■ Won-loy Chan "Burma: The Untold Story" (part 2)
The girls seemed to relax a bit, gave us a few tentative smiles, and directed more questions to Mama-san. She turned back to us. She said that she was responsible for the girls. She hesitated as if at a loss for words and squirmed a bit. Both Grant and I noticed that her obi, the traditional sash worn by all Japanese women, seemed a bit too full for her very small figure. It looked almost as if she were pregnant, which in view of her age didn't seem possible. I whispered a few words to Grant. He scuffed his feet a few times and then, as if he were talking to his mother or his aunt asked her if by any chance she might be hiding something. She smiled at Grant's obvious discomfort.
Nodding her head, she slowly began to unwind the voluminous obi and explained that being responsible for the girls also meant being responsible for their earnings. As members of the Women's Volunteer Corps they had been paid and also received tips. When the Japanese fled Myitkyina, Mama-san had collected all the girls' money and kept it safe on her person. Grant was relieved and told the old lady "No problem." If money was all she had in the obi, both she and the girls would be able to keep what they had earned. She removed the obi and took from it neatly wrapped bundles of paper currency that she placed on the ground in front of us. The girls, whose knowledge of Japanese was not up to the task of understanding the exchange between Mama-san and Grant, watched anxiously.
Grant and I each picked up a bundle of the money. The bill were each for ten rupees and were still warm—either from Mama-san's body heat or from being hot off the press—they were Japanese occupation scrip. Something like our own scrip used in Europe and Asia, it was a paper promise by the Japanese government to pay by some unspecified date the amount of ten Burmese rupees. With the loss of northern Burma and what appeared to be the eventual total defeat of the Imperial forces, the scrip was undoubtedly worthless. Grant and I slowly placed the bundles back on the ground in front of Mama-san. Grant looked at me and I nodded my agreement to what I knew he was thinking. He looked at the girls, shrugged, and then as gently as he could explained to the old lady that what she had was money printed by the Japanese and now that the Japanese had been defeated, the money was worthless, had no value.
Mama-san looked at us in total disbelief. Her mouth opened but no sound came out. She pointed to the money on the ground, looked at us questioningly, and shook her head back and forth. Slowly she stooped over and picked up the bundles of paper money. Very carefully she replaced them in the obi and very slowly rewound it around her waist. For some reason it didn't look as full as it had a few minutes before. After talking with me, Grant turned back to the Mama-san and asked her for one or two of the bundles. He explained we could probably exchange the scrip for cigarettes, candy, and food with American and Chinese souvenir hunters. Mama-san thought this proposition over for a few minutes. Then she slowly unwound the obi again, carefully removed two bundles of the scrip, and gave them to Grant. There was a collective sigh of relief from the girls. I'm certain they thought this exchange was the American version of the Oriental custom of "squeeze" and that the rest of their hard-earned money was now safe. Mama-san explained the whole caper to her girls. Some laughed, some cried, and when I thought of what these girls had endured to earn this worthless scrip I was heartsick.
Grant and I then interrogated the girls again. They were relaxed now, less fearful, and more willing to talk. But they really didn't know anything, at least not anything of military-intelligence value. They had no understanding of military operations. They were not courtesans or Mata Haris, and if any of their bed partners had revealed anything, it had meant nothing to them. Taken forcibly for the most part from their families farms and homes in far-off Korea, they were there only for the pleasure of the Imperial Japanese troops. As soon as transportation could be arranged, they were turned over to British custody in India. The Allied press made a big thing of the comfort girls in sensational releases. But I felt only sorrow for them.
The night before the girls left for India it became our turn to comfort the comfort girls. Grant, Howard, and Bob visited them for the last time. This time, instead of interrogations, we held a sing-along. Three Japanese-American GIs, one with a guitar, sang American, Japanese, and Hawaiian songs while the girls in turn sang "Arirang," the Korean love song, to the boys.