between Japan and the United States.  After the end of the war, Tojo was arrested, tried for war crimes, and sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE).  He was hanged until dead on December 23, 1948.

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo in 1884 as the 3rd son of Hidenori Tojo, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Japanese Army.  He graduated from the Japanese Military Academy in 1905 and was commissioned an Army Second Lieutenant.  In 1909, he married Katsuko Ito, with whom he would have three sons and four daughters.  He began to take an interest in militarist politics during his command of the 1st Infantry Regiment after promotion to colonel in the late 1920s.

Tojo with his Wife and Family

Tojo with his Wife and Family

In September 1935, Tojo assumed a command billet in the field in Manchuria (Northern China).  Politically by this time, he was fascist, nationalist, and militarist, and was nicknamed “Razor” for his reputation of having a sharp and quick mind.  In Manchuria, Tojo was responsible for the expansion of military operations and much wider attacks during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Leaders of the Axis Powers - note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

The Leaders of the Axis Powers – note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

By 1940 he strongly supported the newly signed Tripartite Pact between Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, and as Army Minister, he expanded the war with China and French Indochina in July 1941.  This latest aggression precipitated a response by the United States who imposed significant economic sanctions in August, including a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports, and demanded Japan’s withdrawal from China and Indochina.  “The heart of the matter is the imposition on us (Japan) of withdrawal from Indochina and China,” Tojo said in a September cabinet meeting.  He continued, “If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy the fruits of the China incident.  Manchukuo [Manchuria, present-day northeast China] will be endangered and our control of Korea undermined.”

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On November 2, under the advisement of Tojo, the Emperor gave his consent to war.  The next day, Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbor attack plan to Emperor Hirohito.  The eventual plan drawn up by Army and Navy Chiefs of Staff assumed a mauling of Western powers from which recovery would be impossible, leaving the Japanese planned defense perimeter incapable of breach.  On November 5, Hirohito approved the operations plan for a war against the West.  On December 1, another conference finally sanctioned the “war against the United States, England, and Holland” (Holland referring to Dutch control of the “East Indies,” present day Indonesia).

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn....

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn….

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

tojo-propaganda-1Tojo continued to hold the position of Army Minister during his term as Prime Minister, and as impossible and improbable as it seems, he also served concurrently as Home Minister, Foreign Minister, Education Minister, and Minister of Commerce and Industry, positions from which he could easily continue militaristic and nationalist indoctrination in the national education system, and totalitarian policies throughout the government.  While Tojo had popular support in the early, victory-filled years of the war, after the Battle of Midway (summer 1942), where the tide of war turned against Japan, Tojo faced increasing opposition from within the government and military.  U.S. wartime propaganda of the time caricatured Tojo as the face of the enemy.

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

After Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur issued orders for the arrest of alleged war criminals, including Tojo.  As authorities arrived at his residence to take him into custody, Tojo attempted suicide by shooting himself in the heart.  However, when American authorities surrounded his house on September 11, 1945, they found him alive but wounded, the bullet having missed his heart and penetrated his stomach instead.  Two Japanese reporters recorded his murmured words: “I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die.  The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous.  I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers.  I wait for the righteous judgment of history.”  Such righteous judgment was never to come.

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

After recovering from his injuries (after emergency surgery and extensive treatment in an American hospital), Tojo was moved to Sugamo Prison and tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggression, and war in violation of international law, as well as ordering, authorizing, and permitting inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and others.  In large part, he is directly responsible for many of Japan’s most egregious crimes of the 1930s and 1940s.

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo embraced full responsibility in the end for his actions during the war, all-the-while diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt, which some claim was the aim of his testimony, on both sides.  The former Prime Minister made this speech during the time of his trial:

Tojo on Trial

Tojo on Trial

“It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so.  Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured.  Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter.  I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false.  To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”

Hanging Tojo

Hanging Tojo

Tojo's Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo’s Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo was sentenced to death on November 12, 1948 and executed on December 23, 1948.  Before his execution, he gave his military ribbons to Private First Class Kincaid, one of his guards, and in an unusual Far East Fling connection, they are now on display in the National Museum for Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, where Jody and I call home and I used to work.  See the National Flight Academy for the facility and amazing experience for young people that I helped to design, build and open.

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo's Granddaughter

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo’s Granddaughter Yuko

In his final statements before execution, he apologized for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and urged the American military to show compassion toward the Japanese people.  Tojo is one of the controversial Class “A” War Criminals enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni (see Yasukuni:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more) Shrine.  His daughter, Yuko Tojo, a ultra-far-right-wing Nationalist who attempted to rehabilitate her Grandfather’s reputation and role in WWII, claims to have fulfilled a dying wish of the senior Tojo by visiting our Pearl Harbor Memorial in 1999.  “In my grandfather’s will, he said he wanted to hold a ceremony to honor all the war dead, regardless of which side they fought on,” she said. “On behalf of the Tojo family, I’m going to carry out my grandfather’s wish.”

Never Forget

Like my shipmate’s attempts at making amends, we should always strive to atone, but to Never Forget.

Water Safety Stand-Down, or Punitive Stand Around??


“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  ~Aristotle

Okinawa, as well as the wider Pacific basin (Korea, Japan and Hawaii, in terms of the Marine Corps at least), is going through a temporary ban/prohibition on recreational water activities.  Due in part to the drowning deaths of two Marines this past weekend, but certainly exacerbated by other deaths and numerous serious permanent injuries from earlier in the year.  The Commanding General here in Okinawa says it isn’t punitive – but it is.  And the stand-down is supposed to be about “resetting” the force to help improve water safety so that we all can better and more safely enjoy the water sports for which Okinawa is famous…which it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong:  these deaths are tragic, and tragically preventable.  I am not belittling any person’s life, nor calling into question that something needs to be done to help keep similar mishaps like these from happening in the future.  But hey Navy-Marine Corps Team:  you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s what happens when the military powers-that-be on Okinawa ban or prohibit some activity because there is an issue.  First, the literally tens of thousands of people that enjoy the waters around Okinawa on a weekly, and for some, almost daily basis, are marginalized, ignored, and otherwise lumped en mass with the few who are cause for concern.  There is NO DOUBT that preventable deaths are a sad, unnecessary and tragic occurrence.  But for the common Marine, Airman, Soldier or Airman, to take away their access to the water though no fault of their own is, well, punitive.  All it takes is a scan of the Facebook comments to see evidence of this conclusion firsthand.  In fact, the people that actually are doing everything RIGHT – the vast number of people affected by this order I argue -are lumped into the masses, and made to suffer some attempt at remediation.  We will get to how badly that remediation is being implemented in this case down below.

