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Bit Part In A Big Theater

May 2024
7min read


It was the Summer of 1945. The fighting was over in Europe, Japan was on the brink of collapse, and I was on the island of Tinian in the Marianas, putting out a mimeographed newspaper and worrying the war might end before I got anywhere near the action. But in the coming weeks I found myself an obscure player in three immense events: the birth of the atomic age, the surrender of Japan, and the start of the Cold War.

One afternoon early in August I sat sweating in a Quonset hut complaining about distribution problems of the Tinian Times to Capt. Joe Buscher, an intelligence officer with the 393d Bombardment Squadron, a somewhat mysterious B-29 outfit. Buscher seemed preoccupied, and he interrupted our talk with a strange suggestion: “If I suddenly have to leave, why don’t you follow me, stick right with me, and if anybody asks who you are, tell them you’re with me. It’ll be something you’ll never forget.”

A few minutes later Buscher stiffened, grabbed his cap, and bounded out the door. I was right behind him as he rushed up to a truck that was discharging a group of men in flying gear. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a gaggle of U.S. Army Air Forces brass greeting the fliers and recognized one of them as Carl Spaatz, commanding general of the Army’s Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific. Buscher pounced on one of the airmen, who was carrying a bulky instrument that proved to be a camera, and hustled him away from the group in the direction of another Quonset hut. I was two steps behind them as they entered what turned out to be a darkroom. The man with the camera quickly unloaded the film and deposited it in a tray of chemicals. Everybody crowded around him. No one spoke as the film was developed, dried, and put into an enlarger.

Finally the airman held up an eight-by-ten print, still dripping with developer. In the faint red glow of the darkroom’s safe light I beheld what would become one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century: the mushroom cloud rising over the city of Hiroshima. There was a collective gasp and mutterings of wonder from the group. My own reaction included bewilderment, since I had not been in on the atomic secret. The airmen, of course, were members of the crew of the Enola Gay , fresh from their historic mission. The 393d Bombardment Squadron was part of the 509th Composite Group, and the date was August 6, 1945.

My second brush with history began a few weeks later and had a comic-opera touch to it. It was prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s August fifteenth radio address announcing Japan’s surrender and ordering servicemen who had been bypassed by the twin American offensives across the Pacific to lay down their arms. Just off the southern shores of Tinian was the island of Aguijan, a fortresslike rock with sheer cliffs all around, topped by the over-grown remnants of a sugar plantation. We knew a reinforced infantry company was stranded there, along with a hundred or so Japanese civilians, mostly families of the soldiers who had been part of the garrison on Tinian before the U.S. invasion the year before. We assumed that they would have had no way to hear the emperor’s speech since their battery supply would have long since been used up.

The island commander on Tinian, Brig. Gen. Frederick V. H. Kimble, borrowed a shallow-draft Coast Guard patrol boat and a Navy lieutenant who spoke fluent Japanese and ordered him to arrange a surrender.

I decided this would make a good story for the Tinian Times and invited myself aboard. On Friday, August 20, the little craft set off and slowly circled Aguijan, with Lt. John G. Reifsnyder calling to the Japanese commander of the island over a loudspeaker.

“Yamada, oshee,” he bawled over and over again, using the name provided by Naval Intelligence. Occasionally Reifsnyder would add a phrase or two about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the emperor’s directive. But nothing stirred on the island. We saw no sign that our message had been heard, or even that a human soul resided there. At nightfall we quit and sailed back to Tinian. The effort resumed the next day and continued for almost a week until, on the afternoon of August 26, somebody on the boat spotted a white cloth waving from the top of a pathway cut in the cliff. Reifsnyder decided it was too late in the day to do anything except tell the Japanese over the loudspeaker that he would return the next morning.

A thick fog enveloped Aguijan as we approached the next day. We could just make out the dark gray bulk of the island looming ahead when our boat stopped and a small landing craft pulled up alongside, ready to take Lieutenant Reifsnyder ashore. As sailors tried to steady the two craft, he gingerly climbed down into the waiting boat. I was leaning over the rail as he clambered past me with a grim look.

Then a totally unexpected thing happened, something that might be called an out-of-body-experience. A khaki-clad wraithlike figure suddenly vaulted over the railing and into the landing craft. I seemed to be watching in amazement until I realized that it was I who was Reifsnyder’s unhidden fellow traveler. A startled Reifsnyder looked at me with what seemed like relief as the boat headed for a rock formation that served as a landing at the base of Aguijan.

On the escarpment looming above us we could see the snouts of several Nambu machine guns aimed in our direction. Three gaunt figures, Japanese officers in tattered uniforms, began descending the trail as we scrambled frantically onto the slippery rocks. When they arrived, the three awkwardly saluted, and instinctively I stepped aside and took a picture. The conversation between Reifsnyder and Yamada began slowly, with expressions of bewilderment showing on the faces of the Japanese, who said very little. Curious, I tugged on the lieutenant’s sleeve and asked what was happening. He explained that he was trying to get them to understand what the atomic bomb had done to the two cities it had struck. Then he resumed his dialogue with Yamada. Occasionally I asked for further clarification of the one-sided discussion. Finally the Japanese commander’s side of the conversation began to expand, a smile of satisfaction crossed Reifsnyder’s face, and the talks ended.

