The Rules Do Not Apply

By David Chrisinger
01 Jun 18

The stories we tell ourselves sometimes feel to me like new clothes we need to try on in the fitting room before taking them home. Some don’t fit as well as we’d hoped.

I have a confession to make. I want to lie to you. For years, I’ve wanted to lie to anyone who was willing to listen. I wanted to tell a story, a fabrication, about my grandfather, my father’s father. I wanted to tell you how he couldn’t wait to turn eighteen, how he signed on Uncle Sam’s dotted line in a fit of wholesome, patriotic fervor. I wanted to tell you he was a spirited and motivated all-American boy who was highly trained and exceedingly principled, who only ever did what he had to do to survive, who never took pleasure in the pain and suffering of others, who was a soft-hearted sucker for needy kids, who wanted nothing more than to come home, who raised a family and built a business and took his rightful place among the greatest generation this nation has ever known.

None of that is true. He never wanted to fight. Some think that’s why he knocked up my grandmother a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving in 1943. They were both juniors in high school that year. My grandfather played for the conference-champion Taylor High School basketball team. My grandmother excelled in math and thought of becoming a bookkeeper. Neither one of them ended up receiving their 12 diplomas. Perhaps my grandfather thought the draft board wouldn’t take a man with a baby, a man from one of the wealthiest families in town, a family that had already lost one of its own to a German bullet in North Africa. They took him anyway. By the time his daughter, Charlene, was born in the late summer of 1944, he was training for war. And by his nineteenth birthday, he found himself on the island of Okinawa, a mere 340 miles southwest of the mainland of Japan, fighting in the longest and deadliest battle of the Pacific Theater. Those who knew my grandfather before he left for the war have told me that when he returned from Okinawa in the early fall of 1946, he wasn’t bolted together the same way he once had been, which is nothing more than a Midwestern-nice way to say whatever he’d done or had done to him over there had transformed him into an irredeemable and embarrassing drunk, a cruel and abusive husband, and a miserable father.

Here’s some more truth: I don’t know all the details of what my grandfather experienced during the battle of Okinawa. He didn’t like to talk about his war, and he died before I could work up the courage to ask him about it. For decades after he came home, the details of what he experienced trickled out in fragments, here and there, leaving in their wake only tension and puzzlement, shame and confusion. What we do know is that he experienced traumas and rude awakenings—and being physically wounded wasn’t one of them. His trauma came from other things. Chief among them was the way he and the others in his platoon had treated Japanese prisoners at the tail end of the fighting. His rude awakening was an awakening to the fact that war required an eroding of the veneer of civilization, that war made a savage of him and his friends, that to survive he would need to exist within an environment totally incomprehensible to anyone back home in Wisconsin.

There was a story he told my father once, years and years ago, about a prisoner of war. The first time my father relayed this story to me, he said it was a young Japanese soldier who had surrendered late in the battle. The second time he told me the story, it was a young Okinawan boy, a conscript, who had been captured after trying to throw a grenade. Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much that the man was Japanese or Okinawan, or whether he surrendered peacefully or was captured. The point of the story was that my grandfather had, according to his version of events, been too “soft” with this prisoner. The way he told it, he felt bad for the guy. He was a scared kid, just like he was. Maybe that realization caused him to drop his guard. Maybe he wasn’t as menacing or threatening as he needed to be. Whatever it was, my grandfather’s platoon leader, tense-faced and nerve-racked, chewed his ass in front of everyone, even threatening to shoot my grandfather if he didn’t start treating the enemy like the treacherous bastards they were.

In March of 1943, my grandfather was finishing up his junior year of high school and mentally preparing himself to be a father. He and his soon-to-be wife, Gladys, grew up in a small farming village along the Trempealeau River in rural Wisconsin. Aside from the high school’s conference-champion basketball team clawing for a state tournament berth, the only thing folks seemed to be talking about was the war and whether it would end before their kids were called to fight in it. My great-grandmother, Maud, had lost her brother Bob to a German sniper in Northern Africa, and she knew that unless the war ended quickly, it would probably also take her son. She ruminated aloud daily to my great-grandfather Harry that the jobs in the rear were already filled and that if her son was taken too, he’d be shipped straight to the front lines. Her son was expendable, and she knew it.

