The Heers’ Visit to Hakodate : 10/17 & 18, 2013
Robert and Karen Heer visited to Hakodate. They were with Mrs. Marjean McGrew and her son Steve, the widow and son of late Mr. Alfred McGrew, who were interned in Omori and Suwa POW Camps. (In 2004, Mr. and Mrs. McGrew visited the areas in a trip on their own.)
Mr. Masahiro Kawasaki of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accompanied the group, taking care of the four guests, who graciously accepted the invitation by the Japanese Government. Yuka Ibuki of ”US-Japan Dialogue on POWs also attended them as a volunteer attendant/interpreter.
10/17 Day One
Mr. Masatoshi Asari, a local historian of the Allied POWs held in Hakodate, welcomed the group at the Hakodate International Hotel lobby, with a banner that reads, “America and Japan are Partners Forever.” It is the first visit by an American POW to Hakodate, which Mr. Asari was so excited about.
Heer was sent to Hakodate from Takao in Formosa, arriving on March, 10, 1945, after he had been held in the camps in the Philippines and Taiwan. He was in the Kameda Camp till the end of May, 1945, which happened to fall on the period of 14 months, when Lt. Col. Shigeo Emoto was the Hakodate Main Camp Commandant. (Stars and Stripes articldes on Col. Emoto in 1946).
It was a fine mid-afternoon, although the air was cool and it was a little windy.
Mr. Asari took him first to the approximate site of the Hakodate POW Camp #2 Dispatch Camp Kameda. Currently it has totally changed into a residential area, but Mr. Heer remembered the railway, which ran near the camp. He said it was the best of the eight camps he experienced；clean, the building was quite new, warm so could sleep well, and violence by guards was less. As he was questioned by Mr. Asari, memories came back. ”We walked for around 1.5 km everyday to various spots of the quay, and loaded and unloaded salt, salmon and coal with a big flat coal shovel. Sometimes I’ve eaten a salmon grilled on a fire. The guard gestured us, saying, “Eat, Eat!” When it was crated containers of canned or dried food products, we also hid some fish tins in our clothes, which guards often pretended not to see.” “The food was usually rice and miso soup. I once ate a horse. It was good.” He talked of his strong wish to go home in one piece, all through the time he had been captured as a POW. Mr. Asari responded strongly, “Senso wa warui desu!(War is bad.)” Mr. Heer responded joyously, “Senso warui!”, which excited some media reporters and they asked him to tell more about that topic.
He told two episodes after the end of the war, which happened in Akabira POW Camp, where he and the other POWs had been slave labored in an old and dangerous coal mine, from June 1945 to the surrender of Japan. (Please refer to POW Research Network Site at: http://www.powresearch.jp/en/archive/camplist/index.html.) Before returning to his family, he wanted to find some presents to bring home, so he visited a little village shop. The owner of the shop must have been his own age, but he and his wife were so afraid and they tried to run off as soon as Heer went in. Heer tried to calm them down, with a few Japanese words he had learned and gestures, and at last they understood after some time. On his way back to the POW Camp, someone came running after him, calling, “Matte, matte..(Please wait!)” It was a man of around fifty years old, and he asked Heer by gestures for some match and soap. The POWs had received the aid goods parachuted into the camps, which he must have seen. Heer promised he’d come back and meet him the next day at the same place. The next day, the man was so glad to receive some matches and soap from Heer, and he took him to his home, where his wife cooked the last of their chickens, and the three sat around dinner and had a lovely time.
During the car ride to the next site, it became clear what Mr. Heer meant was, “Senso Owari!(War is over!)”, the Japanese words that have come back to him, which he and other POWs shouted with joy when they knew of their liberation. There was a little confusion between ‘warui’ and ‘owari’, which really impressed us how strong Heer’s determination to make it home alive through all the difficulties he and the others had.
The group proceeded to the Arikawa Quay, where the POWs must have been forced to labor as stevedores. He mentioned about locations of some buildings out of his memories. Then he said, “I can’t believe it, but I’ve come back.” Then humorously he added, “But no more work!” Asked by Mr. Asari, he told him that the POWs were transported by ferry from Aomori, the end of the Main Island, and then around 2 km off shore, they were moved into coal barges for landing.
The last visit of the day was to a temple, called “Eizenji”, where a POW Memorial was built and unveiled in November 2000. Around thirty years ago, Mr. Asari had contacted the British General Council in Tokyo about the POWs who were held and slave labored in the camps that was under jurisdiction of the Hakodate Main POW Camp, and was eventually given materials of British and Dutch POWs through the British Embassy. Therefore, the names of British and Dutch POWs are engraved on the Memorial, which is built inside the Service Hall of the Eizenji precinct. According to Mr. Asari, the names must include those who died in hospital in Moji right after their arrival in Japan, so more research is yet needed. The building of the Service Hall used to be one of those in the former Hakodate Quarantine Station. The late priest of the Eizenji Temple had seen POWs walking in chain and had sympathy with them, while he was being trained as a monk in Koryuji Temple, close to the Hakodate POW Main Camp. His son, the current priest, Takaaki Saito moved the building into the temple precinct, financially assisted by the supporters of the temple, represented by a Mr. Hatakeyama, who had also seen POWs. British Ambassador Stephen Gomersall visited the Memorial on December 27, 2000, and so did a British former POW, Mr. Frank Planton in 2006. Mrs. Saito kindly gave us copies of the newspaper articles which were issued at the occasions of the Memorial Unveiling and the visits of Ambassador Gomasall and Mr. Planton.
