Built in 1612, the Nagoya Castle was a layer cake of curling roofs topped with golden dolphins surrounded by one of the largest cities in Japan.
By the time Lennox Tierney got there, it was a pile of rubble.
"Nagoya took the worst destruction, almost, of any city in the world. More than Hiroshima," said Tierney. "Our bombers were given instructions they were not to take back any live bombs."
While those weren’t atomic bombs, they had wreaked havoc on the city.
"It was total destruction. There was no way of knowing what street I was on, what part of the city, anything. I was literally steering by the North Star," he said. "I finally found myself next to a massive stone ... it was the base of what had been the castle."
Tierney went to Japan in 1947, serving as Arts and Monuments Commissioner in the U.S. Navy under Gen. Douglas MacArthur as part of the occupation government of Japan. He was tasked with tracking down, cataloging and saving what he could of the artistic and cultural history of Japan shattered by World War II.
Tierney, who celebrated his 100th birthday last week , lived something similar to the forthcoming movie "Monuments Men," though much of his art-hunting happened half a world away from the European theater in the film.
His interest in Asia started at a young age, when his pharmacist father was sent to the Philippines by the military to look for medicinal plants after the Spanish-American War. The Japanese influence in craftsman design magazines his mother loved sealed the deal, and when he entered college at UCLA he self-created a major in Asian art.
After graduation, Tierney started teaching a military technical-training course in Beverly Hills — until the day when an admiral asked him to leave on a mission in 48 hours.
"I said, ‘Of course not. I couldn’t possibly do that,’ " Tierney said. He said, ‘Well, it happens to be important.’ "
After some negotiating, he shipped out for training within two weeks.
"My family all came to see me off and no one knew where I was going," he said. He ended up flying to Salt Lake City and was driven to Boulder, Colo., when he started "22 months of hell. Physical, mental, the whole works."
In a recent interview, he remembered Japanese language teachers placing a foot between their students’ feet to nudge them awake when they dropped off. Tierney was 24 when his training ended.
On a visit home before he was shipped off, he went to a going-away party for a woman named Catherine Peha, who was also headed to Japan.
"It was love at first sight," Tierney said. Her Jewish family had been driven from Spain in the 17th century to an island in the Mediterranean Sea before they ended up in California.
"I made a mental note once I got to Japan to look her up," he said, but he didn’t initially have much luck. "She was busy all the time!"
He was also working hard in Japan, with duties that ranged from supervising a team charged with purging propaganda from children’s textbooks to advising the unschooled MacArthur on Japanese culture. He found an eager reception from the Japanese.
"They were just hoping for a friendly voice in the occupation government," he said, someone who would speak up to preserve Japan’s history and heritage.
And that didn’t only mean paintings or sculpture. Gardens are a distinct and historic art form in Japan, one that Tierney explored and cataloged during his time there. As he visited gardens, he started seeing a mysterious, ghostly figure wearing a black overcoat seemingly dogging his steps.
It turned out to be Issuu Noguchi, "the greatest Japanese-American sculptor," he said. He teamed up with the artist and they started traveling the country together.
Tierney was able to save some important works, such as a sculpture of a monk with a bronze wire coming out of his mouth mounted with tiny Buddhas.Next Page >
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