A preeminent author recalls 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
Fresh from Williams College’s history program, the author entered World War II as a 24-year-old combat historian, earning four combat medals and a Bronze Star. He would go on to become a leading presidential historian, writing a two-volume biography of FDR, the second book of which won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He has also written notable books on John F. Kennedy and the subject of leadership. American Heritage's Editor, Edwin S. Grosvenor, interviewed Prof. Burns and assisted him in writing this essay'
Early in July 1944, I joined American forces on the tiny island of Saipan in their latest onslaught, an operation resembling so many others as we cleared one Pacific island after another, each grim step moving us closer to Japan and final victory. The Allies would land fast and hard against desperate opposition, then often spending weeks rooting out an enemy who would not surrender.
Although I carried a carbine, no one expected me to use it. As a combat historian, my orders were to accompany the U.S. Army’s 27th Division as it pushed northward up the island’s west coast to observe as much action as possible, and to interview soldiers during and after the fighting. I was part of an experiment by the War Department, which a year earlier had established the Historical Branch under the Military Intelligence Division of the General Staff. The branch was tasked with preparing detailed operational narratives, along with theater and campaign histories, a popular account of the Second World War, and ultimately the official history of the war. A group of scholars, including the well-known historians Henry Steele Commager and James P. Baxter III, served as advisers.
Although this approach was new to Americans, Europeans had long set out to assemble scholarly accounts of combat. In Germany Hans Delbrück and Carl von Clausewitz had established a great tradition of military history. They fostered elaborate reports of Prussian campaigns—not to enlighten the people, but to provide a means of reaping the hard experience of war for the next violent encounter with an enemy. After the First World War, the Germans meticulously analyzed their records to understand just what had gone wrong.
The U.S. War Department had different motives: the historians were to inform the soldiers and the nation as a whole, as well as the high command. Their narratives were to be comprehensive, impartial, and sufficiently authoritative to form an important source for the studies of future historians. In the meantime, short histories of operations, later called the American Forces in Action series, were to be published for the men who took part.
It was soon discovered that the type of history desired could not be written from the archives alone, despite prodigious record keeping. The paperwork of one division for a single week would fill a filing cabinet. The trouble was simply that the records constituted truth in parade dress. “On the actual day of battle,” Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton once reflected, “naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.” The messages, intelligence summaries, field orders, operations reports, and all the other records still left huge gaps in the story of the action; they were often meaningless or misleading on the most vital questions. As a result, officers and enlisted historians were assigned to the battlefronts to see for themselves and write the first drafts of history on the spot.
During a lull in the fighting, I decided to consult with my fellow historian Lt. Edmund G. Love, who was covering the action farther inland. He and I had been the first two combat historians to arrive in Hawaii, and we were now the only two covering some 70,000 troops as they fought their way across Saipan. To follow such a vast enterprise would seem to require a dozen scribes, but one or two could bring off an initial approximation by keeping close to the command posts where all the diverse strands of activity came together: messages on naval gunfire support, air action, enemy movements, ground gained and lost, and all the other activities funneling into the operations and intelligence sections.
So every night I tried to get back to regimental or division headquarters. The thinking was that if a historian stayed too long at the front his perspective would contract; he would come to see the battle as being won or lost in the front lines alone, when the struggle stretched far behind lines. The operations colonel in his quiet command post, the weary maintenance men servicing disabled tanks, the engineers hewing a new supply road or failing to maintain the old one all exercised just as critical an influence on operations as the men killing and dying. It was the historian’s vital job to recognize the role of all elements of the combat teams.
As a staff sergeant I had no vehicle of my own but easily hitched a jeep ride over the busy road connecting the two command posts. Adjacent to Love’s company lay the Marines’ sector; Love was mainly concerned that the 27th’s commander, Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, a Marine general tough even for the Corps, might oust more Army commanders for failing to keep up with the Marines. But we agreed that victory was in sight. Soldiers and Marines were now flushing the enemy out of caves and thickets with bazookas and flamethrowers.
It was late that afternoon when I left Love’s outfit to return to my own command post. No jeeps were negotiating that road, so I had to walk. The enemy often operated effectively behind our front lines at night, so after dark most soldiers hunkered down. An eerie twilight descended as I trudged along. Shortly I spied the corpses of hundreds of Japanese killed by our naval gunfire on this open ridge. A sudden movement caught my eye. I swung my gun around and then stopped short. It was the flies. Many thousands of insects boiled up in unison: they had been so congested that they replicated what they had covered. Outlines of helmets, guns, bayonets, and boots shot into the air as if in an animated horror cartoon.
