Japan Surrendered, But We’re Not going Home
News of Japan’s surrender was finally confirmed. Stevenson was right. The A-bomb had ended the war. We were told that on August 28, 1945. Only a few days before, the USS Missouri had sailed triumphantly into Tokyo Bay and accepted the Japanese surrender. What we didn’t know until later was that not far away from Tokyo Bay, last-ditch kamikaze pilots began taxiing into position on the runway, determined to sink the American battleship. There were still many Japanese in high military positions who were mindset, at all costs, to win the war. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, War Minister General Korechiki Anami told the cabinet ministers that it was far too early to say the war was lost. The general wanted one last great battle on Japanese soil. “Would it not be wondrous,” he said, “for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?”
That chance never came, and a million American lives were saved. A last minute appeal by Prince Takamatsu, the emperor’s younger brother, grounded the fanatics who could have started the whole thing all over again.
So once again we waited, and finally word arrived. We were moving out. This time no one grumbled when work parties were assigned and we headed back to the docks to load ships. “We not only brought all this crap over here,” Melanowski ranted, “but now we have to take it all back.”
The docks looked like a staging area that was getting ready for battle. There they were, LSTs, LSMs and PAs, all lining the water front, and farther out in the bay the 7th Fleet had moved in with its destroyers and destroyer escorts. They looked menacing, even with their guns silent. We could picture them escorting our troop ships as we steamed into San Francisco under the Golden Gate. It was a proud feeling. The victory was ours! Halleluiah!
But victory, we were about to discover, was not ours. It was only wishful thinking on our part. We would not be returning to America to a cheering, waving populace. We would be long forgotten by the time we returned. Dick Whittington, our company runner, gave us the news that was about to change everything. It wasn’t what everyone wanted to hear. We knew it was going to be something drastic the way he arrived at the docks in the colonel’s Jeep, skidding sideways sending coral flying everywhere. He had hardly stopped when he stood up in the Jeep. “We’re not going home!” he shouted, waving his helmet liner over his head. He didn’t wait for questions. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stood silent as statues. Finally, he belted it out. “The 29th is not going home,” he shouted. “You know where we’re going? We’re going to China.” He hesitated and repeated it again, as loud as he could, “We’re going to China!”
We were not going home! Whittington took the full blast of everyone’s fury. He stood fast. It seems, he told us, that the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of Defense, and President Harry Truman himself all had a different idea about where we were going. And, it wasn’t home!
This wasn’t at all what the men wanted to hear. Many of the Marines in the 29th had been with the outfit since Guadalcanal. They had been fighting for years. Now the war was over, and they were told they weren’t going home. Instead, they were going to China.
It wasn’t a sudden headquarters decision. All the while we were sweltering in the sun on the docks, breaking our backs, the brass knew it. They knew it and that’s what was so disturbing. We had been lied to. We were heading to China to repatriate the Japanese forces. That was the reason Col. Roston gave us, but there were other factors at hand which they didn’t tell us. These we would find out for ourselves later. All we knew now was that we were going to a foreign land we hardly knew existed, nor did we know exactly why we were going. We made no decisions, and controlled no destinies, not even on own. We knew of no secret orders. We were told to pack our gear, and to load the ships. We had to get ready to sail immediately. That was all we knew. We would be sailing to China in a few days.
Going to China! What was that song everyone was singing-“A Slow Boat to China, or Maybe Siam?” A slow boat to China. The words kept turning over and over in my mind-A slow boat to China. Not back to the farm, not to open an electric shop with my father, but to China. I was thrilled, Stevenson was thrilled, Chandler was thrilled, Harry “Smitty” Marshall was thrilled, Terry was thrilled, and so were many others, but we couldn’t say it aloud. Marsden would have belted us. We had to grumble like everyone else. But inside we were thrilled. We were going to China!
In three days the ships were loaded and Tent City was dismantled. We were told we were going to a place called Cheefoo on the north coast of the Shantung Peninsula in northern China. None of us had ever heard of the name Cheefoo, let alone where it was. On the afternoon of the last day I broke away from my work party without anyone noticing and headed for the base library.
The place was in complete disarray. The center isles were tacked with empty wooden crates and a half dozen grumbling librarians were preparing to pack the books. “Take what the hell what you want,” a sergeant growled, “and then get the hell out of here.”
I went to the history section and picked up The Dowager Empress. There were photographs of the Empress of China taken in 1911. She looked regal, but also very mean. Would the women of China all look like her? Under one photograph it mentioned “eunuchs.” What the hell were eunuchs? I tucked the book, as well as another one about the Boxer Rebellion under my arm. On the way out I passed the REFERENCE SECTION. There they were, lined up on shelves: dictionaries, thesauruses, books on grammar, a book called Teaching Yourself to Type and another on Learning Shorthand and Book Keeping the Easy Way. I always wanted to learn to type, secretly that is, but the book was large format and too big to carry. I then noticed the language books-How to Speak French. Spanish. Italian. And then my eyes fell upon Spoken Chinese. I took it down from the shelf and didn’t even bother opening the cover. I tucked it snugly with the other two books under my arm, and without asking further questions left the library and headed back to the docks. That night before lights went out and taps were sounded-Tokyo Rose had gone off the air-I began teaching myself Chinese.
We were going to China.