The Pawns of War
I'm not going to comment on the issue of the IAF airstrike on Qana. The positions on both sides have been articulated for all to read. The Lebanese Prime Minister denounced the attack as a war crime. The IDF says the villagers had been warned to evacuate; that it had already been attacked for the last three days and that Katyushas were being fired from it and so they fired back. But all the leafelets in the world can be dropped and the death of civilians still be a near-inevitability. A BBC correspondent says something which is probably true: "many did not have the means - or were too frightened - to flee."
That's true of Israel too and probably true of Mumbai, Bali and downtown Manhattan as well. Civilians have historically been the playthings of the battlefield where death often masquerades as safety. During the Battle of Manila, thousands of civilians sought shelter in the strongest buildings they could find. The terrible tactical logic of war meant that the same substantial buildings attracted the Japanese Army, who bayoneted civilians to take possession or simply turned them into strongpoints with the civilians inside. When the inevitable rain of 8-inch US howitzer shells came the stone walls crumbled like sand. Sixty people died in Qana. About 100,000 civilians died in the Battle of Manila, a drop in the ocean of what we remember as the Good War. One of the most interesting stories to come out the Second World War was a 2004 interview of a veteran by the VMI Adams Center, chiefly remarkable in that the interviewee had been both a B-29 crew member and a survivor of the Great Tokyo Fire Raid of March, 1945. He tells the story as someone who no longer has any secrets worth keeping.
VMI: How might you have reacted to LeMay’s announcement of the new low-altitude night bombing strategy?
Veteran: Well, I had no reaction whatsoever, because I was already a prisoner of war in a torture prison
VMI: Any comments on your treatment as a POW?
Veteran: Yeah, it was brutal. .. You have to interpret that. Hell, that’s pretty simple. There were 51 of them that were accumulated, and of those 51 who were held by the Kempei Tai – there’s a word you’ve got to know. They were the secret, brutal police. They killed their own people. They beat old ladies. They were violent people. Anyhow, of those 51 who were in that geographical grouping, 49 of them were killed, executed, beheaded. ... Each night, six people were selected out of those American B-29 prisoners. They had to sit in front of that hole they dug, and then six different guards were given the opportunity to behead them. The next night, 30 prisoners were brought back, until it went down to the final six. All 36 were beheaded.
VMI: I understand they were particularly rough on B-29 crews.
Veteran: Oh, absolutely, and with justification. What the hell – we were burning their cities. On that March 10 mission, over 100,000 people were killed. I was right in the middle of that fire war, where I was. It was so bad even my guards left for their own safety. I was right in downtown Tokyo. I found it difficult to believe that night that those were our planes at that low altitude, coming over. Couldn’t believe it. See, that was contrary to everything I ever knew about. That was the LeMay Principal we already talked about earlier. They were trail-bombing that night, meaning, you know, we’d send a pathfinder over the brave guys, the good guys, the best guys, and if they said over eight-four, we’d probably be shot down. They would lay the path with fire bombs.
VMI: Describe your experience during the March 10 raid. What did you see and hear?
VMI: Describe my experience? Well, hell, first of all, as I told you, I was in a cage. I was right in downtown Tokyo. I heard the planes passing over. There were bombs dropping in our area that were general-purpose bombs. They were primarily fire bombs, you know, that split when they were maybe hundreds of feet above the ground, so maybe each plane could start 100 fires or so. ... When you’re in that cage and the guards leave, and you’re at the mercy of God or whoever runs the world. No B-29 knew where prisoners were being held. It’s not their fault; they were doing their job.... But to be in that cage, I was extremely cold all the time, whether there was a fire raid or not. You’re just shaking, you’re so cold. You had no water, you had to beg for water. You had no toilet facilities. It was just a black, cold cage. ... So it was a terrible night, and I never thought I’d live through that night. I heard the planes, and then the firestorm. There was only one little window at the back of my cage. It was solid wall, and this cut was only about two feet by six inches. There were bars in there. With the fire storm coming up and the wind blowing maybe 100 miles an hour, the black curtain that normally shielded my view from outside through that small sector blew out and I could see through there for the first time ever, and all I could see was the red sky or the red clouds and the flames and the smoke. The smoke was rolling through the wooden stable where I was prisoner in a cage, and it was difficult breathing. So that was that night. That was 59 years ago, two days ago. I’ll never forget it.
"I’ll never forget it." And that was all he -- and everyone else wanted to do -- forget the Good War, forget what he saw through that curtain in Tokyo as it was torn from view. The lengths to which they went to simply avoid remembering speaks volumes about what they experienced.
VMI: How many of your crew survived the captivity?
Veteran: Six were killed the day we went down. That left five of the 11-person crew. Five of them did survive. Five came home, but the life of each was relatively short. I will say that one person died in an accident, one died of a heart attack, I don’t know, several years later. One became a bag man. Do you know what a bag man is, on the street?
Veteran: It’s a person who takes off and lives under bridges or becomes a hobo or moves out of the mainstream of life. Do you understand now?
VMI: Yes, sir.
Veteran: One became that, disappeared totally for over 40 years. I will give you no names. We didn’t really care to stay in touch with each other because of the fear, the real concern that our minds, when we got together, would go back to the terrible days of being a prisoner in a torture prison and starving to death and being beaten. We did not want to be exposed to any condition which would remind us of those days. There was very, very, very little contact made, which is contrary to what most people think. I’m speaking only of our own crew. One of them did remain alive and died November 30 of this year. But the ground rules were, as concerned him, he lived in the east, was that, at the request of his wife, that I no longer have contact with him, either in writing or by phone, because my voice or my notes took him back to that time in life that none of us wanted to recall. I was fortunate that his son called me while the second-to-last survivor of our crew, the Rover Boys Express, was in the hospital in his final weeks. His son called and asked if I would please call his father. He was asking for me. That is my fellow crewman, the co-pilot. I immediately welcomed that opportunity to call him, and we had about a 50% effective visit, because the medication impaired his ability to have a discussion that both of us would probably have liked to have had, but it was the ability to say goodbye to him, and thank you, and let him know that I was glad we had been together.
At reunions it's the secrets and not the memories that truly bind the veterans together.