Rear Admiral Jack Covington, Commander US Naval Bases Japan, regarded himself in the full-length mirror brought into his office for the fitting. He considered the reflection of the Japanese tailor behind him, tape measure draped about his neck, recording his measurements.
“Very slim, sir. Strong,” the tailor said. “Will be nice fit, look smart.”
Pivoting before the mirror, the gray-haired admiral liked what he saw.
He smiled broadly–nice teeth. “Who says these people don’t know what they’re talking about, Kevin?”
Lieutenant Kevin Cole, the admiral’s aide, had watched the sartorial proceedings. “Yes, sir,” Kevin said. “Your new suit will look great.”
“I told Sammy I wanted his best man for this job,” the admiral said. His soft accent gave evidence of his Alabama forbearers. “Sammy doesn’t do any actual tailoring these days, you know?”
“Yes, sir. I guess he has too many irons in the fire.”
“You can say that again, Mr. Cole. He’s involved in just about every business there is. He’s a pretty savvy fella; and a real friend of the Navy. Loves Americans.”
“Yes, sir. He has quite a reputation.”
Not everyone was as taken with Sammy as was Kevin’s flag officer boss.
Nonetheless, a long line of senior officers embraced the admiral’s perception that tailor-cum-businessman Susumu Nakamura (everybody called him Sammy) loved Americans. Good old Sammy was their guy, a true friend of America, staunchly anti-communist, and plugged into the local business and political community. If you wanted to know what was going on outside the gate, just ask Sammy. Want a nice dinner, he would arrange it; want a little female action; you could count on Sammy.
True, Sammy’s origins were a bit obscure but what the hell; he’d been running his tailor shop on Gate Two Street since Christ was a corporal. Had every suit and shirt custom made, with guaranteed quick delivery and nothing but the finest material. “Sir, you gotta look your best and that’s what we deliver,” he told his top brass clientele. And you couldn’t beat the special prices for his American friends.
Oh, the admirals and captains protested such munificence, but invariably they yielded to the notion that you didn’t want to tread on the sensibilities of such a staunch friend of America. That’s just the way they do things out here, they said.
Base hangers-on like Sammy flocked to installations at home and abroad like birds to a feeder. They and the military leaders they cultivated appeared to be made for each other, whether back at a base in Florida or here in Yokosuka, Japan. Sammy possessed a VIP base pass and an honorary membership in the officers’ club. There were few dinners or receptions for a visiting congressman or DOD officials from which a beaming Sammy didn’t emerge in a group photo hoisting a glass to alliance solidarity.
Lieutenant Cole held the admiral’s uniform coat while his boss slipped his arms into the sleeves. As he did so, the admiral glanced out his second-floor office window, his attention arrested by a crowd of anti-base activists chanting at the main gate: Hantai. Hantai. Yankee Go Home. Whistle-blowing unionists and drum-beating Buddhist monks contributed to the racket. Provoked by the recent rape and murder of a sixty-year-old housemaid walking home at night from the base, the demonstrations had become particularly virulent.
The admiral’s ill-chosen–indeed, stupid–words had contributed much to that virulence. His comment to a newsman that the victim should have been more careful in choosing her route came across as crass and offensive. His subsequent explanation that he simply intended to promote the safety of base employees rang hollow.
“I sure as hell wish we could muzzle that bunch out there,” he said.
“Yes, sir. It’s pretty annoying,” Kevin said. “Some of the wives are afraid to leave the base.”
“Don’t mistake my meaning,” the admiral said. “I’m not for letting our boys off. But these people use any excuse they can to chant their damn slogans. They just want to jerk our chain. Plenty of crimes out there don’t involve Americans. But they only focus on us. Hell, Kevin, this was a Navy town before we came. Shame things like this happen, but they ought to be used to it.”
Kevin nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Another thing, Mr. Cole. You and I know that the communists are behind all this agitation. Just the other day Sammy told me he knew for a fact the demonstrators are paid directly out of the Party treasury.”
“Yes, sir, that’s what the Intel types say, too.”
“You want to know something else, Kevin? Those trouble-makers are a real minority. Most Japanese folks know we’re here protecting their freedom. Sammy says that, in fact, there’s a reservoir of goodwill for us. Yes, sir, a reservoir of good will.”
How could people not love us? We stood for untrammeled virtue, Christian values, liberty … No doubt about it, in a black and white world, we were the good guys
The admiral sat down at his desk. “I have to say, Kevin, Sammy is a lot like some of the people back home–a true supporter of the military services.”
Responding to the aroma of coffee brewing on a hot plate, the admiral gestured for Kevin to fetch him a cup. Cradling the mug, the admiral lolled back in his chair, apparently caught up in a wistful trip down memory lane.
“There was this wealthy couple in Mayport,” he said. “They’d do anything for those of us in the military–dinner parties, football tickets, you name it. Great hosts. You could just tell they appreciated what we did for the USA. And it didn’t hurt that the wife was a good looker.”
The admiral winked and Kevin nodded. Rumor had it that in the company of such glitterati, the challenge to connubial fidelity had proven too much for the admiral. His wife had not accompanied him to Japan, but he seemed to be compensating. The familiarity he displayed toward his female driver, Petty Officer 3, Emily Hudgins–and she toward him–had grabbed Kevin’s attention early on.
“You know, Mr. Cole, I have to tell you, some of these fine people here in Japan are a lot like the good people in Mayport. Good friends of the American Navy.”
“Yes, sir.” Kevin said, “Yes, sir” a lot.
Later that day, stationed at his desk outside the admiral’s office, Kevin rose smartly to his feet as the base commander, Captain Jack Gibson, strode past yeomen and secretaries busy at their typewriters and phones. Tall and gray-eyed, Captain Gibson was a tough, sea-going officer everyone knew chafed in this shore assignment.
In addition, Captain Gibson was bright and ruggedly good looking, characteristics that did not endear him to the admiral. The admiral was uncomfortable around people who made him feel inferior, especially those who were junior to him. Not exactly an original thinker, Admiral Covington had made his way to the top by following orders, pleasing superiors, and holding individuality to a minimum.
“Tell the admiral I want to see him,” Captain Gibson said to Kevin. He seemed to be fuming.
When Kevin ushered the captain through the door, the admiral signaled him to remain in the room; perhaps he needed a witness.
Captain Gibson got right to the point. “Sir, my security people say your Chief of Staff told them we should reopen Gate Two. With all due respect, we have our hands full with the demonstrators at the Main Gate. Is this something you really want?”
The admiral fixed the captain with a frigid glare. “Yes, Captain, it is something I want.”
“Could the admiral tell me why?”
Captain Gibson balanced on the edge of disrespect. He obviously suspected why the admiral had issued the order; Sammy the Tailor has asked him to do it. With Gate Two closed, few customers made their way to Sammy’s shop or to the stores and bars of his fellow businessmen.
“Well, it occurred to me it would be easier for people who have to leave the base to use that side gate,” the admiral said. “Less conspicuous; less attention. Those communists are all out at the front gate, anyway.” Then, seemingly as an afterthought, he added, “I understand folks in the community think it will help business.”
That confirmed it. Captain Gibson knew immediately who the folks were. Gibson was no fan of Sammy. Indeed, he had complained to the Admiral when Sammy offered Gibson and his wife an all expense paid trip to Taiwan. He reckoned Sammy a self-promoter at best. “Sir, I don’t think we should…”
The admiral displayed a flash of impatience.
“I want that gate opened.” Then, after an unpleasant pause, the admiral added, “I expect you’ll provide the necessary security.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Captain Gibson wheeled and marched out of the office.
The admiral stared after the captain with undisguised irritation.
Four bells: 1400. The recorded ringing of a ship’s bell, like that on a vessel at sea, divided the headquarters day into neat segments. The admiral believed the bell provided a nice nautical touch.
Gate Two swung open at 1500. As the first vehicle rolled out, a serpentine column of demonstrators launched an immediate effort to funnel into the base. Pell-mell, twenty or so of them penetrated to just inside the fence where a line of baton-wielding, helmeted police held them at bay. Within moments reinforcements arrived; they expelled the demonstrators and slammed the gate shut. But it had been a near thing. Captain Gibson ordered the gate permanently secured.
Sammy phoned the admiral to say he’d heard about the fracas and that he “understood” the base commander’s decision. Still, he declared, the demonstrators’ behavior provided another example of why the Japanese government needed to crack down on the leftists.
