In the Wake of War

Mary Ruggieri stood on the deck of a ship entering Yokohama harbor 61 years ago, surveying a demolished "cement fort" and contemplating what she would find as a U.S. Army sergeant in an occupied country.

She jotted her impressions of defeated Japanese men and her thoughts on the brutality of war in her journal that night.

"Ships' prows jutted out of the water at precarious angles, while other ships lay on their sides, water surging in and out of hatches which once must have poured out Japanese sailors to wage war on our ships and our planes," she wrote.

Those pages filled over the next 18 months, describing encounters with her future husband, jaunts to immaculate gardens and explorations of devastated cities.

Ruggieri's journal, fleshed out with letters she wrote to family and friends, makes up the bulk of "From Japan With Love," an autobiography documenting her experience in the Women's Army Corps.

"I look back at that time now and I think, 'Did I really do that?' " Ruggieri, 86, said.

Ruggieri launched her project two years ago when she dusted off her Army-issued "olive drabs" for her granddaughter's Veterans Day celebration at Lakewood Elementary School.

That's when she unearthed thousands of pictures she took while she served abroad and the writings that form her book.

"I was overwhelmed, because I had so many pictures and so many letters," Ruggieri said.

But the timing was right for Ruggieri to unravel her history and pass along nearly forgotten stories to her children.

Her kids had a CliffsNotes version of her past until recently. They knew she and her husband, Frank, served in Japan, and they knew their parents returned to build their family in California.

Now Ruggieri's children hold a full account of what their parents saw and felt.

"The thing that struck me about the book was how smart my mother was, and how modern she was," said her son, San Rafael attorney Richard Ruggieri, 52. "Here she was writing journals in 1946 and expressing opinions I'd express today."

Ruggieri joined the WACs in 1944. She was taking graduate courses at the University of Minnesota but wanted to do more for the war.

"I kind of had an underlying feeling that I wasn't doing anything," she said.

She said no other military effort since World War II has generated a comparable kind of unity in the country.

"There's no sense of patriotism or togetherness like there was," she said.

Ruggieri spent her first two years in the Army helping wounded soldiers recover their speaking abilities at a military hospital in West Virginia. The war ended Aug. 15, 1945, and Ruggieri had a chance to leave the service and go home.

Instead she chose to go to Japan.

"I thought, 'When will I ever get to see another country, let alone one we just devastated?' "

'A fellow named Frank'

Soldiers were eager to show Ruggieri and her colleagues a good time when they reached their base in Yokohama. In "From Japan With Love," Ruggieri recalls a string of invitations to parties.

But one man stood out for Mary -- Sgt. Frank Ruggieri.

"The truth of the matter is that a fellow named Frank has been keeping me very busy -- with any help at all from fate I could easily fall in love, but I don't think my luck runs that way," she wrote in October 1946.

They were engaged by the time Frank shipped out in February.

Mary Ruggieri shared a leaky hut with 21 other women while she was stationed at the base in Yokohama. Her job was to help out with school at the base.

"I was just in awe of how the U.S. Army could take thousands of men and organize and arrange for their every single need, and then come the dependents, and then the schools, and that's where I came in," she said.

She ventured off base for tours around the country, including to Nagasaki, where she was surprised to find life in a city wrecked by an atomic bomb.

"The whole time I was there, I was thinking, 'How could people be so unfeeling?' " she said.

By the middle of 1948, Ruggieri couldn't wait to get home to start her life with Frank. She found herself susceptible to rumors of war with Russia, which she feared would keep the United States at war for 20 years.

Richard Ruggieri, who helped his mother compose and print "From Japan With Love," said those passages in the book resonated with him.

"I think I understand her a lot more knowing about her history," he said.

Mary Ruggieri made it back to California at the end of April 1948. She joked that one of her biggest worries was buying clothes to match the "new look."

She and Frank finished their education through the GI bill. They landed in Modesto in 1956, where Frank became an attorney who advised top state lawmakers. He served on the county Board of Supervisors from 1962 to 1966. Frank Ruggieri died in 2001.

Mary Ruggieri daydreamed about her life with him on a ship taking her home.

"When I stand on the deck above in the wind, and look out over miles and miles of unbroken water -- water calm yet deep and mysterious, I look to the east and think of that which I just left, and to the west and think of you and our life together, and I cannot but realize how lucky I am to have your love to anchor me, and us, to the 'good-life' for all time to come," she wrote on April 23, 1948.

"From Japan With Love" is available for $24.95 at www.portsmouthpublishing.com.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.