Friday the 13th: San Francisco radio flashed the news of President Roosevelt’s sudden death and for once Tokyo picked it up immediately: the bulletin was on the air by noon. The Japanese and I talked to did not seem unduly elated; they know by now that nothing would affect the prosecution of the war by the U.S.A. Strangely enough no one spoke of “divine punishment” but some newspaper is sure to say it sooner or later. More common was the reaction that Roosevelt did not die of natural causes. Our maid put it all very neatly. “You will see,” she insisted. “Afterward it will come out that he was really poisoned or shot in his office.”
“But that is impossible,” I protested. “The announcement…”
“You can believe the announcement if you like,” she shook her head scornfully. “But I tell yon that great men seldom die in bed. They are killed. Afterward it is said that they died in bed because their successors are afraid people may get ideas.”
To dispel any stray hopes that Roosevelt’s death might mean even a temporary let-up, the Marianas bomber-command made a gigantic funeral pyre for the president the very same night out of the great wards of Shinjuku, Iidabashi, Jimbocho, Yotsuya, and, it seems, the imperial compound and the Meiji shrine. It was the first big night raid on Tokyo since the 10th March. The alarm was late again; the radio was still vague about the movements of the raiders when near midnight the first explosions shook us out of bed. We dressed hastily, shivering in the dark as the maid, nagging us hysterically to hurry, hurry, hurry, slammed back the wooden night-shutters of our Japanese house. I was not particularly worried; this time we were all men in the house except for the maid; I was only staying for a few days and had nothing to lose except a small knapsack. In the chill ghostly dimness I could hear the old woman puffing as she dragged all her trunks and bedding out into the garden; I hurried to help her. She had already placed all the china in the wooden bathtub.
The street outside was quite except for the steady reassuring chug-chug-chug of the small red water-pump. From the darkened houses came muffled noises, careful steps down a squeaking staircase, the rumble and bang of an opened window shutter, a child awakened in the dark. The sky was beginning to light up around us. But it was a distant pervasive uniform glow like that of dawn. Bells changed as bombers roared overhead for a breathless moment but they always passed on and the explosions were far away. We had about decided to go back to bed when there was a series of detonations nearby. Over the neighboring rooftops the bright banners of fire were lifted briefly. The little groups chatting uneasily along the street broke up. It was getting closer.
Over at the end of the street the fire launched a quick sortie. We watched the invader fight forward from house to house, dodging, rushing. The first refugees came stumbling down the road. They did not pause. Only one woman with a child, dragging a little wooden cart piled with household goods, stooped to look at the skies before her, just as crimson as those behind her. Where was she to go? Her face contracted in a grimace of irritation, the exasperation of a bedeviled housewife rather than the more profound despair of the harried, hunted homeless.
The treacherous wind outflanked and broke through every defense. It carried its flaring parachutes into the enemy’s country. No man dared to leave his house to help his neighbor; he might be next. The fire had now consolidated itself a few blocks away. We could recognize the refugees now; they were no longer nameless strangers. A tense readiness gripped everyone and at the same time a dissolving discouragement. There was no water to be had; in fact the whole neighborhood had been without water for a week except for two or three hours every morning. Firemen in gleaming helmets and grotesque black cloaks came clumping by; their own station was threatened. They shouted hoarsely as they dragged behind them flat and muscleless hose. There was only one source of water available, the swimming pool of the schoolhouse across the street from us. Stumbling and cursing in the fitful darkness they pumped desperately. The hose spit thin streams of water from the holes along its length but still it lay torpid upon the ground. Then a couple of fire engines turned the corner, slow and formless like tanks. The hose quivered, stiffened, lashed out.
But the fire had already broken into the massive Catholic girls’ school in the next block. We decided to see for ourselves how dangerous it had become. The narrow alleys branching out from our street were crazy with confusion. There were piles of bedding, kitchen utensils, furniture, clothes, scattered before the disembowelled houses. At a corner a policeman stood, his legs apart, one of them flexed with stiff bravado. I was tall, curly-haired, obviously a foreigner.
“Hey, you, come here!”
He was very young, he could not have been more than 17.
The sneer of cold command was on his lips. He was not afraid; he was not losing his head while all these crazy fools went rushing past him.
“Where are you going? Where have you come from? What do you want? Where do you live?”
I did not want to argue with him and I motioned that I could not understand Nippongo.
“Come on, answer me. Answer me, do you hear? Where do you live? What are you doing here?”
Did he suspect me of starting the fire? Of signalling the bombers? I would not have put it past him. He was white and shaking with rage. Around us the fire crashed forward and the stream of refugees hurried past, every one intent on his secret purpose.
I looket at the young policeman blankly. With a curse of exasperation he stretched out his hand to grip me. I wondered vaguely if he would slap me and if among my diplomatic privileges was included that of slapping a policeman back. Just then an older officer appeared. He waved me onward. He had recognized me. “Of course I recognized him too,” the young policeman muttered as I moved away. “I just wanted to know where he was going.”
I had almost forgotten the fire. The bombers were gone. Someone said it would be alright this time. I scarcely listened. I was still tense with anger and humiliation. How silly it was and yet these white-lipped shambling whispering refugees, this fierce and formidable conflagration fighting its last desperate battles in isolated pockets under the waving white flag of smoke, Roosevelt dead, Tokyo burning, peril of death, reprieve for life, all these were nothing to me at that moment because a sulky insolent young boy in a tight black uniform had shouted at me.