We grew up surrounded by heroes; real ones, with medals, aching wounds and dark tales of valor.
We learned in snippets of their struggle and sacrifices. In our childhoods, we would overhear a stray comment, see a gray circle on abdomen or arm; startle to a pang erupting from a nightmare marring Dad's Sunday afternoon nap.
And we wondered. What Hell was this? Where had he been? What had they done? What had been done to them?
We wondered, too, that dark question of manhood. Could I do it? Could I expose myself to this terror? Would I stumble bravely onward through the fog of war? Could I let myself be so humbled, so humiliated -- what it really means; volunteering to serve, knowing full well that a pea-sized piece of lead could reduce me to oblivion?
Some have said our fathers did not know what they were getting into; they answered the call for men at arms blindly, propelled by passion more than reason. Some have called the era encompassing World War II and the years leading up to it "naive," or even "innocent."
As we grew, we learned that they knew, most of them knew. The War Of Our Fathers was not the war of John Wayne. There was no glory on the sands of Iwo Jima, only the redemptive state of grace called survival.
Our fathers went to war they waged with bitterness, rage and a sense of betrayal. They went to war reluctant, angry, determined but maybe not too much so. When a new Asian war ripped through the ranks of our generation we learned -- our fathers sometimes told us calmly,in voices even with compassion -- of men who would blow off a toe to escape combat duty; of trunk lids dropped on knuckles and of their envy and prayer for the "million dollar wound" -- injury not bad enough for permanent crippling, but serious enough to send you permanently hors de combat.
We learned, as we grew up, that the War Of Our Fathers was fought by men -- and some women -- all of whom had blistered in the Great Depression.
Their war flowed seamlessly in a line of time from the days of 'Parlor Pinks" and persecution of the Scottsboro Boys; of a "radio priest" oozing hatred; of a handful of idle and gussied rich flaunting wealth and flouting the tenets of generosity while a quarter of a nation went starving.
They went to war still singed by the sight of people collapsing of hunger. Seared by visions of the dignity of labor reduced to the mockery of idleness.
They went to war with no grand or flag-waving illusions to blind them. They were risking their lives by feeding themselves into a giant, impersonal and macerating maw -- to preserve the worst system ever known. "Except for all the others."
They knew, full well, they were submitting themselves to a merciless system profiting handsomely on their valor: Shortly before the war, elevated train tracks were stripped from New York's Sixth Avenue. The scrap steel was sold to an already-aggressive Imperial Japan. Laborers at the demolition ruefully predicted, "We'll buy it back at 21 bucks a month" -- the base pay of an Army private.
They knew where the steel was going. And they knew its eventual target. Their foresight was soon home out. The Sixth Avenue "El" returned -- right on schedule, arriving at stations in the infernos of beaches and jungles with unpronounceable names and battles of unspeakable ferocity.
They went because they had to. they went because the job needed doing. The purpose was clear and the alternatives few. they went reluctantly, caustically; and not even all of them -- some evaded, some refused, some sought "safe" duty and some dissolved in the face of battle. those who went rooted themselves in something identifiably and persistently American.
The feeling that in them was vouchsafed "the last best hope" of humanity on earth.
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For some of us, there was a difference; a hesitation. We had no pictures of Dad at the Eiffel Tower in the autumn of 1944; nor could we revisit with our fathers the pub in East Anglia where they whiled the hours between missions, neither could we seek out for him the family he had befriended when he was on garrison duty in Italy.
The War Of Our Fathers was waged at the end of the Earth -- we could not visit -- even today -- it was war on a dot at the end of a string of specks in the mapmakers' blue Pacific. Who had heard of Attu? Eniwetok (Any-wee-tok)? Or the Marshalls, Gilberts, or Saipan, or its junior twin: Tinian?
Who had heard of Tinian? Good Lord! We never heard of Tinian, yet how many places could be more important in the annals of recorded time than Tinian?
If Cape Canaveral is revered, then Tinian is hallowed. It too was a launch pad; for the Enola Gay and Bock's Car. From its runways, nuclear destruction took wing.
For better or ill, Tinian is a hallowed place.
So, too, then is Unimak -- American soil invaded by the Empire of Japan. And so too is Okinawa, where 12,281 Americans died in two months, in preparation for the holocaust of an invasion of Japan's "home islands."
