Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Nine

Radio Tokyo

          Trucks were carrying prisoners to the docks at Tamazato; another convoy to somewhere was being formed. Again we were placed in the cramped hold of a Japanese troopship and locked in. It wasn't nearly as horrible as the trip from Manila, it wasn't nearly as hot and the convoy proceeded as soon as it was loaded, to the North.

        A POW can see only his past and his present. You have no concept of what is being done with you, what the overall picture is, no more than live poultry on the way to market. You would rather not recount the recent past, and the horrors it contained; it might very well foretell the tenor of the future. You fine-tune the perceptions of the moment. On a November day in 1943, I was on a train pulling away from the dock on the coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu. We were headed for Tokyo. I looked out the window. The Japanese countryside looked similar to three years earlier when I had toured in robes in the company of my fellow novice priests. It did not yet bear the scars of American bombs but there was something different about it. It had to do mostly with the people's appearance and the ubiquitous military trucks and military uniforms. Gone were the kimonos. Women wore the baggy pantaloons called mompi. People had a characteristically distressed look, the faintly bleary-eyed look of those who had worked, and sacrificed and worried too long, without relief or reward. They were a population straining bleakly under burdens imposed, not shouldered willingly.

        The train stopped somewhere between Yokohama and Tokyo. We were pushed from the train onto the railway station platforms, and into waiting trucks. We were moved through city streets to the coast again and over a manmade causeway, a wooden pier, onto an oval island within Tokyo Bay. The trucks were driven past the camp commander's headquarters and into a walled compound no bigger than a football field. It had a high bamboo fence with barbed wire at the top. Prisoners' quarters were in the center. This was Omori camp. "Tokyo POW Camp Omori-ku Iriarai Kila" was its full name, later on it was known as simply "Hell Camp". My stay there was short, and foreboding.

        With the addition of the new arrivals, there were several thousand prisoners, quartered in unheated wooden barracks. It was freezing cold. In our lightweight synthetic fiber uniforms and our barefoot wooden clogs, that form of misery we experienced at Karenko had returned. The food was different, but not any better. We never had rice again once we reached Japan, but rather a combination of coarser grains, the dominant one being millet. It was best described as a gruel made from chicken feed, with some odds and ends of vegetables, mainly daikon radish, and on rare days we got a small issue of beans.

        There were a great many prisoners there from the far flung theaters of war in which they had been captured. There was a large contingent of Dutch prisoners there along with their Indonesian comrades, a similarly large group of Australians, Malaysians and British, who had been captured in Singapore. We were housed together. Day by day, individuals were taken from the group and interrogated, as they would report upon returning, by Japanese civilians. The questions seemed to center around entertainment. There seemed to be, collected in Omori camp, most of the members of a British band, giving rise to a rumor that the Japanese were getting up a troupe of POW entertainers. It also became apparent that many of those assembled in the camp had done various forms of writing, or had radio or theatrical experience. This was, of course, the result of questionnaires like those we had filled out at Karenko nearly nine months before. Those interrogated could only surmise what was happening from the questions asked. The interrogators gave out no information.

        When my turn came, I was summoned to a room at the front of the compound. It was not at all like a military tribunal, not like the life or death confrontations on Corregidor. It was less like a trial and more like a job interview. There were two Japanese in civilian clothes. They were mostly interested in my childhood experience in radio acting and I answered their questions truthfully, not realizing where it all was leading.

        Some days after this meeting, at the morning formation of prisoners, a number of names were called out: Dutch, British and Americans, and mine. We were marched out of the compound and up in front of the Camp Commander's headquarters. The Commander came out with an interpreter and made a very brusque and ominous statement... "Whatever happens to you after you leave this camp, I am in no way responsible for." Once he was certain this was understood, he went back inside, and the guards prodded the seventeen of us onto waiting trucks, at bayonet-point. We were driven across the causeway and into the city of Tokyo.

