Ikeshima Arrival

I fingered the slim strip of paper with the indecipherable Kenji characters for the umpteenth time. I was about to step into the foreign world of Okinawa armed with nothing but these instructions for a taxi driver to get me to the Yakina village boat docks.

I pushed open the double doors with my B-bag and stepped into the hot August sun and saw long line of yellow taxi cabs. The first cab scooted curbside to a tire squealing stop directly in front of me. The driver bounded out, grabbed my bags, threw them into the trunk and took the paper strip from my outstretched hand. I watched as he fingered the wrinkled sweat stained two inch paper strip. I wondered, “Is the Coast Guard the only service too cheap to provide instructions on a full sheet of paper?”

We drove past business strips with unattractive two to four story block buildings, whitewashed to a eye squinting white. Some had recessed balconies, New Orleans style, with wrought iron fences. Storefronts displayed garish circus-like banners of bright red, yellow and green Kenji characters advertising their wares.

Street lamp poles sprouted from the narrow sidewalks, far enough away from the curb to be pedestrian hazards. Their lights hung in an arc over the streets. Sagging wires stretched across the intersections with horizontally hung traffic lights, green to red, left to right. Odd mini trucks and bantam cars filled the streets, leapfrogging each other with every change of the light as if they were in a frenzied race to get out of town.

My mind was clogged with survival thoughts: How will I ever understand these people? Will anyone from the station be at the boat basin in Yakina? If I miss a scheduled departure, will I have to stay overnight? Where? What kind of shape is the station in? What is Ike village like? The people? God, I miss Carol already! How am I going to make it for a year?
Just then, we capped a rise that revealed a panoramic view of the east coast of Okinawa, exposing a chain of islands on the horizon, a few miles across the small bay, the northernmost being Ikeshima, my ultimate destination.
A thin line of white clouds joined the low islands to separate the blues of sky and bay. It was a scene like a travel brochure that promised an island paradise. A few red roofs and white houses peeked through the green tree clusters as the road curled downhill toward the fishing village of Yakina. The paradise image was soon destroyed by the unwelcome smell of fishing docks. The soaring temperature and stagnant air did not help. High concrete walls squeezed the road. Cement-block houses, with no pretense of architectural design, ugly stains bleeding through their bad whitewash, clustered in protected enclaves.

The docks were busy. Fishing boats, twenty to thirty feet long, were moored the length of the pier. They had low freeboard and open decks. Some had small cockpits on the afterdeck for the engine housing and an open wheel house.
Workers arranged their gear in the shallow well-decks while women, squatting on the pier, knees fully bent, feet flat, repaired damaged nets. They could work in this position with broad brimmed straw hats providing their only shade, for hours on end. One boat was unloading her foul cargo into a miniature truck for transport to market.
The island hopping taxi boat was filling up with passengers and cargo. Men and women in casual kimonos or shorts hauled their shopping trip bounty onto the boat. Children, typically in student uniforms of black pants, white or black shirts, and beanie ball caps, covered the landscape like Maine black flies. Everyone wore rubber flip-flop sandals. Passengers found space among wooden boxes and unattended cargo of chickens and goats in open crates. I found a bench seat near the stern. I was the only non-Asian, wearing a service dress khaki uniform to boot, and I did not turn a single curious head.
The taxi-boat had wooden poles crudely mounted vertically on the sides with a sagging canvas awning stretched between them like a canopy on a four-poster bed. Passengers pushed, shoved, even stepped on each other, as they found space. The Japanese politeness I expected had, apparently, been suspended. Animated motions and raucous high pitched Japanese voices filled the air as everyone squeezed into seats on the deck and cargo boxes. Some even perched atop the rail hanging onto the awning poles to keep from falling overboard.
The taxi-boat captain controlled our departure time based on his estimate of the state of the tide. Neither a clock nor shouted pleas moved him. Shallow reefs and sand bars between the islands lay in wait to punish those who ignored nature’s time. Our captain misjudged it.

