Adventures in Tokyo

by Irene Gurganus

The Korean War

With Tokyo still devastated by World War II, George and I were saddened when the Korean War broke out.  Having just started our new church six months previously, we urgently sought God's help for lives to be saved spiritually as well as physically.  As it states in Ephesians 6:12,

 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Working with General MacArthur

One day, while reading a newspaper loaded with updates on the conflict, I noticed an ad for an American typist.  At that time, the U.S. Army's general headquarters desperately needed secretarial help.  As raising support money from the States was difficult, George and I decided that I should interview for the position.  If hired, my salary would bring in much needed income to further God's work in Japan.

Not knowing what to expect at the interview, I traveled by train to central Tokyo.  The U.S. Army's general headquarters, which used a large insurance building, stood across the street from the moat surrounding the Emperor's magnificent palace.  Each of the colonel, a captain, and a sergeant had separate offices.

As I settled down to fill out an employment application, I chuckled quietly to myself.  God had blessed me with many secretarial skills, such as typing, filing, and cataloguing books, but these were developed while supporting George in our efforts for God's kingdom.  I had no official work experience!   If hired, certainly God would deserve all the glory.

The colonel read my completed application with raised eyebrows, obviously wondering why I was never paid.  However, as he was desperate for help, and God was powerfully working, he said, "I'll tell you what.  If you type this citation without any mistakes, I'll give you a job."  Not having typed in a very long time, I prayed for a miracle.  I took a deep breath and began to type from a citation. For the first time, God enabled me to type a perfect page!  Delighted, the colonel hired me and I became an official civilian employee of the U.S. Army.

My first task was to design charts to keep track of the number of purple hearts to be awarded to soldiers wounded in Korea.  I gave my whole heart to the task, having a lot of fun in the process.  I loved using the talents God had given me to help others.  With the war moving fast, officers on the field were promoted quickly from sergeant to lieutenant, to captain, to major, to colonel.  Likewise, God blessed me to receive rapid promotions.  Though initially a lowest-ranked civilian employee, God allowed me in time to obtain an officer's rating, a Top Secret security clearance, and a Certificate of Meritorious Achievement.

My last promotion was as head of the Decorations and Awards Unit.  When a soldier was recommended for a medal, our office would receive an official recommendation for the soldier, maps of where he fought, and supporting testimonies.  Based on these documents, I would decide which type of medal the soldier deserved, whether a Medal of Honor, a Legion of Merit, or a Distinguished Service Cross, etc.  The wounded always received Purple Hearts.  For those recommended for the most distinguished medals, such as the Medal of Honor, I hand delivered the paperwork to six of the top officers including General Douglas MacArthur.  The officers would then take a vote on the recommendations.  Finally, our office contacted the award recipients (or their families) of the date when the President of the United States would present the awards.

From the window in my office, I enjoyed watching General MacArthur arrive for work each morning.  Traffic would be stopped on the road near the moat and the color guard would form on each side of the steps to the front door.  General MacArthur always bounded out of his car smiling and then would run up the stairs.  Though always in a hurry, his cheerful demeanor was a joy to be around.  Very organized and a great leader, his officers spoke highly of him.  He also was very expressive and shared his deep emotions when one of his top officers was killed in Korea.  I am still amazed how God placed me in the path of such a powerful and influential leader.

The May Day Riot

One of the most intense days at work was the day of the May Day riot.  May 1, Japan's Labor Day, was usually celebrated with a parade and various fun activities.  Unfortunately, that year, an angry mob of communist Japanese wearing red armbands began turning the cars of American soldiers parked along the moat upside down and setting them on fire.  In their rage, they attacked the soldiers as well, throwing them into the moat.  Sympathetic Japanese onlookers helped to rescue the soldiers from the moat but were helpless to stop the car fires.

In response to the pandemonium outside, our office building was quickly barricaded.  While the soldiers guarded the doors, the rest of us scurried up to the roof of the building. I watched the madness of the riot from the roof, amazed at what was happening.  Then, my heart quickened when I heard via radio that groups of angry communists were setting fire to the homes of Americans living in Tokyo.  At this time, since George was 100 miles north for a speaking engagement at a college in Ibaraki, Lynette and Janetkay were left at home with just our Japanese nanny.  I was desperate to get home and check on them.

I prayed silently for my girls' safety and was so grateful when the husband of one of my coworkers called to take both of us home.  After receiving approval from the Colonel to leave work early due to the urgent circumstances, we huddled by the back door of the building.  Finally, my coworker's husband drove their small Volkswagen alongside the back door.  Grateful for the soldiers standing guard, we bolted out the door and into the car, our hearts beating with fear.

