The Orient Express

I was six when we moved to Okinawa. I was an “Army brat”, a military dependent. I didn’t have my own passport. The picture in the faded green folder shows my brother and me, unsmiling, on either side of my mother. We had no names, no identity. We were an appendage of our mother, though we were issued dog tags that had our names and blood type on them. In case of the unthinkable, we would not be buried in an unknown grave.

The picture was taken one day after we had begun our shots. That’s why we were so glum. Like all children, we hated shots. In those days anyone traveling to the Orient was required to have certain immunizations. One was issued an International Certificate of Vaccination as approved by the World Health organization. We had no passport, but we did have our shot record. That and the pain that went along with its certification. We earned it.

Typhus, cholera and typhoid all came in three’s. Three shots and you were immune, safe from foreign bugs. The shots were painful. We would cry from the ache in our arms. It went on for weeks. Every other day at the dispensary we would have two shots in one arm and one in the other. My mother made it a game. We were wounded. We wore slings.

My brother was brave, I wasn’t. He was already in the expected male role. I never liked others to know that I wasn’t courageous. One day after I, screaming and crying, had received my shots, I came out into the waiting room with tear stained and blotchy cheeks. A tall soldier with kind eyes looked at me and asked, “Was that you doing all that crying?”

“No,” I said, “That was my brother.”

It was exciting the day we left San Francisco. We were to travel by ship. I remember the sea air, pungent and fishy. Sea gulls flew in circles above our heads. A band played. The General Clayton loomed before us sterile and gray. It was a utilitarian vessel. It smelled of diesel fuel and grease. We were escorted to our cabin by a sailor, crisp and white. The cabin had four bunks with clean sheets and grey blue Navy issue blankets. It also had a porthole, a round window. You couldn’t see anything out of it, just deck and a bit of sky.

The Navy in those post World War II days ran its own cruise line. Their assigned task was to transport officer’s wives and children safely to their various ports of call to the husbands and fathers who waited. It was “good for morale”, officer morale. Enlisted men and non-com’s wives and children weren’t invited. They were expected to fulfill their duty, to serve, without their families. Military society was narrow and confined. Hiearchary was strictly enforced. Officer’s families were isolated and protected, alone.

We left the dock and fanfare about noon. Standing on the deck with my mother, I watched the shore disappear as the ocean became our horizon, the ship our world. From then on everyone would defer to us. The ship centered on our wants and needs. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at regular times. Entertainment was provided. Life was regimented and safe until Thanksgiving Day when we had a uninvited guest, a storm, the typhoon, Gloria.

In Greek, typhoon means whirlwind, a tropical cyclone. The ship groaned and fought against waves and wind. It weaved and wobbled. All of the other mothers got sick. They took to their bunks and were “totally useless” my mother said. She refused to bend to a typhoon. She managed the thirty or forty children on board single handedly, keeping us organized and content with Old Maid and Simon Says.

The routine continued. Thanksgiving Day dinner, turkey and dressing, was to be served. Navy protocol, like my mother also would not bend. The ship rocked and reared. We were not allowed to go onto the deck. Wind and rain, waiting in vain for a victim, finally took revenge. Just before the luncheon bell, a particularly strong gust of wind tore at the ship. The roll of the deck was so fierce that all of the table wear and dishes crashed off the tables and landed on the floor. Military discipline prevailed and the tables were reset and dinner served ten minutes late.

The storm ended, the other mothers got better, and we started counting the days until we would arrive in Okinawa. The last night on board my mother said that she was going to a party given by the captain. “I’ll bring you a treat if you’ll be good and stay in your bunks”, she said. We giggled and talked while we waited for her to come back. When my brother fell asleep, I waited alone in my bunk staring out the porthole and breathing in the cool salty air. “It was a nice party,” she said when she came in with flushed cheeks. Our reward was in a folded napkin; three finger sandwiches, a petit four, a few nuts and mints. It was wonderful.

