I’ve been to Washington, DC many, many times and during some of those trips I had the opportunity to visit the WWII monument. Located in direct line between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial it remembers all major events and those who died to defeat the Nazi, Fascist and Japanese war machines.
New Orleans hosts the National WWII Museum — the fleshing out of what the monument stands for — founded by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose was a historian who wrote about US history in down to earth prose. One of his most famous works was “Band of Brothers” which later became a HBO mini-series.
The physical plant that houses the museum covers two blocks. Inside are a significant array of artifacts weaving a story that begins in the 1930’s through 1945. Prior to entering the main hall a 4D film narrated by Tom Hanks is shown. It provides the background that sets the plate for the war years. The film was very candid — WWII was the history’s first “total war” meaning the niceties accepted in previous wars were forgotten. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were out to conquer and/or destroy everything and anybody who got in their way. Humanity had never seen anything like it.
Entering the museum visitors are immediately immersed in full scale fighters, bombers, tanks, uniforms, guns, etc. Useful interactive displays are everywhere and introduce notable ideas, events and participants. Everything has been restored to its original condition.
The story boards tell a tale that includes details later generations may not know or remember — Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Enola Gay, FDR and the like. Great care was taken to provide accounts of the war-time contributions of:
-women — serving in the military and in industry on the homefront;
-African-Americans — serving in the military thus breaking down Jim Crow as well as finally being allowed to work in industry (not just in service jobs) and the great migration from the south to the north for wartime jobs;
-Japanese Americans’ plight–more than 100,000 were moved from the West Coast to desolate locations inland for fear of collusion with the enemy — later hundreds volunteered to fight and became some of the highest decorated soldiers in the war;
-The sacrifices of people at home who lived on coupons, collected metal, paper, animal fats in order to ensure that factories could manufacture the tools of war; and to ensure that those fighting overseas had food to eat, clothes to wear and bullets to shoot.
The war required great sacrifice from everyone even movie stars:
Once again the sacrifices our parents and grandparents made me wonder why we and our leaders have so little will to make even small sacrifices on behalf of our country.
Many things stood out during this visit but three in particular will stay with me forever:
The first was taking the opportunity to talk with Tommy Depaulo a WWII army vet. Tommy was 88 years old — his memory was sharp as a tack.
Tommy joined the army in early 1944. The army decided he should be an engineer and sent him to a college in Maryland. After six months the program was scrapped and he was shipped to the Pacific front. He spent the remainder of the war island hopping as the Allies took island after island. Tommy’s job was repairing tanks, jeeps, planes, etc. When Japan surrendered he was stationed in Korea. His last year was spent job was to help repatriate Korean refugees from Japan back to their families in Korea.
Tommy was also a bit feisty. During our conversation I casually commented, “I thought the Marines did most of the fighting in the Pacific, except in the Phillipines.” He looked at me and said, “That’s what people want you to believe. The army was right there with those boys, although the marines did take a terrible beating on many of the islands.” Then he took out photos taken by one of his friends. Two of the photos showed a pair of Japanese bombers landing and sitting on an airstrip. Each was painted white with a green cross painted on the fuselage. McArthur had told the Japanese to paint the planes so that Allied forces wouldn’t shoot them down: each carried the Japanese generals who were to negotiate surrender to the allies.
The second ah-ha moment came as I walked through an exhibit of propaganda artifacts used by both sides. I knew about how the Allies demagogued the Japanese — calling them the “Yellow Peril” and using thuggish cartoon depictions that dehumanized Japanese as gangsters. What I did not know was that Japan had responded in-kind. Both FDR and Churchill were slandered, mocked and portrayed as monsters — this photo shows FDR as a vampire:
Lastly, it was a series of displays that explained the plans to invade Japan. Throughout the war the Japanese emperor said surrender was unacceptable. Death was the only option. There were constant reminders of how both Japanese military and civilians committed suicide instead of being taken alive; if soldiers ran out of bullets they would charge Allied forces with sticks and rocks. Of course, most of us know about the kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into Allied ships.
Even after months of firebombing Japanese cities — homes constructed with paper and wood — decimating civilian populations, Japan refused to consider surrender.
These actions convinced Allied leaders that it would take the largest invasion force in history utilizing over 1,000 ships and an invasion force over a million to enter and defeat Japan. Estimated casualties were thought to be over 25% for the Allies and 70% for civilians/military of Japan. (Full disclosure — my father serviced in the Pacific and likely would have been part of that invasion force. There was no certainty that he would have survived the invasion.)
This re-enforced my belief that Truman has no choice — he had to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. Case in point, after the first bomb was dropped the Japanese emperor visited Hiroshima and told his subjects that there was no way Japan would surrender even though the city was annililated. After Nagasaki was bombed Japanese leaders were still publicly obstinate. It was only after Tokyo was named as the next target that Japan chose to surrender.
Upon reaching he exit of the museum I was surprised to learn that four hours had passed. My companion, who is not a history buff said she found the museum enthralling.
As we walked out the door I looked up at the gray sky, a slight drizzle was falling which forced my gaze downward. I spotted these sentinels guarding the exit:
The very thought of seeking shelter from tons of high explosive bombs and incendiaries in these shelters made me shiver. I grabbed my companion by the hand and dashed to the car to avoid the rain.