by Roland Soper
After a long and stormy sea voyage on an American troopship and an interminable train trip from Yokohama to Canadian headquarters in Kure, Japan, we were loaded on trucks for a 175-km ride on winding, bumpy mountain roads to the Canadian field training camp near the village of Nipponbara. Its similarity to the mountainous terrain of Korea would whip us into shape before going into battle in the spring of 1952.
I was surprised and disappointed to be taken from the 75-man draft and assigned to the small staff. The commanding officer was a captain, with about one or two of each rank below him plus a few privates.
It was a short training session for my comrades. Two weeks later the 25th Bde. moved from reserve to forward positions overlooking the Sami-ch'on Valley in central Korea. Reinforcements were needed for each battalion of the three infantry regiments in the brigade: Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal Canadian Regt. and the Royal 22nd Regt.
Located off a country road about a kilometre from Nipponbara, the camp was far removed from large cities and Allied military establishments. An enterprising Japanese had opened a bar in the village appropriately named the Canadian Club. Papa-san, the owner, was rumored to be a former officer of the Japanese Imperial Army and, in appearance was the stereotype of Hollywood's WW II Japanese soldier: short-cropped hair and almond eyes behind small, black-rimmed glasses. However, unlike the impassive movie villain, Papa-san constantly smiled, revealing a mouthful of flashing, gold teeth. The employees of the Canadian Club were girls from Kure and Hiro—camp followers who depended on the Canadians for their wages.
The night before leaving, the men of the draft were each granted a pass and the club had one of the most boisterous parties of its brief existence. Men who knew they would soon be in battle celebrated; alcohol enflamed bravado and masked apprehension.
My memory of that occasion, only slightly dimmed by time, sharpens on the image of Pte. Eddie Power, a gangly 20-year-old Patricia with an exuberant love of life. He was to lose that life on Christmas Eve in a Korean rice paddy.
Then the trainees were gone and the training weapons fell silent. All ranks of the camp's staff moved into private homes in the village. Cots in the sleeping tents were neatly made but not used. Reporting for duty by 0800 was the only requirement and was seldom abused. Twenty-four hour passes were liberally issued; there was little work to do. A black market, strictly forbidden but obviously condoned, quickly flourished. Soldiers reported for duty with boots and webbing sparkling from the labor of Japanese servants—bar girls from the club who traded chores and favors for accommodation, food and gifts. A vanquished people suffering from postwar poverty still under American occupation, the Japanese welcomed gifts of food, clothing, soap and highly negotiable cigarettes and liquor. I've often wondered if the office of the quartermaster-general ever questioned the ratio of personnel to supplies requisitioned for the camp.
We were soldiers by day, civilians by night. Occasional day passes provided the opportunity to explore the countryside and admire the gardens, cherry blossoms and hills embroidered with colorful azaleas. And we enjoyed the hospitality of the Japanese. Their courtesy, manners and friendliness were the opposite of our preconceived concept. Impressionable young men conditioned by the standards of a modern country, we were taken back in time during our off-duty hours to a society that seemed barely out of the 19th century. In that remote area on the main island of Honshu as yet little affected by the United States influence, the farmers and townspeople led the simple lives of their forefathers.
Subsequent reinforcement drafts were sent directly to their units and the battles for the hills of Korea faded from our minds. The cherry blossoms fell as time edged toward summer. Then one night at the Canadian Club, the bar girls told us the camp was to be closed. Their news preceded the official word from camp. Passes were cancelled and transport rolled in from Kure to pack up the men and matériel.
The night before we left Nipponbara we were granted a farewell evening at the club. Unlike the trainees' party a few weeks before, the occasion resembled a wake. Papa-san's smile was no longer golden. He was out of business. The bar girls wept and vows were exchanged that would never be consummated.
On the walk back to camp in the darkness, I stopped momentarily and listened to temple bells chiming faintly in the distance. An apt ending to an interlude
Reproduced courtesy of Legion Magazine
After closure of the Nipponbara Battle School, Roland (Roly) Soper was posted to the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry shortly before the battalion moved into front line positions near Hill 355. He would later serve with the 3rd Battalion PPCLI on The Hook. Soper is married with three children and lives in Calgary, Alberta. He is a writer, a novelist (Sword of Wood) and active in the Korea Veterans Association of Canada as KVA National P.R.O. and Webmaster; Vice-President, General John M. Rockingham Memorial—Heritage Unit#1 and President, KVA Prairie Region.