When Bob Montgomery enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 at age 17, he was hoping to take part in the post-war occupation of Germany. Instead, he got sent to an entirely different continent: Japan.
World War II had been over for almost a year when Montgomery enlisted, just three days after graduating high school in Washington, D.C. After eight weeks of basic training, he found himself on a long journey to Tokyo. He thought he might end up in the countryside, serving as a soldier just like his brother, who was already in Japan. Instead, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime.
He was chosen to be part of U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Honor Guard.
Montgomery didn't know it at the time, but MacArthur's Honor Guard was the elite unit that guarded the general and his family during the occupation of Japan following the war. The Honor Guard members were supposed to be the best of the best; they were picked because they scores well on the Army's intelligence test, showed leadership qualities during basic training and were at least 6 feet tall to fit their tailored uniforms. The Honor Guard was split between two major buildings — the U.S. Embassy and the Dai-chi building, where Montgomery was stationed.
Though initially the Honor Guard had a lot of former combat soldiers of high ranks, by the time Montgomery arrived, he said, most were non-combat. That didn't mean conditions in Tokyo had improved. Montgomery said there was still a lot of starvation, and people were dying due to the elements. It wasn't unusual to see trucks picking up bodies in the morning, he said.
The Honor Guard also wasn't allowed to fraternize with the local Japanese people. They couldn't enter their restaurants or their homes.
'It was the dead silence'
Jean MacArthur, the general's wife, looked after the boys and worked to grant them special privileges when possible, like organizing a group to climb Mount Fuji and cordoning off a private fireworks viewing area during the Emperor's birthday celebration.
It's memories like gazing down into the mouth of Mount Fuji and seeing the Tokyo night sky light up in the shape of cherry blossoms that stick in Montgomery's mind.
He also recalls one specific time he came face to face with the supreme commander for the Allied Forces.
Montgomery was guarding the lobby of the Dai-chi that day. An off-duty Army soldier was lingering in the lobby hoping to see MacArthur and snap his photo. He was constantly bugging Montgomery by asking when the general would arrive.
“I said, ‘You’ll know when he’s coming,'" Montgomery said. "'Don’t worry about it.’”
The tell-tale sign of MacArthur's arrival was the silence, Montgomery recalls. All traffic stopped out on the street, and the usually bustling sidewalk would come to a stand-still.
That day, the general walked in and stopped right in front of Montgomery. He called his attention, but his eyes were fixed behind him. He told Montgomery, "You know what to do.'"
"I turn around and here is this kid, sitting on the bench fooling with his camera," Montgomery said. "And here’s a five-star general, and he should’ve stood up and come to attention. Everybody in uniform has to do that."
The soldier eventually looked up and realized what was going on, but by then it was too late. One of MacArthur's military police officers came down to the lobby to take him to the brig.
Return to civilian life
Montgomery was discharged in October 1947. That time in his life has been carefully preserved in photographs. His album is full of photos of MacArthur and his family, some of his fellow Honor Guard members, and scenic snapshots of Japan.
When he returned home, he found a job in a Post Office until he went off to college. He graduated from Syracuse University with a psychology degree after 3 1/2 years. Life would later lead him to move to Ormond Beach in 1973, just five years before meeting ,his current wife Becky, through a ski club.
Looking back on his time in the Army, Montgomery, now 90, realizes he had a unique experience — one he wasn't anticipating when he left basic training in Alabama in 1946.
“To be fortunate enough to be assigned to MacArthur’s Honor Guard was the highlight of my time in the Army," Montgomery said. "Otherwise, I don’t know where I would have ended up.”