This just in…

If anyone who was ever stationed at Misawa, Japan is interested, you can go here:

http://www.stripes.com/news/at-misawa-cold-miserable-and-scared-people-1.137385#disqus_thread

and read the Stars & Stripes article about life after the shake and tsunami.  There are lots of comments also.

Bill

Japan, Part 3

My day had finally arrived.  My family was flying in from Tokyo today.  I was ready to go down to the air terminal and pick them up in the car I had bought last week.  This car, which looked exactly like a New York taxi, was called a Nissan Cedric.  It was black, boxy, and very comfortable.  It was also a right-hand drive vehicle because the Japanese drove on the left.

Getting used to driving on the left took very little time.  It was strange at first, but there was a small area on base where you could practice.  You just had to wrap your mind around seeing stop signs on the left, looking left instead of right before moving forward, and forcing myself not to panic when I swept around a blind left curve.  That last bit kept bothering me for a while because I was thinking that there could be a big truck heading right for me around the curve.

Driving downtown and in the countryside was really very nice.  Most sharp corners and blind curves had convex mirrors placed so you could see around them.  Large trucks also had a set of warning light on the roof of their cabs.  Three green lights were placed to you could see them as the truck rushed towards you.  If all three lights were lit, then the truck was speeding.  Usually, they approached with two solid lights and the third flashing like a demented traffic signal.  Those drivers knew exactly how fast they could go without indicating to the local cops they were actually speeding.

When navigating the narrow streets of a town, you always had to be aware of the Benjo ditches alongside the road.  Those were the open sewers and they usually ran about a foot deep.  Drop a wheel into one of them and it was a given you’d either blow a tire or break a shock absorber.

Anyway, there I was, sitting back in our new quarters waiting to drive down and pick up the wife and daughter when the phone rang.  It was my wife.  I immediately thought that her plane had been cancelled or something like that but she told me she was ready to get picked up.  Picked up?  From where?

It turned out she was put aboard a jet transport instead of the normal C-130 (prop job) and was almost two hours ahead of schedule.  Yowza!  I jumped into the car and hurried down to get her.  After fourteen months she sure looked good to me.  I was amazed at how much our little girl had grown also.  Once back in our quarters, she related her entire trip from the States to me.  If I can, I’ll see if I can get her to put it down here in this blog.  You’d be interested because a lot of it is funny.

Our first stop was the Commissary (base ‘grocery store’) to pick up food that we needed.  Since I was a watchstander I usually subsided on whatever the little snack bar inside the operations building had to offer.  Now, living in the housing area, there apparently was more to eating then hamburgers, hot dogs, and grilled cheese.

For the most part, living in base quarters was pretty good.  For a while, I had a nasty Army guy living next to me who loved to parallel park his huge American car so far forward in his assigned slot that about a foot of his car pushed into my space.  It got so bad, that I would (if I got there first) back up until my back bumper was flush against the white line.  I ended up with a lot of little dents in my back bumper.  He eventually got reassigned and normal parking resumed.

My wife was soon zipping around on and off the base with aplomb.  Aplomb wasn’t my daughter’s real name though.  Sometimes she would drive up to what we called ‘Security Hill’ and let me drive home instead of having to take the bus.

Our Cedric was a standard, stick-shift car; the normal column shift “H” pattern of American cars from the fifties except you shifted and clutched with the left side of your body.  It was a bit awkward at first, but soon became automatic (if you’ll pardon the play on words).

One of it’s foibles was to lock up between first and second gear.  The little hinged shifter levers would hinge the wrong way and you had to lift the hood and use a large screwdriver to force the hinge the other way while another person was wiggling the gearshift handle.  On one occasion, it probably looked a little strange to have my wife with her head under the hood while my seven year old daughter pushed the shift lever up and down.

It gave us wonderful mileage and we used to take it on day trips all over the area.  Our favorite picnic spot was on the shores of Lake Towada.  This was the lake formed in the center of a volcano and was in the middle of a preserve so no buildings interfered with the scenery.  A small grassy area was laid out with picnic furniture.  Another area we loved was shopping in Hachinohe.  On the four corners of central downtown stood four huge department stores.  As usual, each one had a restaurant on top that served great food.