At 1700 the Intelligence Chief, Captain Fitz Pemberton, and the Legal Officer, Commander Evan Wyatt, entered the admiral’s office. They knew the admiral wouldn’t like what they had to say. But they agreed he must be told Sammy might be more than another glad-handing friend of America; that perhaps he represented something more ominous.
In a prior meeting, they had softened their presentations out of deference to the admiral’s friendship with Sammy. Consequently, their cautionary words were met with derisive dismissal for “smearing the image of this fine man.”
As the officers stepped into his office, the admiral gestured for them to be seated. Alerted by his aide, he said, “I know why you are here. And I just don’t believe it. You know and I know Sammy’s a fine fellow; he’s been a guest in my house many times.”
“Yes, sir, admiral. But there are credible reports that Sammy has some sort of relationship with people who have ultranationalist ties. Sir, those people are as hostile to us as the communists.”
“I’m willing to bet the communists are behind these so-called credible reports.” The admiral narrowed his eyes and his words came laden with withering sarcasm. “Do you want to know what I think? I think the Reds realize Sammy is a US friend and a Japanese patriot. And they’re trying to discredit a good man who stands up against them.”
“Yes, admiral but…”
“They know he’s tipped us off about the bad apples in the base workers’ union. I suspect, gentlemen, these reports are based on nothing more than lies and innuendo. I know this man.”
“Yes, sir, we all know Sammy. But you have that Congressman coming to town next week, and we thought you should be informed, so you could…”
The admiral scowled. “So I could what? Rumors, nothing but rumors.” He punched a fist into his palm. “Don’t come back to me about Sammy, unless you have something a lot more substantial.”
His sedan parked next to the Fleet Activities helicopter pad, the admiral lounged in the back seat smoking a Chesterfield. He had come to meet Congressman Wilford Landis. A week had passed since the Gate Two confrontation and, despite sweltering August weather, the demonstrators continued their daily show at Gate One. The admiral wondered how the Congressman would react.
Representative Landis, a member from Missouri’s 14th Congressional District, had just completed a four-hour VIP tour aboard the aircraft carrier Oriskany off the coast of Japan. A ruddy-faced man, with longish gray hair and outfitted in a tropical weight suit; Landis looked like somebody’s grandfather. He prided himself on being the master of bonhomie, be it with the Elks, the Rotary, or the Chamber of Commerce. His back-patting, hand-shaking ways had so far rewarded him with six terms in the House. He was at ease in his home district; “happy as a pig in mud,” he said. But now he found himself in a foreign country, uncertain of the ground rules. Accompanied by his senior aide, Otis Larimer; an embassy escort named Paul Emerson; and a Navy protocol officer, he’d flown aboard the ship by helicopter early in the morning. “It was,” he told the ship’s skipper, “a thoroughly delightful experience. Made me proud to be an American.” The sun pounded down and the oily stink of the harbor washed over them as Landis and his party climbed out of the helo. The admiral shook hands with Landis and his aide. He then hurried the party into air-conditioned cars for the five-minute motorcade to the admiral’s hilltop quarters and a lunch with staff members. As the admiral’s driver swung under the portico of the large house, like an unruly welcoming committee, a murder of crows perched in the trees riddled the air with cawing. “The crows are famous. Been here since it was a Japanese base,” the admiral said. Then, to Kevin, who was seated next to the driver, he said, “What is it Sammy says about those birds?” “Sir, he says the Japanese consider crows to be the messengers of the gods.” “That’s it. That Sammy; he’s a regular fountain of knowledge.” Unaware of whom Sammy might be, Landis said nothing.
As it always did, the view over the port elicited impressed comments from the Admiral’s guests. Two carriers, destroyers, amphibs, a cruiser in dry dock, workshops, barracks, offices, and more, all set off on three sides by sparkling water crowded the scene beneath their eyes. Across the bay in Chiba, greenery traced a narrow band between the water below and the flat, white clouds above.
