When Elizabeth Ryan was in Kobe from 1947 to 1948 as part of the Occupation, she witnessed one of the city’s most dramatic events in the postwar period.
On April 24, 1948, Koreans started a riot and thousands stormed the Hyogo Prefectural Government building, holding the governor, the prefectural police chief and even Allied Occupation officers hostage.
The Occupation authorities declared a state of emergency for the city and beyond, the only declaration of its kind during the 1945-1952 Occupation.
Ryan witnessed both the riot and, through her work as a court reporter for the provost court in Kobe, some of the ensuing court procedures involving the 1,732 Koreans who were arrested.
“(The Occupation forces) have Koreans locked up in every available space in Kobe. They did have 1,500 or more and gradually have weeded out the women and children after taking photos,” she wrote in a letter dated May 4, 1948.
Kim Kyong He, a longtime Korean resident of Kobe who has written several books about the 1948 riot, praised Ryan’s letters as “first-rate historical material” because he believes they shed light on how the Americans viewed the riot at that time.
“There are no materials like this showing the views of the American side. I was surprised to read these letters,” he said.
The riot and mass arrests took place against the backdrop of the early days of the Cold War. Preparations were being made for Korea’s first national election on May 10, 1948, which would lead to the establishment of South Korea later that year.
The Koreans in Kobe were protesting the Occupation force’s order to shut down four Korean schools, which the Americans believed had been infiltrated by communists.
“I think the reason we put on such a display of military strength and all the arrests, etc. is to show we mean business and Russia better stay out of our playpen here,” Ryan wrote.
“They will be tried in our Provost Court instead of the Japanese court. . . . I have heard from some of the officers who were in on the conference that it really wasn’t too bad, but if we let it go by unnoticed, the way things have gone in the rest of the world, this would be only the beginning,” she wrote in another letter dated April 27, 1948.
Ryan, originally from Milwaukee, stopped writing her letters from Kobe in July 1948 when her contract with the U.S. military was running out and she was preparing to return stateside.
“She would soon attend graduate school at Columbia University and become a highly visible figure in the area of public health in Washington,” wrote Temerra Sears Pauley, niece of Mary Sears, who was a close friend of Ryan’s while she was in Kobe.
“She did not marry, had no children, and although we have reason to believe there are surviving nieces and nephews, we have not been able to locate them,” Pauley wrote in the introduction to a compilation of the letters.
Following are excerpts from Ryan’s letters describing the riot and Occupation reaction. Some of the language may be considered offensive:
April 27, 1948 I delay in writing my letters this week you will probably think I have been plowed under by the Koreans — or didn’t you get that news back home?
The most we hear about the whole thing is on the short-wave broadcast from Los Angeles, and from those reports you would think things were in pretty bad shape.
‘Tain’t so. But they are certainly using this opportunity to give a show of our military strength and to scare the Koreans and the Japs. . . .
The first I noticed was on Saturday afternoon. There were truck loads of armed soldiers, military police, and Japanese police scurrying in the vicinity south of the Oriental and near the military government headquarters. I thought it was just another raid — but perhaps on a larger scale — since there is a constant effort to pick up black marketers.
By Sunday morning, all the boys had been restricted, the officers alerted, and I had the devil of a time trying to get thru’ the Camp gate to go to Mass. . . .
The Koreans don’t want their children to go to Japanese schools and have protested. While that may be well and good, it is really not the Japanese idea in the school but the American, and so indirectly a slap in the face for Uncle Sam because the Koreans have rejected the school system.
On Saturday morning 70 Koreans visited the Prefecture headquarters and really tore things apart. The Governor had them put in jail — and that set off the fire.
Almost immediately 1,500 gathered in and around the office, and the Governor and Mayor of Kobe, and the Chief of Police were imprisoned in their offices until the 70 were released.
Our assistant Provost Marshal went over with a Sgt. (who came over with us on the St. Olaf) and they imprisoned them, too, but while the Koreans were wrangling about something, they escaped.
When they took the law in their hands and touched our military — in addition to the fact they rejected our plans for Japanese schools — a state of minor emergency was declared by General Menoher. . . .
The order went out from the “brains” that every last Korean was to be arrested and by 4 o’clock last evening they had 1,500 of them in jail. May 11, 1948 Korean elections certainly have been watched from here with much interest for a long time. The outbreak has been confined to the Communists and the Koreans, but for a time there was a great fear that the attack would be made on Americans and we were ready for it.
Right after the first of the year hush-hush arrangements went on with preparations to evacuate all Americans from Korea if a riot broke out prior to the elections.
Kobe naturally would be the first haven for them. Ships came over from the States loaded down with food and it was stored here.
In fact they had the devil’s own time trying to find enough space in which to store it.
A month ago all petroleum products shipments were cut off so that in case of evacuation there would be nothing left for the Reds to take over.
Then, Mrs. Keeney and her baby (Ward’s daughter and grandson) got out of there the last of part of March as did many others.
Many ships were out at sea ready to put in at Seoul and other ports in case evacuation became necessary even at the 11th hour.
But now the elections have passed that fear is over for the time being at least.
General Hodge has agreed to pull out when the government is set up, and no more Americans are being sent into Korea — but that all seems very dumb.
We pull out when they set up their new government, but everyone knows that as soon as we pull out Russia will swoop down and take over — so why go thru all the business of an election.
These people have never had an election in their 4,000 years history and it shouldn’t take too much to knock it down.
Unless we want to let Russia take over everything — that is to say, let her take everything she thinks she can take care off without any help from us but leave the United States alone — then war is inevitable. . . .
Yep — guess it’s just about time for Betty-san to move out of here.
What I have told you is not for publication altho’ it is generally known here.