River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Joe Japan - The Return

November 2006

Part 2 of Fran's diary for his latest return to Japan

Another short ride took us to the mine entrance which was blocked off by two large solid steel doors. I immediately felt disappointed as I had hoped to look inside but need not have worried, as shortly after, a miner arrived with the key sent up by the mine management. I was so pleased I was able to go inside and touch the rock walls, it made my day. We had stopped on our way to the mine to pick up a man who was a child when I worked there. I asked him if he knew of the mine collapse in 1945. "Yes", he replied "there was also a collapse in 1942 and 1943." I would not have felt so safe had I known that.

It was then time to return to Kamaishi to meet the mayor. We entered the Council Offices where we were greeted by the Mayor. He said he was very pleased that I had returned to Kamaishi and thanked me for doing so. We all indulged in a traditional cup of green tea and, on leaving, he thanked me again and to show his appreciation gave me some locally farmed caviar.

A visit to the harbour was next. It had not changed at all; this was a sight I shall never forget. My mind went back to 15th September 1945! I could see the place where I walked down the ramp of the landing craft with my companions to be taken to the hospital ship in the bay with its escort destroyers. As I looked out at the bay I could still see the ships there, waiting. It was an amazing feeling; one that I cannot forget.

Our final stop was the steel works. It was explained to me that steel was brought here from other works in Japan now to produce steel wire for car tyres and iron dust for disc brake pads. The blast furnaces were destroyed during the air raids and bombardment on 9th August 1945 and were never rebuilt. These had been the first western type in Japan; built in 1857. Their remains are now a museum site. Now it was a hasty retreat as we bad only 25 minutes left to return to the hotel for a quick shower and change before presenting ourselves to a formal dinner with invited guests in honour of my visit.

Friday 2nd June

Today I had rather a daunting task ahead of me! I had been asked to speak to 460 students, school officials and some parents about my imprisonment in Ohasi and the work I did in the mine. I had never spoken to an audience this size before. On arrival we were taken to the headmaster's office for introductions then sat round the table to drink tea and have a chat. Then it was time for me to face my waiting audience. Clapping started as soon as we entered the hail. Yoshiko sat beside me on the stage to interpret and so I began.

There was complete silence as I spoke which made me more comfortable and relaxed as the students listened intently. I spoke of the ups and downs of life during the two and a half years 1 spent at the Ohasi camp, also of the freedom when the war ended and we were all released. I had managed to explain life as it was at the camp in the hour allotted, the students now had just thirty minutes in which to question me; they didn't waste any time. The boys asked endless questions which I answered in turn until the headmaster interrupted to say time had run out. Then a boy and girl both made a speech on behalf of the students thanking me for coming and presented with a symbol of Kamaishi city. I replied that it had been my pleasure. On leaving, the headmaster told me he was surprised at the students' interest and the number of questions asked. As I made a final attempt to leave, all the boys crowded round wanting to shake my hand. I was as surprised as the headmaster was at the amount of interest shown.

Outside the minibus was waiting to take us to the station. As we waved and said our goodbyes to the Kamaishi people, there was a warm feeling that we all had enjoyed the visit and meeting each other.

Returning to Hanemaki railway station we boarded a Bullet Train to Morioka where the fast track ended. We then changed platforms for an ordinary express to Hakodate. During the change over I noticed a member of the railway staff point me out to another so I assumed he had seen my visit on the T.V news the evening before although I did not see it myself. The express was fairly fast speeding past mountain scenery and through several tunnels, the longest tunnel was the one under the sea to the island of Hokkaido which 1 understand is one of the longest in the world, arriving in Hakodate at dusk. It was 7.3Opm and much cooler with cherry blossom still in bloom. Our hotel was just a short distance from the station across a large open square. We were feeling rather weary after another busy day so had our evening meal then retired to be ready for another busy day ahead of us tomorrow.

Saturday 3rd June

Meeting in the hotel foyer we had breakfast then went to the waiting press cars that were to take us to the old Hakodate camp site. On arrival I was introduced to the man who had bought the site on which the old prison camp had stood. He was now in the process of using the old huts to build a restaurant which would include rooms for paying guests. It was not yet completed; the decorating was still to be done. It had splendid views of the sea and bay which had been hidden from POW's view by the high wooden fence that surrounded the camp, today it was a splendid summer's day.

The next surprise was that I met a local historian named Mr. Asari who, with me, was to plant a rose and black pine tree in the grounds overlooking the sea. My daughter Angela was asked to throw some earth then water them in, Bari was kept busy taking photos alongside the press men in attendance. A wooden board was put in place with the date and my name on it which was to be replaced at a later date with a granite stone engraved to commemorate my visit. This task completed, I was then shown round inside the building. It was built from the old aged timber and a quarantine sign was screwed to a wall, a relic from one of the huts. The crematorium was further up the hill with a glass door front now that could have been anywhere. Further down the hill was a small cafe overlooking the bay. We sat in the garden and had lunch; Russian food - Borsch and a Cornish Pasty type pastry with a herb filling.

After lunch our next call was to a Buddhist Temple built in 1643. This was where the ashes of POWs who died in Hakodate were kept until the end of the war. Why I was given Bill's ashes I don't know. Was it because I helped carry him up the hill to the old brick crematorium, or was it because I washed and fed him? I'll never know.

The docks were the next stop. I was told it was still the old dry dock that had been there for 106 years! I remembered this place very well with the winter winds and snow coming in off the sea. A ferry boat was now in the dock looking very smart with its finishing coats of paint. I could still feel that cold wind there even on this glorious sunny summer day so felt the need to don the zip up jacket I had taken along. The place had not changed and I had no wish to linger there. The two reporters from the Hakodate newspaper were taking us to the Cable Car Station and on our way we drove through the old quarters of Hakodate close to the old camp and saw the old British Embassy, the Chinese Centre and the Russian Church; throwbacks of the fish industries of the 1800s. The Press left us when we reached the station to return to their newspaper offices to write their reports. We then rode to the top of Hakodate mountain where we enjoyed stunning views of the town, the harbour and the twin coastline.

Another busy day out over, we returned to our hotel, then told we would be dining at a French Restaurant that evening. Taxis took us to Bees Bee Restaurant where we were welcomed by elderly couple; their Buddhist Monk son was to join us later.

The restaurant had been closed to other diners and a grand piano installed with a pianist playing western music. Several courses of food were served; excellent roast beef being the main course. Champagne and the finest wines made it a superb meal. Well sated and expecting to say our thank you and goodbye to our hosts we were surprised to be told that the evening was not over yet. Two cars waited outside to take us to the top of Mount Hakodate once again so that we could see the city lights on this clear night. A stunning view and an apt finale to an outstanding evening as the cars returned us to our hotel.

To be continued next month

Frank Planton

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