The WWII Prisoner of War Experience in the Pacific–PREFACE

The WWII POW Experience in the Pacific

Robert E. Winslow

Sergeant Major, USMC (Retired) (1939-1970)

April, 2007


In 1985, after I retired from my second career of teaching history to young high school citizens who would much rather “fuhgeddaboudit,” I was commissioned by the Historical Branch, U. S. Marine Corps to write a historical monograph on the U. S. Marine prisoner of war experience during World War II.  This publication would join the series of monographs being published by the Historical Branch, slick little “easy-to-read” pamphlets containing about a hundred pages of summarized highlights of the major battles and other events of World War II involving the U.S. Marine Corps.  I was honored to be chosen for the task.

I rode my trusty motor home from El Cajon, California to Washington, DC and found a temporary home for it in nearby Maryland while I searched national, Naval, and Marine Corps historical archives for relevant material.  After about two months of exposure to the National archives as well as the dreadful traffic jams of our nation’s capitol, I trundled back to California and began trying to put it all together.

It soon appeared to me that telling the entire Marine POW story in proper context required some discussion and analysis of the exotic militarist culture of their captors, otherwise the reader would have no explanation for many strange events and bizarre interplays between captive and captor.  I was also convinced that the story would be woefully incomplete without a discussion of how the egregious blunders committed by General Douglas MacArthur in the defense of the Philippines led directly to premature Allied defeat and subsequent imprisonment of by far the greatest number of American prisoners of war captured by the Japanese during World War II.

There were other fascinating stories to be told, not the least of them a review of the manifold activities of Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the evil genius behind the Bataan Death March, also active in so many other roving exploits ‘way above his pay grade’, as Marine Corps lingo would have it, that it is likely that no other individual had more effect on the prolongation of the Pacific War than did Colonel Tsuji.  Most serious historians of World War II in the Pacific recount some of the adventures of this extraordinary warrior, whose trail of casualties scattered throughout East Asia and the South Pacific might also earn him the title of the most homicidal Bushido-besotted fanatic in the history of World War II.

Recounted elsewhere in this narrative is the fact that the War Crimes Tribunal, completely in the dark concerning the mysterious influence of Bushido-inspired junior officers over lesser-inspired seniors in the irrational (to Western minds) Bushido tradition of gekokuju, dismissed the activities of a mere lieutenant colonel as presumably insignificant and went after the generals and admirals instead.  If they had known the true extent of Tsuji’s war-time activities, he would have been number one on their list of “whom shall we hang today?”

As evidence that the deeds of Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji are more than a minor footnote in an ancient history book, a 2005 Google search turns up 63 current entries under his name. Whether extraordinary hero or extraordinary villain, (in wars the terms are often synonymous) apparently he will not soon be forgotten.

Neither could I ignore the exploits of legendary fighter pilot Saburo Sakai, veteran of more than 200 aerial combat missions, including 64 Allied planes shot down.  His epic struggle to return his crippled fighter plane from Guadalcanal to Rabaul with paralyzing wounds in his left leg and arm, heavy fragments of two 50-caliber machine gun bullets imbedded in his skull, and permanently blinded in his right eye, is just one of the heroic acts that rank him as one of the greatest fighter pilots of all time.  After recovering from his wounds, this one-eyed pilot returned to the air and shot down four more enemy planes. Did I say legendary?

Then there was Air Corps navigator Edgar Whitcomb, who talked his way out of a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines to internment in the International Settlement in Shanghai to repatriation as a “non-combatant” to the United States and eventually to the governorship of Indiana in 1968, a truly remarkable tale about a truly remarkable man, a conservative Republican far different from the manic zealots who claim the term in 2005.

Tsuji, Sakai, Whitcomb, and MacArthur were detours from my original monograph mission, but such compelling detours that they led to more reading, and in due course I acquired a library of books about Japan, the American POW experience and the Pacific War, numbering close to one hundred in all.

It was a surplus of material; much more than was needed for a simple monograph, and there seemed to be no way to keep it simple.  I wrote and revised, and revised some more, until I had a couple of hundred pages of neatly typed, double spaced, carefully footnoted stuff on the Pacific War that far exceeded my original mandate to tell only the story of Marine prisoners of war.

My monograph had somehow escalated into a major historical research project that went well beyond the bounds of what my mentor, Benis Frank, at the Marine Corps Historical Branch, had in mind, as I discovered when I submitted the first draft of my unfinished “masterpiece.” Mr. Frank’s response was a deafening silence.  After waiting several weeks for some acknowledgment of my labors, I finally surmised that his non-response signaled the end of our relationship, and so it did.  To this date, as far as I know, there is no official monograph on the Marine POW experience in World War II.  Mea culpa.

