When the Japanese government vehicle came to a stop, I saw an elderly and frail-looking man in the back seat. It was Emperor Hirohito.
In May of 1977 I was a young Marine Corps lance corporal working with the Naval Security Group on Misawa Air Base, tucked away on the northern tip of the island of Honshu, Japan. While Misawa was somewhat isolated, it was conveniently located across the Sea of Japan from what President Ronald Reagan later referred to as the Evil Empire. With Vietnam behind us, our attention was once again returning to the Cold War, and as a low-level communications technician I was proud to make even the slightest contribution to the effort. Our mission often demanded that we work two full eighthour shifts in a twenty-four-hour period. This schedule allowed little more than a quick bite to eat and a few hours of sleep between shifts.
Several weeks earlier I had read in Stars and Stripes that a national sports festival was to be held in the northern Honshu city of Aomori. Many Japanese dignitaries would attend, including one in particular who hadn’t traveled to that part of Japan for more than twenty years. Because of a lack of adequate airfields in the region, all planes were to land at Misawa Air Base before a forty-minute drive to Aomori. I planned to hang around the terminal on the designated day to try to catch a glimpse of a Japanese VIP.
But when the day arrived, I was assigned one of those double shifts, and I wearily chose sleep over celebrity chasing. I had just crawled into my bunk at 8:00 A.M. when someone knocked on my door and told me that Sergeant Hutchinson wanted me on the barracks phone. Hutchinson, the administration sergeant for our company, was as belligerent as you might imagine any noncom could be who routinely had been passed over for promotion. When I answered the phone, he told me he had some forms that needed my signature. Knowing they were nothing urgent, I begged him to allow me to sign them some other day. Staying in character, he demanded my presence immediately.
So I climbed back into uniform and proceeded to the company office. One block away, on a quiet side street that led directly from the flight line to the main base entrance, I came to a crosswalk. As I looked to my left, I saw a small procession approaching: two Japanese motorcycle police acting as front-runners, a limousine smartly decorated with Rising Sun flags, and two more motorcycle police to the rear. Immediately I knew who occupied the government vehicle, and I hoped I might catch a glimpse of him as it sped through the deserted intersection. To my astonishment the group stopped at the red light. With not another automobile in sight, the car rolled to a halt a foot from the curb where I was standing. As I peered into the rear seat, I saw on either side two huge individuals who bore a striking resemblance to the James Bond villain Oddjob. Sandwiched between them was an elderly and frail-looking man. It was Emperor Hirohito.
I tried to imagine President Carter stopping for a red light as he passed through the streets of America. An instant later one of the most infamous men of the twentieth century leaned forward in his seat and looked directly into my eyes. I thought of my father, a Navy chief petty officer during the Second World War, who spoke of the terror of encountering Hirohito’s Kamikazes in the South Pacific. I tried to imagine what Hirohito himself might be thinking as he gazed at a Marine standing on Japanese soil. Even after almost thirty-two years of American military presence, I doubted the emperor had become accustomed to the sight.
Soon the traffic light changed, and the well-mannered motorcade moved on to Aomori and the sports festival. I continued on to the company office, enthusiastically greeted Sergeant Hutchinson, and watched a bewildered expression cross his weathered face as I thanked him on my way out the door. If it hadn’t been for this ornery old Marine, I never would have experienced my brush with history.