My childhood experience: War brings out the worst and best in mankind

LANDING: Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. troops land in the Philippines and prepare for an attack against the Japanese in this photo from 1941 or 1942. MacArthur had considered Manila, the central Luzon plains, and the Bataan Peninsula critical, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Louie Gombar

Louie Gombar

There aren’t many of us left – octogenarian survivors of war living on Guam. It was the same war but in a different country. It was the same global madness created by old men but carried out by spilling the blood of young men. This one bubbled out of Japan’s expansionist dreams for territory and resources which developed into Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s brilliant but fatalistic idea of destroying the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

We were citizens of Great Britain living in the Philippines at the time World War II broke out and like the Japanese-Americans, we were herded into internment camps and assigned to controlled housing. Ours was a two-room apartment which was limited to two 15-watt light bulbs, never to be used simultaneously.

The bulbs resembled mummified cyclops because they had to be wrapped with black electrical tape, leaving a tiny aperture on the bottom pointing the beam downward. The Japanese were suspicious that civilians would use the lights to direct American bombers to their targets. The once vibrant city of Manila, accustomed to shining lights, shuddered through each night in cold and total darkness.

We arrived in the Philippines in 1940 as part of an Indian circus, Kamala Circus. My father was a circus clown and animal handler. My mother was an accordionist with the circus band. I was an 8-year-old circus brat whose only goal in life was to annoy the animals and play in the mud with my homemade toys.

The Japanese confiscated everything. We were allowed limited interaction with the animals, specifically the elephants, to rebuild the runways at Nichols Field which the Japanese Air Force bombed out during the invasion. On Guam young CHamoru men were being forced to do the same at Tiyan.

Nichols Field was lined with huge flowering mango trees that bore succulent yellow fruit. The elephants were forced to back up into the trees to shake it. The impact would create an avalanche of mangos. Unfortunately, the animals were all euthanized after they were no longer needed. Nichols Field is now Villamor Air Base and is part of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

By 1944 it was very clear Japan was losing the war. Supply lines were non-existent and reinforcements impossible. They made feeble attempts to strengthen the war effort in the Philippines. One memorable evening, while trying to have dinner under restricted illumination, we were startled by a loud banging. My mother and I shuddered as my father opened the door. Two Japanese soldiers with bayoneted rifles stared at us coldly and handed a letter which gave them the authority to confiscate any metallic items.

The two were a statement in direct contrast, one soldier being brutish and arrogant, the other, skittish and uncertain. The aggressive one headed straight for the kitchen and started collecting all of our metal cooking pots. The shy soldier was ordered to carry the heavy bag with the cookware. They even confiscated my pair of toy cowboy pistols given to me for Christmas.

Bags filled to capacity the soldiers decided to leave with no words of appreciation or gratitude. They simply turned and departed. The uncertain soldier, however, turned and sported what appeared to be a prohibitive smile and politely bowed. And they were swallowed by the night along with our cookware and my toy guns.

Later that evening there was another knocking. Our heartbeats raced as we opened the door. Standing in the doorway was the demure Japanese soldier and in his hands were my toy guns. We invited him in and served some hot soup which he slurped noisily. He then pointed to a guitar hung up on the wall and motioned playing it which he did. It was the most beautiful and sweetest song I had ever heard. He called it “Hamabe No Uta” which I later learned meant Song of the Seashore.

In a few moments, he pointed to his watch and indicated it was time for him to depart. We knew just enough Japanese to thank him with few repeated “arigato.” He then disappeared into the night never to be heard of again.

One wonders what could have made that young man do such a dangerous thing as return confiscated property. The conditions of war simply did not permit it. Japanese soldiers were forced to follow the age-old Bushido code without question. Any departure from this could result in a swift execution. War truly brings out the worst and best in man.

Fast Forward! Twenty-five years later, the year 1968. I’ll never forget the year. Martin Luther King was gunned down on April 4th and 65 days later, Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. I was a tour director for Getz Brothers Travel Agency on Guam. In those days the duties of a tour guide were quite different from what they are today. I drove the bus while painting beautiful verbal pictures of the island’s picturesque spots. All this into a microphone that needed to be punched to keep working.

I was also the cook, the waiter, the concierge, medic, and at times the counselor. On one occasion, a pretty young 19-year-old girl from the resort city of Beppu on the Inland Sea, whimpered all through the tour. A lover’s spat with her boyfriend separated them for a few days and she couldn’t bear it. Although she listened attentively she did not understand a word a said.

On one trip it was around noon time when I stopped by a grassy knoll in Merizo. My passengers looked like they were ready to eat anything when I distributed the lunch boxes. After eating they settled down to conversations and relaxing in the soft grass.

One elderly gentleman pulled out a harmonica and started playing it. He played several pretty Japanese songs and then went into a verse that almost knocked me off my feet. Incredibly, the old man started playing that same song, Hamabe No Uta, that was played by that kind soldier who returned my toy pistols that memorable evening in Manila 25 years earlier. It reached out and grabbed me. I lost control and just had to find out.

I lunged at the old man and showered him with questions. He was so surprised he thought I was attacking him and even raised his hands as if in a karate posture which was so Japanese. He finally calmed down and we were able to put together bits of information about the song.

The old gentleman said the song was written by Tamezo Narita in 1916, became very popular and then slipped into oblivion for several years. For some unknown reason, it resurfaced during the war years and was associated with a young student of architecture who had fallen in love with a pretty nursing student at the Nagasaki Medical College.

Against his will, the young man was drafted and oddly enough, sent to somewhere in the Marianas as part of reinforcements. He promised his true love he would return and marry her. He never did. He was never heard from again.

As for his sweetheart, surviving records indicate she was attending classes when the second atomic bomb was detonated over her city. The documents also show that approximately 979 teachers and students, who were within ground zero, were vaporized in various schools in Nagasaki, 897 of them from the Nagasaki Medical College.

They say that children have mounting fears and anxieties about war. For me, the war was more educational than fearful. I learned that the aftermath of an exploding bomb left mangled bodies, many grabbing on to what shreds of life they had. I’ve seen people whose limbs were amputated by hot, jagged-edged shrapnel walk around in total shock as if nothing had happened. For me it was a unique but macabre experience, embedded in my mind forever, never to be forgotten.

Louie Gombar is a retired Guam middle school teacher.

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