I wrote this story for the Naval Special Warfare Magazine Ethos, and it was published in Issue #26 in November 2104.
It was 1945, and he was a 22 year old ensign in the Navy, swimming alone in a small bay off the coast of Japan, looking at the shoreline through his face mask. He had been trained as a member of one of the US Navy’s very special units – the Scouts and Raiders – and had been recently deployed to the Pacific Theater to do amphibious advance force operations against Imperial Japan in World War II.
Just two weeks earlier, he had been doing reconnaissance missions to prepare for an amphibious landing in Mindanao, the Philippines, expecting fanatic resistance from entrenched Japanese forces, when his superiors were told of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of Japan. His task force was directed to cease all operations, pick up Army troops in Luzon, and make haste for Japan. After nearly 4 years of brutal and vicious combat, the war was finally over, and Japan had been defeated.
And now here he was, in the water, off the coast of Japan, and this beach was one of the planned sites for putting US forces ashore to begin the occupation of Japan.
It was early in the morning, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful day. The water was clear and calm, the bottom of the bay sandy, and the beach he was observing was fairly small – only about 150 yards wide. There was a small Japanese fishing village right next to the water’s edge, and though he saw some fishing boats on the beach, the village appeared deserted – no signs of activity or life.
He was on a one-man hydrographic reconnaissance mission, outfitted in the equipment that was standard for our frogman of World War II and many decades thereafter: fins, face-mask, web-belt with swimmer knife, lead-line and slate. His mission was to determine whether there were any natural or man-made obstacles, or any other impediments to an amphibious landing to put troops ashore. He had been dropped off several hundred yards off-shore by an LCVP – a small motorized launch – which was waiting just a few hundred yards away. His ship, the USS George Clymer, APA 27, was at anchor approximately a mile away, clearly visible.
The water was warm – for it was late August, 1945. The beach he was looking at was in front of the village of Wakayama, Japan, not far from Osaka. The beach was perfect for a landing – no surf, white sand, a perfect gradient. But as he was looking for potential obstacles and recording the gradient, he looked up and was startled to see three men approaching the beach from the otherwise deserted main street of the village. They had clearly seen him and were heading in his direction.
This could be trouble. He had heard reports that fanatics in Japan would never surrender, would never tolerate an American occupation, and would fight to the death. As a frogman, he felt very much at home and safe in the water and he had the LCVP just a few hundred yards away, but he was still concerned. As he looked hard at these three men approaching the water’s edge, he noticed that they all appeared to be elderly, dressed in coats and ties, and he saw no weapons. But he was still on his guard.
They came to the water’s edge and stopped. The young American officer carefully swam in to get a little closer, to see what they were up to. He slowly approached to within about 25 yards of them, staying in shoulder deep water. Then he stopped. For several seconds, the Japanese men stood on the beach and looked at him, and he looked back at them.
Then one of these elderly Japanese men stepped forward and spoke.
“We can see the ships off shore, and we can see what you are doing. We want to assure you that your occupation will be unopposed, and that we will cooperate peacefully. We are glad the war is over.”
From the water, the officer responded: “I want to assure you that we too are glad the war is over. We also hope to have a peaceful occupation.”
At that point, he did not sense a threat, and trusted his instincts. He decided to take a chance and came out of the water and approached the three men. It was indeed a bizarre scene: Three elderly Japanese gentlemen in coats and ties, standing on the beach in front of their village, facing a young American naval officer, representing the country that had just defeated them in war, dressed in nothing but a swim suit and his simple frogman equipment.
The Japanese man went on: “Whatever we can do to cooperate please let me know. Feel free to contact me if I can help.”
“Thank you,” our American officer said. “I will report your offer to my superiors.” And then there was an awkward pause. The officer then asked, “How is it that you speak such excellent English?”
The Japanese man replied: “As a young man many years ago, my education included getting my baccalaureate degree from Harvard University.”
To which the American officer chuckled and replied: “Well, I went to Yale, and we used to kick your butt in football every year!” At that, both men laughed.
That seemed to break the ice.
The other two Japanese men never spoke, and the American assumed it was because they probably spoke no English. The Japanese gentleman from Harvard then asked if the American officer might be able to join him and his wife for dinner. The American replied that he didn’t know what his schedule would be – that he and the American Navy were going to be very busy putting troops ashore over the next days, and he’d have to check with his superiors. That was a Monday. The Japanese gentleman suggested that the American try to meet him at that spot at 5PM on Thursday to accompany him to his home for dinner, and if the American couldn’t make it, that was fully understandable. The American responded that he would try, and then returned to the water, finished his reconnaissance and returned to his ship.
Back aboard ship, the American officer reported this encounter to the commodore of the squadron who encouraged him to go to dinner with the gentleman, noting that it would be great experience. Over the next several days, the task force was indeed very busy, but on Thursday afternoon, the American officer was at the appointed place and time, and the Japanese gentleman met him and took him to his home, where his wife had prepared a lovely meal.
As was and still is the custom, the American officer arrived with a gift. He was not a smoker, but had saved his ration coupons, and he had been able to purchase two cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes, which he presented to the Japanese gentleman upon arrival. To see his reaction, you would have thought he had been given two bars of gold bullion! Japan was a nation of smokers, as was the US at that time, but in Japan, cigarettes had become extremely hard to come by. The Japanese gentleman was very pleased.
That evening, they didn’t talk about the war, or about politics, or about anything controversial or unpleasant. The Japanese gentleman said he had a son who was in the Army and he believed he was still alive, but wasn’t sure. They mostly talked about Yale and Harvard, the Japanese gentleman sharing his experiences in America from many years ago, and they discussed other pleasantries.
When it was time for the American officer to take his leave, the Japanese gentleman offered him as a parting gift, a folder with 23 appliques of Samurai Warriors with ancient Japanese writing on them. They were exquisitely done on rice paper, appeared to be quite old, but in excellent condition. The American officer was stunned, and replied that he just couldn’t accept such a gift. But his host insisted, saying that he would be insulted if they weren’t accepted. So, out of courtesy, the American officer accepted the gift.
The two never met or communicated again.
The American forces were very busy getting on with the occupation of Japan. The American officer was transferred shortly thereafter to Shanghai, where for nearly a year, he worked as an intelligence scout attached to Commander 7th Fleet, tracking the progress of a nasty insurgency in the countryside of northern China, led by a man named Mao Tse Tung. In 1946, the American officer was released from active duty, and like most American service men, returned to the States to begin a new, post-war civilian life.
The American officer from the Scouts and Raiders was Dick Lyon, now a legend in the Naval Special Warfare community. Upon returning to the States and Southern California, he eventually entered Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. When in 1951 war broke out in Korea, like many men in his generation who had fought in WW2, he was recalled to active duty. Dick was one of many former Scouts and Raiders, UDT men, and NCDU swimmers who volunteered to join the Underwater Demolition Teams to fight in Korea, and Dick became an officer in the newly commissioned UDT 5. He and his teammates trained up and deployed to Korea in late 1951, where he found himself swimming in the cold waters off Korea, again doing amphibious advanced force operations, and other new missions that were being devised for the UDT frogmen.
At the conclusion of that war, Dick returned to the States and was again released from active duty to continue his career in business. He remained active in the Naval Reserve, and over the next 26 years, commanded seven Naval Reserve units. In 1974, he became the first officer to be promoted to Admiral from the Naval Special Warfare community, and was recognized as BullFrog 1 – the longest serving UDT or SEAL on active duty.
Now, as an old warrior 91 years young, he enjoys looking back on his very full and rewarding life. He frequently looks at those appliques of Samurai warriors that he received from the old Japanese gentleman of Wakayama, which he now has prominently displayed in his living room. He recalls how nearly 70 years ago, as a very young man, he had the opportunity to serve on one of the great stages of world history, and to be one of the first American servicemen to set foot on the mainland of Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs. In his meeting with the Japanese gentleman from Harvard, he also had the opportunity to do his own small part to begin healing the wounds from that very nasty war, and begin building the friendship that connects our two great nations to this day.
He still regrets that he didn’t stay in touch with the Japanese gentleman from Harvard. Though that old gentleman has certainly long passed, his Samurai Warriors still live on in Dick Lyon’s living room. As Dick fondly looks at them, he often thinks to himself, were the old gentleman alive today, “Ah….what a great conversation the two of us could have now!”