We are honored to publish here the recollections of front-line combat in the Pacific theater by James MacGregor Burns, one of America’s most accomplished living historians.
Readers of this magazine will be familiar with Burns, who has appeared many times in these pages over the past several decades and won a Pulitzer for his biography of FDR. At a recent Society of American Historians meeting, during which he received a lifetime achievement award, Burns spoke eloquently about his formative years just out of Williams College as an Army combat historian, helping to complete two “green book” official histories of Guam and Okinawa. Afterwards I asked him if he’d ever written up his personal recollections of that time. He said no—and I knew right there that we needed to apply the resources of American Heritage to bringing this important story to our readers.
With the help of Tim Nenninger, head of military records at the National Archives, we located Professor Burns’ original notes and those of a half-dozen other combat historians who fought side by side with GIs, slept in foxholes, and even fended off banzai attacks. What a thrill to read their daily observations, which ranged from recording extraordinary individual acts of bravery and the strategic thinking of commanding generals to the more mundane details of life in the army, especially complaints about food. (One week they lived almost entirely on carrots because a Japanese torpedo had found their provision ship.) Burns had an extraordinary vantage point, interviewing field commanders, intelligence officers, and even whole platoons just minutes after fierce engagements.
At the Archives we also discovered maps and diagrams stamped “Secret,” penciled on thin, wartime paper turned brown with age, which described the movement of American soldiers against Japanese artillery, snipers, and anti-tank guns. Burns told us he had no wartime photographs of himself, but our intrepid picture researcher, Madeline Kelty, unearthed an image of a young Sergeant Burns interviewing a Japanese prisoner, as well as a haunting photo that he took of GIs just as they hit the beach at Saipan. We used it as the opening image of the story, which begins on page 18.
Professor Burns choked up when I read him his 64-year-old diary entry about the official flag-raising ceremony on Okinawa, which signaled the conclusion of America’s largest and bloodiest sea-land-air battle. Missing on that day were the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Simon Buckner, Jr., killed by artillery fire, and 66,000 other Allied casualties. The memory of lost comrades had not faded for this remarkable historian.
Email Editor about what you think of Professor Burns’ story—and any of the others in this issue.
Edwin S. Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief