The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.


                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






"Uncle John"

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

"The closer I got to the main prison gate the more afraid I became. This was Sham-Shui Po Prison Camp (concentration Camp) in Hong Kong, China. I must admit that I have always been a complete coward. My stomach became weak and trembly and my legs were weak and rubbery. My heart began to beat rapidly and my teeth began to chatter. As I forced one foot ahead and then the other, I prayed silently; Dear Lord, give me the strength to calm down and complete this mission. I am interpreter Kiyoshi Watanabe for the Imperial Japanese Army. But if I am discovered in what I am about to do.... I will be tortured very extensively, used for bayonet practice and then beheaded."

The Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, were just like the Nazi Gestapo. They were so barbaric that they were the terror of Hong Kong. That is why Kiyoshi Watanabe was petrified with fear. He was not afraid of dying but he could not stand pain and suffering. One of the Kempeitai's favorite torture consisted of pulling fingernails out by the roots. Another was to force a water hose down into a stomach, then turn it on full force. Every time Kiyoshi thought of this he would begin to shake and tremble. In his arms Kiyoshi carried a large heavy cane work basket which he guarded very closely. It contained a small pack of surgical instruments with various other medical supplies but it also contained vials of precious diphtheria serum. Inside the Sham-Shui Po Prison Camp a diphtheria epidemic was killing dozens of prisoners daily. They were also suffering from Dysentery, a serious intestinal disorder, and Beri-Beri, a disease causing nerve degeneration and heart failure. It was a very deplorable sight, the daily dozens of the

Cecil Owen

dead and also the walking dead. The stench of rotten flesh was almost unbearable.

Interpreter Kiyoshi Watanabe was a loyal Japanese citizen who loved his country, he would never do anything that would dishonor Japan. He wanted Japan to win the war, and very soon. Then he could go back to his beloved wife, Mitsuko, who lived in Hiroshima. Lieutenant Sakaino, the camp commandant, and the guards would not allow anything beneficial to the prisoners brought into the camp, so the time had come for Kiyoshi to decide to obey God rather than man, even if it meant his own death. This is why he was attempting to smuggle a doctor's bag into the prison camp. As he fearfully entered the main gate, the guard just waves him through. Now he has to cross the courtyard very carefully. Usually there were two or three Japanese officers who could stop and search any and everyone. But Kiyoshi reached his room and quickly hid the bag under his bed. At this time he was so shook up that he falls into his bed in a dead faint. When Kiyoshi woke up much later he had to heave twice to return to normal but as night comes on his abnormal fears


Now Kiyoshi must find a prison doctor named Ashton-Rose, head of Indian Medical Services. Finding the right place in the darkness was a very nerve shattering experience, he had to avoid being seen by anyone because he was not supposed to be outdoors this late at night. When Kiyoshi finally knocked on Dr Ashton Rose' door, he was eyed with much suspicion. Here was a 51 year old Japanese man dressed in an army uniform in the middle of the night. "Please listen to me," Kiyoshi pleaded, "I have an important basket that I must deliver to you." " How do I know this is not a Japanese trick to have me arrested," Dr Ashton Rose

replied. "Because my name is "Uncle John" and this basket is from Dr. Selwyn-Clarke," Kiyoshi whispered. "I must also have a receipt to prove that you received the basket." What strange words to come from an official Japanese Army interpreter.

Quickly the doctor took the cane wood basket and scribbled out a receipt. Then "Uncle John" Kiyoshi Watanabe fled back to his room collapsing onto his bed once again. He was a very remarkable person and he was much more than just an interpreter, yet he was disliked and hated by most of his fellow associates. The prison commandant, the

prison guards, the other interpreters, and the Kempeitai, were all watching Kiyoshi because he was the only Christian among all the Japanese stationed in the prison camp, and he was also a Minister and a Pastor. Kiyoshi Watanabe had  pastored Lutheran churches throughout Japan for 35 years. His last church was the Lutheran church in Hiroshima, until it closed down in September of 1941 when he became an English teacher in a school for teenage girls in Kumamoto, Japan. Kumamoto was a town about 150 miles from Hiroshima. His wife, Mitsuko was head mistress at Good Samaritan kindergarten school in Hiroshima, that is why they kept their nice home on Takasho Street in the middle of Hiroshima. Only three months later, World War Two began.

