As I sit here at my writing desk today in the midst of what we call the “digital age,” I am in touch with part of my extended family – my son and daughter-in-law and part of their family – as they travel across Japan together. My grandson Jake served his church as a missionary in that land (as did also his younger sister) in recent years and now he is sharing his memories of that experience with his parents and young wife. I only wish Shirley and I could be with them although much of my Japan is no longer the way it was more than six decades ago when I experienced it. For me it was a life-changing experience in ways I might never have expected and in which it continues to define me and who I am today. I was barely 20 years old at the time, and already familiar with death and war, but otherwise still a “work-in-process”.
For three young airmen accustomed to tents, cots, sleeping bags and old musty-tasting water from “Lister” bags and canteens, white sheets, dinner napkins, polished silver and tasty meals served by pretty waitresses were like a taste of heaven after eight months of the former. .. . and worse. Rather than follow the more clandestine “week-away” preferred by many of our comrades, Pennington, Smitty and I elected to enroll with the Military-sponsored R&R Service. We were assigned a third-floor room in the former Gaijo-in-Kanko Hotel in the Shinagawa District of Tokyo, formerly known as the capitol city’s “Waldorf Astoria” now operated by the U.S. Army for Korean combat veterans, (or U.S.A.F. pilots and aircrew with family visitors.)
In addition to interiors finished in “mother-of-pearl” and hand-cut stone artwork, there were outdoor gardens and walkways with waterfalls, caged bears and exquisite topiary.
One month previous to our Tokyo visit there had been a tragic C-124 transport crash (still historically notable) in which 120 R&R veterans died, leading to a cancellation of such traffic for some weeks. With the help of a collaborating Sergeant-friend in Group Headquarters, we three were “sneaked” onto an “unofficial” Tokyo flight before the ban was lifted. We found ourselves the only G.I. guests in a hotel staffed for 1200, with a dozen waitresses rotating service in order to take turns at out dining room table! (How could they resist!)
For us, this was like a visit to a candy factory. We made it a habit to learn the name of every staff member, from elevator operator to doorman and to always address them that way; and to bow with respect when appropriate. Our “houseboy” spent more time visiting with us in our room than attending to other duties (quickly learning how to play a winning hand of poker.) The Post Exchange operated by the Army along with a full-time Post Office in the basement was like a magnet for us; it seemed that every young Joson working there must be some kind of a Japanese “beauty queen” and it was easy to spend hours “shopping” there; seems one of us was always running low on shaving cream, tooth paste or chewing gum. You could lay away a world class, hand-made bamboo fishing rod or order a 1952 Ford convertible for stateside delivery. My wife Shirley still displays a set of Noratake china sent to her by a certain Sergeant who had to explain why it was an important part of ambassadorial duty to dance on four nights in a row with a 4.5 foot tall girl named Kazuka Itabashi. (Still not a popular subject.)
The dance band that played on the hotel’s roof-top “garden” every night was in fact one of our main drawing cards at the Gaijo-in. They played flawless Glen Miller arrangements without a piece of sheet music anywhere in evidence; we had discovered them practicing the day we arrived, and it was love at first note.
The whole point of this story burst upon us at the time of our departure, just as R&Rs opened up and hundreds of new arrivals swarmed the hotel. We tried to find all of our “new friends” to say THANK YOU and GOOD BYE! We found them all, lined up in the lobby waiting for us; dozens of everyday Japanese menial workers with tears in their eyes, whose homeland had been at war with us just a few years before. At the head of their line was the U.S. Army hotel manager who addressed us: “I have managed this hotel for 24 months, but this is the first time I have seen anything like this happen. Whatever the three of you have done, you have made these people love you. They each want to say their own personal Sayonara.”
And they did: a deep, formal bow from the waist, a touching of hands and an obviously heartfelt, even teary-eyed arigato and farewell. Finally, the manager whispered to us: . .if you can get back over here again, you can have our finest suite, you will not have to sign in, and there will be no record of the service you receive. I only wish our country had more ambassadors like you!
What had happened back there we asked ourselves. All we had done was treated those kind and delightful people the same as we would have, had they been the friends and loved ones we had been missing for so long?