Third in a three-part series
Memories help define who we are as individuals, and provide common links among communities, cultures and nations.
For Tom Meschery, memories of World War II remain etched in the backroads of his mind. A young boy in Tokyo during the war, the former NBA forward can never forget what he witnessed and endured between the ages of 3 and nearly 7.
Born in Manchuria, China, to Russian immigrants who escaped that nation’s violent revolution 100 years ago, Meschery, his mother and older sister spent WWII mostly in a Tokyo-area internment camp. From China, Meschery’s father Nicholas was able to emigrate to San Francisco, but the entire family couldn’t join him during a time of global warfare, lacking passports to travel to the United States.
Dozens of internment camps (also called concentration camps) held foreign prisoners of war throughout Japan and numerous other locales controlled or seized by the Japanese empire during WWII.
“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well,” novelist Nicholas Sparks wrote in “A Walk to Remember.”
Speaking to Meschery by phone from his home in Sacramento, California, several weeks ago, it was immediately clear that he values his memories, happy ones and traumatic recollections, too. He also recognizes that being controlled by the reality of war as a young boy played a big role in shaping who he became: an intense, bruising star athlete (San Francisco’s Lowell High School and nearby Saint Mary’s College before an NBA career from 1961-71 with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics; and later an ABA head coach with the Carolina Cougars), a high school English teacher and writer.
Even to this day, life’s basic essentials weigh heavily on Meschery’s mind. He describes himself as a “foodie.”
“The camp very well might have turned me into a foodie,” Meschery, who turns 79 on Oct. 26, told Hoop Scoop. “I love to cook and I love to eat. That may have started in the camp when food was very scarce.
“Our meals in the concentration camp were frugal — rice and some fish and vegetables.
“My mother and sister would always remember that as a little boy I would always say, ‘fish, fish,’ and I would kind of cry because it was just the same old, same old.”
Wherever they are, people try to survive the horror of war. Luxurious items or splurging on extravagance is not expected.
Toward the end of the war, Meschery recalled that the Red Cross began to sent food supplies via parachutes for prisoners of war. Among the canned goods in the packages were Spam and corned beef, items Meschery and others in the camps ate repeatedly.
“I’ve hated Spam and corned beef ever since,” he said. “I won’t eat Spam; you couldn’t get me to eat Spam.”
But his fondness for food has never diminished, and it’s been a constant struggle for Meschery to maintain his weight.
“I’ve been fighting this damn weight all my life, trying not to get fat but loving to eat,” said the ex-forward who started alongside Wilt Chamberlain when the Big Dipper dropped 100 points on the New York Knicks in a 1962 game in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a feat that remains as remarkable and mythical as it was more than a half century ago.
In 1999, Meschery’s poetry book “Nothing We Lose Can Be Replaced,” with thoughtful reflections on Russia’s revolution, massive societal changes and his family’s experiences during World War I and WWII, was published. It provided an outlet for him to contemplate the personal and collective experiences shared by Russians in the 20th century.
Nearly 20 years later, he speaks without hesitation about what he experienced in Japan.
“The Japanese treated us very well aside from the fact that we didn’t have a lot of food,” he said.
“They were very respectful, particularly of my mother, who had children.”
And all these years later, Meschery still describes the camp guards as “very respectful and kind to us.”
The Meschery family, which altered its original Russian surname (Mescheriakov) in America, was grateful for the kindness of the Japanese guards. And it wanted to show its gratitude after the war ended.
It sent packages to a guard named Inoue-san, a fellow who was “particularly kind to us,” Meschery remembered, characterizing him as “very kind, very gentle.”
“For five or six years, we would always send some food and clothing maybe and stuff like that to him, and then we finally lost touch. I don’t know what happened to him.”
Separated by conflict
What does Meschery first remember about the war?
It involves a painful lesson involving the absence of his father, Nicholas.
