Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Navy Story [1950s Japan]

Whenever I wander through thrift stores, I keep an eye out for old photos. Anything that's black and white qualifies for at least a cursory glance. I skim over formal portraits-- stories, intrigue, and lives are difficult to parse from a stiff, perfectly lit studio which washes out even the glamour of the old. I'm always hunting for a glimpse of personality, a hint of a rich life lived during such different times.

 Like the photo of a tea party I once found-- a group of women, all decked out, lounging in someone's backyard, the summer foliage peaking over their shoulders, their faces blurred from laughing, the one woman in the middle who held still, a sardonic smile resting on her lips. I could almost hear the clinking of china, rattling incongruously in the sun dappled garden.

But my stories have always been constructed primarily from my own imagination, my own projections onto a past I know nothing about. The ladies, in gowns and pearls and hats while lounging on rugs thrown on the grass-- how did they view the situation? Were they laughing at the absurdity of pearls and indoor rugs misplaced on the ground? Or was this a common gathering, an al fresco tea party, their costumes normal to their eyes, out of place only to mine? How could I ever know what that afternoon had really been like?

That was why, a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled on a cache of old photos, I knew I had struck gold.

You see, not only were these interesting black and white photos taken by an American solider in post-WWII Japan but on the back of each were carefully written notes from the solider to his sweetheart back home.

The year was 1951 and the solider was in Sasebo, Japan. Our solider, a sailor I named Al for no discernible reason, had been assigned to a ship called the USS Luzon whose duty was to provide repair and mechanical assistance to other ships in her fleet (thank you Wikipedia).

Al was a second class seaman, had survived WWII, and was yet still stranded far from home and far from his love. He was most likely a diesel mechanic, but wrote in such perfect pearls of cursive that belayed his beefy hands.

He clearly missed the woman he had left back home and wrote her often-- squeezing in messages on the back of many small photos he took. There was the photo of the market street:

"The old and the young on the main drag of Sasebo, we call it black market street. You can buy anything from a hair pin to a woman."
(which made me laugh out loud in the deserted corner of the thrift store; I then proceeded to read it and ever other photo to my poor parents).

The photo that first caught my eye, the caption that first made me realize that there was no way I was leaving these curled photos to decay into dust in this barn of a flea market, was the photo below.

"Shaking hands with a jap friendo as they say friendo. He seemed very pleased for me to shake his hand and I enjoyed it too. I hope they always stay our friends."

It was a simple message from a man who had served-- in some way or another-- through the horrors of a world war, who was stationed in a country crippled by toll of that war. It was a simple plea for peace that made me sift through the pile of photos to hear the rest of his story.

There was the collection of photos where Al and his friend go to a local pearl farm, to buy a necklace to send home to his girl (wife? he appears to be wearing a wedding ring but I really need a magnifying glass but this is the 21st century who owns a magnifying glass). There's the photo with the Japanese pearl farmer himself-- Al and his friend are easily six feet tall and crowd over the diminutive farmer with large smiles.

I had this photo for weeks before I realized I could glean information about Al's rank from the ensign on his left shoulder (Al is standing on the right). With enough stubbornness and blinking I was finally able to make out two strips below the eagle-- thus the second class status. Now the icon right below the eagle would tell me what he did on the ship-- if I could just make it out! It looks like a triangle? I've search Navy websites but haven't been able to match it. 

There's the photo by the lake where Al searches through the crates and holds up a bottle of sake, turning towards the camera with a smile.

"How about a drink of saki. Jap fishing boat in the background. Honey, they reminded me of the time we went to Fisherman's Warf in Fresco-- remember." 

There's the photo where Al looks like he's recreating a pin-up pose to give his wife back home a laugh (or who are we kidding, he definitely gave me a laugh, I love it so much).

Written on back: "This is your honey."

I don't know how long Al was deployed or how long he served in Japan but I know that distance, and constant worry on his wife's side, must have been terrible. There was a photo of Al's friend smiling on the sunny ship's deck. The note on the back said that his friend had just received a Dear John letter, that he was going home to try and work thing out. Al said he hoped it would work, that his friend really loved the girl who had broken up with him.

Al doesn't write about the stress the war must have taken on his relationship or the difficulty of being the conqueror in a defeated, proud country or the looming specter of the Korean War peaking over his shoulders. Maybe he saved more difficult conversations such as those for letters presumably sent with the photos-- letters that were either sadly lost or hopefully kept by the family.

Which makes me wonder why I was able to stumble upon these deeply personal photos which had to have been beloved by his wife. How did they end up shoved in a wicker basket on the next to last aisle in a thrift store large enough to hold a pick up football game in? Did he and his wife not have kids? Or did the photos trickle down to grand kids who shrugged and packed up boxes of stuff to sell after his death? How could something clearly so personal get relegated to an anonymous booth in a store named after a vegetable? (Btw the thrift store was Artichoke Ann's and it's one of my favs)

My grandfather was lucky enough to be too young for WWII and received domestic duty during his time in the Korean conflict. So while he and my grandmother traveled far from family, they were able to stay together. But even if a brief break had happened, any letter or note passed between them would be something that I would keep and cherish. It's been some years since I last coerced my grandmother into pulling out the shoe box which houses all the old family photos but maybe next time I see her I'll make her pull them all out and give me a guided tour of all that existed before me.

As always, thanks for reading :) I will continue to see what more I can dig up about my friend Al-- with a little luck, a magnifying glass, and some time I have hope I'll be able to discover his real name and unearth a bit more of his story.

No comments:

Post a Comment