|Jan/Feb 2007 Nonfiction
Military historians write of war and preparations for war. As "Operation Downfall"—the invasion of Japan—took shape, Okinawa shone bright. From bases there, air raids and ground logistics would support Downfall, to be launched November 1, 1945, with the invasion of Kyushu by fourteen combat divisions. An assault on Honshu by twenty-two divisions would follow. President Truman, in approving this plan, knew that our fatalities in Japan would likely exceed a million men. Compare this to 12,000 American dead in the conquest of Okinawa, the "Iron Typhoon" of April through June.
After the atomic erasure of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a secret possibility known only to a few, none of them ground commanders—Japan's surrender followed on August fifteenth. The vast buildup on Okinawa, that had required 1,600 ships making 40-day voyages across 7,000 miles, suddenly became a purposeless burden for which no Plan B existed. The lamp of history winked out, too. Thousands of noncombatant military would now wait over a year for repatriation. A "point system" determined your standing, the higher the better, 90 the max. If young, a draftee and single, you faced a long wait. Battle veterans got early transport home. Absent a foe, they'd be a discipline problem.
What follows is a memoir of my own Okinawa experience, from troopship embarkation in late June 1945 to a lucky flight home a year later. Since the Navy had trained me as a photographer, I freshen my recollections with pictures of Okinawa, then Shanghai in early 1946. Even better, letters I'd written in that overseas year were lovingly saved. This story, then, though "anchored" by 80-year-old me, is mostly based on letters from 19-year-old me, who signed himself "Mud & Blisters" during the first months on Okinawa. If the child is father to the man, this kid is senior, though I outlast him.
I've also located perhaps the only book-length personal memoir of then-Okinawa. The vivid account of one William P. Simpson, then a cargo-managing Navy First Lieutenant, "Island 'X'—Okinawa" was issued by the Christopher Publishing House of Hanover, Mass. Prewar, Simpson had worked seven years for Matson Navigation Co. as a dock manager in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Australia. His nickname "Digger" surely comes from the Anzac sojourn. The Australian Dictionary of Biography characterizes a Digger as "independent, witty, warm-hearted, happy to be indolent at times and careless of dress." Simpson, commissioned in early 1942, served four years. I put his 1945 age at just this side of 30. Strong on operational matters, Digger disdained autobiography.
His traits other than Digger-ness include a strong yet easy leadership style, an ability to improvise materials-handling methods 7,000 miles from Matson backup, and a tactful but relentless aversion to the Regular Navy and its "stateside" style. His immediate nemesis was an Annapolis-bred Captain he privately called "Blimp." Where Digger would form workgroups according to who knew what skills, the Blimp insisted that Navy hierarchy prevail. But a stateside style wasn't right for hard and dangerous work, made more so by heat, mud, and storms. A few avoidable deaths persuaded the brass to leave Digger alone.
Fascinated by supply chain complexity, like a time-and-motion engineer he examines the inefficiency of multiple loadings, re-loadings and unloadings of cargo, striving to speed the flow. From a hypothetical factory in St. Louis, he estimates how many times a pallet of, say, cement bags must be reloaded before reaching his 600-man Advanced Materials Handling Base on Okinawa. A minimum of thirteen, he writes, as many as eighteen.
Here's an example of a brutal work situation that might have been avoided. Bags of cement weighing 96 pounds, stacked on wooden pallets, are crane-loaded dockside onto trucks to be driven inland. On arrival, it's discovered that the sacks, owing to rough roads through hilly terrain, have been jostled off their pallets and must now be unloaded by hand. This slowdown takes two men: one to lift each sack to the tailgate, the other to lift it down, stacking it on others no higher than a man can lift, that is, four high. A crane, which can stack eight high, stands idle. The heat is 112 degrees, mosquitoes are festive, it starts to rain hard, and the work must continue into the night as trucks keep arriving.
Better first to strap the bags on the pallets.
Another aspect of the chain he enjoys is its inexorability. Even after the surrender, ships keep arriving, their now-useless cargoes still to be unloaded, delivered and stacked. Three factors determine this inertia. The production and shipping contracts must first be aborted. Then allow about ten days from factory to dock, and another 40 in a vessel making less than 11 knots per hour, the top speed of a wartime-built Liberty Ship.
Digger also has a mind attuned to irony. From aerial photos of Okinawa, he writes, a bay had been chosen to become a major anchorage and pier facility. Floating pile-drivers start work. After 40-foot piles fail to hit bottom, 60-footers are tried, then 80-footers. Finally, a 90-foot pile too is driven out of sight. The site proves to be bottomless mud!
I value Digger's stories, partly because his experiences help to explain mine, partly because he sees clearly the immensity of the Okinawa challenge. Being such a tiny cog in its unfolding, I can merely sense it.
I'll introduce myself now, since the rest of the story is mine, whether told by today's 80-year-old or the 19-year-old alter ego who shaped me. I grew up sheltered, with servants. Though I don't remember feeling lonely as a child, why else would I have believed that the visible world was just a stage-set whose backsides I could never see? Riding in a car, I'd strain to catch the workmen quickly rearranging the scenery as we sped by.