We weren’t ten minutes into the trip when a loud scraping sound of the bottom crunching in the sand and coral, brought the boat to an abrupt stop, engine running. Passengers lurched forward, grabbing their flying packages, chicken crates, and each other—we had just run aground.

Arguments ensued, everyone talking, the coxswain shouting directions.
Suddenly, four men passengers jumped over the side into water up to their thighs and began pushing the boat backwards. The captain shifted to full astern, engine whining, the churning propellers now making a frothy, dirty sand and coral backwash swirl around the volunteer salvage-assistants. As we slowly moved off the sand bar, the captain cut the engine, and people settled down, accepting the grounding as just another glitch in their crossing. The men jumped back into the boat, their wet clothes dripping on everyone, and we were on our way again.

As we approached the Ike village pier, my spirits lifted with the sight of a grey Coast Guard jeep and a chief petty officer standing beside it. Chief Armstrong, wearing a tropical khaki short uniform with an overseas cap, saluted smartly. He was tall, and thin with a deeply lined and tanned face that made him look older than his years. He wasted no time hanging around the village. He grabbed my bag threw it into the jeep and said, “Hop in, skipper. You’ll have plenty of time to explore the village. Let’s get you out to the station.”

How Khrushchev Changes My World

It was August 1960. Carol and I sat in the American Airlines lounge at Idlewild Airport (later named JFK International). We talked quietly, self-isolated in our morose bubble from the faceless people around us. It was hard for me to look at her when we did talk; moist eyes were not suitable for an officer in uniform. We had been married a little over two years and we now faced a one year separation.
After twenty-two changes of orders in the last four months, thanks to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, I had finally been dropped from the international political whipsaw. I now held orders to be the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard LORAN Station Okinawa, Japan. My footlocker, however, a victim of the fiasco, was aboard a U.S. Navy transport being delivered to the other side of the globe—Naples, Italy.
The garbled PA announcement sounded like they called my flight. I turned in my seat to face Carol, a strained smile on my face, “Remember, although I’m boarding this plane for San Francisco in a few minutes, you cannot believe I’m really going to end up in Okinawa until you get a post card from there.” She smiled back weakly, gave me a publically presentable kiss on the cheek, and said good bye. I turned and walked toward the boarding ramp. I never looked back.
My initial orders were to station Tarumpitao in the Philippines. But, I was a designated standby emergency relief, so I attended LORAN school one cycle early and my orders read “….unless relief is required elsewhere earlier, report for duty to the CG LORAN Station Tarumpitao Point, Philippines Islands. “Unless” was the key word.

I had focused on Trumpitao. The station was located on the western tip of the island of Palawan in a heavy jungle area. I exchanged letters with the current CO who shared a few photos and gave me a heads-up as to what he found to be important concerns: Keeping the jungle from encroaching on the grass air strip, the station’s lifeline; preparing for the inevitable raid from hostile Borneo Pirates (an active tribe of headhunters from nearby Borneo); and avoiding the poisonous cobras that were often found on the station, most recently, one wrapped around the door handle of the CO’s quarters.

I could prepare for the first two. I would keep hacking away at the jungle, and give the pirates whatever the hell they wanted. They usually took food and a small weird selection of “trinkets” for souvenirs. It was the King Cobras that gave me pause.

My first change of orders came two days before I completed Loran school. I was now assigned as the PCO of a new Loran C station that the Coast Guard was building at the site of Rite 3. That was the classified code name for a secret location that the headquarters message assured me, “I would know when I needed to know.” The people at Loran school couldn’t even answer my question, “So, do I pack a fur parka or pith helmet and shorts?”

Eventually, I knew I was going to L’Estartit, Spain, on the Mediterranean coast in the crescent of the Spanish, French, and Italian Riviera. I was to report during the last phase of construction in July and be the CO when it was commissioned. It would eventually be a family station, a two year assignment, and I could bring Carol over probably for the second year.
That is, until the NY Times Headline on May 1 1960.