        In a short time, we reached our destination. It was formerly a school for foreigners that taught the language and culture of Japan, Nihongo Bunkwa Gakkou..."Japanese Culture School." It had been renamed, "Surugdai Technical Research Center" and taken over by the military for their own purposes. The courtyard in the rear of the three story main building had been converted into a prison camp compound and the long low two-story dormitory within had become POW barracks. To us it was known simply as "Bunkwa Camp".

        We were unloaded from the trucks and nudged with rifle butts through the large archway that led under and through the four story main building into the courtyard behind. We were ordered to line up single file against the wall on one side of the courtyard. Two guards set up a machine gun pointed at us, fed a belt of bullets into it, cocked it and removed the safety catch. A scar faced Japanese officer strode to the center of the courtyard. He was Major Tsuneishi of the Kempeitai. He seemed angry, his very personality seemed to be one of barely contained rage..."Orders!" he screamed..."You will obey orders or your lives will be forfeited!" We stood transfixed, it was a performance designed to intimidate and it was extremely effective. The interpreter translated the outburst, himself shuddering in the place of trying to duplicate the major's tone. The major narrowed his gaze and looked up and down the row at the wall. He angrily grunted, "Is there anyone who refuses to obey orders?" To most there it seemed like being captured all over again, with the threat of immediate execution a hanging in the air.

        Captain Kalbfleisch, obviously an extremely brave man, stepped forward out of line. Guards quickly grabbed him and dragged him away. His small pile of personal belongings remained there on the ground where he had stood. The rest of us were told we would never see him again, and it was intimated that he had been executed. Years later those remaining would discover that Captain Kalbfleisch had survived the war, but for the time being, the charade had its desired effect, and from this point on, nothing would be quite as it seemed. The Japanese were attempting to manipulate us to the very core of our beings, and it would not be too long before we would begin to produce charades of our own. At this point, however, one thing had been established: no one remaining would openly disobey orders. We had no idea what those orders might be, but we were sure that they would be dreadful.

        This was the middle of November 1943, and for the next two months, what we confronted was not so much dreadful as it was perplexing. It was not torture, or beatings, or slave labor, instead it was books and lectures. Nothing was said about our purpose for being there. We were brought books on Japanese geography, language, social customs, history and many tracts and pamphlets about the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", the grandiose title for what would lay beyond Japan's successful conclusion of the war "...Asia for Asians..." ruled, of course, by Japanese. We were ordered, "Read!" So we picked up the books and made a show of reading. Everyday Japanese civilians would come in and make long and ludicrous lectures about the same topics. It was a crude and farcical effort at "brainwashing". It wasn't being successful in the least. We looked upon our lecturers as buffoons, and our guards as slow-witted psychopaths ...dangerous, but not at all effective at what they were trying to do.

        The lecturers smiled a lot and attempted to be ingratiating, to what end it was not clear, and one day they brought in paper and typewriters and gave a simple order, "Write!" What it was they wanted written they did not say, but we had learned to make a show of doing whatever it was we were ordered to do, and exercising whatever original tangent we could misconstrue from the order. We wrote, all right: we wrote letters home, we wrote childhood memories, fantasies, menus, anything but the polemics we had been force fed. Our Japanese lecturers became furious at our feigned ignorance of what was expected of us. It was not entirely feigned; we didn't really get it. Up until this time, no one had mentioned, "radio script". Radio broadcasts were the farthest thing from anybody's mind.

        We hadn't all arrived at the same time, but finally the population of Bunkwa Camp stabilized at around thirty. Each group had a similar performance by Major Tsuneishi upon their arrival. There was one Japanese/Caucasian boy from Texas, named Fujita who was much more a Texan than he could ever be Japanese, not knowing anything about the language and culture. He was a very fine artist. There was an American Lieutenant named George "Bucky" Henshaw from Hawaii; an enlisted man from New York named Joe Asterita; there was Larry Quille a civilian who was captured on Guam or Wake; a man named Shattles, a civilian, a graduate of Tulane University; a Dutchman named Schenk who became the group's cook; an American Master Sergeant Newton H. Light; a Navy man named Smitty (Smith); an Australian named Parkyns; "Leftenant" McNaughton of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders who had been a professional stage actor in England; a Scotch boy, Donald Bruce from Glasgow; and an American civilian named Mark Streeter who espoused some very strange anti-American views.

