In August 1945, the italicized text below was published in a local Oregon newspaper, under the heading, “Soldier’s Letter.”
Editor’s Note: The following letter written by Lieutenant WM Foster to his father, Walter Foster of Clackamas will give the reader some idea of what our boys in the Pacific are undergoing. Lt Foster was stationed in the Pacific.
If you receive a notice that I was wounded on the 17th of June please don’t worry about it, as I am getting along fine and expect to come back to the states soon.
I’ll try to explain to you the way that it happened and I want to assure you I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world.
I was carrying a grenade on my shoulder strap and a sniper’s bullet hit it, causing it to detonate. It took about four inches out of my right arm between the elbow and the shoulder and as result my arm was taken off just below the shoulder. Otherwise I am uninjured and doing fine.
I say I’m very fortunate because you can well imagine the results if the grenade had blown toward my chest. I am now on a hospital ship and receiving the best of care. As yet, I don’t know where I’ll be sent upon arrival in the states, but I’ll keep you informed all along.
This isn’t bothering me and I hope you folks at home will take it the same way. Please tell the folks around home, as I won’t get too many letters written.
One of the boys in the ward wrote this for me as I didn’t want to write it left-handed.
I wrote this for Wall and I can honestly say he’s in wonderful spirits and taking it fine. His chief concern is the folks back home and he doesn’t want you to worry in the least.
JOHN C PITTMAN
That was 75 years ago this month.
My father’s name was Walter and his wife and friends called him Walt, but he must have gone by Wally, or Wall for short, when he was in the army. The newspaper made one mistake: His middle initial was not M but W, for Winfield.
Walter Foster’s war
A longshoreman and dynamite truck driver on road building projects before the war, Dad, like millions of Americans, signed up after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, volunteering for “the duration plus six months.”
His training included the Officers’ Rifle and Heavy Weapons Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. In January 1943, he entered active duty as an infantry platoon leader in L Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. A troop ship carried him the long way around the South Pacific, eventually arriving at New Caledonia.
The story he told us of the first three years in uniform was a classic military one of “Hurry up and wait” – though he also had some very derogatory comments about the Vichy French in Noumea.
Then came a stint clearing tunnels after the Battle of Iwo Jima. After that, he was pitched into combat as US troops stormed Okinawa.
The battle for the island was horrific in its intensity. Offshore, the US Navy was pounded by Japan’s most terrifying weapon: the kamikaze or suicide attack. Onshore, the Japanese fought from limestone caves, linked by tunnels, and used stone funeral vaults as machine gun positions. Dug-in artillery and mortars were pre-positioned to chew up attackers.
Much fighting was at close range, with hand grenades and a particularly hideous weapon the Americans used to clear dug-in Japanese: the flamethrower. To be caught in its arc, in Japanese parlance, meant “being fried like a chicken.”
It was a grinding affair. The 7th Infantry Division took seven days to advance just six kilometers. The Americans moved during the day; at night, the Japanese would attempt to infiltrate their lines. Men lived in waterlogged holes as the tropical rains broke, mid-battle.
On August 3, 1945, Dad was awarded a Purple Heart “for wounds received as result of action against the enemy.” Despite the loss of an arm, he was indeed lucky.
According to historian Anthony Beevor, 7,613 US ground troops were killed and 31,807 wounded in the “Typhoon of Steel” that was the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted from April 1 to June 22. Of their enemies, 107,539 Japanese soldiers were killed, though many were missing in action – lost in collapsed caves or tunnels, or simply obliterated.
The most tragic victims were 149,425 civilians – half the local population – who were killed or ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese military.
That hideous butcher’s bill – and the anticipated carnage in the invasion of the southern Japanese home island Kyushu – were factors in the US decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Echoes of war
Dad returned to Oregon in 1946 after several months in hospital and learned to write with his left hand. After graduating from Oregon State University and Willamette Law School, he embarked on a long career as a trial lawyer, district attorney and district judge for Polk County, Oregon.
He didn’t talk much about the war while my brother, sister and I were growing up, but he did tell us a few stories.
Following the Marines to Iwo Jima after the battle, Dad and his comrades searched Japanese tunnels – there were 25 kilometers of them honeycombing the fortress island – to see if an enemy were still hiding (as many were). In one tunnel, they came to a sharp bend and threw a grenade around it just in case – a prudent operational procedure. After the explosion, they rounded the corner to discover the nose of an unexploded shell poking through the ceiling.
Some of his memories were jocular.
On Iwo Jima, which is volcanic, Dad and his buddies buried 50-gallon drums full of seawater in the sand, waited until they were boiling hot, then washed clothes. And on Okinawa, after smearing mud over the number of their truck, they stood in another group’s line and made off with a stash of beer.
But other anecdotes made clear the callousness and grimness of those days.
Ambushing a Japanese patrol, the machine gunner mowed them all down as soon as they got within range. One of the guys said, “Gee, you didn’t even say ‘Halt!’” And Dad recalled jumping over a log and landing ankle deep in a rotting corpse that made a mess of his boots.
About war in general, his advice was terse: “Don’t let it happen here.”
Like many veterans, old habits died hard. Once, when I once ran over a croquet wicket with the lawnmower and a small piece of metal hit him in the leg, he yelled “Hit the deck!” He subsequently told us, “Whenever I give you an order, do what I say immediately, no questions asked.”
And for many years, he could not abide Japanese. When the family decided to invite a foreign exchange student to our house in Oregon for the last year of high school, he used the argot of the time to specifically request “No Japs.” We were assigned – and he welcomed – a German girl.
Despite Dad’s experience, I did not bear a grudge against Japan. Rather, I was motivated to study Japanese history, which I found interesting. And captivated by the sound of Japanese bamboo flute, I decided to go to Japan to learn how to play it. That led me to study Japan and Japanese, and eventually landed me a related consulting career in the country.
After I had moved to Tokyo, Dad visited – and discovered that he rather liked the place and the people. He admired the clean, orderly, modern city built by his former enemies, and their economic energies.
When I married a Japanese, he got along very well with her father, who told him, “Good thing I fought in Manchuria. We might have killed each other!”
The lesson of history
My father’s story comes to mind whenever someone says or writes that the Covid-19 pandemic – still less than a year old – is an unbearable tragedy or “the worst crisis since World War II.”
It’s not. And the comparison is self-indulgent.
Mankind’s most terrible war finished 75 years ago this Saturday, with Japan’s August 15 surrender. In the days, weeks, months and years prior to that date, somewhere between 70 million and 85 million people died in it.
Large swathes of Eastern and Western Europe, the USSR, China, Southeast Asia and Japan were totally destroyed. Millions didn’t hear from family members and friends for months, for years – or forever.
For Americans and Soviets, the war started in 1941. For Europeans, it started in 1939. For Japanese and Chinese, it started in 1937. And it would not be the war to end all wars. The Chinese Civil War, which bracketed the Japanese invasion, continued for 22 years, from 1927 to 1949. The Korean War, a result of the peninsula’s division at the end of World War II, raged from 1950-53 and – on paper, at least – is still not concluded.
The people who lived through these conflicts were forced to accumulate reserves of endurance and fortitude that are not evident in today’s populations, particularly in the United States.
We should think about them when we feel annoyed at having to put on a mask, wash our hands with alcohol at the supermarket, skip that after-work drink with friends or postpone foreign travel.
Yes, Covid-19 is a bad thing. But the lesson that history teaches us, as we approach the anniversary of Japan’s surrender on August 15, is that matters could be far, far worse.
Former Lieutenant Walter Foster, 7th Infantry Division, passed away at his home in Oregon in 2010, two months short of his 90th birthday.
Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.