And we must observe, too, the sanctity of Tarawa, "Bloody Tarawa." Where more than 3,000 fell to make "secure" an island half the size of New York's Central Park.
Weep and pray for the fallen on the infernally black sands of Iwo Jima -- taken to provide fighter plane bases for the bombers on Saipan and Tinian. Light candles if you will, to the reluctant heroism of them all. If Gettysburg is hallowed ground, then surely the Divine rested in these places, too, to give meaning to the War Of Our Fathers; our fathers, who we know all too well to be ordinary men.
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At the peak of their power, the Ancient Romans boasted of the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, "Our Sea." In truth, it was. The Caesars imposed the Pax Romanus on the known world.
Yet this pales beside the epic reaches of Japan's empire at its zenith. A fifth of the Earth was under the sword of the Emperor; very nearly, the world's greatest ocean was their mare nostrum. They called their regnum the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The power of the Chrysanthemum Throne seemed invincible as 1942 glided onto a cautious America and an already-weary Great Britain. Japan's forces seemed able to spring upon comers of the world simultaneously. From China and the edges of the Indian sub-continent to Australia, Indo-China (later, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), Alaska and the Hawaiian archipelago. Troops stormed the Philippines; made a surprise attack on Singapore, through "impregnable" jungle; overwhelmed Hong Kong and swept into Burma.
And -- instructed by successes in the canvassed pages of Japanese military history -- executed a daring, successful and flawless sneak attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Ironically, if one asks a Japanese today about December 7, 1941, a "date that will live in infamy" and the memory of astute schoolchildren, the only likely rejoinder is a blank look. The date, in Japan, for the beginning of what is now called "The Disaster" was December 8 -- a Monday.
Listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Infamy" speech
The beginnings of "Pearl Harbor" however, long precede the establishment of the International Date Line. Japan has been long ill-served by a nationalistic and parochial elite.
For nearly three centuries, the Tokugawa Shogunate (ruling war lords) kept Japan sealed from the wider world. The only foreigners (literally, in Japanese, gai-jin, foreign or strange ones) were confined to small trading centers.
When the American "black ships", eructing fire and vapor like harbinger comets, arrived off Japan's shores in 1853, modernity began with a tumult. The myth of Japanese racial and cultural "purity" and superiority struck dissonances as it clanged against the technology and "sophistication" of the West.
Japan would not soon be left behind again. The people studied, learned and grew their nation. Respect for the Emperor -- waning under the shoguns -- was restored and embellished as a unifying force; a divine force.
Already alarmed, the American Secretary of State, John Hay, in 1899 proclaimed the "Open Door" policy when became a cornerstone of this country's foreign relations. The East was to be a marketplace for all; a free-wheeling nexus of commerce.
The policy seemed sensible to an America suckled on the West's historic fascination with Cathay; the land of Marco Polo, China. America was "discovered" by Columbus' ostensible quest for the shortest route to the land of ruby-cored mountains.
From the earliest days of the republic, Salem ships sailed for the Orient. Lovely teak-crafted clippers, like the Cutty Sark, sped tea to the New World. In Hay's own lifetime, the intrepid defied the ice floes in search of a Northwest Passage, that East might more quickly meet West.
A ripening and increasingly fearsome Japan saw the East as the domain of Asians. Prompted by victories over the Russians in 1905; by its unassailed and savage dominion over Korea and its estate among the victorious allies, Japan's power grew unchallenged. The Empire needed markets, raw materials and sheer space -- the Germans called it a need for "lebensraum" -- to expand beyond a constrained, resource-poor home archipelago.
Willing to use assassination to accelerate their ascent,the militarists staged the 1931 "Manchurian Incident" and seized power there. China was the ultimate prize. In 1937, Beijing and other cities were seized. The next year, Japanese troops ran riot in the "Rape of Nanking. " The world uttered no more protest than it did a year earlier, at the destruction of Guernica. Modern warfare was sparking upon the unprepared world.
And yet, the world had been warned. Even before Cassandra-like tocsins of Hitler's ascent were scorned, the early knells of Japan's bellicosity were already being met with punishment. That was the fate of America's most famous Prophet Without Honor.
