Historical events don’t get much bigger than those that occurred 70 years ago this month.
On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, the first and only atomic bombs used in war destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly afterward, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender, bringing an end to World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history.
One American teenager unwillingly witnessed those events from a close perspective. He was stuck in Japan for the war.
Albert Takeshi Yamamoto is now 88, retired and living in Otsego, Minn. But during World War II, he was a high schooler who endured what might be regarded as the world’s worst foreign-exchange student experience.
The Seattle native was trapped in Japan when war broke out with the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
For the next four years, Yamamoto was cut off from his parents in America. He was put to work on Japanese defense projects, endured bombings and strafing attacks by U.S. forces, risked being drafted in the Japanese army and suffered the hunger of a country being starved and shattered in a doomed struggle.
He also experienced conflicting loyalties, feeling sympathy for his schoolmates, friends and relatives in Japan, the country of his father’s birth, yet also hoping for an American victory and the end of the war.
When peace finally came, Yamamoto ended up assisting the American military occupation in Japan as a translator. He regained his U.S. citizenship and returned to America. But then he went back to Japan again, this time as a draftee, wearing the uniform of the United States Army.
As he wrote in a memoir, it all amounted to an experience that "can reasonably be described as interesting."
Growing up in Seattle, Yamamoto had a life not too different from a lot of Depression-era American kids, occupied with school, baseball, roller skating and fishing. He also went to a Japanese language school, but remembers that he and his fellow Japanese-American students didn’t take the courses very seriously. His father ran a working-class hotel.
He was a 13-year-old high school freshman in November 1940 when his father took him and an older sister out of school for a trip to Japan, "ostensibly to attend my oldest sister’s wedding in Tokyo."
After the wedding, however, his world "was turned upside down."
His father had decided that Yamamoto and his sister would stay in Japan with Yamamoto’s grandfather. Meanwhile, his father would return to Seattle to continue to live with Yamamoto’s mother and two younger siblings.
Today, Yamamoto said he can’t explain his father’s decision, although in his memoir he writes, "Relations between the U.S. and Japan were becoming increasingly tense and the atmosphere was heavy with rumors and predictions of impending military conflict with the U.S."
Yamamoto was unhappy with the prospect of living as a stranger in a strange land, but he said, "I had no choice."
"I grew up in Seattle. All my friends were there. I knew very little Japanese," he said. "I wasn’t in favor of it, but what could I do?"
He lived with his grandfather in a small fishing village called Mitsukue on the coast of the island of Shikoku. According to Yamamoto, the remote, sparsely populated place also was the home of a training base for a top-secret weapon developed by the Japanese military: midget submarines.
"Our home was on the waterfront," Yamamoto said. "We had a good view of it."
Once while rowing a boat in the harbor, Yamamoto was startled by a submarine’s conning tower surfacing about 15 feet away.
The sub base was located at the village "because of some topographical similarity with Pearl Harbor," according to Yamamoto.
Midget submarines did play a role in the Pearl Harbor attack. Shortly before the Japanese bombs fell, an American destroyer, the USS Ward manned by Minnesota naval reservists, fired on a Japanese midget submarine it caught outside the entrance of the harbor. The incident is described as the first American shots fired in World War II.
Yamamoto said he doesn’t recall how he heard the news of the Japanese attack. But "I knew I felt very uncomfortable going to school the next day."
LIFE IN JAPAN
Yamamoto believes he was among a couple of thousand Nisei -- second-generation Americans born to Japanese parents -- trapped in Japan when the war broke out. They were now considered enemy aliens.
Yamamoto tried to adjust to life in Japan. "I made no waves," he said. But "throughout, I felt my place was here, in the U.S."
To go to public school, he needed Japanese citizenship, so he had applied for that based on his parents’ status as Japanese citizens. The paperwork landed in the offices of the Ministry of Home Affairs on the same day as the Pearl Harbor attack. His citizenship document was approved Jan. 9, 1942. It bears the red stamp seal of Gen. Hideki Tojo, the prime minister as well as the army and home affairs minister.
