Recollecting Previous Madnesses

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I
remember being in Japan in the winter of 1945–46 and driving
around Tokyo and Yokohama in a jeep I had inherited from the previous
C.O. of the LSM (Landing Ship Medium) I was myself now skipper of,
as of sometime in January 1946, a few months after the solemn surrender
tableau on the deck of the battlewagon U.S.S. Missouri.

When
I reported on board late in December 1945, with my printed orders
from SecNav in Washington, it was just as an additional officer
for the ship. The C.O. and executive officer were notably cool to
me, which I thought odd, since that was not the way of things in
the amphibious fleet, where we all tended to be instant-friendly
compatriots in the general untidy mess landing craft and landing
ships were thought to be – certainly thought to be by the regular
Navy.

Conversation
over our first meal together in the wardroom went in the direction
of exploring backgrounds – home, states, colleges (amphib officers
were almost all recent college graduates), and time in the Navy.
At some point, mid entrée, I gave my date of commissioning.
But said the Captain, "That means you've been an Ensign [equivalent
to a 2nd lieutenant] long over a year. How come you're
not a Lt. j.g. [equivalent to a full lieutenant]?"

"Oh,
but I am," say I. "I just haven't been anywhere where
I could buy the Lt. j.g. bars." (All we had to show rank were
little bars on cap and collar tabs. An Ensign's were brass, a Lt. j.g.'s
were silver.)

With
that the C.O. and the Exec both stood up and said, "You're
our replacement. Wonderful. We wondered what the hell the Navy was
doing sending us another Ensign." Many broad smiles and much
warm feeling now in evidence.

And
with that they began packing, and were gone in less than a day.
The task force commander, to whom I appealed this thing to see if
it was kosher, assured me it was and that I didn't have to take
the assignment, but that he strongly recommended I did. After all,
the war was over, senior people were going home, and certainly the
Navy needed experienced people to captain these ships, and since
as a junior I was having to stay out anyway, why not take on the
command.

A
persuasive fellow. I had great respect for high rank in those days.
So I got to stay on and see a bit of Japan and then Korea and China,
before decommissioning the ship in Shanghai and turning it over
to the Chinese Merchant Marine to use on the Yangtze.

All
the foregoing is a sort of stage-set for what I really want to talk
about, which is something I remember from the four or five months
I was in Japan. Even before I got there, the Japanese had stopped
being the yellow-fanged torturers and murderers of war propaganda
and become genuinely mild and cultivated citizens of an extraordinary
land. It didnt take me long to realize that hostilities were really
over, and you could drive, unarmed, all over that part of big-city
Japan, all alone in a Jeep, and need have no fear.

I
had a cracked radiator in the Jeep, so it frequently needed mizu
(or however the Japanese for water is, spelt in romaji, the word
I remember, perhaps inaccurately, as meaning spelled out phonetically
in the Western alphabet.). I took to stopping at fire stations,
where I was always greeted with smiles, and particular enthusiasm
when I offered cigarettes in exchange for my water.

I
remember a discussion with an Army officer, a chap who had command
of a U.S. Army ship (there were such odd things) in Tokyo Bay about
life in Japan as he was finding it. He had a polyglot, pick-up crew,
some Germans, some Japanese, some American soldiers, and knew quite
a bit of Japanese himself. He told me about the Japanese Denkai
(my phonetic spelling). It was apparently a kind of thought police
that had functioned during the war. The job of the Denkai was to
find out if you were thinking bad political thoughts, and presumably
put a stop to it.

I
think none of us supposed the Japanese would be too gentle about
cleaning up bad thoughts, but we thought the whole idea was hilarious.
I forget whether it was then or later that I realized the curious
fact that the German verb to think is denken, and I wondered
if perhaps the Denkai was a Japanese bow to their wartime allies.

But
as I say we thought it was typical totalitarian stupidity: you were
going to assess what a man was thinking and then put the lash to
him over it? How otiose can things get?

Our
easy America superiority! How could we have guessed that Japan was
so far ahead of us, it would take us more than a half century to
get our own Denkai going. Our version of it is trolling for "hate
speech," or estimating with the nicest discrimination whether
a crime, a foul crime, is somehow all the fouler because the perpetrator
was in a frenzy of hate (along ethnic or racial or religious lines)
while committing it.

You
might have thought it would be enough to forbid foul crime, but
it appears now to be vastly worse to do foul crime with an evil
racist, homophobic, or ethnic prejudice in full afflatus. That is
really foul. Presumably a foul crime, to the extent that
it is without that afflatus, is less foul, less reprehensible, perhaps
even benign, and quite easy to overlook. There is a bit of Alice
in Wonderland in all this.

These
reflections were brought on by a Washington Post report that
a “well-known performer in District drag shows who lived and dressed
as a woman” was allegedly killed by a man who had paid for sex under
the impression that he was dealing with a woman. Upon learning that
the prostitute was really a man, the customer returned and allegedly
shot the prostitute."

The
Post quoted a spokesperson for the D.C. police gay and lesbian
unit as saying the killing was being classified as a “hate/bias
motivated” crime. How does that make it worse?

Well,
I don't have much more to say about this. But I do have to laugh
at the thought of us world-traveling young smarties sitting there
in 1945 in judgment on the Japanese for being so stupid as to think
you could punish thought. Boy, did we have a thing or two to learn.

August
22, 2003

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas.

Tom
White Archives


        
        

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