MacArthur and Me Featured

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MacArthur and Me

I once met United States General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. I had seen him before, from a distance, when he was driving in and out of the gate of his big white house in Tokyo, or when he strode up the steps of the Dai-Ichi Building and disappeared inside those large heavy doors to his headquarters during the occupation of Japan after World War II. But this was the only time I met him face-to-face.

It was late one afternoon, about five o’clock, and I had just arrived downtown at the Dai-Ichi Building, where I was going to meet my father. He worked there on the fifth floor — one floor down from Gen. MacArthur’s office. I had stayed late after school to go to a cub-scout meeting, and one of the scout leaders had driven me downtown to my father’s office building. From there, my father would drive me home.

It was the fall of 1950 and I was eight at the time, in the fourth grade at school. As I walked into the Dai-Ichi Building, wearing my cub scout uniform, I remember feeling very small. The lobby of that building had a black marble floor and gray marble walls that seemed to rise up one hundred feet or more. It was a huge lobby, and the ceiling was far, far above the floor. Every time I walked into that building I felt like an ant.

Since I had already visited my father’s office several times before, I guess the guards or MPs (military police officers) must have recognized me that day. Or maybe they just thought that a little kid like me was not going to bomb the place or kill anybody, because they just waved me in without stopping me the way they stopped everybody else. They just looked down at me and waved me toward the elevators. Every time I looked up at those MPs, I remember wondering if they were really human beings or whether they were mechanical robots. If I could have seen their faces, I would have known they were human. But I couldn’t really see their faces, because the visor of their military hats stuck out so far in front of their foreheads and cast a shadow over their faces. All I could see was shining, blue eyes staring down at me as though they were small flashlights. Those MPs all looked the same. They were perfect, all dressed alike in really sharp blue and white uniforms. Their black boots were polished as shiny as mirrors—so shiny that I could see myself reflected in them. They held rifles pointing upward in their left hands. If there were two of them at the entrance, they both looked identical to each other. Sometimes there were four of them, and they all looked identical, too. Later, I learned they were U.S. Marines. People said that was why they all stood so straight and stiff and acted like machines. Because they were Marines.

After passing the MPs at the entrance, I walked slowly across that large, marble room toward the five or six elevators that were lined up along one wall. I remember hearing my sneakers squeaking on the marble floor. I wondered if my squeaking sneakers were leaving marks on the shiny marble floor, imprints of the design on the rubber soles of my sneakers. But I didn’t look down and I didn’t look back. I thought I’d get into trouble because the squeaking shoes were breaking the silence of that huge room, and if they were leaving rubber marks on the marble, then I’d get into even worse trouble. I just wanted to get out of that scary place fast! I knew I shouldn’t run, so I walked as fast as I could toward the elevators that were far across the lobby. Even walking as fast as I could, it felt like it took forever for me to squeak my way across the room and step inside the one elevator that had its doors open waiting for me.

The moment I pushed the button for the fifth floor, I heard a shout: “Hold that elevator!” “Hold that elevator!” the powerful voice rang out a second time, echoing through the huge marble lobby. I was the only one in the elevator and didn’t know what to do. How was I supposed to hold the elevator after I had pushed the button for the fifth floor?

“Yes, sir!” boomed another voice, echoing from much closer to where I stood inside the elevator. I heard them, but didn’t know the source of either voice. “I’ve got it, sir,” came the second voice, and at that moment I saw a white-gloved hand and a blue-sleeved arm curl around the door of the elevator. And then, moving so fast that I was almost not aware of it, a flash of tan khaki color filled the elevator and its doors slid silently but firmly closed. I was no longer alone in that small mechanical box. I crouched in a corner afraid to look up at the huge khaki monster that seemed to consume the entire space and all the air in that small elevator. A moment ago, it had seemed empty, with only me pressing my back against the wall. Now, suddenly it felt crowded. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large khaki-clad arm move forward and a gnarled finger point at the elevator button marked “6” and push it. As the box began to move slowly upward, my stomach rose up into my throat.

My eyes stayed down, peeking fearfully away from my own sneakers to the right, where again I saw my face reflected in highly polished black shoes. My face looked tiny and very far away.

“Well!” I heard a raspy, deep voice growl. “Who are you?” Whom could that voice be talking to? I wondered in terror and then tried to look to see if a third body had boarded the elevator. Maybe that’s why it suddenly felt so crowded? I peeked fearfully around; my eyes still cast downward. No, there were only two pairs of shoes: my own scuffed sneakers and those shiny black ones with my terrified face looking back at me. “Me, sir?” my high-pitched voice squeaked and cracked.

“Yes, you. Who are you?” came the fearsome growl.