A familiar of country clubs and private schools, I was drafted into the U.S. Navy in June 1944, just having turned eighteen. Since we lived in Winnetka, a lakeside suburb of Chicago, I learned Navy ways at Great Lakes Naval Training Center a few leagues north. The transition seemed easy. I don't remember being homesick, and I liked the Appalachian boys who were a large fraction of the inductees. Burgess Howard of Bear Paw, North Carolina, abandoned roadside by his mother as a child, became my best friend. He taught me songs like "Great Speckled Bird" and "Take That Night Train to Memphis," sung in a high, nasal tenor, a tuneful change from the string quartets my mother would drag me to. I recall the loneliness of an unseen boy calling out one dusky evening among the barracks, "Anybody here from Bell (bail) County?" That would be Eastern Kentucky.
Being musical—flute lessons starting at eight—I became platoon drummer, paraddidling us through drills. I was also given time off to play Sousa marches with the tiny brass band of fellow recruits enlivening the weekly graduation reviews. And there were Saturday afternoon rowing races on the lake attended by officers and their parasoled ladies. Rowing at summer camp fitted me to join one of the teams. I was learning that break-out opportunities in the Navy were indeed possible! In Okinawa, these blossomed.
Black sailors too trained at Great Lakes, but separately. One day I enviously watched a close-order drill where the black leader shouted, "Double to the rear (ree-uh)—with a slight (slaat) hesitation—march (motch)!" Our white drill masters stuck to a barely intelligible "Hut-two-three-four!"
Since the Navy had to fill skilled positions from the recruit pool, we were shown films (like "Sonar Man!") about jobs to apply for. Photography having been a passion since age ten, I was assigned to the Navy Photographic School at Pensacola. My closest friend there was some years older, Ken Amon of Lincoln, Nebraska. A class assignment was to plan and photograph a poster. Whereas other teams chose projects like "Loose Lips Sink Ships," Ken—haggard, on crutches, with a finger pointed in warning—posed for a picture we titled, "She Was Beautiful But Dangerous."
The Navy threw me a curve at graduation. I was held back because of a missing 4x5 magazine, a film container one slipped into the cumbersome Speed Graphics we were trained to use. Had I not returned it from my locker? I remained for several idle weeks awaiting a deck court martial. The trial officer, who had not understood what a "magazine" was, dismissed the case when he discovered its triviality. He had expected my crime to be serious, like making off with a top-secret periodical.
A few months later at the Navy's Treasure Island, San Francisco, I waited to board a troopship bound for—who knew? The kid who was shaping me wrote home as follows:
This embarkation area is the original Dachau, surrounded by high barbed wire fences and guards. We aren't issued mattresses, and nobody brought any, so we've been sleeping on sheets of canvas laid across bed springs. I woke this morning looking and feeling like an underdone waffle.
The flute came in handy yesterday. Someone was playing the trumpet (he used to be professional). I asked if a flute could be heard through the blatant tones of a trumpet, and he was delighted with the idea. I fitted in well, and we rendered a St. Louis Blues that rolled everybody in the aisles. We also sounded hot on Darktown Strutters Ball, especially when a guitar joined us. A determined clarinetist came up and argued for passage of his own candidates which were on the order of Three Blind Mice. The jazz players got together again after supper in the clothes drying room. There, sitting on pails, surrounded by a hanging garden of clean socks, underwear, sheets and uniforms, it was very pleasant to discover there are people who will get together like this, anywhere, anytime, just to play music, no matter what kind. These are my last few hours before going on ship, so you won't get another letter soon.
A moment to remember: nine PM, June 26. That's when we departed. It's now July 18. This has been one of the swiftest months I've ever spent, and I expected it to be the slowest that ever was! I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't like to read. That's all I do, except talk a little to keep the spark of society alive. Right now I'm reading a low-brow mystery novel called "The Nature and Destiny of Man" by Reinhold Niebuhr. Not yet able to understand it, I won't comment. I get embarrassed hauling something like that in front of everybody, because most deride book-learning. It's easier to explain Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" because I can say it's about a Georgia chain gang.
Our sleeping quarters are the cargo holds. The bunks are stacked eight high, and I have the lowest one, facing an open space with a rectangular little hatch cover to sit on. I'm right at the edge of Darktown with whites behind and colored in front. It reminds me of a slave galley: black, sweaty, half-naked bodies bent over their—thought I was going to say "oars," didn't you?—dice. I've been learning the Troopship Blues: "Oh, I woke up this mo'nin' wif sa-a-alt water in mah bed."
I remember escaping the hold on pleasant nights to sleep on deck. Many others did the same, but I had found a rare and private place, underneath a lifeboat right at the edge of the steel deck. There was no rail, and I could turn to look down at the sea.
Yesterday was beautiful. The morning started off blue and sparkling. Then it began to rain, a warm rain, straight down. The sea became softly textured, like a young field of alfalfa blowing in the breeze. The nearby ships in the convoy were just gray shapes set off by undulating white ribbons at the waterline and jutting masts and stacks. We made a very ghostly procession.
Someone stole my good fountain pen last night while I slept. There's not much you can do when your possessions become the apple of another's eye. The reasons I feel fairly secure about the flute [a fine Haynes] are (1) nobody knows how to play one, (2) there's no other use for it, and (3) melting it down into wampum for the natives isn't worth the trouble. I played some solo music this Sunday in a show on the forward deck. My first piece was "Tico Tico," which I worked up the evening before. After this I said, "I should tell you about the next piece, called "Flight of the Bumble Bee." There are lots of notes, but it doesn't last very long before we both hit fly paper."
