Boom!

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The discovery of unexploded ordnance in a German or British city is old news, but not so in the Pacific. This past week workers at a construction site in Tokyo unearthed what they believed to be a Japanese bomb hidden since the end of WWII. A bomb squad from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces secured the bomb and detonated it safely; no one was injured. The presence of such dangerous objects is a reminder that the war, no matter how much it might be buried by politicians and the march of time, is still relatively recent history.

Hawkins from LIFE

I knew the day was coming. As anyone who gets into the business of writing recent history and storytelling knows, your sources – if you’re lucky enough to find and interview participants for your work, that is – won’t be around forever. But that knowledge, those expectations, even considerable previous experience, didn’t much help soften the blow this time around. I’m sad to report that the last of the Davao Penal Colony escapees, the lone survivor of the “greatest story of the war in the Pacific,” Colonel Jack Hawkins, passed away in Fredericksburg, Virginia last Friday and was laid rest today in Quantico National Cemetery.

Hawkins, an officer, gentleman, patriot and hero, was 96. Hawkins was also the last surviving officer of the Fourth Marine Regiment and was believed to have been the last surviving high ranking officer (field grade or general officer) of the 1st Marine Division from WWII.

It’s no exaggeration to say that without Hawkins and his invaluable assistance, Escape From Davao would not have been possible. I feel extremely fortunate to have known Hawkins and called him a friend – and am both honored and humbled to know that he felt the same way about me.

Rest in peace and Semper Fi, Col. Hawkins – and thanks for everything!

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I haven’t had any time to check out the new film “Emperor,” a reportedly half-fact, half-fiction “historomance” set against a backdrop of political intrigue during the U.S. occupation of Japan following World War II, but I have read this recent review from the New York Times, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the reviewer didn’t go out of his way to bash General Douglas MacArthur or Academy-Award winning actor Tommy Lee Jones’s portrayal of the famed general. In fact, while Jones bears little physical resemblance to MacArthur, he seems to have nailed his confusing concoction of personality traits: “Jones’s MacArthur is a complicated blend of imperious, arrogant, short-tempered, impulsive and ambitious. But he has redeeming qualities: he’s motivated by an underlying decency, respect for the conquered Japanese people and his desire for peace. He also possesses a down-to-earth directness that cuts through elaborate protocol and Japanese manners.”

What I’m surprised about is that the writer didn’t insert any additional personal or cultural bias in his article. MacArthur-bashing, after all, has been in vogue for more than a decade now, manifesting itself in a number of recent books and documentaries. But I did find, snugly sandwiched inside the piece, an example of revisionist bias inherent in much of what the East Coast mainstream media prints and broadcasts nowadays:

Except for the Imperial Palace and Army headquarters, everything is rubble. There is a brief mention of the fire bombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, in which an estimated 100,000 civilians were incinerated, and we see a distant view of the city in flames. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are barely mentioned.”

Of course, there HAD to be a mention of the firebombings and the rubble. And from what I’ve seen in trailers for the film, there are sweeping, CGI panoramas of the destroyed cities and emotion-eliciting close-ups of dirty, homeless, defeated Japanese refugees. I doubt there are any explanatory mentions of how the imperialist warlords who launched Japan on its runaway course to ruin were ultimately responsible for these conditions. Doubt we’ll hear the words “Nanking,” “Manila,” or “Death March” uttered in this film, nor mention of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of prisoners of war that the Japanese war machine was responsible for, either. America, after all, is being painted as the aggressor in the Pacific war thanks to revisionist offensives being launched both in Japan and here in the U.S. itself.

I’m hoping that the film will be released on iTunes soon enough that I can view it on my forthcoming, 14-hour flight to the Philippines later next month. If so, I’ll post a review of “Emperor” on this blog.

Last Charge

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, March, not April, might just be the cruellest month – at least in terms of notable passings in the community of veterans, historians, writers, researchers, history buffs and others interested in the study of the Pacific war. According to some estimates, we’re losing approximately 800 World War II veterans in this country per day, an average of more than 290,000 per year.

Among those 800 for this month, we’ve already noted in this blog the February 26th passing of one of the last surviving Doolittle Raiders, Thomas Griffin.

Sadly, to this ever-growing roll of honor, we add:

- Edwin P. Ramsey, the leader of the last mounted cavalry charge – on Bataan in January 1942 – in U.S. military history.

- The last surviving member of the military nurses known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, Mildred Dalton Manning.

- The the man credited with the capture of General Hideki Tojo, John Wilpers, following the surrender of Japan.