Our driver pulled away from the building and headed directly towards the street filled with rioting that we had seen from the roof.  Panicked, we urged him to turn around.  He ignored our pleas, convinced that we would be fine.  As we passed by Hibiya Park, a gang of angry Japanese men came out of the park armed with baseball bats and sticks.  Seeing us, they dashed towards us and began beating on our little Volkswagen and lifted up one side to turn us over.  Our driver ordered us to get on the floor, which was rather difficult in a car so small.  He gunned the motor with all his might and zipped through the mob surrounding us.  To this day, I never found out how we made it through that crowd.  I have a sick feeling, however, that some of the men may have been hit as we sped away.  Prayerfully, no one was seriously hurt.

After traveling three or so blocks from that intense scene, the streets were quiet.  I could not wait to reach the street where I lived.  Once dropped off, I ran inside the house to find Lynette and Janetkay perfectly safe.  I was so happy and grateful to God for protecting my family in such a great way.  

Our Home - Tokyo, Japan


Meanwhile, George, having received news of the uproar, jumped on the next train back to Tokyo from Ibaraki.  He arrived at the station greatly distressed to see the rioting all around.  He dashed through the tumult quickly and was grateful to find everything calm on the street towards our home.  As he bounded through the door, we all huddled together.  God had truly been good to us on that most exciting day!

The Living Room

Bidding Farewell to the Army

Seeing General Douglas MacArthur leave Tokyo left us in the office feeling a bit sad.  After he left, I worked for two other generals but neither stayed long.  Three times I resigned from my position to focus on the ministry and my girls, and three times George decided we needed more money and I stayed on.  I thoroughly enjoyed that job and the great friendships developed through so many shared experiences. 

Having been exposed to so much that went on during the Korean War, I always enjoy watching reruns of M.A.S.H. on television.  So many memories are stirred and so many times I burst out laughing, able to relate to the comments and jokes made on the show.  I especially love hearing talk about Pork Chop Hill as I actually know where it is and many events that took place there.

The Motosu Lake Camp

While I was busy working for the army to provide support for the church, George diligently focused on preaching and teaching God's word.  As he focused on meeting the needs of the disciples and those seeking to know God, a desire to build a camp in Japan, as in America, grew in George's heart.   George felt deeply that the Japanese needed a place to be in God's creation, far from the hustle and bustle of worldly influences, to meditate, hear God's word without distraction, and have a lot of fun.

After much prayer and searching, God opened up undeveloped land along Motosu Lake, one of five or so lakes at the foot of majestic Mount Fuji.  As the water of Lake Motosu was extremely pure, the beach spacious, and the woods lovely, the property seemed ideal.  Through multiple negotiations with government officials, we leased the land for 99 years at a cost of $100 per year.  As the land had no facilities, I was grateful that George could use my salary to build a couple of cabins on the beach.

Going to and staying at our campsite at Lake Motosu was always an adventure.  As we neared the camp by car, we would be jostled up and down as we made our way over the rut-like roads.  Upon arrival, we would be greeted by very primitive conditions.  In that rugged environment, George's experience as a Boy Scout was invaluable.  When cooking, for example, George would dig a hole in the sand by the beach, fill it with charcoal, and cook our food when the charcoal was burning hot.  With no running water on the property, we developed strong muscles in our arms as we filled buckets with the pure water from the lake and stored it outside our cabins.  We ate outside in the open and sat on blankets.  Splashing in the fresh, cold water of the lake, we bathed both ourselves and our clothes.

In time, the Girl Scouts and other groups began to use the beaches around the lake and we decided to build our cabins further toward the woods.  Our carpenter constructed a set of wood cabins with bunk beds and futons for our single campers and a larger U-shaped cabin with a porch for two resident missionary couples and their families.  I loved spending time in our missionary cabin, especially when I could enjoy the company of Colis and Dolores Campbell who lived in the other side of the cabin with us.  In an open space between the two bedrooms of our cabin, Dolores and I would set down our little clay one-burner stove called shitsurin.  Our fuel consisted of little pieces of wood and charcoal.  One shitsurin heated up our coffee and the other cooked our breakfast, whether eggs, french toast, or hot cereal.  I have great memories of mornings spent eating breakfast and drinking coffee on the porch. 

Together with the Campbells and G.I. families at Lake Motosu

Each year, God blessed us financially, allowing us to make improvements to the camp.  For example, after we discovered a spring in the hills above the camp, we had a great time constructing a "pipeline" of bamboo poles to transport the fresh water down to the camp.  Later, we built a large water reservoir.  In time, we were able to install plumbing in the missionary cabin.  The construction of a large wooden lodge with a kitchen, gas and a fireplace allowed us to have indoor worship services and devotionals as well as great times of dining and fellowship even during cold or rainy days.

