Slow Boats and Atom Bombs

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I
was mustered out of the Navy in October 1946. I think that is the
wrong language, an expression left over from WW I and books written
about it I read in my youth. I believe I should say I was retired
from active duty as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and placed
on the inactive duty roster. I believe I was expected, or perhaps
invited, to step up for some reserve functions, and put in perhaps
two weeks a year of training, and so on, and thus keep up my commission
and be ready to go on active service should the nation be in need
of me again.

I
don't think I ever made a deliberate decision about all this. I
just never did anything at all about my inactive status, and so,
some years later, I got a terse notice in the mail from the Secretary
of the Navy that I had been eliminated from the rolls of the Naval
Reserve. I had become a Naval Unperson. I don't remember being much
distressed by that. By then I was frying other fish entirely; Navy
days (1943–1946) had receded for me into approximately the
perspective of the wars of Napoleon or perhaps the French and Indian
War here.

And
there they stayed through much of the next half-century. It was
more or less bad form to try to tell war stories, even in bar rooms,
and anyway mine weren't sensational in the least. Mostly travelogue.
I could not claim to have been a witness to mighty events, even
when my ship was in the battle for Okinawa, or to have met Mighty
Personages, although I did once see General MacArthur emerge from
his headquarters in Tokyo (the Daichi Building I think) and walk
to his car, and I saw all the Japanese in the neighborhood turn
their backs to him. This was not, I was told, out of disrespect
at all (no Iraq this). It was the same honor they paid to their
Emperor. (Do I remember correctly?) Such Mighty Personages were
not to be looked on by Lowly Ones. I knew so little about this that
I openly stared. Ignorance will be served.

But
the odd thing is that only now, all these years later, have I been
resurrecting my war stories. For the last year, since a little before
Christmas 2002, at the request of my son (!) I have been writing
a series of letters on my war experiences for my granddaughters,
Katy 16, and Annie 13. Letter No. 16 is on the ways at the shipyard
right now; I am about to (re)sail, aboard LSM 329 (Landing Ship
Medium) from Okinawa to Guam and from Guam to Pearl Harbor in the
months of June, July, and August 1945.

We
engaged a terrible typhoon on one leg of that journey, whether on
the one from Okinawa to Guam or the one from Guam to Pearl I am
not sure. It was a famous typhoon (now called hurricanes I believe,
but such storms were always typhoons in the Pacific until lately).
It will strain my powers of realistic description to get that on
paper. An ugly devil it was.

But
not the only one we encountered on that voyage. Somewhere on the
weeks-long run back to Pearl (we made about 10 nautical miles an
hour) we heard a static-y radio announcement on our short wave that
some kind of new thing, an uhbamemb or something, had been
dropped on Japan.

We
finally realized the announcer was saying "atom bomb,"
and that suddenly changed things aboard ship. We did not all leap
for joy; the accompanying photograph of us seven officers aboard
proves that. The photo was made, I believe, as a self-consciously
historical photo of that moment. But we were already back in our
individual shells, and I feel sure we had all begun planning our
next moves "now that the war was almost over," as I insisted,
perhaps more vociferously that any of the other officers. I bet
the doctor on board that the war would be over in some discreet
time – 10 days or two weeks – and I think I lost the bet,
whatever it was, by one day.

(My
overseas time was not over, however. I wound up going for another
year-plus back out to the West Pacific and to Japan, Korea and China.
That is another story.)

Aboard
that ship in that August, headed back to Pearl for our invasion
load (invasion of Japan, that is), we were all glad that the war
was certainly drawing to a close. There was, I am pretty certain,
no bleeding heart, either commissioned or enlisted, then willing
to take up the broader view that this was a hell of a way to fight
a war – by incinerating an entire city. I don't think we even
knew, from the brief news report, that was what had actually happened.

Incinerated
two cities, as it turned out a few days later. The Japs had started
the thing; let them eat the finish, whatever it turned out to be.
This could be described as the un-nuanced view of the event. We
weren't into nuances aboard that ship. And we still don't seem to
be real good at "nuances" – if that's what considerations
of sanity and morality are – in this entire country.

