Seventy years ago, Japan surrendered and ended World War II. My father’s generation fought and won that war. This month, we commemorate their service.
My father (Jack) grew up in New York City during the Great Depression. In 1943, upon graduation from high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Jack qualified for airborne radar training and his original squadron provided air surveillance and control for anti-aircraft warfare. In March or April 1945, he was part of what he described as the “mop up” operation on Iwo Jima.
In April 1945, my father was reassigned to a fighter squadron known as “Black Mac’s Killers.” They fought in the Battle of Okinawa, which was the largest amphibious assault and bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Lasting three months, the battle was marked by constant bombardment, savage fighting and heavy rains. The United States suffered over 80,000 casualties. More than 110,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed. Okinawa marked the peak of attacks by kamikazes, which sank or put out of action at least 30 U.S. warships. According to one account, more mental health issues arose from the Battle of Okinawa than from any other battle in the Pacific.
My father never spoke of Okinawa, except with my mother on a handful of occasions and with me a couple of times before his death. Jack’s brief accounts and his military records provide only a general outline of what happened.
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Jack reached Okinawa during the height of the battle. He remembered looking out from shore and seeing kamikazes crashing into (and sinking) American ships. On the island, Jack suffered a wound that left a scar on his chin for the rest of his life. He said it was caused by Japanese shrapnel, but never gave the details. (He once told my mother he was injured during an “ambush” in which many of his friends were killed during close combat; he simply told me it was during a “surprise attack.”) Jack said his commanding officer wanted to award him or was going to recommend him for a Purple Heart. (During World War II, the Purple Heart was often awarded on the spot, with occasional entries made into service records.) However, he “turned it down” because he was embarrassed to accept a Purple Heart for such a minor wound.
During May and June 1945, from Yontan Air Field in Okinawa, “Black Mac’s Killers” shot down a record number of Japanese planes using radar at night. In August 1945, my father was still on Okinawa. American troops were amassing and waiting for orders to invade Japan, and 3 million Japanese soldiers were waiting to fight them. Then, two atomic bombs were dropped over Japan and the War in the Pacific was suddenly over. Jack later wondered if those atomic bombs saved his life, but he believed they probably saved many Japanese lives too.
My father never spoke of it, but the B-29 that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki landed in Okinawa after its mission. Critically low on fuel, the plane barely made it to Okinawa. Jack was still there, working as an airborne radar specialist.
After the war, my father never went to college. He went to work, married, and raised our family. In the light of history, his was a remarkable generation. They were patriotic, loyal and humble, and never bragged about what they had done. And yet, they endured the Great Depression, answered the call of duty, saved the world from fascism, and turned this country into an economic powerhouse. They were our Greatest Generation.
John N. Zarian is a local attorney and lives in Eagle.