Red Cross Inspector Shibai, Nagasaki, 1944

From First into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, by George Weller (1907-2002), ed. by Anthony Weller (Three Rivers, 2006), pp. 63-67:

Underground in the mine you could always tell when the B-29s were making a visit overhead. The main power plant on the surface closed down, the weaker auxiliary pumps went into action, and the air grew gluey and hard to breathe. In a slightly different way you could tell, while underground, when the Red Cross man was making a visit. From every section gang the strongest American was told off and ordered to take the mine train to the surface. He had ceased being a miner; he was now an actor. He had a role in a play that the mine authorities were going to put on for the benefit of the audience of one: the Red Cross inspector.

Two or three days before the Red Cross man—usually a Swiss or Swede—actually arrived, secret rehearsals had already been begun by what might be called the leads: the Japanese authorities of the camp. But for the real fibre of the performance the Japanese counted on their unrehearsed extras, the Americans.

Show day comes. A one-shot performance can be as good as its scenery, rarely any better. What is this extraordinary change that has overtaken the filthy little clinic, where operations without anesthesia have often taken place? It is transformed. Not only ether and morphine, but other medicines have appeared, the very medicines that were unobtainable 24 hours ago…. And look at the notice board! What are those neatly typewritten sheets fluttering from its black surface, now suddenly innocent of punishment records? It is the Daily News Bulletin, no less. (“We do what we can, Mr. Inspector, to satisfy the extraordinary American curiosity about current events.”)

And here comes the Red Cross visitor, walking like a prisoner himself in a phalanx of potbellied Japanese colonels and majors. Has he been underground? He has not. Will he get a view of the barracks? Well, a quick one, maybe. But first he is shown documents for three hours, till his eyes ache. Then the place for him to go is to the hospital. After all, a hospital is the great index of humanity. If the hospital in a prison camp is all right, everything else must be all right, too.

And everything in the little hospital is right, as superlatively right as the last canto of Scrooge’s Christmas. Just the entrance alone is beautiful. On each side of the door, Red Cross boxes are piled tastefully in twin pyramids—medicines, food, a cornucopia of abundance. The military interpreter opens the door and the inspector enters. Order and cleanliness, a lovely sight. The faces of the men on their cots are turned toward him. Sick? If these men are the sick, confined to the hospital under medical treatment, then it is hardly necessary to see the healthy, now working down in the mine. For these men, as prison standards go, are not badly off at all. Their faces—though wearing a peculiar quizzical, stolid expression—are round and full. Their eyes are clear. A Japanese doctor would call them robust.

The visitor, stroking his moustache, turns to the Japanese nurse, one of several chubby little starched creatures who have been placed at even intervals the length of the ward, like markings on a clinical thermometer. “How are the prisoners doing?” he inquires through the interpreter. “Oh, very well, very very well,” she says, with a shining nursely smile.

The inspector observes there are white sheets on the mattresses. Really not bad, altogether. Each man has a can of salmon or of pears at the same geometrical point near his bed. Not quite within reach, perhaps, but nearby.

Gently Captain Fukuhara suggests that perhaps the official party had better not delay too long in the hospital. Luncheon is already waiting. Would the inspector like to see what the prisoners are eating? The party passes rapidly through the kitchen to the mess hall, where the prisoners are lined up, waiting to be seen. Their faces still bear looks of unmistakable pleasure and anticipation, in which a sharp eye might detect strong traces of astonishment. There is no doubt that this is a happy camp. Look at the faces of the prisoners as they scan the miracle that lies waiting for them in their wooden mess gear: three camp rolls with a dab of margarine, bean soup with a bit of pork, a spoonful of Japanese red caviar, and a baked apple.

(It is the baked apple, though the visitor does not know this, which has really bewitched them. This baked apple is more than remarkable; it is historical. It is the only baked apple ever seen at Camp #17 in two years.)

