August 31, 2022

A Barefoot Boy From Hilo

In Postwar Japan

(Part of the Mas Hongo Interview Series)

Mas Hongo (M) interviewed by Leonard Chan (L) and Susan Tanioka (S)

With transcriptions by Leonard Chan and Mina Harada Eimon

Edited by Leonard Chan

Since we just marked the 77th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, we continue with Mas Hongo’s post World War II experience in Japan.

Mas was drafted towards the end of the war and after about five months of basic training in Texas, he was selected to be in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) and was brought to their school at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for intensive training in Japanese.

When the war ended, Mas’ new language skills were needed more than ever in post war occupied Japan.

Mas traveled in a Victory ship to Yokohama and was initially stationed at the US military base at Fort Zama.

S: I think one time, when you got to Tokyo, you saw a little boy standing over by a building. I can’t remember. Do you remember about that little boy?

M: No… Fort Zama… One morning I get up and after breakfast, I went out. And here’s this kid – wide eyed just like in some of the photographs. The kid, no shirt on, got a tin can… trying to get food.

You know, just like in the movies or something... How could it be so real?

So next time… when I left there, I saw him. I used to get bread ends, put it in my pockets, and give bread to these kids.

L: Was this kid a regular there?

M: No, I don’t know.

L: Did you see him often or just this one time?

M: No. I see him every time when I came out.

L: Did you ever catch his name or get to talk to him?

M: No. No. I never talk to him. You know, you just give him a bunch of stuff.

Not only that… you’re not supposed to do this. It’s against the US Army. So you give it to him, you take off. You don’t say anything.

See all the food was supposed to be for military people.

L: Weren’t you curious though, about this kid, his life, his family?

M: Well the whole Japan is like that. By looking at them, you can understand already, the rest of Japan, how… famished they are for food. Then when you see the guys going to the country, with woven knapsack in the back, going down, buying the rice, and coming to black market to sell to the guys. You see these things going on – you put two and two together…

I knew some of these bankers that used to be up in Sacramento. One was Mr. Shinowara and the other one was… But anyway they live south of Osaka. So I go and visit them.

L: This was someone in America you said?

M: He was the manager of a bank. Those days, the guys that came over as the manager of the bank, they were just like diplomats. And they were… intelligent and knowledgeable about many things... They were able to get the pick of the crop... You know, to send overseas… so they spoke English and Japanese.

Because they have to do business in America. So he must have gone to learn English in Japan before he came over. They were like part of… diplomatic force… because they represented Japan, Sumitomo Bank. That was the only bank.

L: Did you meet others that had been to America or even American citizens that were living in Japan?

M: Oh… I don’t know… All I know is Mr. Shinowara and this other guy. He uses to be… in Sacramento. They used to change every six months or one year. They rotate.

So I went to a dinner, upstairs in the penthouse.

L: So this guy was well off?

M: Well he’s the manager of the bank… he’s the head of a bank. So he wined and dined me with sake and got me…

L: Even as impoverished as the country…

M: Yeah, because they had the money, they can buy that.

L: Did he have lots of questions for you?

M: No. He knows what the situation is. So…

L: Was he doing this for a purpose? Did he want something from you?

M: No. He invited me. So I said, okay. So I gave him stuff to take to my grandmother. So I give him Planters Peanuts and box of chocolates for his family… So he did me a favor.

But… I was fortunate that I was able to get hold of this guy that was going to Hiroshima and get the stuff… over there, because it’s another twenty miles into the mountains. And there’s no transportation there, regular train, there’s no bus, no nothing. But somehow or the other they got the stuff over for me. But I’m sure he paid some money for this… but I gave him some food for his family. Box of chocolate candy, it’s like gold, right?

L: So this banker was able to help you?

M: Yeah.

(Mas would eventually get a chance to see Hiroshima and try to visit his grandmother himself.)

S: So that all happened on the weekend.

M: Yeah. I had to find a time slot for me to go because it was far… takes about 20 hours to get from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

L: How did you get there? By truck or something?

M: No, train.

L: The trains were still working?

M: Yeah, train. That’s the only mode of transportation in Japan was train.

L: Well I was just wondering if they were all destroyed by the bombing.

M: Train. The cars, they had no gasoline. They had no fuel. So you know, they were really…

L: How did they fuel the trains?

M: Coal. Oh yeah those days regular coal… shoveled the coal into the train.

L: So was it commandeered by the occupying forces or was it still being used by the general public?

M: General public, but there was some trains that went north, south, certain trains, but the military controlled the trains because some guys were shipped to different train stations. There was uh… I was a… military guy in a large city. We controlled everything. And one of the reasons why is because we didn’t want any uprising.

L: Were you going around wearing your uniform everywhere?

