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North Korea’s nuclear threat brings back memories of a cold seat after typhoon Ida

A collage of headlines from New Orleans and other Louisiana newspapers shows a local Gulf Coast interest in Typhoon Ida, a storm that struck Japan in September 1958.
A collage of headlines from New Orleans and other Louisiana newspapers shows a local Gulf Coast interest in Typhoon Ida, a storm that struck Japan in September 1958. Illustration by Kat Bergeron

When bully North Korea launched a “test” missile over Japan on Aug. 28, residents of the Japanese islands were advised to take shelter. Public alarms blared their scary air raid beat, reminiscent of World War II.

Once, I heard those alarms myself.

As I listened to missile reports from Japan with the modern alarms blaring in the background, a long-lost memory surfaced. The year was 1958. I was 8 years old. And I lived in Japan.

The culprit, however, was not a missile. It was Ida. An angry, angry Ida.

She killed nearly 1,300 and injured at least that many more in her 14-hour rampage up the northern half of Honshu, the Japanese mainland.

Ida was a typhoon, the Pacific version of a hurricane. She’s sometimes called Kanogawa Typhoon, named for the hardest hit prefecture and to separate her from 17 other storms using the Ida ID.

When a Hurricane Hunter deployed a dropsonde, the instrument recorded a barometric pressure of 877 millibars, making this Ida one of the strongest tropical cyclones then and still on record. Ida appears stronger than Hurricane Irma, which was bearing down on Florida as I wrote this.

Ida was definitely stronger than Hurricane Harvey of three weeks ago, although Harvey and Ida have extraordinary rainfall and flooding in common. But this isn’t about who is the biggest, baddest storm because, with two more following closely on the heels of Irma, we’re in danger of storm overload.

Bring on the storm trackers

I wondered how to justify writing about a Japanese childhood memory for Coast readers, but then I realized, “Of course, the Hurricane Hunters!” Those brave men and women who fly into the eye of storms now home-port at Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base.

It doesn’t matter that they weren’t flying out of the Mississippi Coast in 1958; the link is strong. Back then, the Hurricane Hunters were a nomadic flight squadron from assorted bases across the globe.

The seed for their existence sprouted in World War II when Lt. Col. Joe Duckworth flew an AT-6 single-engine training craft into the eye of a hurricane bearing down on the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Duckworth was an instructor in the newfangled instrument flying technique, and he wanted to prove that technique could take a plane through a storm.

Because of threats of spies and German submarine U-boats, news blackouts had prevented mass distribution of weather information so the Galveston area was caught unaware of the ’43 hurricane. Duckworth and his brave navigator, Lt. Ralph O’Hair, proved it could be done and the storm information gathered in these pre-radar, pre-satellite imagery days proved invaluable.

The Hunters became our own in 1972 when the Power’s That Be decided, after Hurricane Camille flattened our coastline, that the weather recon squadron needed to be permanently on the Gulf.

With that justification out of the way, here’s the rest of my story.

It’s a wonderful life

As monster Ida bore down on Japan, I was the youngest of three children and unbeknownst to us, a fourth was on the way. We were stationed at Atsugi Naval Air Station, 25 miles from Tokoyo.

Our father was a special weapons officer, and a lot of top secret stuff happened at Atsugi during the Cold War. As an adult storm veteran I realize that much was done to secure the weapons as Ida approached but I remember nothing of that. I was bathed in the innocence of youth and didn’t even know what a typhoon was.

We lived in base housing, whiling away non-school hours with other military brats. Sometimes we’d stand at the line that separated us from the Japanese world, trying out our Japanese language lessons with our counterparts on the other side of the fence. They’d try out their English.

Whoever thought that one day we’d share the same bomb shelter?

On Sept. 25 a bunch of us were playing outside when a speaker truck turned on to our street. The exact words are gone from memory, but the authoritative voice warned of an approaching storm and gave advice on what to take to the mandatory evacuation site.

As the truck turned the corner to leave, I heard, “Hi, Kathleen!” It was Dad, the man behind the voice. The memory still warms my heart.

Which is my seat?

The other prominent memory chills my tush.

Everyone on base was required to evacuate to an old bomb shelter, where we were joined by Japanese who lived nearby, some of the same people we saw on the other side of the fence.

The shelter was built underground in World War II and used by the Japanese to hide themselves and sometimes planes. Japanese wartime graffiti still marked the walls. The shelter’s new peacetime role did little to make it a welcoming place, but for an 8-year-old who loved Alice, it was definitely “Curiouser and curiouser.”

In my memory it is a dark, huge, carved-out rock cavern. My family was assigned a small rock dug-out, and we were joined by three Japanese women. Likely thousands shared the cavern so after a few hours, the air turned stuffy and smelly with humanity.

What I remember most is the community latrine, a long, narrow slab of rock with a row of six or so holes as the toilets. Men and women had separate latrines but there was still no hint of privacy when answering the call of nature. You just picked a hole and did your business — with everyone else.

For an 8-year-old American, it was an amazing, eye-opening experience. And can’t you guess? The rock seat was ice cold.

Thanks, North Korea, for the memories.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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