The inspector has now seen the camp. But he must not go away without talking to one or two individual prisoners. So he is led to the Japanese headquarters, he is settled in the comfortable chair of the commandant, and several handpicked Americans are brought to him. The room is full of Japanese military and police; the only non-Japanese are the prisoner and the Red Cross man.

“We were selected for health, first,” Sergeant Joe Lawson of Klamath Falls explains it. “Then, when they knew the inspector was at the railroad station, they double-timed us to a bath, clean clothes and a shave. We went in that room and only needed to look around at the familiar faces to know what we were up against. We’d had plenty of stickwork done on us already. We knew that to get plenty more, all we needed to do was open our mouths.”

Now the last monosyllabic prisoner has walked out. The inspector rises. It is all over. Everybody is smiling. Nobody has said or heard anything disagreeable or discordant. Even the prisoners back in their quarters are happy in a way, for their fears that the visitor would ask penetrating questions and make it impossible for them to conceal the truth have been dispelled. The lie is still intact. How cheerful everyone is! Captain Fukuhara—on whose hands is the blood of five Americans beaten and starved to death in the aeso, the guardhouse—is geniality itself. He suggests a photograph to perpetuate the occasion. His lieutenants take up the proposal with an acclaim like bacchantes. A picture, a photograph of everybody! We must have it!

A table is decorated with cigarettes, cookies and fruit from the mess of the kempeitai, the military police. A Japanese Cecil Beaton runs around, all dithery excitement until he finds what he wants to put on the table with the edibles: a trumpet, a harmonica and a guitar. A suggestion is made that some of the irreproachable prisoners might be summoned back to get in the picture, but the picture is too crowded already, and the suggestion falls flat…. “All smile, prease!” (It is a little joke, for the fussy photographer to use the language of the prisoners, and all smile at it.) “Sank you! All finish!”

The military motorcar is waiting for the Red Cross man. Perhaps, in this last moment of shaking hands, he may be troubled by some inner doubts. But there is no time to sift them. He must hurry off, for he is to catch the train for Moji, connecting with the express for Tokyo. See you next year!

If he had seen the prisoners the next day, instead, the inspector would have learned more. If his officer escort would allow him to get off at the first station, turn around and go back to the camp, the inspector might see how the pageant of his welcome, as insubstantial as Prospero’s, faded into nothingness as soon as he left.

What has happened in the camp? The pyramids of Red Cross packages are demolished. The boxes are in Captain Fukuhara’ s closet, and the key is in his pocket. The cans of fish and pears have disappeared. Gone, too, are the white sheets from the hospital beds; where, nobody knows. The little nurses are climbing into their truck to be taken back to the local hospital in Omuta, swans never seen before in camp, unlikely to be seen again. The Daily News Bulletin is gone without a trace from the notice board, and a kempeitai is frowningly nailing back the punishment schedule. In the kitchen the Navy cook, Woodie Whitworth of Bourne, Texas, is preparing supper. The menu is the same as usual: one-half bowlful of plain rice, laced with millet to make it cheaper.

A column of prisoners dressed for work, with cap-lamps and sweat rags, is marching past the god of the mine (a giant, greenish-black statue of an idealized Mitsui miner, towering in the prison yard above the buildings). As their guards command them, they all bow to his exalted, unsmiling image. These miners are the extras of the benefit performance, who were patients in the hospital until a few minutes ago.

Having arrived at the entrance shaft they adjust their lamps for the last time, hug their mess-gear full of cold rice, climb into the roller coaster-like iron train and hold on. The cable starts moving. The train slides down the slanting chute into the sooty, echoing tunnel. For a while its roar is loud, but soon it dies away. After five minutes or so a bell rings. The cable slows, tightens, and finally stops. The patients from the hospital have reached their normal level of operation, 1,440 feet below ground. The sideshow is over. The Mitsui show is on once more.

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Filed under Japan, NGOs, U.S., war

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