“Ranks right there with Subic Bay, doesn’t it?” Landis was learning a bit about East Asian geography. “That it does, Mr. Landis,” the admiral said, “that it does.” Chief Steward’s Mate John Giford, the admiral’s cook, had prepared a fiery Indian curry. Like the VIP cruise earlier in the day, the lunch, if not the curry (which made his eyes water), gratified Landis. He beamed, in good spirits, confident, he told the admiral, his visit would play well back home; a resolute Representative Landis out on the front line, as it were, of the Cold War. Over lunch, Admiral Covington extolled the importance of the base and its ship repair facility to Seventh Fleet operations “What about all this anti-base activity? I saw those people at the gate when we drove in this morning. It seems to me the Japanese Government should be educating its citizens about how they benefit from our presence.” “Yes, sir. You’re right on the mark,” the admiral said. “Of course, this anti-base hullabaloo is all the handiwork of a disaffected few. Just the other day I was playing golf at Tama Hills with Sammy the Tailor–terrific guy, he’s been tailoring uniforms for us ever since right after the war. Speaks great English. Knows everybody. You’ll get a chance to meet him this evening. Anyway, Sammy pointed out what heartfelt support we enjoy here in the business community.” “Good to hear, good to hear,” Landis said. But he seemed puzzled as to why his embassy escort produced such a bemused expression at the repeated mention of this fellow, Sammy. After lunch, the guests spilled out on the verandah for a different view of Tokyo Bay. Standing apart from the others, Admiral Covington said, “Just between us, Mr. Landis, I can’t understand why those two sailors attacked that woman in the first place. After all, they could have paid for the services of any one of a hundred whores out there the bar district.”
Landis appeared taken aback.
“Are you suggesting that sort of standard should apply to the behavior of our boys?”
“Well, no, what I meant was…” The admiral wished he could snatch back his words, but they had completed their transit.
Just then Captain Gibson approached them. “Mr. Landis, our car is standing by for your base tour.”
As his guests drove away, the admiral took a deep breath. He knew he had a penchant for saying wrong things; he hoped he hadn’t blotted his copy book.
Admiral Covington had arranged for Sammy to host a dinner for the Congressman, the guests to include the Yokosuka mayor and members of the business community. The admiral billed it to Larimer as a chance to experience the genuine local support the navy enjoyed. And later there would perhaps be an opportunity to expose Landis to “a little Japanese culture,” the reference to culture delivered with a wink. The wink concerned Larimer; his boss was pretty straight-laced.
Congressman Landis, a devotee of down-home cooking, felt apprehensive about confronting a menu featuring raw fish, or something akin to raw fish. But when he learned the dinner would take place in a western style restaurant in the Kanko Hotel, he declared himself reassured.
That evening as they walked into a private dining room, a pianist offered up a version of the “Missouri Waltz.” “Nice touch, don’t you think?” the admiral said. Unfortunately, he did not know Landis disliked the song, associating it with former President Truman, a person he disdained as much as the song.
Susumu Nakamura extended his hand. “How do you do, sir. I am Nakamura, but everybody calls me Sammy. We are honored to have you.” Although thickly accented, his English came easily.
A man of perhaps fifty-five, Sammy exhibited a wide grin. He seemed a jovial fellow, effusively greeting, “my good friend, the admiral.”
Taller than his Japanese contemporaries, Sammy had close cropped black hair going to gray. Set in a fleshy face beneath thick eyebrows, his heavy-lidded eyes lent the impression Sammy might be about to doze off. With a gushing voice and a contrived laugh, he came across as simultaneously obsequious and palsy-walsy. This was Sammy the Tailor.
Tuxedo-clad waiters passed drinks, Sammy made introductions, the participants exchanged bows, and then twenty or so Japanese guests and members of the Landis party seated themselves at tables arranged in a U shape.
“They’re all local big shots,” the admiral said.
Landis and the admiral flanked Sammy at the head table. Gazing about the paneled room, at the crystal, the china, the silver, the western art work; Landis whispered to the admiral that he could as easily have been a hotel in Washington, DC or St. Louis, except for all those round Japanese faces, black hair, and dark blue suits. They both chuckled.
A meal centered on Kobe beef nicely presented left Landis mollified and relaxed. During the evening, attendees made short speeches, and exchanged kampai toasts to Japan-US friendship and to Congressman Landis.
In his own remarks Landis applauded the community for its welcoming attitude toward the US Navy and emphasized the common interest of the US and Japan in deterring aggressive behavior by Russia and China. It was all boilerplate delivered with boilerplate sincerity.