The next day we arrived in Naha. My father seemed different, still stern and straight, but his skin was brown from the tropical sun. A crease had appeared on his forehead between his eyes. He smiled, though, when he saw us, laughed and hugged my mother. He drove us to our new home in a jeep. Passing by villages, Okinawan children’s dark eyes watched us as we sped by leaving dust in our wake.

The jeep turned into a fenced military conclave. No natives would be seen except on trips out of the compound, and servers, the maids, gardeners, and houseboys. Military families were encouraged to support the local economies. That meant you had to hire locals. The amount of help depended upon rank. Being a major, Dad had hired three maids and a gardener.

Mother hated it. Used to “doing my own work” she saw the servants as an intrusion upon our privacy. Additionally, she couldn’t speak or communicate with them. At first my mother and the maids would stand in the kitchen and stare at one another after my father left for work. I soon learned to speak a kind of Pidgin Okinawan. My mother never did. She would tell me what to tell the maids to do for the day. “Thank God”, she would say after the daily orders had been dispersed.

We were cacooned at night under mosquito nets. Our house was called a Quonset hut, a long cylindrical metal tube with windows. The sun would reflect off of it and blind your eyes. The yard, maintained by the gardener, had a neat rock walkway and short, stubby palm trees. It had a swing that Dad had built. It also had a monkey, an unwelcome intruder. I was afraid of that monkey, he was wild.

If I went out to swing, he would chase me back into the house. Kumi, the yardman, was directed to dispose of him, but he couldn’t catch him. Finally, a squad of GI’s was sent to deal with him. The monkey gave them a merry run for it, but he was outnumbered. They took him down to the barracks and he became their pet and mascot. At last, I could swing in peace.

“Okinawans are different from us,” said my mother. “They think differently. Human life is not as valuable to them. There are so many of them, you see. And their religion, they worship the dead.” A slight recognition, without real awareness, entered my thoughts about the veracity of my mother’s opinions as I listened.

The maids were always very kind and sweet to me. The Shinto religion seemed exotic and fascinating. All around the compound were the caves. In these small crevices were the tombs. I had seen our maids sweep the dirt floors in the afternoon when their duties were done. My brother and I had explored them unbeknownst to my mother.

The caves were cool and dark, filled with jars, decorated and colorful, holding the ashes and bones of long dead ancestors. Mysterious, yet calm and rather friendly. Once we were sent to the caves when blackout procedures were not certain enough. My mother was nervous. “Never come here without your Dad or me,” she said. “It’s dangerous. There might be Habu snakes.”

We were in another war. In Korea. It wasn’t as big as the previous one. Dad said “Korea is a clean up campaign”. Dad didn’t have to go to Korea. His job was to assure supplies and food was sent in a timely fashion to those who were sent there. I thought war was pretty scary. We had the blackouts when we had to make sure no light could be seen at night and make us a target for an enemy plane. We also had air raid drills when we were sent to a shelter built under the officer’s club. Later when we moved to Japan, we were sent in a bomber, because of the war. A bomber had guns. It was safer.

I would later learn more about war. One time after we moved to Japan my mother took us to the dispensary for a checkup. Kobe, Japan was a large hospital center for the Allies. It was where the soldiers who weren’t wounded enough to be sent home were sent to be patched up. As we pulled up in front of the hospital I noticed lines and lines of soldiers standing outside the hospital doors.

When we got closer I noticed that they were all bloody and dirty. Some of them had bandages around their heads and eyes. Some were on crutches, some on stretchers. I asked my mother why they were waiting outside. We got to go right in and we weren’t hurt. “They’re the walking wounded,” she said. They’ll be all right. It won’t hurt them to wait”

Aside from the war, life seemed pretty ordinary. My brother and I were sent to school in the fall. I hated my teacher. She was tall and fat. She had short hair cut like a man’s. She didn’t smell good like my mother. She made us practice our printing everyday. Mine was never good enough. She put red marks on my letters. She said my “writing was atrocious”. I loved learning to read and hated math.

