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Remembering our fathers

For many families in the 1950s, 60s and even 1970s, World War II was not a "topic of conversation", and yet we were growing up surrounded by heros; real ones, with unhealed wounds and dark unspoken tales of valor.

As children we learned of their war in snippets, sometimes from imprecisely overheard fragments of conversations at the edge of earshot. And we wondered, where had he been? What had they done? What had been done to them?

We might catch a glimpse of a gray circle on abdomen or arm. How did that happen? Or overhear a nightmare marring a Sunday afternoon nap. What was that about? Or perhaps a visit from someone that even your mother didn't know, but your father surely seemed to know very well.

In those days World War II was taught far more in American schools than it is in our history-challenged present moment. Dates like D-Day and VE-Day were lavishly memorialized each year, and in the Pantheon of WWII holidays no date was more important than Pearl Harbor Day.

But for those of us whose fathers actually served in the Pacific Theater in World War II there was always a difference between us and kids whos fathers had been part of campaigns in Europe -- we didn't have photos of Dad at the Eiffel Tower or Roman Coliseum in the Summer of 1944, nor could we seek out the family he had befriended when he was on garrison duty in Holland.

Our father's war was waged at the end of the Earth, the terra incognita of our geography classes. No matter the importance of the battle our fathers fought in, it was still on some unknown dot at the end of a string of specks in the mapmakers' vastly incomprehensible blue Pacific.

Who had heard of Iwo Jima? Or Okinawa? Are those part of Japan?

Or the Marshall Islands. The Gilberts. The easily overlooked island-speck that is Saipan, or its even smaller sister-speck, Tinian?

We wondered, too, could I do it? Could I expose myself to being stalked by ever-present death? Would I stumble forward through the fog of war, or freeze? Or run. Could I let myself be so humbled that I could volunteer to serve knowing full well that at any moment a tiny piece of lead could end everything I am and everything I hope to become?

Some suggest that our fathers did not know what they were getting into: that they answered the nations' call blindly, propelled by nationalistic passion in the wake of Pearl Harbor more than reason, or even idealism. Some describe the era encompassing World War II and the years leading up to it as "innocent", and Americans of that era as "naive".

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most men of The Greatest Generation knew going in that the WWII they were being sucked into was not a Hollywood production starring John Wayne, not even a B-movie, and certainly nothing like the relentlessly upbeat military training films they would be forced to watch in basic.

The American citizen-soldiers of WWII had been fire-hardened by the Great Depression. They had experienced the dignity of their labor being reduced to the mockery of idleness and toxic poverty. They marched to war carrying searing memories of the rich parading their wealth and flaunting common decency while a quarter of the nation lived at the edge of starvation.

Most went to war with few illusions. They had a visceral pre-President Eisenhower understanding of the military-industrial complex and knew, full well, that they were being absorbed by a relentless machine that profited handsomely from their sacrifices.

Sometimes the contradictions between public policy and common wisdom in pre-war America became breathtakingly stark: shortly before the war elevated train tracks were stripped from New York's Sixth Avenue, rumor being that the scrap iron was being sold to an already-aggressive Imperial Japan. Demolition workers predicted "We'll buy it back at 21 bucks a month" -- the base pay of an Army private.

Their geopolitical foresight was soon borne out: the Sixth Avenue El returned as predicted, transiting at shrapnel-speed and arriving right on the Japanese schedule at Pacific stations located on bloody jungle battlefields with unpronounceable names.

Many of our fathers waged war with a resigned determination and, whether gung-ho or more reserved in their martial enthusiasm, they were not blinded to reality.

When you speak with men who served in combat in WWII they will tell you, usually in neutral terms, of men who would injure themselves to escape combat duty and of their own fervent prayers for a million-dollar-wound -- an injury not bad enough to permanently cripple, but serious enough to send you home permanently.

Very few American WWII combat veterans speak about anything being glorious about their combat experience, and only a minority volunteered to have it. Over 61% were drafted -- a solid majority that is closely mirrored in the percentages of recipients of every category of American combat award or citation conferred during WWII.

Some went because they believed the job needed doing, some because, thanks to the draft, they had to. Many served reluctantly, and not even all of them did this -- some evaded, some refused, some assiduously sought safe duty, ideally stateside.

