We’re Only Here for the Beer

By Pat Glesner

 

 

 

It wasn’t exactly what I expected: Hokkaido, Japan’s “Last Frontier,” was not picture postcard Japan.  I guess I expected the Tea House of the August Moon and kimonos.  Instead I found hay fields, barns, silos and bib-overalls.  This was not much different than it had been in the weeds back home. 

 

The station sat on the southeast side of Hokkaido, near the mouth of the Tokachi River, in rolling, picturesque surroundings that remind me of northern Michigan. Thick, hardwood forests covered the hills from the north to the west, and farmland lay to the south.  And just a short ways to the east, the narrow, sandy lap of the Pacific Ocean stretched along the base of a rugged cliff.

   

I was almost back in Michigan again, as I roamed the surrounding woodland.  Only an occasional pigmy‑bamboo thicket brought me back to Japan.  Fresh spoor littered the forest floor, and occasionally, especially in the late evening, you could see a majestic, elk‑like Hokkaido deer crossing the antenna field, or one of the many native foxes scurrying through the underbrush.

 

Bear inhabited these parts too: huge, vicious, blood‑thirsty, man‑eating brown bear; bear (they’d have you believe) to make the Kodiak and Grizzly turn tail and run.  Not long before one had made his den on station.  What was left of him occupied the recreation room wall.  If his pelt was any indication, then the beasts were about the same size as the North American black bear.

 

It was rural, yes, but we were not without neighbors.  There was a large dairy farm at the bottom of the hill, and just up the road, about two kilometers away, was the village of Tokachibuto, a small fishing and farming community.  There were also heavier, concentrated populations, and much to do, not that far from away: the cities of Obihiro and Kishiro, both about an hour away, and the town of Urohoro, about 10 kilometers from the station, provided diversions for those who preferred their amusements urban.  There were also ski resorts, national parks, the “Club Med,” and a German theme park, all within easy striking distance.

 

The Japanese were hospitable, fun loving people, and a week rarely went by that you would not find a festival going on somewhere near.  Within days of my arrival there was a Beef and Wine festival in Ikeda, and a “shrine festival” in Urohoro, where crewmen and villagers donned “Hapi coats” and shouldered five-ton shrines through the streets of the town.  The station had its own festivities that fall: a twenty-five anniversary celebration, and retirement ceremonies and parties for Jim Judd, and “Jack” Sato, our interpreter.

 

The event of the season was a Halloween party in which we turned the station into a fun house and entertained our Japanese neighbors.  It was a huge success.  We had bartered for one band but three showed up, so we were never lacking for entertainment.  Hundreds of people enjoyed the event, but we expected a large crowd and were prepared.  We went through several dozen cases of beer.  Wine coolers and pop were also flowing freely. And as they say, a good time was had by all: all of our guests left saying "gaijin iciban."  Roughly translated, that means “you round-eyes are OK.”    

 

Perhaps this was the Coast Guard’s “best kept secret.”

 

Of course there was more to my job than keeping the beer cold and the fire wood dry.  I was to be the executive officer and senior technical officer and about a dozen other collateral officers as well.  Jim Judd and I spent a week inspecting, testing and auditing before I assumed my mantles and the overall responsibility for maintaining and operating the station’s LORAN equipment. 

 

“Dual rated” Hokkaido was the secondary for two LORAN chains.  We formed the “Whiskey” baseline for the Commando Lion chain, which covered the Sea of Japan and the Korean peninsula, and the “Xray” baseline for the Northwest Pacific chain.  Other stations in that chain include Iwo Jima, Guam, Okinawa, Yap, and Marcus Island.

   

LORAN Station Gesashi, in Okinawa, was also dual rated in the Commando Lion and Northwest Pacific chains.  The Master and two other secondary stations in the Commando Lion chain, all in Korea, are owned and operated by the US Air Force.  The Coast Guard monitored both chains.  According to Judd, most of my operational headaches would occur because of Commando Lion.