Thoroughly unnerved, I cursed myself for not having left earlier. All was quiet in the gloom, but I knew there must be enemy out there. A pilot whom I had traveled with a few days earlier had soberly reflected on how many Japanese were lurking underground.
Something came back to me from an old war movie. Every few yards I turned around and barked an order to an imaginary platoon, then swept up my arm, as if commanding an entire battalion to move ahead. I did this for half a mile, imagining that a mocking young lieutenant would come along in a jeep at any moment and burst out laughing at my antics. While I will never know whether any Japanese lay hidden in that devastated landscape, I did survive that solitary walk along the dark road.
Back at my own command post, all was quiet. The rumble of battle seemed farther north now. Even the ubiquitous flies seemed more subdued; a buddy told me that the Army had begun saturating the battlefield with a new chemical, something called DDT. After my friend and I chased a land crab out of our foxhole, we settled down for the night.
The next morning, dozens of gaunt, hollow-eyed soldiers drifted through our perimeter. Many had lost their weapons and even their helmets. Some were walking wounded. I grabbed my notebook and began to scribble down their stories before they limped south. Some say that fighting men do not like to talk about their experiences, but we did not find this to be the case. The commanders sensed that one day the only thing left of all their efforts would be a place in history.
Usually the men were glad to relate their own experiences; invariably they wanted to tell about their buddies’. But heroism, even where it was displayed in action, as it had been so often, was conspicuously absent in the recounting. The soldier’s tale typically focused on the fatigue, the fear, and finally the sheer relief when the ordeal ended. Word of some deed of courage emerged only when someone else described the action. A debriefed soldier might turn back to say something like, “Jones didn’t tell you about this, but he went through some hot fire to get that message back to the captain.”
Gradually I pieced together the story of the first great banzai counterattack. During the night the Japanese commander, Gen. Yoshitsugu Saitõ, had addressed what remained of the Imperial naval and army officer corps on the island, now cornered in Saipan’s far north. “Whether we attack or whether we stay where we are, there is only death. However, in death there is life.” He sent his whole command in, then arranged his own death.
Emperor Hirohito dispatched an order encouraging the 25,000 civilians on Saipan to kill themselves. Some 10,000 obeyed by attacking the American forces in a banzai, or all-out, attack or by jumping off the island’s sea cliffs. Thousands of men armed with rifles, swords, and poles with crude knives streamed through our front lines, plunging right over foxholes like a “movie stampede in the old Wild West films,” one survivor told me. That night 3,000 Japanese died, along with 400 Americans.
Next morning I reached a forward post near the front. Worn American stragglers were still passing through. One told us about carrying a wounded buddy on his back for a mile, only to discover upon taking a rest that his friend had been beheaded. Others reported that American soldiers had been killed by their own artillery fire. One man stopped to dig a deep foxhole and jumped in, cowering in terror.
Our company commander, who had been crouching by his radio, suddenly stood up and shouted at us to form a defensive perimeter a few yards north of our post. We silently took up positions, straining our eyes over the meadow beyond. After a long, nerve-straining wait, we thought we saw helmets in the deep grass across the field.
“It’s the Japs!” someone yelled. “Fire at will!” We shot off a feeble volley. Nothing happened. Then another cry. “They’re Japs! Keep firing!” So we did, even though we never saw the enemy for certain.
We lay prone for a long time under some trees, and all fell very quiet. As the hours wore on, I recalled the old saying that war is an organized bore. But it was also a disorganized bore—a few moments of excitement, even terror, punctuating endless tedium. I also remembered a passage in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage about green Union troops coming under fire and scooping up pathetic little piles of sticks, stones, and leaves for cover—just what we were doing 80 years later. After several hours, the counterattack had exhausted itself. I doubted that any of our bullets had hit anyone. Or had the attack halted just before our position?
In the evening we were ordered back to our foxholes. The next day our camp was calm. Men lined up for chow and exchanged battle stories. The flies still clustered on leaves and twigs, but they were all dead because of the spraying.
Saipan exacted a terrible toll on both sides. Almost the entire garrison of 30,000 Japanese troops perished, along with 22,000 civilians. Of the 71,000 Americans who came ashore, 2, 949 were killed and 10,364 wounded.
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.”
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.