        We prisoners had gotten to know each other, and the Japanese attempts at indoctrination were having no effect whatever. The elements of the Japanese efforts that were effective, of course, were the old standbys; threats of execution, beatings and starvation. We would follow orders in the most literal sense but with the minimum of cooperation. The Japanese responded by cutting our miniscule rations by twenty or thirty per cent. They increased the measure of brutality and held back food, both by measured degrees. And they increased the number of lectures.

        One day the situation gained a new element. A taxicab pulled up in front of Bunkwa Camp and two Caucasians got out and entered the compound. They were well dressed and well fed and clean-shaven, but they were not at all at ease. They had the worried look of men under extreme pressure. I recognized one immediately, it was Captain Wallace Ince, whom I had last seen in Bilibid Prison in Manila. The other, I would learn, was Major Charles H. Cousens, from Australia.

        The POW's were lined up on the second floor of the barracks building and we were called to attention as Cousens and Ince were brought in and introduced. Major Tsuneishi grunted to his interpreter who relayed in English; "These are your commanding officers. You will follow their direction. You will obey their orders." Cousens and Ince did not seem at all comfortable in their roles. It was apparent that they were acting under some heavy intimidation themselves. They gave us no orders. For several weeks they merely attended the lectures with the rest of us for two or three hours a day, then the Japanese would take them out.

        Most of the POW's at Bunkwa were naturally suspicious of Cousens and Ince, arriving, as they did in taxicabs, dressed in civilian clothes and moving about without guards. Most of the prisoners would have little to do with them at first. Captain Ince and I, of course, recognized each other, and from our conversations, I became vaguely aware of what was going on. Ince had glowing things to say about Major Cousens, that he was a fine man and could be trusted. He said that he and Cousens had been broadcasting over Radio Tokyo for many months, though he didn't say what they had been broadcasting. Slowly it began to fit. The Japanese had been trying to get us to write material that could be used on their radio program. It was still not understood that the POW's ourselves were going to be used on the air. That was something that had no precedent. Propaganda radio broadcasts were something new to this "modern" war.

        By the end of December 1943, Ince and Cousens had been instructed by the Japanese to begin making use of some of the POW's from Bunkwa Camp as broadcasting voices. We had never heard of such a thing. Several groups of POW's were taken down to the nearby studios of Radio Tokyo and returned in the afternoon. One day it was my turn. Captain Ince handed me the script I was to read. The script started: "This is the voice of Greater East Asia.…Strong, courageous, perfectly united, ever victorious ...." It went on and on in this very heavy handed tone, extolling the virtues and sacrifices of the Japanese people in their historic war effort to unite Asia and throw off the yoke of Colonialism. This was totally unexpected situation to confront. Nothing in my memory had value as guidance. Nothing like this had been covered in my indoctrination or oath upon entering the military. Nothing in the fine military education I had received on Taiwan related remotely to this. The script filled me with revulsion and dread. "Captain Ince, I can't read this ...I'm not going to say this over the air." Captain Ince replied, "You are, or I'll have to let you face the Kempeitai...You must obey this order."

        The Japanese controlled the basic facts of existence. A bullet waited for the disobedient, starvation for the resistant, beatings and malnutrition waited for all, in any event. My own superior officers, Ince and Cousens, whom I had sworn an oath to obey, even though it meant my death, did not order me to die, but ordered me to speak words into a microphone. Could I disobey? After two years of prison camp, survivors knew one thing; it was pointless and lethal to overtly disobey. Your resistance has to be sub rosa, beneath the surface visible to our captors, taking every advantage of the language barrier. I was driven down to the studios with a small group of prisoners. There were eight of us, I think.