The other night, in one of our Washroom Seminars, I was advised to "lay off them fancy college theories, sonny, and wait till you get out and see life like we older fellows, then you'll see what we mean." The subject of our discussion was whether the Jews controlled all the corporations and other wealth including (1) the schools, (2) the press and (3) the government, not to mention international banks. I didn't know such views existed! Next day I asked a seemingly reasonable friend what he thought, and he gravely replied, "Within the next ten years the Jews and the colored are going to start a civil war, you mark my words."
Now I am the last person to accept the equality of all men, but I do believe that in any given group, with a small latitude in favor of those who have used their intelligence to become wealthy, the same percentage of genius and imbecility is produced. Poor food, bad company and indifferent schooling can stifle genius, whereas favorable conditions can lift a pretty dumb guy to a passable level of intelligence. Genius, when it sprouts, is merely a frail potential easily crushed. There is a Negro with whom I have long talks at the ship's rail. He has a fine and careful mind, and had he been white, with money for education, he would have made a lawyer. As it is, he will, with luck, be re-hired as fireman on a Norfolk & Western steam locomotive, never to become its engineer. If I were born colored, with the right breaks I might make a good Pullman car porter.
Our only mid-Pacific stop was Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Its air base was strategic until more western islands were overcome. In 1945 some sections of shoreline were cleared to serve as a beach-and-beer daytime stopover for troopships. Further clearing was done that June to permit more thousands to land. We had our first chance in weeks to walk around in the sun, drink beer and listen to bad jazz blared at us through inescapable loudspeakers in coconut trees.
Island X was our last stop. The letter below was posted August 15, the date of the Japanese surrender.
After forty days and forty nights we reached our destination, remaining aboard another three nights, during which kamikaze pilots roared above us. The harbor was so filled with ships that our little launch must treat us to a twelve mile ride to the beach. I hardly know how to describe what I saw. It seemed as if America had been transplanted. It was not the helmeted, shouting Americans who were out of place, with their snorting machinery, but the frightened natives jogging along in their wooden carts. Every step I took was in deep tire or tractor tracks. You hear about the miracle of American production, but it's hard to imagine the immensity of it until you see a piece of it transplanted so far from home.
The Okinawa campaign, launched Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, was larger and more savage than the invasion of Normandy. It was eclipsed back home by public attention to the defeat of Germany, achieved a month later. In her article "The Battle for Okinawa," written for Military History Online, Laura Lacey notes that whereas the 1944 Normandy landings deployed 150,000 troops and 570,000 tons of supplies, the 1945 assault took 183,000 troops and 750,000 tons of supplies, to say nothing of the supply line difference: English Channel vs. Pacific Ocean.
It was extraordinarily destructive. About 150,000 Okinawans perished, a third of the population. The Japanese lost 100,000, many through suicide, surrender being dishonorable. The U.S. Tenth Army, including Marines, lost 7,600 and the Navy 5,000. The two commanders, General Ushijima and General Buckner, were both killed as well.
Even before the island was secured, the Seabees (those assigned to "CBs," construction battalions) were at work building docks, carving roads and bulldozing campsites. Digger's unit too was bringing materials inland for base construction. One of these would become the Naval Aviation Supply Depot my correspondent will now describe.
Our tents sit in a sloping valley which a month ago was a pastoral scene, grassy and calm. Then the bulldozers, then the trucks with the tents. The valley floor is now a brown, muddy, heaving turmoil. On the side of the steep hill above us, machines work night and day hewing a new road across the slope. I'm in the midst of a thundering, brawling American construction site.
On pistol-packing guard duty this morning, I was told to take special care of the hospital tent to prevent theft of medical supplies. I looked away for a moment and when I turned back, an Unauthorized Person was snooping around inside. Rolling up the sleeves of my sarcasm, I walked up and sneered, "Want anything in here, mate?" He was surprised and said, "Why, no!" "Then you gotta clear out. That's my orders." "I'll tell you what, son. You better let the doctor stay in here. That's what I'm here for." I thought that was so funny that I laughed.
We have moved out of pup tents into larger tents and now sleep on cots. The change is good. Instead of mud swirling around your shivering, blanketed frame, it swirls beneath you. I dig holes and ditches during the day. From the quill pen of "Mud n' Blisters."
A few weeks later, posted September 3, the kid—more like "founding father"—writes about his work. Since he's still a seaman, not yet a Photographer's Mate, he serves at the whim of anyone with the authority to commandeer a laborer.
Until yesterday I had a fairly easy job as Cesspool and Drainage Specialist helping to build the new chow hall. I wouldn't have worked so hard if I'd foreseen its outcome, for as this culinary facility expands it naturally needs more attendants. After building my mausoleum I was placed therein. So now I arise every other day at 3.30 in predawn darkness and work twelve hours on garbage (before meals) and on greasy pots and pans at the deep sink (after meals.) You may well say, what an easy lash-up, working every other day. But on alternate days I get up at seven and work till seven at night. Being a mess cook is the bane of the "screamin' seamen," as we're known. Next time you're downtown, look in at some hash house. See that tired old man way back at the deep sink? Ask him who's got his job when he retires.
There's a laundry here made up of native women. They're fascinating to watch and hear, because they sing while they work. It's spontaneous and beautiful. They have wonderful pitch and their singing is high and thin and mournful. I wish I could work there with them. It would make a good report for a social science project.
