Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.
- The Way It Was: Part 1
- The Way It Was: Part 2
- The Way It Was: Part 3
- The Way It Was: Part 4
- The Way It Was: Part 5
- The Way It Was: Part 6
- The Way It Was: Part 7
- The Way It Was: Part 8
Welcome to Part 9 of “The Way It Was” (Eshrink’s memories of WWII from the perspective of a young boy). This will NOT be the last chapter of our series as I had written previously. The FINAL installment will be Part 10: Life After Victory (plus, 10 signifies completeness/order…seems odd ending this incredible series on a 9). In this post, Part 9, Eshrink takes us through the end of the war. What he remembers and new information he uncovered during his research.
After the invasion of German-held countries (D-Day), things began to look up as the allies made substantial gains, although those telegrams kept coming and daily we saw blue stars in many windows turn to gold. Patriotic fervor never wavered and with better news from Europe there was more focus on the Pacific theater (I always wondered who came up with the term theater, and if he really thought war was entertaining).
As you might expect there was wild jubilation in the streets all over the country with the defeat of Germany and Italy (V-E day or Victory in Europe Day) in May 1945, almost a year to the day that my brother had been drafted, and one month after the death of Roosevelt, who had served nearly 12 years in office.
Mussolini was summarily executed and his body mutilated by partisans. Hitler had committed suicide along with his longtime lover, Eva Braun. Actually, Mussolini was executed with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, also.
I do remember there were rumors that Hitler had escaped and the body found was not his, but there seemed little doubt about the fate of Mussolini as his body was hung out for all to see (Editor’s note: in all fairness, the caption from the picture of Mussolini and his mistress hanging in the center of Milan says the “fascists” who were executed, including Mussolini and Petacci, were hung in the exact spot where civilians from Milan had been hung a year earlier after being executed on Mussolini’s orders for being part of “resistance” activities).
In days, it would all be over and the dancing in the streets would begin with confidence that Japan would soon fall. The most shocking of all those incidents during the final days was the death of Goebbels, who poisoned his six children before killing his wife and himself. In some way this seemed the most heinous of all the millions of evil crimes committed by these mass murderers, and it has stuck with me to this day. It remains beyond my comprehension how someone could kill his own kids, though it is true, he did have a lot of experience murdering innocent children.
All this took place in a matter of weeks after a woefully unprepared new President was sworn in. Harry Truman was chosen by FDR for Vice President as one who could help him carry the Midwest. He was not included in FDR’s inner sanctum, and it has been said they did not even like each other. In July of 1945, the atomic bomb was successfully tested at Los Alamos and Truman was faced with the choice of what to do with it. He was later discovered to have written: “It is an awful responsibility that has come to us”. (This links to a series of articles about that difficult decision Truman made). He was of course referring to the decision to use the bomb on Japan. Having served in WWI as an artillery captain, he knew something of the horrors of war. He had distinguished himself as a Senator, was the only President of the 20th century that hadn’t attended college, although he was proud to say he had read every book in the Independence Missouri Public Library. He kept a sign on his desk which said The Buck Stops Here, and indeed in this case, it did, for few would want the responsibility which rested on him.
With the defeat of the Germans, and the Japanese fleet and air force nearly destroyed, it was obvious Japan would not last long. Nevertheless, there was continued concern about the fighting to come, due to the Japanese honor code, which prescribed that one must fight to the death. Even more extreme was the requirement that high-ranking officers must literally fall on their swords if defeated in battle. Thus, the fighting in the island jungles continued. It was brutal but futile. To make matters worse, Russia declared war on Japan, and Russians were not known to be very gentle occupiers as evidenced by their European conquests.
My memories of the fall of our European foes are clear, but I don’t know if we were informed as to what was going on with Japan in the time that followed. I have since learned that Japan had indicated their desire for a peaceful settlement. I do recall the term “unconditional surrender” voiced a lot by our new President, and I believe I heard the term used once by General MacArthur, the chief of military operations in the Pacific. An invasion of Japan was in the planning stages and expected to result in as many if not more casualties than in Normandy. The potential for invasion was achieved during the Battle of Okinawa when we took the island of Okinawa, which proved to be the most bloody conflict of the entire war as mentioned previously.
