The Original Expat: The Life of a 1950’s Army Wife


In March of 1952, my husband left for Korea. Our eldest son had just been born in Kansas (where I was born and raised); 12 days earlier. We would not be reunited as a family until the following year when our son was 15 months old. However, the reunion was not a homecoming, as we next met in Japan. Here is my story of life as an Army wife:

 

Apprehensions

My husband was stationed in Japan not long after World War II ended, and Pearl Harbor had been bombed. During the late 40’s and early 50’s theaters were showing war movies especially with Japanese soldiers. These movies and limited news coverage were all I knew of Japan. Remembering those war movies, and terrifying faces of the Japanese soldiers made me apprehensive and little afraid when I first saw a soldier shortly after we had arrived.

 

The Long Journey

In May 1953, I left San Francisco, CA on an Army Troop ship bound for Yokohama, Japan. With my newly toddling son Breckie. The trip took 12 days – rough seas for much of the trip meant most of the children were sick throughout the journey; however, we survived. Husbands greeted their families in Yokohama, and then we all went our separate ways to our new postings. We traveled by train to Kukura, on the southern island of Kyusha. At present, the train journey between the two locations would take only 5 hours, but back in the 1950’s, it was an overnight journey. We shared a tiny compartment with bunk beds, and Breckie had to sleep in with us.

 

Differences and Similarities – Our New Home

Our kitchen when I was an army wifeOur home when I was an army wifeGovernment quarters were not available for us until three months later, so, we lived in a Japanese house built for American soldiers and their families. In traditional Japanese style, the sliding doors throughout the house were made of rice paper, not glass. Our son particularly enjoyed poking his fingers through the ‘walls’. Although not yet a year and a half, Breckie slept on an army cot, the same as us. There were no cribs available. It was not easy to keep a very active little boy confined on a cot. Luckily we did have help. We had a lovely full-time nanny, who was with us six days a week – for an unbelievably low price. I think we paid just seven dollars a week. We managed to communicate quite well with our nanny, as she had previous experience working with other American families. Our “Zuka” was very young; in her 20’s. She took off one day a week to spend with her husband but became very attached to Breckie. Our nanny did all of our laundry too – and by hand. She would then hang it out to air on a clothes line.

We shared this house with another army couple. The wife was from Holland. Each family had their own bedroom, living room, and dining room, however, we shared the kitchen, which included a tiny stone refrigerator. We had two shelves each. One family was always accusing the other of using their jam or butter or something else. We were left to furnish our own living quarters until we were moved into government housing. We bought bamboo tables and chairs – some with cushions – they were very comfortable. We even brought them back to the States with us and continued to use them for years. Other items were not cherished as much, we were glad to see to see the back of the two army cots, which had comprised our ‘master bedroom’.

We were lucky to have our own car during out time in Japan. We had shipped our four-door Chevy sedan over from the States. However, driving on the narrow roads, which were more like alleys riddled with potholes, was difficult and dangerous. They also drive on the left side of the road, as they do in the UK.

There was one other American family, who lived in the house next door, otherwise, we were surrounded by Japanese families, and rice fields. In some ways, it was similar to the small farming community that I had come from in Kansas, however, these fields were fertilized with human feces – spread out across the crops from small wooden buckets, called ‘honey buckets’. The air was filled with a very strong repugnant odor, as you can well imagine.

 

The Fish Pond Incident

Though for the most part we managed to communicate well, there were times when we had problems. One of these was the fish pond incident. The Japanese people love fish ponds. In fact, we had one just outside our house. The water was about 3 feet deep. One day when the other family’s nanny went outside to hang the laundry, she left the door open. Our Breckie (who was supposed to be napping) got up from his cot and went outside. The next thing we heard was the nanny screaming. She ran in with Breckie in her arms he was blue and limp, she had pulled him out of the fish pond, where she had just seen his little hand sticking out of the murky water. Hysteria followed. I ran through the narrow streets to reach a phone, to call an ambulance from the Army base. It was very difficult and frustrating communicating with the Japanese operator, trying to get her to understand the situation. In the meantime, the nanny had called a Japanese doctor. He came to the house and thankfully was able to revive Breckie. He expelled a lot of dirty water from his lungs and saved his life! His guardian angel was looking out for him, for sure!