The exact charges were couched in the legalese and officious ink-and-seals of military code, but history has come to judge harshly the officers court-martialing a fellow general, Billy Mitchell.
Mitchell's sin? Embarrassing his purported superiors, by showing the vulnerability of dreadnoughts to airpower -- and the meager airpower of spindly bi-planes and crudely-aimed bombs. A hero of World War I aviation, Mitchell made a spectacle of sinking captured German battleships. He forewarned the Japanese would attack 'one fine Sunday morning' and publicly criticized the air defenses of Hawaii.
At his 1925 trial, Mitchell foresaw that war in the Pacific would be waged from land base to land base, mounted by armies under cover of superior air forces. Is it possible that even then someone produced the phrase that would ring throughout the Pacific war: "Island hopping." It meant by-passing enemy garrisons, of as many as 100,000 men, to let them wither without hope of re-supply or evacuation.
Some may have taken note of Mitchell's too-early wisdom, but not before he was convicted and drummed from his beloved corps. His martyrdom was sealed but the vote was not unanimous. No one is certain as to which of the judges voted to acquit, but many -- then and now -- believe the sole exonerating ballot was cast by a valiant friend of Billy Mitchell; a vainglorious student of history and the mistakes of himself as well as others, a lackluster officer recently promoted to major general after his politically-bracketed mother's intervention: Douglas MacArthur.
Beribboned for his well-witnessed and genuine valor under fire in France in the first world war, MacArthur commanded the garrison in the Philippines when the Japanese forces struck. It was less, much less, than his finest hour. He allowed his airpower to be caught on the ground and destroyed by the Japanese. Invading forces -- in some places weaker than his own -- consolidated and exploited the Allies's retreat to pockets on the fortress of Corregidor and in the Bataan Peninsula.
MacArthur, thought too valuable to abandon to enemy capture, was ordered to depart his embattled headquarters on Corregidor by President Roosevelt. On February 23, the general and his entourage were spirited from the fortress by PT boats. Arriving later in Australia, MacArthur -- speaking out of bravado as much as conviction -- surveyed the reeling advance of the Japanese Empire and pronounced his famous vow to his beloved Filipinos: "I shall return."
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The Prussian general von Clausewitz dictates that the objective in war is to destroy the enemy's army. True enough and on its face, eminently logical.
Clausewitz, however, wrote of an era of professional armies obsessed with perfecting flanking maneuvers. He chanced to precede the era of Total War.
More than politics or diplomacy by another means, war in our century became a kind of grisly economics. Two, or more, nations in a cataclysmic collision of resources. Peoples and resources laying waste to another's homes and populations until a surrender of the exhausted.
Some in Japan knew and understood. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactic of another century: It only sought to destroy an enemy's striking arm. It did not lay waste his will or means.
Ironically, it was the architect of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who perceived unfailingly of his folly. A former attache in Washington, he had a grasp of America; seen the vastness of its reaches and its potency even in slumber. For six months, he predicted to those with whom he dared share notions of defeat, he would run wild. Then would come Japan's penance.
Returning to their carriers, flush from the attack, mission commanders recommended additional strikes at Pearl Harbor. They were overruled by admirals satisfied that they had executed their plans and followed their orders.
And thus were spared the fuel reserves, repair shops and submarine pens at America's vital mid-Pacific station. A later raid -- or a more strategic first attack -- may have extended the war by a year, or forced a negotiated peace.
Instead, an aroused though unprepared nation snarled its rage and defiance.
The youth of the nation began to stream into recruiting stations; a nation under the paternal hand of a President in office for nearly nine years stirred. Unschooled and unprepared, America returned to war.
A French journalist interned in Tokyo for the duration of the conflict wrote that before the end of 1942, Japan's leadership knew their cause was essentially lost. The words gave a chilling and stunning effect when recounted to veterans.
Not only would three full years of apocalyptic slaughter lay ahead, but the Allied cause seemed in grievous doubt.
To the International Date Line and sometimes beyond, Japanese forces roamed at seeming will: Dutch Harbor, Alaska was bombed. Explosives rained on Darwin, Australia. Japanese submarines surfaced off California, to impudently Job shells.
Japanese forces strode most of New Guinea, which sits like a mantle over Australia's populous Eastern coast. From airbases in the Solomon Islands, guarding the sea lanes to the Island Continent, they threatened to strangle a vital ally.
