Remembering those who fell in a ‘field of spears’

by Angela Jeffs

Greg Hadley — or professor Gregory Hadley, as he’s known in academic circles — is on his way home to Niigata. He has just completed the weekend JALT conference at Tokyo’s National Olympic Center.

“I go to the conference every year, this time seeking to recruit a new teacher for Niigata University. There’s a lot of talent out there, and it’s a good place to scout. Yes, I made contact with several highly qualified people. Now it’s a case of following them up.”

Hadley, who teaches American and U.K. cultural studies at Niigata University of International and Information Studies, says he normally spends his free time gardening and cooking meals for his Japanese wife.

He had absolutely no idea when he made a trip with a friend through the English Cotswolds in the summer of 2002, that he’d be asked the question that would lead him to write a book, “Field of Spears: The Last Mission of the Jordan Crew,” published this year by Paulownia Press.

“My friend asked why Niigata had been taken off the U.S. list of potential A-bomb attack sites in 1945. I’d lived in the city for years, and while remembering local stories about a B-29 bomber seen burning in the sky, this was news to me. Being the inquisitive, compulsive type, when I got back I asked around.”

What Hadley learned was that Niigata had been on the list until 10 days before the attack on Hiroshima. It was deleted because of its geographical location. Being surrounded by hills, the effects of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were contained to some degree. With Niigata sitting among rice paddies, the effects would have spread far and wide.

Kyoto (as well as the arsenal at Kokura) was originally on the list; it was thought that striking at the heart of Japanese history and culture would swiftly demoralize the population. But it was saved by the intervention of U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had honeymooned in the city several years before.

“Having settled that, I became fascinated by that legendary B-29. Had it existed? If so, where had it come down? And what had happened to the crew? Fifty years had passed. Given the taboo of Japan not liking to talk about those dark days, would it be possible for me, a foreigner, to learn anything?” So began a three-year quest — a search that took him into small Japanese farming communities, dusty archives and mid-American townships, and to meet what he describes as “the quite exceptional members” of a POW support group in Japan.

“Initially I thought of my investigation as an academic exercise. But the narrative element took over, and I found myself seeking to portray the two very human sides to the story: those of the Japanese — mostly women, children and the elderly — who were exhausted and brutalized by the war effort, and the young American crewmen who were lost so far from home.”

What he learned was that a B-29 Superfortress bomber attached to the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 6th Bombardment Group, with a crew of 11 and under the command of Capt. Gordon Jordan, took off from Tinian in the Mariana Islands on a routine night-mining mission to Niigata on the night of July 19, 1945.

“We know it was hit by antiaircraft fire, then crashed-landed in potato fields between the former villages of Yokogoshi and Kyogase. After that, the story becomes less clear.”

The Jordan crew’s last mission marked a number of firsts: the first time a B-29 was shot down over Niigata; the first time anyone parachuted into the prefecture; the first time for Japanese women, trained by the military to fight with bamboo spears, to use them against armed American soldiers.

“Bamboo spears were the military’s last desperate means of fighting off invasion. Remember that these women has lost husbands, sons and grandsons; some had lost all the men in their family. They were basically in deep trauma. Of course, nothing forgives what happened, but it does help explain it.”

What happened mirrors what happens in any war when enemy fall into the hands of terrified overwrought civilians. Echoes of Iraq indeed, Hadley confirms.

Though born in north Texas — “the panhandle” — Hadley has spent the last 15 years in Japan, with time out at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., where he studied the sociology of English language teaching and acquisition. As a result his accent has flattened out to such an extent that “often I’m mistaken for Canadian.”

What he likes about living and working here is that you can so easily meet like-minded people and contribute to different fields. Although you hit the glass ceiling of any one profession pretty quickly, you can spread outward, broaden your sphere of influence and activity.

“Right now I have no interest in returning to the States. I don’t like the country it has become. But that’s not to say I’m not interested, that I don’t care. I do.”

He came to care very much for the fate of the Jordan crew, four of whom died. When Hadley began his research five years ago, five survivors were still alive, in scattered communities throughout the States. All were suspicious of his initial approaches. One chose not discuss what were still painful memories. The son of one victim, a toddler when his father died, supplied his father’s wartime diary.

“I was also enabled to locate photographs of the incident, taken for a local newspaper. One shows the bodies of two crew members. “We’ll probably never know what really happened to them, but by piecing together statements I have a good idea.”

Quote: “Pandemonium broke out with the arrival of these two bodies. The keibodan tried to keep the villagers back, but such was their frenzied rage that they began to beat and abuse the bodies in various ways, such as those who pulled down the pants of Adams and put a sweet potato in his crotch.”

Another photograph (shots of captured U.S. servicemen are rare) shows a survivor — tied and blindfolded — being led from the village hall where he and his colleagues were kept that first night. Two more pictures show six survivors in the back of a truck, being taken to a POW camp in Niigata; a sheet covers what is most probably the body of a seventh airman who did not survive the night.

“Four men, including one who refused to leave the plane, died. While small in number, their fate mirrors many such incidents all over Japan. As for the rest, yes they survived, but the experience — and their treatment once they were taken to Tokyo — left scars which could never be erased.”

Encouraging local people to talk about what happened required great patience. As Hadley recalls: “It was easier to obtain declassified information and dig in the mud to still find pieces of the aircraft. Villagers were ashamed. ‘We were rice farmers,’ they told me, ‘but that night we saw our dark side, we became the war. ‘ “

Those U.S. airmen who gave in to fear, trying to shoot their way out of trouble, signed their death warrants. Those who took the beatings and the indignities heaped upon them — such as the captain, who was tied to a post, then urinated and defecated upon — survived. It was an elderly Japanese who chased away the women and youngsters, and protected him until the Japanese military came to the rescue.

Hadley cannot thank enough all those who helped him put together the story of the Jordan crew. To see the book in print, receiving critical acclaim from the popular press and academic circles alike, and available through Amazon.com makes all the effort worthwhile.

“Before I began ‘Field of Spears,’ I spent three years debunking the myth about 300 POWs being dynamited in gold mines on Sado Island, as proposed by a New Zealand writer. Next I want to properly investigate POW Camp 5B in Niigata.”

On the flyleaf of the copy of the classy paperback Hadley so kindly gave me, it reads: Dedicated to those who made it back alive, but never survived the war. Below this, penned in ink: “In reading this book we become part of its history.”

A select number of signed copies of “Field of Spears” can be obtained from the author at hadley@nuis.ac.jp