Sukoshi Matte - A Short Wait
by George Idlett
George Idlett, known to his friends, as "Doug" was a member of the American Forces captured in the Philippines. His identification number at Niigata 5B POW camp was Number 497. He now resides in Virginia, USA.
August 15,1945. Another day begins, much the same as all the others - one small bowl of rice, and then the long walk to work. Today was the 1,224th day since it began that day in April, more than three years ago.
I remember - sometimes I forget - but mostly I remember that long, long march of death from the ordeal of Bataan - to the burial details of O'Donnell - to the misery of the rice paddies at Cabanatuan - from the Philippines in the stifling hold of a Japanese freighter - and finally, to the frigid hell of this louse infested prison on the northern coast of Japan, and a sentence of hard labor on the coaling docks of Niigata.
How many days would it last? - Or - would it last forever? For so many others it had been the end of life, and the beginning of eternity. Only one of every four who started the long march from Bataan had journeyed this far. For the others a little mound of earth marked the end of their journey. - Maybe they were the lucky ones.
How long? My captors have an answer - "Sukoshi Matte". Often I have asked them, "How much longer will it last?", and always the same answer, "Sukoshi matte".
Sukoshi Matte" - a short wait". A short wait for what? It had already been a short wait for too many of us, but their wait ended at the grave. This idiotic phrase became an ironic answer we gave to each other for anything that had no answer or no end.
But this day that began as all others had begun, for as long as I could remember, was not to end as all the others had - in fatigue, hunger, and desperation. There was to be one difference. This day that dim spark of hope, almost extinguished, but still faintly glowing in each of us that were left, was to be fanned into flame. For hope was all we had. There was nothing else to live for . There was nothing else to live on. Hard labor, starvation, disease and brutality were not meant to instill hope in the human heart. They were designed to kill. But we who were left had triumphed over all these, - at least this far we had. How much longer, no man could tell, but we had our stock answer - "Sukoshi Matte." All things have a beginning and an end. This too will end - someday. -------
The morning progresses. We load our baskets and our shovels with coal from the barges and the ships. We carry the coal to fill the endless lines of railroad cars waiting for us. It matters not when one train is loaded, there are always more waiting.
Now we become substitutes for switch engines, pushing the loaded cars out of the docks to the waiting locomotive with no brass bell.... I wonder how many 50 caliber cartridges can be made from one brass bell?
The day is moving on, the day that began the same is progressing in the same way. Soon it will be time for the noon rice. Workers such as we, receive extra rations, we are given our meager ration of rice three times per day. This part of the day we look forward to. - A chance to rest and eat, but not long enough to really rest and not really enough to eat, and then always back to the unending coal.
Someone says the Japanese are running out of supplies .... I remember, four years ago, someone said - I don't remember clearly just who it was or the exact words - I don't seem to remember anything very well these days - but it went something like this - "We will blast their fleet out of the water in two weeks time." I have often wondered what he thinks now.
At last it comes - the noon rice. We must line up for our ration. It would be nice to be able to wash some of this coal from my hands, but why would I think of that, there has never been a time when I could. ---------
Sometimes I remember another way of life. There was a girl, I remember her hair, the way she walked, the dreams we shared, - but, today, I cannot remember her name. Perhaps, tomorrow I will remember.
Suddenly, I am ashamed. There was a Mother and a Father. If they still live, I'm sure I am never out of their thoughts. But, I have not thought of them for weeks. Why does this happen to me? Does malnutrition destroy the mind too? This I know, food has become the most important thing in the world, and I can think of nothing else.
---------The meal was a little better than usual. Radish top soup along with our rice. It is almost time to go back to the coal. The cars must be filled on schedule, the trains cannot wait.
But - the day begins to deviate from the usual! Our guards announce that we will wait in the mess hall for their return, and they leave. This is unheard of, never before have we not gone back to work on time. The rumors start. What can be the reason? A small thing, it is true, but the pattern has changed. Why? Someone discovers that the guards have only gone to an adjoining building and are listening to a radio! I am chosen to eavesdrop. Maybe my limited knowledge of Japanese, acquired the hard way, will pay off. It may get me a broken head, but the curiosity is too great. Trying to appear unobservant and uninterested, I walk out the door of our mess shack and lean against the paper thin walls of the other building. All the guards are inside, so I am not observed. That is a lucky break. But, what could be so important that every Japanese should be inside listening to a radio?
I strain to hear, I press my ear to the wall, but, I can hear very little. The radio is turned too low. All I get are broken phrases - something about America and Potsdam. I haven't the slightest idea what Potsdam is. Wish I could hear more clearly. At last, I realize who is speaking. It is the Emperor! I wonder, is it an FDR type fireside chat? No - it must be an unusual occasion to warrant this. It has never happened before. But what could it mean? Potsdam? It means nothing to me, except a vaguely remembered name, someplace in Europe, I think.
The talk is over. Unfortunately, I can bring very little information to my waiting comrades. The guards return. It is well past time to go back to work. They seem in no hurry though. They are holding some kind of a discussion. For half an hour more they argue back and forth. At last it breaks up and they come inside.
