(Please note–I’m trying to chronicle all of my experiences and observations while here . Tonight’s entry deals with the Japanese occupation of Chuuk and events during World War II. Some of the content here might be disturbing. Please note that when I use quotes and refer to the Japanese, this refers to the Japanese Imperial Army and government leadership of the time. It in no way refers to the Japanese civilians and victims of the circumstance. Additionally, in writing this, I was looking for a different narrative–a perspective I had never seen or heard. The perspective I got came mostly from one man. I did further research and found things to corroborate his story. I have no reason to doubt him, but it is just one person’s story. As such it is victim to his biases and predilections.)
This ain’t no party–Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”
When I first walked into Xavier High school I was taken aback by a mural commemorating the Japanese who had fallen on the island during World War II. It struck me hard. I mean a memorial to the Japs?!?!? I mean the Japs were the bad guys. Everyone knows that. My father enlisted in the Marines in 1945 to fight the Japs. When I was kid–six, seven, eight-years-old–playing army, what invisible enemy did we fight as they invaded my backyard in Clarks Summit, Pa? The Japs.
I’m older now of course, and realize that the Japanese are a proud and admirable people–rich in tradition, culture, and contributions to society. I even have a hard time writing the “J-word” in this dispatch. But still, there was something about that mural that caught me off guard.
The legacy of World War II and Operation Hailstone, the battle which routed the Japanese navy, are everywhere. The office where I’m writing this, my communication center, was once a Japanese communications center during the war. The war is a tourist attraction. Scuba diving in and around the wrecks left behind after the war constitues a huge piece of the local economy. The governor’s official website and investment guide states, “The centerpiece of Chuuk’s economic growth strategy is the tourism potential for resorts and activities related to our world famous ‘Truk Lagoon’. ” I’ve gone diving on the wrecks–it’s pretty cool. A thumb’s up “Like” on Facebook doesn’t come close to expressing how amazing it is.
But okay, what about the war? No……..really. The Howard
Zinn reading, Michael Moore watching, Fox News bashing, Rachel Maddow loving side of me wants to know. What’s the other side of the story? I don’t want to paint the Japs as bad guys with a broad brush. I want to know what the war years were like on Weno, in Chuuk.
“Just ask Manuel,” I’m told. “His mother was here during the war.” Manuel is the night watchman at Xavier High High School. He’s the guy who, when the campus is powered down at night, shines a flashlight on the steps for me as I exit the main building and head for my room. An unassuming man of 54, I go to meet him in the the shelter where he spends the time between his patrols around the campus. The shelter is a tin roof held up by four by fours which houses a lawn tractor and some building supplies. There are a few chairs, and he is sitting in there eating dinner–white rice and a can of some Hormel product. I pull up a seat and we start talking. His accent is thick, and he speaks a stilted pidgin English. During my time on Island, I’ve become conscious of my fast paced chatter and overuse colloquialisms and asides, so I try to temper my speech and questioning to match his understanding of English.
“My mother worked for the Japanese. She was a cook.”
And so his tales began.
The Japanese government claimed Chuuk in 1914 as nations clamored to grab what land holdings were slipping from German control in the wake of the first World War. Although Japanese settlers were already here, immigration began in earnest during the 1920s and 30s. Schools were set up to accommodate both local children as well as the steady flow of Japanese children. Infrastructure was built. From what Manuel told me, the Chuukese formed a servant class–“They cleaned and they cooked for the Japanese.” Also they served as laborers, but from his accounts, treatment wasn’t particularly cruel or harsh. “If there was food left over, my mother, she brought it home. They let her.” Intermarriage was common, and the children from these unions were often conscripted into the Japanese army as the came of age.
Land ownership is huge to the Chuukese people. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard it said that status here is derived from your family clan name and your land holdings more so than person wealth or employment. Your land is your connection to food. Remember?–“We got mangoes and bananas we can pick right off the trees.” We also have limes, breadfruit, coconuts, and taro. With that, the Japanese leaders allowed the Chuukese to hold on to their land.
As Japan began to build up her military in the years before the war, things changed. More and more Chuukese
were taken on as forced labor. Armaments in the hills and along the shoreline, the lighthouse, and even the building which is now Xavier High School were all built with slave labor pulled from the local population. “The Japanese, they had guns. They were strong. The chief tried to stop this. But they were strong. So the Chuukese, we worked.”
The people of Sapuk, the community of villages around the high school, were evacuated as the Imperial Army claimed space for military installations. On August 6, 1940 the people of Sapuk, without prior warning, were relocated to Udot, an island roughly 15 miles away. Every four years, the people of Sapuk host the Sapuk games, a track and field competition among the local villages on August 6 in remembrance of the evacuation. I should note here that in the later half of the war, a Japanese businessman who was married to a woman from Sapuk successfully petitioned the Japanese command, and the residents were repatriated.