With the taking of Okinawa, the Japanese mainland was within reach of our bombers and Tokyo was basically destroyed with a firebombing even more devastating and with more loss of life than either Germany’s Blitzkrieg of London or our firebombing of Dresden. In researching for this blog, I was surprised to learn that those saturation bombings of Japan had killed more people by far than both atomic bombs. In spite of the obvious hopelessness of their position, the Japanese showed no sign of surrender. Their kamikaze pilots continued their suicide missions, and many of their soldiers chose suicide rather than capture. With that in mind, our military predicted invasion of Japan would result in an even higher body count than previous operations.
When the bomb dubbed “little boy” went off, the entire city of Hiroshima, along with 80,000 people, were incinerated.
But that was only the beginning for untold thousands who would subsequently suffer from various forms of cancer, organ failure and genetic diseases in the years to come. Three days after Hiroshima, Nagasaki would suffer the same fate.
Over 50 years later, I found myself treating a former Navy medical officer who was one of the first to enter the ruins where that city once stood. He was still tormented by memories of what he saw there. There is no denying that in spite of the horror of those two days, the strategy was effective. Just a few days after Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito ordered the “unconditional surrender” demanded by the Allies.
The term “celebration” does not do the public reaction justice, and was probably exceeded only by the elation felt by those troops who were already preparing for the assault on the mainland of Japan. They must have been aware of the thousands who had died on the beaches of Normandy, and there were expectations that a mainland invasion would be even more deadly.
The movie newsreels showed images of the wildly spontaneous celebrations throughout the country, but they also showed a mushroom cloud (filmed at Los Alamos) as it rose ominously toward the heavens. In some ways, that enthusiasm was to be tempered by the implications raised with the development of such an unbelievably destructive weapon.
As more news became available as to not only the deaths but possible long-term effects of radiation exposure, Truman’s decision to use the bomb was called into question by many. Later, we learned that Germany had been on the verge of developing their own version and the scourge that continues to haunt us was inevitable. We were now well on our way to developing the power to create our own version of an apocalypse, and the cold war soon began with Russia.
Our boys, as we called them, were soon on their way home to be greeted as heroes. There were home coming celebrations everywhere. The patriotic fervor persisted or even increased. The 4th of July celebrations were spectacular and veterans of all stripes were treated as special. The marriage business flourished as the vets were reunited with the girls they had left behind, and many brought wives home with them. There were happy days, except for those who returned with injuries or illnesses suffered in the fighting. Even the politicians were united and nice to each other in spite of some differences in opinions or policies.
My brother died a few years ago and at his funeral was an 8×10 photo of him in uniform with an army issue Colt 45 strapped to his waist. I was amazed at how young and innocent he looked, and I realized that we really had sent kids off to fight a war. Upon his return, two years after that picture was taken, he had aged beyond his years. Like most combat veterans, he never wanted to talk of his experiences. But I once heard him talking to another vet about the cruelty exhibited by some of our soldiers, and in particular one solider in his squad who was ordered to take a prisoner back to the POW camp. Soon after leaving, they heard a gun shot. The soldier returned with a smile on his face and said “he tried to escape.” This confirmed my opinion that war does terrible things to both the victor and the vanquished.
My brother’s discharge was quietly celebrated. I was particularly enthralled with the contents of his G-I duffel bag, which proved to be full of all kinds of goodies including a luger pistol which had been confiscated from a German officer. Then I noticed a blue box with the U S Seal on it, which he quickly took from me saying something like, “That is just some of that junk the Army passes out.” Of course, I would never let that sort of thing rest without my perusal and when I opened it, there was a Bronze Star with the citation that he had made his way through enemy lines at great danger to himself to notify headquarters of his company’s location, which resulted in the rescue of his company that was surrounded by superior forces. He also brought with him a special gift for me, an attack of scabies, took little note of my protests, and reported that such things were standard issue to dogfaces like himself.
Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Eshrink’s final installment, The Way It Was: Part 10, where he touches on the aftermath of the war, the good and the bad.