Why do people like me go on writing books about the Second World War ? 62 years after it ended, what new can there possibly be to be said, about the most exhaustively chronicled event in human history ? On the odd occasions when a new book is published which claims to have uncovered revelations- that Winston Churchill secretly plotted De Gaulle’s assassination or that allied troops murdered thousands of German prisoners in Europe in 1945, they always turn out to be nonsense.
Yet I never stop being amazed about the things that one learns, talking to people who lived through that period more than half a century ago. Toshio Hijikata story (played bridge). That is a tiny detail, but let me try something bigger. We know that around 300,000 Americans died in the war and about 350,000 British combatants and civilians. Yet how many people have any clue that at least 15 million Chinese perished during the Japanese campaigns in their country, in which a million Japanese soldiers fought- far more than faced either Slim’s army in Burma or the Americans in the Pacific ? Likewise, we know how terrible were the sufferings of British and American prisoners in Japanese hands, but we have heard much less about the five million people of Indochina, Indonesia and the rest of south-east Asia who died under Japanese occupation. Who in Britain is aware of the last great battles of the war, when 1 ½ million Soviet troops swept into Manchuria, and fought a campaign against the Japanese which continued for weeks after the official Japanese surrender ? If asked to name the greatest sea battle in history, relatively few British people would come up with Leyte Gulf, the extraordinary three-day saga in October 1944, in which the Japanese navy lost four aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 10 cruisers, 9 destroyers, and the lives of more than 10,000 sailors.
A year or two ago, when I was researching Nemesis, I found myself crawling through the sweaty concrete tunnels of the huge old Japanese fortress at Hutou, on China’s north-east frontier with Russia, where in August 1945 the garrison fought to the death against the Soviets. When, a few days after the Emperor Hirohito surrendered, the Soviets sent a cluster of local Chinese to the fortress to tell the Japanese commander that the war was over, that the hundreds of his men and their families still holding on could come out with honour and survive, the Japanese drew his sword and struck off the head of an elderly Chinese. ‘The Japanese army’, he said proudly, ‘has nothing to say to the Red Army’. He then retired into his bunker and kept fighting with his men until the last of them perished a week later.
Now, none of these things are state secrets. They are all stories known to specialist historians, and in some degree in the countries in which they took place. But I believe it is tremendously valuable, instead of writing just about what the British did in Burma or the Americans did in the Pacific- though I have done that, too- to try to bring together all these vastly diverse aspects of the Asian struggle, to set in context events which shaped the eastern world as it is today.
A few decades ago, not only was Slim’s army in Burma always known as the ‘Forgotten Fourteenth’, but British people were far less interested in reading about the eastern war afterwards, than about the struggle against Hitler. Today, by contrast, we can all see that China and Japan play huge and critical parts in the global society which influences us in so many ways. It is impossible to understand their continent as it is now, without knowing something about its experience in the last century. China’s relations with Japan are still poisoned not only by the unspeakable things which the Japanese army did in the mid-20th century, but also by modern Japan’s refusal to this day to acknowledge their crimes. The Germans, to their credit, have readily admitted ever since 1945 that Hitler was- how shall we say ?- not altogether a good idea.
The Japanese, however, in the most extraordinary fashion refuse to acknowledge their history. For instance, I’ve cited in my book the experiences of four Chinese ‘comfort women’, seized by the Japanese Army to serve in their brothels as were tens of thousands of others. One of the women, Tam Yadong who was 19 in 1943, saw her closest friend killed because she had become pregnant, which rendered her no longer useful to her employers. She said: ‘They didn’t want this baby to be born so they hung this poor girl from a tree. They killed her by cutting her open with a bayonet in front of all the people of our village. I was quite close, only six or seven metres away. I could see the baby moving’. Tam Yadong served several spells of solitary confinement because the Japanese accused her of failing to be what they called ‘an obedient person’. Yet earlier this year, 2007, Japan’s prime minister declared publicly that most of his country’s so-called comfort women were in fact volunteers. When former Chinese slave-labourers sued Mitsubishi in a Tokyo court just a few months ago, counsel for the company argued first, that Japan never invaded China, and second that it never employed slave labour.
