****DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian. This is not meant to be exposition of definitive historical fact, but my opinions based on the various things I’ve been exposed to in history textbooks, museums, memorials, and my own lived experiences.
I don’t know if I’d call myself a history buff, but I did genuinely enjoy reading my AP U.S. history textbook junior year*. I also often like to wonder what the page of the history book from our present time will look like in one hundred years. Trump’s rise makes that page of the textbook look interesting, but I’m not into politics so I will not comment on Donald Trump here.
Of the chapters on the War in the Pacific, I can really only recall two passages: one was on how the Battle of Midway was the turning point for the allies; the other, on Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb.
On my recent trip to Okinawa and the Philippines, I learned considerably more about this history. And I’d like to share these things I learned (organized chronologically!) since I think these are things that are not known by many Americans.
In 1940, the U.S. did not renew it’s trade agreement with Japan. As a result, Japan looked to South East Asia to get the resources it desired to drive its economy.
Now I’m not saying this warrants the aggressive military action Japan then took against the United States in 1941. And even before then, Japan was trying to get a deeper control of Asia (the Rape of Nanjing was in 1937**). But I think it makes sense to present a fuller picture of the dominoes leading to Japan bombing Pearl Harbor and Manila (within twenty four hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor there was bombing in Manila).
The U.S. government lied to General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and later the commander of the Allied Powers in the South East.
From 1941 to 1942, the American and Filipino forces were being pummeled by the Japanese in the Philippines. The Allies had older weapons (from WWI or even as old as the Spanish-American War) whereas Japan had armament crafted in the 1930s.
The U.S. government wanted MacArthur to retreat to Australia, but he didn’t want to leave his men. He threatened to resign and join the ranks of enlisted soldiers just so he could stay, that’s how adamant he was about not leaving.
He agreed to leave the Philippines for Australia, believing that there were troops there he could begin training to take back the territories lost to the Japanese over the last year of fighting.
The troops were not there.
This was not the first time this happened. Earlier, while the American and Filipino forces were still trying to hold off Japanese invasion of Luzon (the large northern island of the Philippines where Manila is located), the U.S. government told MacArthur and his generals they’d be getting reinforcements soon.
And so, on March 12th, 1942, MacArthur left the Philippines for Australia. On April 9th, forces on the Bataan Peninsula (on the northern part of Luzon) surrendered. On May 6th, forces on Corregidor Island (the command center for the U.S./Filipino forces in the Philippines) unconditionally surrendered all of the Philippines to the Japanese Empire.
This then began the 102 kilometer death march to the POW Camp O’Donnell.
The Bataan Death March really ought to be remembered along with the other atrocities in the Pacific. I had never heard of it until we took a tour of the Bataan Peninsula. After surrendering, soldiers were forced to march. No water, no food, for several days. Filipino citizens tried dropping food and water to prisoners from the trees, but if they were caught they risked being beaten, stabbed to death, or forced to join the march themselves. Soldiers that fell out of line were also beaten or stabbed, often to death. Thus the naming it a Death March.
Before the surrender, when they were toiling, just barely maintaining, waiting for reinforcements they thought would come, the soldiers nicknamed themselves the Battling Bastards of Bataan (“no ma, no pa, no Uncle Sam”). No doubt being in a POW camp for 3 years accentuated this feeling of abandonment.
The U.S. government wanted MacArthur to hop over the Philippines and go for other more strategic positions as Allied forces drove their offensive towards Japan. MacArthur refused. He had made a promise to return and he honored his commitments. As such, after liberating the Philippines (with the much needed help of Filipino guerrilla forces) he became a hero in the eyes of many Filipinos. They’ve built and maintained a memorial to him on Leyte, where he first landed on the campaign to reclaim the Philippines.
Okinawa. I don’t really remember reading a lot about Okinawa in the history textbooks. Okinawa, the site of an incredibly brutal battle towards the end of the War in the Pacific. Okinawa, the site of the incredibly important and informative Peace Memorial and Museum.
Junior year AP English taught me to scrutinize every text. What is the motivation and aim of the content creator? This scrutinization should be – in my opinion – applied to everything humans create. So I’m often skeptical in history museums because history is usually only written by the winner. Going into the Okinawa Peace Museum, I expected to see revulsion (or a tamed-down version of Japanese atrocities) for the Japanese and praise for the Americans.
Instead I found mutual disgust for militarism, regardless of whose flag is flying. What I didn’t realize is how Okinawans – while a part of Japan now – were a part of the sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom until the late 1800s. By 1941, Okinawa had only been Japanese for a little over sixty years (see my post: “What I Learned on My Winter Vacation: Okinawa”). During this time, the Japanese worked hard to bring Okinawans “in line,” instituting morning bows to the Emperor at school (sound similar to anything Americans have to do at the start of their school say?), mandatory Japanese language and outlawing local Okinawa dialect, and more. But obviously despite this attempt at assimilation, there was still a disconnect between Okinawans civilian and Japanese soldiers during the War.