On the way back to the Coast Guard vessel, Reifsnyder told us that Yamada wanted time to talk to the civilians on the island and that he would have an answer the following day. The lieutenant added, “While these talks continue, I’m afraid you’re going to have to keep being my partner. When I kept stopping to fill you in, they got the impression I was your interpreter and that you are demanding their surrender. I figured I might as well leave it that way.”

Although General Kimble was nor happy about it, he allowed me to play this role as we continued the negotiations. We brought Yamada’s two deputies to Tinian to listen to a Signal Corps receiver that pulled in Radio Tokyo and the emperor’s voice to the satisfaction, and profound sorrow, of the two officers. I sat in on discussions with Yamada about details of the surrender ceremony, which was planned to coincide with the big one aboard the USS Missouri set for September 2 in Tokyo Bay.

After some interservice wrangling it was decided that an admiral from Guam would formally accept Yamada’s surrender on a destroyer off the coast of Aguijan. At that point I offered some advice based on informal conversations I had had with Yamada. “The officer gets seasick,” I said. “He is very worried about that possibility and would like to sign the papers on land.” My suggestion was ignored.

Getting the actual surrender document from Washington caused a delay, so we were two days behind the Tokyo ceremony. Also, the waters surrounding the island were found to be too shallow for a destroyer. Finally, on the morning of September 4, with our Coast Guard boat anchored off Aguijan, an admiral’s gig arrived bearing a stern-faced rear admiral named Marshall Greer, dressed in summer whites, resplendent with campaign ribbons and gold braid.

When Yamada climbed aboard from a landing craft, his greenish pallor matched the color of his faded uniform. He looked even smaller than he had at our first meeting, encumbered as he was with an outsized dispatch case. The confined deck space on the slender vessel posed a problem: where to place the surrender documents for the signing. Finally the skipper of the Coast Guard boat suggested using the cover of a ventilator just behind the wheelhouse, and that was where the parties arrayed themselves, the Americans on one side and the three Japanese on the other. Nobody invited me to be part of the U.S. contingent, so I positioned myself directly behind Yamada.

After someone read the contents of the surrender document, the signing began. In the meantime I had noticed Yamada occasionally bending over his big dispatch case. I knew he was ill, but the rest of the group was oblivious of any impending disaster until the Japanese 2d lieutenant leaned forward to inscribe his name on the document. He threw up, loudly and spectacularly, spewing the stuff on the papers and the Americans directly across from him, including the admiral. Thus did World War II formally end for the garrison of Aguijan Island.

There was one postscript. Several days later, as had been agreed by the parties, the evacuation of the soldiers and civilians from Aguijan was scheduled to get under way. A number of large landing craft were anchored close to the landing, and a small party of officers huddled there, deciding how to manage this complicated logistical maneuver. I had tagged along, and 40 while the group conferred, I headed up the pathway to the top of the cliff. When I got there I found the Japanese standing in two orderly groups, the soldiers on one side, the elderly men, women, and children on the other, rifles and automatic weapons neatly stacked between them.

Yamada was standing in front of the two groups, and as I approached him, he called my name, bowed, and presented me with his sword. I detected a knowing smile on his usually somber face. The formal ceremonies of the other day notwithstanding, Yamada was surrendering his island to me.

I had one last brush with history in those momentous final weeks. Ever since my arrival on Tinian I had been asking people for a ride on a B-29. Finally, early in September, I was told that I could have it if I were to report to a certain building on North Field at midnight. When I got there, I was ushered into a brightly lighted hall crowded with flight crews. At the front of the room, before a huge map of the western Pacific, a briefing officer explained what this extraordinary flight—coming just a week or so after the Japanese surrender—was all about.

“We have pulled together all the operational B-29s in the Marianas for this mission,” he began. “All the planes will be armed [most of them had had their machine guns removed earlier for the expected flights back to the United States], and aircraft commanders have permission to fire on any bogeys [unidentified aircraft] they see. We will rendezvous here [he pointed to a spot in the Sea of Japan], form a tight formation, and fly at low altitude across Korea along the thirty-eighth parallel, turn, and fly back. Then the formation will break up for the return flight to the Marianas.”

The officer went on to explain the purpose of this foray. When Russia had declared war on Japan a few weeks earlier, many of the million-odd troops massed along the Manchurian border with Korea had pushed down to the thirty-eighth parallel. This had been expected—indeed, agreed upon by President Truman—but now that they were there somebody in command wasn’t happy about it, and we’d been asked to put on a show of strength for the Soviets. “It’s the biggest nose-thumbing in diplomatic history,” is how our briefer put it.

So our armada droned menacingly over Korea. No bogeys were sighted, but the Russians knew we were up there flexing our muscles at them. Thus the mission could be regarded as one of the first manifestations of what would become known as the Cold War.

I left the military soon afterward, well satisfied with the bit parts fate had given me.

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