Having had my efforts rebuffed by the Marine Corps, I intended to finish the project and submit it for publication elsewhere, but for various reasons, not the least of them being a propensity to postpone important stuff until after I drink these last two beers, or dally with my lovely, or because this is much too hard to do and I am fundamentally a lazy lout, this project has remained partly finished in the bowels of my personal archives for lo, these many years.  Fortunately, perhaps, this “masterpiece” will never see the light of day, but I have excerpted nuggets there from to fit between the bookends of this narrative of my life and times, even though only a small part of it pertains directly to my own experiences.

In the process of digesting all the material I unearthed on the topic, I became convinced that the conventional wisdom on many aspects of the war in the Pacific and its immediate aftermath was mostly “feel good” American myth, especially the sanitized story of the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In confirmation, as I write this in mid 2005, newspaper stories belatedly tell of General Douglas MacArthur secretly confiscating the film that had been made by American cameramen of the horrendous devastation caused by our atomic bombs.

Paul Fussell, who was scheduled to be in the force that would attack Japan in 1945, later wrote a bestselling book entitled Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.  His theory, of course, was that without the A bombs, an invasion of Japan by Allied forces was a foregone conclusion.  Most of my fellow POWs would agree, based on research which suggests that the Japanese had plans to execute all prisoners if Japan was attacked by ground forces.

I disagree.  By mid-summer, 1945 even the diehards in the Japanese government agreed that the war was lost.  There is conclusive evidence that Japanese leaders were desperately looking for a way to surrender with honor and still keep their emperor, a concession that Allied proposals inexplicably had failed to mention until much, much too late in the day, and the A Bomb offered them an opportunity to surrender and still save a modicum of that precious Oriental commodity, face.  A careful reading of the annals of the intense internal negotiations leading up to the Japanese decision to surrender leaves the unmistakable impression that most Japanese government officials were immensely relieved to have the A Bombs as an excuse for surrender. Even a government run by desperados willing to defend their homeland to the last man cannot resist a weapon that levels entire cities in one devastating strike.

Nor can such a government persist when its citizens are dying of starvation.  A Japanese study of the last days of World War II reports a cabinet meeting in April 1945 which concluded that the rice crop was so bad that even though the ration kept being reduced, by the end of August there would be no rice at all.  (Pacific War Research Society, Japan’s Longest Day, p. 65)

The sordid fact remains that the incineration of entire cities with nuclear weapons is a war crime of the highest order.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never military targets, in spite of retroactive attempts by U. S. government apologists to make them so.  Air Corps General Curtis LeMay commanded the B29 squadrons which dropped the atomic bombs and earlier had firebombed other major cities of Japan into heaps of rubble, killing more non-combatant Japanese civilians than did the atomic bombs.  LeMay once remarked that if Japan had won the war, he would have been hanged as a war criminal.  Since the President was his Commander in Chief who ordered the bombs dropped, the same must be said of Harry Truman.

In his dissenting and largely ignored opinion at the Tokyo Tribunal which tried alleged Japanese “war criminals” after the war, Justice Radhabinad Pal of India declared that “if any indiscriminate destruction of life and property is still illegitimate in warfare, then, in the Pacific war, the decision to use the atom bomb is the only near approach to the directives of the German Emperor during the first World War and of the Nazi leaders during the second World War.  Nothing like this could be traced to the credit of the present accused.” (John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, p. 798)

As time passes and formerly classified archives become available to scholars, an increasing number of objective historians has become convinced that even without atomic bombs, the Japanese would have been forced to surrender before November 1945.  See The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz for some of the most scholarly and compelling arguments that the A bombs were unnecessary.  Studs Terkel also had good reason to doubt the official script of World War II as written by the victors and produced an unofficial but much more realistic version in his inimitable style of interviewing both the “doers” and the “done-to” in “The Good War.” Notice the quotation marks.  I recommend it highly.

A recent survey of American high school graduates discovered that half of them had never heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and had no idea that Japan and the United States were enemies in World War II.  Having been a high school history teacher in a previous incarnation, I attribute this phenomenon largely to the fact that in most American high schools the football coach is given the distasteful additional task of teaching American history, an assignment for which in far too many cases he is neither interested nor qualified.

The story begins here.  Most of the Marine story of imprisonment that did not satisfy Mr. Frank is contained in Part II.

Robert Winslow
April, 2007

Next: PART I, The WWII POW Experience in the Pacific

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