Second, subordinate commands can jerk the chain even further.  For instance, for MCCS Scuba Programs, even pool events/training were placed off-limits during this stand-down, with the explicit threat of immediate termination if a student was allowed to enter the water, any water, for any reason.  Are pools really the issue?  Are people getting hurt in the pools?  Are we worried about the safety of pools or the events that take place there?  Some people on this island have to make special arrangements to take a scuba diving class.  Some take leave.  Others have to clear duty schedules.  Still others have to coordinate work releases and/or baby-sitting.  Canceling the ability to train, specifically in a setting where a real difference can/could be made considering the subject and intent of the stand-down, is, well, punitive to some and counterproductive to most.

Further, MCCS Scuba was required to do an immediate 100% accountability recall of rental gear, a requirement expressed to staff and contractors with some sense of urgency.  The fact was made very clear that the shops were required to account for every single regulator and buoyancy control device.  Was this the Commander’s intent?  Whose “good idea” was this?  I’ve read the Commander’s intent, and nowhere is this type of reaction warranted, or required by any sort of evidence-based practice.  Are we really that worried about people sneaking off to go scuba diving?  If so, what about all those people with their own tanks and gear….

Then there’s the stand-down “training.”  It is, of course, a PowerPoint.  And of course it was created in mere hours, based on existing (and lame) water safety products already readily available.  If you haven’t reviewed this training brief, please do so now.  Actually, although I have the brief, it is classified “For Official Use Only,” and while not a “real” classification, it would be in very bad form to place it in this public domain.  So, my apologies, but you won’t be able to see what all of Okinawa will be forced to view.  This particular briefing is one which is being promulgated on the “Green Side” (US Marine Corps), and it simply and completely misses the mark.  In retrospect, I’m actually happy you the reader won’t view the training – saves me the embarrassment.

So, let’s cut to the chase…and get right to the point.

Preventing these fatalities and other water-related mishaps are NOT a matter of sitting through yet another poorly conceived and even more poorly constructed PowerPoint briefing, delivered poorly by someone lacking the requisite knowledge and expertise to speak intelligently about the very real and very serious issues at hand.  IT IS A MATTER OF CHANGING THE CULTURE OF WATER RECREATION SAFETY ON OKINAWA.

I’m not saying that a safety stand-down is unwarranted or inappropriate.  Quite the opposite; we used them effectively in Naval Aviation when I was a flier.  What I am saying is that in the modern age of intrusive military leadership, documented training in a CYA-mode along with additional layers of micromanagement and oversight, such unfocused and irrelevant “training” is counterproductive.  Judgment is an exceedingly hard thing to just “train” into people.  Paradigm and cultural shifts take a level of effort orders of magnitude beyond more GMT (general military training).

The training provided, from an examination of its content, focuses primarily on THREE things:  Okinawa “Sea Conditions,” dangerous marine life, and rip currents.  That’s right – little about experience, almost nothing about wearing of personal flotation, no push for training and certification (not just for divers, but snorkelers as well), and finally, almost nothing on how to mitigate and handle growing anxiety and near-panic in the water….

Having been a diver on Okinawa now for over seven years, and being a PADI Professional for about six of those years (and a diver for 25), I can tell you that I have only heard of (but cannot confirm) one American fatality from dangerous marine life, and that was due to anaphylactic shock from a sea wasp sting, and not from drowning (I believed this occurred on/about 1999).  This brief would have you believe that Moray eels and even Barracuda are out for blood.  Fully seven of the brief’s 30 slides – ¼ of the brief when you take out the intro and ending slides – are dedicated to marine life, which to my knowledge, have absolutely nothing to do with serious water-related injuries or fatalities this year…or in the last three.  Talk about detractors???  Again, what is causing the water-related deaths and injuries on Okinawa?  What are the chains in these mishaps that we can keep from being broken??  MOST CERTAINLY NOT DANGEROUS MARINE LIFE.  Oh, and marine life is only potentially  dangerous, mind you….

Second, there seems to be a concentration of content on rip currents (8 of 30 slides).  I’m not sure the genesis of this focus.  If there was/were rip currents involved in recent fatalities, THEN SAY SO.  I, for one, find this hard to believe, although it cannot be ruled out.  Again, being an experienced diver on Okinawa, with something like 1,000 dives throughout the island, I have found VERY FEW true rip currents here.  And even those, like ones at the “old” Onna Point, Sunny’s Sunabe, Water Treatment, and Hedo Point are dependent on tide phase and change, along with various aspects of sea state (wave height, direction and period).  Training people on what to do if caught in a rip current is not a bad thing, and in Southern California or parts of Florida, a necessary thing.  However, are the photos of the purported rips in the brief even from Okinawa???  Remember, undertow and surge are NORMAL aspects of increased surf, and should not be confused with rip currents….

Finally, the long, verbatim discussion on Sea Conditions (4 of 30 slides, extremely wordy) begs people to yawn and check Facebook on their cell phones.  Let’s be honest:  there is a rampant lack of respect for Okinawa’s Sea Condition, the people who set it, and the criteria that it’s based on.  I cannot even begin to numerate how many times the meteorologists have jumped the shark when it comes to actual water conditions versus published condition.  It is a common joke across the island.  Sometimes they under-report how bad things really are; other and maybe more often, they over-restrict access to the water when completely unwarranted.  I feel so strongly about how ineffectual Sea Condition is that it has its own dedicated blog; see Surf Nazis Must Die!  Keep in mind that most mishaps happen when in “all clear” or “caution,” sea conditions that do not preclude any in-water activity.

Where is this discussion in this training on the absolute necessity of personal flotation, not just when scuba diving, but when snorkeling, especially in water too deep to stand, REGARDLESS OF SEA CONDITION?  Where is the emphasis on gaining proper experience?  But that in and of itself still isn’t enough:  where is the much needed discussion on MAINTAINING PROFICIENCY??  Having insider information on recent events on Okinawa, I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that lack of PFDs combined with inexperience and lack of proficiency were direct contributors to very unfavorable outcomes….

