The best place in my house to escape the Amazonian heat of August is a dimly lit little study just off the entry hall. The blinds are down and the light is low to protect a collection of Japanese prints from the late 18th and early 19th century. They are from a series called “The Road to Edo”, the ancient name for Tokyo. My father brought them home from Japan in 1946; he’d bought them in the ruins of the Imperial capital. After homecoming embraces, my mother dashed to Chicago’s Marshall Fields department store and spent two months of his salary having them framed. He was a graphic designer and printmaker who admired the technical virtuosity of Japanese print makers and the art of Japan. How he acquired them is a complex tale of trans-national ironies that underscore the 70th anniversary of the end of his World War, on August 14, 1945.
Before the war he was prospering as a master printer and production designer for publishing houses, and could indulge his hobby of photography. He owned two German cameras, a Leica, and Voightlander. He was far better than a mere hobbyist, and I have many of his moody, noir-ish prints shot in the streets of Chicago.
When the war broke out, he said goodbye to my mother and older siblings and found himself in a Naval Intelligence unit on board the Mount Olympus, an amphibious command ship with the ultimate mission of guiding the invasion of Japan.
His group consisted of artists, draftsmen, cartographers and two Navajo “code talkers.” Among other things, they drew charts of the Pacific for the fleet’s use, and were part of the fleet’s communications command, relaying messages in the better-than-encryption Navajo language, and sending aerial photos by radio with a primitive kind of fax machine. With his German cameras around his neck, he climbed into seaplanes for aerial reconnaissance duty. He also photographed the horrors of the aftermath of every landing.
He was an old man of 31 when they left San Francisco, by far the oldest in his ten-man unit. He survived the Battle of Leyte, all the subsequent landings, typhoons, and an attack by what was documented to be the last Japanese fighter with any fuel in the Imperial retreat from the Philippines.
He was in the Pacific because he was Italian. The axis passport in his mother’s desk, like those of the parents of so many first generation Americans, rendered him suspect for assignments in Italy. His mother’s Italian family ancestry was Sephardic. There was no possibility of a pre-war return to Italy for her, even if she’d wanted to. Japanese Americans who were not interned in camps were sent to fight in Italy.
On September 2, 1945, my father and his German cameras were on the deck of the Battleship Missouri, photographing the formal surrender ceremony. On September 3 he was on his way to Nagasaki, for the worst job anyone could have, photographing the aftermath of the second atomic bomb. The bomb that is credited with ending World War II was dropped on August 9. He arrived at the scene a little over three weeks later. When he came home in 1946 he put the cameras in a drawer and never used them again.
In the fall I will be team teaching a design studio with an architect my own age, he is a native of Tokyo.
- Michael Guarino