“Soviets Down American Plane;
U.S. Says It Was Weather Craft;
Khrushchev Sees Summit Blow.”

President Eisenhower issued statements that our U-2 spy plane was a “weather observer” that had navigational problems and inadvertently drifted over the Russian air space. Then Premier Khrushchev, in one of the great diplomatic “gottcha” moves, revealed that he had in fact captured our pilot and his pictures of their ICBM sites. Colonel Powers was now in a Russian prison. The Eisenhower administration, greatly embarrassed, caught spying and lying, needed to lay low, especially after Khrushchev’s speech, “….U.S. must not build another military base on foreign soil…”

After twenty-one go-nogo changes to my orders, Carol and I were on leave at her family’s house on Long Island, only a few days from my departing for Spain, Then, the Western Union man came to the door. Of course, the message was for me, “Report without delay to CCGD3(p) for change in orders”. Carol and I made the short drive to New York City without comment. Carol cooled her heels in Battery Park while I seethed my way to the third floor of CG District Office. Now I was going to Okinawa, Japan.

I gazed out my window seat in the Boeing 707 across the tarmac to the large terminal windows knowing that Carol was among the crowd watching the takeoff. Cross country flights with the new jet powered passenger planes, only in their second year, still drew a crowd who cheered each takeoff in amazement.
I had a short stopover in San Francisco and a long flight to Honolulu where I met with a few other Loran CO’s for a two day logistics briefing from the 14th District engineering staff. Then on to Tokyo and a short welcome from the Commander, Far East Section. His yeoman handed me a piece of paper and said, “Sir, this has instructions in Japanese for you to show the taxi driver. You’ll have to catch a local taxi-boat from Yakina Basin to get to your station. Good luck, Sir.” Finally–I was on the last leg to Okinawa. I thought, “If our marriage stood up through this transfer, we were meant to be.”

At the Tokyo airport I stopped at the magazine counter, picked up a picture postcard of an Okinawan Shinto shrine and its famous Torii Gate and scribbled a short note, “Finally on a plane to Okinawa for last leg. Wish you were here. See you in a year. Love, Dick.”
My footlocker arrived in November

The Colonel’s War is Not Over

Having skated by the Marine Colonel on the beach in the morning when I interrupted his amphibious war game, I was a bit concerned about returning to the beach in the afternoon to pick up our M-boat for transfer back to Ikeshima. I had barely turned off the main highway when I discovered “the war was not over, and I was still in the “battle zone.”

Fierce fighting was taking place in the scruffy growth near the roadside as the blue army made progress against the red defensive positions. I could hear gunshots including machine gun fire all around me.
Suddenly a marine jumped from the downhill side of my jeep and began running alongside firing blanks over the hood at an enemy he had apparently seen on the uphill side.

I was startled, but kept going at a slow pace down the curvy dirt road, the shooter running alongside, until the enemy jumped up on the hill, the two of them now firing at each other and hollering, “I got you.”
“No, man, I got you first.”
“The hell you did, you can’t use that jeep for cover; it’s not part of the exercise.”
“Is too. You’re dead, man!” At this point an officer umpire, I presumed because of the green arm band, leaped onto the road in front of me signaling everyone to a stop. I hit the brakes, and I think I may have even put my arms in the air a little, as the marines continued arguing.
The umpire quickly settled the argument.

In his senatorial voice and boring finality he announced, “Although the jeep is not officially part of the exercise, the blue invader showed marine initiative taking advantage of changing situations. The red defender is dead, the blue marine may continue.” Without another word, he waved me to continue.

