Here's the unexpurgated version of my recent rant on the pending 60th anniversary of V-J Day, which will be Friday, 2 September 2005. Sorry it's long; it's about 2450 words, which would equate to more than half a page in a full-sized newspaper. But, hey, nobody ever said I wasn't verbose.
A perspective on V-J Day
By David Insley
TOKYO BAY, 1945 – Gen. Johnathan Wainwright’s lot in the Second World War, like that of so many American troops taken prisoner, was not an enviable one.
Left behind on Corregidor in April 1942 when Douglas MacArthur withdrew to Australia, taking his personal fight against the Japanese over a thousand miles away, “Skinny,” as he was known, was placed in command of the forces on Luzon - which, by then, basically amounted to half-starved men by the thousands who were riddled with dysentery and malaria. Running low on ammunition, supplies and morale, their fates were sealed.
Not long after MacArthur left, The Rock was pounded into submission.
Wainwright, taken prisoner by the armed forces of a nation which he presumed would honor the Articles of War, was forced to exceed his own personal authority and order all American forces in the Philippine Islands to surrender to the Japanese Empire. If he didn’t, the Japanese could have barricaded the fortified underground sections of Corregidor and then set off explosive charges to entomb his command, sentencing them to a slow, suffocating demise.
Abused constantly by their captors and deprived of basic supplies and first aid, the men of Bataan who were taken by the Japanese in April 1942 just before Wainwright’s capitulation were force-marched for several days to an internment camp. While a rare few were treated mercifully, many were kicked, beaten, beheaded, set afire - or used for bayonet practice - by the Japanese.
It was nothing new to the conquerors of Bataan.
Less than five years before, the Japanese had done even worse to Nanking, China. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people were butchered when the Imperial Army moved into that city.
Spitting babies on their bayonets and swords, raping women so many times that some went insane, executing men simply because they were men and thus could be capable of fighting back, the Japanese Army did things which were unspeakable.
Elsewhere on the Asian mainland, other unspeakable acts were being committed. U.S. servicemen were used as guinea pigs for experiments so cruel that some, in point of fact, weren’t really experiments. They were torture. Injecting seawater into the veins of captives, the “scientists” of Unit 731 were little more than the latest incarnations of the Marquis de Sade.
And the Emperor, the slim, bespectacled, soft-spoken man the Japanese called the latest incarnation of their Sun God, knew of these things. Of Nanking. Of 731. Of Bataan.
In mid-April of 1942, just before Skinny Wainwright was captured, the Doolittle Raid, which put a single squadron of B-25 bombers over Tokyo for about two minutes, took place, proving to the Emperor that he could be reached. The Japanese military learned that they were not invincible.
In response, the Japanese killed 100,000 Chinese civilians, punishment for harboring some of the 85 U.S. airmen who took part in the raid.
After Nanking, and after Corregidor, there were other places and names, places and names that would join that of Col. Jimmy Doolittle as the tide turned.
The Midway Miracle in June of 1942 was joined by Bloody Ridge, Tarawa and the Philippine Sea in the annals of victory for the United States.
Three years after the worst defeat in U.S. military history, the Americans were knocking on Hirohito’s door.
Japanese determination increased as their defensive perimeter shrank. Of the roughly 3,600 men defending Tarawa in late 1943 against the U.S., a mere 17 survived as prisoners, and seven of those were wounded. Indications of just how little inclination to a surrender the Japanese possessed were well-known, all the way back to the first fighting on Guadalcanal 15 months before, when the Ichiki Detachment charged machine guns in a death-or-victory, last-ditch effort.
MacArthur also got his wish, stepping off a landing craft into the knee-deep surf at Leyte in October, 1944, two and one-half years after fleeing Corregidor on a PT boat in the middle of the night. He had returned just as he had promised, but far too late to save his friend, Skinny.
Just days after MacArthur’s return to Leyte, Admirals Jesse Oldendorf and William Halsey put paid to some old debts, first by waylaying a decoy force of aircraft carriers hundreds of miles north of the Philippines, and then by “crossing the T” for the last time in naval history and gutting the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surface forces.