Battles at sea were sometimes claimed as triumphs, and, in truth the Imperial advance was halted at Midway and near the Coral Sea. But the victories were more in the tradition of Pyrrhus than David Farragut and the Japanese savaging of the U.S. Navy off Savo Island was its worst trouncing in a fair fight since John Paul Jones.
Hampered by defective torpedoes -- a problem not corrected until 1944 -- and a surfeit of timid captains, losses in the American submarine fleet were frightening. A tiny service which came to play a mammoth role in the strangling of Japan's supply lines; the undersea mariners paid the war's highest price among all the Allies' forces. One in 10 is "still on patrol."
With whatever forces they could muster, the Allies -- led by Americans and Australians -- fought back. No, they clawed back,
In New Guinea, the Diggers -- Australians -- carved a 4,000-step staircase in the Owen Stanley Mountains -- and focused the world's attention on a hellacious path, soused in blood and bodies, the Kokoda Trail.
Americans waded into the Solomon Islands; spearheaded by Marines, supported by the air and naval units that could be spared or that survived. From August 1942 to February 1943, a gasp of Liberty's breath abated. The islands had to be taken to keep Australia secure. The one with the major airstrip was most important: Guadalcanal.
It was on Guadalcanal that the name "Bloody Ridge" passed onto a scroll begun at Lexington. It was also probably on Guadalcanal that stranded, obdurate Marines began using the Chinese expression for "pull together" and made it a battle cry. "Gung ho."
From the west, British, Chinese and Indian troops pressed the borders of the Empire. Burma refused to surrender. Supplies were trucked by the legendary Burma Road to China or flown "over the Hump" of the Himalayas to a Chinese army supported by American advisors.
Total war with Japan meant crippling the enemy's industrial base. Short of invasion that was the task of bombers -- especially the new, long-range, heavy-duty B-29. Plans were made for the B-29's to fly across the East China Sea and southern Sea of Japan and pummel factories, piers, fuel tanks and rail lines.
China remained chaotic and the logistics of supplying bases there proved insurmountable. The planners arrows began to focus on the Marianas -- Saipan, Tinian and Guam are the largest.
In late-1942 or early-1943, however, the Marianas were far beyond Allied reach, the Japanese would have to be beaten back across the Pacific. As submarines -- still hampered by torpedoes Navy brass refused to admit were defective -- began unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan.
Under MacArthur's direction, the defending forces were split in stifling Japan's supply lines. Tankers, supply ships, even capital warships were unremittingly sent to the bottom.
Confounded by superior Japanese aircraft and the skill of Imperial pilots wizened by battle in China, American aviators gradually gained experience, acumen and equipment.
The tactics of amphibious warfare still needed honing. Mindful of the wisdom of Billy Mitchell, MacArthur sought air cover for each leg of the island-hopping advance. The Gilbert Islands were next.
The first amphibious battle, perhaps the worst battle, was to be Tarawa. Inexperienced, ill-advised, or still fired by the bravado that lead them to charge machine guns in World War I's Belleau Wood, the Marines ignored the advice of native Chamorros and attacked the main island of Tarawa Atoll -- a coral hummock called Betio -- at low tide. The shock troops had to wade, swim, stumble, bleed, 700 yards to the beach under withering fire.
"Bloody Tarawa" -- really, Betio, just half a square mile -- cost the American forces 900 dead; 3,300 casualties in all. The Japanese lost 4,700 men.
"Body counts" were not invented in Vietnam. Casualty ratios of nearly 1:1 brought the Marines under Congressional scrutiny.
Planning improved but the blood still drained from the American forces. Kwajalein and Eniwetok were the next "stops" in the eastward advance. Each exacted a price on the roll to the Marianas.
Saipan, the largest island -- but still only three times the size of Manhattan -- was invaded just nine days after D-Day. Casualties are hard and loathsome to compare, but Marines who lead the assault boast their losses were worse than Omaha Beach. While "mopping up" continued -- the term was resented by Army troops who had the dirty task of hunting down snipers and pockets of resistance one-by-one -- work began immediately on what was to become Isley Field. Amid sniper fire, Army Air Corps troops began cutting cane and readying for the bombers.