About a quarter mile further, I came upon a roadblock with an armed sergeant stopping traffic and a machine gun nest set up at the side of the road behind a small sand bag bunker. I went through my story, figuring I had an advantage now. From the top of the hill, we could see our LCM coming back across the bay for the pickup, but the sergeant was not impressed. He knew navy vessels were grey and this black LCM approaching could very well be a third country vessel trying to pick up a spy! At his invitation, I accepted the armed guard who road with me while I followed the sergeant to battalion HQ.

Oh man! The battalion commander was my marine colonel friend from the beach. I felt better when he smiled and said, “So, you’re still around here causing trouble Lieutenant?”
“I hope not sir”
“I’ve heard that your LCM was on the way to pick you up, so I’m giving you a non-combat pass that will keep you out of trouble until you get out of here.” He was laughing.
“I’m really sorry for the trouble sir”, I apologized again, “we normally get message notice for this sort of thing. I don’t know what happened.
“Where you from Lieutenant?”
“Pennsylvania, Sir. Small town in Northwest, called Bradford.”
“You go to the Coast Guard Academy in New London?”
“Yes, Sir, class of ‘57.”
“You know, there was a lad about your vintage from my home town, Upper Sandusky Ohio, who went to the Coast Guard Academy, can’t remember his name.
I smiled and ventured a guess,“Would it be Tom Matteson, sir? How many other CGA grads around my age could there be from Upper Sandusky, Ohio? Tom always reminded us that, strangely, it was below Sandusky.
“By God, that is the name.”
“Yes, Sir, Tom’s a classmate. He’s in flight school now.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Yes Sir.” Was that the correct response?
I never had a chance to tell that story to Tom until our 50th reunion at the Coast Guard Academy. He was pretty sure he knew the Colonel’s family. Tom, retired as a Rear Admiral and Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy. He was later appointed as the Superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY.

The Colonel’s War

My beautiful picture
Loading the LCM for Kim Bay crossing

The lingering breeze from last night’s storm threatened to spill the fog from Kin Bay onto the station. Petty officer first class Smith rapped once on my office screen door.
“We’re good to go, sir. I just came from the beach. It’s damned foggy and the bay is still moving around a good bit, but I don’t think we’ll have a problem.”
“Thanks, Smith, I’ll be ready to roll in 10.” I had considered canceling the routine supply run, but the weather report called for clearing, and the wind was expected to die down, so getting back from the main Island of Okinawa in the afternoon was not going to be a problem. Smith was an experienced LCM coxswain, and I had great confidence in him.

The M boat was bobbing a bit, even in our protected cove, as I backed the jeep up the ramp and into position in front of our truck. Smith brought the ramp up, backed out expertly, made the pivot and headed out into the bay. The choppy waves pounded the flat ramp like a hammer trying to stop our forward motion. Visibility was less than a two hundred yards.
Half way into the seven mile crossing, an offshore breeze from the main island joined forces with the rising sun to lift the veil of fog. The coxswain called out, “Sir, we’ve got a problem here!”
I got out of the jeep, moved aft to climb the ladder leading to the cockpit. Before I got to the top I could clearly see “the problem.” We had blindly moved into the middle of a joint military exercise. We were surrounded by Amphibious Attack Transports, (APA’s), with their brood of LCVP’s and LCM’s circling them, like ducklings clinging to their mothers, their assault troops at the ready. The assault task force included a few Navy destroyer escorts and minesweepers.

Our uninvited and unexpected black Coast guard utility vessel was the ugly duckling in the middle of a gray Pacific Fleet Task Force! I envisioned Jeff Chandler, in the movie Away All Boats, on the wing of the command ship, all squinty eyed and strong jawed, preparing to give the signal to attack.