Some imploded in the face of battle, or fought on into the twilight of permanent shell shock -- a term that was coined during the previous 20th Century world convulsion, WWI. Their fathers war.

But whatever the beliefs, fears, reservations or demurs of the newly-minted troop, the military purpose of the war was clear and the alternatives to opposing the Axis powers vanishingly few.

Most importantly, many of our fathers who served -- even reluctantly -- believed in something identifiably, persistently and gloriously 20th Century American: the belief that in their hands lay "the last best hope" of humanity.

Iwo Jima? Okinawa? Tinian?

These were the birthplaces of heros.

Pray for the fallen Americans and Japanese on the sulfurous black sands of Iwo Jima.

Preserve the sanctity of the battlefields of Okinawa where over 12,000 Americans and nearly 200,000 Japanese -- mostly civilians -- died in two months: a horrific preview of the far-greater holocaust that the invasion of Japan's home islands was universally expected to be.

Always remember Tinian. If Cape Canaveral is revered for demonstrating the best of what mankind can be, then Tinian is a cautionary shrine to humanities' Promethean capabilities. Tinian, too, was a launch pad -- for Enola Gay and Bock's Car, airborne chariots of war that carried the two nuclear instants that ended Japan's Empire.

Forever honor those who fought in the Pacific to secure our freedoms -- like sanctified Gettysburg, the spirit of America abides in these battlefields and at the unmarked graves of Americans lost to the vast Pacific ocean and on its islands.


The origin of the trigger


Some consider the attack on Pearl Harbor to be a near-inevitable -- or at least perfectly logical -- consequence of the forced opening of Japan by the United States in the latter 1800s.

The Japan of 1852 was an Asian feudal fly-in-amber, in many ways a 1600s culture in a state of arrested development.

Since the 1603 the war lords of the Tokugawa Shogunate had kept Japan sealed-off from the wider world. The small number of foreigners allowed to enter Japan were confined to a single portal on Dejima Island within Nagasaki Prefecture. Very few Japanese interacted with these gaijin (literally, "outside person") and cultural exchange -- the Japanese virtually universally viewed it as pollution -- was kept to a minimum.

Beginning just before the Tokugawa era of self-imposed isolation, the Japanese also began conducting a radical social experiment unique in recorded history: they suppressed the use of firearms from 1545 until 1879, thus conferring on Japan the distinction of being the sole culture to voluntarily eschew an important military technology once they had aquired it.

However noble the intent of this firearms-abstinence, by the middle 1800s it placed Japan at a tremendous military disadvantage on the rare occasions where it met up with the West -- the Western World had not by any means Given Up The Gun. Quite the contrary.

Commodore Matthew Perry, United States Navy, 1853When Commodore Matthew Perry's heavily armed Black Ships arrived at Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, for a forced meeting with the Japanese government, the modern era in Japan began with a shockingly big bang.

The first effect was purely practical and tactical: the Japanese military knew that their navy was no match for the big guns on Perry's ships, all 73 of which he had fired within the bay in a show of force thinly disguised as a belated 4th of July celebration. Just in case the Japanese didn't get that message, in 1854 Perry returned to the Convention of Kanagawa -- a fruit of the "gunboat diplomacy" of his initial visit -- with ten ships, over double the number of his first incursion.

The second effect was psychological, was both caused by and amplified by the first, and had strategic implications.

For most Japanese in the mid 1800s, the belief in Japanese racial and cultural superiority was a bedrock assumption. This world view was exceedingly difficult to sustain when it came face to face with the technologies of the West. The fact that the technologies on most prominent display in Edo Bay were military made this assault on received wisdom all the more threatening and humiliating.

This sense of humiliation coupled with raw fear created tremendous pressure on Japan's government and military to respond competitively -- and they did, slowly at first, but with increasing momentum.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was dismantled in 1867 and, along with it, over a quarter millennium of unbroken isolationist policy.

The succeeding Meiji regime was both imperialist and far more open to Western ideas and technologies, especially military technologies. For the first time in modern Japanese history a significant number of young Japanese studied outside Japan, with many earning degrees in the sciences, gateway to military engineering.