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The camera flashes were increasing in frequency, becoming so rapid-fire, so blindingly bright, that someone made an impassioned plea to the line-up of photogs for a temporary truce.

“Can you please hold your flashes?”

And they did, although for just a few seconds, pausing momentarily to look up from behind their long, smoking lenses to make sure the shutterbug next to them was also observing the ceasefire.

But the situation wasn’t taking place on the red carpet at some Hollywood premiere or awards ceremony, nor at a jam-packed press conference. These photographers were not your typical paparazzi swarming a celebrity like sharks at a feeding frenzy. The flash-blinded targets weren’t the Kardashians, another pompous professional athlete or politician.

The request, strangely enough, was made on a black tarmac on a cool, spring April afternoon in the middle of Dayton, Ohio and it was made on behalf of four old men. But these weren’t just any old men. They were heroes. Heroes in perhaps the purest sense of the word. These men were Doolittle Raiders.

Occurring on April 18, 1942, just days after the fall of Bataan in the Philippines, the crowning catastrophe in a string of demoralizing defeats spanning Pearl Harbor to the Dutch East Indies, the Doolittle Raid delivered a desperately-needed booster shot of morale to the American people as well as an aerial antidote to the virulent “victory disease” that had swept Japan in the opening months of World War II. The bombs caused little physical damage, but effectively exploded the myth of Imperial Japanese invincibility and prodded Japan’s warlords into strategic missteps that turned the tide of the Pacific War.

Sixteen U.S. Army Air Force B-25s carrying 80 volunteers powered off the plunging deck of the carrier U.S.S. Hornet on that gray, wind-whipped April morning. Only five of those 80 volunteers were were left – in effect, one last intact crew given that B-25s were operated by crews of five – and the four standing in front of me absorbing the brunt of the photographers’ assault were the ones able to attend the big 70th anniversary commemoration event held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton (the fifth, Robert Hite, was too ill to travel).

For me, hearing the news of the passing of one of these final five surviving Raiders, Thomas Griffin, 96, last week was particularly poignant and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed meeting and interviewing Griffin. He was down-to-earth, honest, convivial and warm. It was as conversational an interview that I’ve ever had. In fact, at times while talking to each of the Raiders, I almost felt as though I was the one being interviewed – these men seemed genuinely interested in me, asking where I was from, why I had traveled to Dayton, why I was interested in their story and their extraordinary lives. The class, dignity, patience and unassuming personalities exhibited by these genuine American heroes – all of whom were nonagenarians – was so wonderfully refreshing. But there’s another reason why Griffin’s final flight skyward has proven so difficult to take. Griffin’s departure leaves not only not enough Raiders left for a full B-25 crew, but also leaves another void in America’s ever-dwindling pantheon of living heroes. And there’s virtually no one left, symbolically-speaking, to fill that void.

To me, this country was once a thriving, humming factory that cranked out heroes as easily and efficiently as it once produced quality automobiles. But for whatever reason, that epic assembly line ground to a halt years ago. With the exception of a small handful of innovators and inventors like the late Steve Jobs, America no longer produces heroes, leaders, pioneers, great, virile adventurers, risk-takers, men with strong moral and ethical constitutions, men of conscience and conviction. Instead, somewhere along the way, we began to outsource the job to the most unlikely suppliers, places like Hollywood, Washington and our professional sports leagues, all of which have failed mightily in trying to deliver upon the order. It’s no surprise then, that our country is in the predicament it is today. We have a thriving political class, a besieged middle class, a drowning lower class, an increasingly out-of-touch and unscrupulous wealthy elite class and a virtually extinct hero class. We’re running out of Thomas Griffins.

Militarily and in official capacities, it’s difficult to discern just who are our leaders nowadays. We have no visible Joneses, Chamberlains, Yorks, Perrys, Byrds, Doolittles, Lindberghs, MacArthurs, Pattons, Marshalls, Eisenhowers, Nimitzes, Halseys, Ridgways or Schwarzkopfs. I believe that we’ve had only four living Medal of Honor recipients in the past 40 years, or since the end of the Vietnam War (though this shortage might also be attributable to extreme stringency restrictions for America’s highest military honor). But seriously, when’s the last time there’s been a ticker tape parade, a celebratory ride down the “Canyon of Heroes,” for a worthy recipient of our nation’s adulation ?

The answer: nearly 20 years. The last one was held in 1994 for Senator/Astronaut John Glenn’s return from his second space mission. Now, we only have these once-grand celebratory events to celebrate championship victories by professional sports teams.