M: Yeah, that was the only stuff I have.

S: How did the people react to you when they saw your uniform?

M: Well, they had to show respect because you see we’re the law of the land. Right?

L: Were there any… people that did take offense? That you could see it in their eyes… the thought was maybe you might get some disgruntled person that had a relative that was killed by Americans.

M: Well that is war. Gee.

L: I know but I was just curious of how you were accepted, seeing this strange Japanese guy wearing an American uniform, must have been kind of strange.

M: We were an occupying force.

S: So you had no fear of…

M: We had no fear…

S: of traveling by yourself.

L: You were by yourself or did you have any friends going with you or… ?

M: No, by myself.

S: When you got to Hiroshima, what did you see? What was your impression when you got off the train?

M: As far as your eyes can see, it’s flat to the ground. There was this concrete building that I walked up. As far as your eyes can see and I mean miles and miles, everything was flat to the ground.

L: You must have had to walk a long ways to get to the building. No?

M: It was near the train station. It was not too far from the train station. But of course you had to walk to every place.

S: There must have been debris all over the place?

M: Everything was cleaned out… there’s nothing, nobody living.

L: How long after the bomb was dropped, did you get there?

M: When was that…about ahh…

S: Armistice. When was armistice? It was the armistice weekend. Armistice day weekend. It was a three day weekend. That’s when you went.

L: Oh, like in October?

M: Yeah…

L: I don’t know if you want to go into any gory details, but were there lots of bodies lying around?

M: Nothing, it’s gone already by that time. Everything was all clean. There’s nobody around.

L: Who did they have, was there lots of people cleaning up the place or?

M: No it was cleaned up already.

L: How about the hospitals? Did they have hospitals with a lot of sick and dying people?

M: No, there’s nothing. No buildings around. All Hiroshima was knocked to the ground.

L: I mean where the train stations were outside the bomb zone. Was there like survivor areas, camps?

M: No no… you didn’t see people. There was nothing to eat. So where the people staying?

L: They moved them away then?

M: There was no place to stay.

L: How close did you see the closest people? How far away were they?

M: From where?

L: From the bomb site. Would you say like 20 miles away?

M: You have to go pretty far out. Nobody live in that area.

L: They pretty much evacuated it out then.

M: You only see the foundation of the houses.

L: What about… what did the army tell you about radiation dangers and stuff like that? Did they tell you anything?

M: No. They don’t know themselves.

S: Was anybody in your family affected by that bomb?

M: No no.

S: They were far enough away?

M: Yeah, they were far enough away.

L: I kind of get the feeling your grandmother might have been…she died shortly after the bomb was dropped.

M: Yeah, after. She was living 20-30 miles away from Hiroshima town. She lived out in the country. They were protected by the mountains.

L: Did they say how she died? Was it an illness?

M: No, she was 90 something years old.

S: Wow.

M: 97 or something.

L: Who was taking care of her?

M: My mother’s brother.

L: Oh your uncle. Did you get to talk to him?

M: Yeah. I talked to him.

L: So he witnessed the bomb and everything?

M: No he way in the country.

 L: He was off in the distance.

S: So he was the oldest son?

M: Yeah, shinbun kisha. He was a reporter for a newspaper.

L: Did he… being a reporter, did he get into the bomb site soon after it was dropped to take a look?

M: Nobody can go to the bomb site.

L: Not even as a reporter to take a look?

M: There’s nobody there.

L: Well you know, people walk around and take a look at what happened.

M: Miles away. There’s nobody there. You go there it’s empty, back to the ground.

S: Who cleaned up, was it the…

M: I don’t know who cleaned up, but everything was gone. As far as eye can see there’s concrete building.

L: By the train station they must cleaned up that area, right?

M: The train station was protected by a hill. That’s why that train station survived.

L: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if they… shortly after the bomb, I wonder if survivors kind of used it? So did you get any eye witness account from anybody? Did you talk to anybody that saw it?

M: Nobody’s around. There’s no food. So people don’t live around there…

L: In Japan, when you were occupying, everything was brought in by ship?

M: Yeah, everything was shipped. They did not allow us to eat Japanese food, because they were already starving.

L: Yeah, that’s what I remember you saying. They instructed you not to take their foods because they were starving.

Was the military occupying forces… were they doing anything to try to feed the masses?

M: No, they told not to eat the food that they have. So the military tried to find a method of getting something, so they were experimenting with mushrooms. Cause mushrooms you can grow it in days, in weeks, in a month you can grow mushrooms. So they were trying all kind of stuff. The only thing that they have that’s surplus is kishu mikan, small oranges that they have. They come from the south… That’s the only food that they have.

L: Where were you based by the way?

M: Tokyo.