 

The Air Force didn't give a hoot about LORAN; their bombers stopped using it as a primary navigation system years ago.  In fact, they have so little use for it that they planned to pull the plug on Commando Lion the previous summer.  But the Koreans put up such a stink that they agreed to keep the system going until after the Olympics.  The latest shut‑down date was to have been 15 October 1988; however, at the last minute the Air Force agreed to extend operations for another year, and then probably turn the operation over to the Koreans.  In the meantime they were putting almost no effort into maintaining or operating the system.  In addition, the Air Force was not really operating LORAN “C” equipment.  Their equipment was LORAN “D,” a mobile, short range (maximum 200 mile baseline), tactical system modified, in this case, to operate with LORAN C.  And so we sat at the end of a 1500 mile baseline, hanging on to an erratic, barely perceptible signal.

 

For years the station’s motto had been “we’re only here for the beer.”  Only recently had it become the “Far East’s Finest.”  If this were so, I would have hated to see what shape the other stations were in.  Most of our equipment appeared clean and well-maintained; however, there were other indications that all was not up to snuff.  The station’s operational standards had begun slipping over five years earlier, according to the awards on the wall.  The antenna field was a thicket; in places it was almost a jungle.  I’m sure some of the trees there had sprouted at least ten years before.  The LORAN tower’s lightening protection Z-feed that been installed backward.  And when our water went bad (documented elsewhere on Jack’s Joint), we discovered that the water filters, scheduled for maintenance every three years, hadn’t been touched in thirteen years.  All other formal preventative maintenance programs appeared to have been shelved about that same time.  In essence, the technicians and engineers were “firefighters,” and over the years the fires had become more frequent. 

 

Of course it didn’t seem to matter, for as everyone knew, “no one cared about LORAN anymore,” not even the local fishermen who sailed out into the Pacific each day.  Or so they told the Stars & Stripes reporter who spent a week with us that fall.  “But don’t tear down that tower,” they said, with our cook Shishi translating.  It made an excellent beacon, when they returned to port after dark. 

 

Besides, it appeared that it wouldn’t be our headache much longer.  In fact, the Japanese seemed most anxious to take it over.  Their interest was relayed to us by several men with gold braid up their elbows. 

 

Vice Admiral Yutaka Nojiri, and Rear Admiral Katsumi Mori of the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency arrived by helicopter, accompanied by several captains and commanders.  We rendered honors as best we could—raised a three star flag on the yardarm, saluted them smartly, exchanged business cards and returned their bows.  They inspected the station, pronounced everything satisfactory, and then flew off, presumably to finalize the transfer.  If that fell through there were also plans in the works to remotely operate the station, leaving an ETC as OINC of a maintenance crew.  I was beginning to wonder if I should unpack.

 

Although attitude may have had something to do with the shape we were in, I found to crew to be generally made up of dedicated, hardworking, capable and caring professionals.  I’m sure that previous crews were as good.  But even a little neglect can add up when it stretches over twenty-five years.  With crews changing so frequently, goals also tended to lose focus.  Operations always took precedence over maintenance, so they did not have the down time we need to keep things tiptop.  As I would soon discover, there were other reasons why things weren’t getting done.

 

Only one man in the crew was there for the beer.  He was a teenage fireman apprentice, fresh out of boot camp, who had more than a little trouble with the bottle.  Every liberty night he was in town drinking, becoming so inebriated that he frequently missed getting off at the proper train station, and therefore got back after liberty expired.  He had to be physically roused from bed each morning, and then spent the rest of the day slacking off.  He also fought with his shipmates, and was charged with disrespecting and assaulting petty officers, all while in his cups.  Duty days were no different: as duty driver, he was charged with operating the station van while drunk.  He would not stay sober, even while in restriction.  He stood a long string of captain’s masts for these and other offenses.

 

I counseled him, talked about his obvious problems, told him he could continue to be a burden, and spend his year there in misery, or he could change his attitude and pulls his weight, and turn the time he spent there into a positive experience.  There are those who are not entirely unsympathetic to his problems, but what little support he has was dwindling daily.  The deeper he dug the hole he’d placed himself in, the harder it was going to be to pull himself out.  And soon there would be no hands left to help him up.  I also told him there was professional help if he wanted it. 

 

He said that all he wanted was an honorable discharge and a ticket home.  His behavior continued, and eventually he was shipped off to FESEC, where, after standing a court martial, our bad boy got half his wish.  I wished we could have helped the young man turn his life around.  The Skipper also felt badly, and wrote a heartfelt letter to his mother.  On the other hand, the incident lay to rest the last of my fears.  If an FA could afford to get in trouble in Japan, the rest of us had no reason to sweat money.

