Recollections of a GI in the Pacific
For those in the US armed forces, news of the use of a mighty new weapon marked a dramatic turning point. An Army Air Force sergeant shares his mixed emotions. LOOKING BACK AT HIROSHIMA.
SAIPAN — DURING the summer of 1945, when I was on Saipan, nature's weather machine turned out a series of near-perfect days, each one a carbon copy of the previous one.
The procession of blue skies created a feeling that time was standing still, that we were forever marooned on this tiny island in the western Pacific.
When the sun's first rays slanted through our tent on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1945, it seemed like every other day. It had been well over a year since that other early morning in Kansas, when I lingered in the doorway of our one-room apartment as long as I could without missing the convoy, to say goodbye to my wife and four-month-old son.
As I awakened this particular morning, however, I remembered that it was a special day: I was going to visit my brother, Art, an Army doctor stationed on Iwo Jima. By some miracle, I had wrangled not only a three-day pass, but also a seat on a transport supply plane.
I was the first man in the mess hall, and, after a quick breakfast, hitchhiked a jeep ride to Isley Field No. 1, where I boarded the plane. The other passengers included a war correspondent, a transient pilot, and several marines. The takeoff was bumpy; the plane lurched and shuddered under its load, but everyone relaxed when the transient pilot smiled and hollered above the din of the engines, ''We're upstairs!''
As we climbed and banked, I got a new perspective on sun-splashed, shore-washed Tinian, a verdant island only a few miles to the southwest. Although it looked like an uninhabited paradise from a promontory near our tent, I knew that Tinian, like Saipan and Guam, was a nest for B-29 bomber squadrons that regularly and relentlessly bombed military installations in Japan.
Before dawn nearly every day, groups of ''superfortresses'' would thunder down the runways at precisely timed intervals, slowly lift their huge loads of bombs and fuel into the air, rendezvous in squadrons, fly more than 1,500 miles to Japan, make their runs over carefully selected and fiercely defended targets, then head back for home. They would arrive after dark, sometimes with one or more engines knocked out and very little fuel.
Many were shot down; others had to ditch in the ocean. A crewman with whom you talked or played chess one evening would be missing in action several days later. By this time, the B-29s had taken a heavy toll on Japanese war industries.
Japanese planes had been able to threaten the B-29 raiders only by means of one-way kamikaze (suicide) attacks from Iwo Jima, about halfway between Tokyo and the Mariana Islands. Now that Iwo Jima had been captured, we were out of their range.
Still, the Pacific war seemed endless. How long would it take, and what would it cost to secure the surrender of such a fanatical enemy? As the transport plane droned toward Iwo Jima that morning, my thoughts turned again to my wife and son, and I wondered how much longer it would be until I saw them again.
America's military objectives had been well defined and stated. The US and its allies had freed Europe from Nazism, and now they were committed to eliminating the menace of the Japanese war machine as well.
My personal sacrifices in the war had been inconsequential compared with those of many others, for I was ''chair borne, not airborne.'' Nevertheless, I had to ask myself again: Can war ever be morally justified? Does it simply sow the seeds of further conflict? By what twist of logic or strain of conscience are citizens of one country convinced that they must kill and maim their fellow human beings in another country? Does the automation of weapons make war so impersonal that we no longer confront, face to face, the horrible consequences of our actions in pressing a switch or pushing a button?
What could this world be like if all of the ingenuity, energy, and resources that go into military operations were redirected toward helping humankind? The imagined answer to that question always dazzled me.
After about four hours, as we started to land at Iwo Jima, I left the world I envisioned to face the one I was in. But the world I reentered on Iwo Jima was not the one I left on Saipan. For while I was in flight, the world had changed. During our flight, a B-29 from a sister squadron on Tinian had dropped ''an atomic bomb'' on Hiroshima.
After landing, I hitched a ride to the 232nd General Hospital, where I found my brother. For three days, I accompanied him on his rounds, explored the island, and talked - mostly about our family and the bomb.
Gradually, by shortwave radio and other means, information about the bomb filtered down to us. Even as factual questions were answered, philosophical ones were raised.
I had mixed feelings about the news. On one hand, it promised an end to the war and a quick return home, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my family again and resuming my career. On the other hand, as the co-pilot of the Enola Gay had written in his journal moments after the bomb exploded: ''My God, what have we done?''
