The Dec. 7 anniversary of the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor will be remembered in history alongside the South Carolina secessionists' shelling of Fort Sumter and the terrorist events of 9/11/2001. It marked a wrenching turning point in our history, the effects of which are still being felt.
It also marks, this year, the further disappearance of the Greatest Generation heroes who fought the war for us. Former Sen. and presidential candidate George McGovern, who piloted the maximum 35 bomber missions over Europe, died only recently. Former President George H.W. Bush, shot down in his dive bomber and rescued from the Pacific, and former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, wounded gravely as an enlisted infantryman in Italy, were admitted for hospital treatment during the past week. All were decorated for valor during their service, as were many others.
For my own generation, who were kids during World War II, there are many flash memories of the time. I was 7 when Pearl Harbor happened, 11 when the war ended in 1945.
My dad, an unskilled Bellingham sawmill worker, always brought home at Christmas a box of Japanese tangerines — until 1941, when they disappeared from the market. We walked to downtown Bellingham on Dec. 7 to see a Sunday movie matinee at the American Theater on Cornwall Avenue. It was an unseasonably balmy, clear-sky day. When we returned home, my mother met us at the front door. "The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor," she told us. "We're at war." Dad, charcteristically, said "Maybe now we'll take out Hitler." (Dad hated Hitler for occupying his native Netherlands and for his atrocities against Jews and other minorities.)
As it happened, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not mean we were at war with Germany. That happened a short time later, when Hitler declared war on us.
I experienced the time just as most of my schoolmates did. After the war began, both my parents began six-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day schedules at their workplaces. We had no automobile but, for those who did, there was gas rationing which sharply limited mobility. There was an immediate fear that Japanese planes might launch air raids on West Coast cities — although that, at the time, was a technological impossibility. Every neighborhood had an air-raid warden and every home in Bellingham had a box of sand and a shovel on hand, with a posted notice above telling what to do in the event of a raid. Night sports and other events were cancelled, lest their lights be a beacon to Japanese planes or submarines. All nearby beaches were closed; some had obstacles against invasion. Our First Christian Church, just down the street, became a barracks for soldiers who marched in formation each morning past our doorway. We went to double Daylight Saving Time. Clocks were moved up two hours — which meant it was light outside on summer nights until nearly 11 p.m.
At grade school we regularly bought War Savings Stamps, to help pay for the war, and filled coupon books with them. On a more important level, neighbors' sons (and a few daughters) volunteered or were drafted for military service. A majority were sent to the Pacific war theater.
There was no way to escape the war on the homefront. There was no television. But black-and-white films — some quite good (and being shown now on Turner Classic Movies) — and regular radio broadcasts and movie newsreels kept us immersed in the war. War posters were everywhere, exhorting us to support the troops, zip our lips (lest spies pickup useful information) and buy War Bonds. Others encouraged women to join the service or to take defense-factory jobs. Darker ones portrayed Japanese troops, in particular, as primitive, bestial figures with blood on their mouths and hands.
There were almost no Japanese Americans in Bellingham. But, down the Sound, they were rounded up and sent to internment camps. (Millions of German Americans, mainly living in the East and Midwest, were not similarly interned). Patriotic Japanese Americans volunteered for military service and were sent from their internment camps to training centers and, then, to Europe. Among them was Hawaii U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who fought as an enlisted infantryman in Italy and lost his arm in battle. Inouye, in later years, would recount his unit's reaction when they learned of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. His company had been attempting to seize a German strong point up a hillside, Inouye said, but heavy fire had pinned them down. Someone passed the word that FDR had died. A spontaneous yell went up: "Let's do it for the chief!" And so, Inouye said, they fixed bayonets and rushed and took the strong point, although taking casualties. "No one questioned our loyalty that day," he added.
Walking to Washington Grade School and to downtown, I saw Gold Stars in windows along the way. They signified that a family member had been killed in the war. Blue Stars signified that a family member was serving.
American losses in the Asia/Pacific theater, as in other war theaters, were relatively small compared to those of other major combatant countries. But the fighting in the Pacific was brutal and intense. The Japanese, with a long warrior tradition, held to a no-surrender, fight-to-the-death doctrine. When defeat was apparent in battle, they often made suicide charges. They also undertook suicide airplane and submarine attacks. They scorned adversaries who did not follow suit and who surrendered. American and other allied prisoners were often maltreated, sent to slave labor, and/or beheaded or used for bayonet practice. The best account of the Pacific fighting is perhaps contained in British historian Max Hastings' 2008 book Retribution (Knopf). If you prefer fiction, based on fact, there are Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line.
Could the war in the Pacific have been averted?
It is difficult to see how it might have been. Japan was bent on Asian conquest — and the establishment of a so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in which colonial powers would be expelled and it would dominate. Its conquests and occupations had proceeded during the 1930s. Finally, FDR ordered an embargo of Japanese petroleum, without which the Japanese economy and war machine would soon starve. He knew the Japanese would not yield and, in doing so, knew that he was pulling the U.S. toward a war it otherwise had wanted to avoid. A Japanese attack was, in fact, expected, although not in Hawaii. The Dec. 7 raid on Pearl Harbor destroyed battleships, aircraft, and other vessels. But, to our good fortune, American aircraft carriers were on maneuvers at sea and avoided the attack.
Japan had no intention, of course, of invading or conquering the United States. It believed that strong and decisive early Japanese blows in the Pacific would open the way to a negotiated end to the war. But that was a misreading of the American character. From that point forward, there was never a real chance for anything but an outcome resulting in unconditional Japanese surrender.
Lives were lost in the Pacific war that might have been spared. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded pre-war troops in the Philippines, insisted on the islands' reconquest. The lives and money expended on that reconquest, and that of the stepping-stone islands en route to the Philippines, need not have been expended at all. U.S. and allied forces could have bypassed them and proceeded in a straighter line toward the Japanese homeland.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!