Except,
it seems, for a lot of our top military people, who sadly and so
very often seem to have difficulty keeping our bloodthirsty ruling
civilian hotshots in check, and who, also too often, come to be
heard by the public only as the Latin has it, post-facto, post-horror.

In
the course of writing those letters to my granddaughters I stumbled
on a site called "The
Unnecessary Bombs
." In one of my letters to them I quoted
a whole raft of the remarks posted there that were made post-bomb
by some military biggies (and some political ones), names that were
once familiar to every household. Was I attempting to brainwash
my granddaughters? Yes indeed.

I
sent along to them, too, this introductory statement made on the
site, which I agreed with: "Most of the top US brass were against
use of the bomb and did not regard it as militarily necessary [See
quotes below]. Truman and Byrnes [then Secretary of State] delayed
the end of the war and cost American and Asian lives by deliberately
refusing to clarify the surrender terms, by deliberately stalling
Sino-Soviet talks, by deliberately postponing the Potsdam conference,
and by deliberately ignoring the many Japanese peace feelers."

  • Admiral
    William D. Leahy.
    5-star admiral, president of the US Joint
    Chiefs of Staff and the combined American-British Chiefs of Staff,
    and chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the army and navy
    from 1942–1945 (Roosevelt) and 1945–1949 (Truman):

    “It is
    my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima
    and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against
    Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.
    . . . My own feeling was that in being the first to use it,
    we had adopted the ethical standard common to the barbarians
    of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion,
    and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

  • Fleet
    Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
    , commander in chief of the Pacific
    Fleet, quoted by his widow:

    “. .
    . I felt that it was an unnecessary loss of civilian life.
    . . . We had them beaten. They hadn’t enough food, they couldn’t
    do anything.” And – E. B. Potter, naval historian
    wrote: “Nimitz considered the atomic bomb somehow indecent,
    certainly not a legitimate form of warfare.”

  • Admiral
    William “Bull” Halsey
    , commander of the Third Fleet:

    “The
    first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It
    was a mistake ever to drop it . . . (the scientists) had this
    toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . .
    . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot
    of peace feelers through Russia long before.”

  • Rear
    Admiral Richard Byrd
    :

    “Especially
    it is good to see the truth told about the last days of the
    war with Japan. . . . I was with the Fleet during that period;
    and every officer in the Fleet knew that Japan would eventually
    capitulate from . . . the tight blockade."

  • Rear
    Admiral Lewis L. Strauss
    , special assistant to the Secretary
    of the Navy:

    “I, too,
    felt strongly that it was a mistake to drop the atom bombs,
    especially without warning.” [The atomic bomb] “was not necessary
    to bring the war to a successful conclusion . . . it was clear
    to a number of people . . . that the war was very nearly over.
    The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate . . . it was
    a sin – to use a good word – [a word that] should
    be used more often – to kill non-combatants. . . .”

  • Major
    General Curtis E. LeMay,
    US Army Air Forces (at a press conference,
    September 1945):

    “The
    war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians
    entering and without the atomic bomb . . . the atomic bomb
    had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”

  • Major
    General Claire Chennault
    , founder of the Flying Tigers, and
    former US Army Air Forces commander in China:

    “Russia’s
    entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding
    its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had
    been dropped…”

  • Henry
    H. “Hap” Arnold
    , Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces.

    “. .
    . [F]rom the Japanese standpoint the atomic bomb was really
    a way out. The Japanese position was hopeless even before
    the first atomic bomb fell. . . ."

  • Lieutenant
    General Ira C. Eaker,
    Arnold’s deputy.

    “Arnold’s
    view was that it (dropping the atomic bomb) was unnecessary.
    He said that he knew that the Japanese wanted peace. There
    were political implications in the decision and Arnold did
    not feel it was the military’s job to question it. . . . I
    knew nobody in the high echelons of the Army Air Force who
    had any question about having to invade Japan.”

