Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
I put it all in a report which became the basis of our first combat handbook on the Japanese army. After a few engagements we had a much clearer perception. But I checked after the war, and there wasn’t much in my report that wasn’t right.
In 1939, what was your estimate of the Japanese fighting man?
You could see that the human material was excellent. It was typically the Japanese peasant who was your soldier. He was a short little fellow, but broad shouldered, hardy. He expected little from life and got little from life. He was clearly a tough infantry man.
Given your choice, would you have preferred to fight the Japanese or the Germans?
There was no doubt the war would be settled in Europe. At times I felt a little sorry for my friends who were fighting their way through the jungles of the Pacific, while in the European theater you might find yourself put up for the night in a historic chateau, surrounded by the fine arts in a truly cultural setting. Not so in the Far East. Furthermore, professionally, the saying was that if you wanted to be a general in the Army, you had to be in Europe. If you wanted to be an admiral, you had to be in the Pacific. You take the five Army chiefs of staff after World War II: [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, [Omar] Bradley, [J. Lawton] Collins, [Matthew B.] Ridgway, Taylor. We all had one thing in common, a responsibility for Utah Beach. Ike was the overall commander on D-Day, Bradley was in charge of all the army troops, Collins was the corps commander at Utah, and Ridgway and I were division commanders of that corps. It seemed as if you had to have that Utah connection or you couldn’t be chief of staff.
But with all your experience in Japan…?
Logically, with that background, I should have been in the intelligence business in the Pacific. Instead, I spent the war in Europe. Conversely, a good friend of mine, General Albert C. Wedemeyer, was one of the few American officers to graduate from the German War College in Berlin. So when the war broke out, they sent him to Southeast Asia. I guess it just proves you have to be versatile in the Army. In any event, going to Europe was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.
On December 7,1941, you were a member of the military secretariat of the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. What was it like around the War Department that day?
With the cloud of war hanging over the country, his six assistant secretaries rotated around the clock. One would stay on through the night hours and, of course, we’d all be in the chief’s office during the day. On Pearl Harbor Sunday I was home working on some papers, which sounds careless, but you never had many secret documents in those days. When you got a secret document, it was a great event. So I was working on some papers, and my two boys were upstairs listening to the Redskins football game. They first yelled down that the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. I said, nuts, what’s that? But I immediately called the office, and the lines were busy. Well, then I thought it must be right, so I got in the car and went to the old Munitions Building and reported in. General Marshall’s staff spent most of the day in the chief’s office trying to decide what were the real losses at Pearl. There’s always exaggeration at times of disaster, that everything is gone, the world’s come to an end. Well, it was bad enough, but it wasn’t that bad. We were not aware at first that the aircraft carriers had escaped.
Fairly late in the day, General Marshall called me in and wanted a stenographer. He wanted to report to President Roosevelt the events as he knew them at that time. All the officers were there by that time, but the girls hadn’t got any word, so we only had one stenographer, a very attractive young lady who didn't take shorthand. She used a little stenotype box. So the general dictated his first communiqué of the war to this young lady and went back into conference. I didn’t pay any more attention to what she was doing and pretty soon he rang for me and was unhappy to learn his report wasn t ready. So I asked her how she was doing.” “I’m doing fine, she said, “just fine. But the more I watched the young lady, the more apparent it was that she was in deep trouble. Finally I want over to her and said, “Now look, how are you really doing?” She looked up at me with her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears, and said, “Major, I didn’t get a word he said. ” That was one of the saddest moments of my life. I had to tell George Marshall, with all his cares, “General, you’ve got to do it all over again.”
How could the Japanese have achieved such devastating surprise, with all the talk of war and Hawaii on military alert?
That’s hard to explain. But bear in mind that the military was fascinated by the assumption that if the Japanese attacked us, they would attack the Philippines. In the war games, no one ever suggested the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. It illustrates the great danger of ever eliminating an enemy option just because you don’t think it’s likely.
At the somewhat “advanced” age of forty-one, you became a paratrooper. How did that come about?