I forced my eyes to look upward, following the line of sharply pressed khaki trousers, up across a belt and further along a loose-fitting khaki shirt that was open at the collar. My neck twisted to the right as I forced my eyes up even higher, absorbing a sharply jutting chin line, an odd yellow pipe, and a sharply pointed nose above it.

“I’m Peter, sir,” I squeaked, feeling at that moment that I was the doomed hero of a terrifying fairy tale, locked in a cave with a fire-breathing dragon or an ogre. When I looked up, I saw myself again, reflected for a moment in the shiny dark aviator sunglasses that were perched above that nose that looked like a falcon’s beak. At the same moment, the creature’s arm swung up and pulled off those sunglasses, and my soul felt impaled on the sharp bolts of lightning that flashed from its pale, piercing eyes. “My name is Peter, sir” I repeated as if my words might shield me from those eyes.

“Well, Master Peter, what are you doing here?” It sounded like an accusation, and across my consciousness flashed the thought that maybe I needed to get a permit from those MPs downstairs.

“I’ll go down again, if I shouldn’t be here, sir,” I gasped.

“No, no, Master Peter. No need for that. But why are you here?” he growled again.

“To meet my father, sir,” I mumbled, trying to push my back right into the elevator’s wall, so that maybe I’d fall backwards into the elevator shaft and escape that way from the ogre’s gaze.

“Your father, eh? And he’s on the fifth floor?”

“Yes, sir.” I knew at that moment that I had implicated my father, too, and together we would be handcuffed by those MPs and hauled off to be court-martialed or tortured.

“He’s a civilian, sir,” I blurted out that magic word “civilian,” thinking that maybe that would rescue my poor father from execution by firing squad, since he wasn’t really in the Army. Maybe “civilian” would save him...and me with him since I was a “junior civilian.”

“A civilian officer, is he?” barked the ogre. Then I knew that even “civilian” would not save us.

“Yes, sir,” I mumbled trying to look up again into those piercing eyes, but feeling a sharp pain in my neck as I twisted it upward. Those eyes raked up and down over me from my head down to my toes and then back up to my face. I knew I couldn’t disguise the terror in my eyes or the trembling of my lips.

“Well, Master Peter, are you a good scout?” This time I couldn’t be sure if the bark was a question or another accusation.

“Yes, sir. I got another merit badge today.”

“That’s good. Very good.” The growl began to soften slightly. At that moment, we reached the fifth floor, and the elevator doors slid silently open. What was I supposed to do now?

“May I go now, sir?” my little voice squeaked out in terror.

“Of course, Master Peter. This is the fifth floor, and your father is waiting for you. Dismissed!” The first phrases were almost gentle, but that last “dismissed!” was a curt, sharp bark.”

“Thank you, sir,” I squeaked and stumbled backward out the elevator doors. Did I lamely try to salute? I can’t remember, but I probably did. I’m sure I thought that a proper salute from me was the only way to be released from the elevator onto the fifth floor. I stood there, mesmerized, staring back up at that sharp, rugged face. The elevator doors slid shut, and I remained standing with trembling knees, staring at a sheet of steel.

In that final split-second before the elevator doors closed, did I really detect a softening in those pale, metallic eyes? His gaze continued to burn through my consciousness like a laser. But yes, there was a gentle softening in it. A softening, and perhaps even a hint of admiration for the terrified little boy standing in front of him.

It must have been my scout uniform. Instinctively, I knew he liked uniforms.

Little did I know on that fall evening in September or October of 1950 that Gen. MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, was locked in a unique battle with his own commander, President Harry S. Truman, over his conduct of the Korean War. MacArthur was arguing to extend the war into China, but President Truman, together with nearly all other American military leaders, was insisting that he stay within the boundaries of Korea, knowing that war with China might turn quickly into World War III and unleash unpredictable nuclear forces. Truman and MacArthur were engaging in a tug-of-war with potentially terrifying global consequences. Throughout that fall and winter, arguments, accusations, and counter-accusations flew back and forth between Tokyo and Washington, and finally – on April 9, 1951 – Truman fired the General, relieved him of his command, and summoned him permanently back to the U.S. It was a fateful period in world history. But how could I – a boy of eight – have known anything of that? What I did know, first-hand, was the charisma and overwhelming power of MacArthur’s personality, his dramatic use of language, and his extraordinary sense of timing.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Peter Grilli

Peter Grilli is Senior Advisor and former President of the Japan Society of Boston and a well-known specialist on Japanese history and culture. Raised in Japan for most of his childhood,he earned B. and  M. degrees in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, and also studied at Waseda University and University of Tokyo in Japan. He was director of film, education, and performing arts at the Japan Society of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and later headed the Japan Project for PBS. From 1996 to 2000, he was director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. He has written extensively on Japan, and as a documentary filmmaker he wrote or co-produced several films.

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