Kiyoshi's two sons Shinya and Shigawo were promptly drafted into the service, then, in February of 1942, Rev. Kiyoshi Watanabe, the 51 year old minister was drafted into the army as an interpreter. He was dismayed at some of the duties he was supposed to perform.  But one day, as Kiyoshi sat at his desk, someone knocked on the door that would change his life forever! A pretty young English housewife named Nellie Lee rushed in. "I would like to see the Camp Commandant and get permission to talk to my father and husband. I know that they are here somewhere," she exclaimed. She talked so fast it was hard for Kiyoshi to understand her words. The Camp Commandant, Lieutenant Sakaino refused to even speak to her but Kiyoshi took her name and address anyway. He promised to get in touch with her soon.

Kiyoshi worked six days a week so it was Sunday before he knocked on her door. Nellie Lee was very surprised to see him in his army uniform. "I am Kiyoshi Watanabe and I have come to help you if you will allow it"

"You can call me Nellie and not Mrs. Lee, she said. My kids could never pronounce your name, what else could we call you?"

"When I attended the Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, they gave me the American name of John."

"That is good for we can call you Uncle John. Come in here kids and meet your Uncle John." Nellie said. Three young girls ran into the room shouting hello Uncle John. The girl's names were Junie, Wendy and Barbie. They were very friendly and not afraid

of his Japanese army uniform. Uncle John told Nellie that he would help relieve some of the pain and suffering at the Sham-Shui Po prison camp. At the same time he observed that Nellie Lee and her three little girls also needed help. Food in Hong Kong was scarce and most had to be bought on the black market and at very high prices, so he began to smuggle food out to help feed the Lee family. He also gave them what little money he could spare, for most of it was sent to his wife Mitsuko. Nellie is the one who introduced Uncle John to Sir Selwyn-Clarke M.D. and director of Hong Kong medical services. The English doctor and Uncle John immediately became friends. Dr. Selwyn-Clarke was the one who was able to furnish him with the medical supplies and all the other basic needs of the camp. As Uncle John Watanbe continued to smuggle goods into the camp, he figured he would become used to the danger but much to his dismay, his fears stayed with him. Before a mission was over, he was violently ill. However, he continued to risk his life to give help and comfort to others.

As a minister, many times he had preached on the Good Samaritan in  the tenth chapter of Luke. Uncle John was transferred from one prison camp to another because the authorities in each one despised his kindness and gentleness toward the prisoners. The fact that he was a Lutheran Minister made things even worse. Until the middle of July 1945 he kept his secret ministry.

One day Colonel Tokunaga, commandant of the entire prison system in Hong Kong, called for him. The colonel was so mad he could not control himself.

"You make me feel contaminated Watanabe," he shouted. "And I feel unclean just standing beside you. To call you a swine would be an insult to the pig. But Mr Lutheran minister, you have reached the end of your road. Get your miserable belongings and get out of the camp, but leave your uniform here so I can burn it. Soon the secret police will come for you when you least expect it. For everyone now knows that you are a traitor to your country."

Uncle John was absolutely petrified with fear, but he asked the Lord to give him the strength and courage to carry on. I have been spared during four years of war for some reason, he thought within himself. Now he was on his own, hated by his own countrymen, sentenced to death by the secret police and detested by the Chinese people. Rev Kiyoshi "Uncle John" Watanabe could be described as a Japanese "Job."

Early in his ministry, his wife Shigaru and two of his young daughters died rather suddenly. Now he was worried very much about his second wife, Mitsuko and his two other daughters. Mitsuko had been writing almost daily, then suddenly all letters stopped and he could not find any trace of them. After months of worrying and wondering a letter came from his daughter, Kimi, saying her mother Mitsuko and sister Miwa were no more. They were both in their house on Takasho street in the middle of the city of Hiroshima when the first Atomic bomb was dropped. Watanabe's house with his beloved  wife and daughter were vaporized into nothing.  Uncle John quoted Job 1:21, The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away ..Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The secret police never had the chance to capture him before the war ended. He continued his ministry into a ripe old age. In the middle sixties, Uncle John appeared on the television show "This is Your Life."

I wanted to bring Uncle John's remarkable life story to you after the horrible story about the Japanese in our August issue. I wanted everyone to know that not all World War Two Japanese were monsters.