From the Improvement Era, March 1951 –
By H. Ted Price
Mushi atsui is Japanese for the humid heat that follows the rainy season, and not a breath of air stirred the newly planted rice shoots this summer afternoon. My missionary companion and I walked past several groups of curious people, turned down a narrow path, and as in numerous times past saw several wide-eyed children disappear into a mud-walled farmhouse. Although our message of Christ’s teachings would be the same at this straw-roofed dwelling as in the most spacious city mansion, this visit really started six years ago on a war-torn Pacific island.
The Marine Corps machine gun unit to which I belonged in July 1944 had not been in the first waves ashore on Tinian island, but after two years on a series of such rocks, where or when didn’t matter so much. In the caves and dense jungles at one end of the island, I remember it only as Marpo Point: Japanese forces surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs were making a last stand. The nightly rains fell on the young dead of two nations, as I recalled a mother’s teachings of brotherly love.
The Japanese did many things that seemed strange to us, but even so I knew they too had loved ones waiting somewhere. Then I found the snapshots. Just when or how the young enemy soldier was killed, I don’t know, but I kept the two pictures, one of his army buddies and the other of a young lady with a little girl. The latter were posed stiffly in the strange kimono of their country, but I was impressed with the look of humility and love on their faces.
Even in that dark hour I thought that Jesus must have meant people like these when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Anyone who was there will remember hunger, fatigue, and the periods of waiting for the time when one would live ten years in a minute. But I knew that prayers are answered.
Then in one blinding flash a buddy and I were seriously burned.
In a hot tent that served as the operating room, many hands were busy giving me plasma and applying vaseline jelly to my hands, face, and chest. In the strange twilight world of shock, I floated along with little concern about the future.
Then bandages were placed over my eyes, and the last thing I remember as darkness flowed in around me was a tired voice saying: “I think you’ll make it, son, but there may be some scars, and I don’t know about your eyes.”
My mother is a hard-working widow who teaches school, but she always had time when my three brothers and I were young to read out of the bible a little each morning. Thinking about those things on Tinian, I knew that she had been right when she would say: “We gain the most when we share with others, boys.” From that time I had to get well, and I prayed for the health to teach others, in a world suffering from spiritual poverty, about Christ’s message of brotherly love: the only way to real peace in a family, a nation, or the world.
I can still see the baffled looks of some of the navy’s best doctors as I miraculously recovered sight and strength and in a few short weeks returned to my old outfit. some months later as we sailed under the golden Gate, a salty old sergeant was shouting, “Back alive in forty-five.” And I remember thinking that my only souvenirs of the war there were two snapshots that had once belonged to an enemy soldier.
In the hurried years since then, atomic-energy became an everyday word, and the war never really stopped, but just changed leaders and locale. I went to the University of Utah a few quarters and met a pretty nurse called Ramona, but I knew I had a great obligation. It was then that a letter came from the President of the church calling me to be a missionary in the Japanese Mission,.
My last “beachhead” on a Japanese island was made June 26, 1948 at Yokohama. Walking down the gangplank into a strange, ragged world, I wondered how long two suits and twenty-six dollars would last. I still have the suits.
Living with my fellow elders among these good people, I learned to like their food; I slept comfortably on the straw tatami mats and began to appreciate a thousand little things unseen by impatient occidental eyes. Then slowly at first, but steadily faster as the difficult tongue became understandable, my preconceived notion of the dark and mysterious Nippon of western world fiction began to explode.
Here just as elsewhere were wives complaining about the high cost of living, here were little girls with dolls, collecting movie stars’ photographs, and boys coming home late for dinner.
In crowded new Sunday Schools children listen eagerly to the timeless Bible stories: on busy street corners farmers, students, housewives, and communists press forward to hear of God’s great commandments and the origin of democracy.
In June of my second year, Elder Aipolaui and I decided to look for the people in the snapshots, hoping to help them, if possible. With eighty million people in congested Japan it was a tremendous task, but our prayers were answered as the pictures printed in a newspaper brought letters pouring in from all over Japan.
Fitting the numerous pieces of this puzzle together, we learned the Tinian soldier had belonged to the crack 180th Battalion, recruited right in Osaka where we lived. A ticket-taker on the railroad line we ride each day turned out to be one of the few living members of that unit. Finally a newspaperman said “We’ve found the family and the two girls in the picture, in a country town near here.”
almost all of the farming population was out to meet us the next day, and my companion and I smiled back at staring people who were in some cases probably getting their first close look at the Amerika-jin. A number of thoughts went through my mind as we removed our shoes and stepped onto the mat floors of the humble abode we were to enter.
The two girls, sitting apart from the crowd of relatives and curious neighbors, could not be mistaken, although I had never actually seen them before. The eldest was married now but had changed little since the picture was taken. The once little Kinuko Yamamoto was nineteen and an attractive young woman.
Being Buddhists, the family shrine was open, and flickering candles illuminated the genealogy tablets of long-departed kin. Also lighted was a large picture of uniformed Yoshijiro San, an intelligent-looking young man who would be thirty-one years old this year.
Sitting stiffly on the mat floor we went through the usual exchange of introductions, and later in my best Japanese I told them why I had come to their country. I explained to them that we are all the children of God and that his Son brought us a great plan of life.
As in all of the broken families and bombed-out homes I have ever visited, there was no feeling of blame or distrust here this afternoon as we talked together. To the weathered old father I finally asked the question which I had to know: “Yamamoto San, the customs and traditions of my country are very different from those here, and I fought against your son’s forces during the war. How then do you feel about me, an American, coming here with these pictures today?”
He paused only a moment, and his answer belongs to people everywhere. “We had given up hope for our son after all these years, but this is like having him come home again.”