Where is the discussion in this training on whether the mishap persons in question inflated their flotation or not (if they were even wearing any)?  Was gear in place – mask and snorkel?  Where regulators used during questionable surf entries/exits?  Did the mishap scuba diver inflate their BCDs?  Did the mishap scuba diver drop weights?  Did those attempting a rescue ensure positive buoyancy for the victim and themselves?  Did rescuers drop the mishap scuba-diver’s weights?  Was emergency oxygen available and utilized?  These are all critical elements which could (but not necessarily so), improve the chances for a more favorable outcome.

Where is the discussion in this training that it’s not enough to have the appropriate gear, but to wear and use that gear?  When encountering any questionable surf on entry or exit, mask must be on and reserve air in the scuba cylinder should be utilized by using the kit’s regulator.  Further, how many divers really understand that in moderate-to-heavy surf on scuba that at times it is much better to DEFLATE completely to keep surge from throwing divers about?

Where is the discussion in this training on how important it is to calm yourself the moment you begin to feel anxiety in the water?  About being familiar and experienced enough with your gear (assuming you are wearing it) to utilize it when it is absolutely necessary?  Panic is a killer in the water, even at the surface, and as far as I can tell, these last three fatalities all happened at the surface, and were almost certainly preceded by full-blown panic.

Then there are the training’s misguided “Takeaways.”  From the brief one would assume that rip currents and dangerous marine life would be highlighted.  But they aren’t.  Instead, one takeaway incorrectly says to “go with your instincts”!  Instinctively people will go into water which they are not prepared for!!!  Only training and experience can overcome “instinct.”  Another points out that alcohol and water activities don’t mix:  IS THERE SOMETHING WE SHOULD KNOW HERE??  Or, is this just yet another plug to “not drink and [fill in the blank]….”  Yet another take-away is adherence to the buddy rule, always a great idea, but did a loose interpretation of the buddy team concept result in or contribute to one of these mishaps???  These are the things that we all need to know.  In the brief’s defense, it does on the final slide talk about training and equipment, but only in summary.

What are my takeaways, and what would I tell people if I had an audience, or were even invited to have input in water-safety training?  I would say this:

  • There is absolutely no substitute for comprehensive, quality training, for boating, personal watercraft, snorkel, scuba, and swim.
  • Training & Experience win over instinct every time.
  • There is absolutely no reason to disregard required equipment.
  • There is absolutely a need to build personal first-hand experience, both in numbers (repeated exposure) and over time (exposure to a wide variety of environments/conditions).
  • There is absolutely a need to maintain proficiency; swim, snorkel and scuba skills are perishable, especially for novices experiencing a long lay-off.
  • Emergency Procedures must be practiced in order for them to be effective, especially with new and/or unfamiliar dive buddies.
  • The “10 Second Rule” is not enough: waves come in trains, and ten second is not long enough to properly assess a situation.  A decision NOT TO DIVE can be concluded within 10 seconds.  However, if after 10 seconds the conditions seem okay, continue to monitor the site for a FULL MINUTE.  Only then can wave trains be properly accounted for, along with wave period and extent of surge.
  • Utilize all gear when in moderate-to-high surf, which includes keeping masks on, and having a mouthpiece in mouths (preferably a regulator/air source).
  • The moment increased anxiety is felt, STOP & BREATH; focus and get control of your breathing before thinking about necessary actions. Loss of breath control contributes quickly to panic and water aspiration, a combination that is deadly.
  • There is absolutely a need to change the culture of assumed personal invincibility over the oceans to one of exercised personal responsibility for your own safety – your safety is your responsibility, yours and yours alone.

Finally, in order to change the culture of water safety in Okinawa, it’s going to take engagement with all those that have the most impact and the most visibility:  swim coaches and instructors, snorkel and scuba instructors and store staffs, and even boat/watercraft renters and operators.  From my standpoint, and here I believe I may speak for many, there is almost zero engagement with the wider community of professionals, who all stand willing, able and ready to help make a change.  Outside of a few select individuals from a couple of the military dive shops, the community of professional divers is largely unleveraged in this regard.

What can be systemically done?  Push for additional training.  One way would be subsidies to bring the cost of relevant training down, training which could/may include snorkel/skin diver certifications through the dive shops, Advanced Open Water dive training, and even Rescue dive training.  Another business model could use additional revenue generated from a price increase for entry-level dive programs that would be used to offset these other courses.  Currently, only 7% of my annual certifications are for Rescue.

For me, personally, the best I can do at this point is through each and every class that I instruct, and each and every dive that I lead or attend.  I have, in the last year, added buoyancy and mask skills to every single class, and in the last months, have added an increased emphasis on sea state/ dive site evaluation and entry & exit safety.  Because, based on my own root cause analysis of mishaps (albeit based on very little and all unofficial information since little is shared with the wider community), these elements are exactly that critical.

Until there is a more reasonable, grounded and holistic approach to improving water safety, by engaging all stakeholders and customers alike, we will seldom make progress given the status quo of punitive restrictions and yet another ineffectual PowerPoint briefing.  “Are we done yet,” I hear you say as you yawn and put down your cell.  Yes, yes we are.  Now hopefully you can be done standing around and finally go back in the water.

Kure Maritime Museum: The tragic story of Battleship Yamato


A NOVA episode detailing the story of Battleship Yamato

Ensign Nakatani, of the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, was the only American aboard the Japanese battleship Yamato when it sank in 1945. As a Nisei, the term for second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the outbreak of war with the United States in 1941 caught him off-guard as he was studying in Japan. Bilingual and familiar with America, he found himself immediately pressed into service for the Emperor, serving as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese. Like most Nisei, he was treated with great disdain and suspicion by the ultra-nationalistic Japanese. Nakatani, his communications with his stateside family severed, and was unable to contact his parents or younger brothers. He was alone.