Militarily, it’s hard to tell if any heroes – outside of the dwindling number of stalwart young officers, non-coms and idealistic enlisted men who put themselves in harm’s way for pathetically little pay, or the special operations troops that never see their families and can’t find civilian jobs once they retire from their top secret world – still exist. Our branches of the service seem to be staffed by a succession of boring, uniformed robots. It seems like our current president fires anybody with more than two stars on his shoulders who displays a backbone or an ounce of intellect. Or else these men commit hara-kiri by not carefully watching their words around predatory media members or engaging in extra-marital affairs, both unrepentable sins given today’s super media saturated world. Our service academies, which reportedly now place more of an emphasis on demerits and academics than in creating dynamic problem-solvers, seem to mass-produce indistinguishable clones, senior officers more concerned with following stifling regulations to a T and padding their files and preserving careers than the needs of their men or their missions. Many elite institutions refuse to host ROTC programs on their campuses. And many middle-grade officers – potentially quality leaders-in-training – nowadays are growing so dissatisfied with the overly politicized services, the stratified caste systems therein and other superfluous “chickenshit” that they’re leaving in droves for jobs in the civilian private sector before they turn 30.

And speaking of chickenshit, how does one explain the Distinguished Warfare Medal? The Pentagon’s newest award, “the Nintendo Medal” reportedly outranks the Bronze Star and Purple Heart – awards typically earned by front-line soldiers serving in combat zones who receive wounds inflicted by the enemy – and is usually awarded to men who fly drones and similar craft via remote control from the safety of control rooms located thousands of miles away from actual danger. Thomas Griffin and his 79 comrades each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their active participation in the Raid. Others who were wounded during the adventure received the Purple Heart and commendations from the Chinese Nationalist government. While there were many who helped, both directly and indirectly, make the Raid possible but did not directly participate, I can’t see awarding these individuals something that equates the awards received by Griffin and Co. for flying over enemy territory, weathering flak storms, for bailing out over occupied coastal China and eluding enemy patrols. Luckily, our current Pentagon staff and White House administration weren’t in charge in 1942, or anyone remotely connected to the Doolittle Raid in Washington or elsewhere in the States would have received something for their participation and be officially designated “Raiders.”

Politically, this nation has perhaps never faced a greater shortage of strong, faith-propelled, positive purpose-driven (read: those interested in providing true, Constitutionally-based governance and guidance for our country and not merely enriching themselves financially or pushing a dangerous, anti-American ideological agenda) politicians. Approval ratings for Congress have never been lower. Calling our legislators merely incompetent would be a compliment. Yet these individuals, in cities large and small (but especially in cities large, our major metropolitan centers) keep getting elected year after year, cycle after cycle, term after term. I guess H.L. Mencken was right (and is still right all these years later) when he said nearly a century ago that “the men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars.”

We used to be the land of the free and home of the brave. But Americans no longer idolize those who honor the ideals of freedom and exhibit bravery, those who are dedicated to the American beliefs of hard work being the determinant of success. The country no longer looks up to inventors, innovators, surgeons, scientists, soldiers, pilots, astronauts and engineers. Instead, reality TV stars, one-hit wonder musicians, drug-addled, mentally-unstabled performers have become the new heroes. Candle light vigils are held and flags lowered to half-mast for actors or singers that end their own lives due to drug addictions. America has, for some unexplainable reason, developed a ridiculous and what might perhaps prove to be fatal fascination with the inexperienced and the incompetent, the talentless and totally clueless, those whose lives are built more upon their words than deeds, their looks and hipness, on silicone and sensationalism, rather than real substance.

And it all starts at the top. This country has not had a real chief executive, an individual familiar with how all levels of government work, a man well-versed in both politics and the unique American political system of compromise and give-and-take, a man skilled in diplomacy both domestic and international, a man successful in both the public and private sectors, a man who saw combat first-hand, in more than 20 years: George Herbert Walker Bush. Not surprisingly, Bush I was a WWII fighter pilot, perhaps our last true political leader from the Greatest Generation. Today’s presidents have nothing approximating the long resumes that their predecessors enjoyed. Instead, they enjoy the pomp and perks of the presidency and know nothing of what true leadership means. These men enjoy pumped-up PR moments such as theatrical landings on aircraft carriers, are outright draft-dodgers or, perhaps worst of all, they attempt to take credit for the daring deeds that real heroes have accomplished largely on behalf of their friends, families and fellow countrymen, not said “leaders.” As a historian, when I first learned of the media-fueled chest-thumping and fist-bumping by the Obama administration in the aftermath of Seal Team Six’s dispatching of terrorist Osama bin Laden, my mind immediately flashed to find similar circumstances and situations in history. It ultimately landed in April 1943. I could not but help to wonder, imagine if F.D.R. had tried to take credit for shooting down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto? Luckily, back then we had leaders who didn’t engage in such ridiculous attempts at usurping glory. Nor would our media have been complicit in such a farce. Sadly, times have changed.

