The war is over
The date is August 15, 1945. The place, Tent City on Guam. It’s late, long after midnight.
The sound grew louder. The sound, at first, was faint, far-off, like the wind that rustles the trees on the farm back home in Pennsylvania, just before a storm. It seemed I was in one of those half-awake, half-asleep dreams, thinking of home, but when I heard Cpl. Marsden moving about in his bunk, I knew the sound was not from a dream. It was real. The others heard it too, and they began to stir.
There was a sliver of moon in the night’s sky, enough to give some light to the inside of the tent. I could see Marsden sit up in his bunk. I watched him push back his mosquito net, as if that would help him to hear better. Melanowski saw him too, and spoke up. “What is it, Sarge?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper. He had called Marsden “Sarge.” Everyone called Marsden Sarge. All squad leaders were sergeants, but headquarters never got around to promoting Marsden. He became squad leader when Sgt. Hamilton was killed on Okinawa.
“Shut up, Ski,” Marsden barked. Everyone in the tent was sitting up now, pushing back their mosquito nets.
“But what is it?” Melanowski asked again.
“Nothing,” Marsden said. “Be quiet.”
“It sounds like a fire,” Stevenson said, coming into the tent from outside. He was excited. “We had one in Camp Lejune,” he continued. “It started at one end of Tent City and in minutes wiped out the whole battalion.” Stevenson was the company brain. He had a year of college and answered questions no one else could answer. He used impressive sounding names, and he knew how to spell big words. He was in college and then one day out of the blue, he enlisted in the Marines. He liked to have others think it was patriotism but it wasn’t. The war was winding up and he figured if he acted quickly, he’d have the GI Bill to pay for his schooling. What he never expected was that three months after he signed up, the war was anything but over, and he found himself dodging bullets and digging foxholes on Okinawa.
No sooner had Stevenson mentioned the word fire than every Marine in the 29th began yelling at the tops of their voices. “Fire, fire!” they shouted. Had someone deliberately pushed the panic button they could not have done better. It was now a scramble to see who could get out of their tents first, not only those Marines in our tent but from every tent in Tent City. The crushed coral pathways between the rows of tents suddenly filled with excited Marines, standing there in their bare feet, some completely naked, others in their skivvies. Private Terry stood naked clutching his Ml rifle.
But where was the fire? There was no blazing red sky in any direction, and no smell of smoke. The sky was clear with the moon poking over the tops of the palms that ringed the camp. The men stood baffled, confused. The sound kept growing louder, like the roar of the sea, and it crept closer and closer.
Like a roar! That’s exactly what it was, a roar, a roar of voices. Men in the distance were shouting. They were shouting at the tops of their voices, and the message they had to tell came like a wave rushing to shore. “The war! The war!” they shouted. “The war, the war.” Then we made out the words “It’s over!” The war was over! “The Japanese have surrendered,” they shouted.
The entire regiment now picked up the chorus, shouting until they became hoarse, jumping up and down in their bare feet on the coral pathways. “The war is over,” they all sang together. They became hysterical, uncontrollable. They rushed into their tents and returned toting their Ml rifles. It was against regulations to possess live ammunition but some men kept a few extra rounds tucked away for emergencies. They loaded their Mls, pointed them skyward and fired. Some Marines had tracers and they fired these too, and when they went off they left long streaks across the sky, like falling stars. Soon the sky was all streaked. No one would have been surprised had the navy gunboats offshore fired their big guns. But then, maybe they hadn’t heard.
Finally, over PA speakers, the duty officer instructed everyone to keep calm, to put away their rifles and return to their tents. There would be an official announcement in the morning. We returned to our tents.
“It was that bomb that did it,” Melanowski announced when we were back inside. Stevenson agreed, it was the bomb that did it. We had heard about this wonder bomb before but didn’t know what to believe. We learned that on August 6th, a B-29 Super Fortress named Enola Gay had flown nearly 1,500 miles across the open Pacific and dropped a single bomb on a city in Japan. No one could remember the name of the city but they remembered the bomb’s dimensions: ten feet long, twenty-eight inches in diameter and weighing nine-thousand pounds. Then a couple of days later, there was talk about another B-29 dropping a second bomb on a Japanese city. No one could remember the name of that city either.
After we arrived back on Guam and began training, Stevenson was made Fox Company clerk, and he came back after work with all kinds of reports. Everyone was keen to hear about the bombing on Japan. The Allies, Stevenson reported, had been bombing Japanese mainland cities since June 15, 1944. They had dropped 170,000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the enemy before the Enola Gay ever appeared in Japanese skies.
“I don’t care how many friggin’ bombs they dropped. I told you guys to shut up,” Marsden shouted for the last time. There were no more discussions about bombs, not that night. We all went to sleep.
When reveille sounded the next morning, it started all over again. Even Marsden became involved this time. From the moment we were out of our bunks, we began questioning the outcry that awoke us in the middle of the night. The war was over! What the hell was all that about? Maybe it was only scuttlebutt. “Rumors, that’s all,” we mumbled. They expected us to believe that crap about Japan giving up! They taught us from the very start, from the first day in boot camp, that Japan would never surrender. “They’ll fight to the very last nip, down to the last woman and kid,” Col. Roston said only a few days before when we were headed in work parties down to the docks to load ships that would carry us and a million others on the invasion of Japan.
We knew the big push was coming. “Nine out of ten of you bastards will be dead in another month,” the colonel’s Exec officer reminded us, “so enjoy it while you can.” We hated that guy; he was a rear echelon major who had just joined the 29th; nevertheless, we listened, and we reasoned, never would the Japanese give up. The 29th had witnessed this on Okinawa. How many Japanese pulled the pins on their potato mashers and fell on them rather than give themselves up? How many thousands more, soldiers and civilians alike, leaped off the cliffs at the southern end of the island rather than surrender?
Official reports were kept from the troops, but Stevenson sneaked some through. The first invading force, called Operation Coronet was scheduled for November 1, 1945, less than three months away. It was to be followed by Operation Olympic. More than two million Japanese combat troops were waiting on the main islands. In reserve were four million civilian workers. Beyond that, the Japanese cabinet had approved drafting the remaining men between 15 and 60, and women from 17 to 45, to provide 28 million people armed with grenades and sharpened bamboo spears ready to die for the Emperor. Admiral Rikihei Takuma, chief of the Kamikaze Corps, had stockpiled fuel and armaments for 5,368 suicide aircraft, including biplane trainers, to use against the invasion fleet. The Mitsubishi plant and the Japan Steel works were on a seven-day, around-the-clock war-production schedule. In the harbor, Japanese sailors were readying hundreds of suicide boats to repel the approaching Allied invasion; torpedoes and high-explosive charges were piled high in seaside caves.