I recently received a gift from my wife, Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing the Rising Sun a historical rendition of events leading to the destruction of the Japanese Empire. O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have rendered an invaluable service to the American people in their “killing” series of historical books. The research and rendition of their books is worthy of highest honors; and future generations of Americans will find them accurate and worthy of time to study them.

Seventy-eight years have passed since the fateful day in American History that launched the United States into World War II, fighting the Germans in Europe and Japanese in the Pacific. Two wars were vastly different in geography, with the war in Europe on two continents involving Italy, the Vichy French and Germany in Europe and Germans in North Africa while the war against Japan spanned the Pacific from Alaska to Australia. The war in Europe was largely a land war with Germany focused on keeping the U.S. at bay through submarine warfare in the Atlantic. And while there were naval battles in the Atlantic none compared to wide-ranging island-hopping Pacific battles.

Japan is an island nation that ranges from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the South 1394 miles away. Its geography defines it as a seafaring nation and consequently during WW II it had a formidable Navy with the largest battle ships in the world, seventeen thousand tons heavier than the largest U.S. battle ships, with eighteen inch guns compared to sixteen inch guns being the largest in the U.S. fleet.  But it was not battle ships that would dominate naval combat in the Pacific, but aircraft carriers, and there, the U.S. had the upper hand.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is well known by many but for those who do not, on December 7th, 1941 at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, 360 Japanese attack planes attacked the anchorage at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii destroying eighteen ships, one hundred seventy aircraft and killing or injuring three thousand seven hundred American servicemen and civilians. There were ninety-two ships at anchor during the attack, but aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington were away having been dispatched to Wake and Midway Island. All but two ships that were damaged were repaired and returned to service, those two are the U.S.S. Arizona and U.S.S. Utah. The attack launched the United States into WWII and within four years both Germany and Japan were brought to their knees by the combined forces of the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union.

A small child at the time, I remember blackout curtains, ration cards and few Christmas toys. We ran outside to spot passing aircraft and watched in awe as innumerable trainloads of military equipment and personnel passed within a hundred yards of our small-town Kentucky home. They were easily visible across the intervening pastures; day and night they thundered past in-route to the war. A trip to nearby Lexington revealed khaki uniforms everywhere, and there were…millions…about sixteen million in the U.S. and abroad at the height of the war. There was daily talk of the war on the radio, the March of Dimes, saving cans and rationing; childhood memories were filled with mystery, fear and discovery. News reels struck the terror of war into me that remains vivid to this day. I hate war, but I hate prospective of loss of freedom even more.

We heard about, but as a little fella had no concept of the epic battles in Africa, Italy, France, Stalingrad, Kiev, Smolensk, Moscow, Peleliu, Tinian, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the Philippines, Australia, China, Midway, Coral Sea, battles of the Atlantic and too many others to name. Mac Arthur became a household name revered in our home; and Tojo was a stereotypical symbol of Satanic evil.

With a Dad who served heroically in WWI, having the honor of knowing men who flew B-29s in WWII then decades later serving as Commander, Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan with headquarters being the same building where Japanese Admiral Yamamoto planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, O’Reilly’s book came to life as no other in the “killing” series. It was difficult to imagine the Japanese I knew during three decades of on again, off again duty in Japan as being the same people who visited such destruction upon much of Asia and the United States.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito died while I was Commander at MCAS Iwakuni and that event brought to end an era of enigmatic rule that was at once brutal and pacifist. He had long before my stints of duty there disavowed his status as a “God,” but older Japanese people who I came to know revered him none-the-less.

As a schoolgirl, my Japanese secretary witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima some twenty miles northeast of Iwakuni. Even from that distance the flash of the bomb’s detonation was so bright that everyone in her classroom jumped to their feet peering out the window in time to see the atomic cloud rise rapidly into the August sky. The immediate thinking was that the military arsenal had exploded, and indeed it had, secondary to the atomic detonation some eighteen hundred feet above Hiroshima that eventually accounted for over one hundred thousand killed. Now, many years later, MCAS Iwakuni was frequented by American civilians who worked at Hiroshima as part of the ongoing study of victims of the bombing. We had dinner with them at the Officer’s Club listening intently to descriptions of their work with victims more than forty years after the event.

In the mid nineteen sixties during my first tour of duty in Japan, there was no elaborate memorial at Hiroshima, no museum, no visitors center; there was a dilapidated fence with grown up weeds surrounding the domed building identified as “ground zero” and on the nearby plaza there was a monument to the dead and wounded. During my first visit to Hiroshima, we walked slowly by “ground zero” quietly imagining the events of that day on August 6th only twenty years earlier. But it was impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the event and suffering.  The area had been cleaned up; the only sign was the domed building that remains to this day as a memorial of the devastation…that and a granite memorial on what is now Peace Plaza.