The only geographic area more cut-off from reality, more dysfunctional than Washington, is Hollywood. The nation’s entertainment capital is just as clueless and out of touch with Main Street, USA. The PTB on the left coast feed us a steady programming diet of reality shows and special effects-laden films, fattening portions of poorly-written, plot-deficient tripe for an already obese viewing audience. Award-winning actors openly cavort with corrupt dictators and avowed adversaries. Others travel to Washington for showy summits with U.S. leaders to find solutions for pressing problems…taking place in other countries. Many adopt children in foreign countries because it’s fashionable – all while parentless American kids languish right here at home in overflowing orphanages. Others use the platforms provided by press junkets for ultra-violent films featuring excessive gun violence to express their disdain for the right to own firearms by rank-and-file Americans, the very people who purchase the tickets to said movies and make their lavish lifestyles possible. To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel, “where have you gone Charlton Heston? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

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And what about athletes? By now, we’re almost inured to the multi-million dollar contracts, the demands, the egos, the soundbytes, the outrageous behavior. But as a former sportswriter, I thought I could say that I’ve seen it all…and then last week Dennis Rodman became pals with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Rodman reportedly told George Stephanpoulos in his post-Pyongyang visit interview that Kim “is a good guy to me.” Wow. If he keeps up the diplomatic insanity, Rodman might just unseat Sean Penn, a BFF of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez who entertains the likes of the anti-American owners of Al-Jazeera while offering unsolicited commentary on stuff in which he knows nothing about, like the Falkland Islands controversy, in the running for the Jane Fonda Cup.

And those powerful men and women outside the military/political/Hollywood realm are proving to be increasingly unsavory characters, anti-heroes all. Insulated by large entourages and heavily-armed guard details, these individuals are even more out of touch with mainstream America than our actors and athletes. For example, contrast financial thug George Soros and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg with Andrew Carnegie. At one time, many of our nation’s ultra-successful businessmen, the wealthy elite, felt obligated to employ their personal fortunes to enrich and benefit other Americans. Carnegie’s vast estate helped build countless libraries and continues to fund passions for the arts and education. On the other hand, pompous jackwagons like Soros and Bloomberg feel entitled to use their billions and bullion to bully those with opposing political views, to peddle their personal ideology and superiority (no large sodas or firearms for you, peasant!) or purchase influence and even elections across the country. These men are a far cry from the Allen McLane’s of the nation. McLane was a little-known, dashing Revolutionary War hero, but also a member of the wealthy elite who was willing to walk the walk and use his personal fortune to pursue the ideals of freedom and liberty; McLane opened his own checkbook to raise, pay and equip an entire unit of soldiers to fight against the British.

To me, March 2013 is strangely reminiscent of April 1942. Only this time around, we’re beset mainly by problems of our own making, not the aggressive militaries of totalitarian foreign powers. Sequestration and other self-inflicted wounds. Financial crises. Cyber threats and nuclear saber-rattling from upstart foreign powers. The ongoing specter of Muslim extremist terrorism. Instead of confronting these problems head-on, we’re divided by and drowning in vigorous debate over social issues, marijuana legalization and marriage laws. Another dark hour is descending upon America. And this time we’re confronting it without any credible leadership. And I’m not the only one who sees the storm coming.

“The dangers that face our nation today are every bit as great as those we have faced in the past. The question is whether we have lost our capacity to endure hardship and sacrifice for future generations,” Dr. Benjamin Carson said last week in a post to his Facebook page.

So where is the hero class – the Doolittle Raiders, the Thomas Griffins – those who will volunteer to fly against all odds to help save the day? Where are those who can lead from the front, those who possess the requisite leadership experience, the ability to unite us and prepare us to endure hardship and sacrifice on the long road to ultimate victory?

Rest in peace, Mr. Griffin. I sincerely hope you enjoyed your few minutes in the glow of the bright lights of fame – the flash bulbs – last April. You, unlike so many others in America today, earned it.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all when it comes to World War II, here comes the tale of Chiune Sugihara, a kind of reverse John Rabe – the Nazi in Nanking who helped save Chinese civilians during the rape of that city in 1937-38. Going against official Imperial policy – Japan was, after all, a member of the Axis alongside Germany – Sugihara reportedly saved 6,000 Jews during his posting in Lithuania as Vice-Consul of the Japanese Empire. It’s an uplifting story and proof that not all Japanese military and government personnel during the 30s and 40s were mindless, xenophobic automatons serving their emperor.

