Discovery of USS Indianapolis wreckage brings back memories for survivor's family

James and Toyoko Belcher.


By LEE TOLLIVER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 15, 2017

CHESAPEAKE, Va.  (Tribune News Service) — Toyoko Inoue was a young girl working at a restaurant in Japan when a group of sailors took over the place for a Christmas party in 1952.

She noticed one sailor among the crowd. James Belcher wasn't pounding the booze like the others. Speaking no English and having no understanding of the American military, Toyoko didn't know the band on his arm meant he was on shore patrol duty.

When one of the sailors drunkenly tried to get her to dance, James stepped in – saving the last song of the night for himself.

They'd been making eyes at each other all evening and he promised he'd see her the next day. She doubted she'd ever see him again.

She was wrong.

James returned with the rest of the ship's crew. This time, he wasn't on shore patrol.

"He was so nice to me," said Toyoko, now 83 and living in Western Branch with one of her sons and his wife. "He was tall and good looking. I knew no English and he only knew gutter Japanese, all the bad words. But we made it work."

They married three years later and were together 46 years before James died in 2001.

One of the secrets he revealed 14 years into the marriage was that he was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine near the end of World War II on July 30, 1945. He never let what he endured when the ship went down impact the relationship.

When news broke last month that the ship's wreckage was found by a group led by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, memories of that night in 1952 came back to Toyoko – the only Japanese wife of an Indianapolis survivor.

"I'm very glad that they found (the ship)," she said. "I wish my husband was here to hear about it."

Toughing it out

In Japan, things were difficult for the young couple. Memories of the war in the Pacific were painfully fresh. And James was a member of the occupying country.

Toyoko's parents didn't like her Navy beau. Her brother served in the Imperial Army and her father was in Nagasaki when the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb. He eventually succumbed to cancer caused by the fallout.

James worried that things wouldn't be much better when the couple moved to his home state of Alabama three years later. He was a country boy with an Asian wife.

He was even more concerned when he shipped out a few months later. But everything worked out.

"People were very nice to me," Toyoko said. "I was surprised. They would look at me funny. But me and the boys stayed there and it was fine. No problems."

The Belchers had three sons, and Toyoko would periodically take them on trips to Japan — but never stayed long. James couldn't go because he was still in the Navy and on board a ship — and Toyoko's home country didn't feel like home anymore.

"(The U.S.) was my home now," she said, "here with my husband and boys."

As he got older, James Jr. – who was born in Japan in 1957 and goes by Jim – started to ask questions about his dad's Navy career, one that spanned more than 20 years. He retired as a chief petty officer.

When Jim learned as a teenager his father had been on the Indianapolis, he wanted to find out more. But his father refused to open up.

"'It sank' was all he would tell me. He never wanted to talk about it. So, I went to the library."

That's when he discovered what happened after the torpedo strike. The Indianapolis sank in minutes, taking 300 sailors down with it. The rest of the crew of 1,196 endured sun exposure, salt poisoning, starvation and thirst. And sharks.

Only 317 survived.

Today, only 19 remain.

Remembering what he wanted to forget

Jim Belcher is an honorary survivor of the Indianapolis and helps run annual reunions. He gives talks and history presentations to students and veterans groups.

Among the hundreds of artifacts he uses are the uniform worn by Toyoko's older brother and some of the pointed sticks his mom used in mandatory training to potentially fend off invading Americans. Jim also has lots of his dad's old photos, medals and stories about service on the Indianapolis. James finally opened up a little in the 1970s.

After the ship sank, he bobbed in the ocean with a dozen others, all tied together in a line for safety. When one of them died, everyone felt the tug of a shark attacking the body.

"Dad said they'd quickly untie that person so the shark could go away with them," Jim said.

Eventually, James and a few others made it to a life raft. There was primitive fishing gear in the survival package which James, a lifelong angler, used to catch small fish. He then used those for bait to hook bigger fish.

"He saved their lives by catching fish to eat," Jim said.

Four days after the ship sunk, they were rescued by the Navy.

When he was ready, James read books about the Indianapolis to jog his memory. The process was painful.

"One day (he) told me he spent 30 years trying to forget those days and 20 more trying to remember."

James finally went to a USS Indianapolis reunion in 1977. Survivors were honorary guests for the launching of the Indianapolis submarine in Connecticut.

Toyoko also went to a couple of reunions. She remembered her initial fear of being Japanese and possibly bringing up bad memories for the American sailors.

"(But) everybody accepted her with open arms," Jim said.

Toyoko was a stay-at-home mom when the family moved to Waynesboro, west of Charlottesville. She worked as a seamstress after her boys went to high school. They are Old Dominion University graduates.

Jim joined the Air Force. Bill Belcher, whose home Toyoko now lives in Chesapeake, became a Norfolk Police officer. And Jack Belcher got into the mental health field. Bill and Jack live on the same street in Waynesboro, but come to Chesapeake often to see their mom.

As Toyoko talked about her husband and their marriage, Patricia Belcher, her daughter-in-law and caretaker, wrapped her in a soft blanket. She held a picture of herself and her sailor.

"She talks about (James) when she's doing well," Patricia said. "Sometimes, she really gets into her stories talking about the two of them and it's really cute. You can see that look in her eyes she must have had when they met."

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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