MY ASSIGNMENT TO THE FIRST ASSAULT WAVE ON JAPAN
At the end of OCS, orders soon came down to report to Fort Ord, California, for training in Japanese. Each day during a one-month period we trained climbing down the netting of a troop ship and into small landing crafts that would then quickly proceed to the beach where we would go through practice landings. This was in preparation for the assault on Japan. As a field artillery officer my assigned role was that of a Forward Observer. It was my job to be up front ahead of the infantry, to select an observation post and to radio the coordinates of Japanese targets to the artillery batteries lined up behind the infantry. I was to be part of the first attack force on Japan.
After a month of simulated attacks, I was ordered to Camp Anza in Los Angeles and directed onto a troop ship heading for the Pacific theatre, place unknown. On day one, the ocean swells were so violent as to cause the ship to list almost forty-five degrees from side to side for twenty-four hours straight. I was never so seasick in my life. Glued to my bunk, I was nauseous and dizzy, with such a violent headache that I thought I would die. By day four, the Pacific was much calmer. I learned for the first time that the G.I.s and officers, almost five thousand troops in all, were headed for Okinawa. I was also told I would be assigned to the 27th Infantry Division as a Field Artillery Forward Observer and again told I would be in the first assault wave hitting the Japanese beach.
On day thirty-two however, there was an announcement over the loud speaker that altered the lives of millions of G.I.s, and the world forever. It started with, “Now hear this, this is the Captain speaking, the United States Air Force has dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hear this. Japan has surrendered. The war is over.” One had to be there to believe it. The shouts; screams; tears. We were soon informed that due to the war’s end, our ship was being diverted to Tacloban, Leyte, in the Philippine Islands.
While there has been much honest debate whether the use of such catastrophic bombs was inhumane, thus casting the morality of the United States in its worst posture, there is general agreement that had we attacked the Japanese mainland as planned by General MacArthur, up to one million soldiers, marines, and navy personnel would have perished. There were 400,000 Japanese soldiers dug in, and hundreds of kamikaze planes waiting for our attack, ready to fight to the death.
The most recent book on the continuing controversy, is the detailed and incisive best seller, “Killing the Rising Sun,” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. In it, O’Reilly writes passionately about his father, a World War II Navy ensign who would have been part of the attack force upon Japan. “He firmly believed he would be killed if MacArthur’s land invasion had come to fruition.”
O’Reilly concludes with what is enormously profound, with which I identify so strongly to this day. “But for the young ensign and his present-day son, there is no debate, only a stark reality. Had the A-bombs not been used, you would very likely not be reading this book.” To which, I add, being in the first wave of attack upon the Japanese shores as a field artillery forward observer, I would, in all probability, not have survived the assault.
There would be no future wife. No future children. No future grandchildren. No future whatsoever. Nothing but a tombstone. And taking the liberty of borrowing Mr. O’Reilly’s poignant “stark reality” about his father, and transferring it to me, you would “not be reading this” memoir.
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MILITARY COURT MARTIAL AND DEFENSE COUNSEL
In Leyte, with the war over, a combat field artillery officer was no longer needed. I was therefore assigned as the officer in charge of arranging transportation for the repatriation of the thousands of Filipinos who escaped their islands to avoid the invasion by the ruthless Japanese Imperial Army. After three or four months of that assignment, my commanding officer, a bird colonel, ordered me into his office. He sat me down and said, “Finz, there are over fifty G.I.s held prisoner in our guard house. They’ve been rotting there for months waiting for a court martial trial but there’s only one officer on the island who’s a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s branch here in Leyte. He can only serve as a prosecutor. There’s no other army lawyer in Leyte who can act as defense counsel for the prisoners awaiting trial. But under the manual, in the absence of a JAG lawyer any officer of any branch can be assigned as defense counsel. I want you, Finz, to be that defense counsel.”
I was flabbergasted. My response was, “Sir, I’m only a high school graduate. I don’t even have any college credit. Why me?” His answer was, “I’ve watched you carefully. I checked your work. You’re solid and a good officer. I know I can count on you to do the right thing. I’d like you to volunteer for the job. Of course, you could say ‘No’ and I would certainly understand.”
I answered, “If you’re making that request of me sir, my answer is ‘Yes’.” Result? Orders came down and I was assigned as Defense Counsel, supplied with a jeep since I would have to travel deep into the jungles to search out witnesses. The danger as reported to me, was that my only protection from any Japanese soldiers who did not know the war was over, either hiding in caves or refusing to surrender would be my 45-caliber pistol. It was pretty heavy duty stuff for a twenty-year-old.
I read and studied the army court martial manual and visited the stockade every day, meeting with every one of the prisoners awaiting a court martial trial. I got to know them each by their first names. In fact, I was there so often that the MPs on duty would kid me and say they had a special cell reserved just for me so that I could sleep there and not have to go back home to my quarters each night.
In the next six months, I tried all the cases, over fifty of them, defending deserters, burglars, those charged with assault and other types of crimes committed by those G.I.s who had been locked up in the guard house for such an endless period of time. After a while I was almost able to quote the entire army courts martial manual from memory having studied it so much. In addition, it was imperative that I interview witnesses, many of whom lived in remote shacks in the Philippine jungles. It was indeed a most responsible, difficult, and life-risking assignment.
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