An Unexpected Experience


I began serving in the United States Navy in the late 1950s. My first duty was at the submarine base at Vallejo, Calif. After a year there, I was sent to Sasebo, Japan to be assigned to the USS Graffis, a refrigerator ship that supplied our ships in the South China Sea.

The war ships would come alongside our vessel, lines would be secured between the two ships and food supplies would be moved from our ship to the war ship. Our Navy at that time patrolled the South China Sea to make sure all was well in the area and peace maintained between China and its neighbors. The War in Korea had been concluded and my service was before the Vietnam involvement. There was some strife been China and Taiwan over the islands of Kimoi and Matsu as I remember while I was serving in the area.

The USS Graffis, AF-29, had been a five hold cargo refrigerator ship in World War II and was rather old when I went aboard to serve in this ship for a year. We had a crew of about 350 men. We only went to sea to supply the war ships when our Navy in the South China Sea was on maneuvers. Our ship would sit at the dock in Sasebo loading supplies for the next re-supply voyage. These supply trips would usually occur once per month and last approximately two weeks each. We would travel from Japan to Hong Kong and return supplying the U.S. Navy fleet at sea.

When I had liberty (free time off the ship) I would visit various sights of interest within Japan. One late Friday afternoon I decided to take the train and go to Nagasaki for the weekend. The trip took about two-and-a-half hours in those days. I did this in the summer time and in southern Japan the weather can be warm and rather humid.

I boarded the train at the Sasebo station and took my seat in the coach. The train was full of passengers most of which were dressed in the native dress of the period. The ladies wore kimonos and men were dressed in dark suits with white dress shirts and neckties. It soon became very warm inside the rail coach and the men raised the windows to allow air to blow inside. Our engine was steam and the soot from this powerful piece of plumbing and steel soon filled our coach. Not long after the windows were opened most of the men began shedding their shirts and pants leaving them in long johns and the women simply sat in their kimonos looking interested at the scenery. They wouldn’t dare remove anything!

Our train chugged along and finally headed into the Nagasaki rail station. As it did the men quickly dressed and were ready to detrain. I had no plans for the weekend except to get a hotel room and see the sights of the city.

Some will remember that Nagasaki was the second city to be bombed by the United States with atomic force. The bomb pretty much destroyed much of the city with the exception of a few buildings near ground zero. One of these became a museum showing the destruction caused by the atomic bomb with many photos of burned and maimed city dwellers that had survived the bomb. Of course, thousands were killed instantly.

I arrived in the city dressed in civilian clothing. I knew that many of the population remembered the “bomb” attack and I did not think it would be wise to be there in an American Naval uniform.

As I left the train and was walking down the ramp and about ready to enter the station a young man in his early 20s approached me and asked if I was an American. I responded with, “yes”. He introduced himself, bowed, and asked if he could speak with me for a minute. Of course, I said. He stated that his father was the mayor of Nagasaki and also a professor at Nagasaki University. He said the family wanted to practice their English language abilities and would I be interested in being their houseguest for the weekend. He further sated they had a “western style” bedroom for their guests. The “western style” bedroom meant that it had the amenities of a bedroom we had at home: a regular bed – mattress and box springs - and chairs and dresser that you would have in your bedroom. In Japan, in those days, the people sat around on tatami mats using pillows. They slept in something like a sleeping bag on the floor.

This was an interesting proposal, to stay at an important Japanese family’s home for a weekend and to find out what they were all about as they spoke English with me. I thought for a moment and finally said I would enjoy being their guest.

My newfound friend and I walked out of the railroad station to find a cab. The taxi took us to an upscale home in the suburbs. I was nervous, wondering what I had gotten into. We got out of the cab, walked up some steps and a housemaid let us in. It was a typical Japanese home for the period. One takes off shoes at the entry and slips into slippers, which are placed near the door for guests and family. The flooring is tatami mats. There were paper-thin sliding doors to separate rooms.

The mayor and wife greeted me with a respectful bow and I responded with a bow. The mayor’s English was quite good, but his wife needed more practice.

We moved into the living area, sat down on pillows and about this time another son appeared and joined us. He was younger than his brother.

We exchanged light conversation: something about me and more about them.

In mid-afternoon they took me for a sightseeing tour of the city in their automobile. I could see that much of the city had not yet been rebuilt.

That night at dinner we sat on pillows and dined on a sumptuous Japanese feast. The entire family was present and all spoke some English. I was rather uncomfortable since this was a very new experience for me. I think they were nervous also. It was getting late and we all decided it was bedtime.

I was escorted to my “western” room and soon went to bed. I slept like a baby! This was the first time since coming to Japan that I was sleeping in a real bed – not a Navy bunk.

The next morning we all gathered for breakfast, which I remember was much like dog food. Keep in mind I was young and not very experienced in other nation’s foods.

We soon left the home and I was shown more of Nagasaki before being taken to the rail station for the return to Sasebo.

I had to be back on my ship by early Sunday evening.

As time passed while in Japan I frequently spent weekends with my friends in Nagasaki. Before entering the Navy, I had graduated USC and was learning TV production at KOB-TV in Albuquerque, N.M. The mayor knew this and introduced me to the head of NHK, the broadcast equivalent to the BBC in England, and I found their way of TV production quite interesting.

The mayor was also an amateur short wave radio operator and on many occasions I was able to use his overseas radio equipment to talk with friends and family back in the States.

Even today I think about the good times spent with this generous Japanese family while I was stationed in Japan. The mayor’s English improved and I was rewarded with many new experiences.


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