Berwick man befriended family in occupied Japan

BERWICK — When George Botel gave two packs of stale cigarettes to a family in Japan after the end of World War II, the father thanked him with a valuable and unusual gift.

His son gave Botel photographs taken by Japanese pilots during the attack on Pearl Harbor, which the Japanese called “The Great Air Raid on Hawaii.”

“You present to Papa, Papa present to you,” the boy said to Botel, now 80 and living in Berwick.

One week later, the father, who never met Botel, even sent him his stamp collection.

Botel was stationed from October 1945 to about March 1946 at a military base in Kobe, a port city about 270 miles southwest of Tokyo. During the war, he had served as a combat engineer and a convoy truck driver in New Guinea and the Philippines.

During his stay, Botel befriended Yasukazu Suzuki, a boy about 12 years old. Yasukazu worked at the base, cleaning rooms and polishing shoes for the Americans.

“He wasn’t really paid anything,” said Botel. “Sometimes, we gave him chocolate bars.”

The Americans also gave coffee beans and other groceries to Yasukazu as gifts for his parents. Many essentials were hard to find in Japan after the war because the Japanese had little left.

Botel also taught English to Yasukazu, using the boy¹s English-Japanese dictionary.

Pearl Harbor photos

One day, Botel told Yasukazu to clean his footlocker. Inside, the boy found cigarettes that had turned stale after Botel had left them there for too long.

Botel said American soldiers were issued cork-tipped cigarettes, but they refused to smoke them because they disliked the taste.

“What do I do with these?” said Yasukazu.

“Throw it away,” said Botel.

“Can I keep them?”

“No! You’re not going to smoke them.”

“No, no. For my Papa.”

Botel allowed Yasukazu to take the cigarettes home.

The next day, the boy gave him 10 photographs. Some depict Pearl Harbor under attack; others depict the destruction of British and American ships in Asia.

During the war, the Japanese had sold similar photographs as souvenirs.

“Those photos I was real glad to get,” said Botel, “because it wasn’t something you’d see anywhere else.”

Papa’s stamps

One week later, Botel gave Yasukazu a pouch of tobacco as a gift for his father. The next day, the boy returned with the elder Suzuki’s stamp album.

“You present to Papa, Papa present to you,” he said again.

Yasukazu’s father had collected Japanese stamps — some dating to 1876 — of generals, airplanes, pagodas, Mount Fuji and statues of the Buddha.

The elder Suzuki had arranged his stamps with great care, pasting a label below each stamp and writing a date on each label in neat handwriting.

Yasukazu wrote his English and Japanese names on the album’s back cover after Botel asked him to.

Botel never saw the boy again after leaving Kobe. He never met the elder Suzuki and knows little about him.

After Botel returned to America, he married his fiancée, Jean, in 1947; they had met before he went to war. He ran a business in his hometown, Clifton, N.J., using cranes to install business signs and industrial air conditioners onto rooftops. He worked for about 40 years, retiring in 1990.

After Jean died recently, Botel moved to Berwick, where two of his three children live.

Botel never revisited Japan. He said the country is now so wealthy that a trip there would cost him too much.

While stationed in Japan, Botel visited the ruins of Hiroshima, the first city in human history to be destroyed by an atomic bomb. There he salvaged an unusual souvenir. Read this story about what he found.

– GARY PANG, Press Enterprise writer, Dec. 7, 2005

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