Japan at the end of WWII Is Just One Part of Blanche Perry’s Active Life
When Blanche Perry moved to Carlton Pleasant Hill-Martinez from Carlton Concord last December, she already had friends here. But along with her belongings, she also brought her life story with her. One of the most interesting chapters covers February 1950 to February 1952 which she spent in Occupied Japan as the wife of an Army Air Force rear gunner assigned to the crew of the two airplanes used by five-star General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. occupation of Japan at the end of World War II.
When asked if she ever met the aloof General of the Armies, the answer is in the headline above. But she did meet MacArthur’s wife “who was a real lady and always gracious.” However, that was only one of many great experiences the then 25-year-old military wife and mother had in a land she grew to love and regretted having to leave.
Blanche was born in 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri to Jose and Rosa Loya who had immigrated from Mexico for a better life a few years earlier. Mr. Loya worked in the hotel industry and Mrs. Loya was a housewife raising their 3 children to speak only English in the home as was common with immigrants in those days. When their comfortable middle-class life ended abruptly in 1930 with the onset of the Great Depression, life changed radically. Mr. Loya lost his job and the strain destroyed the Loya marriage. When Blanche was 5, her mother and the children moved to El Paso to live with her grandparents. Since the couple only spoke Spanish, Blanche picked up the new language fast as some people do, especially when they are younger. However, when she went to school, other students made fun of her for speaking “Spanish like a gringa.” Even then at age 6, she didn’t wilt from the teasing. Instead, “I decided I would learn it better than them.”
Not only that but she would learn the culture, the music and dancing and use that knowledge in every aspect of her later life. Since the rumba, samba and conga were all the rage in the early 1950s, while in Japan she taught the steps to the Spanish-speaking American soldiers with whom she helped found a Spanish club that sponsored dinner-dances for the GIs and their wives or dates. She still laughs about the French ballerina who gave her ballroom dancing lessons in preparation for teaching the GIs. Observing Blanche’s ballroom dancing technique, the ballerina noted drily that “the steps are right, but you dance like a peasant.” As Blanche had used her classmates’ teasing as a spur years before, she laughed and succeeded doing something the French dancer probably couldn’t do, teaching Mexican folk dancing to the soldiers and their wives and girlfriends.
When Blanche turned 13, the family moved to Los Angeles where they lived in Inglewood with an aunt and uncle. The uncle was a printer at a Spanish language newspaper that he brought home each day for Blanche to read so they could discuss the contents at dinner. Taking secretarial and language classes at Manual Arts High School, her abilities in the classes led to her teaching one class a week in her senior year so the credentialed teacher could attend a meeting.
At 16, Blanche was hired as a telephone operator by AT&T’s California operation, Pacific Bell, earning enough money to support her mother, her brother and two sisters. In Blanche’s first assignment as an operator, the supervising Chief Operator became the first of a number of AT&T mentors over the years to see and encourage her abilities. “That’s how I, over the next 17 years, worked off and on for the company” that saw her skills and made sure she had many opportunities to expand them beyond just saying “Number, please…”
America’s participation in World War II was 1 ½ years old when Blanche graduated from high school in 1943. She recalls a report of a Japanese plane allegedly shot down over Inglewood in 1942. “We were sent home from school and kids found airplane parts. It was very hush, hush.” She also met Alex Aguilar, in the Army Air Force, whom she married in early 1945 just before he was assigned to the India-Burma-Chinese Theatre to serve as a rear gunner under General Claire Chennault, famous commander of the US Army Air Force Flying Tigers air group. When the war ended in August 1945, Alex returned home as a staff sergeant and was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. Blanche and the children lived in Vallejo until early 1950 when Alex was assigned to Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur’s flight crew in Tokyo. In February 1950, Blanche packed up their two children, Harold, 2 ½, and Rita, 1, and boarded the USS Darby for an uneventful 11-day voyage across the Pacific to a completely different experience than she had ever had before or since.
