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At Peace With Wartime Decisions

August 14, 1995|JACK SMITH

We had 16 young people in our pool on a recent weekend. It made me realize what, after all, the pool is for.

Five of them were our grandchildren. The rest were their friends, among them six Japanese high school girls who are in this country in the Rotary Club exchange program.

My grandson Casey, a junior at Brentwood High School, had just returned from a visit to Japan under the same program. He had flown home with two of the Japanese teen-agers and invited four of their fellow Japanese students to the party.

It was a wonderful day for swimming. The temperature was over 90 degrees. The Japanese students stayed together, swimming underwater in their colorful bathing suits. My wife said they looked like tropical fish.

My older son Curt, a certified lifeguard, kept his eye on everyone, but there were no incidents. In keeping with the general feeling of goodwill, my wife allowed me to have two beers, which did not hurt me.

I got into the pool, with the help of my grandson Chris, late of the U.S. Army, and swam a few widths. There were sandwiches, prepared by my daughter-in-law Gail, and soft drinks.

It occurred to me that it was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, but no one mentioned it. For the past week our paper had been full of reminiscence about that dreadful event, speculating whether it had been necessary. Some argued the Japanese were about to surrender, and so the bomb, with its horrible loss of life, was unnecessary. Others argued that it perhaps saved as many lives as it took.

It is estimated that 100,000 Japanese died at Hiroshima, and perhaps 30,000 more a few days later at Nagasaki. Tens of thousands also are believed to have died later of the effects of radiation.

How one thinks of it, of course, depends on how one was affected by it. For me, the answer was easy. I was in the Marines, and my division was scheduled to invade Kyushu. Our maps were drawn. We had already lost 6,000 men at Iwo Jima, a tiny island. Our casualties at Kyushu would undoubtedly have been terrible. One could not realistically expect to survive.

President Harry Truman's simple instruction to the military to go ahead with the bombing probably saved my life.

Why did we have the war to begin with?

My wife recently retrieved a letter she had written to her older sister, Suzie, on May 28, 1941. My wife and I lived at that time in Honolulu, and her sister had expressed some anxiety about our safety.

My wife wrote reassuringly:

"We had a practice blackout here a week ago. I wasn't working nights yet so Smitty [a family friend] came after me and took me to his house on the side of a hill overlooking Honolulu proper. At nine o'clock the warning sirens started wailing and all of the lights in the city went out. Then we could hear airplanes droning overhead (supposedly enemy planes but they just came from one of the other islands).

"Then searchlights went on from several places and swept the sky trying to locate the planes. It was over in about 10 minutes, but that 10 minutes was beautiful, awe-inspiring and yet somehow rather terrifying.

"But we have nothing to fear here. This island is too well fortified. No potential enemy forces would dare to attack us.

"Jack and I went out sailing last Sunday night with Smitty and a group of university students," the letter went on. "It was wonderful. The moon was not out but the sky was full of stars, and as I lay on my back I could see them winking beyond the mast and the sails."

It was only six months after that letter was written that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking several warships and killing 2,500 men. "We have nothing to fear here" indeed. I believe it was that sort of complacency that caused the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor and start the war. Of course that attitude of complacency was also held by the admirals and generals in charge of the island's defense. In fact, it was probably my own. So I can hardly blame my wife for starting the war.

A book about Pearl Harbor is called "At Dawn We Slept." At least my wife and I weren't asleep when the Japanese attacked at 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. We were just leaving an all-night party.

We had nothing to fear.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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