Mrs. Akiko Saito, the widow of the late priest, amiably welcomed the group. Photos were taken in front of the building and the Memorial inside. Then Mrs. Saito invited them in a room of the temple for tea and cake, where Mr. Asari talked to Mr. Heer and the others how he has ardently wished to build a Memorial for the POWs in the former site of the Main Camp, because, he said, the POWs were victimized, as well as the other victims of Japan’s WWII, in the process of modernization and democratization of Japan. Although he has made his efforts as best as he could, the local government, nor the distinguished politicians and business people from Hakodate, has shown no interest to his proposal. It is the first opportunity that he met and talked with an American former POW, so he expressed his deep appreciation for the visit of the group, and hope for further communication with the US POWs, to which Mr. Heer responded with a promise he will send materials from the US.
10/18 Day Two
It was another clear and beautiful day, and the group began it with a visit to the local hand craft shop in front of the hotel. Everyone enjoyed a little souvenir shopping of the art of the aboriginal Ainu tribes.
The drive took around half an hour to the site of the Hakodate POW Main Camp, the former Quarantine Station, situated on a cliff coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Mr. Asari explained it was a huge property, but after the war, the site was developed through construction of roads and other facilities. We stopped at a green original site, where a storage was, and where Mr. Asari believes as the ideal space for a POW Memorial.
He also brought a book on Shigeo Emoto, which one of his disciples at military wrote spending ten years, with Mr. Asari helping with some materials, from which he showed photos of Emoto. Responding to questions by Mr. Asari, Ms. Noriko Okada, NHK International News Line reporter, Heer answered. “I remember Emoto very well, as he came to Kameda camp and made a speech. He said that Japan-America relation is very important. I want to be friends with you when the war is over. Please do not hate Japan. I was very glad to hear him mention the end of the war. It gave me a hope.”
Mr. Asari also guided the group to the only remaining building, which the owner transformed into a tea house for some while. The owner himself lives in the US, and inside of the tea house building is decorated with American antique furniture, hand-organs, tools, cups and so on. In June 2006, Frank Planton, a British former POW, visited Hakodate and planted a rose and a pine tree in the tea-house garden, which Mr. Asari, originally a biologist, had chosen for Mr. Planton. We could see some late flowers. However, the tea house has been closed for some years.
Then we visited another temple, called Shomyoji. This is where two Memorials of Hakodate Bombing are built by the “Association for Recording the Hakodabe Bombing,” which Mr. Asari is the Director. One is for the Japanese victims, and another is for the US Air Force crew, whose plane was downed by the anti-aircraft fire during the bombing on July 14 & 15, 1945. The American soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on Christmas, 1989. The project was assisted by Mrs. Haruko Fujishima, widow of a Kamikaze Pilot, who went to study Catholicism in the US, and Bishop Suren and his congregation of the Flagellation Church in St. Lewis, made a research and sent the names of the soldiers with some fund. A local resident, who is shown at the background, heard about Mr. Heer, and later came forward to meet and talk with the Heers with tears in her eyes.
Lastly Bob and Karen left messages in the Visitor’s Book of the Shomyoji Temple：
“As our life takes thru may all mankind help to make it purposeful.” Robert B. Heer POW
“Peace and Understanding. May all find Serenity and Healing.” Wife, Karen Heer
Exchange Goes On
After the Heers safely arrived home, Mr. Heer introduced Mr. Asari the excellent website created by late Roger Mansell: www.mansell.com, which now is taken over by Mr. Wes Injerd, through sending two attachments of the POW camps in Hakodate. Mr. Mansell passed away for cancer in 2010. From Hakodate, materials and news have been sent to the Heers by Mr. Asari and some media reporters. Mr. Asari says, “Mr. Heer and his group have completely changed the atmosphere of Hakodate. They used to avoid the POW issue because they had a negative image about it. General public were afraid it might give a minus image on the tourism of Hakodate, but now they are very positive towards the issue. We entirely owe it to Mr. Heer and his group of visitors. I am truly appreciative, and I will keep working with renewed strength. This record has been completed assisted a lot by the Heers, through e-mail.
Thank you so very much for everyone concerned, including Mr. Asari, Mrs. Akiko Saito, and Mr. Kawasaki and the other staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan, the US Department of States, and Dr. Lester Tenney, who worked hard as the mediator. Special thanks to the four wonderful guests from the US, for graciously accepting the invitation by the MoFA, and participating with your wonderful personal charms and friendship for Japanese people who met you.
December 2, 2013