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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.

By Nicholas C. BrownSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor. Nicholas C. Brown is a retired university administrator and freelance writer. He served as an Army Air Force sergeant in World War II / August 3, 1995



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.

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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?