My younger brother Will, known in childhood through mid-teens as "Willie," took up the violin in childhood. Our family came to know the Menuhin family through my sister Phebe, a serious singer. She knew younger daughter Yalta Menuhin, a terrific pianist. The patriarch, Moshe, managed the family like a business. Violinist Yehudi was most promoted, next was pianist Hepzibah. Yalta was cruelly sidelined. My father and Moshe, whose mutually exotic personalities and business interests led to a friendship, would correspond. He owned a vineyard in Los Gatos, California. When stationed in California, it was arranged for me to lunch at the vineyard. In a letter from Okinawa, I recall this.
I well remember the words of the senior Menuhin. "Now dot Villie, him hiz rilly talking. You David I like, you haf stories, ideas, but dot Villie! Right away he's esking me, Vot's you box office, how you split up, everyting like dat. Dot Villie, he's some boy."
It's been a few days since I wrote the above. It's supposed to be the dry season, but this sunshine is terribly wet. If there were roller skates with chains and four-wheel drive, it'd be better, but as it is I slip and fall at every step. The worst job in the new hillside chow hall is hauling 600 gallons of water every day up the hill for cooking and cleanup. This has to be carried by bucket, since the bulldozed truck road to the service entrance is nothing but mud. Remember that part of "Fantasia" where Mickey Mouse is the Sorcerer's Apprentice? You may not believe this, but my meager knowledge of Eastern mysteries has given me great power. The mops are stiff and inexperienced, but I'm training them and expect soon to have a whole battalion working for me. If this works, I should qualify for a discharge, even if it's a "psycho."
The people I work with are strange. One mess boy contends that the world is flat, and is confirmed in his opinion by a baker from Oklahoma who reasons that books were the only things that said the world was round. Books are worthless, he argued, for two reasons. The people he knows who read books don't know anything, and those who write them are mostly college professors. Then a religious character brought up the subject of Creation and I gave him a dose of Darwin. I am now branded in whispers as a heretic who should be cooked and served for dinner as a welcome relief from stew. The barber refuses to cut colored boys' hair and nothing is done about it.
The completed mess hall serves officers and men alike, the one group able to break into the head of the line like a doctor in a hospital cafeteria. Its Chief is a comic tyrant. He spends little time there, but when present he supersedes the orders of his crawling underdogs, who in turn torment seamen mess cooks. Now he wants the road up the hill to be passable for supply trucks. He reasoned that if gravel were spread on the mud, all would be well. But instead of calling for many truckloads of crushed coral, he looked around for "—them two mess cooks, where are they? Awright, now lissen you guys, get a wheelbarrow and a shovel and haul some gravel from over by (note the triple preposition) the new Quonset hut. I want that road filled in, get it?"
"No buts! That's the trouble with you mess cooks. I want that road filled in."
The gravel dump was a hundred feet away across a muddy morass. We foraged for lumber and built a wobbly highway from the gravel dump to the dumping area. We were spreading the gravel v-e-r-y thinly on the road to impress the Chief when another bulldozer came, plowed under our gravel and backed into the muddy morass, splintering our wheelbarrow path. The project was abandoned, and no trucks have come up since. I wish the CIO [later the AFL-CIO] would organize a Brotherhood of Galley Slaves. The Cates Philosophical & Reasoning Co., Uncoordinated closes up for the night.
After a month or so the kid my shaper graduates to serve out on the chow line, where unsatisfied appetites play discordant tunes.
Last week I was personally instructed by the Chief to serve four (4) and only four (4) weenies [canned Vienna sausage, a rare treat] to a customer. All went well until the base commander, a former business school administrator, now side-armed to impress, came through the line.
"Good evening, sir."
"Ahh! Weenies. I certainly do love weenies."
"There you are, sir." I place four on his plate. He looked at me incredulously. I looked at him. He looked at the four tiny weenies on his tray and then said, "I guess you don't know who I am!"
"Yes, sir." Two more for the commander and six potential friends lost among those who followed. "Gee, fellas, I'm sorry but I can't give you six. All right, but he's a commander. Sorry, mate, just four…I guess I do know who you aren't, and you don't get six."
The moods of the passing chow line are interesting. Breakfast is always cheerless. Bleary-eyed and grouchy, they slog in from the mud and darkness. Their remarks are derogatory insults at cook and mess cook alike. They gripe about the prunes, the powdered eggs, the powdered milk, the powdered cereal, and add that if we have to use dirty socks to make coffee, at least would we use enough to give it some flavor.
Regardless of weather, food or other conditions, there are chow line types one cannot fail to distinguish. Gripers, of course, are the largest category. One will pretend he can't see his portion with the naked eye, and spends time peering closely at the tray. Then he may look up and say, "Wassamata doc, you payin' for it today?" Another type goes in for indirect criticism of your judgment. Receiving his portion, he sizes it up, then examines his predecessor's portion to see if it's the same. Extreme exponents of this method may examine three or four trays to make sure justice has been done. If he doesn't think so, you get a sneering look which says, "Wait 'till you come around the shipfitting shed trying to borrow a welder, Mac!" Well, if he wants to wait that long, then I sure can.
The people who ask for seconds when there aren't any are hard to handle. Some will take your word for it and go away, but most use a variety of maneuvers. You'll be urged to "remember your old buddy," and you'd be surprised at how many friends you didn't know you had. The less sentimental present statistics on how many crates of the desired product are on hand right now in the storeroom if only we weren't so lazy.
