The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part III

Chapter 19

Armand Goes to Japan as Part of the US Occupation Forces…

In the beginning of September we embarked on transports bound for Japan. It was a perilous journey since it was also typhoon season. Things moved along peacefully until we entered Japanese waters. Our destination, the naval base of Kure, was located at the southern tip of the main island, Honshu. It was also the location of the remnants of the Japanese fleet that at one time was the world’s largest after Great Britain and the United States. The surrender terms obligated Japan to bring its remaining ships to Kure. The way to the base lay through a narrow channel that meandered between rocky islands. Sure enough the tail end of a typhoon hit us just as we entered the narrows. The ship reared and plunged into the deep troughs, rolled sideways, dipped and twisted, rocked and rolled. We were told, needlessly it seemed to us, not to bother the sailors (as if we would). Most of us were too sick to do or say anything. I was never so afraid in my life. How the naval crew brought the ship into port remains a mystery. My hat’s off to them all!

Kure was a large city but we saw signs of war everywhere. I don’t think I need to explain once more war’s destructive fury. The 162nd Regiment had to move into Japanese Naval barracks, perhaps ten miles from the debarkation point. We saw no civilian the first day. Our march proceeded without incident. It was an eerie feeling that put us on edge. We certainly realized that there were just a few thousands of us and several million Japanese. We thought we were on a typical war movie set. Japanese policemen lined the streets with their backs to us as they faced the houses. The only sound was that of marching feet. We realized that we were making history since we were the first foreign soldiers to set foot in Japan. To their great credit the Japanese population accepted occupation with a brave face. A week later we were all mixing like a big family.

We were in the area for two reasons: to disarm the military, that is to find and destroy all weapons of war; to set up road blocks leading into Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb drop.

During the last week of September we visited the city in truck parties. No one was allowed to stroll or to wander through the ruins. There were only a few buildings still standing, although the stairs had crumbled and the windows had disappeared. It was a desolate and sad, lonely place. Picture Los Angeles with only a few buildings with the rest of the city a heap of jumbled stones and burned out houses reaching from the ocean to the Santa Monica Mountains. I saw no living human beings except ourselves. The bridges over the river had been cut in half. At the airfield on the city’s outskirts the remains of countless airplanes were jumbled up in one corner of the field as if a giant hand had flung them there.

We observed from a distance the bomb’s destructive power. Miles from the city center houses tilted away from the blast’s effect; closer yet, roofs had disappeared and windows blown away. We saw very few people in the general area.

Our daily routine consisted of going on jeep patrols into the surrounding hills looking for concealed or emplaced weapons. We would bring in reports to headquarters. The weapons were then carted off to be destroyed.

We were surprised by the number of large storage tanks in every village into which the people dumped their nightly accumulation of human waste. The farmers would then scoop up the mess, by means of long-handled buckets, that would be used as fertilizers. Due to our lack of resistance to this farming method we were under orders not to eat local food.

In Kure lay a vast dry-dock loaded with midget submarines. The engineers dumped everything into it including the kitchen sink. The dock was eventually towed away and sunk in the ocean. There was also guard duty in town and at the checkpoints leading into the city. These were handled by the military police. We stepped aside and allowed the scientists and moralists to visit Hiroshima. Then they would write about the immorality of dropping the bomb. The act itself was not immoral. What made it immoral was the building of more and bigger bombs after the war.

The city buildings were filled with concrete bunkers, shaped like igloos with large openings through which soldiers could fire weapons, thus preventing other enemy soldiers from moving forward. We had two weapons to destroy bunkers. There was something called a “satchel charge”, a large cumbersome device shaped like a suitcase filled with explosives that some unfortunate soldier carried as he sneaked around the back, climbed on top and heaved the case through the opening.

The other weapon was the flamethrower, a combustible fuel discharged through a nozzle attached to a flexible line. The fuel came from two tanks that a soldier carried on his back. Upon depressing the nozzle button, the two fuels in the tanks combined. The result: a tongue of fire shot out and traveled perhaps thirty feet that found its way into the bunker through the opening. The result was horrifying. There is no need to say more. I have always refused to contemplate the fall-out from an armed invasion. It would have been a bloodbath of infinite order.

The civilian population was rather friendly, even though it faced the possibility of mass starvation in the winter of 1945-46. The army did its best, distributing whatever food it could spare. It did not prevent the civilians from searching through our garbage dumps for food. It became so bad that the army stationed troops at the dumps. The idea being to limit the possibility of disease.

It took a while for us to make friends with Japanese families. I suppose that in their own ways the Japanese people gave us back our humanity by their acceptance of foreigners, even some who probably had killed their family members. I remember speaking to families who had relatives disappear in the South Pacific Islands. But we seldom if ever discussed the war and certainly not the dropping of the bomb. It was as if all of us were extremely tired of war and killing.

In October we moved up the Eastern Coast of Honshu; other companies went to the West Coast to continue the disarming of Japan. Believe me there were plenty of armaments to destroy. I still shiver today when I contemplate the U.S.Army’s effort to fight the Japanese in their home territory. By early December the division was deactivated. At Christmas time we headed for home.

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