White flags identified the gun emplacements dug into the Japanese hillsides.
Donn Thompson remembers the white flags.
Fifty years ago, he was staring at them staked out above the shoreline of Tokyo Bay, seeing them as a last desperate line of defense. Here was enough firepower to turn an invasion - it would have been his invasion - into carnage.
But the long-anticipated climax to war in the Pacific - the Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands - was pre-empted by two atomic bombs. The first fell on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945; the second fell on Nagasaki 50 years ago today.
When Japan surrendered Aug. 14, Thompson was among many freed from the hell of a final island assault. A veteran of 26 months in the Pacific, with service in five island campaigns including Guam and Okinawa, the Marine private first class from Spokane was ordered to a Japanese naval base when hostilities ceased.
“When we got into the harbor, white flags were all over the hills,” he recalled. “The Japanese were told to mark their gun emplacements with white flags. Chills ran up and down my spine. I thought: ‘Man, if we’d invaded here, we would have been cut to ribbons.’
“It was breathtaking. We could have been part of the soil right there. Fight anybody on their homeland, and it’s a tough battle. If that bomb hadn’t been dropped, we would have invaded and they would have fought us tooth and nail.”
Thompson had felt the fury of the Japanese fighting spirit on Okinawa, where even the steadiest nerves had been stretched.
“We were getting ready to land on Okinawa when a lieutenant from Portland came by, handing out cigarettes,” Thompson said. “I told him I didn’t smoke.”
Before this is over, the lieutenant advised, you will.
“We made the landing, and it wasn’t long before it was a shooting gallery,” Thompson said. “Bullets were flying everywhere.
“About 15 days later, they pulled us out to a rest camp. The same lieutenant came back around, looking for cigarettes. I said, ‘Here you go, lieutenant. I still don’t smoke.”’
Then 22 years old, Thompson detached himself from the emotional hell he’d visited and slipped back into civilization, forever relieved that the bomb had beaten him to Japan.
That the bomb shortened the war and may have saved their lives is a universally shared belief among Inland Northwest veterans of the Pacific.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, George Knapp of Medical Lake was a chief petty officer on a destroyer, the USS Long, which was out sweeping for mines.
He returned to the battered base two days after the air attack. Ships were turned over, bodies were stacked, planes lay in ruins. Knapp remembered Pearl Harbor on VJ Day.
“It’s bad that all those civilians had to lose their lives in Japan, but I don’t know what we could have done that would have been any better,” he said. “The bombs shortened the war by months.”
Former Spokane Mayor Neal Fosseen, a retired Marine reserve colonel, was supplying an aviation unit in the Pacific. In 1945, he was ordered to a “destination in the Pacific, from there to participate in the invasion of Japan.
“Fortunately,” Fosseen said, “the orders had been written before the actual surrender. After three or four days, all that was straightened around. This came about because of the atomic bombing which stopped the war.
“Terrible as it is, I feel I might not be here had it not been for the fact that the bomb was dropped and it stopped the war.”
Inland Northwest veterans say the sacrifices of their friends who died in the Pacific justify what it took to defeat an enemy who accepted civilian casualties as a consequence of war.
They see it today as they saw it 50 years ago. The bomb brought them home.
Thompson “came home on a ship carrying 2,900 men. It was designed for about 1,600,” he said.
“We went all the way from China to the Philippines, picking up people. When we came into San Francisco Bay, there was a group of ladies in bikinis riding in a Chris-Craft boat.
“The guys went to the side to look and just about capsized the ship. The captain said, ‘For God’s sake, will some of you guys get on the other side before we turn it over?”’
A band played and people lined the docks.
“A lot of tough guys had tears in their eyes,” Thompson said. “One of the first things the USO gave us was one of those pint-sized packs of milk. We hadn’t had fresh milk in months.”
Thompson, 72, still savors a cold glass of milk.
He enrolled at Gonzaga University in 1945, moved to Southern California where he worked in the insurance business and retired to his hometown of Spokane.
He had left the University of Washington for the Marine Corps. The college work that Thompson started in 1943 finally was completed at California State-Northridge in 1969.
“I always thought I was coming home from the war, but I never realized how hard it was on my mother and dad until I got home,” Thompson said. “I came in on a bus. My dad met me with tears running down his face. They were worried to death every hour I was gone.”
Robert Worley of Spokane wasn’t as fortunate.
