Three of us Pacific war correspondents decided to give ourselves a vacation from the military and to get away—if only for a few days —from the frightful and chilling devastation all around us in Tokyo.
I was a war correspondent for TimeLife magazines in the Pacific and had flown a few days earlier from Manila to Atsugi Field, near Yokohama, with others attached to the MacArthur command. We were there to be aboard the battleship Missouri for the surrender ceremonies on September 2, 1945.
The papers were signed, and suddenly the war was over.
We wanted to see the countryside and small towns and villages in a part of Japan untouched by war, at least physically. We settled on a train trip to Nikko, a lovely temple and shrine city in the mountains ninety miles north of Tokyo. Because several of the most magnificent shrines and temples in Japan were in a national park bordering the small city, it had been spared by the B-29s.
Money had little meaning to the Japanese at the moment. They were destitute. A can of Spam or a bar of GI chocolate carried more weight in the market than a hundred-dollar bill. In preparation for our trip we filled three knapsacks with candy, food, and cigarettes purchased at a post exchange and several bottles of Scotch whiskey.
We had a long walk up the main street from the railway station, lugging our bags to the Nikko-Kanaya Hotel. Not many people were in sight to see these three tall strangers chug uphill, and I hoped that they had heard the war was over, for I felt like Gary Cooper walking to his destiny in High Noon .
Shin Kanaya, the charming, bespectacled owner of the hotel, which was just across the road from the sacred bridge leading to the temples, said we were his first American guests since Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, who had vacationed there during his nine years in Japan, came for a weekend visit just before Pearl Harbor. We shared with him our whiskey and sent candies to his wife, who was ill.
Later that afternoon Mr. Kanaya came to my room. ‘The keeper of the emperor’s trout streams would be pleased to bring you each a trout for dinner.” Pause. “A small consideration would be most appropriate, say, a package of cigarettes,” said Mr. Kanaya.
That night we dined on trout. Cost: three packs of Camels. After months of Army rations it was a near-sensual experience.
Mr. Kanaya had one further suggestion. “If by chance you can spare some sweets, I have several small boys who have not had candies for a long, long time. You might wish to surprise them with such a gift, and I would be glad to arrange a small presentation.”
He continued. “All the princes from the Peers School, including the crown prince, were brought here several months ago to get away from the fire bombings. They have been at school in the building across the way.” He pointed to a small white two-story building beyond a grove of trees.
The next morning at precisely eightthirty the three American war correspondents, led by Mr. Kanaya, walked onto the graveled playing field of the school. A dozen small boys were standing in a line at youthful attention but in complete silence. Standing a few feet in front of them, in his role as the future emperor of Japan, was another small boy, Crown Prince Akihito, in shorts and white shirt, round-faced and solemn. We were the first Americans that many of these small boys had ever seen.
Mr. Kanaya told the children who we were and why we had come to this beautiful city of Nikko, and said that Mr. Clayton had a presentation to make. The night before, the three of us had pooled several pounds of chocolate bars and hard candies.
I stepped in front of the boys. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that when 1 handed the crown prince the bag of candies, we did not shake hands. I bowed, and in return, he bowed.
End of ceremony.
The boys stood at attention until we walked to the edge of the playground and turned into the hotel. As we walked up the steps, I heard shouts and laughter coming from the playground.
We left shortly after for Tokyo.