Yamato Scale Model

Yamato Scale Model

Only as he departed from the Japanese city and shipyards of Kure on the Yamato‘s last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive his first and only family contact during the entire War. A single letter, from his mother, written years earlier had meandered through the channels of the International Red Cross, finally finding its way to him in Japan via Switzerland. The letter read, in part, “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model on display WM

But peace was not to come in time for Nakatani. According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s memoirs in Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. Such tragic stories are solemnly told in the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly known as the “Yamato Museum,” located in Kure, Japan.

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Yamato under Construction

Yamato under Construction

Yamato (大和) was the lead ship of the Yamato class of Imperial Japanese Navy World War II battleships. During the 1930s, as the Japanese became ultra-nationalist with views to expand their Empire, new designs for heavy fighting ships were begun. The Japanese recognized that they would simply be unable to match the output of U.S. war machine once war broke out, so these massive vessels were designed to engage multiple enemy battleships at the same time, and engage them first with very long-range guns. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed, displacing 72,800 tons and armed with a main battery of nine 18.1 inch main guns, the largest caliber naval artillery ever fitted to a warship, which gave the ships an unmatched range 26 miles. Formidable by any standard, by 1945 her secondary battery comprised six 6.1 inch and twenty-four 5 inch guns. For more close-in defense against aircraft, Yamato carried an astounding 162 anti-aircraft guns of 25mm! Despite this protection, neither ship survived the war.

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

Yamato Underway

Yamato Underway

Laid down in 1937 and formally commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she served as the flagship during the Battle of Midway, a disastrous defeat for Japan in the middle of 1942. After the initiative of the war in the Pacific shifted to the Americans, the battleship remained in the vicinity of the Japanese-held Island and anchorage of Truk for much of 1943-1944, and played little part in any battle of significance. Yamato fired her main guns at American surface ships only once in late 1944 with little effect.

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scale model from the stern WM1945 saw the Japanese suffering a crippling loss of fuel oil, raw materials, and general supplies, and in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance on the Japanese “home” islands, Yamato was dispatched on a one-way mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed. Allied forces invaded Okinawa on 1 April 1945, and facing American boots on Japan soil proper, the imperial war machine responded in desperation with a mission codenamed “Operation Ten-Go” that would see the suicidal commitment of much of the remaining strength of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Yamato and nine escorts (one cruiser and eight destroyers) would sail to Okinawa and, in concert with kamikaze and Okinawa-based army units, attack the Allied forces assembled on and around Okinawa. Yamato would then be beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement and continue to fight until destroyed. In preparation for the mission, Yamato was fully stocked with ammunition, but not enough fuel for a return voyage. Designated the “Surface Special Attack Force,” the ships sortied on the afternoon of April 6th, 1945, the same day the USS Emmons was sunk by kamikazes off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula (see my blog Wreck of the USS Emmons for more).

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scout float-plane on the Battleship Yamato WM

The Yamato’s task force, however, was spotted by an American sub as it sailed south of Kyushu, and on April 7th, 1945, she was sunk by American carrier-based aircraft with the loss of vast majority of her crew.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese standard on the bow WMThe Allies had been decoding Japanese radio traffic for some time, and were well aware of Japan’s intent. Further, numerous American submarines spotted the Special Attack Force as it sailed south, but were unable to attack due to the ships’ high speed evasive maneuvering. They were, however, able to radio position, course and speed to the American fleet waiting to the south. With these reports, the Allied forces around Okinawa began to brace for the Special Attack Force’s assault by placing six battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers on alert to intercept Yamato if aircraft-carrier based planes were unable to stop the group from reaching vulnerable Allied transports and landing craft.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, admiring the ship's model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, armed Japanese Zero WMYamato’s crew was at general quarters and ready for action as dawn broke over cloudy skies on April 7th, 1945, only a day out of port. The first Allied scout aircraft made contact with Battleship Yamato at 8:23am, catching glimpses of their bright wakes playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. The group of ships was then shadowed by the America aircraft for the next few hours as the Allied Fleet Carriers readied their aircraft for strikes. At around 10:00am that morning, Yamato held radar contact with the first wave of Allied attack planes, American F6F Hellcat fighters which were sent to sweep the skies over the battleship clear of Japanese aircraft. The Yamato and her escorts, however, were sent without air cover.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, bow on Yamato scale model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, 13mm aircraft machine gun WMAt about 12:30pm, a large raiding force of 280 bomber and torpedo aircraft arrived to stop the Yamato’s advance. As the Yamato increased speed to 24 knots and her destroyers closed to provide anti-aircraft fire, the Allied attack started at 12:37pm. The Yamato initially remained unscathed, throwing up an almost impenetrable wall of large and small-caliber defensive fires. But at 12:41pm, time quickly ran out for the proud ship. Two bombs obliterated two of her triple 25 mm anti-aircraft mounts and blew a hole in her deck, where fires started and raged. A third bomb exploded in quick succession, destroying her radar room and more of her secondary battery. Within minutes, two more bombs struck the battleship’s port side, causing significant damage to the ship’s main battery guns.

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

Yamato under Attack

Yamato under Attack

As the dive bombers attacked from almost directly overhead, the torpedo bombers started their attack runs at near sea level height. Splitting the ship’s defensive fire, already greatly reduced by exploding bombs, four torpedoes ran home and struck Yamato, damaging this ship’s boilers, engines and steering gear. The attacking swarm spent, the aerial assault ended as quickly as it started at around 12:47pm. In ten short minutes, explosion after explosion left the battleship listing 5–6° to port and on fire, her top speed significantly reduced, and with most of her unprotected 25mm anti-aircraft crews killed or wounded.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, battleship scale model 3 WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model WMThe ship was now easy to find, a thick plume of black smoke beckoning other approaching waves of aircraft. Suffering reduced maneuverability and sharply curtailed anti-aircraft capability, the second wave of Allied planes found a much easier target. Starting at just before 1:00pm, the Americans again swarmed the battleship, attacking simultaneously from above and on level from all directions. Three or four torpedoes found their marks, their massive explosions furthered reducing steam to the ship’s engines and dramatically increasing flooding. Yamato was now listing perilously 15–18° to port, but the ship’s crew was able to counterflood and reduce the list to 10°. Although the ship had so far absorbed a massive amount of punishment, she was still in no real danger of sinking.

