Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI's Secret from Postwar Japan

Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI's Secret from Postwar Japan

by Terese Svoboda


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After her Uncle's suicide, Terese Svoboda investigates his stunning claim that MPs may have executed their own men during the occupation of Japan after World war II

[Our captain] commended us for being good soldiers and doing our job well and having a minimum of problems. Then he dropped a bomb. He said the prison was getting overcrowded, terribly overcrowded.

As a child Terese Svoboda thought of her uncle as Superman, with "Black Clark Kent glasses, grapefruit-sized biceps." At eighty, he could still boast a washboard stomach, but in March 2004, he became seriously depressed. Svoboda investigates his terrifying story of what happened during his time as an MP, interviewing dozens of elderly ex-GIs and visiting Japan to try to discover the truth.

In Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, Svoboda offers a striking and carefully wrought personal account of an often painful search for information. She intersperses excerpts of her uncle's recordings and letters to his wife with her own research, and shows how the vagaries of military justice can allow the worst to happen and then be buried by time and protocol

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555974909
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 01/22/2008
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.05(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Terese Svoboda has published nine books of prose and poetry, most recently Tin God, and her writing has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt



Graywolf Press
Copyright © 2008

Terese Svoboda
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-490-9

Chapter One My uncle is Superman. With black Clark Kent glasses, grapefruit-sized biceps, lots of brilliantined thick dark hair, and a solid jaw, six-four and as handsome as all get-out, he's the perfect match for Kryptonite. He even keeps a photo of himself as a high school Adonis, veins bulging. Now, in 2004, after making millions in farming, restaurants, and real estate, instead of swooping down and rescuing people from burning buildings, he volunteers for Meals on Wheels, just what Superman would take on in his advanced years. I suspect this Superman schtick also has something to do with Nietzsche's "will to power." After all, Grandma had more than a whiff of German in her Czech fierceness. Make the best better reads the ornately written note I find in her purse after her funeral. My uncle was her baby, he bore a golden sheen that lit his life, made him special, a man with muscle.

A few years ago he tried to convince me that his eighteen months in the army would make a terrific movie, or at least a great book. "I was there during the occupation of Japan, right after World War Two," he said. "They found out we were less barbaric than they were taught. It's quite a story."

I rolled my eyes. Superman had gone too far. I put his confidence down to the vanity of old age, the vanity of somebody who still, at nearly eighty, held himself and his washboard stomach as proudly as any of the Supermen, screen or comic book. But he was adamant, so sure of his story-and of my taking it on as the writer in the family.

"War stories?" I laughed. "Let me tell you how hard it is to get a book published."

"If you're a real Svoboda," he says, "you'll figure out a way. It'll be worth it to you."

It was a beautiful day so I decided to walk several more miles out into the country. I came across a large orchard, perhaps an apple orchard. About a hundred airplanes were hidden underneath the leaf canopy. Most of them looked like they were general aviation planes and some old military planes. They were parked in nice neat rows. I wandered over to several of them. I've always been interested in old planes. They were poorly equipped with what I'd call makeshift armament, kind of old, with little bomb bays crudely cut into them. I never found out if these were general aircraft that people were trying to hide from our bombing or if they were the kamikaze-kind of a last-straw type of thing. The sun was filtering through the leaf canopy and I was the only person there, going from aircraft to aircraft. It felt like the dying of a country, or a giving up. [recorded 01/99]

In spring 2004, reports about Abu Ghraib fill the newspapers; by April the radio talks of nothing else. Especially the kind of radio that everyone in small-town Nebraska listens to, the Rush Limbaugh who rationalizes it all away: "We're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.... I'm talking about people having a good time. These people-you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of needing to blow some steam off?"

My dad calls around then and mentions that his brother has fallen into a deep depression. "I think it has to do with what's going on," he says. "He's got plenty of money, his kids are okay, his wife just bought a new Cadillac. He's never been depressed before."

The psychiatric ward my uncle checks himself into is dead in the center of the country. Only one shrink runs the operation; there are no more psychiatrists for 150 miles. The facility got its start by taking in the settlers who were driven crazy by the solitude that the Homestead Act had forced them into, pioneering one farm every 160 acres.

