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Long Ago: A Total War in the Pacific Came to an Unimaginable End

In 1941 to 1945 America’s fighting forces fought a desperate war with a dedicated and ruthless adversary, the Empire of Japan, which the enemy began with a surprise attack and which for nearly four years they did everything—fair and foul alike—to try to win.

The manner in which the war came forcefully to an end has invited emotional attention ever since, and especially during the month of August, when in a few moments, twice, back in 1945 new weapons were used by the United States to bring the enemy to a decision to surrender.

It is by no means an exaggeration to assert that based solely on Japanese methods of making war in Asia and the Pacific Theater in the 1930s and 1940s, many warriors of that nation appeared to observers to have descended into conduct bordering on subhuman. Little remorse was displayed by Americans after the two atomic bombs exploded with such drama over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with men in uniform chiefly displaying enormous relief that an invasion of Japan would not be necessary.

American bodies are buried from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa, and in the bottom of the vast Pacific Ocean, because the Japanese of that era took their war-making very seriously, virtually religiously. To defeat such warriors it became necessary for a country at peace on December 7, 1941 to wage something approaching total war—effective war calculated to win--as soon as possible, as long as necessary, and by means both traditional and innovative.

I and my many friends and classmates who left civilian life behind in the summer of 1941 and later, came at once to recognize that half measures would not do. We were part of the American public, and that public was all too familiar with an adversary for whom victory in war seemed to justify gross misconduct.

The enemy who planned maximum death and destruction at Pearl, who expanded into nearly all of South Asia, who engaged in the Nanking Massacre in 1937, who marched prisoners to death in the Philippines, who were so dedicated and effective an opponent in Guadalcanal, who fought to the last man on island after island for literally dozens of months; that enemy in grand climax in 1945 made Okinawa (only 340 miles from Japan) a graveyard for 12,500 Americans. Heroic or fanatic (choose one), here was a capable opponent in the long history of warfare.

It had become common for Japan to have their young men crash aircraft into ships in suicide Kamikaze missions, so that the Franklin, the Bunker Hill, the Indianapolis, and many other ships sank with massive losses as the war approached the Japanese islands. As I say, our opponents--the Japanese warriors and the home front that showed every sign of supporting every bit of it—cherished a long held goal to prevail over us.

All that is nearly sixty-five years in the past. Friendship with today’s visitors from Japan, happy tourist visits to Nara, business relations both warm and enduring, and admiration for Japanese culture are irrelevant to the subject at hand, sad to say. We are considering the way it was long, long ago. (Sometimes Orientals suggest tactfully that it would be helpful if the United States offered something by way of apology for using the atom bombs in 1945. Maybe it’s an idea worth long and penetrating discussion; I wouldn’t rule it out without thinking it through.)

Our year 2009 seems as good a time to look back at what we did, clear-eyed and aware. All who choose to try to do this owe the past a seriousness of purpose and respect for those of us alive in the time when Japan invaded China and Southeast Asia and attacked Pearl Harbor--while allegedly negotiating peaceful relations. How World War II came to America is now heavily on the record. We need to keep fresh before us the sacrifices that generation of Americans made to guarantee we would not lose the prolonged conflict against Japan. The whole picture of those bloody, terrible years (and the shifting fears and hopes we had) must not be shoved to one side in simplistic revisionist frenzy.

I taught, at least once, a graduate seminar on Hiroshima, in which we looked at many of the matters that are relevant to those who hope to rewrite History “to feel better about things.” It was entirely natural for students to look everywhere to minimize natural feelings of guilt and, hopefully, to put the blame for our atomic warfare on somebody else. Look where one will, however, it remains basic that we were then engaged in a long and Total War not of our making. In that war our Japanese opposition was dedicated at the very early outset to victory (but had to shift at the very end toward settling for survival as the best that could be gotten).

It is in that context that one needs to think about the means by which the war of 1941 to 1945 was finally waged and won in the vast Pacific. To immerse oneself in that time, it would be well to remember the influence the European Theater had on our thinking. The American soldiers who until May, 1945 had labored in the mud to defeat Mussolini and Hitler abruptly found themselves facing the unwelcome task of helping to win the Pacific War. They were not to become mere bystanders! Their survival could not be taken for granted! They were to wage war side by side with distant comrades west of Hawaii in what to them was a new war, strange and vast, two oceans away. (Here is a mislaid fact of history, indeed.)

Many of us, maybe most, cannot possibly make the leap between living safely in today’s America and how our soldiers and sailors lived--dangerously and even (some came to think) temporarily. Join me a moment in August, 1945. What was the mood of uniformed men like me? The war had hardly started before I lost three of my closest fraternity brothers (our college editor; my catcher in baseball; our faculty adviser’s only son).