In most respects, of course, Japan is today a glittering example of economic success and democracy. Yet it is hard to regard this extraordinary society as entirely part of our modern world, when it persists in absolute denial of its recent past.
A generation ago, people who wrote military history were in the business of describing how this division went this way, that one that way- describing the minutiae of campaigns. Today, by contrast, people like me and Antony Beevor and Stephen Ambrose are overwhelmingly in the business of seeking to describe human experience, which seems to us overwhelmingly the most important contribution we have to make, at this distance from events. That does not exclude the doings of statesmen and commanders: the Asian war brought together a gallery of giants: Churchill and Roosevelt, Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek, Nimitz, MacArthur, Slim, Mountbatten- and- of course- the men who built the atomic bomb. But much of my book is about trying to understand what the war was like for an Essex tommy or a Ohio Marine or a Chinese guerrilla, a Russian tank officer or a Japanese would-be suicide pilot.
I often feel a sense of privilege, spending hours on end in remote corners of the earth, listening to the quite extraordinary things which happened to ordinary people a lifetime ago. Haruki Iki, for instance, is an old man who today lives in a tiny dolls house on the outskirts of Tokyo. In his living room is a child’s plastic model of a torpedo bomber, and the garish painting on its box of a British battlecruiser sinking. It was Iki, in December 1941, who sank HMS Repulse, one of the greatest disasters of the Royal Navy’s war. To meet him is to meet a legend.
An American journalist wrote a book about the wartime era a few years ago entitled The Greatest Generation, which became a huge best-seller in the US. Yet I think his title, and his theme, were misconceived. The people of those days may have worn different clothes and danced to different tunes, but they were still remarkably like us in their hopes and fears. They were, in truth, the generation to which the greatest things happened- and how lucky all of us are, that such things have not happened to us. Sitting in an old peasant’s hut in northern China two years ago, I found myself thinking that there is no other calling which could have enabled me to meet such a man as Jiang Fashun, and to share his experiences of life and death in Manchuria in 1945. At one point, I asked him whether there had been any happy moments in his childhood. He burst out angrily: ‘How could you ask such a question ? Our lives were unspeakable. There was only work, work, work and the knowledge that if we displeased the Japanese we would end up like so many others, thrown into the river with a rock tied to our feet’.
The cast of characters vying for power in China in those days was extraordinary, not least among them the beautiful Meiling, wife of the dictator Chiang Kai Shek, focus of all America’s hopes to make the country a pro-Western democracy. Christopher Isherwood, a visitor in those days, wrote admiringly of Meiling: ‘She can become at will the cultivated, Westernised women with a knowledge of literature and art, the technical expert, discussing aeroplane engines and machine guns; the inspector oh hospitals; the president of a mother union; or the simple Chinese wife. She could be terrible, she could be gracious, she could be businesslike, she could be ruthless; it is said that sometimes signs death warrants with her own hand. A very clever American diplomat in Chungking, named John Paton Davies, wrote of China in those days as ‘a huge and seductive practical joke, which defeated the Westerners who tried to modernise it, the Japanese who tried to conquer it, the Americans who tried to democratise and unify it- and Chiang and Mao’. I have written a lot in this book about the experience of women, especially Chinese and Japanese women, because too much history in the past has focused upon men. There is another side of the story, at least as fascinating as that of men in the front line.
I have also, of course, tried to describe what the Pacific experience was like for both Americans and Japanese. Maybe you, like me, had your first glimpse of that conflict as a child from the movie South Pacific. Now, we know it’s Hollywood schmaltz. Yet that film does capture a few significant truths about the people and the place: a host of young American men and a few women were shipped to exotic islands on the far side of the world, where they found that coral sands and palm trees offered pathetically inadequate consolation for the horrors and discomforts to which they were exposed. A vast number were spared the white heat of combat, but had to endure the stultifying boredom and loneliness of manning a supply or repair base 10,000 miles from home for years on end. One US soldier named Corporal Haskel Ray wrote to a Hollywood starlet whose picture he had glimpsed in Life magazine, in terms which Rodgers and Hammerstein might have cribbed from- this was a letter I found in the US Army censors’ files of the National Archive in Washington: ‘My dear Myrtle, guess you are wondering who this strange person could be writing too you. We are here in the Pacific and got kind of lonesome and so thought we would drop you a few lines…There isn’t any girls here at at all but a few natives and a few nurses and we cant get within te miles of them. Sincerely your RAY. PS I am an Indian, full-blooded and very handsome’.