She prayed too that if he were eventually drafted, he’d be sent to Europe. She had read what the papers had said about the Americans in Bataan. She knew that thousands of our boys had been forced to march dozens of miles under a blazing sun without food or water. She knew too what President Roosevelt had said about the American flyers who had been shot down and captured after the Doolittle raid over Japan. She heard him say on the scratchy radio that stood in the corner of the living room that our boys had been condemned to death. Weren’t there rules against executing prisoners of war? There were lots of other news reports she could rattle off in her anxious, depressive way about the Japanese shooting bailed out pilots full of holes as they parachuted from flaming aircraft, the Japanese transporting their prisoners in densely packed “hell ships,” and how the Japanese routinely beat their prisoners and burned or buried them alive, how they performed medical experiments on them, how they practiced their bayonet techniques on tied-up prisoners, how they even crucified some of them.

Then she read the excerpts from the diary of a Japanese soldier who had been captured during the fighting in New Guinea. In it, the soldier chronicled the day a captured American flier had been beheaded by a Lieutenant Komai in front of an assembled company of Japanese infantrymen. The translation ran in all the papers: “We were assembled to witness the execution,” the soldier had written. “The prisoner was given a drink of water outside the guard house. The chief surgeon, Lieutenant Komai and a platoon commander bearing a sword came from the officers’ mess.

“The time has come,” he continued. “The prisoner of war totters forward with his arms tied. His hair is cut close. I feel he suspects what is afoot, but he is more composed than I thought he would be.

“At the execution ground Lieutenant Komai faces the prisoner and said: ‘You are to die. I am going to kill you with this Japanese sword, according to the Samurai code.’ The commander’s face is stern. Now the time has come. The prisoner is made to sit on the edge of a water-filled bomb crater. The precaution is taken to surround him with guards.

“When I put myself in his place the hate engendered by this daily bombing yields to ordinary feelings. The Tai commander draws his favorite sword, the famous ‘Osamune.’ The sight of the glittering blade sends cold shivers down the spine. First he touches the prisoner’s neck lightly with sword. Then he raises it overhead. His arm muscles bulge. Prisoner closes his eyes for a second and at once the sword sweeps down.

Swish—it sounds at first like noise of cutting, but is actually made by blood spurting from arteries as the body falls forward. Everybody steps forward as head rolls on the ground.

Within a couple of days of the American flier being decapitated by Lieutenant Komai, a Japanese propaganda broadcast expressed confused dismay at the American military’s hypocritical stance on international law in matters of aerial warfare that forbade intentionally bombing civilian targets. The broadcast also pledged that any flier who participated in future raids on Japanese territory could count on receiving a “special pass to hell” that was “strictly a one-way ticket.”

Just over a year later, on May 29, 1944, my grandfather turned eighteen years old. Three months later, on August 29, he was inducted into the US Army at Fort Sheridan in Illinois, just north of Chicago. On St. Patrick’s Day the next year, my grandfather boarded a battered troop ship in San Francisco bound for the Pacific theater of operations, where he was assigned to Company A of the 193rd Tank Battalion. His company was nearly wiped out during a frontal assault on a ridge known as Kakazu on April 19, and on May 1, his battalion had its remaining tanks taken away and distributed to other, better performing battalions on the island.

From that point until the end of the summer, his company was tasked with completing the often forgotten final phase of the battle— the mopping up of whatever Japanese resistance remained in the central lowlands of the island. On May 19, according to his battalion’s operations report, my grandfather’s company, along with Company B and a reconnaissance platoon from the headquarters company, were tasked with “sealing caves” and “cleaning out of enemy civilians and military personnel.” The captain who typed up the report claims there were no military personnel encountered but that thirteen “enemy civilians were apprehended and turned over to military authorities, and a total of forty-one caves were closed in the area.”

On June 5, a motor patrol from my grandfather’s company picked up three civilians and turned them over to military policemen at Camp Hiza. Four days later, a patrol from the same company was sent to the towns of Chibana and Nishibaru to investigate a report of unauthorized civilians “operating” in that area. Several unoccupied caves were encountered and sealed but no civilians were located. Then on June 21, a patrol from Company A was sent to sweep a draw and encountered two enemy soldiers. Both were killed. There were no American casualties reported. Four days later, after a camp guard killed two enemy soldiers lurking near the civilian camp at Koza, a large patrol from my grandfather’s battalion swept the area around the camp and apprehended fifteen young Okinawan men who were then handed over to military policemen at Camp Koza.

In the years I’ve spent researching my grandfather’s story, I’ve come across very few histories of the battle that even begin to explain what it was like to engage in such a tough, methodical grind to wipe out the last remaining pockets of Japanese soldiers-turned-guerillas. The pitched and bitter skirmishes waged in countless caves and draws— punctuated by encounters with frightened and emaciated noncombatants—did not make the front pages back home. It makes sense; no war correspondents seemed to have tagged along for the grisly ride. Those newspaper editors and the folks back home had already turned their attention to the next battle, the invasion of the mainland of Japan. The mud-smirched, stubbly soldier killed here or there clearing a cave on some island few could find on a map wasn’t nearly as newsworthy as the 1,656 Marines who died fighting for Sugar Loaf Hill or the nearly half a million GIs who were expected to become casualties when they landed on Kyūshū, the southernmost Japanese island. Another thing that didn’t make the news and apparently wasn’t worth mentioning in the popular histories were the barbed-wire “relocation camps” our boys built to house the thousands of “enemy civilians” who called Okinawa home.

On the night of March 9th, 1945, about a month before the beginning of the battle of Okinawa, 334 American aircraft bombed Tokyo with incendiary bombs, destroying sixteen square miles of the capital city. Estimates vary, but most agree that between 80,000 and 100,000 civilians were killed in the raid. “Scorched and boiled and baked to death,” was how the mastermind of the raid, Major General Curtis LeMay, later put it. By the time Japan surrendered six months later, sixty-six Japanese cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been raided. Close to 400,000 civilians lost their lives. In a confidential memorandum from June 1945, one of General Douglas MacArthur’s closest aides, Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, described the American raids against Japan as “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.”

In an interview with famed oral historian Studs Terkel years after the war ended, a bombardier named John Ciardi1 said that, “We were in the terrible business of burning out Japanese towns. That meant women and old people, children. One part of me—a surviving, savage voice—says, I’m sorry we left any of them living. I wish we’d finished them all.” Almost without pause, he continues, “I have some of my strike photos at home. Tokyo looked like one leveled bed of ash . . . Some of the people jumped into rivers to get away from these fire storms. They were packed in so tight to get away from the fire, they suffocated. They were so close together, they couldn’t fall over. It must have been horrible.”

After the war ended, the Allies tried Tojo as a war criminal, accusing him of promoting indiscriminate destruction of “men, women and children alike.” He was executed two days before Christmas in 1948. The American lawyers who tried Japan’s leaders did so with little sense of irony. To the victors go the spoils. Japan had merely reaped what it had sown.

Not long before my grandfather died, his mother gave him a shoebox full of letters he had sent home during the war. He must have destroyed them or thrown them out, because after he died in August 2000, my father searched all over his one-bedroom shack and found no trace of them. The only military artifacts that remained were a few faded ribbons and a Good Conduct Medal, a wool uniform top, and a dozen or so ochre-tinged photographs. There’s one that shows him wearing a garrison cap cocked to the side. He’s rubbing his dimpled chin with his left hand. He looks happy, like he had spent the day with good friends and hadn’t a care in the world. There are a few of him standing on top of a tank, but those look like they were taken during training maneuvers somewhere. In one, the tank doesn’t even have a barrel. A black sheet covers the hole where a barrel would normally extend out from the turret. Then there are a couple of him with a buddy. I don’t know his name, though my father thinks he remembers hearing some story about another young man from Taylor who was part of the occupation force there who ran into my grandfather after the battle ended. His buddy is wearing a suspiciously clean tan service uniform that looks totally out of place. My grandfather, by contrast, is dirt-smudged and sweaty looking, wearing dark green pants tucked into his boots and a white sleeveless shirt. His hair is longer than in the other pictures and waves across his forehead like mine does now. In three other photographs, hair still longer and wavy, he’s wearing a dark green top with his dark green pants. The sleeves on his shirt are rolled above his elbows. In one, he squats in front of a claytiled structure. In the second, he stands with his hands on his hips in front of a thatch-roofed building, and in the third, he’s lounging on what appear to be unexploded ordnance as tall as a chair. He looks more like a tourist than an occupying soldier. I don’t know who took them.

There are other photographs, too, but they’re harder to look at for any length of time. One shows a mass grave of dead bodies from a distance. Another is a close-up of a fallen Japanese soldier. He’s lying on his back with his eyes closed. He wears a peaceful, glad smile. His hands rest near his head as if moments before he’d been standing with his arms raised, silently waiting for death. It looked as though whatever thoughts had passed through his mind when the death messenger laid him low were pleasant enough. There are also two photographs of Japanese soldiers just after they surrendered. The last two show a prisoner of war camp. The first is of the camp’s main gate. About fifteen young Japanese men in baggy and mud-slicked uniforms are marching through it, away from the photographer. None of their faces are visible. The other photograph shows seventy-five or so docile and pathetic looking Japanese and Okinawan men, most stripped down to loincloths, standing nuts to butts behind razor wire as tall as a man. An American military policeman with a Thompson submachine gun stands guard in the foreground.

I wonder if my great-grandmother read Edgar L. Jones’ Atlantic Monthly essay, which was published after the war had ended but before my grandfather returned from the Pacific. “What kind of a war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway?” he asked. Jones was a former ambulance driver, merchant seaman, Army historian, and war correspondent in the Pacific, and he noted that American soldiers and Marines in both Europe and the Pacific “shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers. We topped off our saturation bombing and burning of enemy civilians by dropping atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless cities, thereby setting an all-time record for instantaneous mass slaughter.”

“As victors,” he continued, “we are privileged to try our defeated opponents for their crimes against humanity; but we should be realistic enough to appreciate that if we were on trial for breaking international laws, we should be found guilty on a dozen counts. We fought a dishonorable war because morality had a low priority in battle. The tougher the fighting, the less room for decency; and in Pacific contests we saw mankind reach the blackest depths of bestiality.”

“Not every American soldier,” Jones concluded, “or even one percent of our troops, deliberately committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the Germans and Japanese. The exigencies of war necessitated many so-called crimes, and the bulk of the rest could be blamed on the mental distortion which war produced. But we publicized every inhuman act of our opponents and censored any recognition of our own moral frailty in moments of desperation.”

The stories we tell ourselves sometimes feel to me like new clothes we need to try on in the fitting room before taking them home. Some don’t fit as well as we’d hoped. Others are outrageous and can’t be pulled off. We put them on, stare into the wall of mirrors, and try to imagine ourselves in another place at another time. If they don’t quite fit or don’t compliment our figures all that well, we can take them off and try on some other look, some other style. There’s a beauty in the search. Sometimes I try to picture my grandfather, decades before alcoholism cut his life shorter than it had to be. I see him bellied up to the bar, his defenses of lies built to fit his needs lie based on the national propaganda that had been distilled and spoon-fed to the American people. He’s pretending, and the other men are, too. They’re all sporting clothes that fit well enough for now. It’s the only thing that affords them any self-respect. For if they were honest, if they were to rip open the buttons on their shirts and reveal their warts, they’d have to admit that they had once seen something animal within themselves that was terrifying and life-changing.

I don’t know what story to tell about my grandfather. It feels lazy to say he never said much about the war. It feels deceptive and inappropriate to speculate. I suppose I need to make peace with the fact that I’ll never know the full truth. Or I can lie. I’m not sure yet which fits best.

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