In Japan, the mastermind of this war, Hideki Tojo, resigned as Prime Minister. The safety of the home islands could no longer be assured. On November 24, 1944, B-29's flew from Saipan to Tokyo. The raids -- including a March 1945 night of terror that claimed more lives than either atomic bomb -- continued unabated until the surrender.
Just over a month before, on October 20, 1944, MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte -- actually, several times for the benefit of photographers. Somewhere in the rush of what would come to be called "visuals" he got off what would come to be called a "sound bite:" "People of the Philippines, I have returned."
Ordinary Gl's were not thrilled to help MacArthur make good on his 1942 promise. Manila gave them their only experience in the kind of house-to-house fighting familiar in the European Theater of Operations. And MacArthur spent nine months clearing all the major Philippine islands of Japanese troop concentrations -- his only deviation from the strategy of by-passing enemy garrisons when possible.
Though MacArthur was already ashore at Leyte, the Japanese were determined against allowing the Empire to be cleaved in two: They sent the balance of their navy to isolate the landing force, deprive it of replacements and re-supply.
Between October 23 and October 25, a series of naval engagements broke the spine of the Imperial force and chilled the world with an unspeakable tactic. The Battle of Leyte Gulf is recorded as the greatest encounter of its kind in history. World War I's Jutland involved about 250 ships. There were more than 280 at Leyte, with 187,000 sailors and hundreds of airplanes.
A Navy that began the war by sinking two of Britain's proudest capital ships in one day, was now settling on the bottom. A total of 28 ships -- carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers -- were sunk in the engagement.
Volunteer fliers, however, brought a new, desperate tactic into the war. Named for the "divine wind" that destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet in 1215, they were the kamikaze.
As pressure on the home islands -- by submarines, bombers and the threat of invasion -- mounted, resistance became all-the-more determined.
Bombers returning to Saipan and Tinian, however, needed a way station in the trackless Pacific. Also, fighter planes, lacking the range of the lumbering bombers, could not fly escort over Tokyo.
Draw a straight line from Saipan to Tokyo and it will cross the Bonin Islands. Iwo Jima was invaded on February 19, 1945. It was the crucible of the U.S. Marine Corps, its time on the cross. All the more so because the globe-and-anchor was being worn by draftees; through most of the war the Corps' billets were barred to conscripts. The draftees were dubbed "handcuffed volunteers."
The Marines suffered 5,885 dead and 17,272 wounded. There were 20,000 Japanese troops on the island. Congress was silent on casualty ratios this time: Iwo had to be taken. This time there were no alternatives.
Nor was there anything like the battle fought by John Wayne. The black sands of Iwo Jima bear little resemblance to the balmy precincts of Catalina Island, where the movie was filmed. Even Joe Rosenthal's celebrated photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi is mute testimony to the awfulness of the fighting. Three of the six men in the picture died in the battle. Issuing a line probably penned for him, to buck up flagging morale at home, the commander of the invasion force, Admiral Chester Nimitz intoned: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue. "
The gallantry's only reward was the call for renewed sacrifice. In anticipation of the invasion of Japan, the garrison on Okinawa would have to be neutralized. Note well the dates: The battle was fought from April to June, 1945. Japan fought on unabated after Germany surrendered and Italy had already gone over to the Allied camp.
In the space of that campaign; 200,000 human beings lost their lives. Of them 12,281 were American, including the invasion commander, Gen. Simon Buckner. In one two-day offensive alone, kamika-zes and bombers killed 628 sailors.
There is a saying that anyone will crack under the strain of combat; it's only a matter of "when". Okinawa, for many, was "when." By the end of May, the forces assaulting Okinawa counted more than 14,000 neuro-psychiatric" cases. If there were ever illusions or schemes for glory, they had been wrung from a battle-weary country.
In August, the Enola Gay (named for its pilot's mother) and Bock's Car roared off the runways at North Field on Tinian. The atomic age began and the war was soon to end. Illness, wounds, trackless scars would start to heal. For some, there would never again be a time when they felt so active, so vital, so involved and important as in the three-year span of America's Pacific war.
For most, the job was done and a homecoming was to be attended to. Like some stranded Japanese garrison, the terrors were to be sealed off, forgotten, left to wither as time isolated them like some by-passed garrison.
This, too, was the War Of Our Fathers.
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