I’m a believer in the idea that learning should never end. I try to keep an open mind and gain new knowledge on a continuous basis. One of my favorite pastimes is attending continuing education courses at Rice University. This semester I allowed my husband Mike to choose the class that we would attend since he recently had a stroke and our social life has been somewhat restricted for the past three months. We haven’t been able to go on camping trips, and we had to forego our plans to travel to Colorado and Wyoming to view the total eclipse. I’ve tried to fill our time with local attractions and the Rice classes seemed to be just the ticket for us. Imagine my surprise when Mike decided that we needed to enroll in an offering that would address the war in the Pacific with Japan.
I have to admit that I was quietly disappointed that we would spend eight weeks gaining information on battles that had never been of much interest to me. Much like most people I had focused on the European theater of World War II rather than those fought on faraway islands and continents of which I knew very little. Since my main purpose was to keep Mike active, I nonetheless quietly agreed to sign on. I’ve been surprised at how interesting this course has turned out to be.
War is hell in any situation, but the one fought in the Pacific was particularly so. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States was in a tizzy. The nation had initially ignored the conflict raging in Europe and on the mainland of China and in the Pacific regions. Citizens tended to believe that that our best choice would be to remain neutral and isolated. The Japanese forced the issue with their attack and our situation was further exacerbated when Germany declared war on the United States. Whether we wanted involvement or not we were suddenly up to our necks in a need to react, and we were hardly ready for what lay ahead, especially in our early encounters with Japan.
We had a military primarily composed of officers who had fought in World War I. Our troops had to be hastily trained for an environment which most had never encountered. We were initially outmanned and outmaneuvered. The places where battles were fought were often tropical hell holes where disease created more casualties than warfare. Our soldiers battled malaria and dinghy fever in addition to Japanese soldiers willing to fight to the death for their emperor and their country. Our first forays were most often unsuccessful and peppered with defeat. It must have been truly horrifying to families far away in little towns in the center of the United Sates to try to understand what their sons and husbands and brothers were doing in those places that were so unknown to them.
Viewing a map of the Pacific during that time has helped me to understand what Japan was attempting to accomplish as well as illuminating the fear that must have been quite intense in places like the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Alaska and the westernmost coastal states. I had often wondered why one of my uncles had been stationed in Alaska and now I know. I had heard of some of the terrible battles in the Pacific and had not understood their purpose, but now I do. Mostly I have a visceral sense of what had no doubt been the fears of people around the world during that era.
My mom often spoke of a man with whom she had been engaged before she met my father. She had loved him very much and she recalled her fears when he was sent to fight in the Pacific. He was killed in a battle on Saipan. It was apparent from the faraway look that she would get in her eyes that she never quite got over losing him. She often told me that nobody who was not alive at the time would ever be able to imagine the emotions that they had. It seemed as though everyone knew somebody who had died and virtually all of the young men had enlisted and were gone. It was a time of great struggle and sacrifice and uncertainty. It didn’t help when news arrived of the death of a loved one.
The Japanese were particularly fierce fighters in the tradition of the Samurai soldiers. They had already been battle tested before the United States entered the fray. They had planned to overtake a ring of fortifications in the Pacific to insure their dominance of the region. Their planes and their naval fleet were far better suited for the forays than ours initially were. But for a few tactical errors in the beginnings of the war they might of ended the conflict quickly. Luckily we had enough time to adapt to the conditions and ultimately learn how to fight in such foreign environments. We developed medications for our troops and improved the logistics for delivering supplies and reinforcements. Nonetheless the young men who were sent over there had to exist in the most horrific of situations. It is a wonder that they survived and eventually became victorious.
The lecturer delivering this series is a military man who was living with his parents in the Philippines when that country was invaded by the Japanese. As a child he was a prisoner of war. He eventually became a military historian and teacher at West Point. He saw much of what was happening in the Pacific up close and early on learned the importance of the Pacific and the intricacies of its many islands and territories. I suspect that the tensions of that time have only slightly eased as the modern day countries vie to protect their borders. A look at a map of the area vividly demonstrates the potential for dominance by a tyrant nation. It is in the interest of the entire world to keep the peace, because without it many would most certainly be in danger.
I knew men who fought in World War II and I mostly took their heroism and sacrifice for granted. It never really registered to me how horrible it must have been for my mother’s fiancee when he battled with a the Japanese in Saipan. In hearing the descriptions of such melees I have come to realize just how terrible they were. My interest in knowing more is now heightened. I don’t suppose that I will watch movies like Unbroken or Hacksaw Ridge with quite the same detachment again.
I don’t think that any of us take enough time to really learn about the intricacies of the battlefield. We tend to see such incidents as having little to do with our own existences. Perhaps if we were willing to face the horrors of the details we might be more inclined to find ways of bridging our differences rather than resorting to the violence of war. Through this class I have come to realize what it may have meant to be fighting for months just to hold onto a significant patch of ground that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I have learned of the continual bombardments and the illnesses that fettered the attempts to protect places that may not have seemed particularly important, but were in fact key to turning back the aggressions of the enemy. I have to applaud the American people who stayed the course even when it appeared to be futile and gave of the treasure of their young men’s lives in a cause that did not always make sense.
I hate war in all of its forms but this class has shown me that sometimes we have no other course of action than to defend ourselves and our allies. For whatever reasons tyrants and those intent on evil seem to rise up again and again. Luckily we have heroes who push them back. It’s important that we learn as much about what they have done so that we might always honor them for their service.