We are informed that work is over for today, and we will go back to our barracks. This cannot be - it has never happened before, quitting work in the middle of the day, with waiting coal cars, and ships waiting to unload.
We line up to march home to our prison. The guards insist that we leave nothing behind, that we take all our mess gear and possessions. This has never happened before. We eat from salvaged tin cans, and some of the lucky ones have two sets of cans. One at the barracks and one to leave at work - just a little less to carry.
We are counted and begin the long march home. But today, unlike other days, the walk is not made in silence and fatigue. This day is different, something has happened. Walking home in the middle of the day! In our hearts we know it is over, but in our minds we cannot really believe.
There have been too many disappointments before. Three and one-half years of them - 1,224 days of them, nearly 30,000 hours of wondering, and hoping and praying for the day when it would end, and always, that inane little answer, "sukoshi matte", running through my mind. Is the "short wait" about over? It is in every mind and whispered on every tongue.
But then, in the darkness of night, when reason had begun to appear, it seemed a small thing to hope on. What had happened? This much and nothing more - the Emperor had made a speech to his people and we had left work early. It wasn't much, but drowning men grasp at straws and this was the first straw in 3 1/2 years.
Morning comes and with it more wonder. The wonder doesn't last long. We are lined up; in the rain and counted and marched out through the gates to begin the long trek to work. Hope's falter and our old defense against hopelessness; forgetfulness, begins to take over again. -- But, something happens! Halfway to work, we are stopped and marched back to our barracks! It can't be the rain, it never made any difference before. It is bewildering, confusing, what are they doing? Is this merely a new form of torture? Have they decided they can't starve or work the remainder of us to death the way they did the others?
The rest of this second day is filled with rumors. The Americans have landed. The war is over - or - the coaling dock are merely closed for a holiday. The next day, and the next, and the next are all the same. A week passes, and the same thing every day. We line up, we are counted, and then we do not go to work. Why? Why don't they give us a reason. Anything. But, they never did anything decent, why should they start now.
It must be over, but I am afraid to really believe it. I have believed it so many times before and lapsed back into apathy so many times before. --
--A week has passed since we worked. Another day begins, We are lined up and counted. We are marched out the gate, and down the road to the coaling docks. This time we do not turn back. The dream is over. It was too good to be true. It will never end. The "sukoshi matte" is a lie, told for fools to believe. The only " short wait" we can look forward to is the grave. Hope can only sustain so long. The body and mind wear out. The soul is no longer strong enough. Shuffle one weary foot in front of the other,and wonder how much longer you can continue to do so. How long has it been? I was a child when I came to this place. My life was spent in prison.
But - we do not stop at the docks, we walk on past - what is this? The pattern still changes. I remember, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast," I don't remember who said it, but it is true. Such a little thing happens and despair is gone. Once again there is hope. It begins to grow and blossom. Rumors run up and down the column. We are headed for a ship - and home.
But, it doesn't come true. We walk on past the waterfront and into the woods. We must gather wood. We are told we will need to make many trips for wood. We must lay in a supply for the coming winter! Once again our dreams are gone. A winters supply of firewood.
Three more days of carrying wood on our backs. Our winter supply. The Emperor's speech is forgotten. The rumors are gone. Our job has merely changed. Now we carry wood instead of coal. It is a little more pleasant though. Not so dirty, and it is nice to see the trees and the grass again.
Tomorrow is our rest day. Our one day in the month to stay in and not work, to take our monthly bath and rest. It is a nice day. --
--It really is a nice day. The sun is shining. I have had my bath, rumors are forgotten, it is a day of rest. It seems as if my life was always this way. It has become a normal way of life. Sometimes the hope it will ever change grows so dim, that it doesn't seem to matter anymore. I will live and die here. It is my life, and it is merely a dream that anything else ever existed or ever will exist. Starvation does strange things to a man and the hardest to overcome is apathy, the feeling that it is useless to hope and dream, even forgetting to hope. But, I must remember. There is another way of life. I must be there to see it again. I will be.
A sound begins, grows louder, and roars overhead. Aircraft! Can it be another daylight bombing? We had some last month. I rush from my barracks and there it is, the most beautiful sight in the world - an American plane, flying low, with no bombs, no anti-aircraft fire, in broad open daylight. This is it! They can keep it from us no longer. The plane circles and returns. He barely misses the rooftops. I can see him! He waves and tosses a small object from the cockpit. I can see it falling. A package of American cigarettes, and a note inside. "Back in one hour with the ship's store." And back he came with all his buddies, with the bomb bays loaded with candy, food and clothes. And life and freedom fell into our waiting arms. A way of life never entirely forgotten.
For the few, oh so few of us who were left, it wasn't the end anymore - it was the beginning again of life, and love, and laughter and freedom.
Our "short wait" was over.
The story is told as it was then. 12 years after the war, none of the bitterness nor hate remain.
It is possible to forgive, but it is not possible to forget.
GEORGE D. IDLETT
Note - Our normal permanent prisoner numbers were on out backs of clothing and again on a hat or cap, hanging from the back of the hat. But for the above photos, they merely wrote our POW number with white chalk on the front of whatever we were wearing. I was wearing a cast off Japanese Army Overcoat in this photo. I have the original, which I have kept for all these years.