- 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
During these last phases of the war, our operations in both Europe and the Pacific were too vast and extended to permit intensive interrogations of all companies. Small-unit procedures were employed only for the pivotal actions of the campaign: but it was discovered that the technique proved equally effective when studying higher command plans and decisions. After the companies were interrogated, meetings were held with the battalion commander, his operations, intelligence and supply officers, and representatives of tank and artillery units that fought alongside the battalion, a process repeated at regimental and division headquarters. Gradually the jigsaw puzzle took shape.
By the time they had completed their interrogations, the historians had a store of primary materials that might well have been the envy of their colleagues in civilian life. Journals filled with observations made at the front, translations of captured enemy documents, hundreds of pages of notes on unit interrogations, thousands of messages, reports, orders, operations summaries—these were to be the sources of a definitive history.
We combat historians learned something important about modern war. Earlier battles so often had turned on communications failures. In this war a general communications breakdown was unlikely because of the quantity and variety of equipment. Parallel technological developments had revolutionized the whole process of supply. The Army transported hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies over routes that would have ground horse-drawn wagons to a halt in Tolstoy’s day, and that doesn’t take into consideration air transport. No secret weapons, but simply scientific and engineering talent transplanted to the battlefront.
But the greatest factor imparting stability and order to U.S. military operations was the might of our firepower. That was the crux of the battle. When a commander came up against a hostile strongpoint, he did not throw his troops against the enemy’s rifle and machine-gun fire. Such tactics belonged to another age. He simply called in his heavier supporting weapons, perhaps mortars or heavy machine guns to begin with. If the enemy replied in kind, he answered with artillery and light tanks. If the enemy still could match us, heavier tanks and artillery were thrown into the argument, perhaps even light and medium bombers.
At some point this escalation of firepower so overwhelmingly outweighed the Japanese that their position became untenable. For the historians, this was the most dramatic point in modern battle, because the heavier supporting fire put into play the whole weight of the domestic U.S. economy behind the front. In other words, the commander forced the enemy to fight on our terms, which were made possible by the superior technology and resources of an industrial democracy.
Thus the historian traveled a long way from the battlefield itself in seeking the reasons for our mounting victories. The inevitable mistakes had their own fascinations, but our superior communications, transport, and firepower allowed an enormous margin for error. We marveled at the heroism of our men under fire and at the skilful ways they fought, but the unyielding enemy was responding with equal courage as well as with shrewdness and fanaticism. The historian discovered that what really counted was the quality and quantity of the equipment on our side. That made it possible for operations to go “according to plan” even when a whole sequence of unlucky and unlooked-for events occurred. The historian’s search for the ultimate truths of modern warfare boiled down to the strategic use of a whole economy for military purposes.
I will never forget that morning of June 22, 1945, when we formally raised the flag over Okinawa. The sun was shining, the sky studded with fleecy white clouds. At 11 a.m. the band played the Army Air Corps song, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” and “On, Brave Old Army Team.” The losses on Okinawa had been terrible for both sides. Our final tally was 12,281 Americans killed, and 50,000 total casualties. The Japanese lost more than 100,000 troops. More than 100,000 more Japanese civilians were killed, wounded, or committed suicide.
As I watched, the two surviving American commanders, Gen. Roy Geiger and Brig. Gen. Laurence E. Schick, detached themselves from a double file of generals and came to attention before the flagpole. General Schick read an exchange of messages between General Geiger and Admiral Nimitz reporting the end of organized resistance on the island.
The color guard marched up and hoisted the flag to the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” More than halfway along its climb, it was fouled; then suddenly it broke loose on the breeze against the bright blue sky.
Thus Okinawa was added to our Pacific conquests. I am sure that, as the flag climbed the pole, everyone there was thinking of the white crosses and Stars of David in the divisional cemeteries mounting guard over so many of the American boys who had made this victory possible.