Wartime Memories in Japan

by Patricia Smith

Pat and her husband, Don, at Peace Gardens in Hiroshima
Pat and her husband, Don, at Peace Gardens in Hiroshima

I was just a child when American forces liberated Manila in 1945, and I remember watching the giant tanks roll up the streets as I tucked myself under my mother’s arm. I’ll never forget those brave soldiers who came to our rescue after nearly three years of Japanese occupation. World War II was finally nearing an end and, even better, we would soon be reunited with my father to resume more blissfully ordinary lives.

During the war, my father, an American, was a merchant marine who did the dangerous work of transporting munitions. My mother was Filipino. We resided in Manila, never suspecting a Japanese invasion would keep us apart for so long. Dad spent those years at sea, while we did our best to avoid the brutal internment camps. Thanks to my mother’s nationality, we blended in with the general population and stayed in churches and hospitals, wherever the Japanese dictated.

After that happy day when our family was reunited by the Red Cross, my mother insisted, no more jobs on ships!  So Dad found work as a civilian employee with the U.S. government, and we moved to the base at Okinawa, Japan. I went to the American school and there met Don, who would become my husband. Little did I know, it would be a ship that would bring us back there more than 50 years later.

Because the Pacific theater of the war played such an indelible part of my early life, when the opportunity came to take a special World War II cruise to the South Pacific, I just had to go. It was 2002, and the war was a distant memory for most, but both Don and I were motivated to go and see how these places from history had changed – especially Okinawa, which was so important to our own history.

Regal Princess departed Honolulu, where we visited Pearl Harbor, and the cruise would make stops in Midway, the Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal, Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Osaka. It was a 22-day cruise into the past, while also enjoying the South Pacific of today.

The cruise experience combined all the modern luxuries of a cruise ship with the sights and sounds of times gone by. The juxtaposition was jarring at times. Many passengers were veterans, there to share their stories. So we’d go from viewing the personal black and white photographs of one of these veterans, to going outside and seeing the same scene in colorful reality.

One of our ports that resonated wasn’t really a call, but Regal Princess circled the island of Iwo Jima twice. This is the island made famous by the unforgettable image of six Marines raising the American flag – the one immortalized at the Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the second time around, one of our onboard veterans who had fought there threw out a wreath to honor his fellow soldiers. It was truly hard to imagine on that beautiful day, surrounded by blue skies, azure seas and green landscape, that so many died on these shores. The ship also sailed by the island of Tinian, the island from where the plane flew to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Naturally for Don and me, being in Okinawa again was a big deal. Yes, a lot had changed since the 1940s. The rice paddies I remembered were gone, replaced by fast-food places and other signs of urban sprawl. Still, it was fascinating to be back and remember our high school days when Don played on the basketball team and I was a cheerleader.

The special guests onboard were fascinating as well. Nick Clooney (yes, George Clooney’s father) spoke about how Hollywood pitched in for the war effort. He shared personal insights from his sister, a star of the era, Rosemary Clooney. We also watched newsreels, met historians and authors and got to personally thank so many veterans.

One of those veterans, I’ll never forget, was one who actually took part in the liberation of Manila. He was in one of those tanks I remembered going down the street. I told him, “You rescued me.” He really had, as the Japanese at this juncture were burning down all the safe houses, including our church. He was gracious enough to tell me that of course he remembered me because I was so lovely.

Don and I are so happy we went on that cruise, because the age of the World War II veteran is sadly coming to a close. It was the most significant trip we’ve ever experienced, filled with recollections of the heroism, glory and tragedy of this ultimate conflict, as well as happy memories from our own youth. We felt as though our lives came full circle on that cruise and we’ll always carry that incredible feeling with us.

Patricia resides in Palm Desert, Calif., with her husband Don. Together, they’ve enjoyed 16 cruises with Princess with another one on the horizon in October.