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Remembering The Pacific War

June 2024
6min read

My wife and I visited Corregidor last December. Some fifty other tourists boarded the big, enclosed hydrofoil with us for the trip across Manila Bay. Perhaps half our fellow passengers were Filipinos, a quarter Americans and Europeans, the rest Japanese. We all shared our box lunches amicably enough—the chicken-salad sandwiches entombed in Styrofoam, washed down with a warm orange soda called Zesto—and we all listened together in the same pained silence as loudspeakers blared “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” over and over again. (The Christmas season begins in late October in the Philippines and may be celebrated there more relentlessly than anywhere else on earth.)

And everyone was elaborately polite to everyone else, the Japanese bowing and smiling as they maneuvered to get better snapshots of the little island, which grew larger as we hummed toward it, and of the jagged profile of the Bataan Peninsula, just off to its right. Clearly we all were determined that there be no hard feelings on this excursion into our common history.

After about an hour and a half, the hydrofoil finally coasted to a stop at the wharf, and we all trooped onto the low-lying part of the island. Small boys hurried out to greet us, waving antiaircraft shell casings and shouting, “Fifty pesos! Fifty pesos!” So furious was the fighting here that despite almost half a century of scouring by souvenir hunters, the boys still manage to find fistfuls of casings in the dense jungle that blankets much of the island. Several of us bought shells to take home.

But when it was time to board our tour buses, Japanese visitors were firmly told to get onto one; the rest of us were herded onto the other.


As our bus ground its way up the hillside toward Topside, the island’s spine along which the blasted, overgrown skeletons of the old American barracks still stand, I asked the Filipino guide why the island’s visitors were divided from one another this way. At first he said it was just “a language problem,” but when I persisted, he finally admitted that mixed tours simply didn’t work on Corregidor. “Too many memories,” he said. “The Japanese occupied the Philippines for more than three years. A million of us died. We still resent them. It’s better like this, more peaceful.”

Some Americans still felt the same way, he added, and the decision to segregate the visitors had, in fact, been made not long ago, after an American veteran of the Pacific fighting had shouted, “Shut up! Shut up!” at a Japanese tour guide with a bullhorn. The old man had been a Japanese prisoner of war, could not abide being shouted at again in the language of his long-ago captors, and had had to be restrained.

At first it all seemed a sad overreaction to one bitter man’s anger, but as we wended our way on foot through the Malinta tunnel, peering into the dark chambers in which so many men died waiting for the rescuers who never came, trying to imagine what it must have been like to hold out here for three months while Japanese bombs and shells rained down, day and night, we began to understand why our parties were carefully kept apart. And by the time our guide described the surrender ceremonies and reminded us of what later happened to the American and Filipino prisoners on Bataan, we were just as glad the Japanese were bunched still farther away.

On the trip back to Manila, we and the Japanese sat apart. I occupied myself with a promotional booklet published by the Philippine Department of Tourism outlining big plans for Corregidor: a tourist hotel, cottages, curio shops, a golf course, windsurfing, a memorial “Garden of Peace” built by Japanese veterans, and “The Malinta Experience,” a sound-and-light show in which “dynamic lighting and special effects will conjure airplane bombings, the batteries firing, the walls crumbling and people screaming.” The object of all this, according to the handout, is to promote Corregidor as an “Island of Valor, Peace and International Understanding.”

The evidence of valor is everywhere on Corregidor, but international understanding still comes hard.

It comes hard at Pearl Harbor too. No December would be complete without a new book or two on the Japanese attack, and, because this is its fiftieth anniversary, there are at least five to choose from.

Stanley Weintraub’s Long Day’s Journey Into War: December 7, 1941 (Button, $26.95) provides an engrossing account of that day, hour by hour, all across the world. In just under two hours 2,403 unsuspecting Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor—more than died in the Mexican and Spanish-American wars combined. But subsequent, still bloodier actions—and the fact that the first published photographs of the bombing showed blazing warships, not burned bodies—have somehow blurred the horrors of that Sunday morning, making the fury the Japanese attack engendered in the United States difficult now for young people to fathom.

Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women (SR Books, $24.95), by Robert S. La Forte and Ronald E. Marcello, is not an elegant book or an especially well-edited one, but the raw memories of the forty survivors it contains vividly evoke what made Americans so mad. Here, for example, Pfc. James Cory recalls a group of sailors moments after the bombs hit the USS Arizona : “These people were zombies.…They were burned completely white. Their skin was just as white as if you’d taken a bucket of whitewash and painted it white. Their hair was burned off; their eyebrows were burned off; the pitiful remnants of their uniforms in their crotch…and the insoles of their shoes was about the only thing that was left on their bodies. They were moving like robots. Their arms were out, held away from their bodies, and they were stumping along the decks.”

“To think,” said Col. William J. Flood, commander of Wheeler Field, after the attack had ended, “this bunch of little yellow bastards could do this to us when we all knew that the United States was superior to Japan!” In large part because of the stubborn ubiquity of that kind of racial feeling, there has always been a brisk trade in books purporting to show that Japan must have had help in springing its deadly surprise.

This season’s conspiracists, Eric Nave and James Rusbridger, at least have a novel hypothesis to offer in their book, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor (Summit Books, $19.95): Winston Churchill was the villain, they claim, and Franklin Roosevelt his witless dupe. British cryptographers broke the Japanese naval code, learned of the impending Japanese attack, and warned Churchill—who deliberately withheld the information from FDR in order that we be drawn into the war. They do not reveal, however, just how Churchill planned to explain this startling oversight to Roosevelt had the President discovered it during the course of the fighting, nor have they been allowed into the British archives to see the decoded messages, without which their theory remains little more than lurid speculation.

This season’s Pearl Harbor conspiracists at least have a novel hypothesis to offer: Winston Churchill was the villain.

In Visions of Infamy (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95), the journalist William H. Honan makes a far more solid case that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor were based on an obscure but prophetic 1925 novel, Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931–1932, written by a long-forgotten Briton, Hector C. Bywater.

But, as Honan would be the first to agree, inspiration is one thing, execution is another. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a wholly Japanese operation, although as Thurston Clarke’s interesting, idiosyncratic book Pearl Harbor Ghosts: A Journey to Hawaii Then and Now (William Morrow, $22) demonstrates, even on Oahu there are those who would have it otherwise.

According to Clarke, for example, the film shown at the Arizona Monument fudges history so as not to upset the Japanese visitors who now make up a considerable part of the all-important tourist industry. The fact that the Japanese attacked without warning is soft-pedaled, while it is suggested that American economic sanctions forced Japan’s hand—as if the United States, by cutting off the oil the Japanese militarists needed to complete their conquest of China and attack Southeast Asia, had somehow failed to live up to some moral commitment to the emperor.

History matters. It is clearly wrong to cling to ancient hatreds, stupid to charge one generation with the sins of another. American racism played an undeniable role in our relations with Japan during the years that led up to December 7, 1941, and brought about the shameful incarceration of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the months that followed it.

There is plenty of blame to go around. But that does not mean everyone is equally to blame—and to pretend otherwise, to ascribe all conflict to regrettable cultural “misunderstandings,” is to minimize the genuine moral choices human beings face and to bleach history of its meaning.

The mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, knows that. On the forty-sixth anniversary of the atomic attack last summer, he urged his countrymen to reexamine their past. He had done this before, with near-fatal results: When Motoshima urged two years ago that Emperor Hirohito accept at least partial responsibility for Japan’s defeat in World War II, a right-wing fanatic shot and wounded him. He seems to have been undeterred. On August 9, surrounded by elderly survivors of the American bombing, he placed the ultimate blame for what befell his city and his country in 1945 squarely where even many American authorities are too timid to place it now. “Japan,” he said, “trod the path to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and defeat in World War Two via the annexation of Korea, the war with China, the attack on Pearl Harbor…”

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