Yamamoto ended up living in a boarding house and going to school in a nearby city called Matsuyama. But as the war proceeded, the students were increasingly called away from classes to join the "patriotic labor force" in tasks such as constructing air-raid bunkers for Zero fighter planes.
He was once punished by a reserve officer in a military training class by being repeatedly struck in the face with a class roster board.
In the spring of 1945, he got a lung infection working at a chemical fertilizer factory. In July 1945, he was ordered to report for an army pre-induction physical and became subject to be drafted in the Japanese army.
That summer, his village began being attacked by American fighter planes. In one attack, machine gun fire hit the house he was sleeping in. In another, Yamamoto and his grandfather were taking a boat across the bay when a plane strafed the water.
It was, he writes, "the most frightful moment of my life."
Yamamoto also remembers almost daily or nightly air-raid sirens as American B-29 bombers streamed overhead on the way to destroy cities in more-populated areas of Japan.
"In that period, late July, early August, any city of any respectable size was bombed because Japan had no air defense," he said.
Yamamoto narrowly escaped one of those bombings when he was trying to return to the city of Matsuyama to help with the work his classmates were doing.
"I must have felt guilty," he said.
But his trip was delayed, meaning he wasn’t there when 896 tons of incendiary bombs fell on the city on July 25, 1945.
"I could see the bright red skies above Matsuyama," he said. "I escaped a bullet there."
In his memoir, Yamamoto refers to Aug. 6, 1945, as "a day that will live in infamy."
Hiroshima is about 70 miles across Japan’s Inland Sea from Yamamoto’s village. He said he believes the Enola Gay, the B-29 carrying the first atomic bomb dropped on a city, must have flown over him on its way to Hiroshima.
"We heard over the radio that Hiroshima was bombed by a single plane that dropped a single bomb, a special bomb, a ’tokushu bakudan,’ " Yamamoto said. "We didn’t hear it being called an ’atomic bomb’ until some time later.
"I don’t think it was the right decision because you’re slaughtering thousands of people," Yamamoto said of the atomic bombings. "Everybody was sad, including me, that had to happen."
But, Yamamoto said, "I don’t think there was any question it helped bring the war to a close."
Nagasaki was bombed three days later, and on Aug. 15, 1945, the nation was instructed to listen to the radio at noon for a special broadcast.
It was the first time ordinary Japanese citizens heard the voice of their emperor. Yamamoto remembers that the formal language was hard to understand, "but the gist of it was clear." Japan had surrendered. The war was over.
"Everybody was relieved, including me," he said.
BACK IN THE U.S.
The hardships, including food shortages, continued for months in peacetime Japan. But according to Yamamoto, it was now the "American era," when proficiency in English was invaluable.
Yamamoto, a scrawny high schooler in a patched school uniform, was soon recruited as a translator for the American occupation forces, getting his first ride in a jeep, a vehicle that would soon fill the streets of Japan.
He ended interpreting for the U.S. Army in Tokyo, a city in 1946 still so devastated by the war and its aftermath that it was common to see dead bodies in city parks.
It wasn’t until January 1947 that Yamamoto got word of the reinstatement of his U.S. citizenship. He headed back to America in July 1947, seeing his parents for the first time in 6 1/2 years.
His family had been in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, one of the places Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were incarcerated during the war because of a perceived security risk. That’s where Yamamoto would have ended up if he had stayed in the United States.
After the war, the family relocated to Chicago. Yamamoto studied economics at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, but then was drafted by the U.S. Army in May 1953. His Japanese-language skills brought him back to Japan in a military intelligence unit. He came back home to take over his father’s business and owned a laundry and cleaning business until he retired.
In 2006, Yamamoto moved to Minnesota to be closer to a daughter who lived here.
Many of his memories of the war are painful. But he believes he got through it with what the Japanese call "gaman," the ability to accept and bear the seemingly unbearable.
"That’s a Japanese trait," Yamamoto said.
"Even the bad memories are memories I cherish now," he said. "It’s done and over with, and I’m richer for the experience."