SAGAMIHARA, Japan – In the wake of World War II, Tsuneo Yamagishi was hungry and desperate.
The Japanese teenager had briefly served for the Imperial Navy in Yokohama in the waning months of the war. But when the conflict ended, he struggled and had to move in with his older sister’s family.
Eager to pursue a life of his own, the 18-year-old Yamagishi turned to the side he’d previously fought against for an opportunity that would ultimately lead to a half century of employment with the U.S. Army.
“There was no job, there was no food. There was nothing,” he recalled. “So, I jumped at the chance to get a job.”
Yamagishi, 95, who now lives near the U.S. Army installation Camp Zama, said since it was difficult to find work at that time, his younger sister agreed to send a letter to a friend who resided next to the post asking if he could assist her brother.
They had no telephone, so it took about 10 days for Yamagishi’s sister to receive a letter from her friend, who said there were many jobs available.
Soon after, Yamagishi rode the train to Sobudaimae Station and nervously walked to the installation’s main gate, not sure what to expect.
“Two years [prior], I was fighting in the war with the United States,” he said. “That is what I worried about, whether they would hire me or not.”
Despite his lack of English skills, the young Yamagishi was able to land a position at the installation’s sports club.
“The only English words I knew were ‘thank you’ and ‘OK,’ so I couldn’t have a good job,” he said.
While he joked that it was nice seeing American girls wear their bikinis at the swimming pool, he was still only surviving on two sweet potatoes a day that he carried with him to work.
During an Army-Air Force baseball game on post, he recalled watching the spectators eat hamburgers and candy bars and drinking sodas, making his stomach growl even more.
“I could only eat sweet potatoes,” he said.
Yamagishi went on to meet a friendly American Soldier, Sgt. Murphy, whom he worked with at the club. Murphy would invite him to play basketball, but there was no place to play on Camp Zama, so they both took a bus to a court in Yokohama after work.
“When it was time for a break, he bought me a Coca-Cola and a hamburger,” Yamagishi said. “It was absolutely delicious.”
Yamagishi, who is 5 feet, 3 inches tall, said the sergeant also gave him the nickname “Bunny” because of his hard work ethic and quickness, which he still shows signs of after all these decades.
While being interviewed for this story, Yamagishi, who can sometimes be seen riding his bicycle to the grocery store, enthusiastically greeted his guests at his home and hurried to make tea for them. He was also adamant to stand in the street to guide their car out of his parking space when they later left.
NAT KING COLE
In search of better prospects, the young Yamagishi took a new position at the mess hall inside the 128th Station Hospital at Sagami-Ono, the first U.S. Army hospital established in Japan.
There, he cleaned the facility and served food to American service members, many of whom had been wounded in the Korean War and who were transported to the hospital for treatment.
“The really bad ones were bedridden, and those with limp hands and feet would come to the cafeteria,” he said. “I would take their meals for them.”
Being so close to a large amount of food each day was a secret benefit for Yamagishi and the other workers.
“I was so hungry, that’s why I wanted a job there,” he said. “While working at the mess hall, [I noticed] some Soldiers would leave food behind … and we would share it.”
An Army captain who ran the mess hall also allowed the workers to stay in barracks rooms at the hospital.
It was like being in the military, Yamagishi said, since the workers had weekly inspections of their rooms and, if they failed, their off-post passes would be revoked.
“[But] I was lucky,” he said. “I didn’t have to live with my older sister anymore. I was living in the hospital instead.”
While working in the mess hall, Yamagishi fell in love with the music being played on the radio by the Far East Network, the predecessor of American Forces Network–Japan.
His favorite artist was Nat King Cole, he said, adding that he eventually spent his hard-earned money to purchase some of the singer’s records.
As his appetite for music grew, Yamagishi would walk to a nearby noncommissioned officer’s club to listen to live bands perform there.
“I was so in love with music,” he said. “That’s why I really tried to get a job there, so I applied.”
Yamagishi became a bartender and served drinks to many American Soldiers, including those taking a rest from the frontlines of the Korean War.
The bar was a popular destination, with Bingo every Tuesday and a dance party on Saturdays. While the atmosphere was pleasant most of the time, Yamagishi said that as the drinks flowed, a fight would occasionally break out.
One night, a massive brawl erupted between 30 Soldiers and Yamagishi said he had to hide so he wouldn’t get injured from glass bottles flying across the club. The military police were then called, but when they arrived, the fighting continued.
Running out of options, the club’s supervisor pleaded for the band to start playing the national anthem, Yamagishi said. As the clashing patrons heard the familiar tune, they all stopped and stood at attention.
“I was so surprised,” Yamagishi said. “I had never seen that before.”
WALL OF MEMORIES
Yamagishi spent about a decade at the NCO club before moving on to the Camp Zama Golf Course, where he served for more than 40 years.
While at the golf course, Yamagishi mainly worked as a driver and bartender and would deposit the club’s earnings into the bank every morning.
He remembered heading to work one day in 1969 to see that a fire had destroyed the former golf club building.
“When I went there in the morning, it was gone,” he said.
Over the years, Yamagishi’s outgoing personality helped him attract many friends. When some of his old co-workers heard he would visit the golf course’s restaurant for lunch earlier this month, they joined him to share stories about the past.
One of them, Masayo Kagaya, a waitress who has worked there for 32 years, recalled that Yamagishi was always moving and completing various duties while at the golf course.
“He just kept working and working, like nonstop,” she said. “He did everything. Sometimes he was a driver, sometimes he was a bartender.”
Kagaya also said Yamagishi had a great sense of humor. “He was diligent, but very funny,” she said. “He would joke around a lot.”
As the years went by, Yamagishi said he wanted to keep working well after the retirement age of 60, which normally comes with a 20% salary reduction from the Japanese government.
Even with the pay cut, he stayed on the job for another decade before retiring in 1999.
His pride in his 52-year career continues to be evident today. During the recent visit to his home, Yamagishi seemed to be transported back in time as he keenly shared photos of him and of the friends he made along the way.
And in his bedroom, he pointed to a wall that displayed several certificates signed by former Army leaders honoring his achievements and length of service.
It was almost as if, even when he slept, those yesteryears remained close to him.
“Every time when I go to my bedroom, I take a look at the pictures on the wall and see many memories,” he said. “It still makes me happy.”
(Article was originally published on the USAG Japan website on Dec. 26, 2023, and may be found at www.army.mil/article/272543)
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