        Captain Ince knew every one of the studio technicians and seemed to be on very friendly terms with them. Ince controlled the program, cued the various parts when to come in, and had his hand on the controls. These shows were live on the air, not pre-recorded. They were powerful shortwave transmissions, beamed at the American public and allied forces in the field and POW camps. When it came time for me to read my portion, like most of the others, I did my best to screw it up: I gave words the wrong inflections, phrased sentences in an awkward manner, making it clear to any English speaking listener that I was not cooperating, and still maintained an appearance of acquiescence to the Japanese monitors following the script, syllable by syllable. Kempetai guards glared at us, reminding us that a price would be paid for any deviation. This was the saber's edge that the POW's of Bunkwa Camp danced on the entire 18 months on the air at Radio Tokyo.

        Before the influx of POW talent of which I was a part, in March 1943, Cousens, Ince and Reyes had begun broadcasting the program "Zero Hour". At first, the Japanese had provided all the scripts. The scripts always needed heavy editing just to correct them in matters of syntax and vocabulary. Finally they had convinced the Japanese to let them write their own scripts. Making the best of the situation meant making an outward show of cooperation in an effort to gain the maximum control over our own broadcasts and to subvert the intent of the program; to make it a morale booster to the Allied troops. We would keep the propaganda sections at their laughable pompous level and expand portions that contained genuine entertainment, music and news. They also included messages from POW's to their folks back home to say, at least, that they were alive. Where the news was of an adverse military or polemic nature the announcers would fall back on our basic subversion; the use of stilted phrases, mispronunciation and comic delivery.

        It was at the studios of Radio Tokyo that Iva Toguri's path crossed with mine. She had been delighted to find some Allied military personnel in the building where she worked as a typist, and she would use whatever excuse she could think of to come into contact with us. She hungered for someone to share her pro-American sentiments with. All the other Japanese/American employees working at the radio station had renounced their American citizenship. She alone refused to do so, despite constant pressure from the domestic security police. It was she alone that openly wanted the Americans to win the war, and was thereby ostracized from genuine social contact with her co-workers. Cousens and Ince were very important to her.

        In November 1943, Major Tsuneishi decided to expand Zero Hour, and Major Cousens, fearing that new announcers, especially female voices which couldn't come from our newly created POW pool, might prove to be the undoing of his tenuous grip on the content of the program, decided to recruit the obviously pro-American Iva for the expansion. She was reluctant at first, but Major Cousens was very persuasive. He told her that she would be actually helping the Allied war effort; that she should put herself under his command as if she were a soldier. Couched in these terms, she found the offer irresistible.

        The scripts Cousens had written referred to her part as "Ann.", the abbreviation of "Announcer". She was worked into the program as Ann, and later Orphan Ann. She was a cheerful and joking disc jockey only reading the scripts prepared for her by Major Cousens; she never ad-libbed or read her own material. She did what she was told.

        The Japanese were not entirely fooled by our first crude attempts to sabotage the broadcasts. Beatings were increased in number and severity and food withheld whenever our subversion became too obvious. Most of all, we objected to the strident pro-Japanese pronouncements required of us in "Zero Hour".

        To get better control of the broadcasts, and get us off that particular hook, Cousens encouraged us to appear more cooperative with the Japanese by agreeing to write our own material. We were then allowed to create a program separate from the "Zero Hour" program, which could be adequately staffed by Cousens, Ince, Reyes and Iva Toguri. The program was called "War On War". Lt. Henshaw came up with the idea of a series that could be used in a number of ways to subvert the Japanese intentions. It was called "The Boys in Barracks Three", a prison camp drama serial. In it we all took parts as POW's (I called myself Leo) and described as best we could what conditions in the camps actually were. While appearing to the Japanese that we were saying that things were just fine, we put in words with double meanings, idiomatic phrases which would not be familiar to the Japanese and subtle intonations of sarcasm that would not show up in the scripts which were proofread by the Japanese before air time. In a few weeks we were confident enough to begin to insert information that could have military significance, the location of prison camps and especially weather reports over Tokyo.

