POW Research Network Japan > Reports on Activities >Reports of visits to Japan of POWs>Former US POWs visit Japan at the second invitation of the Japanese Government >Lorna Johnston's visit to Yokohama

Reports of visits to Japan of POWs

Lorna Johnston's visit to Yokohama

Written by Mayumi Komiya and Yoshiko Tamura
Translated by Harumi Sakaguchi

On 1 December 2011 (Thursday) Ms. Lorna Johnston visited the former site of her internment in Totsuka in Yokohama City, where she had been held during the war. We two and Ms. Taeko Sasamoto accompanied her. >>Jump

Ms. Lorna Johnston

Lorna and her daughter Patricia arrived at the locality at 10:00 a.m. After taking a walk around the area of the camp (at present a residential area), we called at the residence of Ms. Yamamura in the neighborhood, where local residents knowledgeable about the war-time period had gathered. One of them was a daughter-in-law of the Obasan's (an elderly lady), who used to cook for the nurses while others were still children in those days but remembered the nurses in the camp.

Going over old photos together, Lorna and the Japanese people shared memories. Stories recollected by both sides matched perfectly, such as the cold and hunger endured, the pains of fetching water from the well, trying to kill a dog when driven by hunger, and exchanging children's shoes for sweet potatoes with a Benjyo Man (a man who used to come remove the night soil at the camp's toilet). The accuracy of Lorna's memories astonished us. It was moving to witness the meeting of the hearts of those individuals who lived through the same period in the war.

We believe that to heal the scars left in the hearts of the former prisoners of war or civilian internees requires an opportunity for them to interact with the people who know the life in those days. Lorna said that she thoroughly enjoyed conversing with local people and taking a stroll with them in the neighborhood even though in the past it was not possible to exchange words with them. She stated, "I had a truly wonderful time with you all. It was totally unexpected that we could confirm and share memories from the past. I am glad that I have come back to Japan." While enjoying the sweet potatoes and persimmons served (Lorna used to eat them during her days in confinement), Patricia, smiling, took photos and videos of her happy mother.

On 2 December Lorna made a speech on her PW experience in the Nakawada Elementary School. Her tone was steady, unlike expected from a 96-year-old woman. She spoke of being captured in Rabaul and brought to Japan, not being allowed to board an exchange ship, and suffering from cold and hunger during her prolonged confinement till being librated after the war ended. We were concerned whether Lorna's message could be conveyed to the pupils as they had little background information and also because of the interpreting challenge. However, they showed a keen interest in her story and, after she spoke, asked one question after another for a full hour as follows.

Question and Answer

Q: I understand that foreigners in Japan were taken aboard an exchange ship. Was it possible to recognize who they were?

A: The exchange ship was a special one with a white cross painted clearly so that it would not be attacked by submarines and others by mistake. I sighted the exchange ships four times but was not taken on board. I was greatly disappointed.


Q: The Japanese people in those days presumably did not understanding English. Was there an interpreter? If not, can you tell me how you managed to express yourself to the Japanese?

A: There was of course no interpreter of course. So there was no way to make ourselves understood in words. But, in order to survive, out of desperation, I used gestures. I also tried to memorize Japanese words and was able to count up to 90 in Japanese.


Q: When captured, how old were you?

A: I was twenty-five years old.


Q: How many times a day were you given meals and what did you eat?

A: It is difficult to answer that question. There was hardly anything like a meal given us. In a bowl like this, there was only rice gruel and a small quantity of vegetables floating. Just before the end of the war, we exchanged, with neighbors, the butter we had kept for sweet potatoes. In this way we survived.


Q: When you were transferred (your camp was moved), were you not informed of your destination?

A: We were not informed of our destination at all. But, when we were taken on board a ship in Rabaul, I was thinking that we might be returned to Australia, I was informed that we were being taken to Japan.


Q: On the ship bound for Japan, what kinds of things did you eat?

A: In addition to us, there were soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese forces. We ate the crackers given by them.


Q: What was the condition inside the ship on the way to Japan?

A: It was hot, and being very confined, we could hardly lie down. To pass time, we would sing songs or chat.

After the Q&A period, the students, as arranged by the host school, sang the song of "Ueomuite Aruko" by the late KyuSakamoto. Lorna looked pleased.
>> Kyu Sakamoto on Wikipedia

It was back in 1993 that I (Mayumi Komiya) began to research into the internment of enemy personnel in Japan. On the scant information available, I was able to identify the location of the second Kanagawa internment camp in Izumi District. Later in 1996 I found a roster of the internees, learning for the first time that those interned were a group of Australian nurses captured in Rabaul. Further, in 2006 I came to learn that Lorna was still alive and where she lived. Finally, this time, I met her. It has been a long journey for me. It was like a miracle to see Lorna, with my own eyes, a person who was only "a historical record" before. Lorna is the only survivor, an irreplaceable eye-witness, out of the group of Australian nurses interned in secrecy in Japan during the war. I hope she will remain in good health and continue to speak about her extraordinary experience in future.