Sukeyasu “Steve” Yamamoto ’51

Yamamoto '51

Sukeyasu "Steve" Yamamoto '51

(1931–    )

WWII Memories

I was a 3rd grader in elementary school when I heard the news of Pearl Harbor. I don’t remember any sense of elation either in my family or at school. I was at school when the Doolittle air raid came on April 18, 1942, which did little physical damage, but made us aware of the vulnerability of Japan against air attacks. Classes continued during and after the raid, and we went home in a routine way. After the recapture of Saipan, more massive air raids by B-24 and B-29 became frequent, but were mostly targeted to military installations and industrial facilities.

When I was a 7th grader in April 1944, living in Tokyo had become increasingly dangerous. My class was evacuated in September to a battery manufacturing factory about 60 miles west of Tokyo, where we lived in dormitories and worked half a day at the factory and took classes during the other half. The food shortage was already upon us and we were always hungry and homesick. By the spring of 1945 it had become dangerous to remain even there, and the class was to be relocated to a remote area along the Japan Sea coast. I chose to move to a rural area west of Tokyo, where my family rented two rooms in a farm house, and enrolled in the local middle school from April.

The first massive indiscriminate firebombing of Tokyo occurred on March 10, 1945 claiming more than 8,000 civilian lives. I vaguely remember being with my father watching the scarlet sky over the bombed areas from our yard. This was his farewell visit home before going on his last naval mission with the Japanese Navy.

On May 1 my maternal grandmother and uncle came to tell us that my father had died in action on April 7. He was a senior staff officer of the 2nd Fleet aboard its flagship Yamato with an impossible mission to retake Okinawa. My uncle was on an escort destroyer, which was sunk. Survivors had spent five hours in the water before being rescued. We were told that this was top secret and not to tell anyone. My mother, who was 32 years old, cried all night. The complement of the Yamato was about 3,000 men, but less than 300 survived. Two of them were high-ranking officers who worked closely with my father, and they wanted to meet his family. So, my mother, my 5-year old brother, and I went to Tokyo to meet them at the official residence of my grandfather, who was then the Minister of Munitions Supply in the cabinet. I don’t remember anything about the meeting with these officers. While we were in Tokyo, there was a big air raid on May 25 targeting more upscale residential areas and business districts. The house we stayed in was burned down and we had to move out of our own bomb shelter to avoid becoming charcoal to one of the public shelters—dead-ended horizontal tunnels along the bank of the Imperial moat where frightened citizens could spend the night. Luckily, our own houses survived and we moved back there, but the surrounding areas were flattened. One of the persons who shared the bomb shelter with me was my future father-in-law, who was secretary to my grandfather.

Steve, as a child outside of his house

I don’t know why we were back in Tokyo in August to stay with my grandfather, but there we heard of the dropping of a “new type” of bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, and another similar bomb on August 9 on Nagasaki. As both bombs were dropped by single bombers, I remember running into the family shelter whenever a single U.S. plane was sighted.

August 15th was a very hot day, and we were told that the Emperor would make an important radio announcement at noon. We sat in the dining room and listened to the recorded broadcast by the Emperor declaring that Japan had surrendered, using very archaic Imperial expressions that were hard to understand. My grandfather, who took part in the Imperial Council meeting the night before, had known about this, but still couldn’t hold back his tears. My future father-in-law was busy searching for various escape routes in case there was an attack by dissident military officers, which didn’t happen. In my diary I expressed a half-hearted disappointment that I couldn’t go to the Naval Academy to keep the family tradition, but wrote that I could serve the country by becoming a scientist [which he did—ed.]. There was a sense of relief that there would be no more air raids and no more black curtains to keep the house dark on hot summer nights.

* * *

How I came to Andover, and some memories of the period immediately after WWII

The Emperor’s radio message on August 15, 1945, ended WWII followed by a short period of immense relief, sadness, letdown, and numbness of feelings. The arrival of the Allied Occupation forces jolted us to the reality of defeat with attending anxiety of what the Occupation forces had in store for us and the daunting task of recovery from the wasteland with much of its infrastructure gone and with acute shortage of all essentials for living. Among the arriving U.S. military families was Col. and Mrs. Svensson and their children Eric (PA ’51) and Ann. Col. (later Brigadier General) Svensson was Headmaster Kemper’s West Point classmate. So, without anyone’s knowledge, my Andover connection was being formed.

Steve, aboard the General Gordon en route to San Francisco

The Occupation forces with its civilian branches imposed sweeping changes that impacted all aspects of life. For example, all the peerage titled persons lost their titles and privileges, except for the Emperor and his immediate families. They also wanted to level the wealth distribution by imposing the wealth tax on the wealthy and dissolving family-owned business consortiums such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi. They also instituted an inheritance tax code that would wipe out any wealth earned or inherited in three generations. A farm reform was instituted by giving tenant farmers their small farms. They were bent on establishing an egalitarian society in Japan.