        We began to see ourselves as forward observers, intelligence operatives broadcasting from the heart of the enemy camp. We were certain that all the broadcasts from Radio Tokyo were being monitored on a 24 hour a day basis and analyzed by Allied intelligence. The government has never revealed if our efforts to communicate were understood or used, but to the POW's of Bunkwa Camp, it was an extremely important key to our morale. The belief that we were still a part of the Allied war effort, that what we were enduring, and the risks we were taking to get messages into the broadcasts had some meaning is the kind of psychological nutrient that allows the physical body to survive far beyond its normal limits.

        U.S. bombing raids that seemed to appear on days when we had forecast clear skies over Tokyo reinforced the belief that we were being heard. When the B-29's appeared overhead, they were bigger than any planes we had ever seen. They seemed to me as big as apartment houses, literally hundreds of them. The Japanese ran for their bomb shelters, but we POW's went out into the courtyard cheering and waving, even when the impact of the bombs came within a few blocks. The nearby train station was totally obliterated, but the Radio station and Bunkwa Camp were never hit ...further indications to us that our messages were getting through and that Allied Forces knew our location.

        Not long after the "War On War" program had begun, two new POW's were brought in who were fliers that had been shot down in the South Pacific. One was Lieutenant Jack King Wizener and Major Willeston Madison Cox. Once he had been told what was going on, Major Cox had an ominous comment to make: "When this is all over, you guys are going to get medals or get hanged." After choosing between starvation, beatings and possible execution for refusing and on the other hand malnutrition, fewer beatings and speaking scripted lines into a microphone under orders from a superior officer; Major Cox made the obvious choice. Months later, after he had taken his place with the rest of us, and air raids in Tokyo had become routine, he commented, "The best thing that could happen is that a bomb come down right here and save us the trouble of trying to explain all this." "War On War" was expanded again and again as more POW's were brought to Bunwka Camp. In all there were over forty that were used in the POW broadcasts. One portion of the program was called "Your Missing Men". It had been part of "Zero Hour" but later became its own feature in expanded form broadcast by Bunkwa inmates. It consisted of messages from POW's from all over Japan. Of the thousands of messages brought to Bunkwa Camp only a small percentage could be used on the air. Those that were chosen for broadcast were those that indicated as much as possible, the location and size of the prison camps, and messages whose contents had double meanings.

        The Japanese brought in a number of scripts of stage plays published by the Banner Play Bureau of New York, some of which had an anti-war theme. We were instructed to perform them as radio plays. In early March 1944, the first was broadcast..."Johnny Comes Home", an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun". Six or eight POW's participated in that broadcast. Thereafter, we performed "Journey's End", "Bury The Dead", "The Postman Calls", "She Met Napoleon", "Vision of an Invasion" and Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men", in which I spoke the lines of the half-wit Lenny. Later in 1944, the POW program was renamed "Humanity Calls". In December of that year, we performed "A Christmas Carol". I played the characters of both Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

        Several segments of the show were political commentaries and news, but I never participated in these portions, it just wasn't my forte. The news and commentary were laden with the double meanings that the POW's used in an attempt to communicate. The material that I myself wrote and broadcast was of a more poetic and mystical nature. So complex and obscure were my efforts to pass intelligence that they likely served more as decoys; forcing the Japanese censors to spend extra time microscopically examining my intricate scripts for what they might be saying. "The Moon and I" was one of my solo performances. When some day this all comes out, and recordings or at least transcripts of these broadcasts come to the surface, that's my voice; "The Moon and I”, "Tiny Tim", "Scrooge" and "Lenny". I can't believe that Allied Intelligence was not listening to all these broadcasts and applying analysis to it. Records of those efforts must have been kept somewhere, if not recordings.

        I can't say for certain that the Allies knew what we were trying to do, but our captors did, and for that we repeatedly paid a real price. The Japanese were aware of the POW efforts to use the broadcasts, but they could not identify them all. When they had a hunch we were up to something, we were harassed. When an especially suspicious effort was made, severe punishment was dealt out. The routinely brutal Kempeitai guards from Bunkwa accompanied us to the studio and stood by as Ince put us through our paces.

