Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Pacific, The Colonel and The Bomb

In which we relate a little family history about the Second World War

Tonight I am looking forward, albeit with some trepidation, to watching the first episode of new HBO series, “The Pacific.”

I say “trepidation” because when I contemplate the War in the Pacific, I must confess to feeling a kind of deep-seated, seething anger. I don’t know if Mr. Hanks’ film will provide some catharsis for this, or if it will only invoke further unhappy feelings. For the same reason I have thus far avoided seeing the film “Flight 93” -- the rage is still too recent. I am, however, going to take the plunge into “The Pacific.”

The War in the Pacific makes me especially angry because my family — admittedly long before I was born — was deeply enmeshed in the conflict. My grandfather, my father’s father, served in the Pacific all through the war, and later served in Korea. The war cast a long, deep shadow over the family, one that continues to shade us, even now. Because of the war, my grandfather spent many years away from his wife, his sons, and his daughters. What an awful price to pay for the folly of others.

Many younger Americans today seem to be under the misapprehension that the war began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. It began much earlier, with out-and-out wars of conquest by Japan against the countries of Asia— China, Korea, Manchuria (Manchukuo), French Indochina, Burma, Malaya, et al. Eventually, the Western powers recognized Japanese militarism for what it was and agreed to stop selling Japan the materials it needed to continue its Asian conquests — things like oil, iron ore and steel. Realizing that they had not the material to pursue their imperial dreams, the Japanese government set about making their plans for a wider war into a reality. (After all, why buy your materials when you can just take them?) The attack on Pearl Harbor was their first, bold move against the United States — an arrogant, stupid mistake.

Some revisionist historians — some quite respectable — have tried to re-imagine the war as merely another clash of empires. That’s partly true — but not “merely.” Certainly the British, the Dutch, the French and, yes, even the Americans all wanted a piece of the Asia pie.

But the actions of the forces of Empire of Japan stand for themselves. Japanese atrocities during its colonial expansion and WWII include the Rape of Nanking, Laha, Banka Island, Parit Sulong, Palawa, Chongde, Manila and the Bataan Death March, to name merely the most prominent. There were the hideous medical experiments carried out against American and other prisoners of war. And then there were the “comfort women.” Fed by a wildly racist ideology and a twisted sense of Samurai honor, the Japanese soldier evinced a daily cruelty against enemy soldiers and civilians alike so casual in its nature that it is utterly staggering to contemplate.

The Japanese war machine caused the deaths of an estimated nine million civilians in China alone – one of the highest tallies in a greater global war that killed more than 52 million people, soldier and civilian. But these aren’t the only reasons for feeling angry. During the war, American bombers killed an estimated 350,000 Japanese civilians. This is a tragedy for our country as well as theirs, for just as sure as the victims were blown limb from limb, incinerated, suffocated, buried alive, or faced long, slow, agonizing deaths from radiation poisoning, their executioners were brutalized, made callous, by the terrible outcome of the action. (For more, read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.”)

Was the firebombing and the subsequent atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? I don’t know. But I know that the timely end of the war may have saved the lives of 20,000 American servicemen geared up and ready to invade the Japanese homeland – and perhaps even the life of my grandfather. Without the bomb, it seems highly unlikely that I would ever have been born and be alive today to write this.

What I also know is that the actions of political leaders deeply and often tragically affect the lives of the people they sometimes so vainly and arrogantly claim to represent. Recent history is a case in point.

Recently, my father has been going through a cache of my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother during the war. My grandfather, always affectionately known in the family as “The Colonel,” was involved in logistics in the B-29 program. Late in the war, he was stationed on the Island of Tinian, from where the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, took off. For his service and valor, The Colonel was awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Soldier’s Medal for Heroism and many other medals and citations.

Below is a selection of excerpts from some of The Colonel’s more interesting letters. I hope they may be of interest to scholars and other families connected to the War in the Pacific.

Jan. 3, 1945 – (Marianas Islands): I am still the dial twitter [radio operator?] and keep up pretty well what is going on. And if Europe is not too careful we will beat them finishing the war. As it does not look too good over there." [This probably reference to Battle of Bulge underway at that time.]

Jan. 23, 1945 – (M.I.): They were about to send me to Oahu for a while, but something changed their minds . . . it would be great to see a building and sidewalks, with store windows, even a few females wouldn’t hurt.The news from the European front is looking much better, for a change, altho that could end there in a hurry or take two years, as is the case here." [This would probably be news of the Bulge break-out.]