I went back to my former school in Tokyo in the fall to find that many of my classmates, who were descendants of Daimyos (feudal lords) families or court nobles, were suffering immense loss of wealth and a very much lowered lifestyle. It was amazing that school classes were held more or less, since the school barely was surviving after losing its patronage of the Imperial Household Ministry, and teachers, too, had to fend for themselves to survive. Some subjects, such as Japanese history, and topics were banned from being taught, but there were no clear instructions as to what should be taught. It was a chaotic and “anything goes” time, and in many ways was very free and liberating.

Since my mother spent 5 years in London from age 12, when her father was a naval attaché there, she spoke fluent “Brit” English and found a job as a receptionist at what was later to become the U.S. Embassy.

I want to digress here to write about my summer job in 1947 as a cabin boy for an American Naval officer (Lt. Pike). He was to supervise a convoy of some surviving Japanese Naval vessels to be handed over to the British Naval Base in Singapore as part of the reparation. The job was arranged by a Naval Academy classmate of my father’s. I traveled to a Naval Base in Kyushu by train and boarded a 910-ton Navy refrigeration ship, which was to transport the crew of the ships to be left in Singapore in its refrigerator holds. Lt. Pike was the sole American among his former enemy officers and seamen, but we all got along very well, and I stayed in touch with him until his recent death. We stopped in Hong Kong to refuel and to get water and food supplies. The Hong Kong harbor was full of sunken ships, and when our convoy sailed in there I could see a large crowd of Chinese shaking fists at us and shouting. I could see hatred in their faces through binoculars. There were also lots of sunken ships in Singapore when we docked at the Naval Base, but there were no civilians. I was even allowed to go ashore to visit the only Japanese Naval post commanded by a former superior of my father’s, with whom he shared a seaplane crash near Cebu and captivity by Filipino guerillas. This voyage was truly a learning and maturing experience and made me realize what Japan did to its Asian neighbors in the name of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a fancy name for recolonization by Japan.

Now back to my mother at the U.S. Embassy and how I got to go to Andover. My mother, as a young and beautiful bilingual war widow, had no shortage of American male admirers. Some of them would use our house as home away home and had occasional Sunday lunches by bringing food to cook. But, there was one person, a [divorced man] who used to teach at German Town Friends School before the war, who was quite serious about my mother. He visited us as often as he could, but my mother was not too sure about entering into a serious relationship with him. Having been a schoolteacher, he felt that I was too independent-minded and free-spirited for the Japanese education system and wanted to send me to an American school. No doubt he had some ulterior motive in getting me to America. He contacted Richard Pieters, a former colleague at Friends School, who by then had moved to Andover, and told him about me. This started the ball rolling. On the basis of the verbal aptitude test score, school transcripts, and some letters of recommendation, I was given a full scholarship. The steerage passage of $270 from Yokohama to San Francisco was paid for by an American organization, and with $100 in travelers checks, some cash, and a one-way Greyhound bus ticket all given to me by many of my mother’s friends, I took off for Andover in early August of 1950. I should mention that I had taken the entrance examination to the University of Tokyo and was admitted in April and attended it for three months before leaving for America with a leave of absence.

One episode at Andover I remember vividly was meeting Admirals Halsey and Spruance at graduation time. Pete Spruance ’51, my dormmate, introduced me to his uncle, Adm. Spruance—and to Adm. Halsey, who was with him—as a son of Adm. Yamamoto, which was true enough since my father was promoted to Rear Admiral posthumously after his death in action. Adm. Halsey shook my hand, saying “Fancy seeing you young man.” Obviously, he thought I was THE Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s son. I wasn’t lying, but wasn’t telling the truth! Much later, I found out that Adm. Spruance, who commanded the 5th Fleet during the war, had been set to have a real sea battle with the Japanese 2nd Fleet—of which my father was a senior staff officer. But Adm. Spruance decided to let carrier-based torpedo planes attack by telling Adm. Mitscher, “You take them.”

I was asked to write something about my family and my career after Andover.