On Saturdays our family would go to the commissary in the jeep, and sometimes have lunch at the Officers’ club at the other end of the island. On the way back we would frequently stop in the villages so my Mom and Dad could buy things like porcelain cups and handmade dolls.

The Okinawan children would come running to whenever we stopped. My brother and I, both blond and blue eyed, came to hate these excursions. The children would gather around us and stare. Then they would touch us with small brown hands. They would touch our skin and stroke our hair. We would flinch and draw away, but they wouldn’t stop. As the word spread, other children would come. They would push each other for a chance to get close enough for a feel. It didn’t take us long to refuse to get out of the car.

We would stay in the jeep, plastic windows snapped shut and doors locked in our cage, our self inflicted prison. We would sit, perspiring and cross, and spitefully would sticking out our tongues and making faces at the eyes and noses peering in at us. The children would laugh and point. To them we were a show, a veritable circus. Later, as an adult, I realized that we were also “The Ugly American”

Summer came and school was out. My mother took us to a beach near the compound every day. White sand and clear, turquoise water. Beautiful. We built sand castles and swam. My mother would sit in her big hat and read. The sea was alive. Seaweed was a rainbow of hues and colors. Clear jelly fish felt cool and smooth when I bumped one by accident. They gave me the shudders.

One afternoon I noticed a small white ball with a blue string attached to it floated by. It was so pretty that I reached out and picked it up. Pain, shocking and stinging, consumed my hand. I screamed and flung it away. It landed on my brother. He howled as red welts appeared on his back. Later at the dispensary the corpsman said, “You were stung by a Man-o-war. A big one can kill.” It was an appropriate name, I thought.

I was excited when my father told us that we were going on a vacation. It was to a place called the “Cliffs”. We arrived about noon on Saturday. The military had taken over an old estate and turned it into a hostel for military personnel. Everyone went. It was the place to see in Okinawa.

The officer’s quarters were old and rustic. Scrub trees, wild flowers and sand walkways led down to the beach. We took a ride in a glass bottom boat. We sat on wooden benches and peered at the teeming life under the glass floor. Fish of all colors and sizes darted and swam by. Red, white, pink and yellow coral and seaweed waved slowly in the current below, a veritable garden. It was so beautiful, another world.

Sunday morning we started out walking to the cliffs. They arose high before us and seem to enclose the beach below like a fortress. Crude wooden stairs led up one side to the entrances of the large caves which dotted the sides of the cliffs like dark windows. Soldiers and a few families, like ours, were climbing the stairs, camera cases slung over their shoulders. There was lots of laughing and excited talking. The ocean sparkled and winked at us. Sea gulls swooped down to the water looking for a midmorning snack.

My brother and I followed our parents and started to climb. Breathlessly, we reached the rock ledge of the first cave. Its mouth yawned before us. A group of GI’s hurried in before us. “Oh Wow!’ I heard one of them say. We followed them in. It took my eyes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. I blinked and looked around, startled and amazed. It was like the caves by our house. It was a tomb. About the size of a large church sanctuary, walls were lined with wooden shelves reaching to the high stone cathedral like ceiling. On the shelves were human bones neatly stacked and organized.

Leg bones, rib cages, little pieces of bones piled together and skulls, hundreds of them piled together. Blank eye sockets blank and empty seemed to stare at me. I took a quick breath and inhaled the cool musty air. Dad was snapping pictures. “Mom,” I said. “Who are they.”

In a story like cadence she explained. “They are the bones of dead Okinawans. During the battle of Okinawa prior to the Allied victory the Japanese generals had told all the natives assistants that Americans would torture and imprison them. They might even be taken to America to be slaves. It was better, more honorable, to die. And so, they had killed themselves, Hari Kari. “

They had jumped off the cliffs, one by one, in groups, running to death, crashing on the rocks below, some drowning in the sea. Some stayed in caves and before capture blew themselves up with hang grenades. Hundreds, thousands of them. The bodies were found later by the American victors who were shocked at this vehemence of belief, this code of honor. Later the bones were gathered by the Okinawans left behind. Reverent of the dead, they had piled them neatly in the caves to become a tourist attraction. A vacation spot.

Three soldiers, one with red hair. picked up some bones and a skull and walked toward the entrance.

“Come on,” said my dad.

We went out of the cave, into the sunshine, and watched them as they carefully arranged the head and the arm bones into a pattern on a large rock by the entrance. One by one they stood by the pirate symbol while their comrades snapped their pictures.

“Go on kids, Stand over there,” my dad said.

The picture is still in the old family slide box, among other slides of airplane wings and water buffalo and ocean. It shows my brother and I squinting in the sun, cliffs behind us. Above us, on the rock, is the skull and cross bones.

We are not smiling.

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9 Comments
  1. We must have been in Okinawa at the same time, although in 1963 I was just 2 so I don’t remember much. Do you remember Santa Claus arriving by helicopter?

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    • I do remember Santa coming in a helicopter.  We even had a real tree and presents.  Linda

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  2. This was a nicely written story, as I read I was brought back to my memories of Okinawa as a child. I am now a grandmother, but the memories of my first years of school there on that island, has impacted my life so much in how I think of the world and our presence in it. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thank you for you comment.  We lived in Kobi, Japan too.  Thanks for reading it.  Linda

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    • Cindy Carlson,
      I too enjoyed this article and remember my life on Okinawa. I also now a Grandmother and have some bad memories of my school years their and those pictures of the students with the Island as the background!

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  3. Many of our experiences were similar. I remember having those painful shots when I was 7. Mother promised that my younger brother and I could have banana splits afterwards.

    The USS Mann, an old WWII tube took us to Japan in Feb. when the Pacific has typhoons. We tried to evade a big one but it hit us twice even though we headed north. After a month we ran out of food and all that was left was saurkraut which was served three times a day for a couple of days.

    Out maid in Grant Heights, Japan was very talented in the arts and I was her shadow. She taught me how to speak Japanese, draw, knit, flower arrange, and even acrobatics. I remember the earthquakes so I devised my own Richter Scale of used toilet roles that were placed upon my bedhead. Depending on how many would fall was the number I used to record the severity of an earthquake.

    I miss the old Japan, the officers’ club, Tokyo and my friends. Those were the days when we could go anywhere on post, alone. I used to bicycle to school, the PX and movies. It took a while to ride on the right when we returned…almost had a few collisions.

    It’s nice to know that you can relate to these experiences. We were in Japan from 1950-53.

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  4. Thanks for the comments.  We were in Japan, Kobe, in the fifties too.  I was in 4th grade when we went home in 1952 or 3.  Linda

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  5. Linda, thank you for sharing your story. It was very touching.
    I am a student journalist from Tokyo and I am now writing a mini series about people who grew up in the military bases in Okinawa. I want to raise awarness of the people and their lives inside the bases, because I have always felt that there is a substantial distance between the Japanese majority and the military families. It would be very helpful if you could help me out and answer to a short interview via skype or e-mail. 

    Best,
    Saori

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  6. Oh my this brought back tons of memories. I loved living on Okinawa. We were in Naha from 55 – 58. I attended 1 and 2nd grade there. We also returned home on the USS Mann and rode a typhoon almost all the way home. I don’t know if we ran out of food or not as no one was eating, except my father. On the way home we stopped and picked up a bunch of guys from Korea who were also going home. While in Okinawa I spent almost more time with our maid doing things with her family than I did with my mom. I am now so thankful I had those wonderful experiences and memories. And the whole island was our oyster. We must have played in every fox hole on the beach and further inland.

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