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Shirley S Kirsten

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York's World War II Memoir
By Shirley S Kirsten
Monday, July 23, 2007

Rated "G" by the Author.

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YORK, a member of the celebrated "11th Airborne Division," US Army, vividly recalled the day he and his compatriots stumbled upon a choir of children and their vocal teacher on the Tokyo outskirts. It was in early September, right after the 1945 Peace Treaty was signed with Japan.

YORK had shown me burns on his arms he had sustained in Hiroshima following the US attack. The blisters sprang up rapidly on the afternoon he was dispatched to the scene. "All I saw was rubble, and a big statue of the Bhudda standin' there like nothin' had ever happened." 

I had always surmised that YORK's deeply embe dded scars were from piano strings "poppin'"on him. But one morning he told me the indelible piano tuner marks were intermingled with the effects of the A-bomb. (YORK dropped off a Fresno Bee photo that is posted) It shows him embracing his brother-in law, "Lonnie Rolen," who had returned from wartime Germany with shrapnel lodged in this lower spine. YORK'S commissioned officer stripes revealed in the snapshot were acquired when he was appointed as an army band leader.  A cornetist, YORK also mentioned that he had made 18 jumps during parachute training maneuvers.

YORK  served his country honorably during the war and brought back a doleful Japanese melody to the home front, a heart-warming memento of his military service. He remembered the song the children were singing on the very day he and his buddies came upon them in a rural village. The war was officially ended. 

"We stumbled on a little school house," he said, "and a young teacher was leadin' small children in a song. As soon as they seen us, all of em' copied the teacher and put  hands on their heads thinkin' we was there to capture 'em."

York described the next scene with gripping emotion. "Since none of us spoke Japanese, we put our rifles down and opened our arms." York's voice was shaking and he was teary eyed when he told and retold this story. 

On an overcast  Wednesday afternoon he paid me an unexpected visit, sauntered over to my grand piano and plunked out the tune, intoning the first verse with Japanese syllables. Sensing that a piece of musical history was in the making, I  feverishly jotted down all the notes and words as I heard them, and began a singleminded Internet hunt for the song that was a based on the five note pentatonic scale, associated with the Asian culture.

My first thought was that it was going to be a huge challenge to locate this melody just because it arose out of an experience that took place so many decades ago. But with a determination to push forward despite any odds stacked against me, I started with a search for "Japanese Children's Songs" that quickly linked  to a Pacific Citizen website which featured the article "Infectious Japanese Children's Songs become the new ambassador of culture." In this writing, I noticed the quotes of "Masayuki Koga," founder of the "Japanese Music Institute" in Berkeley, California whom I subsequently located through a telephone listing.  As I sang the first few measures of YORK's tune into the receiver using Japanese syllables, Koga immediately identified the song as, Usagi to Kame, "The Rabbit and the Turtle" more commonly known in the West as the "Tortoise and Hare." With  the impetus of this new discovery, I was off and running!.

 Through my preliminary cyber research I was able to soak up information about the rich cultural Japanese folkloric tradition. I had learned that  the doyo,  were composed during the Taisho Era (1912 -26) and were folk songs sung by mothers to help children go to sleep. These melodies were accompanied by verses that could be "very tearful and carry deeper meanings of identity and dislocation." Certainly, the "Tortoise and the Hare" carried a message to young and old that slow and steady wins the race. It was amazing how this theme resonated into the present.

Finding the song title was like striking gold!! With this newly acquired information, I went back to the Internet and further refined my search. To my astonishment, I found links to the actual song with the Japanese and English words written beneath the music notes. With renewed energy, I acquired two copies of the song--one with only Japanese syllables and the other with a simultaneous English translation and added in the Japanese syllables exactly as YORK had recalled them on that memorable day in 1945. Amazingly, they were almost perfectly retrieved! Next, I located  mp3s of the tune (without choir) and recorded these into my modest portable SONY Tape recorder.
Finally in the aftermath of all my painstaking efforts, I invited YORK over to see and hear the notated tune he had thought was lost forever. I remember how he welled up with tears and was speechless for the longest time. It was an emotional experience I'll never forget.
Here are the words to:

                      Usagi to Kame, verse one

"Moshi, moshi kame-o, kame sany-o, sekai inouchi de, o ma e ho-do..."

"Turtle, turtle, on your way, Why are you so slow? No one else in all the world takes so long to go..."

       Web Site: York's World War II Memoir

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Reviewed by Jansen Estrup 12/7/2014
Nice job, Shirley. This anniversary is of a violent beginning and the end is o-so-tragic, too. It seems this war never really ended, just moved around. But York's memory is of healing and humanity. Thanks for recording it and for relating it to us.

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