By: Chaplain Martin M. Perley, USA.
From the first days of the Ryukus invasion, to early in 1946, when it was abandoned by the military, I was the only Jewish chaplain on the island of Ie Shima. As the closest point to Japan at the end of the war in the Pacific, we had special reason to rejoice that Shabbat eve when our services were suddenly interrupted by a wild shooting from anti-aircraft guns around us. Our initial reaction was one of surprise because there had been no air raid warning, but we soon learned what all the shooting was about: first word had been received that Japan was ready to discuss surrender terms.
Two days later a Japanese Betty Bomber landed on our air strip; it carried the Japanese representatives who were going to Manila to receive General MacArthur’s surrender terms. One had a sense of being a witness to history in the making as he watched the transfer of the frightened-looking Japanese emissaries to one of our planes for our completion of their trip to Manila.
On Sunday, September 2, General MacArthur received Japan’s surrender aboard the battleship Missouri. The following Friday evening was Rosh Hashanah and we had over 1,000 men and two nurses at our outdoor services on the tiny island. On Saturday all of them returned to pray together under the roasting sun. Saturday night, at our services ushering in the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we had an unusual guest, a “Displaced Goat.” He resisted all attempts to shoo him away; no sooner was he pushed away from one side of the assembly, then he would show up on the other side. Finally, he strolled up to the platform and took up a stand between the cantor and myself. At this point, one man took him firmly by the horns and convinced him in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome. As for the men, they were so accustomed to expecting anything to happen at the services that they paid almost no attention to the incident.
But the Yom Kippur services 10 days later involved an incident that could not be ignored. Once again I had planned open-air services. During the week I had been able to get a sufficient number of prayer books from Okinawa, a commodity which we had sorely missed on Rosh Hashanah. I thought everything was set, but I didn’t reckon with the typhoons that hit this area periodically. On Saturday afternoon the gentle breezes started to become somewhat stronger; I thought to myself that we would have some air conditioning to counteract the heat of the sun during our all-day services.
By Sunday morning the winds had increased in intensity and typhoon warnings were posted. Then the rains came and the winds reached a velocity of close to 100 miles an hour. As the storm raged through the afternoon, it became apparent even to an optimist like myself that it would be impossible to hold outdoor services. Every organization was informed by wire that services for Jewish personnel would be held in the Island Command Chapel tent.
As the hour of Kol Nidrei neared, the storm was reaching its peak. The instrument measuring the wind velocity broke down when it hit 132 miles per hour. But despite this, close to 100 men braved the typhoon to attend the service. We had two Coleman lanterns on the altar. The congregation, covered with ponchos, huddled as close to the altar as possible. The wind and rain swept through the open tent, and with each gust everyone looked apprehensively at the tottering frame, fearful that at any moment the entire tent would come falling down. But we were able to conclude the eerie service.
The storm raged through the night. When I arose from a sleepless night at 6 o’clock the following morning, I found to my dismay that among the many tents which had been leveled by the storm were not only the chapel, but our office tent and my own humble abode. (Fortunately, I had the foresight not to spend the night in it and instead slept in the sturdier tent which had been vacated by the chief of staff th previous day.)
My congregation started to gather at 8 AM, only to be greeted by this picture of grim desolation. But services had to be held. It so happened that about a quarter of a mile from where our chapel stood were some partially completed quonsets. I commandeered one of them, and we were able to hold our Day of Atonement services.
There were some tense moments when I thought that even the improvised chapel was going to fail us, but fortunately the building stayed standing in its precarious position for the remainder of the day. There was no lavish break-the-fast meal that evening. The storm had destroyed all the food stores on the island and we had to content ourselves with K rations. I think all of us were spiritually stronger that night, however, after a day on which prayer was much more than a colorful abstract collection of words.
Excerpt taken from Rabbis in Uniform.