The Chow-Hound category is perhaps the most fascinating. There are two divisions: the amateur and the professional. You can always spot the amateur: eyes wide, tongue hanging out, he speeds in, peers inside each pot, watches the portion hawk-like as it hits the tray, mumbling "gimme more, gimme more", and may even thank the mess-cook as he stumbles on. So crude! The professional is different. Conversation with his neighbor ceases. Tense, keyed-up but calm, he takes his tray with practiced ease. When the pot has been quickly smelled, he accepts his portion, asks quickly "'Nother spoonful?" and moves on. Or, "Beans!" he will say. "Gotta have my beans. Oh hello, Cates, aren't you out of the mess hall yet? I'm doing my best for you, you know that, why I'd never let a buddy of mine—swell, that's enough beans." Sometimes he'll wash his tray off and come through the line again—hat brim low over the eyes, or affecting a twitch to escape suspicion. This chow line is long, but you should have seen it on the ship.
The paragraph below is from a letter to my father. Always curious about his work, which he never discussed at home, I plead for more information. Raised in a Quaker family with Philadelphia roots on my mother's side, note that my version of the second person singular pronoun is not conventional.
I wish thee would write me something of what thee does professionally. All I know is that thee once bought a fire insurance company for someone. That's the same as if thee owned a clothing store and all I knew was the cost of zippers.
In the same letter my young "framer" meditates on Time by contrasting the meaningless flow of Navy work against ideas and events worth remembering.
I remember thy letters clearly, whereas scrubbing the same deck night after night is like a dream I had long ago. Time has a way of throwing itself out of joint, flowing into peaks and valleys of unequal value. There's the Time of clocks and calendars, just an abstract frame. My days are a turgid, bubbling undercurrent I barely recall, set off by music, letters, ideas, and conversations with a few. These are like a trumpet against the black sound of rain. In my mind such moments are clear and sharp, outside of time and space. The other flits quickly past because it lacks substance. Ordinary time passes quick and dark, marked by flashes of light.
Although he's still a mess-cook he starts helping out in the photo lab tent. He's included in the roster, but that won't be recognized until his rating comes through. Even so, he's doubly welcome because he helps out and because of his access to mess hall supplies.
I'm working about fourteen hours a day now and rather enjoy it. Ten hours at the chow hall, cleaning up and serving out, then between meals I go up to the photo lab and help with the printing work. But I do get very tired and can't seem to write an intelligent letter as this doubtless shows.
I've discovered a leak in the food supply line. Yesterday I brought up a 50-pound case of 'C' rations. Inside are cigarettes, crackers, gum, jelly, and the powder to make coffee, cocoa and orangeade, then sugar, pork and rice, chicken and vegetables, franks and beans, ground meat and spaghetti, ham and eggs and potatoes, ham and lima beans. Heated in water with a little pepper, this stuff is better than what our cooks prepare. Tonight, under cover of darkness, another 50 pounds will be on its way to the photo lab.
He now talks about photo lab personnel. The term "striker" is/was Navy slang for a seaman seeking a petty officer rating, the lowest grade being (in our case) Photo Mate Third Class. The shoulder insignia is a vague rectangle more like a casket than a camera. Sometimes, when asked what I did, I'd point to my arm and say "Mortician's Mate."
Of the three strikers, I probably rank a close second. Thornton, the most qualified, had run a photo shop in Rockford, Illinois, and is in his thirties. He'll be put in charge when the present crew leaves for home. Chuck Schirmer and I call him "Enip" Thornton, standing for "every nail in place." He builds lockers around lockers, shelves in front of shelves and platforms on top of platforms.
Schirmer is a graduate of the same photo school I attended, but you wouldn't know it. He doesn't know how to make the exposure, set the shutter, change film, develop the negatives or make the prints, altogether an alarming lack of basic knowledge.
As typhoon season ends (all six of them) and things settle down at the Depot, the only diversion is barter, which can get quite fancy. Photos have become valuable currency!
People are learning the art of the Big Deal. The Big Dealer will trade food, clothing, photos, beer and whiskey for anything he might want. The cooks, for example, will sell their souls—all we want is their bacon—for photographs. One could buy a fifth of whiskey for $30 cash but I got one just for developing eight rolls of film in ten minutes— what a mess! —and printing three sets of prints at a time on 10'' strips. With my connections at the mess hall, I'm Commissary Steward for the photo lab, in return for hundreds of prints of cooks and servers at work.
A bottle of whiskey and a case of beer are now in the offing, after a single picture I took at an officers' bar. A Lt. Levine is at the center of the frame, with slick bartender Milano at the edge. One print emphasizes Levine with a darkened Milano watching respectfully. The other is a separate enlargement of Milano alone. The "take" from this effort is a bottle of whiskey and a beer supply.
Rats are a menace. One got on me in bed. We trapped him, with bacon not cheese, but his family remains in residence. They scratch and patter all night, but don't chew raw film like their illustrious forebear. Last night I put my fragrant last pair of socks beside my shoes. In the morning the socks were gone, and the ends of the shoe laces were nibbled. Since the socks are too noxious to be a baby's nest, they may serve as a doormat to frighten away other rats.
I'm fed up with photography. As a Cesspool and Drainage Specialist, I at least got a tan. Now I'm Darkroom Dave. What slight color appears in my face comes from the yellow safe-lights. And exercise! I can almost develop film with one hand. I considered getting out on the road and running, but my higher centers weren't persuaded and the bill didn't even clear the lower house. I do, however, consent now and then to box with Schirmer. He's not as big, but he's a good boxer. I can't say I enjoy the crowds who assemble to watch us. Today he slugged me on the temple and I fell down faint.