Unctuousness sprung to life, for his part Sammy declared how much honor the Landis visit bestowed, bubbled over about the contribution of American forces to Japan’s defense, warned of the communist menace lurking over the horizon in Russia and China, and praised the virtues of American leaders, notably the virtues of Admiral Covington.
Predictable propriety characterized the event, and boredom soon set in.
“Thank you, Mr. Nakamura, it’s been a fine evening,” Landis announced. “But now I must return to my quarters.”
“Oh no, sir,” Sammy said almost plaintively. “We must have a second drink; it is the custom. We can go to a nearby ryotei.”
“What’s that?” Landis asked.
“Oh, it’s a kind of tea house,” the admiral said.
“Well, Mr. Emerson here from the embassy said maybe we should just head back after dinner.”
“Why would he say that?” The admiral glared at Emerson as if he was an alien who’d insinuated his way into their midst.
“Well, he said I might not enjoy the entertainment or music. Is this going to be what they call a geisha party?”
“I suppose you could call it that. I’m sure Sammy has gone to a good deal of trouble. He told me he promised some local politicians they could meet you. You don’t need to stay long.”
Unenthused, but willing to be a good sport, Landis said, “Okay, but I’ll only be there long enough to satisfy whatever the custom might be.”
Navy sedans delivered them to the Blue Tree Tea House. With Sammy leading the way like an ersatz tour conductor, they passed down a narrow alley and into a lantern lit garden. The lanterns gave lambent illumination to dark wood walls and a tile roof. It was, indeed, the sort of place where geisha performed. A sliding door rattled open, and they stepped into an entryway. The kimono-clad woman who managed the place and a maid bid them welcome. Irrashaimase.
The men removed their shoes, for Landis something of a struggle. “I’m still not sure about this,” he muttered to Larimer.
They trailed the woman down a polished wood corridor. As they passed one room, the door briefly opened, revealing a dozen men drinking and singing with a cohort of female entertainers. The mama-san guided them down a side corridor and slid open the door to a tatami floored room.
A dozen Japanese men seated at low tables applauded when Landis appeared. Although a maid delivered a backrest, Landis found sitting of the floor awkward and uncomfortable.
The admiral sought to reassure him. “You’ll get used to it.”
Meantime, maids in kimono shuffled about on their knees pouring hot sake for the guests.
“These cups are mighty small,” Landis noted, but quaffed one down, only to find it immediately refilled. Following welcomes and thank yous, the room buzzed with chatter and laughter. Soon the atmosphere thickened, jackets came off, ties were loosened, and faces reddened.
Landis smiled dutifully as an elaborately costumed and wigged geisha performed a stylized dance accompanied by a three-stringed samisen, as another played coquettish games with various men, and as still another sang in what Landis complained to the admiral was a whiny voice. By now, Landis had exhausted his willingness, as he’d put it earlier, “to take one for the team.” About to get up, he said, “It’s time to go.”
But suddenly everything changed. A rambunctious covey of girls, eight or ten of them, flowed into room and distributed themselves among the men. Hired from the nearby Red Lantern cabaret, individually and collectively they were very drunk.
Before Landis could struggle to his feet, a scantily clad young woman dropped onto his lap and threw her arms around him. Shocked and embarrassed, the Member from the 14th District tried to push her away. She fended him off and tried to kiss him. It only got worse as the girl thrust her hand into the Congressman’s trousers to the delight and laughter of her companions. The Japanese men might be used to this sort of thing; the admiral might be used to this sort of thing; but Landis was not. His face reddened with offended propriety.
“Get her off me,” Landis shouted. “Get me out of here. Now. For God’s sake, now.”
The following morning, the admiral hurried to the Yokosuka rail station to see Landis off for his return to Tokyo. Standing on the platform their conversation was brief, very brief. Outraged by all that had happened, the Congressman said so.
Admiral Covington struggled to explain. “I had no idea, Congressman Landis. I can assure you, no idea.”
“That you had no idea is itself to your discredit, Admiral. That place was a bad choice to begin with. Whether you or your friend was responsible for what happened I do not know. It doesn’t matter. He took us there, and you are the one who recommended him.”
“But, I’m sure Sammy intended to…” “Frankly he struck me as untrustworthy from the outset. In retrospect, all this makes your endorsement even more unwarranted. Were you complicit or simply naive?”