My other favorite spot was down a small alley to a tiny little hobby shop.  I was fully into model trains while I waited for my family to arrive, but since I lived in the barracks I had no place to actually set anything up.  I did, however, buy lots of items for eventual use.  They also carried plastic models of pretty much every locomotive and rolling stock in Japan.  I loved to build these models.

– – –

Approximately 9.00001 months after my wife arrived in Japan, our second daughter came into the world.  Nothing quite so dramatic happened while traveling to the hospital as in the Philippines, because the hospital was just across the base.  This time I was on watch, so I got permission to leave early.

Both my daughters have a very colorful display of birth certification.  The Philippines required no less than four birth certificates and Japan was runner up with three.  I like to think that both of them are really fond of telling whomever asks that they were born in their respective countries.  It sort of sets them apart.

– – –

Our quarters, as I said before, were built using lath and plaster.  Pretty much every wall was cracked in one place or another.  This was from the hundreds of earthquakes we had.  I am fairly certain that we had at least one or two a day.  Some went unnoticed, and others were quite memorable.  There were two that stick in my mind.

The first earthquake I really felt hit just as I left my car and was walking into our Ops building.  The ground began to sway from side to side – which made this an important quake – and I actually lost my balance.  I looked up from my kneeling position to see the tall water tower actually rocking from one leg to another; or, at least, appearing to do so.  People poured out of the wood frame buildings surrounding our concrete Ops building and stood in the street quietly.  Hardly anyone except a rank newcomer even bothered to comment on most shakes.

The second one occurred sometime in the dead of night while we were all asleep at home.  With no preliminary, the whole house jumped about three inches upwards and slammed back down.  This was a four-family, two-story, wood frame building and it actually did jump around.  I shot up and over the bottom of the bed and grabbed my older daughter while my wife shot across the bed and pulled our infant second daughter out of her basket.  We blew downstairs and out the front door.  I do not remember actually touching any stair treads on the way down.  The whole operation took approximately fifteen seconds.  The building continued to creak, groan, and make crackling sounds for about two minutes.

Earthquakes and tremors were a way of life there.  I thought I had a flat tire once and pulled to the side of the road.  Even when I’d stopped the car kept bouncing.  Another tremor.

As much as we liked living in Japan, I eventually got orders again.  This time, it was to be an unaccompanied twelve-month tour back in the war zone.  I was lucky enough to have time to take my family back to Colorado before I headed back East.

 

Japan, Part 1

My introduction to Japan started back on the Oxford when we were laid up in Sasebo for engine repairs.  I loved it then, even though it was the dead of winter, so I was really looking forward in anticipation to this tour.  I was going to be here for a complete tour – three years.  I was determined to make the best of it.

I landed at Tachikawa Air Base in the middle of Tokyo and was bused over to the Security Group area at Kamiseya.  What I didn’t know at the time was this whole operation (which had suffered a huge fire in September of 1965 that killed 12 men) was to be moved northward to Misawa Air Base way up near the tip of Honshu Island.  I had only enough time to check in before I was hustled over to a plane headed to Misawa.

Misawa Air Base is a sprawling base run and maintained by the Air Force.  By our nature and for the most part, the Security Group used already existing facilities and the Air Force had a very nice Security Service installation out on a peninsula attached to the air base proper.  There was a huge circular antenna used for direction finding.

The same reason for existence of direction finding used in the Azores operation applied here.  The Sea of Japan and the portion of the Pacific surrounding Japanese waters could be extremely dangerous.  Our equipment was used for a variety of reasons; navigation and rescue were near the top of the list.  Being in such proximity with the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China we had loads of other tasking.  We always like to joke that Vladivostok was closer to us than Tokyo (which was true).

I was assigned a watch section, but since I was now an E-6 (CTR-1) I was made a supervisor of the section.  I was replacing CPO (E-7) this time.  The first E-6 to do so at this base.  Talk about being under the guns.  My performance had to be perfect now.

Any base housing (on or off base) was unavailable at the time I received my orders so I was forced to proceed to Misawa without my wife.  We took leave and I brought her back home to Colorado and left her and my daughter there.  She would remain there for just over a year before being allowed to come and join me.

As I said, base housing was very scarce.  I could have lived off-base, or “on the economy” as it was known, but these houses were typically Japanese – thin walls, very small, kerosene heaters, primitive kitchens and the like.  Very snug however, but just not what I was prepared to go for.  Monthly rental contracts were also made, but, curiously, in U.S. Dollars instead of Japanese Yen.  At the time, the conversion rate was fixed at exactly 360 Yen to the dollar.  A typical rental unit would cost maybe $150 a month.  When the big monetary upheaval came and the Japanese Yen was allowed to float, the conversion rate went down to around 180 Yen to the dollar.  The contracts written in dollars really stung the landlords.

I put my name down on the list for on-base housing and settled in for an extended wait.  Meanwhile, I was assigned to the Navy barracks as a barracks chief.  This was in addition to my normal watchstanding duties and involved making sure that all the Japanese workers did their jobs.  The particular building we were given by the Air Force was in fairly good condition.  It also allowed everyone to have an individual room.

The guy’s rooms quickly filled up with locally crafted Japanese furniture and stereo equipment.  High quality woodworkers in the town of Misawa could be commissioned to make some really breathtaking items.  Normally, all you had to do was show them a picture of what you wanted and they made it.  As for the electronics, there was a store right outside the gate, called Ebina’s, which sold electronic equipment.  Everything from small self-contained units to speaker enclosures you could park a car in were available.

Winter arrived with a whoosh of wind and snow directly from the Kamchatka Peninsula, frigid, hard, and penetrating.  It dumped almost two feet of snow virtually overnight.  The air base snow crews were very good.  The road running to the DF site was, back in October, lined with bamboo stakes over eight feet tall.  I wondered at the time if that was really necessary.  Yes, it was.  That winter, we received a total of around six feet of snow, drifting to twelve feet.  The snow, which made driving hazardous, was really welcome the year the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo.

On our days off, we were pretty much free to go our own way and do things.  Being an Amateur Radio enthusiast and a member of Navy MARS, I ended up over at the radio shack set up by the Air Force.  The current chief (and only) operator was a friendly sort named Red, and we got along well.  I began filling in for him in some of the AF traffic nets.  These nets were set up to facilitate communications to and from their host countries and typically consisted of stations in Vietnam, Korea, Guam, Philippines, and Okinawa.

Although their primary mission was as back-up to other comms, their secondary mission was to assist in making telephone “patches” back to the States for all hands on the base.  In a typical day’s operation, we might make as many as twenty or thirty patches back home for base personnel.  There were always regular operators (mostly on the US West Coast) standing by with their radios to make these patches into the telephone system.  These were the real unsung heroes of the airwaves.  On one of their typical days they might run as many as a hundred patches for us.  One operator, in the Seattle area, would have as many as five telephone operators standing by with several pre-arranged patches ready to go.  As always, patches from Vietnam took precedence, but the vagaries of atmospherics would force them to drop out about the time Misawa became stronger.

I spent a lot of time hanging out at that station.  Several of my watch section buddies began spending their time there also.  One in particular was as proficient in Morse code as I was.  We would spend a lot of time with our little code machine sending jokes from Playboy to each other.  Red wasn’t as good as we were so when we came to the punch line we’d speed way up and he’d have to struggle to catch it.

We were also licensed to get down on the ham bands and did so at every occasion.  Our call sign, KA8FY, was very rare.  Whenever we were present on any frequency we would be besieged with calls from hams all over the world for a contact.  One memorable situation, just before a typical ham band contest, we were adjusting transmitter power and gave our call.  There was an immediate return from another ham with a similar call sign (containing an “8”) who stated he was in Chicago and wanted to know if we were near him since we were so loud.  We said that no, we weren’t, and added that we were in northern Japan.  There was dead silence for perhaps fifteen seconds and then he started laughing.  He was convinced that we were kidding him and that we were in the next building or something.  It was only when he looked us up in the call sign directory that the laughing stopped.  He was our first contact of the contest.

I operated primarily in CW (Morse code).  When I started calling for any contacts, I was usually kept busy for at least an hour before I could stop due to our rare location.  We were the only American station in our part of Japan and considered a very rare catch.

Finally, the second winter arrived and I was assigned an on-base house.  It was a bit drafty due to the cracks in the wall (more on that later), but surprisingly cozy.  My family was due to show up in about three weeks.  I could hardly wait until they did.