- Sparrows of Angel Island:The Experience of a Young Japanese Prisoner of War
The barracks were filled with the bright morning sun. I'd been awake for a while but stayed in bed simply because the white linen sheets felt so clean and pleasant. The room was large and had a high ceiling, and its big windows looked out on the cobalt-blue waters of the bay. Small waves glittered in the sun, and a huge bridge spanned the expanse of water. The Golden Gate Bridge looked mighty and powerful, like America itself.
When the ding, ding, ding of a metal triangle sounded outside, we quickly washed and dressed and briskly walked the fifty yards across the compound to a building in the corner. Pfc. Suzuki, an American soldier in his early twenties, stood watching us outside the entrance to the mess hall. When we were all assembled, he said curtly, "Every day from now on, when the triangle sounds at 8 A.M., 12 noon, and 4 P.M. you are to line up here. All of you will take turns on KP duty for a week at a time."
Apart from the KP duty, it was very much like what we had already experienced at the prisoner-of-war camp in Honouliuli, on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu. The mess hall was simple but very clean. Inside, we picked up a tray and stepped up to a counter where a big Caucasian slapped food onto our tray as we passed by. We served ourselves toast and milk or coffee and sat wherever we wanted. Here on Angel Island the food was a little simpler than at Honouliuli, but it was still good: toast, jam, butter, fried eggs, bacon, cereal, milk, and coffee. That was our first breakfast.
Except for the wire fence around the compound and watchtowers on the corners, American POW camps were not at all like the prison I had been expecting and fearing.
We were all surviving members of the Iron and Blood Loyalist Troop, an impressive name for an unimpressive group of middle-school boys who had volunteered to serve in a support capacity in the Japanese military during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. I had been a fourth-year student at Naha Commercial Middle School and was to graduate a year early, in March of 1945, because the required five years had been reduced to four. Like most of the capital city of Naha, our school had been reduced to ashes by the American air raid on October 10, 1944, and there was no way to continue schooling. Under these conditions, going to school meant serving in [End Page 187] a so-called volunteer labor corps, which built runways and fortifications and dug miles and miles of trenches under the searing Okinawan sun.
In early 1945, with American squadrons just off the coast of Okinawa, air raids became more frequent and intense. At the urging of the government, thousands and thousands of islanders, mostly those too old or too young to be useful to the military, were evacuated by ship to the Japanese mainland in the north, or to Taiwan in the south. Some of those ships were torpedoed by American submarines, and although the military tried to suppress the news, it leaked out through the handfuls of survivors, terrifying the families that remained in Okinawa and contributing to the frenzy created by the war.
One day in late February, shortly before the American invasion of Okinawa, seniors and juniors at our school were told to report to the former site of Shuri Castle-destroyed in the bombing-high on the hill over-looking the blue waters of the East China Sea. It was eight o'clock in the morning. As we stood tensely waiting for our teachers and principal, brisk winter sea breezes stroked our cheeks and we gazed at the charred city of Naha, the once-beautiful capital of Okinawa Prefecture. Nothing was standing or moving. Empty streets crisscrossed the burned sites. We stood at attention when our principal, Mr. Nakasato, appeared. A uniformed, trimly outfitted Japanese army officer wearing a samurai sword at his waist...