- Historic Sites
The Wartime Journals Of Charles A. Liondbergh
A Peacetime Hero Confronts Armageddon
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
A trail of these ashes runs over the side of the filled-up pit where we are standing. They were dumped in carelessly, as we would dump the ashes from coal into a pit at home. And the pit was dug as a man would dig a pit for coal ashes if he cared nothing for the appearance of the grounds around his home—not very far from the furnaces and where the ground appeared easy to dig. Nearby were two other oblong mounds which may have marked other pits. The boy picks up a knee joint which had not been left in the furnace long enough and holds it out to us.
Of course, I knew these things were going on; but it is one thing to have the intellectual knowledge, even to look at photographs someone else has taken, and quite another to stand on the scene yourself, seeing, hearing, feeling with your own senses. A strange sort of disturbance entered my mind. Where was it I had felt like this before? The South Pacific? Yes; those rotting Japanese bodies in the Biak caves; the load of garbage dumped on dead soldiers in a bomb crater; the green skulls set up to decorate ready room and tents.
It seemed impossible that men—civilized men—could degenerate to such a level. Yet they had. Here at Camp Dora in Germany; there in the coral caves of Biak. But there, it was we, Americans, who had done such things, we who claimed to stand for something different. We, who claimed that the German was defiling humanity in his treatment of the Jew, were doing the same thing in our treatment of the Jap. “They really are lower than beasts. Every one of ‘em ought to be exterminated.” How many times had I heard that statement made by American officers in the Pacific! “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”…
A long line of such incidents parades before my mind: the story of our Marines firing oh unarmed Japanese survivors who swam ashore on the beach at Midway; the accounts of our machine-gunning prisoners on a Hollandia airstrip; of the Australians pushing captured Japanese soldiers out of the transport planes which were taking them south over the New Guinea mountains (“the Aussies reported them as committing hara-kiri or ‘resisting’”); of the shinbones cut, for letter openers and pen trays, from newly killed Japanese bodies on Noemfoor; of the young pilot who was “going to cream that Jap hospital one of these days”; of American soldiers poking through the mouths of Japanese corpses for gold-filled teeth (“the infantry’s favorite occupation”); of Jap heads buried in anthills “to get them clean for souvenirs”; of bodies bulldozed to the roadside and dumped by the hundreds into shallow, unmarked graves (“where they’re so close we can’t stand ‘em, we have to bury ‘em”); of pictures of Mussolini and his mistress hung by the feet in an Italian city, to the approval of thousands of Americans who claim to stand for high, civilized ideals. As far back as one can go in history, these atrocities have been going on, not only in Germany with its Dachaus and its Buchenwalds and its Camp Doras, but in Russia, in the Pacific, in the riotings and lynchings at home, in the less-publicized uprisings in Central and South America, the cruelties of China, a few years ago in Spain, in pogroms of the past, the burning of witches in New England, tearing people apart on the English racks, burnings at the stake for the benefit of Christ and God.
“We won the war in a military sense; but in a broader sense it seems to me we lost it.”
I look down at the pit of ashes (“twenty-five thousand in a year and a half”). This, I realize, is not a thing confined to any nation or to any people. … What is barbaric on one side of the earth is still barbaric on the other. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” It is not the Germans alone, or the Japs, but the men of all nations to whom this war has brought shame and degradation. …
You ask what my conclusions are, rereading my journals and looking back on World War II from the vantage point of a quarter century in time? We won the war in a military sense; but in a broader sense it seems to me we lost it, for our Western civilization is less respected and secure than it was before.
In order to defeat Germany and Japan we supported the still greater menaces of Russia and China—which now confront us in a nuclear-weapon era. Poland was not saved. The British Empire has broken down with great suffering, bloodshed, and confusion. England is an economy-constricted secondary power. France had to give up her major colonies and turn to a mild dictatorship herself. Much of our Western culture was destroyed. We lost the genetic heredity formed through aeons in many million lives. Meanwhile, the Soviets have dropped their iron curtain to screen off Eastern Europe, and an antagonistic Chinese government threatens us in Asia.
More than a generation after the war’s end, our occupying armies still must occupy, and the world has not been made safe for democracy and freedom. On the contrary, our own system of democratic government is being challenged by that greatest of dangers to any government—internal dissatisfaction and unrest.
It is alarmingly possible that World War II marks the beginning of our Western civilization’s breakdown, as it already marks the breakdown of the greatest empire ever built by man. Certainly our civilization’s survival depends on meeting the challenges that tower before us with unprecedented magnitude in almost every field of modern life. Most of these challenges were, at least, intensified through the waging of World War II. …