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Still a third attack wave was launched and struck beginning at about 1:40pm that afternoon. At least four bombs hit the ship’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among Yamato’s remaining 25 mm anti-aircraft gun crews. More serious though were four more torpedo impacts, resulting in flooding that was almost uncontrollable. With the auxiliary steering room now completely flooded, the ship lost all maneuverability and became stuck in a starboard turn. Yet the ship and her crew fought on.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, heavy caliber deck guns B&W WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter 5 WMThe fires and flooding began to take their tool, and by about 2pm that afternoon, the ship could only make 10 knots through the water with a steadily increasing list. Fires forward near the ship’s main battery raged out of control, and alarms were sounding about temperatures in the ship’s magazine. At 2:02pm, the order was given to abandon ship since the crew was unable to flood the vital and dangerous ammunition storage areas to keep them from exploding.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, crew and idle guns WM

Yamato Explodes

Yamato Explodes

The final assault began at 2:05pm. Torpedo bombers once again scored more hits. The battleship continued her inexorable roll to port, losing all power 2:20pm. Three minutes later, Yamato capsized, and as she rolled, one of the two bow magazines detonated in a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud almost four miles high that was seen for hundreds of miles. Yamato sank rapidly, quickly killing over 3,000 of her crew. Only 269 sailors survived the onslaught, while the Allies lost only ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, breech of a heavy naval gun WM

Kure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Museum, Akishio SS-579 crewmember volunteer WMKure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Kure Museum, Akishio SS-579 submarine made by Mitsubishi WMIn 2005, the “Yamato Museum” was opened near the site of the former Kure shipyards where the battleships were built. The centerpiece of the museum, occupying a large section of the first floor, is an almost 90 foot long model of Yamato at an amazing 1:10 scale. For naval historians and those interested in learning about how such engineering genius and manufacturing acumen could result in such tragic circumstances, this museum is a must-see. Although a small fee is charged, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Kure Museum, located right across the street, is totally free. The two museums complement each other in dramatic fashion, and make for a wonderful day of discovering Japanese Traces of War.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It's free.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It’s free.

When you do visit, please take a moment or two to contemplate and honor Nakatani’s fate. Born in a different time, place, and circumstance, we all could have suffered the same, as many do today.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, enjoying the Yamato museum together

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/supership/producer.html

WWII Photos used licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Traces of War: The Voices of Fukuro-machi Elementary School


“This peace museum is located in a preserved section of Fukuro-machi Elementary School’s west building, an A-Bombed building. Its precious exhibits – notably messages scrawled on walls communicating the whereabouts of survivors – starkly convey the situation at the school when it served as a relief station immediately following the bombing.”  ~ Museum Placard

The preserved section of the original school, surrounded by the new.

The Preserved Section of the Original, Surrounded by the New.

August 6, 1945 began with a beautiful sunrise for Hiroshima’s many sleepy residents. Air raid alarms, warning of enemy planes and potential attack, had sounded on and off throughout the previous night, forcing much of the city to hide in shelters again and again. There was little time for sleep.

The threat of bombing subsided as the bright morning sun rose in the east, and the “all-clear” signal was finally given at 7:31 A.M. Those in air raid shelters and evacuation areas started to make their way home, some even going directly to work or their mobilization sites.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, exploring the preserved messages from the past WM

Hiroshima was in the process of preparing itself against the massive fire-bombing that her sister cities had suffered. In the city center, various large-scale building demolition projects were underway, designed to create firebreaks and provide escape routes. Work for most started at about 8:00 A.M., and this day was no different.

Except for the blast that leveled the city which occurred just 15 minutes later….

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum (袋町小学校平和資料館) is located in Hiroshima, just across the river from the city’s more famed Peace Memorial Park. At the time of the bombing, it was one of the closest schools to the bomb’s hypocenter – only the Honkawa was closer (see Honkawa Peace Museum for more on that school). Exposed to the massive effects of the blast, heat rays, and radiation only 460 meters from ground zero, about 160 students and teachers at the school were killed while the school was heavily damaged. Three students miraculously survived, having been by chance in a sheltered part of the basement at the time of the bombing. Luckily for the community, most of the school’s pupils had previously been evacuated to the surrounding countryside.

Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle

The western wing, the one where the present-day museum is housed, was completed in 1937, and its three stories were made of reinforced concrete and included a completed basement and flush toilets, all quite modern for the time in Japan. Most of the school had collapsed and burned to ashes, being mostly made of wood. But because the newer, reinforced concrete western wing of the school survived the blast, the day after, August 7, 1945, the gutted hulk of the school became a first aid station.

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can....

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can….

“For a treatment table, we put desks together. When we peeled the long bandages from the patients’ wounds, their pain was excruciating. We got those who were relatively healthy to slowly pull their own bandages off, but we had to do it for the more seriously wounded. The procedure was so difficult and painful it make many scream and cry. We applied ointment to their faces and cut the gauze to the size of their heads. Then we cut holes with scissors for their eyes, nose and mouth. Where there were signs of festering, we applied mercurochrome.” ~ Masayuki Okita

Museum Displays

Museum Displays

There were, however, only two nurses and doctors available to treat the wounded and dying, and almost no medicines. Finally, on August 20, 1945, a regional medical team moved in, and by this time, the school had become a key base of operations for relief activities throughout the city. The school’s role in rescuing and treating survivors was significant.

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

“Our examination rooms was a tiny space under the stairs. The classrooms had all become hospital “wards.” On the second floor were the hygiene section and general affairs. I don’t have accurate numbers for patients treated, but it was probably around 350. Most of those were badly burned over their entire bodies. We could hardly stand to look at them. The wounded were everywhere, completely filling the classroom floors. They had other wounds as well. ~ Dr. Hagi Ota

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

But what really makes this place uniquely sobering is that the schools soot-covered walls and charred blackboards had, at the time, became message boards for those in desperate search of their loved ones. In this regard, not only is the building a direct surviving relic of the atomic explosion, its walls today still carry the loud and tragic voices of the past. As a place of refuge, people began to leave messages on the burned walls using pieces of chalk which were scattered on the floor.  Contemplating the undecipherable characters as the lone visitors to the museum on a late weekday afternoon, I swear I could hear the cries and pleas of their authors….

