Tsunehiro Tomoda

Surviving two wars

4.In the Middle of the Korean War

The Korean War

After WWII, by the agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel and controlled by two countries—north of the 38th Parallel by the Soviet Union and south by the U.S. On August 15, 1948, with the support of the U.S., the Republic of Korea was established in the south, and on September 9, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the north. North Korea was aggressive to unite the peninsula by force, and on June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army suddenly crossed the 38th Parallel, attacking South Korea, and the Korean War broke out. Because they were not prepared for the sudden invasion, the South Korean Army and the U.S. Occupation troops could not do anything but flee. Within two days, the North Korean troops quickly proceeded to the outskirts of Seoul. People living north of the Hangang River, which runs east to west through Seoul, ran south in great confusion trying to flee the North Korean troops.

At dawn on June 28, the Hangang Bridge, which was the road connecting both sides of the Hangang River, was blown up without warning. I later heard that the South Korean Army blew up the bridge with dynamite to stop the North Korean troops from crossing. When the bridge was blown up, about 4,000 citizens were crossing it, and some 800 were killed. President Syngman Rhee and some government officials had already evacuated from Seoul. At that time, I was living in the Noryangjin Fish Market, which was located in a neighborhood on the south side of the bridge.

I was sleeping tucked up in my straw bag in the market when the bridge was blown up. With the roar of the detonation and the shaking of the market buildings, I woke up in surprise. In front of me, people were fleeing and rushing in a panic. They had narrowly escaped the detonation while evacuating from the north side of the river. Without knowing what was going on, I followed them in the direction of a mountain. When day broke, from the mountain I could see tens of tanks lined up below on the north side of the river. The Hangang Bridge bombing has been remembered by Korean people as the beginning of the Korean War. Seoul fell that day, and the North Korean army advanced south. A few days later, I saw the North Koreans line up rubber boats side by side on the Hangang River and put boards on them to make a temporary bridge. Not only soldiers but also tanks could cross that temporary bridge. I was astonished to see such a view. Fierce fighting took place between the remaining South Korean soldiers and the North Korean army on the streets in Seoul. I saw heavy exchanges of fire and a lot of tragic scenes. Later, in early September, the North Korean army took over the whole of South Korea except a few cities including Busan in the southern end of the peninsula.

One day, I was visiting the North Korean army’s camp with some orphan friends to beg for some food. One of the soldiers said to me, “If you come to North Korea, you will be able to have enough food and will be able to go to school. Why don’t you come with us?” I had always been struggling with hunger, so his words sounded attractive. However, my mine, noticing that those soldiers’ shoes were poor-looking, stopped me, telling not to believe such words. In fact, their rice bowls looked full of rice, but barley was laid under the top layer of rice. I wonder whether it was intended to raise the morale of the soldiers. If I had gone to the North Korea at that time, I couldn’t have returned home to Japan.

On September 15, the United Nations forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur of the U.S. Army, and South Korean forces combined under General MacArthur’s command, made an amphibious landing at Incheon, which is located in the center of the Korean peninsula, in an attempt to isolate the invading North Korean troops. The North Korean troops were trapped deep in South Korea and were attacked on both sides—on the south by the U.N. troops remaining in Busan and on the north by the U.N. troops which landed at Incheon. The North Koreans were defeated and started to flee. The U.N. and South Korean forces then crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea. On October 19, the U.N. and South Korean forces captured Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and reached the Yalu River, which runs along the Sino-Korean border. North Koreans asked China for help, and China organized the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and intervened in the Korean War, crossing the Yalu River.

On January 4, in the new year, another fierce battle took place in Seoul. In the middle of the crossfire, I barely evacuated to Suwon in the south of Seoul. On the way, when I was walking along the bank of a pond, all of sudden, an American fighter plane appeared from behind the mountain in front of me. It nose-dived very low, raking the ground with gunfire, and then zoomed up and away. I turned around and saw two North Korean soldiers floating dead in the water of the pond in front of me. I was on the bank with nowhere to take cover and so close to the plane that I could see the face of the American pilot, but he didn’t fire at me. I think it was because I was an ill-clothed child. I fled to Suwon twice when there was heavy fighting in Seoul.

One winter day, having broken my leg, I was sleeping curled up in my straw bag in the market. A U.S. soldier found me and took me to the hospital in the army base in Yeouido, where the U.S. Army was stationed. I had never had such a comfortable life since the A-bombing in Hiroshima. They washed my lousy clothes, and gave me new clothes and new shoes. I slept in a soft bed and ate until I was full. However, the treatment for my broken leg was over in a month, and after I was discharged from the hospital, I had to go back to homelessness. I still had nowhere in particular to go, so I remained in Yeouido, polishing soldiers’ shoes or helping the army’s cafeteria in order to get food during the day. Yeouido is a large island in the Hangang River in Seoul, where a military airfield was constructed during Japan’s colonial rule and where the U.S. Army was stationed after the Japan’s surrender. At night, I slept in a vacant house whose owner was gone due to the war or in front of someone’s house. The island was an intersection of three routes—water, land and air. Living in such circumstances, I was having fun in my own way with other orphan friends.