Meschery recalled “being in a room with a chair and crying, really crying, leaning on the chair and being very angry, because I had thought I had gone to America and my father was supposed to be there.”
He went on: “I remember that and that was strange because that was very early. We’re talking about 3 years old there (in 1941-42).”
As he grew up in the tightly guarded confines of the war camp, Meschery retained more memories as he got older.
“Later, in the last years of the war, those years do come back to me sometimes as nightmares,” Meschery admitted.
For instance, he added, “when our camp was bombed, it didn’t take a direct hit, but the church next door to it did, there was a cathedral, a Catholic church, and we were in the elementary school or the school building. That was our camp.”
Recollections of the bombing never vanished.
After the church was bombed “our building got on fire, and we were in the basement in the bomb shelter, and we were whisked out through the back of the cellar door, and we were escorted around Tokyo, which was obliterated, literally,” Meschery told me.
And the place he knew as home during the war no longer was.
For some time, the Mescherys had to survive on the streets.
“There were hardly any buildings,” said Meschery, who was the No. 7 pick in the 1961 NBA Draft and an All-Star in 1963. “We slept on the street. We would take some boxes . . . and make a shelter and sleep there, and then move on. And I remember waking up one time and there was an arm sticking out of rubble right next to me. I woke up, and that returns to me as a dream. . . .
“Every once in a while I’ll have that recurring dream of that arm.”
Ann Meschery, Tom’s older sister, remembered his optimistic persona during those dark days.
“From the time Tom was a toddler, through the time of the war and now into his senior years, he has always had a very sunny disposition,” she wrote in an email from New York City, where she resides. “He was always cracking jokes as a child that made adults laugh and he was always the center of attention. I think it was this jolly, happy way about him that helped him cope with the realities of war.”
During the war, Meschery once fell out of a tree and broke his collarbone. This accident sent him to a hospital, where a Japanese doctor inserted a piece of metal in his collarbone to repair it.
He had few prized possessions during the war.
But he had two cherished toys: a small, ivory elephant and a green, jade fog.
“I would play with those two little toys with the white sheets on my knees, and I created mountains, and the little toys moved as I wished them to move over the mountains . . . It’s an image that I’ve retained,” he said.
End of war, new beginning
After the aforementioned church and dormitory were damaged by bombs and fire, the Mescherys eventually found their way to a Tokyo-area convent at another camp before the war’s end.
They slept in the attic because there wasn’t room anywhere else, and Meschery was there when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in August 1945.
“It was a dreadful sight. . . . We were there in that attic when the end of the war was announced,” Meschery said. “The director of our internment camp came into the attic and he was weeping, and he bowed very low to us, and very stiff, very formally and announced that the war was over and he was crying. I remember he ran out of the room he was so distraught.
“And that was it. There were no more guards. . . . Everybody left. We were left to our own devices, and nobody knew what to do as far as I know, as far as I can recollect until the American troops finally came on shore and they started a civil government of some sort.”
The Mescherys departed Japan on a ship and reunited with the family patriarch in San Francisco, where they established roots. But before the City By The Bay became home, there was the monumental arrival day in America.
And Meschery will never forget it.
He recalled a photograph of that day that was published in a Bay Area newspaper this way: “My mother, sister and I were debarking from the ship. . . . We are all three dressed in army fatigues and army caps.”
Witnesses to history
From time to time, Meschery and his sister will discuss WWII and being in Tokyo at that time “as siblings will do,” he noted.
They’ve spoken about the aerial bombardment of Tokyo, and where they were throughout the U.S. military’s air raids of the capital.
One horrifying incident stands out among their many shared memories.
“There was a beautiful cherry tree outside the wall of the concentration camp, and I always remember that being so beautiful,” Meschery underlined.
“There was more than one, and I remember that one of them caught on fire. It was burning and I felt terribly sad about that, and then the fire that burned our concentration camp, my sister actually ran back into the fire, into the upstairs to the bedroom and we thought she was going to die, frightened to death.