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance WM

“Patients had survived 12 days since the bombing and had received what treatment was available. They had regained some emotional composure. Very few were crying or screaming, but they were suffering quietly with terrible pain and anxiety. Many were on the brink of death. This much had not changed.” ~ Masayuki Okita

The Walls in 1945 and Today

The Walls in 1945 and Today

With each passing day after Hiroshima was leveled, more and more people frantically searched for missing children, spouses, siblings, coworkers and friends. Most were hoping to find someone alive, but all were hoping at least to recover remains to bring home, which in most cases was simply no possible since people were reduced to ash, swept downriver, burnt beyond recognition, or otherwise disposed of by rescue teams. But still those left behind held out hope. And they continued to scrawl messages on the walls of the school in the hopes of reuniting with the missing, be they alive or dead.

Messages Recovered from Time

Messages Recovered from Time

“One of the strangest by common sights was patients with maggots in their facial burns. The maggots crawled from their eyelids onto their eyeballs. There were tragic scenes of childbirth. Every day, many patients died. The playground became a crematory. The ashes were placed into wooden boxes. If their names were known, they were written on pieces of paper and posted on the wall above the box. When people would come looking for relatives and found their names, we would give them some of the ashes from the box with that name on it….” ~ Atomic Bomb Survivor

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, stairwell message from the past 2 WM

Those messages, however, were lost to time when the building was repaired, having been plastered or painted over. In March 1999, when plans were being explored for preserving a section of the original building as an atomic bombing peace memorial, messages beneath plaster and paint were discovered. It seems that although plaster absorbed both chalk and soot alone, when chalk is placed on top of soot, only the chalk is absorbed, leaving behind in effect a “negative” of the original message. This find launched a full-scale investigation of the entire west building, which recovered many more messages. These desperate and often sad messages from the past became the central element of the now-altered plans for a moving peace museum.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance 2 WM

Some of those original messages left by survivors who scribbled in chalk on the soot-blackened walls of the school can still be seen today in the museum which opened in a preserved section of the school in 2002 (the rest of the building has been replaced with modern construction). The photo overlays of the messages seen today on the walls of the museum were taken in October 1945, about two months after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Cutouts in the existing wall’s plaster reveal portions of the messages still preserved underneath. In the basement are doors and windows on display that were damaged in the blast of August 6th.

Origami Peace Offerings

Origami Peace Offerings

The museum provides very good English translations of Japanese placards. There are numerous survivor testimonials, many focused on the role of the school as an aid station in the days and weeks following the bombing. The museum here is modern and well-appointed offering multi-media presentations, much more so than that found at Honkawa.

Preserved Portions

Preserved Portions

But while this peace museum is informative and moving, the museum structure itself well isolated from the school still active on the site. What is missing here is hope in the form of life always finds a way, the most precious facet of our shared human existence that is so readily apparent at Honkawa museum with the sights and sounds its happy school children hurrying about.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings WM

Still, this site offers a much more personal focus on the tragedy and human suffering resulting from the city’s atomic bombing. Rather than talk in generic numbers that are almost unimaginable, many first-hand accounts are offered to help those visiting contemplate and understand such horrors. Much like a visit to Honkawa, a brief stop here is really every bit as important as visiting the crowded park and museum just a few blocks away.

Always Choose Peace

Always Choose Peace

For More Information:

Address: 〒730-0036 6-36 Fukuro-machi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-541-5345 Hours: 09:00 – 17:00, closed Dec. 28 – Jan. 4

Admission: FREE!

Web: http://www.fukuromachi-e.edu.city.hiroshima.jp/shiryoukan-index.htm

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fukuromachi-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/111874765496586

V-J Day, Victory over Japan


“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink.” ~An exchange between TSgt Donald Larson and His Girl Dolores

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Jody, in reorganizing what we affectionately refer to as our “crap room,” just yesterday found a packet of letters from her Grandfather to his future bride Dolores during his service as part of the Army Air Forces in WWII. Jody and her Mother, Bonnie, thought these letters missing. Searches on both ends occurred without success. In these particular letters we were able to hear of the end of the war through Jody’s Grandfather’s eyewitness words. And oddly enough, these words turned up this particular week.

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

A strange coincidence? Yes. This week marks the passing of an indelible date to people on both sides of the Pacific: the anniversary of the surrender of Imperial Japan. On August 15th, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito formally announced his government’s surrender, and in the process, effectively ended World War II.

Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

B-17 Flying Fortress crew of 10.  Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

Fighting through Flak

Fighting through Flak

At the time, Jody’s Grandfather, TSgt Donald Edgar Larson, was stationed in Wisconsin, having previously survived 35 bombing missions as a B-17 Flying Fortress mechanic and aerial gunner. From the summer of 1944 through early winter of 1945, Don fought the war in Europe as part of the Eight Air Force in the skies over Germany and France. In a somewhat less glamorous yet infinitely safer role, at the time of the Japanese surrender, he found himself driving trucks at the Army Air Force’s Truax Field, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. His love, Dolores, was in Iowa.

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Truax Field was activated as an Army Air Forces airfield in June 1942, and served as the headquarters for the Army Air Forces Eastern Technical Training Center, tasked with training B-17 mechanics and radio operators, and in later times, radar operators for the “new” B-29 Superfortress. Today, it is an Air National Guard Base, co-located with Dane County Regional Airport, home of the Wisconsin ANG 115th Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In another odd connection and “what are the odds” turn of events (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections for more), this past spring I ended up befriending and training in scuba a number of reservists from this very base and unit while they were deployed to Kadena Air Base here on Okinawa, Japan.

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

At noon on August 6th, 1945, Gyokuon-hōsō (玉音放送 “Jewel Voice Broadcast”) was heard in a radio broadcast in which Japanese Emperor Hirohito read out the “Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War” (大東亜戦争終結ノ詔書 Daitōa-sensō-shūketsu-no-shōsho). It was translated into English and simulcast throughout the Pacific and in America. In what was probably the first time that an Emperor of Japan had spoken to the common people, he announced that the Japanese Government had accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military. The bloody Battle of Okinawa, the twin devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held territories all conspired to bring the War in the Pacific to a quick and somewhat unexpected end.

No Zip Codes!

No Zip Codes!