The war against the dictators was a fact of life. We came in some areas to have blackout curtains. There was rationing. (A decade later I wrote for posterity the article Rationing, U.S. for the Britannica.) Builders faced priorities on vital materials. One could see ships sink in the Gulf Stream. We invaded Africa, Southern Europe, and France. Ultimately the Allies won that major war 3,000 miles and more to the East, yet war continued in the Pacific, showing little sign it would stop threatening those in uniform. We hoped for the release of still surviving prisoners. There was censorship of overseas mail and cables. Women labored on the home front. Any number of products were no longer in production. We longed for a peace in the Pacific to match that in Europe, but it seemed far away.

By summer, 1945, I had been on active duty four full years and had been stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda for thirty months. I was absolutely certain I would sooner or later be on one of those heavily armed ships outward bound from San Francisco Bay for the invasion of Japan. Would my luck finally run out? My elderly parents, far off in Florida, hoped for the best. (So did my wife as she cared for our tiny baby.)

The spirit then alive on the home front, half fear, half determination to survive, part apprehension, full of determination that Victory would be ours, must be taken into account by all who would try to reassess the use of atomic weapons. I hate to put it so bluntly, but I have to say that I don’t think that many who write those emotionally crafted essays on “Hiroshima” each August have the faintest idea of what I have just written about the American Home Front in World War II. Empathy in those circles is reserved for Japanese civilians.

Vast numbers of Americans went through Hell fighting the Empire of Japan. There was absolutely no appetite for invading the large Japanese islands, considering the terrible cost of every small island invasion of 1942 through 1945. Iwo Jima had taught lessons about our uncompromising opponent. And Okinawa had been a blunt hint of what could be in store for those massing on the vast oceans. The Western Pacific was filled with our ships; but it was a place where memories of costly victories won in spite of Kamikaze zealotry blended with apprehension over unimaginable tragedy ahead. Few knew the invasion was scheduled for November. (A good read, footnoted, is “Kamikaze” in Wikipedia; it is long, with intimate details. The article “Iwo Jima” is very long and by a Marine participant.)

Getting down to cases: Every year some thoughtful and moralistic writers insist on going through the familiar exercise of trying to remake History. They seek to induce vicarious guilt among any who will listen. No problem with that. It’s perfectly natural. But enroute, and before it is too late, if August is your time to rethink, to engage in recrimination, to put the blame on yesterday’s fighting men and the public that stood with them, try something different. Do ask somebody who was in uniform during the Pacific War, somebody who remembers the agonizing development of the battles in the Pacific, 1941 to 1945. Look again—or maybe it will be for the first time--at the way that awful war was waged. Try to empathize with the hope we all had to live just a few years longer, that is, to survive. Do try to imagine what we thought then about the idea of invading Japan, neighborhood by neighborhood.

World War II, and the Pacific War that was such a frustrating part of it, is not to be reduced to a word game; much less an exercise in the abstract weighing of options and alternatives. I spent several years then as Barracks Officer at Naval Air Station, Alameda. Many thousands of men were housed temporarily enroute to or from a conflict that was deadly serious from beginning to end. In August I was half way through organizing and writing a book called Barracks Administration, for the war we were in seemed likely to continue indefinitely. (Copies of this probably unique but dull material are in major Navy libraries.)

My emotions have not been easy to keep under control all these years, even though I never carried a gun in combat. Frequently I was obligated to meet men in batches of several hundred at the Oakland railroad terminal, then escorting them through the Alameda tunnel. My barracks housed about five thousand at a time. They were with us before they left and sometimes after war’s end. I watched them depart on shipboard toward the Golden Gate Bridge enroute to the far Pacific where a noticeable proportion of ships were sunk in 1944-45. What, we on the Admiral’s staff wondered, would be their fate? Could nothing be done to shorten the war?

None of us, I am willing to guess, had any idea our Commander-in-Chief (President Harry Truman) secretly had the option to end the war without actually fighting it to a long and bitter end. If I and my family members had known he was weighing options, I am inclined to say categorically that we all would have expected our national leader to base his decision making on the well-being of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We would have categorically rejected any idea that his primary concern could be in any way the well-being of Japanese fighting men or even the relatives who stood behind them throughout the decade since the Manchurian invasion (1934).

Always, I had expected that those in charge of the American war effort would put first in their thinking the preservation of the lives of millions of our troops. The service personnel I saw daily and their loving relatives at home expected Americans and their allies to be placed first in matters of wartime concern. It was the most important obligation of leadership. To a man, all of us confidently expected the very first objective of Command to be the ending of our fighting in hand to hand combat, in the air, and on the high seas. It was obvious to lieutenants and should have been to all with gold braid!

Our Commander-in-Chief would always know his duty and do it. To sum up: Those of us serving our Country at the time would have considered any choice other than using the atomic bomb to bring the war to an end to be absolutely and completely unthinkable.