I grabbed the binoculars, and scanned the beach. A hazy picture of bleachers filled with military observers emerged in the thinning fog. There was at least one general’s flag flying along with two foreign ensigns. It was too late now.
“Smith, take us in slowly, get us unto the beach so we can get the hell out of the way. Then you go back to the station and I’ll call on land line to set up a pick-up time. Think you can hold it steady in this surf?”
“Yes, sir. It’s not too bad; we can off-load OK.”
The ramp splashed onto the beach, the stern rose and fell with the wavelets, but Smith held us steady with his skillful use of engines and rudder. A two foot wide coil of wire, slapping in the surf about 3 feet in front of our ramp, was not a welcome mat. I moved to the top of the ramp. From the front of the bleachers about 50 yards to the right I saw a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, direct from central casting, a cigar stub in his mouth, sleeves rolled up. He was unperturbed by the sloshing water that soaked his pants half way up his calf. His combat boots cut angry deep divots in the wet sand. He stopped in front of our ramp. “Who the hell are you and where the hell did you come from?” He was steaming.
“Sir, I’m Lieutenant (JG) Marcott, CO of the Coast Guard Loran station on Ikeshima,” I saluted sharply and pointed toward the island. “Sir, I’m sorry to break up the exercises, but we received no message traffic about this. Clearly we would have never made our supply run today had I known.”
“I don’t give a damn about that,” he bellowed, “What I’m pissed about is we’ve held up this exercise for over an hour because the God damned Navy says it’s still too rough in here to land their boats!!” (His language throughout this exchange was a little more Marine-like.)
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. “Well sir, we’re pretty serious about our run—we’re after bread, milk and letters from home!”
I gulped then waited for what seemed an eternity. The colonel’s icy stare burned holes into my head, then suddenly he turned toward the beach and ordered, “Someone—anyone, cut this damned wire and clear a way for this man across the beach—Now! Then tell the Navy to get this damned show on the road!” Did I detect a slight smile?
I wasted no time getting across the beach, and up the road, passing units of the “red army” dug in, and waiting for the amphibious assault of the “blue army.” The Colonel’s war was about to begin.

Holiday Exchange

In mid-July I was invited to share the O-bon Festival with a village family. A major holiday, this “Feast of the Dead,” is celebrated for eight days in Japan; on Okinawa it is limited to three. It marks a reunion with the spirits of the dead family members who return to the world of the living for a visit.


Ryukuan tomb
Wealthy Family tomb

The eve of the first day was a time to visit family tombs. Every family has one. It may be a simple small cave dug into the hillside, or an open jar of bones placed in a marked natural alcove in the side of the hill. The wealthy often built a concrete structure that might have been more expensive than their house. A standard design had a turtle-shaped dome and a small door similar to the tunnel entrance into the more familiar Eskimo Igloo.

Copy of Bone Urn
Poor family tomb

In a different era, it was the job of the youngest unmarried woman of the family to enter the tomb and cleanse any remaining flesh off the bones of departed family members. The bones were then placed in decorative vases in the rear of the tomb, cleansing the spirits for their visit to the earthly world and making room for more family members. Cremation has begun to eliminate this ancient practice, although I have heard that some traditional families in rural areas might still practice this.  Ikeshima? I don’t know.

I arrived in the afternoon of first day of the feast, when the family gathers for a meal in their shrine room (chashitsu, a small formal tea room) in their home. My hostess welcomed me with gracious bows as she pointed for me to enter. She wore a beautiful kimono of colorfully patterned silk, her hair meticulously piled high on her head, held there by several large combs. A broad sash, obi, circled her waist several times. I bowed in return, thanked her, “Domo arigato gozaismasu.” She smiled at my more formal “thank you very much,” not just “thanks.”
I placed my white bucks (I was in tropical white uniform) alongside the row of getas (Japanese wooden sandals) on the single step leading into the raised chashitsu. The room was small, 9ft x 9ft, with no furniture except the low table in the middle of the room. The purity of the atmosphere was enhanced by the pale off-white light that filtered through the rice paper sliding doors, and the strong odor of incense that burned in a small dish in the Tokonoma.

Illustration only of Tokonoma. this is not a picture of the one in my home visit.

