The burning river
by Shoichi Kishi
I will try to talk about life in World War II as a mobilized student. In August 1943, near the end of the war, second semester had begin, and us grade 9 students were called up to go work in a munitions factory as reservists. There were a 125 of us, and 30 of us would go work together as a group at one factory. My group was assigned to work at the factory on the Anji River. There we made things such as ladders, handrails, and ropes for the navy. We were all divided into various areas in the factory, such as welding, working on the compressing machine, and finishing. The factory head was Korean, and he was a master on the press, completing the work without a mistake. Our jobs as students were to press the metal into preformed shapes that he created. Compared to those at the other factories, we had it pretty easy. Once work was done, I went to school at night. There I received military and first aid training. At the factory I always thought about how bad the food tasted, it seemed like cat food or dog food. I can’t forget the taste even now. At that time, I think it was the same everywhere, but all we had were a few pieces of daikon mixed in with some grains. Next year, as it got worse, we got vegetables mixed with soybeans that had the fat removed. These tasteless meals continued until the end of the war.
At nine in the morning of July 20th, air raid warnings were sounded in Osaka and Kobe.
The military at that time made lots of errors and delays in their warnings. Because the weather was good that day, I lay on top of an air raid shelter and slept. However, when I looked up at the sky, I saw enemy aircraft nearby with bombs failing out from underneath them. Soon after, the entire area around me started to give off smoke, and one comer of the factory caught on fire. I flew off the air raid shelter and looked around. There were no other students around me. When I asked afterwards, apparently, they had all ran away the moment they heard the warning in the direction of the river. I should have run away too, but hunger took precedence and I headed to the cafeteria where they were making for the first time in a long time, tempura and rice with barley. Even when my life was in danger, I couldn’t forget about eating. We were only 15, but we were starving during those times. As I approached the cafeteria, fire had begun to move closer to the oil in the kitchen, and smoke was rising from the vegetable tempura. Realizing that I had to get away from the fire, I went to the office and there the president and factory head were talking about something. When they saw me, they were surprised and we all decided to leave without carrying anything.
When we left on the back road, the heated wind from the fire poured over us and made it very difficult to walk. While we were sweating inside our helmets, we crossed the river bank, and jumped into the Uji River. The river temperature was warmer than usual due to the fire heating up the air. It was the first time I saw the river steaming like a hot spring.
We went further and further.
We were walking in an area where the water reached our necks and sometimes over our heads. I made it out away from the factory, but I lost the other two along the way without realizing, and never had the fortune to see them again. I think they made it without any problems. Finally, the fires began to subside a bit, and I got out of the river and walked to the road with the intent to head back home. Along the way, I passed a train station and inside I saw a countless number of dead bodies lying there. The bodies were covered with straw mats, and only their feet were sticking out.
Oddly enough, that didn’t make me fear death. Probably, I was paralyzed by the sight of the many dead bodies and couldn’t think at the time. On the streets, there were children crying out for their parents, and horses running wildly down the street. I finally made it home in the midst of the hot winds and smoke, but there was no trace of my house, rather all that was there was a burning field.
I went to look for my parents and I was fortunate enough to find them in the storehouse. I was ready to collapse at that point due to the stress and hunger from that day. For three days, the skies of Osaka both day and night were the same bright yellow with no break in between.
Both the school and factory were closed throughout August. We students didn’t know what to do and figured that we’d be evacuated to the countryside. I didn’t feel like doing anything either, and my head was a complete blank as well. I lived in the storehouse for three days with the same clothes. It was finally decided that we all go back to our family house in Wakayama which had been spared. Being back in my family home brought back lots of old memories. Every time I wanted to do something outside, I had to be on guard due to fears of attacks. When we heard the Emperor on the radio announcing the end of the war, my older brother and I hugged and tears flowed down our faces. Why did we cry? It was probably because none of us youth thought we would lose.
Ten days after the end of the war, there was news that the school would open again. I quickly registered again and found out that school would open again on September 2nd. When I saw my friends again on that day, I was at a loss of words when I saw their shabby dress and the exhaustion on their face. Was it because I was afraid to hear about the horrors of famine? I am sure that I had the same look on my face, but even now I still recall their eyes that were full of hunger.
Once school began, we talked about friends that hadn’t returned and wondered if they had died during the attacks. It was only few months after that I was able to find out their fates when me and my friends gathered together.
As that winter got closer, we chopped down our desks and used them for firewood. The teacher didn’t say anything to stop us. Once the New Year began and we approached spring, talk of the war faded into the background. I still have days now where I can remember them vividly though. The students themselves weren’t concerned with learning, rather they were trying to focus on living another day.
At that time, there were a lot of students who couldn’t bring any pens or paper to school. In third period, many students finished off their meagre bentos they brought for the day. I heard that the situation was better in the countryside. Everyday, after class ended, I ran to the cafeteria located in an underground mall to fill my stomach. I wonder now if those five years as a junior high/senior high student held any meaning. We faced the war as reserves, and then had to deal with the famine after the war. It was hard to be sure, but we were all equal in this regard.
I will end my story here on this note. The need to tell my kids about the tragedy that is war and the bitter experiences I faced in it is great. It is important that people know what life was like back then for those of us caught up in such a horrible experience.