Friday, September 19, 2008

Pappy Boyington and the sweet and charitable Obason

Still more Boyington. There will be one or two more posts yet from his exceedingly impressive Baa Baa Black Sheep. For almost the last two years of the war he was a captive with the Japanese. Not a P.O.W., but a "special prisoner," which meant that word of his survival was not sent to the U.S. via the Red Cross. Conditions were harsh, as one would expect, but Boyington points out that his own treatment wasn't as horrendous as what others endured. Still, it was unimaginably bad. Yet, Boyington recognized that the Japanese weren't bad people. He ran across several moments of kindness, mostly from civilians and the military personel that spoke English. Obasan (correct spelling) was one that really stuck out. In this episode, Boyington has been a captive of the Japanese for several months. He's being held at the interrogation center at Ofuna - between Yokohama and Sagami Bay, a few miles from Yokosuka, where the U.S. Naval Base is today:

Most people, especially in America, just simply do not know what it means to spend one’s days dreaming and thinking of food. it is not their fault that the do not know, and may they never have to know. But We of the World Who Have Known Real Hunger know. And that is why our imaginary club should be such an understanding one, between member and member.

As another idea of how hungry a human can get, once I had soup-bone as big as my fist and it took me only two days to devour all of it, completely.

Prior to being captured, if I had been told that a large hungry collie dog could have gotten away with all of a soup-bone as large as this one, I would have considered that informant crazy. But I got away with it, every bit of it, within two days.

After nine months of capture – and with my weight down to almost a hundred pounds – I met one of my most unforgettable characters. She was a Japanese grandmother, and I called her “Auntie.”

But the reason I am especially thinking of her this evening is, perhaps, that I have helped my wife set the table for supper. And it is always in regard to food somehow that I remember Auntie the most. The Japanese word for “Auntie” is Obason, and this is what I called her.

After all this time as a captive the Nips were finally through questioning me two or three times a week, and I was getting to be rather an old prisoner around the Ofuna camp. So I was given the job in the kitchen to work from four-thirty in the morning until nine o’clock at night. For my servicesI was allowed an extra bowl of barley and a bowl of soup a day. It happened that I was not able to get along with even this additional ration because I was lugging heavy barrels of water and sacks of rice around that weighed close to two hundred pounds. For strength to do this I had to resort to other methods.

I guess everybody is inherently dishonest in some shape or form, or manner, so I stole food. I never stole any of the prisoners’ food, of course, but I stole the Japanese food, which was a great deal more nourishing, and more tasty.

I decided when I went into the kitchen after nine months of starvation that I was going to eat four times as much as any Japanese guard got of the same kind of food. Many times I had to vomit it up and many times I had other troubles, such as a little diarrhea, but I maintained that diet during all the six months I was in the kitchen.

Now due to the help of the little old civilian lady who worked there, by watching out the door to see that none of the guards was looking, and my own kleptomaniac ability, I went from my hundred or so pounds to my normal hundred ninety. I could determine my weight because in the kitchen we had some kilo scales, and the kilo is 2.2 pounds.

This little lady, who watched the door so carefully to see that no Japanese guards were around, was the only sweetheart I ever had in Japan….

….She didn’t know a word of English and she had never been outside Japan. If any of you mothers have given things to any of the war prisoners in the United States here, you were in a way repaid, for this little old lady certainly did help me out. To her I was just a starving boy. The fact that I was from America, the outfit that was sinking her sons on land, air, and sea, had nothing to do with it.

Of course, in her conversations when the guards were around, she would damn all prisoners. The poor little old thing felt she had to do that. But when the guards were away, she would continue letting me sneak out the guards’ food; although she would have been beaten too, like anybody else, if she had been caught doing this for me. So when the guards were away, she would let me walk over to their lard barrel, the stinkingest old stuff anyone could imagine. I would get some fish also. Naturally I would look around too, while doing all this, for I wasn’t trusting too much on her tired old eyes, for if one of these guards had caught me it would have meant a beating session that might cost my life. I would scoop out a big handful of this stinking lard, shove it in my mouth, and gulp it down in a second. Even though it did stink, nevertheless to me it tasted like honey.

And occasionally, when very important persons were expected, they baked fish in the kitchen. To get one of these, Obason and I had to co-operate to the fullest, almost like a quarterback and a fullback on a football field. For we weren’t allowed all the time we had with the lard snatching. We had to fool a kitchen full of people. Much the same as a quarterback, Obason would nudge me, and say “
Gomen nasi, Boyingtonson,” for the guard’s benefit, when means: Pardon me, fellow, for bumping into you. I would then put a free hand underneath a fairly high working table in the kitchen, and there in the spacious folds of Obason’s apron was a hot backed fish.

The first time she ever handed me one of these hot fish I stuffed it immediately down my throat to avoid detection. The thing was so hot I had to grab the tail between my front teeth in a futile effort to stop it from sliding on down and burning my stomach. And there I stood – tears running out of my eyes, a guard asking: “
Nunda” – while I was pretending to blow my nose and still keep from choking on the hot fish.

The reason I needed this food of some sort was that, before I worked in the kitchen, all of us had to do compulsory athletics twice a day. And when we prisoners bent over for our calisthenics we could hear these knee-joints, and ankle-joints and elbows snap, crackle, snap, just like a dry forest of twigs going off.

