Gathering thoughts for a trip down memory lane that occurred 44 years ago was an experience in itself. My mind was flooded with flashes of people, places and events. I realized my interpretation of these thoughts had been tempered by the passage of time and my own maturation process. The greatest revelation was the role that the years 1950 – 1952 played on the rest of my life.
Becoming a Department of the Army civilian or DAC, all began one foggy February morning in 1950. Arriving at school, my Principal greeted me saying she wanted me to be sure and read what she had just posted on the bulletin board. It was a very official looking letter from the Department of the Army (DOA) announcing the recruitment of teachers for the Overseas Dependent Schools.
Encouraged by my parents and Principal, I decided to apply for a position. The ritual of forms and paperwork had begun. The sequence of events, as remembered, are as follows:
Interviewed in Los Angeles at the Employment Office on a Saturday morning.
Telegram arrived offering a position in Japan.
Physical examination was scheduled at Norton Air Force Base, California on a day when it was 110 in the shade.
After the Korean War started DoD offered the opportunity to renege on the contract.
I was not aware of anyone who reneged.
In July, before returning to Japan, Margret Lynch had a luncheon at her mother’s home in Glendale for the teachers assigned to Japan from the Southern California area.
Marg had the list of the places where we would be assigned in Japan.
I found out that I was going to be in Tokyo at Narimasu Elementary School teaching first grade.
Travel orders arrived with a voucher for a train ticket from Los Angeles (LA) to San Francisco (SF).
It was an excited group that departed from LA on a Sunday night
Buddy Cutts, Bob Martin, Sam, Bill and Stan are names that come to mind.
We spent most of the night talking and getting to know one another.
We were bused to Fort Mason on Monday morning to start the processing procedure.
Our group included about 20 and we quickly learned what hurry up and wait meant.
We moved as a group through these unfamiliar surroundings.
Lots of unanswered questions, lots of laughter, lots of excitement and lots of wondering about what was next.
Given our final shots, I thought we were given every shot known to mankind in preparation for this journey to Japan.
After lunch, we were informed that we were not going on a troop transport but 1st class on the President Cleveland, sailing in a few days.
A flurry of shopping in SF for wardrobe changes.
Sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge at about 4:30 in the afternoon.
My parents had come to SF to see me off and there was my mother standing on the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge waving a sheet.
Our group waved back with pillowcases.
It was a cruise of a lifetime, 22 days of luxurious fun, eating, cocktail parties, dancing, swimming, deck sports, movies … all things that cruises offer now but for most of us it was a first.
A wonderful daylong stop in Honolulu.
In 1950 there were only three hotels on Waikiki Beach.
We passed through a not-so-wonderful typhoon.
Attendance in the dining room diminished for a day or two.
Water was poured on the tablecloths to keep the dishes from sliding and the chairs were anchored down.
Climate for most of the trip was balmy and we would sit out on deck after the dancing ended and swim and talk and sing until the wee hours.
Troops were carried in 3rd class and every time I hear the song Goodnight Irene” the memory comes back of how it sounded with the troops singing it over and over again as the ship glided through the still waters under starry skies.
Sailed in to Yokohama and were met by an Army Band.
Marg Lynch came aboard with the assignment for everyone.
Army buses waited to take us to our respective destinations.
Mine was the Old Kaijo Hotel in Tokyo.
FIRST IMPRESSION OF JAPAN
Everything so small … the people, the trees, the buildings and the roads.
Evidences of the ravages of war from Yokohama to Tokyo.
Feeling as though I was in another world.
Changing money, Scrip for American, even paper 5-cent pieces, Yen for Japanese, 360 to the dollar.
Memorizing lists of Army abbreviations.
Buses and trains leave on time.
Allied cars on the trains and all free.
35 mile per hour maximum speed limit.
Driving on the wrong side of the road.
Charcoal burning taxis and local buses.
Overwhelming smell at first.
Our hotel was just across the street from the Imperial Palace Grounds.
Hotel living was going to be different.
My roommate was not a teacher, but Emily Phalen, Gladys Bentson and Audrey Mitchell were just down the hall.
Audrey Mitchell had been my cabin mate on the ship.
Several of the Cleveland-ites ended up in Tokyo.
Marg Lynch was the Principal at Narimasu.
She lived at the Old Kaijo too and was a great help in guiding us through those first days in Japan.
BEGINNING MY TEACHING EXPERIENCE
Two weeks before school started we had daily orientations.
And classroom preparation time.
Maxine Jevne and Rosella Cabin were Assistant Principals.
Bus left our building at 7:30 and arrived in Grant Heights at 8:10.
The route included one stop at Sugamo Prison.
Narimasu Elementary School and High School had students from the Grant Heights housing area, Camp Drake and Camp Drew.
The school was large.
We had eight first grades, seven second grades, four third grades, three fourth grades, two fifth grades, two sixth grades plus teachers for Art, Music, PE, Library and Japanese Culture.
There were 1100 students and our class sizes ranged from 35 to 42.
With the Korean War there was a freeze on dependents coming to Japan in 1950, but in 1951 the freeze was lifted.
It seemed children were always coming and going as fathers were transferred.
Class always started with the flag salute and the school song.
