by Willie Lagarde
There were three times during my stay aboard Yorktown that I heard cheering erupt throughout the ship. The first was in Aug of 1944 when Capt. Ralph Jennings told us, "Yorktown is now available to take mail to the east." Then again a year later when our chaplain while reading the evening news sheet to us reported, "a new type of bomb was dropped on Japan" wiping out an entire city. There would probably have been more cheering if the report said the Japanese islands no longer existed and all the Japs are dead. That’s how we felt at that time. For the civilians of Japan those feelings would change quickly after we went ashore in Japan.
A few weeks later when it was announced, the war was officially over, I heard the last cheer.
The last cheer was somewhat anti-climatic because we knew the Japs were negotiating (something they vowed never to do) and the force was still seeing sporadic kamikaze attacks that would continue another day or two.
Now we were waiting for the announcement which would bring the longest and loudest cheer of all, "we’re going home." It wasn’t to be for a while longer and nobody could say how much longer. When the word finally came it wasn’t an announcement but rather it filtered down piecemeal.
Myself and none of my close friends had any interest whatsoever in going to Japan, we had seen the Mt. Fujiyama snow cap from far out at sea and that was enough for us. But since we had been at sea seventy eight days and were not going home we might as well go ashore.
There are many stories to be told about Yorktown’s stay in Tokyo Bay immediately after the war, but this one comes to mind often. Armstrong, Murphy and I slipped away from the 20 man group we were assigned to for our "liberty" in the rubble and debris of what had been Tokyo. We didn’t know or care what the officer in charge deemed of interest, we were looking for the geishas we had heard and read about.
Although much of the city was destroyed, the streets had been cleared and streetcars were running. We stopped one of them and were surprised to see all the Japs getting off. After we were seated they all got back on. I have often wondered why they did this, we surely didn’t look threatening. I have come to the conclusion they wanted to avoid being told to give up their seat and worry about losing face. If this was the case, they needn’t have feared, we would have never done this. It was obvious they had suffered more than our people back home could have imagined. The last thing we wanted to do was cause any more hardship for them. We traveled to what must have been the end of the line and started walking around until we got lost. We never did find any geishas. I don’t know what we would have done if we had.
We brought a Japanese cop over to the side of the street and tried to get directions to the dock area. He didn’t understand a word of English and we soon drew a crowd. We three Yorktown sailors were the only non- Japanese in sight. I got a little concerned because some of the Japs still in army uniform looked very unhappy about us being there. We were unarmed, wearing only guard belts and canteens besides our white uniforms. Finally, a Jap who spoke a little English came forth and offered to direct us to the docks.After missing the 5 PM departure time and the LCM’s, we found our way to a train station. A Marine MP there told us there was a train leaving shortly for Yokosuka and we could get on it.
Seeing two blond headed women and an older Caucasian man we asked if they were USO women. No, he said, "they are White Russians." Getting on the train together with the girls and the older man, who was their father, it turned out they were very friendly. Speaking in fairly good English, they told us they were Japanese citizens having been born and raised there. Their father had immigrated to Japan after the Russian revolution. I remember him telling us during the air raids it was the "little blue planes" they feared most. Together with the rest of their family they were interned by the Japs when Russia entered the war against them.
As with every other public conveyance we saw in Japan the train was very crowded. While standing in the aisle talking to them, some kid kept tapping me on the shoulder. When I turned to face him he said, "my father US Marine". He was about 14 years old and taller than his companions who I took for students. I thought how could this be. His features were somewhat Caucasian and he seemed very proud of his heritage especially under those circumstances. I sensed his friends wanted to see if I would accept him as a compatriot, (partial at least), and because he could speak a little English I treated him as such just in case he maybe telling the truth.
Because of the time I spent trying to boost his status with his Japanese friends, I missed out on an invitation to go with the girls when they got off the train in Yokohama. Neither of my two friends told me about it until it was too late. Just as well maybe, we could have been in enough trouble already. Even so, I can’t help but wonder what might have been, these girls were not only pretty, they were very intelligent and spoke several languages.
If anyone out there knows of a Marine who was anywhere near Japan or the Bonin Islands in the early thirties, tell him I may have met his son, and he owes me one.
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