Turner, Vera: Tachikawa, Japan: 1947-1948

On a cold, gray, rainy day mid October of 1947, four travel-weary teachers from California arrived at Tachikawa Army Air Base where the 317th Troop Carrier Group was stationed.

After two weeks on a stormy voyage from Fort Mason, San Francisco, to Yokohama aboard the troop transport, M.M. Patrick, and processing at 5th Amy Air Force Headquarters in Nagoya, we were ready and eager to assume our teaching positions as the last group of teachers to be assigned there. At the time of our arrival on the base, the School Board was in session. The presiding officer of the School Board had given orders for us to be brought to the meeting as soon as our suitcases had been deposited at our living quarters, which were in a Quonset hut.

Silently slipping into the room and taking our seats next to the door and against the wall, we watched intently to the proceedings and listened with interest to the discussion-taking place.

The Commanding Officer (CO) of the base was the self-appointed School Board President. Members of the Board represented military ranks ranging from Colonel to Master Sergeant.

One of the dependent mothers presented the case for establishing a kindergarten class. She gave supporting reasons for the Board to adopt such a proposal. At the conclusion of the presentation, the CO turned to the other Members of the Board soliciting opinions from each one in rank order. His comments after each response were that was not what I wanted to hear.” However, without further comments, a final decision was made by the CO to establish a kindergarten class. Attention then was directed towards the four of us sitting quietly against the wall.

The CO was decisive in his directions to us. Shaking a finger in our direction, he stated emphatically that as teachers at Tachikawa Dependent School, “All I want from you is to put brains in their heads!” Of course he meant the children.

Since this was late October, school had been in session for over a month. Women of dependent families with some teaching experience had been hired to teach until our arrival. These women were relieved that we had finally arrived. Their teaching conditions had not been entirely pleasant. The Acting Principal was the wife of a CO at a small Army base near-by. She had used her husband’s rank and position to control and intimidate them.

Being warned of this dire situation, we were apprehensive about our future in working effectively under such circumstances as described to us. After discussing this situation among us, it was decided two of us would meet with the CO to discuss our concerns. Our meeting with him was pleasant. The CO listened politely. Suddenly, without a word, he swung his swivel chair around to gaze out his office window, apparently in deep thought. Spinning his chair back to face us, he promised to discuss the matter with his wife that evening. Fortunately our wish was granted. Instead of the former principal, a Master Sergeant, with some college background, was assigned to the school to fulfill the position of Acting Principal.

The school building was of new construction. Each classroom had two sliding glass doors-one at the front of the room and the other at the rear. There was new furniture and the usual blackboard at the front of the room. The room had steam heaters, which did not always function when needed.

Home teaching kits were provided each child. The supplies included in the kits were to last throughout the year. Each kit included textbooks, workbooks, pencils, paper and crayons. The teacher’s kit had instructional guidelines for each textbook and workbook and daily lesson plans to follow.

My class was made up of second and third graders. The curriculum had to be adjusted and adapted to each child’s level of development, acquired basic skills and learning interests. Instruction in basic skills was presented in small groups or, if necessary, on an individual basis. Therefore, it was not feasible to follow the lesson plans provided in the kits.

These plans also specified the teaching of ancient history and the use of Roman numerals. Instead, children were taught basic skills in computation rather than Roman numerals and a unit on Japan rather than ancient history. Our conscientious Acting Principal checked periodically to be sure the kit’s lesson plans were being followed. Since the pages of the book were turned each day, he was satisfied we were doing a good job of teaching.

The children were not only well disciplined and eager to learn, but also polite and well-mannered. They always answered “Mam.” Unfortunately, politics entered the school. Mothers were very conscious of their husbands’ ranks and let us know about it. The children often reflected this attitude and would argue with one another about the importance of their fathers’ ranks and positions.

A few children were bused to school from a small Army base near by. Since these children were unable to go home at noon for lunch, teachers took turns taking this group to the officers’ mess and eating lunch with them.

Our Acting Principal was very conscientious about fulfilling what he considered to be the duties and obligations as principal of a school. He had an executive size desk upon which sat an army of buttons to ring bells that would summon Japanese maids, maintenance men, and policeman assigned to the schools. There was also a bell used for recesses.

The teachers congregated in the principal’s office during morning recess for coffee and freshly baked pastries, which he obtained from the Non-Commissioned officers’ mess. Fortunately, an MP was on duty at the school and was assigned to recess duty.

