October 11, 2007
"All right, you can print this, but don’t use my name. I don’t want to get painted as an un-American guy. I’m proud of my war record, but I just want to be left alone."
My friend, a retired small-business owner in Westchester County, just north of New York City, served in the South Pacific during World War II as a tugboat captain with the Merchant Marine.
"I enlisted in 1942," he told me. "I was 21 years old. I wanted to sail, not to shoot big guns, so I picked the Merchant Marine. I fibbed a bit to the recruiter about my vast sailing experience; all I’d ever skippered was a little catboat my brother and I owned. They took me right away. They didn’t check much in those days."
He got his training on the job, and spent the war pulling barges and supply ships into and out of port, first in New Guinea and then in the Philippines. "I believe in Divine Providence," he said. "I got through three major invasions without a scratch. Sometimes I even had fun at it."
When I asked him if he had watched Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, The War, he told me, "No. I had enough of the real thing. I don’t want to be reminded of all that stuff again. Besides, most of what you see on TV and in the movies is one-sided: The Japs are all heartless killers who will fight to the death, and the Americans are all good guys just doing a job. It wasn’t that clean-cut.
"I was at Wewak and Hollandia in ’43. Of course, you never know what is really going on in a battle. You don’t see anything beyond your immediate surroundings, and you don’t have time to think about grand strategy anyway because you’re dodging bullets and bombs and trying to stay alive. Much later, I learned about what happened there from a Japanese friend of mine whose father was trapped at Wewak. MacArthur cut them off at Wewak and took Hollandia. The Japs were isolated in the jungle, thousands of them, dying of hunger. They had their backs against the mountains and couldn’t do a thing. We treated them like a prison colony; I think we even dropped supplies on them to feed them.
"My friend’s father was a radio operator, and he said he sent radio messages to the Americans: ‘We surrender.’ They weren’t all suicidal, like we’re used to hearing - they valued their lives too. It was us who didn’t want to take prisoners because we didn’t know what to do with them. So we made them kill themselves.
"Did you ever see those movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima? They made everybody think this was an essential objective, but that’s bullshit. This was a god-forsaken island in the middle of nowhere. They all claim they needed that airstrip for bombing raids on Japan, but it had no strategic value at all, and after we got it we hardly used it.
"It was terrible. There were thousands of Japs there, dug into the caves. By that time, in ’45, there was practically nothing left of the Japanese navy and air force. They were finished. We had the island surrounded by ships, we bombarded it for weeks, and the Japs were completely isolated. They could not leave. All we had to do was let them alone.
"But the Marines were crazy. They just wanted to fight. The war was almost over for God’s sake, but they had all this ammunition to use up.
"We lost 3,000 Marines just trying to get those Japs out of the caves. If they wanted to stay there, we should have left them. They were helpless. Instead, the Marines decided to clear them out with flame-throwers. What a way to die. Do you know how flame-throwers kill? They draw all the oxygen out of the cave, so the poor guys suffocate, then they incinerate them. That must be the worst kind of death.
"Was it suicide? It was more like desperation. By the time we did all that bombardment, they were out of their minds. My God, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was inhumane. It was the most disgusting goddamn thing we ever did.
"And that flag-raising picture? That was just a publicity stunt. You know they did it once for real, and then a second time for the photographer. And then half of those guys were killed later on trying to get the Japs out of the caves. The Marines had all those toys they knew they wouldn’t be able to play with anymore, and they used them up on those poor bastards. They confused war with a goddamn football game. It was just another sporting event to them, a grudge match.
"It was goddamn vindictive, that’s what it was.
"Well, at least that’s what I think, but I’m only one person, and I’m second-guessing admirals. But I think the idea should be to lessen violence wherever possible, not increase it.
"I tried to do some good for humanity whenever I could in that hell. I’ll tell you two stories.
"I was in the battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in ’44, the biggest naval battle of the war. One time my tug was out at sea, far away from other ships with an air battle going on overhead. Our boys shot down a Japanese marine pilot and he jumped out but his parachute wouldn’t open all the way. We were the only vessel for miles around. When he hit the water, he hit it hard and landed maybe within 50 yards of us. He was unconscious, bleeding from his nose. We fished him out and got him on deck, but then we didn’t know what to do with him. Eventually he came to, and we put him on a hospital ship headed for Leyte Gulf. They put a ladder down the side, and that guy was able to climb up that ladder into the ship. I never found out what became of him, but I’ve often asked myself: Did he die? Did he go home and have a family? Did he end up in jail? I wish I knew.
"I’ll tell you another one. In the last six months of the war, I got dengue fever. They took me off the tug and put me on a small hospital ship of maybe 30 beds. I was in charge of the medicine supply. At that time there was a big black market in medicines.
"Late one night, a couple Filipinos came out to us in a canoe. You weren’t supposed to let anyone get close to your vessel because you never know. But this guy was begging and pleading that his son was sick with pneumonia and he would buy penicillin at any price. I listened to his story but wouldn’t sell him anything, it’s against all the rules. But he was so sincere that I got some penicillin, which I shouldn’t have done, and just gave it to him.
"Two weeks later we were tied up unloading some potatoes and a Filipino man came up and invited me to dinner at his boss’s house. It turned out his boss was the guy who had begged penicillin for his son. He had a beautiful home with gorgeous mahogany floors, and two lovely daughters, and he gave us a wonderful dinner. I’d made a nice friend, and in fact we invited his two daughters to dinner on the hospital boat. They came with their brother, whose life had been saved by the penicillin I gave his dad.
"I’m glad I did it."
Not exactly un-American.