“But, this was totally out of character for Sammy.”
“That’s hard to believe. Never have I been treated in such an inappropriate and embarrassing manner.”
“He’s always been a thoughtful and decent host-”
“Really? It was a moment of absolute Bacchanalia.” Landis glared at him and the admiral smiled weakly.
“Sir, Sammy told me those women had been hired by someone else for an event in another room.” The admiral foraged for words.
Landis cut him off. “Whatever your indiscretions, Admiral Covington, they are not mine.”
The admiral could not erase from memory other times Sammy’s evenings out had ended up just as raucously–to the unabashed delight of VIP visitors. But on this occasion, in an elephantine blunder, he and Sammy had misjudged Landis.
“You’ve not heard the end of this, Admiral Covington, by no means,” Landis said. “Sir, perhaps you are a great ship driver or whatever it is you do, but your social and political sense leaves a good deal to be desired.”
Ignoring the admiral’s salute, Landis and his party climbed into the waiting coach and the train rumbled out of the station. The admiral felt sick.
Still reeling from the Congressman’s scathing remarks, Covington didn’t need to confront another problem involving Sammy. But he encountered just such a problem.
He found Captain Pemberton and Commander Wyatt waiting for him. Pemberton spoke first. “Sir, there are troubling new reports about Mr. Nakamura. We thought you’d want to know, especially because of the unpleasantness in that geisha place last night and…” It had not taken long for the scuttlebutt to spread.
“Reports? What sort of reports?” The admiral experienced an unremitting case of jitters.
“Well, sir, the naval attaché says there are strong indications Sammy might be connected with some right wingers who are planning a coup.”
“A coup? Sammy? I find that difficult to believe.” But the starch had gone out of his voice. After the teahouse incident, the admiral inclined to believe almost anything.”
“Admiral, with all respect, sir,” Commander Wyatt said, “it might be a good idea for you to distance yourself from Sammy.”
“That business last night was an unfortunate misunderstanding. I’m sure we’ll be able to walk it back.”
“Thanks for the information. I’ll take it into account.”
When the officers had gone, the admiral told Kevin, “No visitors.” Then behind his shut door he sat shaken and silent.
That he should distance himself from Sammy had long been a signal in the air, but a signal he’d picked up too late. The damage had been done. He’d been caught up in a web-like relationship Sammy had spun for him. Political and disciplinary ramifications loomed large. Admiral Covington experienced a frisson of intense worry.
It occurred to him that, should Sammy be in trouble with the authorities, he too might be in trouble. Things that once bothered the admiral not at all now bothered him greatly. He thought of the two duty-free cars he had imported and which Sammy helped him sell at a nice profit. He recalled the girls Sammy had arranged for him in Atami and Hakone. And he worried about the tax-free booze Sammy had acquired from the Enlisted Men’s Club
His ethical missteps clinging to him like barnacles to a destroyer’s hull, the admiral’s mind twisted on itself. Perhaps he should return the fine Japanese sword Sammy had presented to him “to symbolize the eternal bonds of friendship between our countries.” Captain Gibson always frowned when he looked at the sword in its glass case. If only he had…
How had all this happened? How? A trained navigator, Admiral Covington knew the answer: he had failed to tend his moral compass.
But it happened that no longer mattered. Two days later a tersely worded BuPers message relieved him of duty. The communication ordered him back to Hawaii on an administrative assignment pending further inquiry into his conduct during the Landis visit, his politically damaging handling of the rape-murder, his possible association with anti-government persons, and a host of unethical, if not illegal, activities recently brought to light. In addition to all else, feeling spurned, Petty Officer Hudgins paid a visit to the Naval Investigative Service office. It was as if searchlight had swept the headquarters, illuminating embarrassing or questionable activities in every corner.
The planned coup turned out to be nothing more than chatter among unreconstructed nationalists and Sammy’s connection tangential. Nonetheless, following the Landis imbroglio and the full-blown revelations that surged to life in its wake, Sammy no longer received dinner invitations; he no longer appeared in VIP visit photos; and he no longer held a club membership. Captain Gibson barred him from the base. Maybe Sammy still loved Americans. Who knew?
Kevin mailed the admiral his new suit in Hawaii.