God greatly blessed the summer camps at Lake Motosu.  It was such a joy to see the lives of so many young Japanese men and women impacted from the experience of time away from the city focused on God.  During the month-long summer camps, we participated in classes each morning and played softball or went swimming in Lake Motosu in the afternoon.  In the pitch-black evenings, we gathered around a campfire and enjoyed entertainment such as skits or listened to a heart-changing Bible lesson.  The camp grew in popularity and soon missionaries traveled from all over Japan to serve as teachers and counselors for the college-age or young single campers.  George and I were so encouraged and moved by all those who became Christians during those summer camp days.

Rook Crooks

Back in Tokyo, when it was time to relax, George and I loved to play the card game "Rook" with the Campbells.  George loved to tell the story about one card game in particular.  George and Colis always played against Dolores and me.  One day, sick and tired of our husbands always winning the game, Dolores and I devised a system to give us a major advantage.  We bought some jellybeans and set them on the table to nibble on while playing Rook that night.  If Dolores' strong suit was red, she would pick up a red jellybean.  I did the same according to the strong suit in my hand of cards.  We won the game using this method, but afterwards, guilt-stricken, we confessed our crime to our husbands.  George never let us live that card game down!

Tokyo Tremors

In Tokyo, small earthquakes tended to shake us weekly.  Occasionally, we also experienced major tremors.  We had one such large quake on a Sunday while Janetkay, then 12 years old, was teaching the children's Bible class.  George and I were so proud of how she quickly gathered the seven children in her class in the doorway and stood above them to protect them.

Our most terrifying earthquake hit during our second Christmas in Tokyo.  As the quake rocked us, we watched the bamboo tree in the island of the driveway sway back and forth all the way to the ground.  During such tremors, the greatest danger resulted from fires started by knocked-over kerosene heaters.  One such fire blazed through the post office burning everyone's mail.  We were sad at the loss of the Christmas presents sent to us from America, but very grateful to have each other.

Church Activities

In an effort to save as many as possible, we started a weekly radio program.  Judge Inomata preached the Word and his musically talented son Yoshio gathered five men together to sing hymns on the program.  God used this excellent radio program to inspire many interested Japanese to attend church.

As George felt strongly that Japanese disciples, rather than Americans, should be the main preachers in Japan, he started a preacher training program.  Once a week, young Japanese disciples from outlying areas traveled to Tokyo to learn from George.  Then these newly trained and inspired preachers went back to their hometowns to start churches.   Unfortunately, with little ongoing discipling, these churches quickly lost their evangelistic zeal and eventually shrank in size or completely died out.

So eager to see God's Word spread throughout Tokyo, George and I filled up our schedules with activities.  Besides striving to excel as a wife for George and help Lynette and Janetkay with their homework from the international school they attended, I often taught Bible classes for the military wives on the bases.  As a result, I often rode a series of trains back and forth.  Changing between trains at certain stations could be quite challenging.  I still laugh when I think of one soldier whom I discovered was getting off of one train, racing down a series of steps, scrambling up the stairs on the other side, and jumping on the very same train.  He had been doing this for over a year without realizing it.  Once his soldier buddies learned what he had been doing, they enjoyed teasing him for quite some time!

Furlough to America

By the end of our third year, God had blessed our Yoyogi Hachiman church to grow to nearly 100 members.  We were so grateful to watch God work so powerfully.  At the same time, George felt a deep need for the Japanese disciples to take on more of the church leadership.  In addition, George desired to receive a Master's degree in the Bible from Harding University.  After a lot of thought and prayer, in the summer of 1953, four years after we planted the church, we decided to return to America for a year.  We were confident that the Campbells would lovingly watch over the flock while we were away.

While I took Lynette and Janetkay back to America to spend some time with my sister and then enroll the girls in first and fourth grades in Harding, George sailed to Africa and South America to encourage and exchange ideas with several of our missionary friends working there.  One missionary had just finished reading a book on a Nevius Method used in Korea.  Colis had some time before giving him a book by Roland Allen on "Missionary Methods:  St. Paul's or Ours."  George, greatly impacted by discussing these works, shared what he learned with fellow students and professors while at Harding. George became deeply convicted that each church should be completely self-supporting, choose their own preacher and support him, and appoint elders to shepherd the disciples.  As a result, we put those convictions into practice during our second four years in Tokyo.

While George worked on his Master's Degree at Harding University, we both enrolled in a graduate Greek class at Lipscomb University.  As I was the only woman in the class I was teased incessantly.  Comforted by George's presence, God allowed me to receive a 97 on the final exam, which was the highest score in the class.  Then, while I took an additional semester of Greek, George took a class on Hebrew.

Having received little discipling while on the mission field for the last four years, I really wanted to grow as a mother.  With this in mind, I enrolled in an undergraduate class on Child Psychology.  In addition, I took an undergraduate class on shorthand, which I had always wanted to learn.

