Last Word: The Writer at War
Professor John Wheatcroft '49 discusses his enlistment in the Navy, the battle of Okinawa, kamikaze pilots and coming home at war’s end.
Compiled from an interview with Matthew Stevenson ’76
I joined the Navy in 1943 at age 17. I had two friends in high school who were Jewish refugees. The father of one did not get out. My father had been a very strong antifascist from the beginning. He knew about the Armenian genocide and talked about it at the dinner table, so to me, the real war was in Europe, but they sent me to fight in Japan. I was assigned to the USS Wisconsin, one of the biggest battleships in the Navy.
In April 1945, we headed toward Iwo Jima. There, it was mainly the kamikazes that could get to us. They were small and they were fast, and I have to say I was mighty frightened. One kamikaze came so close that if he hadn’t had a mask on, I could have seen his face. In a couple of seconds, he would have taken me out, but he was hit by a five-inch shell.
On Easter Sunday, 1945, we went to Okinawa as cover for land forces. There were three battleships, three or four carriers, and on the outer rim, destroyers. We were all just blasting away, and underneath our fire these brave guys went in on motor craft. One man from our ship jumped off the fantail and swam toward Okinawa. A destroyer picked him up. His plan was to swim ashore, convert the Japanese to Christianity, and we would all stop fighting. Poor fellow. He just cracked.
The kamikazes would go for the carriers. The Yorktown was badly hit, and many of the burned sailors were brought aboard our ship. I can still remember seeing them lying on wire cots that would be carried by a man at each end. When the cots came up from sickbay, there would still be pieces of flesh on the wire.
Planes had to be catapulted off the deck of the carriers. In the worst days at Okinawa, one out of three planes would not make it off the deck. To see those pilots walk up and get into their planes knowing the plane before them never made it into the sky — it was something.
I felt no anger toward the Japanese, and in a strange way I admired their courage. The kamikaze pilots must have been brave young men.
On Sept. 2, 1945, the Wisconsin was moored next to the Missouri, and I was in the rigging. We went in with every battery loaded because there was talk that this might be treachery by the Japanese. We waited and waited and finally saw a little boat coming across the bay. The Japanese diplomats had on tall silk hats, as if they were going to the opera, and they were dressed in black suits and ties. And they went up the ladder and the treaty was signed.
Everything on shore was flattened. People were sleeping in holes that had been created by shells and bombs. Whole families were down there, and they’d pull a piece of cardboard or a piece of tin across the top. I also saw a man, his wife and three children standing near a yellow brick building, which had been hit. I asked him if it was a factory, and he said it had been turned into a hospital, because all the hospitals in Yokahama had been destroyed. They had painted big red crosses on the roof of it, and the planes came and bombed it. I gave the kids some candy and gave him a pack of cigarettes, and I just felt like hell.
I couldn’t write anything during the war or immediately after. In fact, I went into what I now recognize as a deep depression, and I wouldn’t leave my parents’ front porch. I tried twice to start a novel, but I just couldn’t do it. I really came back by way of poetry.
I always felt complicit guilt. That’s all I can say, and I don’t think that it’s purged by writing abut it, but at least I can say that I think I have told some truth, and it differs in major ways from what is supposedly an accurate portrayal of what happened.