Coupled with this outreach to the West in technical areas -- and perhaps counterintuitively -- Japan was simultaneously experiencing a spiritual re-awakening.

Drawing on a deep reservoir of traditions and rituals, public respect for the Emperor -- waning under the shoguns -- was not only restored, but enhanced and promoted as the central unifying force within Japanese society. This rejuvenated and amplified love of Emperor, country, militarism and expansionism all came into vogue synchronous with Japan's increased and increasingly visible military muscle.

America, too, was both military-industrialist and expansionist at the end of the 19th century -- in Hollywood terms, Manifest Destiny Writ Large meets an Armaments Dealer, and its victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 had given the United States an expansive if somewhat troublesome Pacific posession to defend, the 7,641-island Philippine archipelago.

The changes in Japanese government and society did not go unoticed by the now-permanent American diplomatic mission in Japan, nor did the turmoil in nearby China, and the United States responded with thinly veiled muscle flexing.

John Hay, Secretary of State of the United States photographed in 1897In 1899 American Secretary of State John Hay issued the Open Door Note, a diplomatic communication which became the basis for what is referred to as the Open Door Policy, arguably the fundamental cornerstone of all United States' foreign policy in Asia-Pacific through WWII -- and beyond.

While Open Door Note was directed to major European powers -- who were then greedily eyeing a possible colonial division of China and specifically concerned China -- its general message was understood to be that the United States would police the Pacific Ocean, and even land areas within Asian countries, to enforce free trade.

The assertion of interest in free trade in Asia made explicit in the Open Door Note was not surprising: trade with China and other countries in Asia pre-dated the founding of the nation, and America had a clear vested economic interest in trade with Asian nations. Each year new ways to more efficiently trade with Asian nations were found by businessmem, shipbuilders and longshoremen from Boston to New Orleans. Intrepid American sailors defied ice floes annually in ceasless search for a Northwest Passage, the dreamed-of magically-shortend trade route to Asia.

The implicit military threat in the Open Door Note was something different, and introduced a newly confrontational tone to Japanese-American relations. The threat was not idle: thirtyfive years beyond the the end of the Civil War the American navy had been rebuilt. It was asserting itself all over the globe, an impossible-to-ignore manifestation of Manifest Destiny outside the borders of the United States.

But at the turn of the 20th Century these traditions of American commerce and newfound American ambitions were colliding with what the Japanese government and most of its people had come to deeply believe: that Japan needed unimpeeded access to raw materials, captive markets and sheer space -- in German "lebensraum", to use a word borrowed from one of Japan's future allies -- in order to flourish.

According to this view, expanding beyond a constrained, resource-poor home archipelago was manifesty Japan's destiny, and the living generation of Japanese were the instruments of that divinely ordained historical inevitability.

For the first four decades of the 20th century, that destiny appeared to be being realized.

Emboldened by victory over the Russians in 1905 and the final collapse of independent Korea in 1910 -- Japan had been undermining Korean sovereignty for decades, and assiduously so since 1904 -- Japan's power and sphere of influence in Asia expanded largely unchallenged throughout the 1920s.

In 1931 Japan used a near-comical hoax -- the Mukden Incident, often referred to as the Manchurian Incident -- as a pretext for the invasion of a soverign nation, the Japanese Army sweeping into Manchuria virtually unopposed.

Japanese soldier preparing to behead a Chinese, Nanking, 1937China was the biggest mainland Asia prize, and in 1937 the Japanese got it, taking and holding Beijing and many other important cities, this time after some real fights.

As in Korea and elsewhere, the Japanese occupation of China was brutal from the start, with the inland river city of Nanking faring the worst.

Beginning on December 13, 1937, Japanese Army troops began a six week systematic orgy of wanton destruction largely within the Nanking city limits. Estimates of the carnage vary widely -- from a low of 40,000 to over 300,000 dead, mostly civilian. Countless Chinese women were raped as a matter of military policy, and the "Rape of Nanking" itself is universally deemed one of the largest and most horrific incidents perpetrated by a regular army in modern history.