TSgt Larson got the news on August 14th, as most of America did due to the time-traveling dimension of the international dateline and the many time zones separating the West from the Far East. In a letter dated August 15th, 1945, he writes:

“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.”

The date was known to the allies of the time as “Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day),” and remains so for the United Kingdom. However, official commemorations in the United States honoring the ending of World War II occur on September 2nd, when the formal signing of the surrender document on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay actually transpired.

TSgt Larson WWII, army air forces honorable discharge

Honorable Discharge

In Japan, August 15 usually is known as the “Memorial Day for the End of the War” (終戦記念日 Shūsen-kinenbi). The official name for the day, however, is the “Day for Mourning of War Dead and Praying for Peace” (戦没者を追悼し平和を祈念する日 Senbotsusha o tsuitōshi heiwa o kinensuru hi), nomenclature fairly recently adopted by the Japanese government in 1982.

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

The end of the war, a momentous occasion by any standard, is oddly almost an afterthought in Don’s letters to his girlfriend. Perhaps he knew that his combat days were over in that war, having survived the Luftwaffe and the 8th Army Air Force.  Equally as interesting, the envelopes used to send his letters were addressed merely to just “Miss Dolores Arens, Le Mars, Iowa,” while the postage was free (but 3 cents for the general public). The postmarks are all from Madison, WI, and dated 1945. Such a simpler time on most fronts. Except for that horrible, global war….

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy's Dreams

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy’s Dreams

What I find quite humorous and enlightening, though, is a letter concerning the “new stationery” which Don was trying out in a letter sent July 26th, 1945, somewhat timidly, on his sweetheart: “Here is some of that new stationery I was telling you about. I still don’t know if I should send it or not but here goes,” Don hints. His later comments below (in bold), which also are found in the letter which is quoted in part above, confirm that boys will be boys, through time and even at the crossroads of history when a world war happens to be ending:

August 15, 1945

My Dearest Dolores,

Hello my Darling how are you any way (sic)? I had begin (sic) to wonder if you was still living or not as it had been so long since I had heard from you from the 1st until the 15th that’s a long time between letters.

I planned on waiting until I got an answer but same as usual I didn’t. I should wait as long as you did before I write but some thing (sic) won’t let me.

Darling I just got your letter yesterday saying that you got the watch O.K. it went to Chanute and they was how about sending it on to me.

Oh! Yes how’s the sun burn you mentioned in that letter? Hope its O.K.

Yes, Darling I am still driving trucks not such a bad job at that but I can think of other things I’d rather be doing.

Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.

Darling, you know I would come and see you if I could but you can imagine how things are here in the army. Its to (sic) late in the game to screw up the works now.

So you liked that stationery did you? That was some four engine bomber wasn’t it? I couldn’t say if it was a B-29 or what it was, Ha! It was a new model of some kind.

I got Romies (sic) address too I’ll write to him not saying that it will do any good, but if he isn’t getting your letters it seems as tho (sic), you would get them back.

Well My Darling think I have wrote (sic) enough for this time and guess I’ll wait until I get an answer before I write again. Should I?

Good night My Darling see you in my Dreams.

All My Love, Don

TSgt Larson WWII, young Don and Dolores

Thankfully, Don and Dolores’ relationship survived both that world war and some rather risqué stationery (for the time). The emergence of this correspondence during this week of historical significance provides a beautifully clocked look back through time, and into the roots of our families. And one that offers an overlay of everyday humanity that sometimes we forget always permeates even the most auspicious of occasions.

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

Traces of War: Hiroshima Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum


 

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

It seemed that the space was haunted. The sounds of laughing children lost so long ago wafting down through the still blown out windows. Searching through the gloom of the dark basement, we could almost see the ghosts of happy children – young souls innocent of the war mongering of the age, taking their seats for class or running and playing. None of them knew what fate had in store for them.

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary can be seen just across the River

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary is Labeled in Blue just across the River

The atomic bomb exploded in a blinding flash of light and heat. Virtually all buildings within 1.2 miles of the blast were destroyed, and the city as a whole, completely burnt down since most flammable objects within 0.6 miles burst into flame. At 8:15 in the morning of August 6, 1945, about 400 students and more than 10 teachers were killed instantly at the Honkawa Elementary School, and while the building took great amounts of damage, it remained standing. Students and teachers who were outdoors were completely scorched by the radiated heat of the fireball, and along with all those outside within one kilometer of the blast suffered almost 100% lethality. More than 70,000 people were killed within a few days; by December 1945, over 140,000 people would be dead from this one attack.

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

But the sounds we heard were not of phantom students, but living students arriving for school during our early morning visit on Monday morning. The school has been rebuilt, restored, and repopulated. Elementary-aged children, all wearing the same brightly colored yellow school cap and wearing the unique leather backups so ubiquitous throughout Japan, were running about, laughing and chatting as they maneuvered through their friends to find their classrooms. Pointing my camera in their direction, I lowered it just as quickly without pressing the shutter release, wanting to respect the happy moment for these children, so fortunate to be born in a different time.

Urban Preservation

Urban Preservation

The Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum (本川小学校平和資料館 Honkawa Shogakkou Heiwa Shiryokan) is a peace memorial and museum located on the grounds of a still-active elementary school in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1945, it was the school which was closest to the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb used in wartime.

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Against all odds, two students who were in the basement – the site of the present day museum, miraculously managed to survive. A memorial service for those killed here is held each year at the school on August 5, a day before the larger, more overwhelming services which occur in the nearby Peace Memorial Park (see my blog Atomics Footprints in the Sands of Time for more about that feature of the country’s atomic past).

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

The Peace Museum, which opened to the public in 1988, is housed in a very small part of the ground floor and basement of the original reinforced concrete structure, preserved with much of the damage suffered in 1945 still intact. It serves a dual purpose of helping to inform the students who study there, and as a memorial so that all who visit can learn about the importance of peace. The exhibition rooms are primarily found in the basement and include pre- and post-bombing photos, a large collection of school-related items affected by the bombing, and a massive diorama of the city after the attack.

