My “Occupation” of Japan, 1946-47
by Don Van Beck
I had just graduated from Marion Military Academy in Aurora, IL at the age of 16 in 1945. So, with nothing better to do, when the Army offered an eighteen-month enlistment program in 1946 I joined the Army to “see the world.”
After four weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson, SC and one week of leave, I was one of 1,700 troops that boarded the USS LEJEUNE, a German luxury liner that had been converted to a troop ship.
The “luxury” sleeping accommodations were pipe racks, with 5 high canvas “mattresses.” Gourmet meals were beans and franks for breakfast and on alternating days we had SOS. The “mess hall” had tables where we stood up for all our meals. And 55-gallon metal barrels were strapped to bulkheads throughout the ship.
Shortly after we went under the Golden Gate Bridge we ran into what are called “ground swells,” that are long rollers waves that appeared to be over 70 feet high. One moment you’re a in a trough and there is water all around you and the next you are on top of a swell and cannot see water at all!
An ex-navy man told me two important things, never stand down-wind of someone vomiting, and always sleep in a top rack! One day into the trip the use of the 55 gallon barrels became clear.
We bypassed Hawaii because there was a typhoon, but unfortunately we did not bypass the typhoon. We were in it for five days.
The only personnel with life jackets were the Navy crew and the Marine guards; this gave us a warm and fuzzy feeling especially with first the bow coming out of the water as we passed over the top of a wave followed by the stern and the props as the ship started down to plow into the next wave!
We finally cleared the storm and three days later the engines stopped and the general alarm sounded. A WWII mine was floating near the ship and the Marines were attempting to sink it with rifle fire. It kept floating nearer to us when they finally sank it. If they had hit one of the “spines” I’m sure we would have been hit with the flak.
We arrived in Japan safe and sound after 25 days, but I left 25 pounds of myself in those damned barrels.
We went to the 4th Replacement Depot at Camp Zama. Each morning we fell out to the parade-ground with our duffle bags for assignment to various units in Japan. There were several thousand of us and they called out about 100 names each day. Those not called went back to the barracks.
I fell out every morning for almost a month until I was the last guy left! I identified myself to the Officer in Charge and after looking through a stack of paper measuring in feet, he said I had been called three weeks before and was AWOL! Welcome to Japan.
My original assignment was with the 101st in Hokkaido, but someone else had been sent. So instead I was to now go to the 24th Inf. Div., 34th Inf. Regiment Headquarters, Cannon Company in Sasebo.
On the train trip to Sasebo, we went through Hiroshima, which was of course still a disaster area. It appeared nothing had been done since the A-bomb was dropped.
Sasebo had received several U.S. fire bomb raids so there wasn’t much left of it except for the rail station, a government building and a two story dance hall called the Kasbah.
They served warm Japanese beer wrapped in a straw cover. The second floor was a balcony wrapped around the whole building and it was a great place to watch the “action” down below.
Our Headquarters and the rest of our regiment was at Camp Mower outside of town; Colonel Ralph Bing was Regimental Commander.
I was given a rifle and started pulling “guard” duty on the waterfront at Sasebo Bay. There was a large cave there stacked high with Japanese weapons and supplies. Without that A-bomb we might still be fighting there.
From left to right: Bernie Michaels, John Hastings , Don Van Beck and Royal "Red" Hazlett. This is a US Army Piper Cub that was used for "spotting." Picture taken in the field in front of barracks at Camp Mower in Sasebo, Japan
The most excitement I had was when a Destroyer Escort pulled up and a shore party came in looking for food; they had missed their supply ship. We gave them some C and K rations and you would have thought they had found gold.
After some time there someone in Headquarters discovered that I was able to type. I was told to turn in my M-1, get out of my 5 button roll, herring bone twills, boots and bonnet, get into my Class A’s and report to the Classification Section.