Moving to a two-bedroom home in a little town outside the city where other US service families lived, the family was assigned a housekeeper, Kiyoko, and a nursemaid, Keiko, for the children. “Kiyoko was not only my housekeeper but also my companion and friend,” Blanche recalls. “She did the shopping, and cooked Japanese meals as well as housekeeping. She and I also went sightseeing, shopping on the Ginza, (Tokyo’s famous high-end shopping area), visited Buddhist temples and went to the theatre.”
They saw several operas including “The Mikado” and “Madam Butterfly” but the one Blanche remembers most was a production of “Carmen.” “I had seen ‘Carmen’ in the States,” she recalls. “The Opera Company was made up of singers from different backgrounds, but when they started singing Carmen in three different languages, Spanish, Italian and Japanese, at least I knew Spanish, and enough Italian to follow the story. Both Kiyoko and Blanche found the tri-lingual production hilarious although beautifully staged with beautiful music.
The nursemaid, Keiko, was 17 or 18 years old and the Aguilars were the first American family she worked for. “The children loved her.” As was the Japanese custom, Keiko slept on a futon on the floor in the nursery.
Because her husband was busy on duty at the airbase, Blanche soon took on lots of volunteer work helping the troops with Latin-American backgrounds and their families. Besides teaching ballroom dancing to the soldiers and helping organize the dinner parties, she listened quietly whenever the young men she calls to this day, ‘the boys,’ showed her pictures of their families or talked about their often harrowing experiences in combat.
“I also volunteered at the Tokyo General Hospital in the day room where I visited GIs of Latin-American heritage who had been injured.” Depending on their injuries, she would read the letters from their families written in Spanish and take down their dictated replies to send home. While at the hospital, she was selected as one of the volunteers to go into the psychiatric ward where the non-violent patients were. “Some were comatose and sat in their beds like statues while I went from bed to bed smiling and talking to them to try to get a response. But I never did,” she says sadly.
Then she would go to a long table where all those who could walk and talk sat. “I would go to each one and offer them cake or pie on paper plates with no forks or spoons. One of the men had a toy dog. He would always ask me for a piece of cake or pie for the dog also so I would talk to the patient and the dog and give them both their treats.”
When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, the military wives in Tokyo were asked to take over some of the jobs on the base so “the boys could be sent to Korea.” Blanche’s job was to organize and dispatch busses into Tokyo for the use of base civilians and military.
One nerve-wracking time came when General MacArthur and the whole Far East Command of senior officers and aides flew to Korea on a reconnaissance mission. On the General’s airplane, “The Bataan II,” named after the tragic battle that cost the US the Philippines not to mention many soldiers in 1942, was the general and some staff while the rest of the Command was on another airplane called the ’45. As they neared the Korean peninsula, the group was attacked by North Koreans flying Russian MIG fighters. The Bataan managed to escape with no damage. The ’45 was hit by a bullet that passed between the radio equipment and the radio operator. “But all were safe,” Blanche notes. “On the return, the radio operator called me on my landline so I could take the bus to the airbase to meet them when they arrived. My husband brought the crew back to our house for dinner, to relax, and spend the night. In the morning when I went into the living room, they were all asleep under the rug.”
It turned out that the North Koreans learned of the trip when it was leaked by a newspaper reporter who was sent back to the States as a result. From then on, families of crew members were told that when anyone asked where the husbands were, the response was to be “oh, he has duty at the base.” A man, whose real name and rank was never known to them, was assigned to be with the families whenever they were all together. Also not long after, one of the soldiers in their group was killed near the Chosin Reservoir during the American retreat in the brutal winter of 1950 when the Chinese invaded North Korea in an attempt to drive the Allies off the peninsula. Blanche was one of the wives who rallied around to support the widow during this tragic time.
This treasured part of Blanche’s life changed in April 1951, when President Truman removed General MacArthur from his command in a very controversial move at the time but which was soon proved in Senate hearings to have been in the best interests of the United States. General Matthew Ridgeway succeeded MacArthur. MacArthur and his staff were sent back to the States immediately. The crew Alex was part of remained in Tokyo until February 1952.
