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Column: Japan tragedy stirs memories

WORTHINGTON -- I lived at Sendai at one time -- oh, for several weeks, for a couple of months. This was so long ago I don't have a collection of vivid memories. Anyway, things I remembered from that time all would be changed. Sendai is at the epi...

Earthquake Rubble
A woman puts in order the rubble at her house destroyed by Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Tuesday March 15, 2011, (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

WORTHINGTON -- I lived at Sendai at one time -- oh, for several weeks, for a couple of months.

This was so long ago I don't have a collection of vivid memories. Anyway, things I remembered from that time all would be changed.

Sendai is at the epicenter of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that shattered a great part of Japan at last week's end. Hours later, Sendai was crushed under the 33-foot tsunami that the geologic lurch generated.

I was with the United States Army, as you probably guess. I was a bit scared.

Our troop ship landed along a pier in Tokyo Bay. We -- green troops -- disembarked (army word), and we were marched to a warehouse-like structure that had only dim lights mounted in the ceiling. We were assigned bunks with no bedding, save for mattresses. At 9 o'clock, or 10 o'clock, the lights were turned out. We began our first night on Japanese soil.

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In the very early hours of the next morning -- 2 o'clock or so -- my name was called out on a loudspeaker system. I was told to report to an office at the far end of the warehouse.

The loudspeaker voice was that of Master Sgt. William T. Morrison. If you knew Sgt. Morrison, you could understand better how this came to be. The Sergeant was going through 401 Files looking for a live soldier to fill a slot in the 24th Infantry Division headquarters, Public Information Office. He introduced himself, gave me a slip of paper, a kind of railroad pass, and he pointed to a train. "You've got to get on that train. You're going to Sendai," he said.

"I have to get my duffel bag...

"Go for it. Hubba, hubba."

When I got back to my mattress, the guys wondered, "What's going on? You under arrest? What did you do?"

"I'm going to Sendai on a train," I said. Everyone had one question, which was expressed in several different ways. That question was: "What in hell is Sendai?"

I didn't know. I never had heard of such a place. No one else knew, save for Master Sgt. William T. Morrison. Sendai was headquarters for the 24th Division, which had been smashed in the first attacks in Korea in 1950 and being readied for a return visit.

So it was that I went. I didn't know where exactly in the world I was. Everyone called Sendai a town. The thing I learned quickly was this town had a population of about one million people. I never had lived in any place so big.

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It was because of Sendai that I came to have great respect and true admiration for Japan. 

Commanders of the 24th Infantry Division had (they believed) very important business to conduct with military chiefs in the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo, Gen. MacArthur's headquarters. Peons in the 24th Division were designated "couriers." Couriers were to get on a train with a file from Sendai and take the file personally to the Tokyo rail center, where they passed the papers along to a waiting NCO from Dai Ichi. Couriers were very near the base of the flag pole. The new guy (me) got a courier assignment because everyone else was ducking.

On the return trip, I went to the diner on the Sendai train. I had a pork chop. Probably pork chop and rice. Maybe broccoli. I don't remember that.

The trains running to/through Worthington at that time were miserable trains. Dented. Seats with worn and stained upholstery. There were no diners. I was riding to Sendai on perhaps the finest train I ever experienced. I was sitting on a cushioned chair in a beautifully appointed dining car eating a wonderful chop. All this not 10 years after Japan had been leveled, burned and beaten by America's B-Sans, the B-29 bombers. 

All about me, at other tables, were well-dressed people caught up in conversations which, of course, I could not understand. We rolled toward Sendai through a verdant countryside where I could see no damage.

"These people," I thought, "are very impressive. This country is very impressive." My days at Sendai taught me Japan is a remarkable land.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe.

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