We taught reading in three groups.
Wonderful library that served both the school and the community with Lorraine Rushfeldt as Librarian.
Was great fun and inspiring to work with such dedicated first grade teachers as Betsy Bacon, Las Swift, Irene Wallace-Kelly, Carol Alworth, Emily Phalen, Ann Parsons and Louise McArthur.
Carol Alworth, Mildred Budkke (Yoyogi) and I roomed together most of the first year.
Of the teachers, Dottie East and Louise Acton became life long friends.
Each teacher was unique and left a lasting memory.
Who could ever forget Lottie Hacket (I am smiling now as I write her name).
She had a birthday on the ship coming home.
It was the day we crossed the International Dateline so she had two of them and commented that teaching at Narimasu had put two years on her life.
We had a long teachers meeting once a week.
Coffee always available and smoking permitted.
Twice a month we had a joint school meeting at the Finance Building in downtown Tokyo.
We also picked up our paychecks there.
Salary for beginning teacher that year was $3825/year. However, shortly after we arrived hazard duty pay was added to our salaries.
Classrooms light and airy.
Discipline problems minimal.
Great rapport with parents.
Magnificent unobstructed view of Mt. Fuji from the playground at school.
Froze on yard duty during the winter months.
Added many Japanese words to our everyday vocabulary, such as dozo, sukoshi, takusan, arigato, and chotomate kudasai, to name a few.
Asoaka-san, who handled the supply room, taught me how to open the jar of paste by putting a rubber band on the lid. I have used the technique to this day on jars of all kinds.
Air raid drills as well as fire drills.
Seeing the Chaplain at school and knowing it meant another father had been killed or wounded in Korea
Japanese cut the grass at school with scissors.
Braided rice straw ropes thrown over the roof of the school to hold it on during typhoons.
Bamboo scaffolding held together with rice straw rape.
Building a wooden fire escape to the second floor of the school.
Japanese the original recyclers. There was never any trash or anything thrown away.
PTA attendance was mandatory for teachers. Commanding General of Grant Heights was the PTA President and there was standing room only at the meetings.
PTA had raffle on a Jaguar that made $3000 for supplies and equipment for the school.
The shock to all the teachers when the children decided to reenact the Civil War on the playground one morning.
On the way to school each day we passed the “honey bucket brigades.”
My one memory of true panic happened one day just after Christmas vacation was over. During the holidays, dependents were allowed to voluntarily return to the U.S. because in early December the Chinese Communists had entered the Korean conflict on the side of North Korea. Several families did leave as the war escalated. Fear and uncertainty apparently on the minds of many. On the day I am referring to, just after class started a squadron of planes flew over the school. The children in my class started screaming “The Chinese, The Chinese!” and all ran to the windows. It was pandemonium for a few seconds, then one of my children whose father was a Top Sergeant said in a loud voice, “If you all shut up, Miss Mjellem will tell us what to do!” He saved the day. When someone had that much confidence in you, you rose to the occasion. The screaming stopped and the children returned to their seats and we discussed procedures that would take place in the event of an air raid. I still get a chill when I hear a panic scream from a child.
MORE RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT THE WAY IT WAS WHEN
Shopping or weekend travel a must.
Shopping at the main PX on the GINZA almost guaranteed that you would meet someone you knew before you came to Japan.
Special Service Rest Hotels were $1.50 per night.
Books of meal chits ran about $15 a month and could be used in any designated Mess, including Rest Hotels.
Carol, Mid and I sharing a maid named Yoko-san. We each paid her $1 per month.
No buildings more than seven stories.
Off to Gifu to see the cormorant fishing.
Oshima Island to see the active volcano.
The hotel and beach at Zushi.
Golfing at Miyanoshita.
Bicycling at Lake Hakone.
Skiing at Akakura and watching the Japanese skiers on their slopes using barrel staves with rice straw binding.
Christmas vacation in Kyoto visiting cloisonné factories. So-called factories often consisted of one room with dirt floor and a few artists at work.
Seeing yards of silk in the river to wash the dye out.
Visiting world famous Buddhist temples.
Watching lacquer-ware being made, master artisans of old would spend a lifetime to create one perfect piece.
Feeding the deer in the Deer Park in Nara.
Enjoying the magnificent gardens throughout Japan.
Easter vacation Audrey Mitchell and I took the train to Kyushu to see Nagasaki and to climb Mt. Aso, an active volcano.
Viewing cherry blossoms was spectacular.
The Japanese lining the streets from the American Embassy to Haneda Airport, bowing with tears in their eyes at the departure of General Douglas MacArthur.
Ending my memoirs of my two years in Japan would not be complete without adding that I met my husband-to-be the day after I arrived in Tokyo. We were married in September 11,1953, at my parents ranch in Valley Center, California. Dottie East and Gladys Bentson helped us celebrate that happy day. Bill St. George and I enjoyed Army life until his retirement in 1965. Our daughter Ginny was born at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and our son Marty were born in Paris, France.
I treasure all the memories and as time passes only the good ones come to mind. Each of the thoughts expressed in my memories carries a story with it. Should any of you who were in Japan during those years ever read them, I know they will trigger thoughts in your memory. A wise person once said his definition of humor was emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.