“And she just tore into the building and ran upstairs through the smoke and got her teddy bear and then ran back (outside). That’s her recollection. I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like for her, but she was very determined to get her teddy bear.”
Ann Meschery remembered the tale with additional details.
“One story that has become family folklore is that, when Tom was born, I was so thrilled I had a new baby brother, that I gave him my most precious possession, my stuffed teddy bear,” she wrote in an email. “Tom and that bear became inseparable. When we were in the internment camp and the building was burning from the dropped incendiary bombs, we were told to evacuate and to leave everything behind. Tom was told to drop his bear. When we got outside, I could see he was really upset and crying that he had to leave his bear behind. I said, no way, and promptly marched back into the burning building and retrieved the bear.
“Our mom always marveled at this and was very proud to repeat it over and over although I am sure it gave her close to a heart attack at the time.”
As the chaos unfolded, Tom and his sister had a close-up view of the destruction of Tokyo.
“Down in the basement, my sister and I would crawl up on the ledge — there was a small window that was blacked out, a blacked-out curtain — and we would look out during the bombings, and the last year the bombings were day and night, and towards the end of the year we spent most of our time in the basement,” Meschery recalled. “At night you could look up and see the search lights crisscrossing the sky and you could see the planes. Every time there was a hit, we could see parachutes falling down . . . we could see the guns being fired up into the air.”
Looking back on how the war shaped their lives, Ann Meschery said it had a profound impact.
“I think by witnessing the actual bombing of Tokyo we both understood the realities of war at a very young age. And seeing the results of war, the people with flesh burnt beyond recognition and wandering around a burning city during the incendiary bombing of Tokyo armed us with a certain toughness, even as children,” she revealed. “I think this early toughness shaped his attitude toward everything he later did. I know it certainly did shape my own life. For me, seeing the ravages of war has made me a lifelong pacifist. . . .
“As far as his writing and his love of teaching, it probably came from the stellar start-up education we received in the camp. Our fellow internees were Catholic nuns and Protestant missionaries, all of whom were teachers. So we had private tutors in all the various subjects we learned. When we arrived in the U.S. we were already reading and writing at an advanced level vs. the other kids in our classes. But maybe his writing talent comes, not from any wartime experience, but is in the DNA. After all, we have Tolstoy blood in our veins.”
The war presented plenty of confusion for the young Meschery. In his mind, there were no clear-cut good guys and bad guys. After all, as he pointed out in our conversation, he and his family felt they were treated quite well by the Japanese guards.
“I remember feeling very torn because here were the Americans,” he said. “My mother talked to us about America and that’s where we were going to go. But at the same time, it was the Americans about to kill us, so we were trying to figure out who were the bad guys here.”
Meschery acknowledged that he hasn’t studied WWII extensively through books, documentaries and other means.
He said he didn’t meet other war camp survivors in the United States after his family arrived in California. But he became acquainted with a number of Japanese-Americans who spent time in U.S.-run internment camps during the war, including his boyhood best friend Magnus Nagase, who played basketball with him in elementary school “all the time . . . every day.”
The Nagase family was interned at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California during WWII.
Nagase and Meschery both graduated from Lowell High in June 1957.
At St. Mary’s, where Meschery received a basketball scholarship, he met Dr. Ted Tsukahara, now the director of the school’s John F. Henning Institute and a former student sportswriter who covered the Gaels basketball games. The Tsukaharas were sent to a Utah concentration camp, Meschery said.
“Neither one of us had a great experience, I’m sure,” said Meschery, who recently dined with Tsukahara. “But looking back on it, it’s interesting. The Japanese concentration camps in the United States I think was just craziness. But I can understand why we were in a concentration camp; I can’t understand why the Japanese in America were in concentration camps, particularly since a whole bunch of them (the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team) went over to Europe and won the (Congressional) Medal of Honor fighting the Nazis. The nisei were great Americans.”