What lead to Japan’s surrender?
The capture of Iwo Jima, less than eight square miles of real estate consisting of nothing more than volcanic ash, cost the Marine Corps nearly 26,000 casualties. At Okinawa, kamikaze pilots willfully crashed 7,830 fighter planes into American warships anchored off shore. They sank 34 US ships and damaged another 368. The battle of Okinawa-the largest land-sea-air engagement in history-took the lives of 23,000 Americans, 91,000 Japanese and 150,000 Okinawan civilians.
Sitting on a hill above Naha Bay, we witnessed the kamikazes in action, watching helplessly as these suicide pilots bombed our ships in the bay. We saw them come in high, the sun picking up their reflection as they dove. Puffs of black smoke from our ackack guns popped up all around them. “There, there,” one of our guys would shout, and we would all look in that direction. “Here he comes!” we called, not knowing to be amused or bewildered. We were kids, all of us, and we should have been watching football games back home but instead we were watching men die.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa were over. Won at a heavy price. But what would be the cost to take more than 142,000 square miles of Japanese homeland? Planners estimated we could lose as many as one million men-more than the total of the European and Pacific theaters combined.
But we Marines holed up in Tent City on Guam were not planners. We were kids, 17 and 18 year olds. The oldest Marine was Pappy Preston, and he was 29. Terry was 15 when he joined. He had just turned 17. We figured we were winning the war but there were times when we had our doubts, when dark confusions of the mind took over. Every night on Guam when we climbed into our bunks, we listened to Tokyo Rose on the short wave. We listened to what she had to say about the war. We laughed when she spoke in her soft sexy patter about home. “Tuck in your mosquito nets, you handsome Marines,” she would say softly. “Lay back your head on your pillows, and picture your 4F cousins back home, out tonight with your girls, out with your wives, driving your car that you locked away in the garage, listening to the music of Harry James, drinking bourbon and gin you should be drinking, and where are you, Marines? Where are you? I know where you are. You’re not home where you should be!”
We laughed at her banter, wondered who she really was, and listened when she played “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.” We made remarks, and joked that we would look her up when we reached Tokyo. One by one the men grew quiet. The radio went silent and the night melted into dreamy thoughts as we drifted off in sleep wondering what our 4F cousins were doing that night.
We wondered about the war when we watched the B-29s returning from their bombing missions over Japan. They had made more than 35,000 sorties flown against targets on the enemy mainland. We watched those that survived the guns and Zero fighters, and those that didn’t run out of fuel, come limping back. We heard their droning, sputtering engines before we could see them. We stopped what we were doing and looked up to watch them come into view, all shot up. What miracle was it that kept them in the sky? Some appeared like skeletons, tail sections blown away, gaping holes in their wings and fuselage, only metal rib frames showing. Still, they flew, and we watched in disbelief. But even then, some so close, lost the race. They came in low, too low, and we held our breath. Some prayed, as pilots attempted their final, desperate approach to reach the airfield. They would disappear, and soon we saw balls of smoke rise from over the rim of palm trees.
But the question now: was the war really over? That morning at roll call it was confirmed. Not officially, but we knew there was some truth to the matter when all work parties for the day were canceled. That never happened before.
We went back to our tents and in the downpour of heat we waited. We waited for the official word from headquarters that seemed would never come. There was much speculation, all conjecture, of course. From squad leader to company runner we each had our opinions, and we were only too willing to share them with others, wanted or unwanted. And no one hesitated giving voice to his thoughts. Focus centered on that thing they called the “A-bomb.” The A-bomb! The US had dropped an A-bomb on Japan. There had been talk about the bomb days and weeks before, but no one in the 29th had the slightest idea what this super bomb might be. With the opinions came disagreements, but the one thing that everyone agreed upon, unequivocally, was that whatever kind of bomb it was, it had to be big, really big.
“It’s an A-bomb,” Stevenson emphasized.
“What’d hellava frigin’ kind of bomb is that?” Scotty Johnson asked.