 

I had gone into Urohoro with the crew a few times, but outside of that I spent my first couple of weeks close to the station.  But by mid-November I felt as if I had things in hand.   LORAN was also chirping along nicely—almost two weeks on-air and in-tolerance, a recent record.  It was time to venture into the big city and unwind with an overnighter. 

 

There were a few there who were more than a little leery about letting me venture off on my own so soon.  One of them was Ohashi, a FESEC employee who was then winding up a two week temporary assignment at the station.      

 

“You're going into Obihiro?” he laughed, “By yourself?  . . . Wait!  I'm going to make you a sign: ‘Mr. Glesner; If lost please return me to LORAN C Tokachibuto.’    

 

“We'll hang it around your neck,” he said. 

 

I didn’t think that precaution was necessary.  Besides, I had my business cards, with all necessary identification imprinted in Japanese on the back.  So early one Saturday morning they dropped me off at the Sin-Yoshino station for the one hour milk run into Obihiro.  Three of the guys tagged along, just to make sure I did not go by my stop.

 

After we arrived in Obihiro the guys helped me find a hotel, and then spent about an hour showing me the lay of the city and some of its landmarks (like Green Park, site of world's longest wooden park bench).  Then they left this old man to fend for himself and went off in search of youthful amusements.    

 

Obihiro was nearest big city.  About 60 kilometers away from the LORSTA, it had a population of somewhat over 100,000.  As it is with all Japanese cities, the business and entertainment districts clustered around the train station.  There were few western style businesses: Colonel Sanders, Dairy Queen, and Mr. Donut—but just about every other place carried Japanese merchandise for Japanese people.  I saw only one other Caucasian face, that of James Coburn, striking a Marlboro Man pose on a billboard advertising some brand of Japanese cigarettes.  Several hours would pass before I saw another Westerner.   

 

I decide to ease myself into the local environs with a visit to the Fujimaru, a Western style department store.  It did not differ much from Macys, although the electronics department carried gadgets I would not see in the states for several more years: tiny, hand-held color TV's, with built-in Video Tape Recorders, “electronic disk” cameras, and video CD players.

 

The basement of the Fujimaru was a grocery, and there I finally found a $60 melon, a perfect little cantaloupe decoratively boxed.  The flawed fruit lay pilled in a nearby bin, priced at about 75¢ each.  It seemed that the Japanese did not mind paying a premium for unblemished fruit. 

 

In another part of the store I walked past a salesgirl seemingly conversing with a young, impeccably dressed Japanese man (I'm sure that was an Oxford blazer).  When he saw me he walked over and in elegant, very precise “old boy” English intoned, “Pardon me, my young fellow, but do you speak Japanese?”

 

When I answered “no,” he responded, “Oh.  How very unfortunate; neither can I.”  Paying me no more mind, he turned back and continued his pantomime with the salesgirl.  A few minutes later another English speaking Japanese man approached me.  His English was not nearly as precise.  In fact, he was barely coherent.  He told me he was an English instructor.  I sent him over to aid the young Anglo-Japanese man; however, I not sure he did much good.

 

I then wandered away from the center of town and suddenly found myself in an alien landscape.  It wasn’t the set for Shogun, but it was closer to what I had expected from Japan.  Here I saw Buddhist temples with Zen stone gardens, Torii gates marking the pathways to Shinto shines, traditional Japanese houses with glazed ceramic tile roofs, sliding wood paneled doors, and rice paper windows, and old ladies shuffling along in kimonos.  There did not seem to be a vestige of Western culture anywhere.  Even James Coburn had disappeared.  Instead wooden signs inscribed with Japanese characters identified a few business enterprises. I walked into a Japanese art gallery, where a relief of Hokkaido Cranes in flight tempted me.  It was priced a little outside by budget, though.  I then walked into a shop specializing in religious paraphernalia: Buddhist rosaries, beautiful rosewood and teak household shrines, etc.  These too were expensive, so I also left there empty handed.  But before I left the old lady who ran the place gave me a “presento,” several packages of incense.  

