Chapter Five: Japanese Signalmen

The Japanese signalmen, photo taken by someone with bad aim. The man in black was the captain of the oil tanker mentioned earlier.

The Japanese signalmen, photo taken by someone with bad aim. The man in black was the captain of the oil tanker mentioned earlier.

Five Japanese Navy veterans showed up at Toriga Saki at about the same time we did. They were signalmen and assigned to communicate visually with Japanese ships which often anchored in the small harbor of Uraga just southeast of our signal tower. They served under the command of the U.S. Navy, of course.

Uraga was the harbor where former Japanese warships were decommissioned. It was also the arrival port for the many Japanese sent back to Japan from all over the Pacific, both military and civilian. Some of the civilians were of mixed race from islands long held by Japan. They also included families. We thought the women very attractive and often watched them through the binoculars. We also were puzzled by the fact that many carried small white boxes around their necks. It turned out the boxes contained the ashes of Japanese who had died in foreign lands and were being returned by friends or relatives for burial in Japan. During the first two or three months of the occupation, there were many such ships, many of them destroyers.

The Japanese signalmen worked at our direction and from our tower. We stood watches with them. They were commanded by a former merchant marine captain who had sailed his tanker from Los Angeles Harbor with a full load of fuel oil about two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He told us that shortly after leaving harbor he had been warned about the up-coming attack and authorized to steam at full speed in order to get safely by the Hawaiian Islands and home safely to Japan. He was fluent in English and therefore served as translator on the tower.

The other four were rated signalmen and had all seen action. The lead signalman held the rating of first class. He had served on two different ships, both of which had been sunk. He was happy to be alive. They were phenomenally good signalmen. Since the Japanese language is constructed on syllables and not letters, the codes were intricate and complex, requiring much more memorization than we possessed. The processing of signals also took longer.

One of our fellow signalmen, ex- Japanese Navy.

One of our fellow signalmen, ex- Japanese Navy.

We soon came to respond to them as shipmates and to respect their skills. We occasionally visited the fishing village of Kamoi together and they introduced us to a small cafe and the local barber shop. They were housed and fed in Kamoi, not on our base. We were never invited to where they lived.

I think working with them began to erode the racist and nationalistic feeling we inevitably held. We ceased thinking of them as Japs (or worse) and knew them by their names. I have a photograph of them with their names on the back – in Japanese. I often wonder what happened to them in the gradually recovering Japan.