  • Arnold,
    quoted by Eaker:

    “When
    the question comes up of whether we use the atomic bomb or
    not, my view is that the Air Force will not oppose the use
    of the bomb, and they will deliver it effectively if the Commander
    in Chief decides to use it. But it is not necessary to use
    it in order to conquer the Japanese without the necessity
    of a land invasion.”

  • General
    George C. Kenney
    , commander of Army Air Force units in the
    Southwest Pacific, when asked whether using the atomic bomb had
    been a wise decision.
  • “No! I
    think we had the Japs licked anyhow. I think they would have
    quit probably within a week or so of when they did quit.”

  • W. Averill
    Harriman
    , in private notes after a dinner with General Carl
    “Tooey” Spaatz (commander in July 1945 of the Pacific-based US
    Army Strategic Air Forces), and Spaatz’s one-time deputy commanding
    general in Europe, Frederick L. Anderson:
  • “…Both
    felt Japan would surrender without use of the bomb, and neither
    knew why a second bomb was used.”

  • General
    Dwight D. Eisenhower:

    “I voiced
    to him [Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson] my grave misgivings,
    first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated
    and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and
    secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking
    world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was,
    I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American
    lives. It was my belief that Japan was at that very moment
    seeking some way to surrender with a minimum of loss of ‘face’.
    . . . It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

  • former
    President Herbert Hoover:
  • “I told
    MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace
    could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would
    be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct and that we
    would have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the
    entry of Russia into Manchuria.”

  • Richard
    M. Nixon
    :

    MacArthur
    once spoke to me very eloquently about it. . . . He thought
    it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed
    that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons
    as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should
    always be to limit damage to noncombatants. . . . MacArthur,
    you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against
    military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned
    him off, which I think speaks well of him

  • Norman
    Cousins
    , from an interview with MacArthur:

    “. .
    . [H]e saw no military justification for the dropping of the
    bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if
    the United States had agreed, as it did later anyway, to the
    retention of the institution of the emperor.”

And
finally this report of how Stimson and Byrnes influenced
the decision Truman made, which I got from this
website
:

"At
Stimson’s request, President Truman authorized the creation of
The Interim Committee, which began in May 1945 with Stimson as
its chairman. One of the Committee’s recommendations for President
Truman came from the June 1, 1945 meeting. As stated in the Committee
notes for that meeting, “Mr. [James] Byrnes [he became Truman's
Secretary of Sate in July 1945] recommended, and the Committee
agreed, that . . . the [atomic] bomb should be used against Japan
as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded
by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”
(Manhattan Engineer District Records, Harrison-Bundy files, folder
# 100, Record Group 77, National Archives).

The
first possessor of nuclear weaponry behaved badly with it and gave
to the world a stunning example of wanton barbarism, an example
that has proved fertile of imitators. Now the world is full of states
with WND (Weapons of Nuclear Destruction), and we await the use
of them by one of these WND possessor-states according to the iron
law of weaponry: if it exists it will be used.

From
first to last all the possessors of WND are rogue states. The most
powerful of them (the U.S.) and the most threatened of them (Israel)
are in league today. The U.S. might use them in an excess of hubris;
Israel might use them in an excess of vengefulness; the other possessor
states might use them in the grip of some mix of the two emotions
indulged in by their rulers and their collectives.

With
the end of "the state" apparently in sight – or so
Martin van Creveld assures us – may the next turn of the wheel
bring us back to sanity and morality, please God. We have been too
long alienated from both.

The seven
officers of LSM 329 in August, 59 years ago. We were somewhere
at sea between Guam and Pearl Harbor. My notes tell me we arrived
in Pearl on September 1. I am in the front row at right. Judging
from the way we dressed, we certainly were not a very military
bunch. Only two of the group were younger than I. I remember
some names but not all, so I won't attempt any. But if someone
reading this should recognize himself, I'd be delighted to hear
from him. I now regret not having kept in touch, after some
fashion, with my Navy colleagues on that strange adventure way
out west.

January
17, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives


        
        

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