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September 21, 2012 by palamow


Hello again from Luquillo. Happily, my original blog posting (September 14th) has so far manifested no threats of physical violence or any sense of implied character assassination from readers – so, I am emboldened to press-on with another try – in the interim, I have struggled mightily to ‘soft pedal’ the (few) effusive comments written about the blog so far – they were mostly from family or dear friends – who may have felt obliged to ‘make nice’ to this aging optimistic curmudgeon – for which I am extremely grateful…

Also, for clarity of purpose (and of personal preference) I add one more general caveat to all my future ‘bloggy’ presentations – when concocting posts, I intend to scrupulously avoid any discussions of politics or of anything that even faintly smacks of political rhetoric – unless of course they are contained in accounts of my youthful wanderings, and are thus what I choose to loosely characterize as ‘old fish’ — far enough removed from contemporary strife to be ‘historical’, rather than ‘hysterical’…

So, here is another modest entry. served-up ‘a-la-carte’ for your consideration – this one is a whimsical recounting of an Asian escapade that took place on a tiny island in the East China Sea fifty years ago – it was recently dredged from my memory as I read a Washington Post story about the ongoing bitter quarrel between the Japanese and Chinese governments over the ownership of some island adjacent to the one in my story. 

I hope you will find it to be an enjoyable momentary distraction…



Late one balmy summer’s evening in June, 1962, I arrived by taxi from Naha Air Base to the Naha Military Port Facility which sat at the mouth of the Kokuba river, near the Okinawan capital city of the same name.  The venerable, rust-streaked hull of the aptly dubbed ‘Benjo Maru’ bumped gently against the concrete pier, awaiting her departure (for the uninitiated, ‘Benjo’ is a common Japanese euphemism for ‘a lavatory facility’, while ‘Maru’ is the word for ‘ship’)… A former World War II, US Navy ‘AKL’ (light attack cargo ship), she currently transited the outer Ryukyu islands delivering cargo and people on a semi-regular schedule, under contract to the Military Sea Transport Service. 

As she rocked somewhat sluggishly in the slight chop coming into the anchorage from the East China Sea, her master, a cheerful,, rotund, gray eyed Hawaiian chap named Peter Pea (pronounced “Pay-Ah’) stood on the outer bridge deck watching as last-minute cargo was loaded and stowed aboard his ship. I waved and hailed to him and was granted permission to board. Coming below to greet me, he shook my hand vigorously and instructed his Okinawan mess steward to fetch me a cup of coffee which arrived, strong and steaming in a chipped, navy-issue china mug. Captain Pea wore a battered ball cap bearing the legend “I Love NY’ perched precariously atop his shiny bald head – his portly frame was tightly encased in a faded ‘Aloha’ shirt draped over oil-stained khaki shorts – his equally pudgy bare feet were stuffed into worn, black rubber ‘flip-flop’ sandals.  Before turning back to attend to his ship, he invited me to relax against an aft bulwark while I finished my coffee, as his crew readied the Benjo Maru for the overnight passage to Okino Erabu Shima, some seven hours to the north across the East China Sea.  As I leaned carefully against the rust-encrusted bulwark sipping my coffee, a huge black rat, the size of a Chihuahua scampered across the deck and under my outstretched legs. As I recoiled in dismay, a crewmember standing nearby, preparing to release the stern lines from an iron bollard, grinned broadly and said in halting pidgin “America speak ‘mao-su’, ne?”  Shuddering perceptibly, I smiled weakly and replied “no, Americans would call that a rather large ‘rat -u'”.

As Captain Pea got the ship underway, the steward showed me to a small cabin below decks (my ‘semi-exalted’ temporary status as a ‘Defense Department GS-13 equivalent’ rated me a private cabin). It contained a smallish bunk fastened to the bulkhead, fitted out with mattress, sheet, pillow and blanket – a tiny desk, and a battered gray-painted steel locker.  The steward informed me that breakfast would be served in the wardroom, “Prompt – ry” at 0500. I searched the cabin carefully for signs that any close relatives of the upper deck’s ‘mao-su’ shared my space. Finding none, I put my bag in the locker, removed my shoes and flopped gratefully on the bunk and quickly fell fast asleep.

As an engineer with the System Development Corporation (a RAND Corporation ‘spin-off), I was making a pre-arranged visit to Okino Air Station the home of Detachment 4, 623rd ACW Squadron. a USAF Tactical air defense radar installation and a vital link in the Pacific early warning network. It has been abandoned now for a decade or two, ever since the Ryukyu’s were returned to Japanese control, but was still a ‘going concern’ back then.

The tiny, semi-tropical island of Okino Erabu Shima lies in the northern sector of the Ryukyu island chain, which wanders southwest all the way from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, almost to the Nationalist Chinese enclave of Taiwan. Okino stretches a mere four miles from end to end, and is three miles across at its widest part. In the 1960s it had a population of slightly less than 2,000 individuals, divided between its two villages; China (pronounced ‘Shee-Nah’) on the southwestern end and Wadomari, its main ‘port of entry’ on the northeastern tip. Between these two towns, banana and pineapple plantations thrived.