Steve, in Day Hall reading 1984

I come from a family of three generations of professional naval officers (all admirals). My maternal great-grandfather was Vice Admiral (engineering) H. Takeda. As a child of 12 he was sent to live with a British teacher of an English school in his hometown, and attended an English school for 4 years before entering the Naval Engineering Academy. He spent 4 years in France overseeing the construction of warships by a French shipyard. He and his wife spent one more year later on a similar mission. His spoken and written English and French were native level, and he was very good at writing poems in classical Chinese, like a learned Westerner composing a Latin ode. After retiring from the Navy he joined Mitsubishi Consortium and became the chairman of the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company and later that of the Mitsubishi Electric Company concurrently. My life overlapped with his, as he lived to be 79. His only child married my grandfather Adm. T. Toyoda, who was slated to become a superstar in the Navy. He was a language officer in London and later became a naval attaché. He accompanied delegates to two disarmament conferences and was well aware of the superiority of Western powers, like his father-in-law. He became a Vice Minister of the Navy, but, because of his pro-West stance, was cleverly ousted from the Navy by first being promoted to full admiral but put on reserve right away, and was made a Minister of Commerce, where his secretary was my future father-in-law. He served as a Foreign Minister and tried very hard to avoid an armed conflict with the U.S. by working with U.S. Ambassador J. Grew (a relative of James Grew of PA faculty). During the war he was the chairman of the Japan Steel Company, and served again as the Minister of Munitions Supply in the last war cabinet that accepted the unconditional surrender. He was “purged” from official positions for some years, but when he was de-purged he became the chairman of Japan Usiminas Steel Company, a join-venture company with Brazil, which is thriving now.

My father, Rear Adm. Y. Yamamoto, came from a banking family, but chose to go to the Naval Academy and, like his father-in-law, was slated to be a superstar; my grandfather chose him to be my mother’s husband. He was a language officer and an assistant naval attaché in Germany from 1936 to 1938. He was very good at languages and spoke fluent German. Since he was away from home a good deal of the time I hardly knew him. But I remember him to be a gentle and laid-back person. He was 42 when he died.

My wife, Keiko, attended a convent school in Paris from age 12 to nearly 16, and then spent 4 years in Washington, D.C., where I met her when she was a sophomore at the American University. On both occasions she followed her father, who was a commercial attaché in France and a minister in charge of commerce in Washington.

Our children and one grandson were born in the U.S., so it was in the family blood to be at least bilingual and bicultural.

Finally, after Andover, I was given a full scholarship for both BS and PhD degrees at Yale. I did my thesis on nuclear physics, but switched to high-energy physics when I got my first job at Brookhaven National Laboratory. After 6 years there we moved to UMass-Amherst, where I started a research group of my own after receiving a good Federal grant. After 5 years there I was offered a position at the University of Tokyo to start my group there. Since I had lived in the U.S. for 20 years and felt that I should at least give Japan a try, I accepted the offer with fear and trembling. I never thought I’d last there, but somehow made it, and was made professor emeritus when I retired at 60. I then taught and did some research at Sophia University, a first-rate Jesuit University in Tokyo, retiring in 2000. Since then I’ve been working at RIKEN, a flagship national science laboratory in Japan two days [a week] as a part-time advisor. I’ll be fully retired in March 2012.


Filed under Life in a War Zone

6 responses to “Sukeyasu “Steve” Yamamoto ’51

  1. A great piece of writing by an equally great classmate and friend. George S.K. Rider

  2. Naomi Mendelsohn, PhD

    I saw “Tora Tora Tora” on television last night. the film prompted many thoughts past – events, people and places. I subsequently looked you up on “Google” Our paths crossed at Brookhaven National Lboratories. Now you are retiring!
    Best of luck to you and your family.
    Naomi Mendelsohn

  3. bill bouris

    well, Steve, this is really unusual: We were at Brookhaven at the same time. I was in the Mathematics Dept., first as computer operator ( I ran jobs for you ), and later as a programmer. We overlapped at parties, we had a few conversations. During one, we compared backgrounds. As I remember it, your story was more “French” than “British”. No matter. I wish you well in your retirement. i am so pleased that a serendipitous browsing of the internet can be so aesthetically rewarding.
    Bill Bouris

  4. amanda yamamoto

    I am proud to say that this is my Uncle sadly you have passed away but I still talk about you and so blessed to be related to such a wonderful person.

    • Terri Wong

      I came across this remarkable story as I was trying to find a phone number for a “Steve Yamamoto” who is a friend of my father. What a well written account. I am almost certain that Yamamoto Sukeyasu is the man my father is trying to call. So much of the detail above fits. One thing that would nail it would be if Steve Yamamoto had a cabin and spend August vacations in East Kamiyama next to Lake Nojiri, Nagano Ken. We owend 83-A for many years and that is how my parents got to know Steve and his wife. If this Steve is “our” Steve, then it will be my sad duty to inform my dad, Austin R. Warriner (who is 87) of his passing.

      Terri Warriner Wong

      • Leif Neve

        Don’t know if this will get to you, Terri, but I had a sudden urge to find out how you were faring in life. How are you doing? -Leif-san (who unlike you is EASY to find on the Internet!)

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