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Rest and Recuperation - Chris Sarno Memoir

When combatants have to endure front line conditions over an extended period of time, casualty rates and mental health problems generally tend to increase. This phenomenon was understood in World War II, and the same "cure" was introduced in the Korean War on December 31, 1950, when a formal rest and recuperation (R&R) program was established. Not all of the troops were lucky enough to get this break, which consisted of about five days free time in Japan. For various reasons, some of them didn’t even opt to take this break.

A Marine from New Jersey who was in Sarno’s squad tent talked incessantly about his recent R&R. "He was no lover to look at him," Sarno recalled. But after five days of R&R in Japan, he came back crazy in love with a Japanese beauty named Cookiesan. "The night conversation at light’s out was Cookiesan this and Cookiesan that," Sarno said. "So we always used to rag on him something fierce about Cookiesan and the Oriental Hotel." Sarno didn’t pay all that much attention to his buddy’s Japanese R&R tale. "I hadn’t come to a decision to go to Japan," he said. "I was saving my dough to buy a car when I finally got discharged. I almost had it all saved." In addition, Sarno still had a wartime mindset about Orientals—Koreans and Japanese alike. "I had no sympathy for the way they had to live," he admitted. "My mindset toward the Koreans was like mine towards the Japanese in World War II. They started the fight, and I had no respect for them. I fought the Oriental."

But now the fighting was over. All that was left was the tension caused by endless hours of edgy guard duty on the now-silent MLR, and officers who were always on the men’s case. "The officers were now on us something fierce," Sarno recalled. "They let one man do the work and sent the other four tankers out on working parties. One guy can’t do all the maintenance work on a tank. They let the driver stay and even took the tank commander and other crew men down to Regiment to do whatever the colonel wanted. That was no way to run a tank outfit. You might get away with that with grunts, but those tanks needed constant attention. We were sweating like fools. We were working like wetbacks. I finally said, ‘That’s it. I’m getting out of here. I’ll go to Japan if I have to in order to get away from this. The doldrums, the tedium, and the boredom had finally set in. Sure enough, two guys from tank company got to go on R&R." If the allotment for that month didn’t get filled, headquarters skipped the next month and nobody got to go. Sarno decided to opt for the free trip to Japan. The other company member who got to go with him was a black Corpsman whom he did not know personally.

"I wasn’t familiar with him," explained Sarno, "because I very seldom went to sick bay. They always taught us right from boot camp not to go running to the Navy for help with imaginary ills or ailments. Walk out of the damn thing, and you’ll be stronger for it. And, by God, even up to this day in my life if I have some little infirmity, I’ll walk out of it. I’ll get out of it one way or another. So I never went to the Navy looking for any help, you know. Only the time I got wounded." Once again, Sarno’s prejudice surfaced. He respected the Corpsman for being a Corpsman, and admitted that he was a good-looking black guy who spoke well, "but he was black, and I had nothing to do with any black or any other third world person when I socialized." Sarno was polite to him, but very much wanted to shake loose of his unwanted R&R companion.

The two men were sent back to Regiment, and from there took a bumpy flight to Kitami Air Station. Prior to leaving Korea, Sarno withdrew $200 from his savings in order to finance his R&R to Japan. "Most guys drew a hundred bucks," he said. "I drew two hundred, thinking that I would take extra and really enjoy myself." The tanker, still in love with Cookiesan, told him not to forget to go to the Oriental Hotel. When the flight took off for Japan, Sarno was happy, but he still had what he called a lousy attitude. He still didn’t like Orientals, but his taste was soon to change in that regard.

In contrast to Korea, which was blown to bits by three years of war, Japan was lush and verdant. Sarno arrived there in a soft summer rain. He saw rice growing strong, houses with nice tile roofs, and neatness. "Everything was orderly," he recalled. The R&R Marines arrived via a cattle truck that traveled from the airport on a two-lane highway. It was a warm July day when the truck stopped at Camp Fisher, located at the outskirts of Kyoto, a very green landscaped city that had been spared from the bombings in World War II. "It was loaded with temples and Buddhist and Shinto shrines," Sarno recalled. "The city, considered the ‘Vatican of the Empire of Japan’, was built into the side of a small, craggy mountain with green fir trees jutting out on the skyline and craggy knolls. It was very romantic-looking, and simply a beautiful city to look at and to be in, as I later found out." Camp Fisher was actually a massive Marine brig. "It was for Navy personnel and Marine malcontents who screwed up on R&R," Sarno said. "The Japs called it the ‘big monkey house.’."

Camp Fisher was the stepping stone to the exotic world that awaited American Marines and G.I.s in Japan on R&R. Sarno and the others took a refreshing shower. Then they were fitted with khaki uniforms and went to night chow. "I remember this one thing in night chow," Sarno reminisced. "Milk, ice cold milk; we hadn’t had milk, oh, for a good ten months. Everybody kept saying, ‘Pass the milk.’ We couldn’t get enough of it—just ordinary pasteurized milk. But it was real milk not that crap powdered milk that we used to choke on. We hadn’t had fat in our diet for so long that the milk tasted like a heavy milk shake. ‘Pass the milk. Pass the milk.’ It went down nice and sweet. That I remember." It was lights out after night chow. They needed their rest, because the next day would begin five days of fun and uninhibited living in Kyoto, Japan.