Here’s an extremely interesting, not to mention inspiring story about a private individual who voluntarily searches for the remains of lost Allied service personnel scattered across the remote mountain reaches of the Himalayas, the area known famously as “The Hump”. It was over The Hump that some of World War II’s most difficult and demanding missions were flown. Because of his selfless dedication and willingness to invest not only his own time, but a considerable amount of his own financial resources, Clayton Kuhles fits my definition of a hero. Please check out Kuhles’ site here and consider making a donation to help fund his expeditions.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea comes this intriguing piece in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The article tells us of Japan’s post-9-11 efforts at enhancing it’s military assertiveness around the globe, from the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in the War of Terrorism conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to combating piracy threats around the Horn of Africa. The article also contains a tantalizing line for all WWII buffs and historians – the Japanese Naval Self-Defense Force’s base at Djibouti is the nation’s first overseas anchorage since the war. Ultimately, this piece also poses the thought-provoking question: given the increasingly larger, darkening shadow cast across Asia by China’s buffed up military and the omnipresent saber-rattling from North Korea, would a Japan that, after nearly 70 years of disarmament, finally punches at its weight militarily be a help to the U.S. and her staunch allies (Australia, the Philippines, et al) in the Asia-Pacific area?

The U.S., unlike what was the case in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, has been conspicuously proactive in the Pacific in recent months: there’s been a noted infusion of U.S. troops in the Philippines, ostensibly to aid that longtime ally’s fight against Islamo-fascist terrorism, as well as a recent defense agreement between America and Australia that was condemned by China. Is running up the Rising Sun flag and resurrecting the martial tradition of Japan the next step in America’s attempt at containing China’s ambitions?

The infamous December 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor has provided nearly 70 years worth of fodder for conspiracy theorists, namely those who suggest the complicity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Government in “allowing” the attacks to happen, but perhaps one conspiracy theory concerning the attack is founded in truth: the idea that the government, not to mention the U.S. Navy, has maintained a seven-decade long vendetta against one of the original scapegoats for the disaster, Admiral Husband Kimmel.

For Kimmel’s family, the furling clouds of black smoke have not dissipated over Pearl. The oil-slicked waters have not been cleaned. Capsized reputations have not been righted. Sunken lives have not repaired and refloated. The fight continues: a campaign launched by Kimmel’s eldest grandson, a former FBI agent, aims to clear Kimmel’s name and secure for his grandfather a posthumous advancement in rank under the auspices of the Officer Personnel Act of 1947. The work of revered Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, and the historian’s own reconsideration of his previously anti-Kimmel findings, are at the heart of the matter.

Those interested in learning of Tom Kimmel’s fight can click here:

http://www.pearlharbor911attacks.com

Seventy years ago today – March 20, 1942 – at the Terowie Railway Station in South Australia, the most famous American phrase of World War II was uttered. It was at the small, remote Australian rail hub outside of Adelaide where General Douglas MacArthur first voiced his famed “I Shall Return” speech, which echoed across the Pacific, reverberated throughout the Philippines and sounded all the way to a very upset Washington, D.C.

It was while leafing through the above newspaper, an original, intact copy of the evening March 20, 1942 edition of the now-defunct Baltimore News-Post which hangs on my office wall, that I was struck by the irony of the fact that while the Pacific war remains a somewhat forgotten, Cinderella-esque conflict – the nation’s media remains fixated on the European War, the Nazis and all things Hitler – it was the Pacific that provided nearly all of America’s lasting memories of the “good war.”

If one stops to think about it, “I Shall Return,” the phrase that took on a life of its own and became perhaps the greatest weapon in the history of psy-ops and propaganda warfare, is in all likelihood the most famous phrase of the war. Nearly every American has heard it and repeated it, though many likely have no idea what the phrase meant or who uttered it, at least sometime in their lives.

The Pacific war also provided the war’s most famous speech – with apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, at least from an American perspective – President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress on December 8, 1941, the day after the infamous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Lastly, the Pacific war provided America with the war’s most iconic image, that of six Marines raising a giant American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the blood-soaked, battle-battered island of Iwo Jima.

While I’ll admit that the European war, thanks to one General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, can rightfully lay claim to perhaps the most important one-word uttering of the conflict – “Nuts!” – I really don’t think anyone can realistically dispute the above claims. But I’m open for debate, if anyone cares to comment.