- Historic Sites
The Naked Truth Of Battle
A preeminent author reports on his experience as one of America's first combat historians, among a handful of men who accompanied soldiers into the bloodiest battles to write history as it was being made
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
Having been near the front during the banzai attack gave me special standing as a historian, because usually we remained at headquarters. The next few days I spent interviewing the participants, generals on down to privates.
Late in the fighting, we learned that our next target was the strategic island of Guam, whose critical airstrips and harbor lay halfway between the Philippines and the Japanese archipelago. With new orders in hand, I packed my things and flew south by seaplane to Guam’s Apra Harbor. I remember having no time to shower or shave. I was to become the historian for the 77th U.S. Army Division, deployed to storm Guam with the 3rd Marine Division.
I had difficulty finding the right command post, tens of thousands of troops being dispersed over a wide area. Not only was the terrain rugged, but commanders had been ordered to keep their movements and orders rigorously secret. When I finally reported to the division intelligence officer, he didn’t know what to make of a dirty, unshaven man claiming to be a combat historian. I tried to explain. Finally, he said, “Look, I don’t know why you’re here. Just go dig a hole and get in it.”
And that’s what I did. Then I got talking to the soldiers and officers about what they did and planned to do. Stories came tumbling out. Sometimes I would get a whole squad, a platoon, or even an entire company together and hold a mass interrogation. We would start reenacting: Private Jones did this, Corporal Smith did that, and so on. One guy would recall, “We ran up against this firepower, and we moved to the left to get around it,” and another guy would get up and say, “No, we didn’t go left there, we went right.”
I was taking the lead from Lt. Col. S. L. A. Marshall, a pioneer in the development of the interrogation method, who pointed out after serving as an observer in the Makin operation of November 1943 that no one had an accurate idea of just how the operation as a whole had come out, although everyone remembered vividly what he had personally seen and done. As an experiment, Colonel Marshall spent four days interrogating several small units.
“By the end of those four days, working several hours every day, we had discovered to our amazement that every fact of the fight was procurable—that the facts lay dormant in the minds of men and officers, waiting to be developed,” Marshall would write later in the Infantry Journal. “It was like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle with no missing pieces but with so many curious and difficult twists and turns that only with care and patience could we make it into a single picture of combat.”
The unit interrogation became a standard feature of a combat historian’s “research.” The group meetings were held at company headquarters with officers present as well as members of every platoon and squad that saw action. Informality was stressed. The available members of the company, anywhere from 25 to 150 of them, sat on the ground around a blackboard or sand plot. The historian acted as leader of the discussion, mapping the company’s positions or movements as the action unfolded. The troops were often still exhausted from combat, but they enjoyed the discussions and learned about the overall disposition of the battle, only a tiny fraction of which they had seen from their foxholes. Through the historian the participants virtually wrote their own history.
The group meeting was the one occasion in the Army service when officers and enlisted men met as equals. The historians made clear that “truth knows no rank.” As it turned out, everyone’s information was necessary to obtain the whole picture. Most infantry action was so complex and dispersed that many memories had to be meshed together to develop a full and accurate account. The members of a platoon could tell an exciting story of how they made their way around the enemy flank, but their adventures were meaningless unless their commander was on hand to explain what he had hoped to gain by the maneuver. At the same time, the general plans were far more vivid if the troops could lay out what they had to go through to execute them.
By the end of the fighting on Guam, we had learned to pitch tents to hold these meetings.
The following spring I was assigned to cover the campaign to take Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War. Seven Marine and Army divisions, some 183,000 American troops all told, came ashore on this island in the Ryukyu chain, just 340 miles from mainland Japan. By now the combat historian contingent in the Pacific had doubled to four. We had typewriters and great support from commanders.
One of the highlights for the 77th was the liberation of 2,000 Chamorros, the indigenous people of the Marianas, from a concentration camp near Asinan in Yona. In their excitement, the ex-captives did not know whether to kiss, bow to, or shake hands with their liberators. Some tried to do all three at once. Many carried tiny American flags that they had hidden from their captors. “We wait long time for you to come,” some said. Their faith in the return of the Americans had apparently never faltered, although one contemptuously remembered, “We were told by the Japanese that the USA was being defeated, that Japan had control of the Hawaiian Islands, that the Americans had only one ship left as the rest had been sunk.”