        Cousens was the acknowledged commanding officer and helped the POW's with our scripts. He knew the technical aspects of voice and radio drama; and was especially valuable to us in maintaining our morale and our sense of being intelligence operatives. He also did what he could to take care of our physical health. At first, the Kempeitai would daily order the POW's into the courtyard for calisthenics and have us run laps, slapping or beating us for sluggishness or lagging behind. In our emaciated condition many fell or passed out from the strenuous exercises ...indeed there were many times when POW's fainted from hunger in the broadcast studios. Finally Major Cousens was able to take over the exercise period and give us a workout we could handle. Mainly, he gave us deep breathing and stretching exercises that would help maintain our vitality and not rob us of our strength.

        In nearly 20 months of my confinement at Bunkwa Camp, I was just another one of the POW's. I had no special status by virtue of my linguistic capabilities. I made no effort to make my Buddhist priesthood known. I had used what I knew to play a Buddhist priest in a dangerous bluff on Corregidor. I knew just enough to play the part, but I was only a novice priest. I had taken a vow and embarked on the journey to become one, but I had just begun. There was however, an old Japanese couple affectionately referred to by the POW's as "Papa-san and Mama-san", who lived in the basement of the main building at Bunkwa. They had been janitors there when Bunkwa Camp was still a civilian "culture school". They felt sorry for us and did everything they could to help. I was close to them and I would often go down to their quarters to pray before their small shrine.

* * * * *

        Iva Toguri had found comfort and purpose in working with Major Cousens and felt as though she were a soldier, or an intelligence agent. When the Bunkwa inmates were first brought in, she was horrified by our emaciated and ragged condition. Cousens, Ince and Reyes had been well enough fed, dressed in civilian clothes and quartered in private hotel rooms, coming and going without guards. The three were prisoners of war, but not abused to the extent that the rest of us at Bunkwa had been. Iva's portion of the "Zero Hour" program did not overlap the time when we POW's were in the studios for "Humanity Calls", but whenever possible, she would stall her departure, finding some excuse to come into contact with us. At great risk to herself, and material sacrifice, she smuggled us extra food or medicine that she had purchased on the black market, or saved from her own minimal ration. On at least one occasion she brought a blanket for a prisoner who had gotten very sick at the coldest part of the year. She always had a word of encouragement for us, and news of Allied war successes. There was an insolvable tangle of suspicions about one another at Bunkwa Camp, but none of us would have considered Iva anything but a heroic, patriotic American. Several of us likely owed our lives to her actions.

        No one at Radio Tokyo ever used the name "Tokyo Rose". That was a GI legend. In fact, the use of Tokyo Rose, and sometimes Tokyo Rosa, goes back to at least 1937. It was a generic term for a female English speaking Japanese broadcast voice, as could be heard all over the Western Pacific. After the war began, Japanese began to use the radio facilities in their captured territories to broadcast sultry, alluring voices to suggest to the sailors, soldiers and airmen in the South Pacific that their wives and sweethearts were at home in bed with draft-dodgers. At least ten women were known to have used that style radio persona. Iva made no such broadcasts and no one has ever been able to produce recordings or even transcripts of her doing anything of the kind. Her voice is anything but sexy and alluring. Even the recordings of her disc jockey broadcasts used at the trial were of her unmistakable voice: a rough, almost masculine chattering voice ...a comic voice. Nonetheless, Iva was going to be accused of being the legendary non-existent seductress Tokyo Rose herself.

        Stranger than anything that came before, in the early spring of 1945, everything began to change at Bunkwa. In the unfolding drama we glimpsed were decisions that would soon turn 200,000 people to ashes. I don't claim to know the details of these tragedies. Though we were uniquely close to the center of events, about 10 blocks from the Imperial Palace I can only testify to little known clues of the larger plot, and provide further mysteries.


Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver