John Sylvester ’48

Sylvester '48

John Sylvester '48

(1930–    )

The war began in China in 1937 after fighting broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing between the Chinese Nationalist Army and the Imperial Japanese Army. I was a child then in China from 1936 to 1939, age six to nine. I remember a Japanese unit marching past our house in Tsingtao in north China, short soldiers in scruffy uniforms carrying long rifles. I admired the big handsome horses the Japanese cavalry rode, myself then riding the smaller Mongolian ponies. I remember also in Shanghai once riding through the Chinese quarter outside the International Settlement, which was devastated in the recent fighting. My brother and I peered at the old Japanese battleship Idzumo and the other warships in the Whangpu River off the Shanghai Bund.

My maternal grandfather, Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, was then the Commander-in-Chief of the American Asiatic Fleet. My father, in a good piece of nepotism, was his flag lieutenant, so the three generations of our family were there moving between Shanghai, Tsingtao, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

My grandfather was one of the first of the air admirals. In 1932 he had led the Navy units in the Pacific maneuvers, attacking Hawaii by air on a Sunday morning. The Army cried foul. The Japanese may have noticed. During his tour of duty in China he developed a deep sympathy for the Chinese people for their ordeal under the Japanese invasion. One of his crises was the deliberate Japanese naval sinking of our gunboat, the USS Panay. After his retirement in 1939 to live in Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote and traveled widely to lecture on the coming war with Japan. When the war began he was called back to duty. Too old to take a command, he was on the defense team for his friend Admiral Kimmel in the court martial over Pearl Harbor, wrote a controversial report on the use of Navy air in the Pacific, and served as an advisor to the Chinese mission in Washington. After retiring again, he was in August 1945 perhaps the first person publicly to criticize the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, writing the New York Herald Tribune that it was “a barbaric act against a defeated enemy.”

In Newport, where my father was assigned to the Naval Torpedo Station, we lived right down the street from my grandfather. I was at his house when he received a phone call informing him of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I ran home to tell my father. In 1942 my father went to Australia to interview our submarine captains, dismayed with the number of dud torpedoes during their attacks on Japanese vessels. He later told me the problems came from the civil service technicians at the Torpedo Station being promoted beyond their knowledge, along with the Navy concern with the cost of testing the torpedoes. My father was then assigned for duty in the Pacific, first in the waters off Guadalcanal as executive officer on the cruiser USS Columbia, a lucky ship, and later as navigation officer for Admiral Olendorf on the USS California in the battle of Leyte Gulf.

When I joined the Foreign Service in 1955 my first ten years of duty were in Japan, with my most valuable souvenir being my beloved wife Mayumi Kurata, a Japanese movie actress. She had, of course, her own war experiences. Her house in Tokyo was destroyed by our incendiary bombs, with she and her family in the small shelter hearing their fizzling and the roar of the flames. She said her mother was most concerned thereafter about the police finding the remains of the black market sugar she had been able to buy. Mayumi underwent the compulsory military training for students. She joked to me that if I had been one of the invading American soldiers she would have greeted me with “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Sylvester,” and then with her bamboo spear made me shish kabob.

After college I had enlisted in the U.S. Army, getting my Combat Infantryman’s Badge in the Korean War. That war came out of the division of Korea in 1945 and the victory of the Chinese communists over the Nationalists on the mainland. Later, as a Foreign Service officer, I served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, the first two years in the countryside with the Pacification Program and the later two years in the Embassy in the Embassy in Saigon. That war came out of the Japanese humiliation of the French colonial regime in World War II, and the communist victory in the north and their intent for all of Vietnam.

Great earthquakes have many aftershocks. Great wars leave much turmoil.

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