During those days in the kitchen we usually had a lull in the midmorning and mid-afternoon when the civilian cook and the guards were not there. This was when the little old lady would say to me in exceptionally polite Japanese: “Let’s have a

This meant she and I would have tea together, and in addition she would fix up a few Japanese pickles. She would get us a tiny amount of sugar, too, which was kept on hand only for those high-up naval officers who frequently visited the camp to quiz us. And she would steal a little bit of this sugar for our tea.

And it was during the winter months that I worked in the kitchen, from September to April, and it was cold, bitterly so. Yet these ovens are kind of Dutch-oven affairs, with big rice pots in them, and we would open up the oven doors. Of course, during the midmorning and mid-afternoon periods nothing was cooking in the ovens. The big pots merely were inside of them. So we would put a little stool in front of each oven and she would start to talk.

Only with her did I dare speak Japanese, for I never did around the guards, because we could get our war information better from them by pretending we knew nothing about their language. She was too old, or would forget, when talking to the guards about me, that I spoke practically perfect Japanese to her and understood it.

We would have this sweet tea and she would break out a little old pipe with some of this hair tobacco we had. The bowl of the pipe was about the size of the end of my little finger, and I would reach in my pocket and pull out a can and sort around fro my skeleton of tobacco from it. My own selection of tobacco consisted of what the Japanese threw down in front of the guard stove. The tobacco consisted of snipes. But they were sanitary because I had made a cigarette holder from a piece of bamboo. I would adjust one of these snipes in the end of my bamboo holder, much like Freddie the Free-loader, and take a sliver of bamboo and reach it through the open doors that were warming us, getting a light for Obason and myself.

So we would sit there, Obason smoking her tiny pipe and I smoking my snipe, and sipping this sweet tea. And as we sat talking and smoking, Obason would tell me, oh, how bad that war was, and how she longed for the day when it would be over.

She would say: “You can’t buy any candy, you can’t get any cloth to make clothes out of.” For all of these people were in rags, officers and everybody. There was hardly a person in all Japan who was not dressed in rags.


Anyhow, Obason said she longed for the days when the automobiles were going up and down the streets. For months before the war there was nothing but a few of those coke-burning trucks that have to be pushed up every hill, and they all carried a crew of about ten men, and every time they would come to a slight hill, they would have to shove the truck up the hill. They would go all right on the level provided they had practically no load.

Then she would ask me: “How is everything in
Baykoko?” – Baykoko meaning the United States.

I was, of course, just like every other G.I. whether in England, France, Italy, Burma, or anyplace else. I liked to brag, so I said: “Oh gee, Obason, it’s great. We have all the tires in the world, all the gas, everyone has an automobile he can just ride everywhere he wants, everybody has a big ranch.”

I would kink of kid her because she seemed to enjoy the tales so much, so I said: “Well, how do you liked that as far as you’ve heard? You come back and take care of my kids for me, as I don’t have a wife.”

Old Obason would giggle and answer: “Oh, I’m afraid you might change your mind and shove me off the boat on the way back.” Wherewith she clasped her hands, dipped her knees quickly, and giggled – as she always did with a joke.

And this is the way we would talk over our tea and tobacco during the lulls when the guards were not around.

On several occasions two or three of Obason’s daughters came around. One of them had a child strapped to her back. Her appearance was almost angelic, her actions the same. One could not believe that she was what we thought of as “Nips” or “Japs” – especially with the guards we knew in camp.

When nobody was around this daughter would say the one or two expressions she knew in English. They were “I love you,” or something like that. Then she too would giggle. Of course, she didn’t mean it that way, but she had heard it from motion pictures they had shown in Japan. And the baby with her, a little kid with bangs, had the appearance of an ivory doll. The complexions of the women and children are, I thing, the nicest complexions in the world, nothing like our American women. The skins were as smooth as if they had just been covered with cream.

But one day I did an awful thing to Obason, and without meaning to.

The prison camp was to be visited again by some of those naval intelligence officers who cam out to ply us with questions, with there $64 questions. My, how time progresses, for we now have a $64,000 question.

In preparing the meal in advance for these higher-ups Obason wanted everything just so. Her pride and joy was some China dishes, and on these dishes she carefully arranged pickles and everything, including the fish.

But the more I kept thinking of these higher-ups, and all their questions that once again might be thrown at me, the less I must have remembered Obason. These intelligence bastards would be out here in a little while trying to pump military information out of us, and so, feeling mad about it, I deliberately selected this moment to clean out the stoves, allowing the grit to go all over their food on those pretty dishes.

The old lady screamed: “
Boyingtonson, Boyingtonson. Yamai, yamai!” Which roughly means “Stop, stop!” And she screamed: “You’re getting toxon gomai!” which roughly means “much dirt.”

So I stopped, but it does show how, just as in all wars, the innocent must suffer just because somebody (in this case me) had a mad on.

She forgave me, but I haven’t quite forgiven myself. So when I first got back to the United States and heard that some of my Black Sheep pilots were going out to Japan, I gave them Obason’s address. At least, I gave the best address I knew and told them to be sure and give her some money and some candy.

Yet the most I could do – even now – would be but the smallest of tokens for her kindnesses to me.

In fact, while sitting here in the den awaiting supper, I cannot help imagine how it would be if the old lady, through some miracle, should suddenly arrive, as if out of the skies, for one of our old “teas” again. We would sit and talk and discuss and smoke. Only in my case it would not be snipes any more. And then, just when we were about to eat, she quickly would say: “
Boyintonson, Boyingtonson, Haitison,” which means “Look out, Boyington, the guards.” Wherewith, at her joke, she would clasp her hands just as she used to do, dip her knees, and giggle.

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