I thoroughly enjoyed those days of being back in college.  As I still looked quite young for my age and because medication for a rash on my hands prevented me from wearing my wedding ring, I was mistaken as a typical student in my early twenties.  In addition, as most of the female students including myself wore cotton dresses with full skirts to keep cool in the warm weather, we all looked very young. Unlike a young girl, however, I would often get tired running up the three flights of stairs to my shorthand class.  When my classmates would exclaim, "What's the matter with you?" I would respond, "What do you mean?  I'm old enough to be your mother!"  (I was about 35 years old at the time.)  My classmates couldn't believe it.  The teacher also assumed that I was about 15 years younger and called me Irene in class.  Since this teacher also had a child in the fourth grade, he discovered his mistake when he saw me at a parent meeting and realized that I was a mother.   A bit embarrassed, he said, "I had no idea you were married and that you were this old.  From now on I'll call you Mrs. Gurganus."

During those university days, George, Lynette, Janetkay and I lived in graduate housing near the campus.  Our small apartment was sparsely furnished and filled with the bustle of every family member busy with studies.  Since Harding had Mondays off at that time, on that day of the week we scrubbed down the apartment, made menus, grocery shopped, did the laundry, and took care of any other household affairs to completely free up the rest of the week for our schoolwork.  Everyone pitched in.  For example, each day, whoever returned home for lunch first would prepare sandwiches for all to munch down quickly.

On weekends, George Pope would preach at various small churches in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.  Thus, on Sundays, we would typically rise quite early and be on the road for several hours before arriving at the church for that weekend.  Lynette and Janetkay loved listening to his sermons all the way and the silly songs he would sing;  Lynette used some of his ideas while taking a preaching course at Harding Academy.)  George always spoke about the work in Japan to interest the various small churches in mission work.  He did his best to convince these congregations that saving lost souls worldwide was important to Jesus and should be to them as well.

That year at Harding flew by quickly.  During our Christmas holiday, we spent time with family. By the time of Spring break, George was busy writing his Master's thesis on Christian camps.  Though George had a great deal of personal experience to share in his thesis, he read numerous books to strengthen his work academically.  His thesis was so well received that most of the Christian colleges supported by the traditional church still use his text.

Back on the Mission Field

After visiting the church in Chicago, which had been supporting our work in Tokyo, George, Lynette, Janetkay and I returned to Tokyo.  In an effort to force the Japanese disciples to take on more leadership of the church and to be self-supporting, George started work with the Fifth Air Force as the Education Director at Haneda Air Base.  He enjoyed planning the curriculum and teaching the GIs who needed to earn their high school diplomas.  George also hired adjunct lecturers to teach courses at the base branch of the University of Maryland.  This job was ideal for George as it provided plenty of free time for him to spend time discipling and raising up Japanese disciples.

One great benefit of George's position was that Lynette and Janetkay could go to the military school just five minutes from our house.  The school emphasized Japanese culture, including flower arranging and origami as well as the Japanese language.  In addition, since George worked at the Air Base, we could watch movies at the on-base theatre and buy American products at the PX and the grocery store.

During those years, I often felt that George and I were drifting apart.  Both so busy, we seldom spent time just talking and loving each other.  I began to get bitter and critical, not trusting his heart.  Those times were so difficult, especially without mature godly couples surrounding us to disciple our hearts.  Thanks to God and His Word, my heart softened.  In time, George and I had great times of confession, forgiveness, and a rekindling of closeness between us.  After that, we only grew closer and closer to each other, for which I am very grateful to God.

In an effort to be closer to George and earn additional income, I took a job as secretary to the comptroller of the Haneda Air Base, using my newly acquired shorthand to take dictation.  Although I enjoyed my new position and being on the same base as George, one day a sudden pain shot through my right arm.  The pain elevated to the point where I had to be rushed home in an ambulance.  After considerable testing, the doctors at the Air Force Hospital decided that I had suffered an injury in the cervical spine.  The next thing I knew, I was in traction in the hospital.  Nearly six weeks later, I finally was allowed to return home, but even then I had to lie in traction on our studio couch with a 25-pound bag of sugar over my head.  I was so happy when I finally could walk around freely.  Having health and a body free to move seemed like such incredible blessings of God.  I still had to go back to the hospital occasionally and finally had to go back to the States for more treatments.

I busied myself serving the many missionaries traveling to Tokyo to shop, visit a doctor, or simply spend time with us.  We had so much company that I would often prepare three different meals one right after another.  On one late evening with 27 people spending the night, George returned from a trip out of town and began searching through all the sleeping bodies for me.  When he finally found my spot on the floor, he snuggled under the blanket with me.  That night is one of my treasured memories.

Chapter 5


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Copyright(c) 2000 Tokyo Church of Christ. All rights reserved.
Revised: January 18, 2002 .