On the fifth of July he calls his daughter Chris and demands to be let out. Maybe he watched all the Fourth of July TV; maybe the military played their pageant music nonstop, surely there were World War II reruns up the kazoo on cable. He tells her he has to get out that very night or else. Chris hears that or else better than most-she is a psychologist with her own practice-and suggests he hire a private plane and fly down to Texas where she lives. "He was too close to suicide for antidepressants alone," Chris writes me later. I imagine that, professionally speaking, she hesitates. Perhaps she mentions how slowly antidepressants kick in-sometimes it takes as long as six weeks. But he is her father and nobody else close to him-or anyone else within those 150 miles-will take the professional interest she does. At 3 a.m. July 6, he and his wife hire a plane to fly to Texas. He can't wait for morning.

Years ago, his son Tom tells me this story:

His dad's sixteen and plowing one end of the field. My dad, two years older, plows from the other end. The tractors back then have no air-conditioning, no tape deck, no CD player, no shock absorbers, no cab to keep out the dust or even an umbrella to block a sun that's so hot they've tied red snot rags over their heads, and the motor thrums as if it will wear the cartilage right off the spine. Sweat drips down their faces as straight as the row after row they make to reach the middle. They grin when they pass each other on the last four of those rows; they bounce so bad they have to grin or lose their teeth. Finally, nose to nose, they shut off their vehicles, carefully set their glasses on the tractor haunches, and jump into the cool dirt clods to wrestle. They grunt and they wrestle, turn after turn, their sweat churning the dirt into mud, until Grandma, with her halo of bottle-bright red hair, hangs over them with a pitcher of lemonade covered with a cloth and a nice kolache for each of them. By this time my uncle has my dad's face pushed down into the plowed row beside her and his arm pinned to a broken cornstalk. But my dad, being older, is still heavier. He flips his brother as soon as he lunges for the lemonade and shoves him down even harder. He calls out, laughing, "Uncle, uncle."

"Why'd you say uncle?" Grandma asks after. "A big boy like you quitting?"

Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib. It could have been a Club Med destination it sounded so exotic, so far away. The city near the prison was known for the Abu Ghraib Infant Formula Plant that Western intelligence proclaimed to be a biological weapons production facility. But all they ever found were cans of formula.

Chapter Two I stare at the Get Well rack. What card do you send to a severely depressed person? Although I seldom see my uncle, in New York we take mental health seriously. It is second only to real estate as a topic of discussion. Why, I'm surprised some starving New York artist hasn't put out a line of mental-health cards for at least his fellow artists. In the rest of the country, reports show that over 10 percent of the adult population suffers serious depression annually-probably far more than get married.

Hallmark must be asleep.

A big card with loud colors and a rude joke is what I decide on.

At the end of July I call my uncle. Chris answers. I haven't spoken to her in over thirty years, not since she topped six feet her first year of high school.

"Having him here makes it easier to get him to the appointments," she says. "Thanks so much for the card. He really appreciated it."

"I remember how his arm was hurting him," I say. "He winced when he came to visit Dad in intensive care; he winced and touched that big muscled arm of his and said Mayos had found enough lead in the shattered glass inside to set off a metal detector. He said they couldn't take out the glass."

Thirty years is a lot of silence to break. I'm talking too much and too fast, but it's the only recent two-family story I've got to work with.

"He never complains about his arm," she says. She smokes or sighs. "He doesn't really believe in psychiatry. Aliens, he would rather believe in, not shrinks, he would sooner tell his troubles to an alien. Maybe a parish priest."

I tell her both my sons take after him in height. "Six-one at fourteen, six-five by twenty." I'm looking at the shoes of my draft-age son. They're taking up half the apartment. I don't want them moved though, I don't want them gone. "Dad was telling me a funny story about your dad, how he had to carry the last three pairs of size-fifteen shoes the army had everywhere he went in Japan. Is that true?"

"He wears a size twelve." She goes quiet. "He doesn't talk about his time in the service."

"He tried to get me to listen to his war stories a couple of years ago," I say.

She makes the sort of nodding sound that only shrinks know how to do, the kind that forces you to go on. But what do I have to go on with? Her dad and I never got around to talking.

"They sure aren't treating them so well in Iraq," I say. I expect a squawk-she lives in the reddest state there is-but she just says it's a bad thing. In the next long pause, I decide maybe she needs cheering up herself. "Remember those wild kittens we found in the washhouse at Grandma's-do you keep a cat now?"