During the war, the United States targeted Japanese fuel and food supply ships causing shortages throughout the area. The strategy being, it’s easier to take out a supply ship as opposed to an aircraft carrier. An aircraft carrier on the surface without food, fuel, or munitions, is just as good as sunken one, but without the risk. In the days before Operation Hailstone, a U.S. spy plane spotted the Japanese fleet in Chuuk (Truk) lagoon, The plane was noticed by the Japanese forces, and they began to evacuate their vessels with aircraft carriers and destroyers taking precedent. The Japanese generals did not expect the attack to come so suddenly after being discovered so, although the attack took out few military craft, a large number of supply ships were still in the lagoon and destroyed in the battle.
Supplies became tight. Even with supply lines cut, the allies continued bombing islands thereby decimating crops and fish. Food became especially scarce. The Japanese occupation forces, which had originally allowed the Chuukese to hold their property, claimed private land for their own use. “If you picked breadfruit from your tree on your property, the Japanese would kill you.” From what I’ve seen of the culture here, this must have been confusing and incongruous with all local logic. The Chuukese share their food among all family members and neighbors. This flies in the face of everything these people know and understand.
As the war continued, so did the shortages. “There was not enough. The Japanese went to the sick people. They dug holes and buried them. They weren’t dead yet.” In an attempt to cut down on those needing the limited provisions, the military cleared out the hospitals and buried the ill…alive. “They were still living and they dug holes and they buried them.”
Still the shortages did not abate. Since Operation Hailstone destroyed most of the Japanese fleet’s supply ships, no relief would come to the Chuukese or their occupiers. It would still be a full year and a half before the Japanese surrender. The grip of impending starvation tightened. “The Japanese, they took the people from the villages. They took them to the caves. They put them in the caves. Then they take a man and they cook him. They needed meat. They cook the man.”
Did I hear this right? Land seizures. Relocations. Slave laborers. Death marches. I’d though I’d heard it all. There was something almost disarming in the slow, matter of fact, pidgin delivery. Smooth, direct, free from nuance or couching–“They cook the man.” The blood drained from me. My skin suddenly felt heavy. It was like taking a sucker that dropped my very psyche to the matt. Sitting in a folding chair, under a tin roof, in the dark of a moonless evening, no longer in Kansas anymore, but in Micronesia–dumbfounded. The cosmic referee going into a ten count while soul laid splayed out on the canvass.
I’ll admit it. I was hunting. I wanted to hear something that challenged the narrative I had heard from day one. Was there something I wasn’t being told, I cynically wondered, about the American occupation? Some dark secret lurking in the back pages of history. Some contradictory tid bit that didn’t make it into the textbook. Surely we could not have all been saints, and surely the Japanese were not all demons. I did get a new story, but it challenged not my image of the American or even the Japanese. It challenged my image of humanity. Desperate times call for desperate measures; it’s an old cliché, but this? This. even now, typing away, I feel incredibly empty and sad–drained. The terror, on all sides…The fear leading up to such acts, and the horror as they unfold…the Chuukese by way of their victimization and the Japanese by way of their action their actions–each side witnessing their humanity drained from them…I can not, as I sit here, imagine the depths of desperation that could inspire measures of this magnitude of degradation.
Manuel went on. “There was a spy–Japanese. He went to the Americans. He told them, ‘Come to Chuuk,’ he said ‘now.’ So the Americans, they come early.” At the time the U.S. forces were making their way from island to island, liberating the populace. The islands of Chuuk were on the list, but not on the schedule for a few weeks. Once word was received, the flotilla. Changed course making Weno and other islands where similar atrocities were taking place the first priority “The Chuukese were glad. We wanted the Americans here. This was a good thing.” He continued, “That spy, he saved many lives.” He saw what was happening and stood up to stop it. In that moment was no longer a Japanese warrior. He was a human being. In that, there is hope.
But what about the scars? How deep they must be Surely among the Chuukese there must be anger–resentment–hatred–hostility–ill will–something toward the Japanese. I have heard it described as a love/hate relationship. Manuel went further. “The Chuukese who are still here….from the war…they rember. The never forget what the Japanese do for [to] the Chuukese. They never forget. But today? That was then. It’s over.”
It’s over…or at least looks that way. I notice that many of my students have Japanese last names. Nakayama, Hashiguchi, Hansetto–the Japanese legacy here is evident in their lineage. Even the president of the Federated States of Micronesia is named Mori. All over the campus here and throughout the island, plaques and signs note the donations made over the past 70 years. “Renovations thanks to a grant from the Mabuchi Corporation.” ” School busses donated through the generosity of the Japanese government.” Just the other day the director of Xavier, Father Rich, told me, “I just got off the phone with the Japanese embassy. They want to donate money for supplies and textbooks. We’re good here for now. She asked if any other school might need this aid, and I gave her the number of a school in town.” These gifts and grants are obviously a means of reparations and atonement and have benefitted many people here.
But still…. The Chuukese people are amazingly generous. I have marveled at the acceptance shown of people toward local eccentrics. I am in wonder of a place where unemployment lingers around 80% yet no one goes hungry and or sees themselves as poor. Now I am in awe of their capacity for forgiveness. I have waxed on in past writings about their language being almost all in the present tense. Maybe that’s the key. But I can’t understand how can a people or a culture get over those words? Those acts? I often joke that I have Irish alzheimer’s disease–I forget everything but a grudge. Manuel, he just turned back to his rice, picked some up in his fingers and ate.