Although this traumatic experience was made worse by the language barriers, on the whole, communicating with the local Japanese was not a problem. Our nanny, who we spent a considerable amount of time with spoke enough English.

 

A New Addition

The near drowning incident was not our only need for a doctor in Japan. While we did have a small clinic and dispensary on the base, the nearest hospital was 4 hours away. I had gotten pregnant shortly after arriving in Japan and soon learned that 5 days before my due date, I would be sent by train to the large hospital. Well, I went into labor well before my due date, so I was sent in an Army car, with a driver, a nurse, and my husband. It took 4 hours to drive those 40 miles to the hospital, on a rough and bumpy road. At 5am that morning, we had to take our son Breckie to our close friend’s house (just our luck, it was our nanny’s one night off that week). Our friends had no children, and it was quite a challenge for them to keep Breckie happy without his mommy and daddy. Later the told us that they had let him play with a little record player for hours to keep him happy. This couple, Francois (French) and Greg (America) became our dearest lifelong friends. They were godparents to our daughter Susan, who was born that day, in Fukuoka, Japan.

(You definitely need good friends, when you’re in a strange new country, with all your family so far away. My husband’s boss at the time and his wife also remained dear friends for many years.)

So, returning to the story, about the birth of our first daughter. The rough 4 hour drive to the hospital postponed my labor for 12 hours, but eventually, later that day, Susan was delivered. Healthy and safely, weighing 4lbs, 14oz and about a week premature. I received very good care in the hospital, which was staffed with American nurses and doctors – all military of course.

I also had a wonderful seamstress, who made all of my maternity clothes. She made a stunning bassinet for baby Susan, using an old clothes basket which she put a cushion inside, and lined with yellow satin, and added a ruffled skirt around it.

 

Raising children in JapanRaising children as an army wife

It was always an adventure whenever we took little Breckie out in our small town of Kukura. We would be surrounded by mobs of Japanese people, with their cameras, all wanting to take photos of our little 2 year old with his blond hair. Later we found out that his picture had appeared in one of their big department stores.

 

Daily Life in Japan

What I missed most was being so far away from family and friends back home. And being able to stay in touch with them regularly. I also missed the modern conveniences of life in the US at that time. Writing letters was the only way that we could keep in touch with family and friends back home.

We bought food from the commissary on the base, so getting hold of familiar American items wasn’t a problem. As military wives, we had lots of time for parties and dancing at the Officers Club, every Saturday night.  We also took flower arranging classes – Ikebana – which I found most interesting. They don’t use bouquets of flowers like we do in the US. It is amazing what can be created with just one or two flowers and a couple of twigs arranged in a specific way – like a triangle – they call heaven, earth and man.

 

What Being an Expat Army Wife Taught MeArmy Wife: Wearing Japanese clothing

As an Army wife I loved learning so much about such a different culture – I observed mothers working in the fields, with babies on their backs – babies never crying, just happy to be with their mothers.

Traveling is an education in itself. It makes one realise that although we may have different cultures, as human beings we are all basically alike.

My 25 years of military life included 17 moves. Besides Japan, we also lived abroad in Germany. Across the United States, we lived in Virginia; St Louis & Ft Leonard Wood Missouri; Hartsdale New York; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Sacramento, San Francisco and Novato, California. My children and grandchildren all love to travel and I’m so happy that they do.

Other benefits of my travels, and life as a Military wife were that I could be a stay-at-home mom, and just enjoy my children, and all their activities. I was lucky to have my children very close in age which helped when we transitioned to a new place and the children went to a new school. Until they made new friends, they had each other to play with. The first 2 weeks were the hardest after each move – for me too. Each move prompted time to clean out drawers and closets, getting rid of excess and outgrown clothes. We were only allowed to move a weight-restricted amount of belongings. This kept us living a more minimalist lifestyle. Now, having been in the same home for nearly 50 years, we have become hoarders, we have never had a reason to clean out, and so we haven’t. We’ve held tight to our belongings, photographs, furniture and clothes. We still enjoy travelling for fun, but no more moves, please!


About Michelle Laker

A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions. My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you've just arrived, and don't know where to start, email me (michelle-at-lifeinthebay.org). I am happy to help!

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