Slow Boats and Atom Bombs

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