"I barely have time to keep a husband." Then she's telling me her dad will be back in an hour, and he'll tell me himself how much he liked the card.

"I thought he'd like it," I say quickly. "Grandma would never have approved."

O Superman, sings Laurie Anderson.

* * *

We quickly found out what the four hundred eighty-third MPEG did. The EG behind the MP letters stood for "escort guard." That meant we went about anywhere, and did about anything. The cabaret I guarded in Tokyo was about ninety-five percent black because of the camp nearby. The black soldiers were in the quartermaster and the supply end of the army. A few white sailors would come in on the ships. One night a couple of them came in, acting like they were still in San Diego. They started dancing with some of the girls that the blacks kind of thought they owned because during the day they lived with the black soldiers in their tents. One of the sailors and a black man got into an argument. The black man took out a knife and before I could get over there, he took a swing at the guy's throat. He missed but when the sailor put his hand up, the soldier cut off his thumb.

I thought the best course was to get the hell out of there so I grabbed the sailor. I knew we couldn't go down this long hallway because blacks were lined up on both sides so I went for the men's restroom. Toilets in Japan are just flat to the floor. These were in front of the windows. I took the sailor and pushed him over this toilet and out the window. There was about a six-foot drop. I followed him, running across the big paved lot that was an old bombed-out warehouse. The blacks started coming out the door, and two of them got their trucks and tried to run us down out in this big area. Fortunately there were some poles we could hide behind, and we finally got across the street and into a big concrete structure that was a baseball stadium I had never paid much attention to. We ran up the stairs and hid.

The people in charge of the system didn't know what the real world was like, putting white MPs in charge of black soldiers. [recorded 01/99]

By 1946 the Eighth Army in Japan reported that "racial agitation" between black and white troops was the primary cause of assault, the most frequent violent crime among the American troops stationed there.

"'Where's the giant?' all the little Nip kids asked when they saw those huge shoes of his outside their paper doors," says my dad.

We're parked in a small-town Safeway lot. I'm visiting Nebraska from New York. We have all our most important conversations at Safeway while the ice cream melts. It's still July, it's melting.

"Uncle Don is tall," I say. "The Japanese were really short then, they didn't have much to eat."

Dad punches on the AC. "Why didn't the two of you work on that book about his war stories a couple of years ago?"

I watch two women claim the same grocery cart. "I told him to put them on tape for me so I could get an idea about what should be done with them. Then I never heard from him again."

"You discouraged him."

"I was only being realistic. Somebody has to record the stories to get them down. He could do that for himself."

"It's hard to do things when you're depressed." Dad sets his jaw as if even saying depressed in this part of the world is dangerous.

"He wasn't depressed then. And why doesn't he try to get a writer to work with him who at least lives nearby?"

Dad gives me his appraising look, a sidelong glance. "He likes you."

I don't say that my uncle's hardly ever spoken to me personally before, let alone called me back. I'm the eldest of nine children and have always been addressed as part of the herd. Despite my uncle's involving Dad in his many convoluted business schemes, we've been strictly wedding-invitation relatives; we have never even eaten turkey together. My mother and his wife-something didn't work. "All relatives like a writer," I say. "They think we will make them immortal by writing their life story."

He laughs. "I never asked you."

"You might," I say.

He purses his lips, annoyed with me. "I think it would help him to write up his story," he says. "If it's a good one, I'll let you do mine."

"Women do the wash, cook the food, explain everybody's feelings, and write the book."

"Hey," he says, "maybe you could get a movie deal out of it. It'll be your big break."

"A story about a kid who's a military policeman in Japan?"

He taps on his window. "Once I thought I heard you say any story sells, as long as it's told right."

I stare at the summer bugs writhing on the windshield. What am I really going to get out of this other than You've got it wrong? "I don't remember him talking about his war stories growing up. Why is he so interested suddenly in telling them now?"

Dad rubs his old eyes under his glasses. His time in intensive care was just last year. He clears his throat. "He has a secret," he says.


Excerpted from BLACK GLASSES LIKE CLARK KENT by TERESE SVOBODA Copyright © 2008 by Terese Svoboda. Excerpted by permission.
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