Lt. Scott, the photographic officer, likes to call me 'Cadwallader' [yes, it's my middle name]. I found out his middle name, and reciprocate with 'Wayne." Hope this works.
I'm in the third hour of a Junior Officer of the Day watch (I'm the 'junior'). I wear a pistol and answer the phone. I hope it doesn't ring because it's raining hard and it's 1.30 in the morning, unless it's for the O.O.D. himself who is very, very lazy.
It's harder and harder to get along with people I don't like. I consider the commander a windbag, and am afraid I show it behind my mechanical laughter at his "latest." Thornton can be an officious busybody which gripes me exceedingly. We have weekly quarrels, then I apologize and he turns expansive and I can use the jeep again. Machiavelli is guiding me through this troublesome period.
An "AlNav," a mysterious source from which spring unheralded announcements throughout Navydom, says that those who are 10 points short of discharge may apply for service school. Wonderful! I'll make a dozen big enlargements for Commander Howden of my best work, then say I need to broaden my skills at Camera Repair or Motion Picture Camera. Though these are at Pensacola, there may be a branch in Chicago.
The officers of the black unit want prints for all the men, and offered us $250 for the job. At $83 each, we aren't going to turn it down. On my visit there, one individual said it would be to my advantage to snap his portrait and living quarters which, he said, were admired by pilgrims the island over as the acme of style and comfort. With his peaked chauffeur's hat, racecar sunglasses and pegged pants, he had a point. His friend made a different plea: "I am de pastor more or less in a manner of speakin' yo might say of de boys in the outfit and they would 'preciate it truly if yo made my picture so ah could give it to them." Sometimes I don't know who to believe.
I feel no conscience about Navy property. Scott went home with cameras, lenses, filters and other choice stuff. When I went to get film at our supply dump, I found an open, soggy box filled with rusted movie and still cameras, expired film, broken tripods, etc. You become so callous to waste it's hard to break the habit. This induces irresponsibility. Manly as is the Navy image, she takes care of us like a mother, feeding us, showing us movies, taking us on trips,, providing places to sleep and work, and all the materials our work requires, and even giving us a slight allowance. I wonder what it's like to have responsibility for your income and expense, and the balance between them.
In late November Lady Luck rigged the Wheel of Fortune to bring two events to ripen simultaneously. These then coalesced into my Biggest Deal ever. First, driving a borrowed jeep, I picked up a hitch-hiker. Second, I got transferred to a Navy Photo Squadron mapping the coast of China. The hitch-hiker was an Australian pilot who, when I told him my job, asked where he might buy a 35 mm. camera. I had such a camera on my person, belonging to a wheel-challenged machinist who wanted to sell it for $30. The Australian said okay, but lacked U.S. currency. Stymied at first, he apologetically asked if I'd accept a case of Milne's Australian Scotch whiskey. We drove to his barracks and made the trade. Since whiskey sold on Okinawa at $25 a bottle, this was a bonanza. I took this valuable asset back to the "Ship's Service" Quonset hut managed under lock and key by my friend Dan Ellis, a same-age quartermaster (i.e., storekeeper), also from New York City. The Quonset holds nothing but refrigerated beer and frozen steak. Members of Dan's salon feast on steak braised in beer, a dish I've never prepared since.
The transfer happened when I chanced to sit next to a Chief Photo Mate at an off-base barber shop. He said he'd arrange for my transfer, since they were now short-handed as older ratings went home. I would fly, not do darkroom work, and would be included in (a) a February visit to Shanghai and (b) their flight back across the Pacific in May.
These events interact as Dan and I "partner" to sell the whiskey and use the cash to buy silk souvenirs in Shanghai for resale to Navy men about to return home. Selling liquor was illegal, so must be done at night, driving Dan's jeep up to successive barracks crowded with frustrated, often drunk men waiting for a ship home. We took turns making the sales, the jeep, motor running, poised to leave hurriedly.
I'll describe how our sensible strategy unfolded. But first comes Christmas.
He writes his musical sister Phebe a letter on December 2, as the holiday approaches.
Listening to Brahms puts me in a mood to write you. Music is a medium I share with you and home and my former life. It's a powerful emotional chemical. My life takes on meaning from it. Rather than background, it's a foreground pillar setting the unrelated deeds, disappointments and hopes of my days in perspective. It lets me see myself as absent from a former world, not cut off from it.
My colleagues in the lab have voted against a fifth of Schenley's and have made a Deal to acquire three Jap rifles. Though such trophies may look okay in Thornton's parlor or over a fireplace in Schirmer's dining room, I can't see this relic of the wars hanging among our tapestries, even with a powderhorn to suggest a pioneer origin. Do you want the damned thing? It shoots if you can find .31 caliber bullets.
Today is December second. Christmas is more than a year away. Twenty-four days from now won't be Christmas. It will be a tortured play of feelings and I'll end up drinking beer with my friends and talking about our last Xmas at home. Some of the tough guys will get drunk on denatured alcohol. No one will be anguished by the paradox of Christ's birth and the world at sword's points. Christmas is an ostrich festival anyway, its gift-buying ritual a transformation of the original giving into an anxious social competition.
Christmas on Okinawa, as described in a letter to his mother written January 3.
I loved thy remark about "the sound and fury of a senseless celebration." That's what happened here. It was okay at first. Thornton had found and decorated a tree with tinsel and lights, and, singing along with the radio, that's how we spent Christmas Eve. Staring vacantly into the luminous tree, I could imagine Christmas Eve at home. Christmas Day for me is not so great. I dislike tobacco smoke, the untidiness of wrappings and the let-down of having opened the last present. But the night before is a breathless, misty moment, where we seemed to grasp the sacredness of the hour, the lights of the tree softening our faces. Singing carols, we became timeless and full of vision.