Musashi, one of two completed Japanese super-battleships, went down during the battle of Leyte Gulf, as it became known, but not before 17 bombs and 19 torpedoes were needed. Even mortally wounded, Musashi tried to beach herself for use as a gun platform rather than surrender to the law of gravity.
Just one bomb, in the right place, had put the USS Arizona in the watery tomb where she still lies, fuel tanks still leaking oil, over 1,000 of her crew forever aboard her.
Manila was liberated the following summer, after bitter house-to-house-fighting in which most of the city was destroyed. America had also taken over other former Japanese holdings. Saipan. The Palaus. Hollandia.
Iwo Jima was on the to-do list in February, 1945. Okinawa’s turn came on April Fool’s Day, which also happened to be Easter Sunday.
Between the shellacking the Japanese took at Leyte Gulf and the first landings on Iwo, a new, more terrifying weapon had emerged - the kamikaze, more evidence that surrender was not an option to Japan.
Named in honor of a typhoon which gutted an invasion fleet headed to Nippon seven centuries before, these human suicide weapons - planes loaded with bombs and delivered into the decks or sides of an American combat vessel by men ready to die for their God-Emperor - were to be the “divine wind” which would keep American troops from landing on Japanese soil.
The casualties on Iwo were heavier for the Americans than for the Japanese; it would be the only time in the Pacific War that would take place, but at the time, no one knew that.
A dying Franklin Delano Roosevelt left behind a newly-minted Vice-President, an ex-Army captain from the prior war, who had replaced Henry Wallace in the role, to finish the fight. A fight which, on 12 April 1945, was still raging in Europe, too, another brutal regime, that of Adolf Hitler, in its final weeks.
Hitler bit a cyanide capsule and shot himself in the temple 18 days after Harry Truman was sworn in. A week after that, Karl Donitz, the last Fuhrer of the Third Reich, surrendered to the Allies, and at 12:01 a.m. on 8 May 1945, Europe finally saw peace.
In the Pacific, the battles were nearing a climax. Resistance by Japan reached a crescendo of violence. The Musashi’s sister ship, Yamato, made a suicide run to Okinawa against forces so superior that only an honorable death, a chance to beach itself for use as a gigantic pillbox against the Americans, was within the expectations of those who made the voyage.
With Okinawa slowly becoming secured by US forces, and nearly a quarter of a million Japanese dying in the fight - more than the total number of American dead in the entire Pacific Theater to that point - Truman was told, while talking about the postwar world with Clement Attlee and Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, of a super-weapon’s first use.
He had only heard of it a short time before, though he once stumbled upon part of its funding when, as a penny-pinching, waste-hating Senator from, ironically, Missouri, he began asking questions and was told that the funds were for a super-secret project, so secret, in fact, that he was implored not to investigate further, for fear of a leak.
“That was good enough for me,” he recalled later - and turned his attentions elsewhere.
Couched in code, the results of the “operation” on the “patient” in the New Mexico desert had “exceeded expectations.” Doctors in Alamogordo, New Mexico, had created the most powerful weapon devised by Man.
At Potsdam, a declaration put forth by the Big Three demanded the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military - but not the Emperor. Japanese hard-liners took this as a softening of terms, and committed to fight on, ignoring the Allied surrender demand.
Thus, in late July, 1945, Truman had a lost-lose decision: Launch Operations Olympic and Coronet, the planned invasion first of the southernmost Japanese Home Islands, Kyushu, in the mid-fall of 1945, and then land on Honshu east of Tokyo the following spring, or do something else.
He could order that the atomic bomb be used on a Japanese city. This could be done in the hopes it would strike such fear into the U.S.’s foe that they would immediately capitulate.
After the charge of the Yamato, after the mass suicides of civilians on Saipan, after the bloodbath for American troops that was Iwo, Truman chose the only realistic option, since the Japanese militarists who so dominated the nation’s hierarchy refused to countenance a surrender.
On the island of Tinian, on August 6, 1945, three B-29s lifted off. The Enola Gay, named after the mother of Col. Paul Tibbetts, the pilot, was followed by the Great Artiste, which had recording equipment to be used to document the bomb’s effects.
Taking up the rear was, in one of the war’s many ironies, the Necessary Evil. This plane was the photographic ship.
