“[Jones] overcomes the vastness of the event by emphasizing his personal experience of it, thus giving the reader a foothold in the text that is far more satisfying than gliding across a glossy overview. He overcomes his limited viewpoint of the war by symbolizing it in the experience of the common infantryman and locating in that experience a unique significance.”–New York Times
Buy this book: WWII
IN THE BEGINNING
There was never any question about the beginning of World War II for the United States. Pearl Harbor began it crisply and decisively and without discussion.
Absolutely nobody was prepared for it. At Schofield Barracks in the infantry quadrangles, those of us who were up were at breakfast. On Sunday mornings in those days there was a bonus ration of a half–pint of milk, to go with your eggs or pancakes and syrup, also Sunday specials. Most of us were more concerned with gett ing and holding onto our half–pints of milk than with listening to the explosions that began rumbling up toward us from Wheeler Field two miles away. “They doing some blasting?” some old–timer said through a mouthful of pancakes. It was not till the first low–flying fighter came skidding, whammering low overhead with his MGs going that we ran outside, still clutching our half–pints of milk to keep them from being stolen, aware with a sudden sense of awe that we were seeing and acting in a genuine moment of history.
As we stood outside in the street huddled back against the day–room wall, another fighter with the red suns on its wings came up the boulevard, preceded by two lines of holes that kept popping up eighty yards in front on the asphalt. As he came abreast of us, he gave us a typically toothy grin and waved, and I shall never forget his face behind the goggles. A white silk scarf streamed out behind his neck and he wore a white ribbon around his helmet just above the goggles, with a red spot in the center of his forehead. I would learn later that this ribbon was a hachimaki, the headband worn by medieval samurai when going into battle, usually with some religious slogan of Shinto or Emperor worship inked on it.
Battleship Row was turned into a living inferno and men there, precipitated into full–scale war without previous experience and with no preparation, performed feats of incredible heroism and rescue that seemed unbelievable later. Men dove overboard from red–hot decks to try to swim a hundred yards underwater beneath the oil and gasoline fires that spread over the surface. Some made it, God knows how. One sailor told of seeing a bomb land beside a buddy who was just starting to climb an exterior ship‘s ladder. W hen the fumes cleared, he saw the concussion had blown the buddy completely through the ladder and into neatly rectangular chunks the size of the ladder openings. “But I don‘t think he ever knew what hit him,” the sailor said with a shaky smile.
Later that Sunday in mid–afternoon, when in the confusion and shock my unit, along with several hundred others, finally pulled out of Schofield for our defensive beach positions, we passed Pearl Harbor. We could see the huge rising smoke columns high in the clear sunny Hawaiian air for miles before we ever got near Pearl. I shall never forget the sight as we passed over the lip of the central plateau and began the long drop down to Pearl City.
Down toward the towering smoke columns as far as the eye could see, the long line of army trucks, each with its splash of “OD”—the olive–drab field uniform shirts—wound serpentlike up and down the draws of red dirt through the green of cane and pineapple. Machine guns (MGs) were mounted on the cab roofs of every truck possible. I remember thinking with a sense of the profoundest awe that none of our lives would ever be the same, that a social, even a cultural watershed had been crossed which we could never go back over, and I wondered how many of us would survive to see the end results. I wondered if I would. I had just turned twenty, the month before.
I expect most of us felt about the same, if many were less able to verbalize it. It was one of the first, tiniest steps in what I‘ve labeled the Evolution of a Soldier. Many had taken multiple giant strides along the path that day. And many had gone right on out the other end of the tunnel, without taking any steps at all.
In later days a theory has been advanced that the Japanese sneak attack was a colossal blunder, that it served only to weld the American people into one, destroy our isolationism, and replace it with a single–minded determination to win the war. This theory holds that the attack was not even much of a success militarily, since American plans in case of war called only for a most cautious advance into the western Pacific. I do not agree. Militarily, five of eight batt leships were sunk or ruined; three cruisers were put out of action for over a year; three destroyers were smashed up; four other ships sunk, and innumerable shore installations destroyed. Some 2,400 men were dead, half that many wounded.