The world took no more notice than it did just eight months earlier at the targeting of civilians for aerial bombardment in the Basque town of Guernica by Generalisimo Francisco Franco's air force during the Spanish Civil War.

Total War in its modern form was sparking upon an unprepared world via newly muscular air power, the rapid enhancement of the explosive power of ordnance and, in more than a few cases, a reversion to ancient barbarities that an army can always inflict upon civilians.


Past as prologue?


By the beginning of the 1920s, the world was being warned by various voices about the destructive potential of air power, a form of armament that didn't exist just two decades before. Nowhere was that warning better reasoned, more clearly demonstrated, more publically debated or more perfectly ignored than in the United States.

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, United States Army Air ForceBrigadier General William L. Mitchell -- former Chief of Air Service in WWI and holder of the Distinguished Service Cross; the Distinguished Service Medal; the World War I Victory Medal and several decorations from foreign governments -- had begun to forcefully advance the idea that air power was not only ascendent but had ascended, and that large ships were so vulnerable to aerial bombardment as to be largely obsolete.

Mitchell's passionate advocacy of the primacy of air power -- the newest of military technologies that wouldn't even have its own service branch until 1947 -- didn't sit well with the highest eschelons of any branch of service, and particularly within the Navy, a service as old as the republic itself.

But Billy Mitchell was a true aviation believer blessed to have available for target practice numerous military ships of all types and sizes, both retired American vessels and German warships that had been siezed by the United States Navy at the end of WWI.

In 1921 he proceeded to publicly sink the biggest of them -- the battleships Alabama and Osfriesland -- using the Army Air Force aircraft at his disposal, which mostly consisted of wood-and-canvas Martin NBS-1 biplanes with crude bombsights and simple, mostly not particularly large, bombs.

The cost differential between a tiny biplane plus bomb and the battleship it could cripple or destroy was obvious to anyone watching a newsreel trailer at the theater, and the public spectacle Mitchell created by sinking what would be the crown jewels of any navy was deeply resented within his own.

Mitchell did not beieve that World War I had been the end of warfare. He clearly saw the threat that Japan's growing and battle-tested military posed, and the unique threat to the fleet at Pearl Harbor posed by Japanese naval aviation.

He understood that aviation had transformed the battle-space of the vast Pacific -- that any future war in that theater would be waged from island-chain to island-chain by armies with unprecedented dependence on air power, and with air power being the primary limiting factor in both the speed and distance of the projection of force.

He also understood that air power could enable innovative approaches to conquest that would allow attacking armies to isolate and bypass enemy island garrisons, causing them to wither and die without engaging in battle -- victories secured with negligible cost to the attacking army in lives and equipment. The strategy became known as "Island Hopping", and Mitchell's friend General Douglas MacArthur raised it to an art form in his leadership of the Allies re-conquest of the Pacific from 1943 to 1945.

Mitchell continued his public critique of American military preparedness and priorities after the ship sinkings, aware of mounting anger among his superiors.

In September 1925 he released a statement accusing senior Army and Navy leaders of incompetence and "almost treasonable administration of the national defense" in relation to their management of military aviation programs, and the deaths of a number of aviators as a result of what Mitchell asserted was gross mismanagement.

He went on to publically criticize the air defenses at Hawaii, primarily a naval responsibility, in terms that would become frighteningly prescient just 16 years later and predicting, among other things, that the Japanese would attack one "one fine Sunday morning".

The Admirals had had more than enough.

By November, 1925, Billy Mitchell was facing court martial on eight breathtakingly nebulous charges including violation of the infamous 96th Article of War, a catch-all charge so frangible that it was characterized by congressmen of the day and others as an unconstitutional restriction of speech.

United States Army General Douglas MacArthur, France, 1918The court martial -- much like Mitchell's highly-promoted ship sinkings -- was very public, and public opinion largely favored Billy Mitchell.

The Court Martial Board saw things differently. Brigadier General Mitchell was convicted on all counts, busted back to his permanent rank of Colonel and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. In a slightly conciliatory gesture, President Coolidge used his executive authority to amend that to half pay.

The vote was not unanimous: though not widely known at the time, it is now accepted that the sole exonerating Court Martial Board ballot was cast by a wealthy sometimes-vainglorious student of military history and WWI hero, the recently promoted United States Army Major General Douglas MacArthur.