"The next morning," Sarno recalled, "they gave us a little pep talk before they turned us loose. The Staff Sergeant said, ‘Look it, you assholes. We’re turning you loose in a town that has 20,000 whores waiting for clowns like you. You get 360 yen for every American buck. Know the going rate when you shack up with these broads, and don’t get VD. Check these whores out for their ID card.’" In Japan, prostitution was an accepted, legitimate and lucrative business. "When I say Japanese whores," explained Sarno, "I don’t mean that they were like those dingy, rotten-looking tramps we see on our streets in the United States. Prostitutes in Japan had to have a medical ID, a picture ID, and a medical stamp. The Japanese government provided medical exams and treatment for the prostitutes once a week, and that did keep VD down to a great degree."

There was a hum in the room as military advisors warned the anticipating Marines about keeping their money and wits about them on the streets of Kyoto. "Everybody was yapping and elbowing and pushing, because we were one happy bunch," Sarno said. "We had five days and five nights to do whatever the hell we wanted to so we could get out of the chicken shit routine that was daily fare in Korea. They gave us one final warning: ‘You have five days on the government. If you behave, you’ll be coming back to go to your outfit. Otherwise, you’re going to face a summary court when you go back.’" When the lectures were over, the men were released to go their own separate ways.

Sarno, however, was not alone at first. The black Corpsman was still with him. The two of them jumped into a compact cab and headed for the R&R hotel. "Years ago, MacArthur had set up hotels for enlisted men only," Sarno explained. "No officers were allowed to stay at this hotel. It was protected by MPs stationed in the lobby, who made sure that we behaved within its walls. If you got in a jam, you were sent to the Camp Fisher brig. You’ve had it." Sarno said that the 13-story R&R Hotel was actually the Kyoto Hotel, but American service personnel generally referred to it as the R&R. "It was beautiful, beautiful," he said. "It was like being home in the States. All of the sudden, I was in the United States again, but there were Japanese girls doing all the counter work. The hotel had souvenirs that could be purchased from its curio shops to send home to loved ones in the States. They mailed packages home for you and everything for just a couple of dollars. They had a nice little thing going there." There were hundreds and hundreds of prostitutes available on the streets of Kyoto, but none were allowed to come into the R&R alone. "They had to be accompanied by an American GI or sailor," Sarno said. "Otherwise, they could not enter the hotel."

He said that the hotel staff was dressed in nice, western clothes. "It was nothing like Korea," he recalled. "I was eating it up. I liked this! The second or third floor had professional office space, and then there was a huge dining room with all white tablecloths. A long line of young, uniformed, Japanese girls were waitresses in the hotel restaurant. They also held perfunctory jobs on all floors of the hotel. They were all virginal girls, blushing and laughing and giggling. They were untouched, and we were told not to ever proposition them. ‘Don’t ever pull any fast ones. No tipping.’ If we tipped the girls, they lost their job. They were glad to have their jobs because the Japs weren’t out of their economic problems yet. They could speak good English." The R&R Hotel had an interesting system for calling waitresses to tables. "There was a little cigarette ash tray in the center of our table," Sarno recalled. "It had a small, round light fixture on the top of the cigarette disposal. When you flipped a switch, a light would go on that said, ‘Service.’ A Japanese girl dressed in white and black like a maid, would come over and take our order."

The R&R offered more luxuries on higher levels. "There was a penthouse on top of the hotel which offered dancing to the tune of a live 12-piece Japanese band," Sarno said. "Those kids really put their hearts into the songs. They played the same type of Glenn Miller music available on the dance hall on another floor of the hotel, and they were good. You could look over the railing and see the whole city of Kyoto at night—all the different colored lights. All of the food cooking on the outside stalls throughout the city, as well as in the homes, wafted up into the night air. It was really exotic and romantic. You couldn’t put a price on it—this atmosphere that we absorbed. You could dance under the stars to a nice band on a big dance floor. Everybody behaved. You could wear civvies or a uniform, and the prices were inexpensive. Light sandwiches and liquor were available there. I said to myself, ‘Hey, I like this. This is going to be where I’m going to eat and where my nightly entertainment is going to be.’" He based this decision on not only the penthouse ballroom that he saw at the top of the R&R Hotel, but also on the other luxuries offered in the hotel.

