By Dr. John Treiber , 374th Airlift Wing History Office
/ Published December 07, 2014
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- The Japanese Empire famously capitulated on 15 August 1945. Less than three tense weeks after that momentous decision the first US soldiers -- a handful of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers driving jeeps and led by a lieutenant-- arrived at Yokota and took possession of the base without incident on 3 September 1945.
Three days later Major Benjamin Hayes accepted the surrender sword from Major General Yamaguchi Tsuchio and the base was now officially in American hands. In mid-September Colonel William Bell took command of the base as Yokota's first commander just as the initial American planes began landing at the base. These aircraft were chiefly C-46s from the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Combat Cargo Squadrons which had been tasked with ferrying supplies and troops to Japan for the Occupation, a process that continued non-stop for the next few months.
The base soon became so crowded with GIs and Airmen that once the existing barracks were filled personnel had to sleep in hangars. Nevertheless, historical reports from the time still gushed about how nice Yokota was compared to the tropical bases where many of the men had transferred from.
Besides good infrastructure the incoming Americans discovered approximately 200 aircraft of various types at the base, most of which were soon scrapped, though three were sent to the US for evaluation and one was preserved as a static display that is reportedly now in a Japanese museum in Kyushu.
Toward the end of 1945 the intense flying operations had left the original 1,200-meter (3,937-foot) runway nearly unusable, at which time flying operations ceased apart from the use of a short grass strip for light aircraft. As a result units assigned to Yokota now had to fly out of nearby Tachikawa and Johnson Air Bases.
Meanwhile the plan was to build a new runway designed for heavy transport aircraft, but shortly after construction started new orders arrived stating that the runway would be expanded for use by Boeing B-29s, America's biggest and heaviest aircraft. For the next eight months Army construction battalions rebuilt and extended the runway to 6,000 feet, while Japanese construction companies employing thousands of day laborers built new hangars and multiple facilities throughout the base.
Other Japanese employees were hired at Yokota for a variety of jobs almost from the first day of the Occupation, such as one gentleman who was an expert with the base's boilers. Other early Japanese employees were barbers, waitresses, and sanitation workers. Interestingly, some Japanese military personnel remained at the base through the end of September though it is not clear what role they played in the transition process.
Finally on 15 August 1946 the base was declared operational and was officially dedicated by 5th Air Force commander Major General Kenneth Wolfe who landed on the new runway in a B-17.
He was followed by fifteen A-26s from the 3rd Bomb Group that became the base operating unit for the next few years. During the dedication ceremony, attended by Americans and Japanese alike, General Wolfe declared that henceforth Yokota's name would be Wilkins Army Air Field (WAAB). Orders for the change never arrived and the name, simply by default, remained Yokota Army Air Base until 1947 when Yokota fell under the newly formed Air Force and became an air base.
Soon after the dedication ceremony other units began flight operations out of Yokota, including photo reconnaissance squadrons, and the base population increased further. Col Edwin Bobzien (rhymes with magazine), Yokota's commander at this time, oversaw the massive changes that occurred throughout 1946.
Sadly, he was killed in a B-29 crash at Kadena Air Base in October of that year and Yokota's main street was soon renamed Bobzien Avenue in his honor. In fact it was called that for fifty years until altered to Airlift Avenue in the 1990s, though a small section of Bobzien can still be found in the west housing area.
Dependents - wives and children -- began arriving at Yokohama via ship in August 1946, but had to live in hotels while waiting for Yokota's first on-base housing to be completed.
Living conditions in Japan at this time were poor at best and perhaps even dangerous since there were legitimate concerns of typhus, cholera and tuberculosis, as well as mosquito-borne diseases such as Japanese B Encephalitis.
Furthermore, for many years Americans were not allowed to eat local foods out of health concerns, so everything had to be either grown at the Yokota farm (vegetables and chickens), or imported. Local roads remained dirt and gravel, and because the struggling Japanese government could not afford, nor be expected to prioritize road improvement Yokota's construction crews hardened the roads surrounding the base out of expediency.
The first housing areas were completed later in 1946, and like today the officers' housing was in the north area, and enlisted housing was in the south area. The west area housing complex was completed soon after.
Life at Yokota during the early days posed various challenges. For instance, the first dependent children had to take classes in rooms at the base chapel until the grade school was built, while older children were bused to other nearby American bases that had middle and high schools.
Contact with home was difficult at best, and we can imagine the loneliness experienced by these pioneers whether active duty, civilian, contractors or family members. There was US mail of course, but phone calls home remained an extremely expensive and rare luxury for decades. Information and entertainment were also sorely lacking in the first few years of the Occupation forcing base residents to make their own fun such as producing plays and engaging in a variety of intramural sports.
Along with the daily Stars and Stripes newspaper Yokota's chief form of information was the weekly base newspaper. FEN Tokyo (now AFN) radio went on the air in September 1945 so radio broadcasts existed, but even though there were multiple on-base movie theaters there was still no TV, nor would there be for years to come. On the other hand there was a steady stream of live USO music and variety shows at the base, and the clubs provided live entertainment. Better, though, was to get off base to Hachioji, Ome, or best of all downtown Tokyo where one could have a really good time by borrowing a jeep or riding the train.
There was a general curfew, and occasionally towns and cities were declared off limits, but for the most part Americans had free access to Japan. Just like today tours around the country were popular with dependents and military members alike, while others went hiking or to the beach, and some people even studied Japanese and immersed themselves in the local culture. True, conditions were rough, but being stationed at Yokota during the Occupation was typically the experience of a lifetime.
Next Article: Yokota during the Korean War