By Frank Hurley | The stories that run in this column are as varied as Penn’s alumni, but the following one has an unusual distinction: It was submitted along with the author’s obituary. After Francis Hurley W’48 passed away in April of 2009, his neighbor Jim Mitchell C’60 contacted the Gazette to pass along a story Hurley had written for their community newsletter shortly before his death. It recounted a curious experience he’d had as a naval ensign immediately after Japan’s surrender to end World War II. Hurley’s account is unverifiable, and one detail in particular—his claim to have seen geishas with bound feet, a custom not practiced in Japan—was questionable enough to require removal. His decision to obscure a key character’s identity is harder to fathom, though perhaps nothing more than the erosion of memory is to blame. Whatever the case, it created a mystery we have been unable to solve, which is one reason his story has stuck in our minds. Perhaps wider publication will bring its solution to light. In any event, to mark the 65th anniversary of the war’s end, we share his tale here.
I was a US Navy Ensign aboard Landing Ship Medium 346 on September 2, 1945 as the formal surrender of Japan was signed on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Once the treaty was signed, the Missouri’s horn sounded and we dropped off about 20 Marines and a lot of communication equipment for the initial occupation of Honshu. There was not a person in sight.
My ship joined the flotilla for the occupation of Hokkaido at Otaru, the port to Sapporo. My commanding officer told me to lead an occupation party into the “red light” district of town. (This was in fact the Geisha district. The Americans mistakenly thought geishas were prostitutes.) It was a cold, misty day in northern Japan and I had problems with the extreme tides. It was low tide when we landed and the pier was 20 feet above the boat. Two of the sailors threw me up onto the pier.
A “honey dipper” [sewage collector] was the first person we saw. He was six feet, three inches tall. Across his shoulder was a wooden yoke with a wooden bucket on each end. He wore a loincloth and sandals while we wore heavy pea coats. The stench from his buckets of sewage was overpowering and several of my men threw up. At this point, the radio was going crazy as every other party was having similar problems: They couldn’t find any people. Most of the Japanese men were spread out all over the world in the military; the women and children were hiding in caves because the Japanese feared that the Americans would rape the women and kill the children.
We arrived at our destination, which was a square in the Geisha district. There was a fountain where women came to get water. In a building set back from the square there was a large hot bath, and in the bath, nude, were the mayor, the town council, and their geishas. They had an excellent interpreter who, after introductions, took charge. I asked him to get everyone out of the bath and dressed. The mayor and his party left the pool. I complimented the interpreter on his English. He laughed and said it was American English, adding that he had gone to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship.
I told him I’d gone to Penn, too. (I’d spent two years at Penn in a Navy program, majoring in engineering, before going on active duty. After the war I returned and graduated from the Wharton School.) Ito, as I’ll call him, couldn’t stop asking me questions. I finally insisted that he get dressed. As he went to do so, he called back and said we would meet that afternoon. He would arrange it.
I radioed in to my commanding officer and got the normal stupid questions like, “How did you find the mayor?” It was a real coup, because none of the other parties could find anyone. The commander finally decided to come see for himself. When Ito came out with the mayor and council members, they were in top hats and were followed by geishas dressed in a rainbow of colors. We were stunned by their beauty. I quickly told Ito that no women could be at the meeting to sign the treaty. He responded that it was their tradition to have geishas present and we had better rethink that restriction.
The captain arrived and, after introductions, wanted to get the meeting under way. Our differences were settled; the women were allowed to come, but only to an outer room. As they left, my commanding officer told me to hold my post until relieved. Ito’s last words were, “I will see you this afternoon.”
Back on my ship, a message arrived at 2 p.m. It read: “Ensign Hurley will be picked up and taken for two hours, no more, with Professor Ito.” I briefly met Ito’s wife, who served me fish and rice and a lovely salad. I answered Ito’s questions about Penn and Philadelphia. Was Billy Penn still atop the highest building? Did the Schuylkill River still stink? Was Smokey Joe’s still there? Was College Hall, with its green limestone, still there?
After several sakes, we started singing Penn songs. Before I left he showed me their vegetable garden and pointed out the caves where the women and children were. Then my military driver honked his horn. I left Ito, both of us in tears, singing the Penn Fight Song.
Fight on, Pennsylvania!
Put the ball across that line.
Fight, you Pennsylvanians!
There it goes across this time.
Red and blue, we’re with you
And we’re cheering for your men.
So it’s fight, fight, fight Pennsylvania
Fight on for Penn.
I know the driver thought I was a real nut.
Frank Hurley W’48 was a first lieutenant in the US Navy during World War II. He died on April 29, 2009.