Six hours later, Hiroshima, as such, no longer existed.
Three days after that, Bock’s Car repeated what Enola Gay had done, all but wiping Nagasaki off the map. The hilly terrain in and around the city contained the blast, channeling it slightly, but the casualties still ran into the tens of thousands.
And still, Japan did not surrender.
It took six more days, an invasion of Manchuria by Stalin’s hordes (begun the day before Nagasaki) and a failed attempt at a coup to overthrow the Emperor before Japan’s god-king announced that his nation would “endure the unendurable.” Amazingly, though all knew what this meant, the actual word “surrender” was not heard in the speech.
Eighteen days after that, Wainwright and so many like him, liberated from their prison camps, were joined by the airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines who had fought, bled, watched friends die and dealt with horrors innumerable. They lined the walkways of the USS Missouri, sat on the barrels of the ship’s now forever silent 16-inch guns, and crowded the observation decks as Allied military representatives, led by MacArthur, co-signed documents ending a four-year war that had cost millions of lives - and which, very nearly, had culminated in an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Such an invasion might have cost hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of American casualties.
(And which might have cost tens of millions of Japanese lives, if the casualty figures on islands such as Tarawa and Okinawa, from which fewer than one percent of all Japanese combat forces came out alive, are to be used as a logical basis for extrapolation. A number bandied about in abundance during the pre-invasion planning for first-day US losses in killed and wounded alone was something on the order of 46,000.)
For his service, for his three-plus years in Hell, for his enduring the unendurable, Wainwright was given one of the pens used in the signing of the surrender documents by his good friend, General Douglas MacArthur.
While Skinny’s reward on the Missouri seems an insufficient consolation, it was something, at least. Lord knows he had earned it. So many had put their lives on hold - or surrendered this mortal coil entirely - to preserve that which they thought was right.
Looking back, there weren’t enough pens to go around in the Pacific on 2 September 1945.
To think that there was a choice to dropping the bombs that got us to the decks of the Missouri in the fall of 1945 instead of the summer of 1946, at a probable cost of millions more dead, does a truer, greater disservice not only to his memory, but to the memory of all who lived in Japan, in fact.
Surrender before the Bomb was not a viable option to the Japanese. Surrender after the bomb was almost not achieved - the palace coup by military hard-liners on the night of 14-15 August 1945 proved that rather well, as if the fighting on the Kokoda Trail, in the Coral Sea and at Ie Shima hadn’t already.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of the bombs is the simple fact that they didn’t immediately bring the Japanese to the peace table - if two of them didn’t work, as evidenced by the August 14-15 coup attempt, how would an invasion? It would only give the Japanese the chance to take a few of the hairy barbarians, as we had been painted as by their propagandists, with them on the way to national seppukku, or ritual suicide.
Surrender, even to the force of history, was still not an option to some Japanese for decades after that. Many of their schools still teach today that America precipitated the war. The mayor of Nagasaki, himself a war veteran from 1943 to 1945, was shot and nearly killed in 1990 for suggesting that the Emperor was to blame for the war.
To drop bombs which kill 200,000 people but which keep perhaps 20 million more - or even double that, depending upon whose estimates you believe - from the Red Horseman’s grasp was no enviable decision, even now, six decades removed.
But it was the right choice, and it’s a disservice, as well as factually inaccurate and intellectually dishonest, to think or to claim differently, even in this era of political language and whitewashed reality.
A disservice is done as well to those thousands of Americans, G.I.s, Marines, sailors, pilots, waiting to go ashore on Kyushu, to face suicidal teenage Japanese girls wielding bamboo spears, torpedoes manned by human suicide pilots, and planes flown by men with only enough fuel for the trip out, and no training on how to land.
General Wainwright, I thank you, and all the other Skinnies, as well as those who fought to set you free once more, and to keep the rest of us from ever having to endure what you did.
The lot of the American serviceman in the Second World War was one of suffering, privation, fear and death. Mine has been of health, of abundance, of happiness, of life.
Nothing ever said could compensate you, but I shall continue to try for all my days. May the freedoms I enjoy, down to penning this very missive of thanks, be a testament to those who made the greatest sacrifice for their America. Current Mood: thankful