- Historic Sites
Landing At Tokyo Bay
Two letters from a Navy lieutenant to his wife tell the story of the last hours of World War II
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
When did you first feel that the war was going against you? That you had really lost it?—I suppose some began to think so after we lost Okinawa. Mostly, though, it didn’t occur to us until about a month ago. (Note to the home front: The first nuclear bomb dropped one month and three days ago.)
Did you know that the Japanese had not won a battle with us, of any sort, since midsummer of 1942?—No! We were not told that.
What is the most serious shortage that has affected Japan?—Food shortage. Very bad. People are starving, right now, and will get worse. Caused by lack of manpower and no rice arriving by ship. This winter will be very bad in Japan.
How many people were killed in Tokyo?—We don’t really know yet. Two hundred thousand people killed in one night, night of first big fire-bomb attack. People were not ready, not trained how to take care of themselves. Altogether probably much over half a million people dead in Tokyo.
All these things he told us in an effusive, offhand manner, laughing merrily at our astonishment. At one point I became a bit irritated by his outlandish amiability and demanded to know what Japanese people are really, honestly thinking, deep inside. Was this candor of his a pose? I suspected Oriental wiles.
Was he putting me on?—No, no, no! It is as I say. Japanese very friendly people. You have seen. Do you see anybody looking bad at you? Or anything except all OK?
This sort of thing kept up for a considerable while and in more detail than I have described here. He in turn was keen to know about the silk business in America. I told him about nylon and about the size of the nylon industry. He had barely heard about this, and it seemed to worry him.
He claimed to be surprised when I told him Japanese had been guilty of terrible cruelties in their treatment of prisoners of war. “Did not know that,” he said. Engle and I had it in mind to do a little shopping, so Mr. Hiroyuhi took us via the Tokyo subway to a department store district. There we found a new policy in effect: All big stores closed on Sunday. Undiscouraged, he then led us down back streets to a slummy district of filthy, tiny shops, a regular flea-town or junk-store neighborhood. Storekeepers would bow and beam as we entered their hovels; children would stare wide-eyed at us without moving. Occasionally, nervous males would eye our weapons and salute. The sight of Mr. Hiroyuhi bouncing along with us may have been reassuring. To us, he seemed a fortress.
As soon as he left us, I felt I could stand no more of Tokyo; I tried to insist to Engle that we head for the railroad station. It was hot, and I was sweaty. I craved a bath with no delay. So we were nearly at the station when Engle’s more creative genius salvaged, from the morass of our horrid thoughts, a pearl of great price. He remembered about beer. The Imperial Hotel, we had noted, served beer with supper, commencing at five o’clock. Banzai!
You know very well that beer and I are mutually unrelated institutions; I regard it as something akin in nature to green olives or an opera hat, and three years in the Navy have only put it farther away from me. Yet beer to a serviceman is more than a thirst or an indulgence; it’s a symbol. It is the consequence and accompaniment of liberty. It’s more talked about, month after month, night after night, than anything but women. So it would be an incredible American, a dolt, a worthless burden on manhood, who would turn down a chance to drink a cool beer in Tokyo. We came to a halt at the side of a pile of ruins, turned squarely back toward the Imperial Hotel, and marched off, reborn.
We entered a pew in the crowded dining room, full of equally religious fellow Americans. At five-thirty the waiters appeared with trays filled with tall, dewcovered bottles. It was Japanese beer, of course, one bottle to a man, and no more, but not bad. We poured the glasses full and lifted them. We could think of nothing to say other than the usual inanities: “Here’s mud in your eye! Here’s one for Hirohito!” What I actually was thinking about, in a tired, confused way, was that this was one very great summit of America’s war effort. In a way the whole purpose of all the terrible fighting was to give us a chance to drink beer in the Imperial Hotel.