Letters from the Good War

A running series of World War II letters written by a Navy Seabee who served in the South Pacific theatre taking the reader through the entire war experience.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


            Until recently, World War II was known as the Good War. During the conflict in which I participated, I never met a soul either in this country or overseas who doubted that the war was justified or that our foes were worth defeating. Everyone agreed that the U.S. represented the forces of good against the forces of evil.
            Perhaps that seems hard to understand today, but back then that was simply how people felt. I recaptured the spirit of those times not long ago when I discovered among my late mother's effects some letters I had written home during the Good War. They provide a window onto that period.
            A few of the letters concern the period after my Seabee battalion debarked at Subic Bay in the Philippines in early 1945. We knew that it was only a matter of time – possibly a long time – before Japan would be defeated. We had come up from spending a year-and-a-half in the jungles of New Guinea. Our forces had just liberated the Filipinos from the Japanese yoke. "When we entered the bay," I wrote to my parents, "as we hung over the rail staring with curiosity at the new land, the natives, shouting "Veectoree Joe!," drifted around the ship (in their outrigger canoes) wanting to trade bolo knives, sleeping mats, bananas, liquor and bamboo handiwork for cigarettes and clothes." This certainly wasn't a people telling us to go home.
            After we had set up camp and gotten settled in, we were granted weekend liberty, which permitted us to visit the nearby towns of Subic and Olongopo. "The Flips were exuberant," I wrote, using our nickname for the locals. "Skinny as rails, they greeted us in rags and were willing to give us what little they had." Everywhere we were invited into the Filipinos' homes, fed freshly killed chickens and rice, eggs, vegetables, fruit and caribao milk (and later our own beer and C-rations purchased on the black market) – all food that was hardly in ample supply.
            I made friends in several of the villages and spent time with them at every opportunity. Among my closest friends were the Reyeses who lived in the barrio of Lubao on the Pampangan plain in central Luzon. I wrote to my parents, "I was overwhelmed by my host's generosity. Mrs. Reyes said most pleasantly, 'You can't imagine how we prayed for you boys to come, and anything we can do, anything, can never repay what you have done for us.' That afternoon I listened to the frankly told atrocity stories by those who witnessed them. They are depressing and heart rending."
            The recent cruel past was fresh in their minds, probably never to be forgotten. "Everyone put in his oar telling me stories of the Jap occupation….The once well-to-do, from the upper classes to the men who made good by honest labor, are destitute today. The loyal resisters were pursued and hunted down everywhere. Everything they had was confiscated…The Japs commandeered their homes, stripped them bare….When I was last in the city, my friend Antonio muttered dejectedly as I was leaving, 'This is probably the poorest house that you've slept in.' Sure it was. No sense in denying what he knows to be true. I reminded him, however, that at the same time I found it the richest….The warmth and honesty of his family made it a mansion."
            How can a later generation suggest that we may not have been right after all? Yes, it was a terrible thing that we caused the deaths of hundred of thousands of innocent civilians by bombing German cities. Yes, it was a terrible thing that we found hate in our hearts for the German and Japanese people, when in truth they are no better or worse than we.
            Then I heard first-hand reports of the Bataan Death March. "The people of the town and villages lined the streets offering food to the starving Filipino and American soldiers who prodded by the Japs to move on. The women went into hysterics but the men became only more resolute. An American, a victim of the march, is buried in Mr. Santos's mango grove. When they found the lad he was too far gone."
            Who, knowing the facts could possibly question our rightness? I'm appalled by the statements of revisionists who fault our side for bombing the enemy's cities, for prolonging the war, and even for provoking it. I'm appalled because I remember well the world's reluctance to challenge Hitler and the expansionism of the Japanese, our ill preparedness and reluctance to enter the war until we were attacked, and, once engaged, our desire to end the war.
            But it was war. There are no rules in war. By definition war is the absence of civilized behavior. How can someone today, not having lived through a world at war, understand from this distance the rage and determination that led us to win it at all costs? We saw it as a matter of survival – not only our survival, but that of the entire civilized world.
            This is what I wrote from Subic Bay on August 1, 1945, less than a week before we dropped the first A-bomb, two weeks before Japan surrendered unconditionally: "I had hoped that this weekend would see the wars end. It wasn't an altogether absurd possibility. Damn them to hell. Unfortunately the (Japanese) leaders, driven by a frantic and futile determination, are willing to let their own people be massacred and their cities laid waste. They are guided by a…twisted logic. To ignore our ultimatum means sheer disaster, yet they persist. Apparently they cling to a flimsy hope for negotiation. They remind me of the stubborn fellow, who, in the throes of losing an argument, can't bring himself to back down. Or, as with Germany, they need more proof of our might. Whatever their reason, their decision makes me angry, and, for the first time, I wish that none of them will be spared. I can't help but believe that wars, like people, die when the forces of nature and chance are good and ready to let them die."
            If we forget how widespread such feelings were back then, we forfeit any opportunity to understand the Good War.
Now that everyone has had an opportunity to moralize about the dropping of the atomic bomb 50 years ago, if you weren't in uniform in the Southwest Pacific in August 1945, your opinion on the subject is relatively worthless, and driving a Toyota doesn't make you an expert on the subject.

I believe the thoughts expressed on this page are the thoughts of the majority of us.