Is it Victory-over-Japan Day? Is it Victory-in-the-Pacific Day? Do we assign the date based on Aug. 14 or 15 because of differences due to the International Dateline? Or do we say the date is Sept. 2, 1945, with Japan’s official unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II?
Was the decision to drop the bombs an easy one? On Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945? On Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945? What was President Truman’s thinking about this? What did he say? What was the reaction of the military? Of the American public?
David McCullough’s national bestseller “Truman,” winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, provides reliable information. The broadcast of Truman’s message after the first atomic bomb was dropped was as follows: “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and more completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city… Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war… If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth…”
Moreover, in response to a telegram sent by Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., Truman wrote, “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare, but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner…. My object is to save as many American lives as possible, but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.”
At the war’s end, Truman and others, civilians and military alike, were still remembering Pearl Harbor and were also stung by events of July 29, 1945, when an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, a ship that had just delivered critical parts for the atomic bomb to a U.S. air base at Tinian. In that act of aggression, Japan caused the loss of 800 lives. Hundreds were drowned; hundreds were drifting in the sea for four days before the rescue ships could arrive; and many were eaten by sharks.
World War II veteran Paul Fussell’s essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” published in the August 1981 edition of The New Republic, provides a cogent argument for using the atomic bombs. According to McCullough , Fussell, “a 22 year-old with an infantry platoon in France…was scheduled to take part in the invasion of Honshu, despite wounds in the leg and back so severe that he had been judged 40 per cent disabled.”
Of the end of the war, Fussell said, “We cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”
Veterans whom I know also got to live, to grow up. US Navy Radioman First Class Marion Adams, age 90, was aboard an LST on its way to Saipan, preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland, when he learned of the bombing of Hiroshima from a radio broadcast. He put out a special memo, and. most of the men in his unit did not believe the memo.
Those who served with Adams had eaten tainted ham the day before, and only seven were still ambulant with 120 down in need of medical attention, including all the officers. The captain told Adams to order 12 ambulances ready to transport the sick when the ship docked at Saipan. Adams said, “The men would be walking down the passageways and just drop over with high fevers. When we arrived at Saipan, those seven men had to tie the ship up, dock it, and guard it.
“At that time African American sailors were only allowed to serve the officers, and when I, a petty officer in charge of the ship, ordered one to stand guard on the quarterdeck, he refused. Before he got back to his bunk, he just dropped.
“I had been keeping the men aboard ship posted as the dealmakers in Washington, D.C., were attempting to negotiate the terms of surrender with Tokyo. The Allied forces wanted unconditional surrender and for Emperor Hirohito to be tried as a war criminal. The Japanese wouldn’t stand for that. Their emperor was their god and he controlled the people.
“General Douglas McArthur, however, could control the Emperor and a surrender was negotiated and accepted. Some call it a treaty. It was not. It was unconditional surrender.”
Adams reports, “We then went in as a peacekeeping force. We required the Japanese airplanes to be parked propeller-to-propeller so they couldn’t take off. We remembered Pearl Harbor and were scared of what they might do.”
At the time of the bombing of Hiroshima, US Army Corporal Harry Ashburn, age 90, of the 3349th Quartermaster Truck Company was soon to leave Luzon in the Philippines to travel to Manila where he was to go home for his first leave after almost three years of active duty with no leave. He received information on the bombing on a mimeographed sheet on a bulletin board at company headquarters.
He reports that there was “some cheering, a little jubilation. Most of us looked at that from the standpoint of winning the war. When you get in a war, you fight to get it over with. You can’t rejoice over the loss of so many lives.
The Japanese people “idolized the Emperor. They would stand behind him no matter what.” The troops were “comforted by having Truman as president. He wasn’t a West Point graduate, but he was, in essence, a military man, a leader sympathetic to the country’s need for a military.”
Ashburn maintains, “We didn’t hold MacArthur in the esteem we held General Eisenhower. We called General MacArthur “Dugout Doug.” He was generally hidden away until it was time for a photo opportunity. His vanity sometimes got in the way of his responsibility, for example, when he should have kept quiet when he had a confrontation with President Truman about Korea.”
In reflecting on the role of the German population and the Japanese people in the atrocities of World War II, Ashburn says, “Hitler’s promises of glory for Germany got in the way of their judgment. Some might not have known, but they had a responsibility to know and must assume some of the blame.”
With a smile in his voice, Ashburn concluded the interview with, “I was playing cards when I learned Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and I was playing cards when I learned the war was over.”
Commemoration of the Japanese war dead, according to Quincy Essinger, 32, who is teaching English to young Japanese in the district of Nachikatsuura, is a part of Obon Day in Japan . On that day the tradition is to honor the spirit of ancestors, and this tradition has been in effect for over 500 years. Individual Japanese families’ responses will differ, and Essinger says it’s important to note that those who served in World War II did so out of a sense of duty to the country as well as to the emperor. Working in Japan since 2011, Essinger has a sense of its people. For example, a 90-year-old who is in his English classes for adults lived in one of the cities that was bombed.
“While there was rationing in the U.S.,” according to Essinger, “we had the power of the U.S. economy behind us. Because of the small size of Japan and the scope of the war effort, the Japanese were loyalists who felt they had to respond to a national directive, thus, during the war years, they were incredibly poor. When the war was over, they were able to put those resources back into the people, and the amount and quality of food, as well as services and commodities, were dramatically enhanced.”
Essinger says that the role of the Emperor has changed, and he is symbolic now. “Like the British royals, there is almost an automatic devotion to him. He is the spiritual focus, the person charged with the continuation of the heritage, the Japanese culture.”
Each Nov. 3 since 1948, Japanese celebrate Culture Day in honor of the Constitution which was announced on Nov. 3, 1946. Culture Day is designated not only as a time to celebrate the Japanese culture but also as a day to celebrate peace and freedom.
And the battles for freedom and peace go on around the world among political and cultural divisions. As Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes wrote in 2011 in What It Is Like To Go To War, “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.”
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