Growing up under fire

As a young girl, H. Yamamoto would lie in bed at night in her clothes and listen to the bombs fall around Tokyo.

There was no sense wearing pajamas. Clothes were more practical if she had to jump up and escape and on her shirt was a name tag that had her address and blood type should she be killed.

She thought it was senseless to run from bombs. She was 10 when the war started and raids on Tokyo seemed nightly. She thought it was silly to hide under the house as families did because bombs wouldn’t spare the hiding quarters should they strike and strike they did.

“They come down just like rain,” she said. “The sky had so many. Keep coming, keep coming, keep coming.”

Neighbor houses were hit. Her house was too, and the family of five fled to a town just outside of Tokyo. But from 10 to 14 years old, Yamamoto became used to falling asleep under explosions.

“Numb,” she described it. “We got used to it, just go to sleep as is. If we die, we die.”

It was in the town just outside Tokyo where Yamamoto saw her first American soldiers after the war ended. It was a hot August and truck loads of bare-chested G.I.s came rolling through.

They were huge fighters, double the size of all the Japanese men and starved civilians who had rationed their food for years. She was terrified because of all that, and because she had seen movies depicting how brutal Caucasians and persons of color were.

“I was so scared,” The Wailua Homesteads resident said. “They looked like so much muscle and everything.”

It was harder after the war. It was worse than falling asleep under fire.

Some of the soldiers behaved badly, very badly.

She still doesn’t like to talk about it. Women were attacked. Women were asked to volunteer as prostitutes so people wouldn’t be raped. There were pregnancies by force, like her married neighbor, who gave birth to a child of color and no one assumed the father had been anyone outside the family until the child arrived.

“It is hard,” Yamamoto said.

But she said she understands, too. People weren’t normal. They had seen too much and they were too damaged for the civilized world.

“You’re thinking’s not normal,” she said. “That’s why we kind of forgive you, the people who do, that’s not really America. We might do the same thing, if we are in similar positions. That’s what people said.”

Some memories are lighter. She remembers going to a barber who cut the G.I.s and sweeping up a bundle of blonde hair —“I had never seen before” — and putting it in a baggie and carrying that baggie around in her purse to show her friends.

“This is real hair, you know” she told them.

“Wow,” they all said.

America’s influence could be seen, too: movies, makeup, democratic thinking. Students preached a free society, women starting wearing bright red lip stick and Gary Cooper was a heartthrob on the silver screen.

“I thought they were such beautiful people,” she said of the Hollywood stars. “It’s no surprise I come to America.”

It would be 10 years after the war ended that things seemed back to normal again. Yamamoto would finish school in Tokyo and meet her husband, a Japanese-American from Oahu, while she worked at a finance office on a military base. They moved to Kauai in 1962.

Sometimes, she said she reflects on her childhood. Not sadly, more matter of factly. She said the anniversary of the war’s end doesn’t amplify any of those feelings. Kauai has been good to her. She still feels connected to Japan. She always assumed she’d move back one day — she visits every year — until one day she realized too much time had passed, too much had changed.

“I feel like I’ve been away for too long,” she said.

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