Friday, August 13, 2010

Remembering VJ Day: How Ordinary Men Saved the World

Capt. William Ashley Chapman showing off the pyramidal tent that was his home from the Battle of Okinawa through August 1945. When he was very old he wrote me in a funny letter: "We have here [at home] a lot better stuff than is found in any canvas tent. It is more trouble to go to the bathroom though."

This weekend marks sixty-five years since Japan surrendered to Allied Forces in the Pacific. Victory in Japan Day marked the end of Japan's strange and horrible dream of world conquest.

My father, Captain William Ashley Chapman, was there on a tiny island called Ie, across a small strait of water from Okinawa, Japan. Late in life he said there was no celebration on VJ Day among the soldiers. "Just a lot of relief."

Capt. Chapman on Ie, 1945

This is the first such remembrance day, of that remarkable time, that my father has not been here to mark. Col. William Ashley Chapman finally surrendered to his own peace in March of this year. In life, though he never once said so, he was one of the millions of ordinary American to whom we owe all the blessings of today.

The end came on August 14-15, 1945--depending on where you were in the world. In spite of it, on August 14, my father and his men were back in a slit trench as Japanese pilots bombed Okinawa. ("What was that you said, Sir, about a surrender?") That night, American Thunderbolts, flying out of Ie, shot down two more Japanese attack planes.

The momentum of a war, apparently, takes some time to halt.

Captain Chapman with his men on Ie. Behind him and to the left you can see the pyramidal tents they lived in. And behind that you can see the strait of water between Ie and Okinawa and some US ships at anchor there. Behind them to the right you can see a US military cemetery with white markers topped by an American flag.

So it wasn't until August 19, 1945, that my father stood on the runway at Ie, with the other American soldiers, and watched in silence as two Japanese Betty Bombers landed on their airstrip. The Mitsubishi planes, nicknamed "Bettys" by the GIs, were a real curiosity to the Americans, who had seen them only in combat. Per the instructions of General Douglas MacArthur, the Bettys my Dad saw that day had been each been painted white with a large green cross.

A few weeks later, my father was witness to history in another way. He and his men were ordered to board ships for Sasebo, Japan, where they were to rebuild and maintain a damaged runway, as the Occupation got underway. Sasebo is just across the bay from Nagasaki, where the atom bomb was dropped that ended the war.

A half century later, I found an old scrapbook kept by his mother and there, amidst the torn and crumpled pages, I found an undated article from an Alabama newspaper that described what he had seen there. The article was headlined: "Homewood Boy Visits Scene of Atomic Bomb Destruction," and reads in part:

"Captain Chapman, now stationed at Sasebo in Japan, wrote as follows [the article says in quoting him]: 'We drove down to Nagasaki. In the area close to where the bomb went off everything is leveled to the ground. The stench of the dead is still present ... Anyone who had the starting of a war in mind should see Nagasaki and I believe he would change his plans.'"

He and the men and women of his generation did not ask for this mission. America, in fact, did everything it could to stay out of the war that the Axis nations were brewing up in their terrible cauldron.

But when it had to be faced: they faced it. Calling them heroes almost trivializes what they did. They were not heroes. They were ordinary Americans who did a job that had to be done. My Dad served for five years. And he, like all the others, was thrilled when it was over. "I'm like President Roosevelt," he would say. "I hate war."

"EXPECT TO BE HOME SOON DON'T WRITE FURTHER" my father telegraphed my mother on November 9, 1945. "WILL CONTACT YOU ON ARRIVAL. ALL MY LOVE DEAREST. ASHLEY." So many guys were sending wires home, the operator got only one of my Dad's initials right and misspelled his last name. But it arrived at the right house anyway.

And who were these men? These battle-hardened conquerors?

"What was it like there?" my mother asked my father as he stepped off the train.

"Aw. The Japanese kids were really cute," he said. And then he kissed her.

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