I cannot call that a blunder, or militarily valueless. And luckily for us our carriers were out at sea that day. It is true that it welded Americans together into a single strong and determined unit, at least for a while, especially when viewed from the distance of historical perspective. But it welded them in different ways, with different solders. W hile many poor, middle–class, and even rich young men were crowding army and navy recruiting stations to enlist, many others were calculating, with equally fervid patriotism, how they might make fortunes from the upcoming social and industrial change–over from peace to war. Or wangling jobs or commissions from their senators and representatives which would keep them out of combat and put them where the high living would be taking place. And the high living wasn‘t long in coming, as the nation geared up and Washington, D.C., became the officer‘s and serviceman‘s mecca.
And in addition, the attack had gained for the Japanese an enormous psychological advantage that lasted a full six months. The United States had been dumped and dumped hard. We were shaken by the catastrophe. The United States had been scared. True, it would take six months in any case to convert our massive industrial potential, and to raise and train a wartime army. But did we have the kind of men who could stand up eyeball to eyeball and whip the Jap? A sort of nervous inquietude and malaise of near–despair and insecurity set in.
We were a peace–loving nation, had been anti soldiering and soldiers since the end of World War I. And we were taking on not only the Japs in the Far East, but the Germans in Europe as well. The Japanese, with their warrior code of the bushi, had been in active combat warfare for ten years; the Germans almost as long. Could we evolve a soldier, a civilian soldier, who could meet them man to man in the field? Did we have enough crazies and suicidals? Enough weird types of our own, to do that? Not everyone was sure we did.
The historians have seen fit to slide over this period and not dwell on it.
But the good old U.S.A. was whistling Dixie, all right, all right.
And during that six–month period our bastions in the Pacific and those of our allies were falling with the regularity of bowling pins in a bowling alley filled with three hundred–shooters rolling strikes. Malaya. Thailand. The Gilberts. Guam. Northern Luzon. North Borneo. Mindanao. Wake. Hong Kong. Manila. Borneo. The Bismarcks. New Britain. Bougainville. Sumatra. Singapore. Flores.
Java. New Guinea. The rest of the Solomons. And finally the whole of the Philippines. Quite a long list. All of them rank defeats. And, with the exception of the Philippines, most Americans didn‘t even know where most of these places were.
It was not until the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7–8, 1942, that the United States and her allies in the Pacific achieved a victory over the Japanese, and then it was a questionable one because we lost the carrier Lexington in it, in the first sea battle of carrier forces. But the Jap invasion fleet bound for Port Moresby to take over Papua, the Australian half of New Guinea, was forced to turn back. On the day before, however, May 6, Bataan had fallen and the United States‘s mighty Philippines had become Japanese. And it was not until June 3–6, when a U.S. carrier fleet sank four Jap carriers in the great Battle of Midway (though losing the carrier York–town and a destroyer in the process), that the United States gained a decisive, course–of–the–war–changing victory in the Pacific.
It was a long six months. Only the Japanese could possibly justify to themselves and to their inviolable Bushido code of honor the unprovoked, undeclared–war attack on Pearl Harbor and Clark Field. But perhaps they didn‘t need to justify it. Perhaps the events of the next six months were justification enough. There were not many American artists working abroad during this period. But a lot of Japanese artists recorded it.
Meantime, in America, the United States was trying to convert its industrial potential to war and its young civilian men into types who might evolve (when the time arose, and it would soon) into the kind of combat soldier that was needed.
I DIDN‘T RAISE MY BOY …
Mothers, at least American mothers, are a weird lot. Some sea–change seems to happen in a woman as soon as she becomes a mother. If she gives up enjoying sex with her boyfriend when she finally marries him and becomes a wife, she gives up even dreaming about it when she becomes a mother. All sorts of virtues claim her, and she claims them. Things she would not have blinked an eyelash over when she herself was young and hungry for security become nightmarish horrors when contemplated for her darling offspring. Ideals suddenly become more important to her than any reality. I am not at all sure this is not equally true today, for the vast majority of American mothers. But it was certainly true then. While most nations were spending young fortunes preparing for wars, and indeed often already engaging in them in one area or another, we were teaching our young that war was immoral, and evil, and that, in fact, it was so costly in both treasure and spirit that mankind simply could no longer afford it. All conditions devoutly to be wished, but hardly a realistic description of the 1930s.
Thus, to teach a young American male to love war and to enjoy killing his fellow man—even a Jap or a Nazi—was about comparable to teaching his fresh, dewy–eyed, virginal sister to love the physical aspects of simple fucking and that fellatio could be an enjoyable form of high art. These were the young men who hastened joyously to enlist in the early days after Pearl Harbor, and for some months after. One wonders, looking back on it, if perhaps a great part of their joy was not a result of being able legitimately to get away from homes filled with mothers and/or wives like those described above.