34th Infantry Headquarters Staff: Front row left to right: James R. Denman, Denny Main, Royal “Red” Hazlett, Richard Poe, Bernard Michaels, Bill Helfrid and Kent Hoopes. Standing, from left: Victor E. Javier, Bill Barham, Unknown, Myron A. Nigh, Donald L. Van Beck (aka Van Glabeke), Cleland L. Whorton, Lloyd H. Wagner, Henry J.A. Bailey, George H. Egan, Bernard Goodman, Bob Kraiman, John C. Hastings , Arthur Doherty, and Tadashi Ogawa.
I became an understudy to the Chief Classification Specialist and soon thereafter he went back stateside and I was promoted to PFC and then T-5, which was the fastest thing alive going to an NCO meeting.
The Classification Section handled all the Form 20’s (Enlisted Qualification Record), selected men for schools, special training, continuously updated the records of all personnel, etc. My boss was Lt. Harlan Gilman
For excitement, we were offered the monthly meetings with the Chaplin who lectured us on the evils of sex with the natives and the Regimental Doctor who would then lecture us on STD preventative measures. And, the VD slide shows were always interesting.
I took part in several nighttime medic VD raids where some “ladies of the night” were picked up and tested (I won’t go into the details), had their ID’s registered, were given some medicine and then let go. The MP’s would then declare the area “off limits,” and the next day these entrepreneurs would pack all their stuff in a two wheel pull cart and move to the other side of town.
The Japanese baths in the basement of our downtown Sasebo Headquarters were special! You would strip off your clothes and sit on a little stool while the bath ladies gave you a good scrubbing.
You then crawled to the pool full of “boiling” hot water; it took forever to finally get yourself completely submerged. And, if you stayed in the pool very long you needed help getting out because you were so weak. Ah, yes, I still remember this hardship duty.
We were not far from Nagasaki, so we took several day trips there. One day we were there when they were removing bodies from the vats behind the medical center, which happened to be one of the few concrete buildings in the city.
Each body had a wooden ID wired to its big toe that gave the location from ground zero where the body was found. They were taking them to be examined. The medical building had a concrete balcony that ran all around the building. On the third floor someone had been caught outside when the A Bomb detonated and his “shadow” from the waist up was left on the wall.
In June 1947 we had the dedication of our post as Camp Mower. This was a three day holiday and we had a field day with free drinks.
In August, several of us went on R&R to Karatsu Rest Hotel in Karatsu, Kyushu. There were no beds so we slept on mats on the floor. I played some golf and drank warm beer.
My three close “buddies” and I were basically “running” the paperwork for the 34th. So, we hatched a plot to send ourselves back to the ZI early.
All went well with a going away party at 34th HQ and then we cleared Division and got to Tokyo. We settled comfortably into our “yacht,” and began to breathe easier as we sailed for home.
We arrived in California where a band was playing, and wives and kids were meeting their husbands and dads.
Up to now our scheme had worked perfectly! But that changed dramatically when we got in line to be mustered out!
Jim Denman was first in line. The Officer in Charge looked at his papers and yelled: “What the hell are you doing here? You are not supposed to be discharged for another four months!” Stand Over There!!
Next in line was Barney Michaels; same problem, same result. Next was Royal Hazlett. Next was me. By now the Officer was more than a little pissed. He tore us a new one and threatened to send us back.
Finally, he indicated we would be assigned to MP duty at the Oakland Army Base. This was when they were returning all the bodies from the South Pacific.
So, I spent the next couple of months riding shotgun across the Bay Bridge while my buddies guarded the draped caskets that were awaiting escorts to take them home.
Since we had not had any milk for over a year we made up for it at the chow hall. It was open 24 hours and served 5 meals a day. There were cases of milk at the door and we all drank at least 3 to 4 quarts a day.
But all good things must come to an end. I was convinced to join the “inactive” reserves before my discharge.
Then in August of 1950 they decided they could not hold a Korean “Police Action” without my help, so back to the Olive Drab, but that is another story for another time.
Donald L. Van Beck
32004 Harris Rd
Tavares, FL 32778-4630
The Taro Leaf, Vol 64(1) Winter 2010, pg. 33-35.