Some people cannot endure Christmas and get drunk. The mechanics in the next tent were doing exactly that. They shouted, swore, hit one another and broke furniture in their glee. I went next door and asked them to quiet down. They became furious and insisted I take a picture of their tree. Thornton and I had worked all day and far into the evening making 2,000 prints of the Xmas Day Feast Menu for the boys—there's no print shop here—and I told them that, and went back to Thornton's tent. We heard mutterings for a while, then the whole party stamped over to our tent to get their picture taken. Hateful eyes peered through our screen door like animals in the night. That's how they impressed me. They were predatory, out to get what they wanted, shaking the door and actually threatening to kill me (!), smash the camera and tear down the tree. They finally went back to their tent, muttering threats.
I sat down and listened again to the radio. This is hard to believe! At that moment, we heard hundreds of Japanese in a Tokyo cathedral, their singing lovely and fervent. I saw the paradox. We are not anointed crusaders, our enemies not heathen fiends. Never had this truth been so impressed upon me as this Christmas Eve when my fellows were raising holy hell in victory, while some Japanese, their homes and fortunes wrecked, went humbly to church in hope and faith.
The other day there was a distant explosion which I felt here. An ammunition ship had blown up with a small load of shells aboard. Neighboring ships were not damaged, but lives were lost among the men loading at the time. I was asked to take pictures to be used by the Board of Inquiry. People are still being killed and injured. A few months ago, some abandoned dynamite in a cave overlooking a camp where hundreds of men soon to go home exploded, killing most. Traffic accidents are frequent, some fatal. Truck drivers are merciless toward the tiny jeep, sometimes crushed by men who know they themselves will neither be hurt nor apprehended. Natives walking the roadsides are run over, since many Americans despise "gooks" and could care less.
With Thornton gone home right after Christmas, he's now in charge of the photo lab.
When I worked as a mess cook, I was the subject of many jibes, which I returned in kind, but I preferred to be by myself where I could choose my thoughts and actions with little interference. Now that Thornton's gone, I do what I want in the lab, with no one to distrust or anger. I enjoy watching decisions turn into success or failure. Seldom as this happens, I'd rather have no one working under me. I don't like telling people what to do unless they already know how to do it and are in full cooperation. I do not have that eloquent—at times bludgeoning—appeal that makes people do things you want. Nor am I the "fighter" type, held up to me at home and school as a desirable trait. One day I may touch off that spark, but meanwhile I fall short.
In January the squadron is based for a week in Shanghai, flying by day and guarding the planes by night. Guarding is necessary because the airport is civil, under Chinese jurisdiction. He discovers that its workers are elderly Russians. After the 1917 revolution, ancien regime escapees didn't all go to Paris, grand dukes becoming restaurant doormen. Many families fled east to China. So a crew member sleeps in each plane, rotating the task. It's chilly in the unheated aircraft. To spend more time in the city, some crew—like David—pay others to take their turn. The excerpt below is from a January 20 letter home.
Shanghai is a city of screeching horns, screeching rickshaw runners, ancient lore side by side against bustling streets and chrome-decorated tall buildings. It has a thousand smells, from asphalt to cooking to incense to filth. Flimsy sampans glide in the shadow of office buildings that reflect modern China. The contrasts are striking. Some streets are narrow and cobbled, twisting among fragile houses crowding one another, leaning precariously. Rickshaws clatter by, the runners shouting at children, old women and straining coolies to clear the way. Hundreds of wares are sold in tiny, dim shops and on the streets as well. Exquisite painting and tapestry work, beautiful teak furniture, pungent medicine shops lined with row upon row of jars, quiet old men sitting still as statues, beggars screeching their pleas and curses upon an unfeeling human current, all these crowd one another on the surging streets. The traffic police are tall, turban-bound Sikhs from India, useful relics of British influence.
Another part of the city is more like Broadway. Hotels with cavernous, sleek lobbies, obsequious attendants, Western food served to badly-played jazz, hot water, room service, this is a different China. Is this only a surface change in Chinese living? The Mayor's secretary, a Mr. Michael Peng, [more about this later] was pessimistic about his country's temperament. Though he is striving for a modern country skilled in industry and trade, he thinks the Chinese will sacrifice their Confucian ethics and manners. It's happening now in direct proportion to "civilization." The Chinese will become lost in the frenzy of our monster world.
Mr. Peng took me to a restaurant for a Cantonese dinner. I paid. We started with shark's fin soup. The large fins are soaked in water until they become soft. The inner flesh is cooked with shredded chicken in a thick, winey sauce. It was perfect, difficult to prepare, and, I found, expensive. Then shrimp and steamed rice were brought, along with a wine served very hot in sherry glasses. The wine was full and mellow, sweet yet sour too. After more courses, he chose for us a delicacy called Mandarin Fish. Thus was I introduced to fish-heads and eyes. That I enjoyed them was due more to wine and curiosity. At home, I'll shock your guests, begging for the fish heads and gulping the eyes like vitamin pills!