There is always that exciting feeling about the beginning of a war, or even of a campaign. I guess the closest way to depict the feeling is to liken it to a sudden, unexpected school holiday. All restraints are off, everyday life and its dull routines, its responsibilities are scratched and a new set of rules take over. True, some people are going to die, but probably it will not be oneself. And for a while at least, adventure will reign.
In any case, the new enlistees, and new draftees (on December 19, Roosevelt extended the draft law to men aged twenty to forty–four, and set up our first Office of Censorship under somebody named Byron Price), got a pretty rude awakening. With the induction ceremony the honeymoon got over pretty quickly. Men who had been raised to believe, however erroneously, in a certain modicum of individual free–thinking were being taught by loud, fat, devoted sergeants to live as numbers, by the numbers. Clothes that did not fit, when they could see clothes on the shelves that did fit. Personal and dedicated harassments over wrinkles in blankets and blemished polishments of shoes and rifle barrels, when it was perfectly clear that neither wrinkle nor blemish existed. Living in herds and schools like steers or fish, where men (suddenly missing deeply the wives or girlfriends they left so adventuresomely two weeks before) literally could not find the privacy to masturbate even in the latrines. Being laughed at, insulted, upbraided, held up to ridicule, and fed like pigs at a trough with absolutely no recourse or rights to uphold their treasured individuality before any parent, lover, teacher or tribune. Harassed to rise at five in the morning, harassed to be in bed at nine–thirty at night.
Some men thrived on it. Whether they thrived or not, all, all of it, was aimed at and directed toward that Evolution of a Soldier of which these were the first faltering child‘s steps, although the men did not know they were taking them yet. And which had as its purpose the sole concept of teaching each numbered individual, by the numbers, that he was a nameless piece of expendable matériel of a grateful government and its ideals of freedom just as surely as any artillery shell, mortar round or rifle bullet. And the men who thrived on it got promoted. Those who wept could write letters home. Censored letters, if that need arose, too.
Add to this the gross privilege accorded their sadistic sergeant overseers, which they were constantly having their noses rubbed in, and you had at least the beginnings, hopefully, of a soldier so bitter he would gladly take on both Jap and Nazi simultaneously.
A lot of humor grew out of this. Humor was the civilian soldier‘s catharsis and saving grace. In 1941, before Pearl Harbor, a man named Marion Hargrove wrote a shallow, humorous book called See Here, Private Hargrove, about this peculiar process of induction into the draft, and achieved fame and riches and a cushy job writing for some army paper. His book worked because humor, even shallow humor, was bearable to the folks back home, more acceptable than tragedy while they were worrying about their sons‘ lives. Later Hargrove went to work for Yank. Meanwhile, the sons themselves dreamed in their sleep nightly, and frequently daydreamed consciously, of killing their “sadistic” sergeants in cold blood. Dreamed of murder, as it was hoped they would. Another step in the Evolution of a Soldier.
It was as if a massive conspiracy had been put together, everybody conniving at it in secret accord, home–front civilian and serviceman alike, in a nation which had eschewed war as insanity, to keep the semblance of sanity through a semblance of humor and good will. Humor and good will, if pursued diligently enough, might keep back out of sight all the dark side of humanity which was now being let out, must be let out. Must be stimulated and used.
The men who reported to camp each arrived harboring in his secret core of cores his harrowing, never–shared knowledges and ignorances of himself. His panic terrors and his carefully heldin–check brutalities. Would he do well? Would he die? Would he be able to kill another man? Would he not be able to kill another man? Did he really know himself ? These things could not be talked about. All that was taboo in, America. And only the paradox of humor could function as a safety valve, pull together the split in the national personality.
The only real difference, the main difference, between World War II and later wars was the greater overall social commitment and, therefore, the greater social stigma attached to refusing to go. Besides, in World War II there was nowhere to run. Just about every nation was involved, one way or another. The whole world was caught up. Had some sanctuary existed, transportation to it would have been impossible under the government control being exercised. Conscientious objectors went to camps. The question remained, always, that if idealistic America had birthed a new breed incapable of killing his fellow humans, who was going to protect him from those nations that had not yet evolved such a type?
Copyright notice: Excerpted from WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering by James Jones, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2015 by University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)