Brutality of World War II still on the minds of veterans

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An event to commemorate veterans took on shades of a peace protest, with the protestors arriving in unlikely uniform. World War II veterans, over 50 years removed from action, recalled the haunting images of their past to deliver a simple but powerful message: an end to war.

The message carried powerful overtones given the current conflict in Iraq where 3,800 soldiers have been reported dead since the beginning of conflict in 2003.

“My most memorable experience was my second mission. We sunk a Japanese light cruiser [war ship]. I remember watching it. I couldn’t believe it,” said Leo Smith, a World War II Army Air Force veteran. “It is a very important thing to remember. The people who died for this country, even though most people are against war – I am. I don’t know of anyone that’s for war.”

Cal State Fullerton history Professor Robert McLain addressed the brutality of World War II, specifically in the Pacific – and traced the final years that lead up to the finale of the war, known as “The Final Drive in the Pacific, 1945” – in commemoration of Veterans’ Day at the Fullerton City Library.

“I discussed the last two years of the war and the context of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan,” McLain said. “The latest scholarship, developed in the last five years, shows that Japan was not on the verge of surrender, as a lot of historians claimed.”

The United States had planned military operations to advance throughout the Central-Pacific, that would have ended in the full-scale invasion of Japan – but the dropping of the bomb ended that, and arguably saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, McLain said.

“It was grim [Iwo Jima]. You’d walk along and kick over human remains,” said Captain John Greenwood, a former war veteran. “One brother-in-law was killed in World War II and another brother-in-law lost his leg. My brother was discharged as a casualty too. He was in the Army Air Force.”

One message Professor McLain conveyed during the session is that in popular American memory, World War II is portrayed as glorious, when in fact it was incredibly brutal. There exist lines that blur fact from fiction.

He stated that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto never said, “We have awakened a sleeping giant,” popularized by the 1970 movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

McLain said, after the Pearl Harbor bombings, Admiral Yamamoto really said, “I have six months to run wild, after that I have no expectation of success.”

McLain spoke of the atrocities soldiers experienced on both sides and said it would be very difficult for any ordinary person to comprehend the level of brutality the soldiers were subjected to.

“I’m in awe of veterans. I can’t believe that so many people sacrificed so much to protect the rights we have currently, from WWII until the current war,” said Fullerton City Library Director Maureen Gebelein.

Some soldiers were fortunate enough to avoid witnessing such ferocity.

“In the Air Force, we didn’t see too much brutality unless you were shot down or taken prisoner,” Smith said.

Men such as Smith have many fond memories of the war, while simultaneously agreeing that all wars are inevitably horrible.

According to McLain, an excerpt from a U.S. pilot stated, “For the U.S., the war is about winning. For the Japanese it seems to be about dying.”

World War II veteran Martin Hebeling agrees with Smith when it comes to war. Hebeling stated that we have to get along with one another in the world, and that in itself is the key issue for the survival of the world.

“It was very common in the Pacific for American and Japanese soldiers to mutilate each other and collect war trophies, like ears and hands for example,” McLain said. “People don’t fully comprehend how savage it was. It’s not so much a triumph as it is a tragedy.”

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