 

About this time I ran into two guys from the station, SK2 Wayne Garcia and Ohashi, escorting two Japanese girls.  They were headed for a late lunch and I accepted their invitation to come along.  So we set a course for a nearby eatery, with Ohashi in the lead.

 

Ohashi was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan young man who had been temporarily posted to the station to act as an interpreter/intermediary for a local contractor who was doing some work for us.  Ohashi spoke English so well that many Japanese believed he was Hawaiian.  He generally liked that way, for he looked upon the locals as hicks and spurred aspects of Japanese culture that were still common in Hokkaido.  He often used the phrase “No wonder we lost the war” to summarize his dealings with the contractor.  There was one thing about Hokkaido he liked; however: he liked the girls.  Declaring that “the women in Tokyo are too uppity,” he vowed to return soon and find himself a wife.  I don’t know whether he was considering either one of the young women with him that day; however, they did demonstrate the demeanor the women in Tokyo apparently lacked.  Ohashi obviously believed in a traditional male ordered Japanese society, where a man expected to be pampered by women in every aspect of his life.  So it was with these young ladies.  They waited on us, brought us our food, poured our tea, etc.  They did not turn to their own food until we were satisfied.  They didn’t have to worry about it getting cold, though.  It was already cold.  I wasn’t ready for raw fish yet, and insisted upon something cooked.

 

We then headed for the onsen and steeped in boiling water.  I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about public bathing; however, I found it enjoyable and relaxing.  A visit to the onsen became a weekly ritual thereafter.

 

We then parted company.  I headed back up town, had a beer at the “Jazz Club,” checked out the “747,” a night club recommended by Jim Judd as the only place in town where you could find unattached women our age, then headed back the hotel.  There was nothing much on TV that made sense, so I turned in early.

 

I spent a few more hours exploring the next day, then headed to the train station early that afternoon.  I still had an hour to kill before the next train, so I settled into a German style beer garden just up the street.  The waitresses wore billowing alpine skirts and aprons, and the waiters wore lederhosen.  But they all had dark hair and slanted eyes and the beer, served in huge Oktoberfest mugs, was Asahi.  A man whom I took for the maitre d' bowed deeply and led me off to a table. The placed was packed and noisy, and although the customers were generally gibbering away in their native tongue, I very clearly heard people at two different tables say “Coast Guard LORAN C.”  My escort, who had not said a word of English while conducting me, walked up to the waitress and said, “Your English speaking OK?”  Later he came over, sat down and shared a beer with me.  He introduced himself as Yomad Tatuhiko, said he was the owner of the establishment, and invited me to return whenever I was in town.  When I left he picked up the tab.  

 

It had been a great weekend, and I left Obihiro even more sure that I was going to enjoy my year in Japan.

 

Maybe this was the Coast Guard’s “best kept secret.”

 

Monday morning our skipper and two chief petty officers caught the plane to Tokyo, and I assumed a new, though temporary mantle, as acting CO.  I thought things went well on my watch.  I managed a non-operational casualty, entertained an official visitor, and kept LORAN running trouble free throughout the week.  Then came the phone call, early the following week.  It was the skipper, calling from FESEC.  He was due to board the plane home shortly, and he wasn’t coming alone.  COCO (Commander of Chain Operations) would also be on the plane.  The skipper had stopped by FESEC after completing his dental work, and there found himself the object of a high-level ass-chewing, punctuated by frequent waving of his fitness report.  We were about to come under the gun, he said, and I had only a few hours to cover our collective asses before the bullets started flying.  He was particularly concerned about an incident that had happened about three weeks earlier, when we had operated out-of-tolerance without blink for several minutes, due to watch stander error.  We handled this in the same way such things had been handled for years: the culprit, a young seaman, had received a verbal reprimand, endured a few hours of extra instruction, and was then placed back on the watch bill.  My orders for the next few hours were clear.  I was to pull the man from the watch list and place him on report, and have a pre-mast investigation on the skipper’s desk before he stepped off the plane.  All the paperwork was to be postdated by three weeks. 

 

The days of care-free living at LORAN station Hokkaido had come to end.  

 

 

Pat Glesner is attached to the US Army TACOM LCMC-G3 Enterprise Excellence Group
 

 

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