There were days when school had to be closed due to lack of heat. This seemed to be an on-going problem. On warm days, it never failed, there was always an abundance of heat. Yet on cold, snowy days, lo and behold, not even the slightest amount of heat came out of the steam heaters, although the sidewalks outdoors were warmed by leaking steam pipes.

Japanese maintenance crew entered the scene on these mornings. They came in with their huge monkey wrenches, crowbars, hammers and what other tools they thought were needed. They would come to the door of the classroom, slowly slide it open, bow low, point to the heater and enter the room. Then action began. Valves were turned, pipes were banged with hammers, and monkey wrenches were slipped up and down the pipes. They even attempted to crawl under, around and behind the heaters which, in size, were about three feet long, three feet high and one foot wide. With all this activity going on there wasn’t much to do but just watch and wail. By the time these men were finished, they had worked up a sweat-but the heaters still did not operate. Then it was decided that the problem must be in the boiler or a leaking pipe somewhere. Since the room was like a refrigerator and the children were all bundled up in their cold-weather clothes, mittens and knitted caps, it was impossible to do anything but go home for the day.

The spirit of Christmas was centered around the children and their happiness. Children were given many parties during the holiday season. The Base party for them was spectacular. The auditorium was beautifully decorated. A huge Santa Claus, over twenty feet tall, was built of wire and parachute silk. A Christmas tree, with colored lights and decorations, stood as high as the Santa Claus. They were positioned on either side of the stage. From the center of the room hung clusters of huge bells from which streamers were strung about the room. Everything was covered with greenery, adding to the festive appearance. It was the most beautifully decorated room I had ever seen. Teachers had worked for many weeks in preparing the Christmas program put on by the children. Of course, Santa Claus made a special trip from the North Pole to attend the festive celebration and hand out gifts.

On Valentine’s Day there was a class party. Mothers furnished a beautiful, heart-shaped cake and punch. The class presented me with two large Valentines with a photograph of each child pasted upon them. It was a surprise the children had kept for weeks. They kept repeating “We have something on Miss Benstead but we won’t tell. We can’t.”

Later in the year an open house was held for parents to visit the school, see the children’s work on display, and talk with the teacher. Before open house, our conscientious principal fussed about being sure all rooms were in order. He thought every classroom needed an American flag and a picture of George Washington. American flags were easy to obtain, but pictures of George Washington were a different matter. Since these pictures were not readily available, our leader decided to have the MP stationed at the school paint pictures of George Washington. The MP had a little talent for drawing and imagined himself to be a true master. All he needed was a picture from which to copy. Using Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of Washington, he spent one afternoon painting portraits. Through his efforts, each classroom became endowed with one of these paintings. They were hung over the blackboard at the front of the room for all to see. The likeness of Washington was hard to discern, though. One looked as if he had a plug of tobacco stuffed into his lower jaw. Another had the expression of a chipmunk. There was one with a wide, pensive look. The last one appeared with a coy glance. As the MP said with pride, “and I painted them all in one afternoon!” The open house was a success. All the parents were pleased with “The California teachers.” There were many compliments. In fact, parents commented how much the children had learned and knowledge acquired.

In the spring I planned a trip to a silk mill in Tokyo. The Principal was consulted about making arrangements. This was his reply to my inquiry:

Miss Benstead,

Tell Miss Benstead that it is impossible for me to make any more negotiations for her tour to the Silk Mills, which has to be made through Tokyo Red Cross in the Tokyo P.X., so unless she takes the initiative and makes the necessary arrangements, she will have to wait until I return.

Name Withheld

Needless to say, I took the “initiative” and made the “necessary arrangements”.

The journey to Tokyo was long and tiresome. The children enjoyed going through the mill and seeing processes involved from sorting cocoons to pressing skeins into bundles for shipment. With samples in hand, the children returned home tired and happy.

When spring came, everyone had the usual “spring fever”. The children thought of more interesting activities than schoolwork. They came laden with flowers. The room took on the look of a florist shop. There were assortments of a variety of flowers-cherry blossoms, camellias, daffodils, hyacinths and some I had never seen before.

With the study of Japan completed, I decided to take the children into a unit of plants and insects. The children really enjoyed this and collected all kinds of insects to bring to school. One boy collected ants. He put them in a jar, screwed on a lid, and then punched holes in the lid. When he was ready to bring them to school, he was dismayed to discover they had all escaped.

My class became smaller as the end of the school year neared. Many dependents were returning home. Only eighteen students remained when school closed for the summer. Then it was time for me to return home, too. Memories of being a teacher to a delightful group of children at Tachikawa Dependent School have lingered on.

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