“It’s a big sonava bitch. It can lay flat a place a mile square,” Terry chimed in. He was repeating what he had heard earlier. “Shit, you believe that crap,” announced Melanowski with conviction. “No frigin’ bomb can do that. None, I tell yeah. We ain’t gotta frigin’ plane big enough that can carry a frigin’ bomb that frigin’ big.”
“You dumb Polack! Who said so?” snapped Terry. “Frig you, Terry.” Melanowski shouted.
“Yeah, even a dumb Polack knows it’d havda be bigger than 500 pounds to do that much damage,” added Chandler. “And that’s the biggest size our B-29s can carry.”
“It’s a special bomb, you dumb shit,” Terry continued, his comment aimed at Chandler this time. “This ain’t no ordinary bomb I tell you. It’s an A-bomb.” “What’s the A fur,” asked Scotty.
“What’s the A fur! A is for the first, the first of its kind, that’s what,” Chandler said.
“Hell, if an A-bomb can blow a hole in the ground bigger than a square mile, think what a B-bomb will do when it comes out,” Cpl. Marsden said.
“Yeah, then the C-bomb’s gonna come. I’d like to see that.”
“You’re all full of shit. I never heard of any kindah A-bomb before, and I’ve been reading the news all the time,” Melanowski concluded.
“You stupid shit, what news you been readin’?” Terry said. “You ain’t gonna find nothing about A-bombs in the stupid funny papers. That’s about all the news you ever read.”
“What you talking about!” Chandler said. “He can’t read.” “Go stuff yourself, all of you,” Melanowski said and turned away.
Marshall and Hecklinger now got into the argument. Harry Marshall was from Indiana and argued with midwest logic, the “show me” kind of attitude. He didn’t like the name Harry and wanted to be called Smitty. Walter Hecklinger was from Oklahoma and what he said he considered gospel. Six foot four with the demeanor of a rodeo rider, no one argued with him. We called him Stretch.
And so the debates continued, and all we could do was wait, the curse of the Marine Corps. I felt I had to get away. I needed time to think. If the war was over, did this mean we were all going home? Already the men began talking about being home for Christmas. I should have been excited, but I wasn’t. What was wrong? Like everyone else I clamored about wanting the war to end, and what I was going to do when I got home. Smitty planned to sleep for a month, getting up only to eat his mother’s home cooking. Terry was going to take his discharge and blow his separation pay on the longest binge of his life. Whittington pictured himself in Saugerties in New York by Christmas. Melanowski would grab the first woman he saw and Stevenson was going back to school. Marsden didn’t talk about it, but we knew he had his wife on his mind.
I too had my future planned, or rather my father had it planned for me. He was awaiting the day I would return. He wanted to open a small electrical repair shop, and I would help him run it. The only problem, electricity didn’t interest me. “There’s a great future in electronics,” he would write me but I never paid much attention.
The Marines of the 29th, for the most part, hated Guam. I guess I was one of the few exceptions. We learned we were going to Guam when we were still on Okinawa. When word came that Okinawa was secured, and we were being evacuated, three LST landing crafts immediately left for Guam with an advance work party. Rick Whittington, our company runner, was with them. Only then he wasn’t company runner. He was a machine gunner like all the rest of us and had served his 87 days under fire. He and the others arrived on Guam and had the honor of erecting tents for the other eleven late-arriving LSTs that brought the rest of the men of the 29th. We could hardly call it a triumphant welcome for returning heroes. There to greet us was Whittington, with the news that he had been appointed Fox Company runner. We didn’t congratulate him, but envied him, and gave him the title-Brown Noser.
No sooner were we assigned our tents than our thoughts turned to Japan, and Fox Company was soon back at the same old business, training for the coming invasion of Japan. While we went on hikes, with full gear and did close-order drill under the scorching sun, Whittington rubbed it in. Each day all he had to do was go to the Second Battalion Quonset hut and warm the bench for as long as the Battalion Exec was at his desk. When the Exec left, Whittington left. “While you guys run around in the boonies playing war, I sit on my ass and drink coffee,” he boasted. Whittington was ribbed by the men, and thrived on it, but he was also our private source of information gleaned from executive orders he had to deliver. He even outshone Stevenson now as the information man. He was invaluable to us.