When February rolled around in 10 months, Blanche was sad. “I did not want to leave, but we had no choice. I loved the country and the gentle people, Lake Hakone, the Buddhist temples, the Ginza,” she recalls with regret.
“My daughter took me back to Yokohama in 2003. It wasn’t the same,” Blanche observes sadly. “Instead of lovely Japanese girls in their lovely kimonos, there were dark business suits and briefcases. We did go to a wedding in a Buddhist Temple. That was the Japan we knew. We (also) saw some of the shopping centers that were the same.”
Not long after the family returned home to Southern California from Japan in 1952, Blanche had found she was pregnant with her third child, Toni. Air Force rules did not allow an expectant wife to travel by ship. But Blanche refused to fly so as it was still early in the pregnancy, she said nothing and sailed home with the group with the other wives covering for her as she began to show by bringing her food and good cheer.
The family settled in Los Angeles where soon the marriage was failing seriously enough that the Catholic Church gave Blanche permission to divorce Alex. Once again, the telephone company flung open the employment doors for Blanche. Meanwhile, John Perry, the widower of a friend of Blanche’s whom she had known since 1946, contacted her mother letting her know of his interest in renewing contact with Blanche. The rest of the story is a happy ending.
Marrying John, Blanche moved from Los Angeles to Watsonville expecting to be hired at the local telephone office as she had during the 17 years when she worked for them sporadically in Southern California. Already informed that she’d been accepted for a position in the Watsonville office, she was stunned to find out when she arrived that there was no job for her. The office manager told her that “since she was a ‘big city girl,’ she wouldn’t like working here.” Blanche never worked for the phone company again, she says, in a tone that suggests that some well-known place freezing over first would be required for her to change her mind.
John owned a home in the town and had a job as a ‘heavy-duty mechanic’ with the Pajaro Unified School District so in 1961, she settled down as a housewife and mother with Harold, Rita, and Toni, now at or near school-age. John was a very good father to them, Blanche says. They all welcomed baby sister, Patricia, in 1963. When the little one entered kindergarten, Blanche volunteered as a classroom aide.
“They kept trying to hire me,” she says, so eventually she ended up as a paid classroom aide, the first of several jobs not to mention volunteer stints in the school district over 17 years. Because of her bilingual skills, she worked with Spanish-speaking parents because most of the instructional aides spoke limited Spanish. Then Blanche became involved with the State Department of Education when she helped the school district develop the first bilingual school support grant in California. Later she transferred to another elementary school as the attendance clerk before becoming secretary to the vice-principal. In that position, she learned the Pajaro School Board policy manual backwards and forwards to keep green vice-principals from making troublesome mistakes. Occasionally she helped with nurse duties when needed. She once held a young boy in her arms as he had six grand mal seizures while they waited for the ambulance. As anyone who has worked in a school in any capacity knows, there are countless times when emergency coverage of a classroom or opening up the building because the principal was at a conference meant that ‘somebody had to do it’ and in a small school in Watsonville, that ‘somebody’ was often Blanche. In fact, the Superintendent would tell anyone who had a problem to be solved or a project to be worked on, “to borrow Blanche.” She literally ‘paid for that’ when she retired as she was docked for a total of seven years of retirement credit because nobody told her (or the superintendent apparently) that she wouldn’t get credit for doing work that was not part of her official job description.
John decided to retire in 1983 and asked Blanche if she would also so they could travel. “It was a great retirement,” she recalls. They had a trailer they pulled through all of California and Arizona and owned property in Paradise Pines which they parked the trailer on while traveling around Northern California. They spent a month each summer in Hawaii where one of Blanche’s sisters lives with her husband, an Australian who had worked for Qantas airlines before becoming an executive with Sheraton.
Looking back, Blanche describes her life experience this way: “It takes a lot of people to help. You don’t do anything alone.
The Good Lord always has been there for me to help me avoid mistakes. He has always guided me.”
She is looking forward very much to new Carlton Pleasant Hill-Martinez resident Father Walt serving Mass each Sunday here starting June 21 as he did at Carlton Concord.
Written by Harriett Burt, Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez Resident