Bargaining is a spectator sport, and the Chinese take it seriously. From rickshaws to expensive silks, the ceremonial preface to each is haggling. With the rickshaw man, one proposes a price, which is greeted with a show of emotion. He states a price many times higher. I gasp with wonder at his greed, and raise my offer slightly. He comes down, I go up, until finally we reach agreement, but only after I've gotten out of the rickshaw several times to hail others and he has invoked the opinions of men on the street. There is always a great crowd about, mostly little boys who either stare in silence or have scarves, cigarette boxes or chopsticks to sell.
Little boys are everywhere, often bold. One sold me on becoming my guide for a day. It was worth it.
I grasped more of the boy-child world when Mr. Peng invited me to accompany him one evening as he substituted for the mayor to give a radio address on the occasion of Farmers' Day. The poorly-lit studio was crowded with men and women crouching on the floor against the four walls, talking at will, though quietly, during the program. The microphone, sitting on a plain table—with its chair, the only furniture—was vintage 1920s. Small boys were continually bringing tea to the visitors, and running other errands for them. This is how they learn to become Chinese! If only I could have brought my father and his friends tea—more likely, martinis—at their haunts in downtown Chicago, How much more would I have learned of their mysterious world.
With silk dealers, the ambience is one of selfless good will. I offer cigarettes, they offer tea. Our bargaining is wreathed in smiles. Amazingly, he reaches for and unfolds any garment on which my eye rests. I smilingly pick out flaws, mentioning that they greatly impair the price. He tells me that such an item is a great favorite with American foreign gentlemen. We smoke a cigarette in brotherly spirit. And so it goes.
My introduction to the Chinese underworld came when I ran out of money and had to sell ten cartons of cigarettes before I could eat, much less buy silk. This is dangerous, because you don't want to get caught. Lucraft said he'd go with me, and we went to the city with a bag of poorly disguised cigarette cartons, which fooled no one. We were followed by a crowd of small boys and cigarette agents. We impatiently told them we were carrying toothbrushes. Finally a man sidled up and offered us $3 a carton, the going price. By this time I'd noticed an old man with suspicious eyes, a long, thin beard and a mustache which drooped Chinese fashion. He stood quietly by, followed us everywhere, occasionally coming close to peer at the figuring we were doing. We were coming to the agent's house where behind locked doors I sold the cigarettes. There was an anxious moment when through the window I perceived the suspicious old man. By this time we thought he might be Shanghai secret police and that we would be apprehended and taken to jail for "questioning." Lucraft went out and shooed him away. When the deal was concluded and we had climbed over little boys and old ladies with bound feet eating rice with lightning chopsticks and had entered the dark alley once more, there in the shadows stood The Evil-Eyed One. We demanded to know what he wanted. He babbled a little and seemed quite frightened. Looking stealthily from side to side, he moved closer. Them, just as we expected a police cordon to in around us, he took a little envelope from a fold in his robe. Looking quickly around once more, he pulled from the envelope a collection of "feelthy pictures!" That was too much. We laughed all evening.
From the air, the China coast is fascinating. The land almost appears to be rising because it's all mud flats from the mountains to the water. Flying into Shanghai from the north, we saw patches of farm plots crowded together on the swampy coastal plain. The land for miles and miles, horizon to horizon, was a checker-board of canals, some slightly navigable streams, others just rivulets. But it was all man-made! There was no randomness in the pattern. The ditches had all been dug by hand. There were no roads, travel being by sampan.
As we approached the city, scattered houses seemed to run together, then cluster heavily. The settlements have the appearance of parasites choking the river, overcrowding it with houses and boats squeezed close. Then, just as suddenly, that town is left behind and there are only scattered dwellings again.
My biggest challenge in Shanghai was to meet trustworthy merchants to whom I could send cash against assured delivery. The first step was locating the Red Cross office. Looking as official as I could, in dress blues with a 4x5 Speed Graphic in hand, I told the director that Admiral Halsey—Commander of the Pacific Fleet—had requested a signed photographic portrait of the mayor of Shanghai whom he much admired. This bravado brought me an introduction to the Mayor's secretary, Cornell-educated Michael Peng, who in turn introduced me to the proprietors of HingWing Fine Silks and Hosiery, where I decided to do our shopping.
The retailing principle I totally overlooked is known as "mark-up," that brilliant financial innovation that made possible the very first souk in ancient Sumer. I'm sure there's even a word for it in that language, ranking in importance with "temple," "irrigation canal" and "king of kings." Sadly innocent of the concept, I preferred ankle-length kimonos embroidered with dragons, ignoring cheap silk handkerchiefs embroidered with "Shanghai 1946" in one corner. The markup on the one averaged 1.5x, and on the other 15x. Nonetheless, Dan Ellis and I both made some money and enjoyed the adventure. We called it "Square Deal Fine Silks and Hosiery: Bringing the Splendors of the Far East Down to the Purchasing Capacity of the Average Serviceman." There's a photo of the two of us, clad in kimonos, in the anteroom of Ellis' Quonset hut, with our private stock of Milne's on the floor, along with Chinese and American paper money. If this taught us that business is about nifty ideas carelessly executed, the adventure was not worth it.
Do I think now of the whole Okinawa adventure as I did then? No. Then I lived for "timeless moments of light," not the gray tedium, hardship and conflicts of every day. My memories now are opposite. Aside from very special experiences like Christmas Eve 1945 and Shanghai 1946, I was more shaped, I believe, by the bleak than the bright. Mud, mess hall, mosquitoes and monsoon, though faint memories today, were more formative experiences than letters, music, conversation and ideas. In retrospect, how transitory those moments, and how much more life-shaping the long stretch of the other.