Editor’s Note: This series is about the Japanese home front in and around Sasebo, Japan during World War II. It is not a condemnation or critique of actions taken by either side during the war but rather a look at the civilian perspective of the war and the still surviving facilities that supported the war effort.
On the night of the Sasebo air raid, American B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers dropped more than 1,000 tons of firebombs over a city 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide, setting much of it ablaze. Many people sought refuge in the air raid shelters and tunnels that dotted the city. Outside one of the smaller shelters was a fifteen-year old girl in a yukata and flash hood, holding a handkerchief to her mouth to keep from inhaling the heavy smoke. Separated from her family while firefighting and then unable to escape the area, she waited outside the shelter door and watched the nearby Tono-cho
elementary school, where she learned as a child, burn to the ground. Looking at the sky, Shizue Fujisawa hadn’t imagined her night would end like this when it started.
She had been born and raised in Sasebo, and lived in Tono-cho, a Sasebo neighborhood, with her parents. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a homemaker. The middle child of five, her two youngest siblings had been sent to Uku Island, the most far flung of Sasebo City’s islands, for safety after the bombers began targeting cities. Her oldest sister was away at shihangako, a school for training teachers, and her older brother had worked at Sasebo’s naval hospital before being sent to man koshaho, or antiaircraft guns, and finally the medical section at Inasaiyama in Nagasaki.
Shizue herself attended a jogako, which is like a high school. At the time mandatory education beyond six years was a new concept, it had just been stretched to eight and she was proud to have been accepted into a jogako. She had aspired to become a teacher, just as her older sister had.
It was not only something she had wanted to do, but it was also practical. Her family was poor and couldn’t afford to send her to an expensive university, but the shihangako teaching schools were free, charging only room and board.
This aspiration was put on hold when she was mobilized during her third year of jogako in 1944.
Now the idea of pulling teenagers from school to build weapons may seem unusual, but Japan had already begun doing this shortly before they attacked Pearl Harbor and set fire to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Initially, it was just men and women ages 16-25, two million in total, in late 1941. In 1943, girls 14 and older were mobilized. By March 1944 three million were mobilized and labor service in the ironically named Girls’ Volunteer Corps was mandatory.
At this time, Japan was desperate for manpower. Able-bodied men were conscripted, and like in America, it was up to women to make up their numbers working back home, building the weapons they needed to keep up the fight. Girls were ideal because they couldn’t be drafted and were too young to make babies.
This is how her school books were replaced with an arc welder at the Sasebo Chinjufu, one of the four naval arsenals that serviced the Imperial Japanese Navy. She was now an employee of the great shipyard that built 113 ships for the navy and even more were outfitted, such as Musashi, sister ship to Yamato, the two largest battleships ever built.
She believes her homeroom teacher is the reason she got stuck with the noxious welding job. He was quiet and calm; when the teachers decided what jobs to give their students he timidly allowed them to force the most unpleasant jobs on his. While Shizue did electric welding, other students were gas welders, iron workers, blueprint makers or worked on hull plating.
After two months of welder training she began working in the seikankojo (pipe-making shop) that officially fabricated ventilation for ships, on Sept. 1, 1944.
The work, using an electrically-powered welding torch to fuse metals together, was hazardous and very unpleasant. She wore eye protection to keep the arc from burning her corneas and padded clothes to keep from getting burned by the torch and sparking metal, but the part she couldn’t protect herself from was the smoke. The only way to keep from inhaling the noxious fumes was to hold her breath.
Officially her parents knew that their daughter welded aluminum as that is what the government allowed her to tell them. Actually, she helped build weapons. Her first job was welding the 10-liter fuel tank for boats she knew by their technical name, maruyontei, or Circle Four Boat. It wasn’t until 70 years later she learned the name the boats were better known by- Shinyo. (“Ocean Shaker”)
The menacing name was applied to a family of small motorboats made of either wood or steel and powered by one or two automobile engines. Outwardly they looked like normal boats, but Shinyo were seaborne kamikazes.
The boats carried 595 pounds of explosives mounted in the bow and were to be driven at 23 knots at a target. Used practically in the fight in the Philippines and at Okinawa, it was expected they could swarm out and destroy American landing ships when they tried to create a beachhead in Kyushu.
Built in Sasebo, crew training took place at nearby Kawatana, home of the conventional torpedo boat school. Alongside the Shinyo crews, other suicide attackers were trained there such as Fukuryu (“Crawling Dragon”) frogmen. While fifteen year-old Shizue was helping build these boats, boys her age were among those trained to operate them.
Shizue knew that they were kamikazes and the pilot would die driving it, so out of respect for the life that would be lost, she worked hard to make the best fuel tanks she could. Later, her work shifted to welding together the halves of kirai (naval mines) that would be deployed around Sasebo Bay.
When asked about how she felt about building weapons, she said she was doing it to save Sasebo Bay, so like with the Shinyo, she did her best. Mine-welding was difficult work and after finishing it required a pressure test. If the mine leaked, it wasn’t any good. She wanted praise for the quality of work she put out, though believes that she wasn’t good at the job and others were better.
Beside the secret of her work she kept from her family, there was another that she kept from everyone. Just because she was working didn’t mean she was done learning. She couldn’t tell her family or friends and if she was caught studying she would be scolded for wasting time that should be spent winning the war.
She did it anyway. She worked alone in an isolated room, so between welding jobs she used chalk on a steel board to practice math and kanji. When she was finished, she erased the evidence of rebellious teenage behavior.
Her routine during this period was simple. She cleaned her room before heading to work, even if she was alone, then worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week and sat down with her family at 6 p.m. for dinner. She studied alone in her room after dinner.
Despite the work schedule, she still had time to spend with friends and one of her favorite hobbies was singing popular songs. She wasn’t ever the first to know them, but she had a friend that sang them and she learned from her, such as “Ai Senkasura,” a movie theme song.
After the Allies began bombing Japan her routine changed again, as every civilian, child and adult alike, were now required to be trained and ready to fight fires at a moment’s notice. It became a requirement to carry a homemade babuzukin (flash hood), a triangular bandage and a first aid kit at all times when not at home. Armed with the bamboo hitataki fire-hitting mop she was trained to fight back against the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built.
Building weapons and preparing for bombings, she knew it was a dangerous time and was afraid of dying.
Shizue came home from another tiring day at work on June 28, 1945.
That was the other thing her parents knew about her job. She welded aluminum and it was tiring. There were nightly air raid alerts, so she usually slept in her regular clothes, but it was raining tonight and the clouds were heavy, so she believed the bombers wouldn’t attack. She went to bed in a yukata, a light summer kimono, expecting an easy night’s rest.
Her sentiment was shared by Sasebo’s air defense command center. All of Kyushu’s air defenses, aircraft, radar, antiaircraft artillery and rockets, were coordinated through Sasebo in a secret bunker under the Imperial Japanese Navy headquarters just a few miles from where Shizue slept. It was assumed Kumamoto was the most likely target that night and so local defenses were not on high alert.
A few hours later the droning of 580 Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines flying 10,000 feet overhead awoke Shizue. The bombers were already over the city and an alarm hadn’t been raised.
By the time the air raid sirens near her began to wail it was too late. Sasebo had six searchlights to illuminate the threat and 80 anti-aircraft guns to fight it, but clouded skies masked a formation more than one hundred strong, and the defenses were ineffective as the bombs began to fall about half an hour past 1 a.m. and they continued to drop for 80 minutes.
The cluster munitions came down dully in the night sky and broke apart, each bomb merely a canister for 38 individual cylinders containing cheese-cloth sacks filled with jellied gasoline. These napalm-filled pipes flew downward with gauze streamers flailing behind them in the wind. Upon hitting a solid object, the jellied gasoline ignited and a charge sent the now burning payload flying back up from the point of impact like a deadly firework. The fireball stuck to whatever it hit and burned at 1000 Fahrenheit. A single fire like this could be quickly beat out with the hitataki, but when fires sprang up by the dozens they could rapidly consume structures and spread out of control.
Fighting these fires was innately dangerous, but made even more so by one last surprise the bombs held. Some had delayed fuses, designed to not detonate on impact, but to go off later when firefighters like Shizue arrived on the scene to stop the blaze. They would explode then, taking out the means to stop the fire and then spread further.
Seeing bombs hit the street she grabbed her firefighting gear and sprung into action. Using her hitataki, Shizue flailed water at the flames. Her family scattered as they also fought the fires. She was alone and afraid, but kept trying to put out the fires until they grew to what she called a ‘sea of fire’ and it cut her off from the nearest fire shelters.
Unable to put out the sea, she attempted to flee Tono-cho but the fires had spread and she had to pass dangerously close to burning buildings to get by them. First she tried to get over the hill Tono-cho is situated on, but the fire had cut her off. Then she tried to get to nearby Ko-Sasebo, but again the fires hemmed her in.
While she tried to escape she thought about her nine-year old brother and three-year old sister that they’d sent away for safety. If they had been here, she thought she couldn’t have escaped because she would have to go back for them. At some point she realized that she was bleeding from a small arm injury. She didn’t feel it happen and there was no pain, so she ignored treating it and escape remained her first priority.
Trapped in Tono-cho, she made for the small air raid shelter she and her neighbors had built near their house. It was smaller than the Tono-cho tunnel shelters built by Korean laborers on the hill under the school. When she got there, it was already full of people who had fled the fires. Nowhere else to go, she waited out the aftermath of the air raid outside the shelter door. She was alone in the middle of a burning city, trying to keep from choking on smoke with a handkerchief, had no idea where her family was, she was bleeding and afraid of dying in the fire.
While out there she saw her elementary school burn as well as a large house near hers. It had been converted to a dormitory. Did any of the men inside survive the night? She never found out.
Eventually, morning came, the fires died out and she had to get back to work, air raid or no air raid. Some classmates were missing so she and the others decided to visit the homes of those who didn’t show up. She checked on a friend who lived in the next neighborhood over and found her house had collapsed. She never saw her again and does not know if she died.
Nearly half the city burned down, but the Shizue home survived. She still had a roof over her head, but when she saw people who’d lost their homes in the air raid eating in the streets, she was envious of them.
At this time, the government strictly controlled the food the civilian populace had to eat. Rationing limited what a family could purchase and was based upon factors such as people’s age, gender and occupation. It had begun with direct government control over food distribution in 1940 and year by year almost every food item that could be rationed was. Now food could only be purchased at an authorized location and Sasebo’s burned down during the air raid. This led to a food shortage.
Her relatives on Uku Island had tried to help by mailing food, but it was confiscated by the police en route. Welding for the naval arsenal, she was luckier than most and was fed a meal at work.
One day she took a train from Sasebo to the adjacent town of Haiki then walked to another town, Egami, to go door-to-door asking to purchase rice from any families with food to spare. She rounded up five kilograms then walked six miles home. She avoided the train for fear her rice would be confiscated at the station by the government. Another time she travelled to Miya village but found no rice to spare so she purchased sweet potatoes instead. Overall, at this time, the easiest food to come by were radishes, the fat, white daikon usually served as a topping or side dish today.
She knew of the first atomic bomb by noon of Aug. 6, 1945, just a few hours after the bombing had occurred. Not knowing what it was, it was referred to as shin-gatabakudan, the New Type Bomb.
Several days later, Nagasaki was hit by the second atomic bomb. Like Sasebo, Nagasaki is hemmed in by mountains and this contained the blast far more than Hiroshima’s. Her brother was stationed in Nagasaki at Inusaiyama, which did not take damage from the attack, and so he was among the medical first responder to enter the irradiated blast zone. He died of radiation exposure.
Shizue was still welding naval mines right up until the war ended. She was off on Wednesday, Aug. 15 and was at home, but she’d heard people say a big announcement was going to be made on the radio at noon. Her family couldn’t afford a radio so she didn’t learn about what was said until around 4 p.m. when she heard rumors about the broadcast, that it had said the war was finished.
People said the radio transmission was unclear and hard to understand. She guessed the military may have tried to interrupt the broadcast.
It didn’t happen, but the teenager from Sasebo’s assumption was correct in a way. The night before, a group of army officers had murdered the Emperor’s captain of the guard, and using forged orders entered the Imperial Palace in an attempt to capture the recording and take the Emperor into “protective custody” so as to continue the war until the 100 million “shattered like a beautiful jewel.”
That evening her family sat at home together and wondered what to do. She thought to herself, “is this real?” Night was falling and they were unsure if the blackout curtain could be taken down… were they still necessary if there is no war?
Her question was answered by a bright light coming from her neighbor’s house. Relieved, she uncovered their windows and turned on their home’s lights too.
Though her school burned down, Shizue was able to finish junior high in Hiu, a few miles away and eventually became a teacher. She taught elementary school for 36 years in Sasebo.
Today she is a member of Sasebo’s Katari Tsugukai, an association which passes down the story of the Sasebo air raid and operates a small peace museum inside the rebuilt and now retired Tono-cho elementary school. Now she thinks that she has to continue, to keep going, to leave her experiences for the next generations in the hope that people will no longer make war.
Resources: Daily Life in Wartime Japan by Samuel Hideo Yamashita; Hell to Pay by D.M. Giangreco (Kyushu Defenses); Japanese Destroyer Captain by Capt. Tameichi Hara (Shinyo); U.S. Army M69 Incendiary instructional video