An entire city is not just a military target; it shelters innocent children, spouses, aging parents, sisters, brothers, and friends - just like my own. When I realized the enormity of the destruction, I loathed myself for thinking so exclusively about going home.
Yet there were other vital issues to consider: What would have been the cost in American and Japanese lives to invade Japan? Japanese military leaders had been ferociously aggressive and fanatically determined to establish an Asian empire in which they would reign supreme. In the decade before their unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces had invaded Manchuria and committed dreadful atrocities on civilians there and in Korea. The Japanese had inflicted enormous casualties on America and its allies. One could only shudder at the prospect of a battle against an enemy that boasted, ''We will fight until we eat stones.'' The loss of life and the desolation of the Japanese would be horrendous.
Not yet 25 years old and longing to see my wife and child, I decided I could forgive myself in hoping for what I saw as the lesser of two evils. I empathized with the teenage marine on our plane who, upon hearing the news, exclaimed with relief and joy, ''We're going to live! We're going to go home, get out, and grow to maturity after all!''
We took off for the return trip to Saipan on Friday, Aug. 9. An hour into the flight, the radio man told us that a second atomic bomb had dropped at 11:02 a.m., Japanese time, on Nagasaki. I felt a sudden chill. We bored through a thunderstorm, and I thought of the faces I wanted to see and the loved ones I wanted to embrace at home. But I was haunted, too, by vividly imagined scenes taking place that very moment in a nearer land.
Although I had never fired a shot, I knew that by my presence I was as responsible as the bombardier who pressed the release; and, like everyone on earth, I had to come to terms with the issue of violence versus nonviolence in human affairs. Although this conviction did not come solely from this heightened awareness of my accountability, at that moment it became a compelling force in my life.
In the following days, I was encouraged to learn that America had taken great pains to secure a peaceful surrender of Japan before resorting to the atomic bomb. Not everyone understands or appreciates the fact that the US carried out a campaign to inform the Japanese people of their hopeless position and of the overwhelming forces arrayed against them.
As one part of that effort, US planes dropped millions of leaflets giving the residents of 11 major Japanese cities (which did not include Hiroshima or Nagasaki) advance notice of possible bombing raids by American planes. A translated copy of this leaflet still in my possession reads as follows:
''ATTENTION JAPANESE PEOPLE
''Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days the military installations in four (or more) of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all the tools of the military clique that they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America's well-known humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.
''America is not fighting the Japanese people, but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war.
''We cannot promise that only these cities will be those attacked, but at least four will be; so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.''
When Japan ignored the Potsdam Proclamation, which threatened the destruction of Japan unless it surrendered, President Harry S. Truman finally decided to use the newly developed atomic bomb in the hope that it would make an invasion of Japan unnecessary. So it was that on Sept. 2, 1945 - three years, eight months, and 22 days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor - World War II ended.
I returned to the US on Nov. 14, 1945, feeling like Rip van Winkle. I remember running to the bank of telephone booths as soon as I got off the troop ship in San Francisco.
Although my wife and I had written each other, I had not seen or talked to her since we said goodbye in Kansas 16 months earlier.
After closing the door, I took a huge breath to compose myself and gave the long-distance operator the still-remembered number.
The phone rang, and I waited until the operator said, ''Here's your party.'' A wonderfully familiar voice said, ''Hello!''
My lips moved, but I could not speak. Words would not form. ''Mary!'' I finally blurted out over 3,000 miles of wire.
''Darling!'' she shouted. ''Are you still all right?''
I managed to say where I was and when I would be home. She had the baby make some heart-melting sounds, and we said goodbye 10 times, at least. I hung up refreshed. I was going home again.
I stayed in the booth to decompress until another soldier appeared, wanting to make a call.
Although I am grateful that all of us were spared the greater death and destruction that the invasion of Japan would have inflicted on both sides, I am sobered by another realization - that the atomic bomb's use and the subsequent buildup of nuclear weapons have sowed seeds of violence in the world.
Today's nuclear weapons have a destructive power many, many times greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most scientists today agree that if even a fraction of the present stockpile of nuclear weapons were used, our planet's ability to sustain life as we know it would be destroyed. In a real sense, these scientists have showered us all with leaflets of forewarning that remove our past innocence and make us fully responsible for the future.