L: Tokyo. So I was reading some story about some person living in occupied Japan and they were really savoring the sweet potatoes?

M: Yeah, because you can grow it in the sand. You don’t need fertilizer. Just put in… you got a twig put it in the ground, then it can grow fast, right. Like the other stuff you got to get fertilizer to grow stuff.

So when I went to see my mother’s sister… and so when I went there they gave me potato. That’s what they had.

L: Was rice hard to come by?

 M: Well rice was impossible… There were no restaurants around that served food anyway… and individuals, I don’t know, they used to go to the country, they make knapsacks, they get straw that they wove, you can tell. And they used to go to the country and they used to buy from the farmers. Rice, it was a very valuable commodity.

But my sister because they were farmers they had land. They were able to survive, but they had no manpower, so they asked a man next door to help them, you know, to till the soil, get the hard part of it.

So when I went there, I took Hershey Bars and Planters Peanuts. So they took some of the stuff next door because they’re obligated to them.

L: To share the stuff?

M: Yeah. Because people that were left were all women and because he was an elderly guy he didn’t have to go to the army, he could help them out. Because he’d been tilling it and the first part of it you can do it, but it’s hard. The ground is hard.

L: What did they grow on the farm?

M: They grow ground stuff like turnips and stuff like that and lettuce and stuff like that where it grows fast.

L: Where was there farm?

M: Ibaraki, little bit north. Oh I don’t know, about 90 miles north of Tokyo.

L: Is it in the region of that nuclear reactor…

M: Further north.

S: They didn’t have manpower because all the young men died in the war or what? Or they only had girls in the family?

M: All the men were conscripted. So to do the hard work, they need manpower. So this elderly man helped my sister’s family till the soil first.

L: The men that survive the war, when did they first start coming back to the villages and towns? Were they kept in…

M: Well, when we got there, that’s when they were coming back. They were primarily coming back from Russia. And they were being used by the Russians as slave laborer, which is against the Geneva Convention, in salt mines.

And so we were tracing where the salt mines were located and the transcontinental railway (Trans-Siberian Railway) along that... they have to have transportation because they out in the open, Russia.

L: So you guys were talking to these soldiers coming back and getting intelligence as to what they were doing in Russia?

M: Yeah, you got to figure out who and who the names of people, where are they located, trying to figure out where the mines are located and who were there. We tried to get as much information as possible.

L: So what was the value to the US Military to knowing the facts of where these mines were located? Why did they need that detail?

M: Military information.

L: They were just curious about everything?

M: No, see when they came back they had to debrief. That’s the military standard. When you come back when everybody get, everybody get debrief… when you come back. Where you went, they ask you all kind of questions.

S: So Japanese men coming back from Russia were debriefed by you the Americans.

M: Yeah.

S: Oh.

M: Where they were, who the names of the people, what they did. And a lot of the stuff they were doing is illegal, they were used as laborer. They’re not supposed to be used as laborers.

L: Did you get any information as to what they were doing there to begin with, before the Russians got in there? You know like, what were they doing as occupying forces in Asia?

M: They were fighting.

L: They were just foot soldiers mainly?

M: Yeah.

L: I’m kind wondering if any of them told you horror stories about what they may have been doing in Russia.

M: No. They were just fighting.

L: Did you meet any others that came from other parts of Asia like China or Southeast Asia?

M: No… I never talk to them… we were trying to get the whole nation back on its feet and they were…our section, we were doing research for headquarters. They wanted certain thing and we write up something and we send it back to headquarters. Tell them what was happening.

So all the organizations in Japan, they had to raise it with us. The names of the officers and the members, and anybody who had been an officer of the imperial army. They didn’t want any uprising…

I was in Tokyo. I was by myself. Me and the lieutenant… the only two guys. We in the interrogation section. So any problems came up, we would go out, and we go and investigate, and make report to headquarters.

So you know, like for example the police, harassment in those days, they would just hit them. So I go there… “If I catch you…,” I bring a guy with me, he’s Japanese, “If I catch you, it’s going to be your ass. You’re going to be fired.”

L: Yeah, you were telling me about how you guys were trying to change their policing tactics, right?

M: Yeah, because they were very corporal. So they…see we have to take care of certain structures like… they have greater neighborhood associations. I understood this because in Hawaii they have this Kumiai every ten blocks. They have certain groups of people that get together...

So I had the advantage of knowing this Kumiai and it was our job to purge any organization that was anti-democratic. But I knew that this was not a political or governmental structured stuff. But it came from the grassroots, the people started this organization for their own interest to help each other out.___ L: And the military wanted to get rid of these institutions…?

M: That’s why we had to go and say, “Okay, you can have these neighborhood association.”