The Benjo Maru tied-off to Wadomari’s concrete pier next morning at 0730; I strode down the gangway along with two Air Force sergeants who were returning from a weeklong ‘R&R’ shopping trip to Tokyo. We headed down the dock to clear-in at the tiny waterfront shed that passed for Okino’s customs and immigration office – When I knocked on the door it was quickly opened by Mr. Nakahata; the local immigration agent, who did triple duty as the village’s postal clerk and the sole teacher at Wadomari’s elementary school. His fedora hat and wire-rimmed spectacles topped off a sartorially impressive starched white shirt and black, clip-on bow tie — oddly, his nattiness didn’t extend below his waist – his patched and rumpled black cotton trousers were tucked into dingy white ‘tabi’ socks which in turn were encased in equally soiled and worn grey rubber sandals.

Clearing-in took only moments – I showed Nakahata-san my passport (with its Department of Defense carnet affixed to the inside front flap) and my travel orders. He made an entry in a worn ledger and performed a cursory inspection of my single piece of luggage, a small canvas duffle. He then stamped my passport with a flourish and informed me that I was ‘Dai jobu’ to proceed.

The radar station had sent a small truck to fetch us, the mail and some cargo items brought by the ship – it took only minutes to make the short drive up the patched macadam road circling Okino’s one and only 845 foot elevation ‘mountain’ to the radar site.  

I spent that morning and afternoon in conference with the radar operations officer, the radar maintenance officer and their respective staff NCO’s. I shared a pleasant meal with them that evening at the tiny mess hall – the next morning we finished-up our business, shook hands and I vowed to ‘keep in touch’ by TWX, and I was ready to go back down the mountain to Wadomari, clear back through immigration, reboard the Benjo Maru and wait for her departure. — her crew had off-loaded all the cargo overnight, taken-on a few items, and was preparing to shove-off back to Okinawa promptly at 1700 (five o’clock) that afternoon.

Since everyone at the site was occupied elsewhere that morning, and I possessed a valid US government issue driver license – I was generously loaned one of the detachment’s small trucks and was asked to leave it parked by the customs office at the dock — someone from the site would recover it later — I climbed in, cranked the starter, and when the truck’s engine caught and roared into life, I engaged the clutch and carefully picked my way down the winding switchback track back to Wadomari, hoping to find Nakahata-san and obtain my departure clearance. The customs office was closed and locked — I was eventually directed to the local schoolhouse a few yards from the waterfront, where I found him in his classroom just as he was dismissing his pupils for the day. I asked him courteously if he could take the time to clear me through customs and immigration for my return trip to Okinawa — he furrowed his brow, sucked air through clenched teeth (an ominous oriental signal of catastrophic problems to come) and informed me gravely ‘Custom no open today, Wadomari — today only open China”.

No amount of wheedling as I pleaded my case altered his inflexible insistence, so I thanked him and trudged back to the truck, started the engine and prepared to drive the bumpy, rutted four miles of dirt road to China, knowing full well that, despite its geographic proximity, it would take the better part of an hour to make the round trip, which would put my successful departure on the Benjo Maru somewhat in doubt…

As I backed the truck around to turn onto the China road, Mr. Nakahata suddenly appeared beside my open driver-side window — I stopped the truck as he bowed and enquired if I was on my way to China — when I replied that I was, he asked if he might be permitted to ride along with me.  Assuming that he was wending his way homeward after work, I readily agreed, and he jumped in beside me — we chatted amiably as we bounced over the bumps in the rutted road, finally arriving at the outskirts of China village…

I asked Mr. Nakahata to direct me to the customs office — which he did — then,  when I had parked the truck and we got out, he walked purposefully to the customs office, reached in his pocket, and brought out a ring of keys, quickly unlocked and opened the door. He then turned to me; smiled broadly and indicated that he was open for business…

When I realized what was happening, I somehow managed to retain my equanimity, and went patiently through the out-processing procedure, paying my fee and getting my passport stamped on the appropriate page. As I quickly returned to the truck and was turning it around to begin the drive back to Wadomari and the Benjo Maru, Mr. Nakahata appeared at my side once again, indicating his desire for a ride back to Wadomari in the truck — My already strained patience finally snapped – I’m afraid that I may have set US/Okino Erabu Shima relations back considerably when I impulsively stuck my tongue between tightly pursed lips and blew lustily through them with what we Americans call a ‘raspberry’ (a universally recognized symbol of displeasure) before Nakahata-san’s astonished countenance, and quickly lifted my foot of the brake and on to the gas pedal, and roared off, leaving Nakahata-san standing forlornly in the dust of my departure to speculate sadly on what could possibly have caused this ‘foreign devil’ to commit such an unforgivable breach of etiquette…

I reached Wadomari, parked the truck and rushed down the pier and up the Benjo Maru’s gangway just as it was about to be pulled up by the crew. I swiftly retired to my cabin, sat on the bunk and smiled ruefully, as I considered my unforgivable breach of custom and protocol. I was sure that the intricate (and highly instructive) humor integral to this brief encounter with ‘inscrutable and inflexible’ Asian bureaucracy would be a permanent memory (and a story worth telling and re-telling)…

Vital lesson learned: hidebound bureaucracy is not the exclusive provenance of western civilizations – it is a universal blight…

© 2012-Alan Mowbray Jr.





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