Today, Hiroshima is a bustling, modern city with the finest technology with a Memorial and Museum that reminds the world of the devastation wrought by the atomic weapon that brought Japan to its knees. Some ten miles south of the City is Etajima, an Island where Japanese naval officers have been trained since 1888, and in the same buildings made of brick reportedly brought in from England. In the late 1980s we were guests of the training academy during one of its graduation ceremonies. Seated in the balcony we observed below some five hundred midshipmen seated rigidly awaiting the Admiral to proceed with graduation activities. Upon his arrival a command was given in Japanese to which in one motion all five hundred snapped straight up from their seats. A second command was given and in one motion five hundred midshipmen snap bowed at precisely the same angle. A third command was given, and five hundred midshipmen snapped ramrod straight. The sight and sounds caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up, realizing that in that same exact location forty years earlier the scene was much the same. We watched and listened as speeches were given, not understanding one word but comforted by the fact that these were now America’s staunch allies against Communist China and the Soviet Union.

Following the ceremony, we were treated to a magnificent meal in the general mess with the newly commissioned graduates after which, along with all the families we walked a good distance and formed long lines either side of a road that led to the water. Soon we heard a steady drum beat off in the distance in the direction from which we had come. It wasn’t long before the lead elements of a platoon of newly commissioned officers appeared from around a corner. They marched with precision to the beat of the drum, not a word was uttered, or a sound made by the families and anyone else who lined the road. The only sounds were that of the drum and hundreds of heels that simultaneously struck the ground in precise timing with the drumbeat.

As we stood there, once again the hair on the back of my neck stood up and a shiver went down my spine. When a platoon passed, as it approached water’s edge they boarded small boats from the wooden pier where the boats had been tied. Newly commissioned officers stood, oars straight up, then in unison sat down put their oars in the water and began rowing to the chant of the coxswain. They rowed their boats to one of the six or seven Japanese destroyers anchored in the harbor. Soon another platoon would pass following exactly the same pattern. When all passed, the families and we turned and walked toward the water. As the last boat was lifted out of the water, the ships simultaneously weighed anchor, pivoted and departed the harbor one by one on an around the world cruise.

Once the ships were out of sight our host, the Commandant of the training academy showed us to a Maritime Museum where we saw all manner of naval hardware including miniature submarines exactly like the ones that were stymied in their attack on Pearl Harbor and torpedoes exactly like the ones that sunk the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Finally, we departed by ferry to Hiroshima and returned Iwakuni on local rail transportation.

On an earlier occasion while serving as Chief of Staff of the First Marine Aircraft Wing on Okinawa, I went to Guam to visit some of the Wing’s deployed units. While there I “commandeered” an RF-4 and flew over Tinian and Saipan, the locations of two epic Marine battles. The islands were devoid of any visible life and in the waters adjacent to the shore were littered with rusting vehicles and watercraft from those long-ago battles. Later that day I stood on the landing beaches on Guam where some forty years earlier hundreds of landing craft plowed through the water toward the location where I now stood, in the face of withering Japanese fire. Despite my mind racing, thinking of the events of that day, all was calm now. Then later, from a vantage point above the port I watched as one of America’s “boomer” (nuclear missile) submarines slid quietly into the port.

Months later, at Iwakuni, a small group of us would periodically ride our bicycles out into the hills, along roads that were unchanged since the war except for asphalt, along now paved trails that laced the hills. The reality suddenly struck me how utterly difficult and costly a conventional assault on Japan would have been. Some estimate that a conventional invasion would have cost a million Allied casualties; and based on what we observed of the topography on our bicycle tours in this single relatively small area, it might well have been that and more.

In the late 1980s during our tenure at Iwakuni, there was much talk about jointly building a fighter aircraft with Japan and during the debate, much ado was made about the undesirability of American technology transfer to Japan. The effort never materialized, but during a visit to a Japanese radar facility it became obvious to us that the Japanese did not need our technology, they had plenty that they may well not have wanted to share with us. What we observed was as high tech at that time as anything we had ever observed in a similar U.S. facility.

The Japanese are if anything meticulous, to a fault. There was a report a number of years ago, that the Japanese had “lost” some 1400 pounds of plutonium. The thought immediately came to mind that knowing the Japanese as I had come to know them, the Japanese despite a Constitution that prohibits nuclear weapons and allows only a “self-defense force” they must have nuclear weapons. The Japanese do not lose anything, much less 1400 pounds of plutonium.

Today, seventy eight years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent devastation of Japan, American highways are flooded with Japanese cars, the Japanese have rocket capability that can not only loft payloads into orbit, but have landed a spacecraft, collected samples and returned them from a distant asteroid. On this the 7th of December 2019, Japan has arisen out of the ashes as a dependable ally thanks to the leadership and wisdom of “American Caesar” Douglas MacArthur. America is fortunate to have Japan as a bulwark against Communist Chinese expansionism and its North Korean “barking dog.” Generations have passed, the wounds of WWII have healed, we have made peace with them and they with us, may they and we live long and prosper.

Semper Fidelis,

Bob Pappas

© by Robert L. Pappas, 120719. This essay may be cited, used and distributed only in context.