Original Stairs leading to the School's Basement

Original Stairs leading to the School’s Basement

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, original stairwell WM

Charred Doorframe

Charred Doorframe

The L-shaped building was constructed in 1928 as the first three-story reinforced concrete public elementary school in Hiroshima. In the days leading up to August 1945, as the food supplies gradually decreased and the threat of allied bombing loomed more lethal, an evacuation of children throughout Hiroshima began. The students that left generally traveled without their parents, attending ad hoc schools set up in countryside temples, segregated by sex. Meals were supplemented with plucked wild grasses, but consisted mainly of leaves with a bit of rice, sometimes mixed with soybeans. A favorite ploy among the youngsters: those who got sick were often given sweetened rice porridge, so stomach aches were faked on more than a few occasions! Some students became so homesick in their unfamiliar surroundings that they ran away from their temporary lodgings and attempted to return to Hiroshima, often blindly following railways. Searches in most cases resulted in their safe return to exile. The real tragedy however occurred after the bombing. As an example, of the 40 students evacuated to Saifuku-ji temple, there was only a single child which still had both parents alive. Seven were reduced to a single parent, with the rest having become instant orphans, having lost not only their parents, but often their entire families.

Memorials at the Museum's Entrance

Memorials at the Museum’s Entrance

Energy ReleasedHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, bombing artifacts from the schoolyard WMThe atomic bomb blast occurred less than ¼ mile to the school’s southeast, and at about 2,000 feet overhead. The air blast is a not-so-known feature of nuclear weapons which allow the weapon’s fireball to expand to its full potential, thereby maximizing the bomb’s destructive power. The school’s proximity to the fireball subjected those students and staff present at school to lethal bursts of gamma rays, incinerating temperatures and a severe over pressure, followed by strong winds driving firestorms, and finally radioactive fallout. While the building’s frame survived due to its modern sturdy construction, the inside of the building was completely gutted, leaving only a skeleton in place. It was one of only a few standing buildings left after the A-bombing of Hiroshima.

Crematory on School Grounds

Crematory on School Grounds

Atomic DamageHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic pipe WMWith only the iron frame of the school remaining, all the people, furniture and implements in the school were lost. Those in the schoolyard all were killed instantly, burning to carbonized black, with some people turning to nothing but charred bones. Those inside the school fared no better, most dying instantly. Those surviving incurred serious mortal injury from glass fragments piercing into their bodies, third degree burns and blast-related wounds, crying as they headed towards and into the nearby river – the only place not on fire. But the waters were already full of corpses and injured people, floating by one after another….

Devastation near Ground Zero

Devastation near Ground Zero; The school is Labeled in Japanese

The day after the bombing the school became a temporary first-aid station, still having walls and a partial roof to provide some semblance of shelter. The school quickly filled with the dead and dying.

Classes Resume in the Ruins

Classes Resume in the Ruins

In February of the following year, however, classes resumed at the school. Four teachers and 45 students, most of who had been evacuated prior to the bombing, were all that was left to make up the entirety of the combined faculty and student body when the doors reopened. The staff, in attempting to restart the school, was deeply affected by the almost impossible task they faced. In their words:

Upon entering the school building, we were at a loss for words. The walls had burned and fallen, the floor had burned to the earth, having the appearance of an accumulation of volcanic ash. Among this, 14-15 children’s desks and chairs that seemed to have been brought in from an evacuation area were lined up. In the front, a blackboard composed of a board painted with black ink was resting on the desks, leaning diagonally. Outside, nothing could be seen. On the window, a bent frame of iron remained. Of the glass, however, not even broken fragments were left. Old straw mats were hung up to block the cold north wind, and its waving back and forth pierced the heart. Children were studying earnestly, trembling in the cold. None of the children had a normal complexion. The teachers were wearing either a soldier uniform for the males, or women’s work pants for the females. Everyone’s face looked to be the color of dry grass. In particular, a male teacher’s face color was completely lacking in vitality, looking as if he were supporting himself purely through willpower. One of the female teachers was holding a cane, and had a strong limp. This was the condition of Honkawa Elementary School at the time.

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic bombed classroom

One student described the miserable conditions in 1947: “When it rained, we would study under umbrellas. Even during the cold winters when snow would blow into the room through the open window, we sat in the broken glass on top of burnt bricks. Nevertheless, we had a fun time at school. We hope that the school will be restored to how it was before.”

Jody across from the Diorama

Jody across from the Diorama

Fire Damage

Fire Damage

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays 2 WMA large diorama of the destroyed city, even larger than the one found at the nearby Peace Memorial Museum, with a red ball showing the burst point of the atomic bomb is housed in the museum’s basement. The bare concrete slab walls and blown-out windows still open to the sky above combine with the facility’s gloomy spot-lighting to make a visit here, in many ways, more moving than to other A-bomb sites in the city. While the masses shuffle through more popular sites in Hiroshima, the solitude one can find here makes any stopover so much more…personal. But what makes this place so eerily dark is the chance to actually stand in a building that suffered the full brunt of the atomic energy and its associated death and destruction unleashed in the closing days of World War II.

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

080707Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays WMA visit to the museum is self-guided. After checking in with the school’s main office, you are left on your own to transit the lively school grounds, part of the intimate experience of visiting. Inside the museum’s entrance is a small desk where leaflets in English can be found, alongside a large collection of donated colorful memorial origami cranes so common at war memorials in Japan. They are a constant and visual reminder that underscores the significance of the place and peoples’ wishes for peace. During our visit as students were arriving and being greeted by school staff at the main entrance, several pupils bowed to welcome me and Jody, and took the opportunity to practice their English “hello.” Remember, there is no “L” sound in Japanese, making our standard greeting very hard to pronounce for most Japanese!

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, memorial origami WM

 

This school, along with its sister museum housed at the Fukuro-machi Elementary School, are well worth visiting in conjunction with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and in many ways, more moving and respective. The promise of youthful life here more than balances the scales against the weight of such dark death and demise.

Youthful Hope Restored

Youthful Hope Restored

 

Helpful Information

Address: 〒730-0802 1-5-39 Honkawa-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-232-3431

Open: School days 0900-1700, except for national holidays and during school vacations. Please check in at the school’s office just inside and to the right of the front gate before entering the museum. The museum is also open to the public during summer recess from August 1 to 10.

Fee: Free of charge

Phone: +81-(0)82-232-3431

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Honkawa-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/105650649468063

Map

Sources: Quotes, stories, facts and figures are all transcribed from on-site museum displays and pamphlets.