So what I liked about the Okinawa Peace Memorial and Museum was that it seemed unique in its biases as it was from the perspectives of Okinawa civilians. Civilians – including high schoolers and their teachers – were conscripted into military service as the Allied invasion drew imminent.
One thing I did not realize from the history books was the intensity of Japanese militarism. Obviously we learn about kamikazes, but I did not realize this extreme ethic extended beyond kamikaze pilots to literally every subject of Imperial Japan. Surrender was worse than death. It was seen as better to kill yourself than be captured by the enemy. As a result, people committed suicide – jumping off cliffs, exploding grenades in their hands – or killed others – poisoning the milk of individuals too sick to be moved, stabbing or beheading others – as the American offensive gained ground.
In textbooks, you read: “X number of soldiers and Y number of civilians died in the Battle of Z.” But these numbers are so abstract. It’s difficult to be moved by numbers.
But I could not move, I was paralyzed, as I stood in a large hall in the Okinawa Peace Museum, reading the first hand accounts of civilian survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. These twenty pages, to me, were more important than any of the millions of words in explanatory text in the whole museum, and even more important than the hundreds of photos. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t know if there is anything more powerful than the honest words of a person recounting their experience of trauma.
I know that these narratives were curated. The collection has about a dozen first-person accounts, and many more people than that survived. In all the accounts, Japanese soldiers are portrayed neutrally or negatively, whereas American soldiers are absent or portrayed neutrally. I wonder if this is an accurate sample of experiences, or if it was influenced by who won and who was creating this museum***?
All I know is walking through the museum (and the museum at the Himeyuri Memorial, dedicated to the schoolgirls who perished while working in Japanese military hospitals under horrendous conditions), I was struck with a new understanding of war, and specifically, the war in the Pacific.
I think many Americans – myself included – are clueless when it comes to War. We have many veterans, so there exist Americans who have been exposed to war. But I imagine war looks very differently from the perspectives of soldier or civilian (both horrible, but different). But also there are Americans who have lived through armed conflicts (e.g., former refugees). But I think a majority of Americans can’t really empathize with the feeling of having your life ripped to shreds by bullets and mortar shells. I still can’t imagine it fully – I tried, while walking the battle fields of Bataan and exploring the caves in Okinawa – but I feel much closer to understanding that I have previously.
And I understand then why so many of the memorials I saw in Okinawa and the Philippines emphasized PEACE. War memorials in the U.S. also emphasize peace, but I think equally so they honor the sacrifice made by those who died in the war. This is obviously very important, but it sometimes feels like the same sentiment that the Japanese had during the War, that death in service to the Emperor ensures the highest praise of the living and a seat beside the Emperor in the afterlife (if you believe in that sort of thing).
I don’t know. These thoughts are very primordial.
But I just wish we could stop glorifying the military in America. I wish we could memorialize peace and honor peace by not sacrificing citizens of other nations (and soldiers of our own) on foreign lands we have no right to impose upon.
Interestingly enough, learning about the Battle of Okinawa made me revise my thoughts on the dropping of the atomic bomb. In the textbooks, I remember reading that Truman decided to drop the bomb after the projection that tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers would die in an invasion of Japan.
I remember reading this and thinking it was a horrible reason to drop the bomb. Like they were measuring life against life and deciding American soldiers’ lives were more valuable than Japanese civilians’ lives.
But then reading about how Okinawans (even children) were conscripted during the Battle and expected to commit suicide rather than surrender and how as a result MANY MANY civilians died, I imagine an Allied invasion of Japan would’ve resulted in the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa over and over again at the mainland points of invasion.
I still don’t think this necessarily warrants the unforeseen and instantaneous murder of over one hundred thousand civilians, but it certainly complicates things.
I believe I could philosophize about this all ad infinitum. But I would seriously recommend anyone who visits Okinawa ought to take a day to spend at the Peace Memorial and Museum. It includes many interesting and impactful exhibits, including a case full of textbooks from various countries opened to sections about WWII (it’s fun to look at the differences between the Filipino book, Singaporean book, American book, etc.) and an extensive section of the post-War period, during which Okinawa was under the control of the U.S. military (YIKES! WHY?). Also, there is a lot of history in the Philippines, not just beaches. Maybe check that out too. It’s not a scary place (read: “What I Learned on My Winter Vacation: The Philippines”).
I guess I just think this trip, walking these physical spaces, has made me realize how dynamic history is. It is not words on a page. It is not static, as I previously thought. It is constantly being re-written as new voices emerge and complicate the “winner’s narrative.” It’s constantly being re-experienced as the common flaws of humanity renew with each generation, perpetuating conflict. History is constantly forgotten, relived, forgotten again. Can a museum really change anything?
*I love stories, so it’s not completely radical that I would enjoy learning history, since it’s just stories of events that really happened.
**This was also in the textbook, by the way.
***The museum has a significant post-War period to it where the oppressive nature of the U.S. military’s control over Okinawa is explored, so I think that the creators wanted to be just as critical of Imperial Japan as of the U.S. military. But one can never really know.