Worley came home on a hospital ship, the Comfort, in 1946 after suffering from malaria and what he calls a complete nervous breakdown.
“I’ve had problems,” he said. “I tried working in electronics but couldn’t hold that. I worked at the Ridpath (Hotel) for 13 years as a janitor. The guy I worked for, Ronald Triplet, made it possible for me to work, made it easy on me, knowing I was doing the best I could.
“I was drafted and sent overseas. I did what they told me. I remember being asked when I was 18 what I wanted to be. I said what I wanted most was to get to be 19.”
Worley said he’s unhappy with some interpretations of the options open to the United States in 1945.
“Now they’re saying the Japanese were victims,” he said. “That burns me up. They say the Japanese were ready to surrender. They were still fighting like crazy.
“I didn’t have anything against the poor people of Hiroshima, but somebody had to stop the Japanese.”
Don Keison was a 21-year-old Army combat engineer, a veteran of three island campaigns - Kwajalein, Saipan and Okinawa - when the war ended.
The ordnance that erupted in the moments after peace broke out was - in isolated tragic instances - almost as savage as the real thing.
“The sky over Okinawa really lit up,” said Keison. “Everybody went crazy. Everybody was so damned happy, they didn’t use their heads. The Navy was just as guilty as we were. A Navy shell landed in a dump where we were camped.”
Word circulated the next day that three men had died from wounds suffered in the victory celebration.
News of the war’s end came to Keison through very unofficial channels.
“We could pick up Marine pilots on a radio in our mess hall,” Keison said. “We heard the pilots talking about an Air Force guy who had landed at an airport in Japan. Right after that, our people started shooting.”
The logic was fairly obvious. If U.S. pilots were landing in Japan, the war was over.
At that point, “I just wanted to go home,” Keison said. “That’s all we all wanted.”
The home front presented its challenges.
“I’d been trained on a farm” in Ritzville, Wash., Keison said. “When I got home, there was no farm. It was sold. I had to look for something else. There was nothing for us. For a while, it was tough, trying to find something.”
He found work as a lineman for an electric utility.
“I thought I’d try it - I’d never done it before - and that’s where I stuck,” Keison said.
Spending 40 months with the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China-Burma-India theater, Boyd Eddy of Spokane missed the formative years of his first daughter, Susan. She was 6 months old when he had left Des Moines, Iowa, for the service; she was 4 years old when he came back.
Eddy did his best to make up for lost time.
Two weeks after he got out, he and a friend, Kermit Bergman, moved their families to Spokane, where the two men found work unloading railroad freight.
Money was tight, but Eddy said he and his friend quit when they were scheduled to work on Christmas Eve.
“I’d been away for four Christmases. I wasn’t going to miss another.”
Robert Cole celebrated his 19th birthday on Okinawa, where he received the Bronze Star.
“I know the atomic bomb is something that never should have been invented, but it happened and I thank God for it,” Cole said.
Cole said he had to update his social skills after his homecoming. “When you come home to three sisters and a mother and you haven’t been around women, … it was quite an adjustment,” he said. “It took me a while to get used to it.”
Waldo Larson of Laclede, Idaho, was a chief pharmacist’s mate on a submarine, the Aspro, that plucked downed pilot Ed Mikes out of the water south of Tokyo Bay.
Mikes was floating in a wooden boat on Aug. 3, 1945, while Japanese and U.S. pilots fought overhead.
“He had Japanese planes shooting at him, and we had planes up fighting the Japanese, trying to protect the guy,” Larson said. “We had to come within four miles of the Japanese coast in order to get to him.
“The Japanese were dropping bombs. All we could do was flood the tubes and trust the luck. Every time we came up, they’d drive us down. That went on for a while until finally we came close enough so that Don Pryor - who I still correspond with - could reach over the side and grab this guy.
“I was the medical man aboard. The only bullet wound Capt. Mikes had was in the lower part of his right forearm, and it didn’t break the bone. I gave him a double shot of brandy and pulled about a thousand splinters out of him. Every once in a while, I’d give him a shot of brandy and pull out more splinters.”
Machine-gun fire had chewed Mikes’ boat to smithereens, with splinters flying everywhere, Larson said.
“Pretty soon, we were sharing brandy shots.”
Safe, their last mission complete with war’s end less than two weeks away, they had reason to celebrate.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos