My father was considered a war hero. He was presumed dead and had a liberty ship named after him, but my grandmother refused to believe it and would not attend the ship’s christening. Intuition or denial? I can’t say. Right before the end of the war, he was almost killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. He had been a prisoner of war there but was transferred two weeks before the bomb was dropped. After the war, he was discovered alive in the Ōfuna Prisoner of War Camp.
But he was almost killed many times before that.
I learned more from my father than from anyone else. He taught me how to think from an early age. Logic and truth ruled; deduction was the sixth sense. As a ten-year old child and a big fan of the movie The Great Escape, I asked him why he didn’t try to escape. He explained it to me, but I was a bit skeptical as I recall. Maybe you had to be around all those TV shows and movies in the early 60s (where American and British captives did everything they could to defiantly confound the enemy) to understand how my father’s explanation landed. I didn’t really understand. He was my dad, that was enough hero for me. But Steve McQueen in the cooler with his baseball for defiance is inspiring. Now, my 60-some-year-old self appreciates the realities. As best as I can tell, it was a combination of luck, Jesuit training in logic, and Boston Irish grit that kept my father alive.
The SS Jean Nicolet was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-8. What followed is considered the worst maritime atrocity of WWII. The entire crew survived and were in life boats. The sub surfaced and a voice — through a bullhorn and in perfect, unaccented English — ordered the boats to make their way to the sub and come aboard. There, they executed the men, taking each, one-by-one, fore of the sub’s conning tower to be brutally beaten by the crew with chains and pipes and, ultimately, impaled by bayonets and thrust overboard.
O’Gara, a civilian on his way to a post in Bombay for the War Shipping Administration, claimed diplomatic status and told them they were violating the Geneva Convention. He was taken below, along with the captain and the radio operator. He spent forty days in that sub, chained to a pole and subjected to random beatings.
My father actually liked the Japanese culture. He would sing Sakura and respected their cultural code. My dad was much like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino, once he recognized their code. The young man on the bullhorn speaking perfect English, was a lad of Japanese decent, born in San Diego and who happened to be studying in Japan in December of 1941 when he was conscripted into the Japanese Navy to serve on a submarine of the psychopath, Captain Ariizumi.
My dad’s irreverence and wit may have saved his life. Being interviewed by Ariizumi through the Japanese-American translator, “How do you Americans think you can sail in these waters, you should know they are unsafe!”
“Certainly not as safe as the waters in the Captains’ bath tub,” my father quipped. Somehow, that was hilarious to the captain, and my father was granted some small regard as a sentient human.
After going through those ordeals, my father had few complaints. He had some quite cynical problems with authority, but that’s to be expected. He noted that, after the Japanese surrender, the guards and other officials came to him expressing their new loyalty, bowing to the new regime.
We were a nice upper-middle-class family. We had a grand piano and a stereo in our living room and, maybe, thirty records: Broadway shows, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, but also Madame Butterfly (my dad’s favorite opera), La Boheme, and Rachmaninoff Concerto #2, along with Broadway show albums like West Side Story (freakin’ brilliant) and Camelot (I saw Julie Andrews and Richard Burton from 60 feet away in a Broadway theater. The problem is, I was seven years old. I have an interesting appreciation in retrospect).
My father didn’t let his war-hero status define him. Of course he capitalized on it and acknowledged it but he certainly didn’t believe he was more of a hero than many less fortunate than he in the war. He returned to Japan to testify in the War Crimes Trials. He also conducted an independent investigation about Capt. Ariizumi who supposedly committed seppuku on the way returning his sub to port — now in control of the enemy — yet, there was no body. Perhaps the captain simply swam ashore. That was my father’s suspicion. But Ariizumi remained either dead or lived quietly under a new identity.
I believe my father tried to shield me from becoming too emotionally involved. Even though he was beaten by submariners and prison guards, all of whom are Japanese, he didn’t seem to hate them as a group. He was never a victim. He would mock them — he thought their notions were absurd and cultish — but he seemed to like them as human beings despite the situation. It’s really not their fault that they believe what is piped into their brains. Closed societies will ultimately deviate from reality.
My father could, by some oversight or error or random bureaucratic decision, been in prison with the other Americans who were in prison in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. I would never have been born — since ‘I” am the DNA of my ancestors — or something. It’s very confusing, too philosophical but…
These American POW’s in Hiroshima who died should be honored and named as heroes. Their lives were sacrificed, and I believe if it was up to these prisoners in Hiroshima to make the decision, they would pull the trigger. On themselves and on the Nippon regime.
There are so many heroes.
Thank you. I will always remember.