They have a big… association office. So I had to go there. And they had a book on them, “Great Neighborhood Associations.” So… I had to translate that book and go to headquarters and talk to them.

So there’s all kind of things that we were doing. But primarily we were an occupying force.

L: What was Tokyo like? It was firebombed. Was there lots of desolation there too?

M: The United States government lied. So what I did was… Marunouchi (a district of Tokyo) there’s a train that goes right around Tokyo, outer Tokyo, within about… 20 miles or so, there a big ring, o-ring goes around Tokyo. It goes out to the suburbs. And then, as I go to suburbs certain area that they bombed all civilian buildings. Japan, all the buildings are wood. It’s burned down to the ground. And they tell you that we bombed only military sites. You see for your eyes. But they don’t tell you. You got to go out and you got to go dig around.

As soon as I saw that, I said, “Oh come on, Jesus! What they’re telling us is bull.”

But you know these things hits you because, not only are they my people, but as a human being you see these things happening. And it’s kind of surreal to see this kind of destruction of human lives, human property, but I guess this, so to speak, and in the end you say this is part of war.

Unfortunately things like this happen I guess. Because it is war. It’s the only explanation you can give.

And you see miles of it. I don’t mean like San Mateo, it’s miles. And you got to go out and see for yourself.

L: I’m kind of surprised that you saw more destruction in the outer areas. Were they strategically trying to keep the center unbombed?

M: No, because in the center, they got concrete buildings.

L: Oh. That’s how they survived. All the neighborhoods got burned down faster because they were all wood.

M: All these things, you know… So you shake your head… but makes you wonder, that the government really don’t tell you the truth about a lot of these things. But… let’s say that primarily… in war, there’s an army, there’s one gang of army people or military people and do lot of things with or without the Geneva Conference… you’re not supposed to do this, but they do it. And they don’t hold them liable for it.

L: I’m not quite sure I’m understanding that.

M: Well, what did the United States get punished for that stuff, for killing all the Japanese, and bombing the Japanese? Civilians! And the order of the atomic bomb. Nothing happened to them.

L: They say that when Obama goes to Japan to visit them, that he’s not going to apologize. Do you think he should?

M: Being a military man one time… the standards of a military and a civilian are two different things. And war is war, unfortunate to say. Is that uncivilized? Yes it’s uncivilized. But still people and countries kill each other and they do a lot of nasty things. But that is part of war and you can’t… channel all those things.

L: Do you think perhaps, the barbarity of war… it’s helped keep the peace more because it’s so barbaric?

M: It’s nothing to do with that. Because you know how many guys… they make up their minds they’re going to bomb Japan? Hand full of guys. Not the parliament or the government. Half a dozen guys, dozen guys, that’s it. They’re the ones that make the decision to go ahead and do whatever they want to do. And in the heat of passion, they do a lot of things they know is wrong but they do it because they want to gain the upper hand.

L: I think I heard some interview with Robert McNamara about how he said that if the tables were turned, and we lost, that we’d probably be the ones that would be on trial for war crimes. Winners never get to atone for… or not atone, but… have to face the… responsibility for what they did in war or… I don’t know if that’s the right words.

M: See, when you get to the military, I think… different rules. Irregardless of the Geneva Conference. Because… to me, in the passion of war, there are a handful of guys that are going to do something against normal principals of humankind. And if you have that nucleus of guys that make the wrong decision, you’re going to have like Hiroshima. You’re going to have… like Tokyo where they bombed civilians and they tell you they never bombed civilians.

I go there myself and see all this…so you shake your… your head, and say, “What the hell is this?”

So you can’t rely on these guys. So you have to look yourself and then you have to come to your own conclusions. But as I say, in the final analysis, it comes down to, “so this is war.” It’s hard to take that… all the concept of war. Where life is like… nothing. It’s just another life. But that’s the way it is. And then you’re under… the whole thing is under stress. The whole scenario is under stress. And becomes a question of do I take a left or right, right or wrong or whatever it is. It’s a matter of winning the war. So that’s the final analysis.

And how do you win it? By hook or crook you got to win it. And the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima… It’s not the government that did it. It’s a human being that did it. A handful of guys that have control of the whole thing.

L: Someone had to carry out the orders. Right?

M: But you got to remember… who carried out the orders, who gave the orders, they’re all army people. Those guys would tell you… “It’s either you me.”

L: You or me, you said?

M: Yeah, you or me. I kill you or you kill me. That’s the mentality that you have. They don’t tell you… but there’s a… so called… unsaid thing that in a war, either you kill or you get killed. That’s a very sad part. Basically, you know it’s… it’s what human beings, a few human beings, do to kill people. And they do it… for not any one good purpose, but because of…

L: Basic survival.

M: It’s a matter of survival.