The Tokonoma, a shrine-like recess in the wall, was decorated with a single vase with long pussy willow-like branches that stretched high above its rim on one side next to the burning incense. A  vertical scroll with large hand-painted Japanese Kanja characters that said “something suitable for the season,” hung on the back wall. The Tokonoma was unquestionably the focal point of the room.
I was seated at one end of the table facing the shrine. Four family members were seated, two on each side of the table. The guest of honor’s place was opposite me where he would be framed by the Takonoma at his back. Others, when looking at him, would then see him as if he were included in a three dimensional religious scene. In this case, of course, the seat remained empty, having been reserved for the expected ancestral spirit. There was a small dish of cut fruit set at each place—including the empty seat of honor.
The ladies spoke in subdued tones, half Japanese, half English, trying to explain key points of the holiday. I had a basic idea what to expect, but when the moment came, I confess that I entered a whole new dimension.
One of the women at the other end of the table suddenly thrust her arms out over the table, palms down, and let out a loud SSSSHHHH. Everything stopped. She continued the SSSHHH-ssshhh gradually lowering the volume as well as her hands until they were touching the table.

There was a long pause, and then she whispered in a barely audible voice, “Ghosto come.”

When I saw the intensity on the face of the others as they directed their attention toward the empty seat, I just knew that all of them felt a new presence. For a moment, I wasn’t sure about me! The rising hairs on my arms sent me into a physical shudder.
Part of me wanted to get out of there, part of me wanted to stay. Low level conversation in Japanese continued for a while as we ate the fruit on our plates. I was no longer involved. I found myself thinking, “Are they talking about the spirit— or talking to him?”
After an eternity of fifteen minutes or so, the ceremony was over. We thanked each other for the opportunity to share the O-Bon, and I returned to the station. The religious rapture I saw on the faces of the Japanese ladies when the spirits arrived reminded me of the look on elderly Italian ladies kneeling, reciting the rosary, in the wooden pews of St. Bernard’s church at home. Though each communed with a very different Great-Spirit, they both seemed at peace in their own world.

The second day of O-Bon was more like a family reunion, where they exchanged gifts and payed homage to their ancestors. The final day was a time for gay festivities, shows, and dances that lead up to the final send-off. Sugar canes were cut to length and placed outside the tomb as walking sticks to assist their ancestors in their return journey to the land-of-the-spirits.

In return for the wonderful O-Bon experience, I invited a small group to share an American holiday. I always considered Halloween and Thanksgiving as uniquely American, but I ruled out Halloween as too close to O-Bon. They might think we were “making fun of it.” So, the Mayor’s party of six joined us for our “Coast Guard Loran Station Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner.” The four women were dressed for a special occasion in their colorful formal kimonos. The men wore suits and ties.
Our skilled cook took pleasure in preparing a traditional meal. We had a huge carved turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, dressing, the whole works. While the mess hall lacked traditional decorations beyond a centerpiece of fruits and nuts, the aroma of roasting turkey and pumpkin pies stirred hints of homesickness in many of our young crewmen who were thousands of miles from home.

Our guests joined our key petty officers and me at a head table. After the round of normal bows, they shook hands, and then giggled with their fingers appropriately covering their mouth, lest they offend.
The women looked nervous as they watched and copied the mayor’s every move. They all seemed overwhelmed with the abundance of food, and confused by the complications of using knives and forks.

Everyone was intrigued. They all enjoyed the taste of turkey, ham, and all the veggies, but they loved the pumpkin pie. Their animated expressions and rapid Japanese chatter told me they understood and enjoyed our house-boy Seiji’s rendition of the “Story of American Thanksgiving.”
When the ritual cigars were offered at the end of the meal, the women, seeing the Mayor take one, did the same. By the time I noticed, they had already followed the mayor… and lit up. I didn’t want to embarrass them, so I said nothing. After three or four puffs, lots of smoke, and a few coughs, one lady ceremoniously placed her cigar in an ashtray, the others followed. They very graciously took it all in stride. It was a great day for everyone.