Poor little Japan. I fought the Japanese – their navy to be exact – across the Pacific during World War II. Some 3 million Japanese (of Japan’s 70 million population) died in that war. Tragically, only two doomsday atom bombs dropped by Americans brought the war to an end.
Japan’s wastrel loss of human life then had been driven by imperialistic military men, who with compliant Emperor Hirohito, dreamed of an Asian empire free of Western influence, especially the “soft, decadent” Americans. Of course they were wrong, even while preparing to sacrifice 20 million Japanese lives rather than surrender.
Today, after six decades, the compactly-populated island nation is intensely peace-loving. But again it is struggling to survive, now from a two-prong crisis wrought by nature.
This has given me pause to recall that in the 1940s fate cast me in a role of a military combatant who in WWII became accessory in the death of great numbers of Japanese. My job was as a gunnery officer on a U.S. naval destroyer whose primary duty was to guard and provide support for the fast aircraft carriers, noted in American naval history as the “big blue fleet” which crushed Japan’s once-proud navy.
Thousands of American lives were lost in 1943-44 in ousting Japanese from islands they had captured across the far reaches of the South and Central Pacific. As our naval forces moved the war’s front line within range of Japan’s homeland, carrier-based planes rained 500 pound bombs on a daily basis on Japan’s main cities. But they were not nearly as lethal as B-29 bombers (and B-24s) which began flying (with carrier plane protection) from air strips on islands we captured.
Most Americans today think only of the death and destruction wrought on Japan by the atom bombs the U.S. dropped Aug. 6, 1945 on Hiroshima, and Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. They fail to comprehend that far more Japanese had died from firebombs delivered on large cities by the huge B-29s, sweeping flames through houses made of wood and paper. In a single night, 100,000 Japanese civilians died.
My ship, the USS Stephen Potter, first killed Japanese navy personnel in February 1944 when our depth charges sank an enemy submarine near the central Pacific naval stronghold they had built on the island of Truk. Hardly any of us aboard felt regret when body parts and clothing from the sub’s crew rose to the surface. After all, this was war and we were merely doing our job.
In weeks and months that followed we – alternately as Task Force 58 commanded by Adm. Raymond Spruance, and Task Force 38 under Adm. William “Bull” Halsey – played cat and mouse with units of the Japanese navy across the Pacific expanse. My ship’s guns shot down at least a dozen Japanese planes threatening the bigger ships in our formation. In the spring of 1945 when our forces invaded Okinawa (on the doorstep of the mainland) we faced a desperate new menace, the suicide Kamikazes, flown by green young pilots sent on one-way missions.
Strangely, the suiciders started picking on destroyers, possibly because we often served as picket ships or scouts detached from the main force. In the four-month battle for Okinawa, 60 destroyers were either sunk or badly damaged by Kamikazes and 6,000 Navy men died. A month before the A-bomb was dropped, the Navy pulled the Potter with its four-ship division back to the states for overhaul preparatory to the November invasion of the Japanese homeland. Rather miraculously, we had fought in 12 battles and survived intact.
To see such a bonehead press secretary for Gov. Haley Barbour utter a cruel joke about the stricken Japanese is beyond the pale. My question is: who recommended this guy for the job? Two of Mississippi’s biggest employers – Nissan and Toyota – are based in Japan; and this is the administration that preaches “jobs, jobs.”
I’m appalled some self-righteous Americans say Japan’s present catastrophe is the Lord’s punishment for its past sins, as though the U.S. is so virtuous that such mass tragedy won’t come here.
As comic strip character Pogo once wisely observed: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.