On the tenth floor, they had another ballroom set up for dancing. There was a big orchestra that played Glenn Miller music. "It was made up of about 15 Japanese boys," Sarno recalled, "and they were pretty good—almost as good as Miller. Perhaps they were a little tinny, but they were good. The dance floor was spacious. You could get brandy alexanders for 50 cents and beer for 10 cents. You could get a thick, filet mignon and all the trimmings for $1.35. This was in mid-July, 1954. The buck was powerful." Sarno indeed loved what he saw at the R&R Hotel. But although he decided that that it was where he wanted to eat and be entertained, he didn’t want to sleep in its USO facility, where servicemen could pay 50 cents for a cot. "I’d been on a cot all my life in the Marine Corps," Sarno said. "I had dough, so I decided not to be Spartan about spending it on a place to stay. I decided to go to the Oriental Hotel, a Japanese-style hotel." At the curb outside of the hotel, Sarno flagged down a cab, and told the Corpsman that he would see him in five days. With the Corpsman standing alone outside of the R&R, Sarno told the cab driver to head for the Oriental Hotel.

Because of the language barrier, Sarno wasn’t sure that the cab driver was actually taking him to the Oriental Hotel. He waved the driver to the side of the street and asked the first girl that he saw to give the cabby instructions to take him to the Oriental Hotel. When Sarno slipped the girl 1500 yen, she asked him if he wanted to stay with her. But Sarno was focused on just one thing—getting to the Oriental Hotel. A ten-minute taxi cab ride took him to a verdant and quiet part of town. "When I got to the Oriental Hotel," he said, "there was an older fellow up on the top step, nattily dressed like a businessman. His name was Mr. Lee, and he owned the hotel. The cab left and I introduced myself. I told him that I was on R&R, and he suggested that we go inside and talk business." Inside, Sarno found Polynesian decor—booths and thatched roofs in a nightclub setting, bamboo and all kinds of teakwood. In spite of the Polynesian decor, it was still very much Japanese. There was a small dance floor, and Glenn Miller music was wafting through the air from a radio. Sarno and Mr. Lee sat down in a cushioned bamboo booth, and began to negotiate prices.

Talking with the hotel owner, Sarno discovered that a five-night stay at the Oriental was $25.00. "I had money in every pocket," Sarno said. The Japanese yen was a much bigger, coarser slip of paper than an American bill. Sarno said that if water spilled on it, it would suck it up like an ink blotter. "It was so large, I couldn’t fold it up in my wallet. I had money bulging out of every pocket, so twenty-five bucks was nothing. I had money coming out of my ears" He then asked Mr. Lee how much more it would cost for a girl. Lee told Sarno that getting a girl was no problem, as the Oriental Hotel had a huge selection of them. But the price went up to $50.00, excluding food and liquor. Sarno agreed to the price.

The search for the right girl began with a free drink from the bar. When Sarno asked the clean-as-a-whistle hotel owner for a brandy alexander, the Japanese man was unfamiliar with it. But he was in the business to please his customers, so having obtained the ingredients from Sarno, he had the bartender make one. "When a waiter in a white and blue uniform brought it over, it was as good as any I had ever tasted," Sarno commented. With drink in hand, he and his Japanese host went in search of the perfect room. "There was a matted runway," Sarno recalled, "and we were in stocking feet because we left our shoes at the front step. Everything was bamboo or wood, and there were big glass panels—pretty modern for 1954. You could see a huge oriental garden on the other side of sliding glass verandah panels. There were bonsai plants and rocks, and gardeners were puttering around. There was also a big fish pool with rock bridges and stepping stones. Carp were swimming in the pool."

Sarno rejected the first vacant room Mr. Lee showed him. "Right next door were two sailors with Japanese girls, and they were sort of loud," he said. "I didn’t want to be around a couple of swabbies." Mr. Lee told him that not too many Marines stayed at the hotel, but there was a quiet room at the end of the hall that overlooked the garden. It was a good-sized, squared away room, about two sizes bigger than the average American bedroom, with drapes across a window that overlooked the garden. For the next few days, this would be his home in the Orient.

Once settled in the room, the Japanese owner told him that he would bring an assortment of Japanese girls in one by one so that Sarno could choose his ‘business girl’. "Holy shit," Sarno said. "This was all new to me, and I was kind of embarrassed." But Mr. Lee told him to relax, because that’s how they did business in Japan. "I felt awkward because I had never done such a thing before," Sarno admitted. Yes, he had made the occasional trip to prostitutes in Seoul from January to June of that year, but sex was still relatively new to him. "I felt socially awkward with my staid, regimental Catholic rearing…but going through a vicious war and being in a devastated Korea made one live for the moment and grab all that life offered, regardless of the consequences. I wanted this atmosphere to happen and last as long as it could. I might die tomorrow, so I wanted to live like I never did before." One by one he rejected six girls. They left the room with a bow and a ‘gomennasi’—which meant, ‘I’m sorry.’ "I was not really picayune," Sarno said, "but for some reason I was at that moment in the Oriental Hotel. None of the girls that Mr. Lee brought before me appealed to me." The hotel owner seemed to understand his American client’s dilemma, so he told him to wait while he made a phone call. Sarno said that he would get squared away and prepare to take a shower. "It was hot and there was no air conditioning," he recalled. "They only had a ceiling fan." Sarno got his gear in place and waited anxiously for the hotel owner to return.


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