Shared Stories: My War Story in Manchuria

Nobuyo Avery’s father was a Japanese businessman who settled with his family in Manchuria in 1932. Nobuyo and her siblings have many pleasant childhood memories, until war came, bringing air-raid sirens and night bombings. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Nobuyo Avery

It was scorching hot and no breeze in Shenyang, Manchuria, in June, July and August. That’s where my family lived from 1932 to 1946. Shenyang was the southern city of Manchuria, below Siberia.

When the burning sun heated up the asphalt in front of the apartment houses, people looked for shady areas to walk. There was neither air conditioner, electric fan, nor refrigerator. Our family used to buy a large block of ice to keep in the house and made crushed ice to eat if we needed to. Oh yes, it kept the food cold, especially watermelons!

Our parents bought for us the monthly passes to the swimming pool in the park. Five of us brothers and sisters walked with two next-door friends to the pool that was 30 minutes from the house.

For many years we took lunch and spent all day until closing time during the summer. Our oldest sister was not much older than 10, but she was the responsible babysitter and we obeyed her. Swimming and eating ice candy (also called ice-bar) were the best ways to cool off in those hot days.

Our father purchased a small camera, about the size of a child’s palm. Although it was tiny, it took clear, beautiful black and white pictures. There were no colored photos in those days. We took many pictures around the house of each other and our friends.

To our regret, we lost all of those pictures and others with precious memories when we had to leave Manchuria that was Japanese territory until the end of the war. The continent belongs to China now.

One snapshot I recall is the picture of me sitting at the entrance of our family’s air-raid shelter. During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, each family had to dig an adequate sized shelter in the back yard to hide in and keep safe during the time of enemy air-raid attacks. It was an uneasy feeling to sit inside there when the air-raid alarm came and to hear the loud enemy planes in the dark sky, usually at night hours.

I heard that in Tokyo there were 300 B29s covering the sky at one time and they began dropping the bombs. I did not know this until years later. The capital of Japan turned into an opened, burned field. I never saw that many in Shenyang, but the air-raids were frightening.
Two months before the end of the war we moved to a larger house temporarily. (I say temporarily because we had to move back to the old apartment house in August. I hope to write about that incident another time.)

The owner of the house must have foreseen the future outcome of the war, and had returned to Japan and asked us to be in charge of the building, an empty pharmacy store with residential areas.  

There were many rooms that we dreamed to have all those years, and one large room upstairs had a ping pong table. We had a lot of fun playing ping pong that summer.

Another advantage of the house was a large basement so cool in summer and large enough to be an air-raid shelter for more than a family of seven.  

One night the dreadful, loud alarm came while we were fast asleep. Quickly dressing in the comfortable clothes we had prepared by our bedsides, and protecting our heads with cotton bonnets, we had to run to the basement in the dark.

As I was going to stand, I realized that there was no strength in either my hips or legs. I could not stand up. I could barely crawl like a baby. I was paralyzed with terror.  

My older sister was yelling, “What’s the matter with you? You should run! Hurry!”

“I cannot stand up,” I cried.

With hands and knees, I was able to reach the basement shelter where everyone was waiting. What a relief! My legs were fine after the fear left my mind. As the war approached the end, we had more frequent frightening sirens. No serious destruction, however, where we lived in Hoten, Manchuria.

As World War II ended, the Chinese entered Manchuria and took control. The Chinese authorities warned us not to take any pictures or cameras when they asked us to return to Japan. Our precious items were left behind in the old house with the rest of the furniture, clothes and many other belongings, except for the few things that we could carry in a rucksack, when we departed from the dear old home place in July 1946.