Jan. 25, 1945 – (M.I.): The war in Europe is certainly going fine and if it keeps up in that fashion we may both be home before you know it, but it is.The war in Europe is certainly going fine and if it keeps up in that fashion we may both be home before you know it, but it is hard to tell what may happen.

Feb. 5, 1945 – (M.I.): I sure have been sticking close to the radio the last few weeks, as the news is so good. And a great victory in the Philippines will hasten this end. And I believe it (will) come sooner than was expected.

April 25, 1945 – (M.I.): Was too bad about F.D.R. He was a great man and we have lost a fine leader. And its most unfortunate he could not have seen the end, which we all hope is very near. Berlin today is half taken, tho thats not quite the end, as it will take months to round them all up and large armies to keep them under control.

May ??, 1945 – (Oahu): I too have been sitting on pins and needles the last few weeks. The E.T.O. [European Theater of Operations] has been about to finish them then seems to hit a snag, but the Japs are getting real trouble from us — in large doses and many are of the opinion they may fall.

We are very much enthused over the war situation which finally is beginning to close in very close. (cq)

The ribbons came yesterday to Cal [???] which was his birthday, and we had a party for him, so they came at the right time. While we were there we heard the war was over in Germany. I celebrated, two drinks, made me dizzy and I could not sleep. Disgusting! The rumble on the war being over turned out phony. Tho we had a very good time and good eats." [I am not sure what is going on here the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.]

May 27, 1945 – (Oahu): V.E. Day was wonderful, tho’ very quiet here as it’s not anywhere near finished but we are sure doing some excellent work with the 29s.

Aug. 8, 1945 – (Tinian): We are still putting out the labor in very grand style, and doing something real wonderful to win the war. Which may come to end almost any day…

[Two paragraphas later:]

The announcement has just come thru over the radio of the new atomic bomb. Whatta deal. Its our hope for a quick end to the war. You have no doubt heard all the details.

Aug. 9, 1945 – (Tinian): The news is something beyond all manner of control; Russia today again joined us so its to be over, I hope. Before even this reaches you. Tho we will still have a great amount of work to do.The new bomb must have really given the Nips a great jolt, as they are not in the least as radio cocky as before. And now with the Ruskies, they are even more "so sorry prease."

Undated – (Tinian): At last the war is over and I can write you how much I love and have missed you, my dear. I guess I have been waiting for this censorship to end so I could really tell you, without some snooping S. O. Brick reading my mails.

You no doubt had an idea I was wrapped up in the atomic work which I have been for the past three months, and still have a little to finish yet.

[Same letter:]

I have been negotiating peace terms with an Island call Agrugon [probably “Aguijan,” a rock about the size of my dad’s house situated between Tinian and Saipan] about five miles from here. Takes about two to three days a week. And we will start putting a few troops on it next week. One Shib Lt. [???] is in command, who looks like one out of the cartoon, Harold Lloyd specs, buck teeth, field glasses, sword, canteen, map case and bow legged. I about took a sock at him when he came aboard our landing boat. We then took him to another ship to talk to the general.

He howled like hell when he found the war was over and we were the masters.


Blogger 12-volt said...

Thanks Mike...well written. Interesting family history about the colonel. Life is certainly more complex than when we were children. Count all your blessings, remember your dreams.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:51 AM  
Blogger Terry said...

Michael, your blog is awasy with interesting and compelling stuff.

Your are a born historian/journalist with a treasured writing gift. I think it could map your path to the future.


2:46 PM  
Blogger Terry said...

That's awash in the previous posting. Sockless Jerry Simpson, populist senator from Kansas, said "A man isn't worth a damn who can't spell a word at least two ways.

2:50 PM  
Blogger fletchmo said...

Absolutely right about Japan's terrorism prior to our involvement in WWII. What happened before Pearl Harbor, to my knowledge, has not been acknowledged in it's entirety by the Japanese. Not only do they not apologise, the won't even admit that it was done.
My dad served in Leyte and New Calidonia and, like your grandfather, wrote to my mom about the atomic bomb and how it would save lives. Up until the first bomb was dropped, my dad lived under the shadow of being part of an invasion force. Glad my dad, and your grandpa, served when such horror tried to rule is

2:23 AM  

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