Battles continued across the 38th Parallel between the North Korean and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army and the U.N. Army and South Korean Army. With no decisive battle, the Korean War became a stalemate. Finally, on July 27, 1953, after three years of fighting, leaving the whole Korean Peninsula in total devastation, the Korean War ended when an armistice was signed. I was 17 years old.


When I was a high school student

I never told anyone that I was Japanese, even to orphan friends who lived with me helping each other on the street. In Korea, they celebrate the anniversary of independence from Japanese colony rule on August 15th. On the contrary, in Japan, it’s the day of the end of the war. Koreans are taught that Hirobumi Ito, the first prime minister of Japan, was the invader of Korea, and An Jung-geum, who assassinated Ito, is admired as a hero in Korea. Most movies were anti-Japanese.

Because many Koreans had humiliating experiences during the Japanese colonial days, people hated and despised them. When I was revealed as Japanese by chance, they called me “chokpari” or “wae nom.” “Chokpari” means“pig feet.” Because Japanese wore geta or tabi, the look of their feet made Koreans imagine pig feet. “Wae nom” is a disparaging word against Japanese, like “Jap.” They also said, “Go back to Japan!” Whenever I heard these words, I started fighting. Korean fighting is head butting, not punching, so I practiced head butting. Though I only remembered two Japanese words, “ohayo” and “sayonara,” I was always aware of being Japanese. I got angry and sad, hearing those insulting words.

When I worked at a bakery

Before the end of the Korean War, I started working as a live-in worker at a bakery. I attended evening classes at an industrial high school. But just when my life became stable, I gradually felt homesick and wanted to return to Japan. Though I went to governmental offices and Seoul City Hall many times, they gave me a pointblank refusal because there was no evidence that I was Japanese. At that time, there were no diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan. I tried hard to find Mr. Kanayama who had taken me to Korea, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know then that he had gone to North Korea. Later I heard that his family moved to his mother’s hometown in Fanhedo, not far from Seoul. However, the town was north of the 38th Parallel, and since then, they have had no opportunity to come to their brother’s family in Seoul. Remembering them with gratitude, I wonder how they are living there. I just would like to see them one more time and say thank you.

No matter how often I said I was Japanese, I couldn’t prove it. I wasn’t even able to confess to anyone that I was Japanese. I became so desperate I attempted suicide three times. The third time was when I was 20 years old. I stuck a kitchen knife into my arm at the bakery. I watched my blood spouting out, and I still have the scar. When I was lonely and sad, I always recalled my mother. I felt so sorry that I had been too young to look for my mother properly. I thought my mother might be alive and that I should return to Japan and find her, but no one recognized that I was Japanese. Having no one understand my dilemma, I almost lost my hope.

9. Scar which has been on my arm since I tried to kill myself with a kitchen knife

At that time, I bumped into Mrs. Yan Pong-nyo. I was baking bread as usual on a summer day. Because I left the window open, Mrs. Yan Pong-nyo happened to see someone who she thought resembled me and came inside. She said that she had been always worried about me because I left her house suddenly. She asked,” Why did you leave us? I’ve been worried about you!” We didn’t have enough time to talk, because I was working. Moreover, because no one at the bakery knew I was Japanese, I hesitated to answer her question. “What time will you finish your work today?” she asked and came to see me again around the finishing time. Surprisingly, she was working at a watch shop near the bakery. It was almost like a miracle in a big city like Seoul.

When I told her that I wanted to go back to Japan, she said that she would help me.  She had been educated in the days of Japanese colony, so she wrote letters in Japanese again and again to the Mayor of Hiroshima, Fukuro-machi Elementary School, and the Hiroshima police. I heard that she had written about 30 letters. She even wrote to the chief of the Tokyo police station. She enclosed a photo of what I looked like then and the map of Fukuro-machi, where our house had been located. One of the letters appeared in a major national Japanese newspaper which made a dramatic change. When my grandmother saw the photo, she claimed “That must be Tsunehiro, my grandson!” I thought that she had also died in the A-bombing. Then Hiroshima City Hall sent a copy of my family register to Seoul City Hall.

One day, three officials from Seoul City Hall came to the bakery and asked, “Is there a man called Tomoda here?” Wondering what was happening, I hesitatingly identified myself. I quit the bakery that day and waited to return to Japan in the security guard room of the City Hall. Finally, I was recognized as Japanese! The procedure of returning to Japan took one month. While waiting, I was treated as a V.I.P., and the officials took me sightseeing around Seoul.

On June 18, 1960, with the help of Hiroshima Mayor, Shinso Hamai, I returned to Japan at the age of 24. It was a perfect clear day when I got on a propeller plane to return. As I was remembering many memories of 15 years since I was taken to Seoul at nine years old, tears welled in my eyes. At the takeoff, I couldn’t see Gimpo Airport, or the officials seeing me off, because of my tears.