Billy Mitchell survived, but barely, lionized by many within the military -- particularly the aviation community -- and occasionaly listened to by the powerful, but pariah to many of those who might have done him good.

Nothing of substance changed at Pearl Harbor; the Navy continued to aquire battleships in preference to aircraft carriers; Army Air Force planes continued to largely be made of wood and canvas while Japanese and German air forces transitioned to metal.

America moved on and the debate was forgotten, lost in the beautiful buzz of the twilight years of the jazzed-up Roaring 20s. And Douglas MacArthur moved on as well, all the way back to the Manila of his youth and command of all United States forces in the Philippines.


A slow-growing nightmare metastasizes, 1941


At the peak of their power, the Ancient Romans boasted of the Mediterranean as their Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. In truth, it was. The Caesars had imposed the Pax Romana on the known world, and the Mediterranean had become their pond. Yet the scale of Imperial Roman military achievements pales beside the epic reach of Japan's 20th Century empire at its zenith.

Japan's military seemed invincible in the late 1930s and early 1940s as an economically crippled and cautious America and an already war-weary Great Britain struggled to hold on to the tattered remnants of their shrinking portfolios of overseas posessions.

In just a handful of years Japan's military forces had been able to simultaneously expand in all directions: westward into China and the Indian sub-continent; southwest through Indo-China including territory encompassing present day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; deep into the southern hemisphere through various island chains towards desperately isolated Australia and New Zealand; north into the Korean peninsula.

The Japanese Army -- ably transported and supported by the Japanese Navy -- launched a successful surprise assault on Singapore through allegedly impregnable jungle and rapidly swept the British out of Hong Kong and Burma to cap their expulsion from China. Unlike Germany, whose threat to the American homeland was largely distant and theoretical, the direct immediate threat posed by Japan to the United States and its possessions in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor was unique since the War of 1812 when, among their other depredations on American soil during that conflict, the British gratuitously burned most of the Capitol buildings on their way out of the country.

By 1941 the world's greatest ocean had become Japan's Mare Nostrum, and United States interests in the Pacific were threatened wherever the Japanese Navy chose to sail -- which was rapidly becoming anywhere it wanted to sail including, once hostilities had commenced, close enough to the coast of California to shell an oil storage facility in Ellwood, twelve miles north of Santa Barbara.

By 1941 a fifth of the Earth was under the direct control of the Empire of Japan, and much of the rest of it lived in fear at the edges of the expanding colossus. They called their regnum the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and imagined it represented a permanent and ever-expanding sphere of control and influence for Dai Nippon.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Navy, 1941By 1941 Japan was looking to expand that sphere once again, and at targets to the east in the Philippines; to the northeast in the United States territory of Alaska and, fatefully, due east beyond the Philippines to the heart of American power in the Pacific, the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

On December 7th, 1941 -- informed by a lethaly heady cocktail of present-day victories and the memory of martial successes gleaned from Japanese military history -- the Empire of Japan executed a daring and flawless surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor that killed 2,403 Americans, injured a further 1,178 and, at least momentarily, reduced United States naval capabilities in the Western and Central Pacific to close to zero.

The brilliant architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew it was a mistake, saying prophetically after having been ordered by Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo to dispatch his forces, "I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years."

Yamamoto knew what he was talking about. He had attended Harvard, spoke fluent English and had twice served as Japanese naval military attache to the United States. Serving in Washington and traveling extensively throughout America, he had developed an excellent appreciation of the vastness of United States, the magnitude of its resources and its potency, even in slumber.

The consequences of rousing the American lion were profound and permanent: the attack on Pearl Harbor marks the start of what is now known colloquially in Japan as The Disaster -- the beginning of the end for the Japanese Empire, its military leaders, the divinity of the Emperor and Japanese society as it had ever been understood.



Listen to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Infamy" speech to Congress on December 8th, 1941


If you would like to view War Of Our Fathers photographs, read the foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose, the afterword by Senator John McCain, or access our WWII Pacific Theater resources, you are welcome to do so here, or from any other page on this site.

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foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose | afterword by Senator John McCain
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