Monday, August 17, 2015

Background to Hiroshima and V-J Day: Death and Life on Okinawa, AP Wirephoto

Among the first little historical curiosities that I collected as a high school student was a group of World War II Associated Press Wirephotos found among the random stuff in the bins of a Wisconsin antiques store. (I seem to recall that there were other subjects and I simply picked out the few wartime shots as most suited to my interests and budget.)

Accustomed as we now are to being able to receive the news in live time, most of us have no idea what the classic AP "Wirephoto" service was: how it functioned , and how it revolutionized journalism by transmitting images with unprecedented speed, thus enabling them to become news in their own right.

As this retrospective nicely explains, a transmitter, equipped with a sort of early optical scanner, converted a photo to electrical signals, sent via "10,000 miles of leased telephone lines – the wires," to a receiver, where they were "converted back into light, which was then recorded onto the negative, reproducing the original image." (The "Wirephoto" still exists, but in digital form since 1989.)

World War II, understandably enough, greatly increased the demand for photographic reportage, and the US Army Signal Corps developed its own radiophoto service, a matter of particular importance and difficulty in the Pacific theater.

The battle for Okinawa was one of the greatest land and sea engagements of the war, as well as one of the fiercest, lasting for three months, from 23 March to 23 June 1945. US deaths were at least 12,520 killed in action, while estimates of Japanese losses range from around 77,000 to 110,000. Above and beyond that, anywhere from 42,000-150,000 Okinawan residents (out of a total of some 435,000) perished. Total deaths thus arguably exceed the combined toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The heavy losses on both sides are generally said to have played a role in the US decision to use the atomic bomb in hopes of avoiding an even bloodier invasion of the Japanese home islands. Of particular concern to the Americans were the mass suicides of Okinawan civilians: on the one hand, natural cause for humanitarian empathy, on the other, presumed proof of Japanese "fanaticism" and the resistance they could expect in "Operation Downfall."

This photo remains one of the most moving pieces of World War II memorabilia in my small and eclectic collection.


The appended fuller description reads:
rescued by troops of the U.S. 77th Infantry Div. who braved Jap
machine gun fire to frustrate an attempted mass suicide on
Tokashiki Shima in the opening stages of the battle for
Okinawa. ( Nestled in the arms of 1st/Sgt. John S.Evens [sic],
of Springfield, S.C.)
The child appears placid, yet questioning, cautious, The unshaven soldier appears gentle but fatigued. That he does not look directly into the camera allows us to speculate: presumably he is not indifferent, and rather, weary, contemplating what he has experienced. The eyes have that familiar wartime look of having seen too much. Yet we know that on April 4, the land battle had gone on for only 4 days, whereas 80 more remained.

We also know that Sgt. Evans of the 306th Regiment survived the war. Apparently, he died in 1973 and was buried in his home town.

Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle was not as fortunate: he was killed by machine gun fire while at the front with the 77th on April 18.

The mass suicides remain controversial to this day. Some civilians evidently killed themselves because they believed atrocity stories about the Americans that the authorities told them, but in other cases, the Japanese military forced civilians to commit suicide (e.g. 1, 2, 3). Either way, the Imperial Japanese government and military bore the responsibility, but as in other cases of wartime atrocities, conservative forces in contemporary Japan have attempted to erase or rewrite the history. (It is hard to imagine what is more painful to an elderly man: the memory of having beaten his mother, brother, and sister to death because he believed the propaganda--or that the textbooks suddenly portray this as a voluntary act, committed in a vacuum.)

Reviewing a book of Japanese testimony about the civilian experience on Okinawa (2014), Jonathan Mirsky explains that he has gone from childhood belief in the conventional US narrative to acceptance of the view of "liberal and leftist Americans: that the reasons given for dropping the bombs—among them, above all, that the Japanese would never surrender unless pulverized—were self-serving and false." But "Because of this new book I am thinking again."  He concludes:

In early 1945, the Japanese prime minister had recommended that the war be brought to an end, but as Ealey and McLauchlin [the editors of the volume under review] write, Hirohito believed that one last military success “would force the United States and its allies to offer peace terms that would allow Japan to maintain its national polity, which of course hinged on the status and institution of the emperor.“ Had the prime minister’s advice been followed, they observe, “there may never have been a Battle of Okinawa, or atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.” Indeed. General Douglas MacArthur urged that the emperor’s status be preserved, and there is a memorable photograph of the two recent adversaries standing side by side in Tokyo not long after the war ended. Hirohito’s descendants have remained on the throne to this day. What we learn from this profoundly disturbing and enlightening book is that tens of thousands of misled Okinawans died for nothing. 
This photo is a reminder. It continues to haunt me.


Roy E. Appleman, James M. Burns, Russell A. Gugeler, and John Stevens Okinawa: The Last Battle (Washington, DC: Center of Military History United States Army, 1948)

Previous Wirephoto: Potsdam Conference

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