The battles fought on the Pacific islands by the US army and Marine Corps in the last months were among the most bitter of WWII. The Japanese resisted with the ferocity of despair. All America’s vast wealth and firepower became almost irrelevant, in the struggle to win a way yard by yard across territory honeycombed with deep bunkers, impervious to anything save close-quarter attack by infantrymen, who suffered terribly on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. They knew the war was almost over, that their side was sure to win, yet they had to see their own units take terrible casualties, their comrades blown to bloody fragments, day after day and week after week. On Iwo Jima, for instance, over 7,000 Americans were killed, over 17,000 wounded. More than one in three Marines committed became casualties, including 19 out of 24 battalion commanders. The 5th Division required 22 transport ships to take it to the island, just eight to take its survivors away. All but a few hundred of the 21,000 Japanese defenders perished.
In such circumstances comradeship, love between men, is the only force which makes daily duty endurable. Marine lieutenant Richard Kennard wrote to his parents from Okinawa on 13 May: ‘I have grown to be very fond of my enlisted friend Jack Adamson, raised on a farm in north Wisconsin. He is a perfect Christian and in my eyes the most ideal American boy I have ever known. I have lived very close to him so know just what I am saying. Jack is the cleanest, most meticulous lad I have ever seen. He is completely unselfish, and always think about his buddies first. He has worked ever since he could walk, doesn’t drink, smoke or swear’. Kennard had a girlfriend back at home named Marilyn, a successful model. If he himself was killed, however, Kennard asked his parents to see that Jack Adamson got whatever cash he had. He wrote: ‘Marilyn won’t need it’. The claims of friendship with a man beside whom he shared the intimacy of mortal peril seemed much more pressing than those of a girl half a world away.
One aspect of the Asian war very little understood in Britain, which I have explored here, concerns Australia’s part. Everybody know that in 1941-42, Australian troops covered themselves with glory in North Africa and later New Guinea. What is less familiar is the manner in which afterwards, the Australian army almost dropped out of the struggle. The country was racked by industrial conflict, fomented by communist trades unions. Millions of days’ production were lost to strikes in the mines and docks. In October 1944, the Sydney Daily Telegraph suggested that industrial strife in the country had reached- and I quote- ‘civil war or very near it’. MacArthur and the US Army almost despaired of the difficulties in getting supplies loaded or unloaded. By November 1943, no Japanese submarine had attacked a ship in Australian waters for months, yet Australian merchant ships’ crews refused to put to sea without naval escort. An Australian docker handled just a quarter of the average cargo moved by an American soldier. Above all, the Australian government was too weak politically to enforce compulsory overseas service for the army. As a result, many thousands of men- the militia, the ‘chocos’, sat in camps in Australia for most of the war. The bitterness between the volunteers so fought so gallantly, and those who chose to stay at home, ran very high. The Australian government refused to send troops to aid Britain’s campaign in Burma, but MacArthur did not want them for his advance on Japan. As a result, Australian troops in the last year of the war were committed to ‘mopping up’ the islands captured by the Americans, a thankless task which they hated, and which cost useless lives. It was a sorry end to the great saga which began with the Australian army’s epic doings in the Mediterranean earlier in the war.
As for the Japanese, above I have said some disobliging things about their society. But individually, I was much moved by the experience of meeting both the victims of American bombing and the veterans of those terrible campaigns, many of whom I found very sympathetic company- as I might not have done, if I’d met them on a shell-torn atoll 60-something years ago. They told me extraordinary stories of their battles. Many still feel obliged to apologise because they are alive today. They were destined to become kamikazes if Japan had been invaded, and claim to feel that regret that they could not fulfil the role. In truth, I’m bound to say, I think most were very relieved young men that they survived, were able to marry, have children and prosper in peace. But convention obliges them to pretend that they yearned to be samurai.
The story of Bill Slim’s army in Burma in 1944-45 makes deeply moving telling, because they did so wonderfully well, in a cause most of them knew was doomed. That is to say Slim, like Churchill, knew that beating the Japanese in Burma could have no significant influence at all on the Japanese surrender, because the Americans had already fought the decisive battles in the Pacific. Churchill told the chiefs of staff sourly in September 1944 that ‘the minimum of effort should be employed in this disease-ridden country’. Yet fight there he grudgingly agreed that we must, to show the Americans that we were willing to do our share towards fighting the Japanese, and above all so that the soldiers of the King should be seen to hoist the union jack once more over Burma and Malaya. Many younger men already realised that Britain would soon have to quit India, never mind Burma and Malaya. But the prime minister had declared that he had not become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the Empire, and thus the splendid tough, clever, wonderfully unpretentious Slim launched Britain’s last great imperial adventure to recapture our lost colonies. Many men were deeply moved in that last great campaign, to see British soldiers going down to the charge for the last time alongside the great regiments of the Indian Army- Rajputs and Sikhs, Gurkhas and Dogras, supported by two divisions from Britain’s African colonies. A young British officer who joined the Baluchi regiment at that time was told by his colonel that he must remember two essential points to maintain the respect of his Indian soldiers: a British officer must never allow himself to be seen naked. And he must defacate in private, even on the battlefield. The colonel was not joking.
It was a strange world, that of 14th Army, divorced from anything its soldiers had known in past life. ‘We had entered an enchanted zone- a place of evil enchantment, if you like’, wrote Brian Aldiss, who later became famous as a writer. ‘You could not buy a ticket to get where we were. No women were allowed, or hairdressers, or any kind of extraneous occupation. Lawyers, entertainers, politicians- all were forbidden. To attend this show, you had to be young and part of the British Empire’.
Sgt Harry Hunt wrote: Here it is a Burma moon with not a girl in sight and a few dead Japs trying to stink you out. It must be lovely to soldier back home, just to get away from this heat and sweat, from these natives, to get together with white men. Then it comes, the rain again, rain rain that’s all we get, then the damp, it slowly eats into your bones, you wake up like nothong in earth, you always feel sleepy. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going, better go now before I use bad words, remember me to dad, mum and all’.
One finds, in the archives of this period, fascinating insights into the fashion in which our attitude to war, and the strains which it imposes on human beings, has changed over 60 years. One night in May 1945, a British destroyer flotilla fought the last surface action of the conflict between big ships, attacking with torpedoes the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro off the coast of Malaya. As the flotilla leader Saumurez closed in to fire, shells from Haguro hit her twice, once in the boiler room, killing several men in the most horrible fashion by scalding steam. A terrified young lookout abandoned his post on the bridge and fled below. A few minutes later, Haguro sank, and Saumurez’s captain received a well-deserved DSO for the action. Back at base, however, that young lookout was court-martialled, dismissed and service and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The view taken by the Royal Navy, like all the 1939-45 fighting services, was that if behaviour of this kind was seen to be acceptable, everybody would be doing it. Nowadays, of course, that boy would simply be offered counselling. The ethic has changed dramatically, as we saw earlier this year in the Iranian Gulf.
Much has been said about the Japanese treatment of their prisoners. All of it was true. They practised refinements of sadism unknown even in German concentration camps. For instance, prisoners were occasionally allowed to send cards to relatives at home, couched in terms which mocked their real circumstances, and usually dictated by their jailers. Fred Thompson wrote from Java to his family in Essex: ‘I am very well and hope you are too. The Japanese treat us well, so don’t worry about me. My daily work is easy and we are paid. We have plenty of food and much recreation’. In Thompson’s private diary, however, he was writing: ‘Somehow we keep going. We are all skeletons, just living from day to day. This life just teaches one not to hope or expect anything. I cannot explain my emotions, they are just non-existent’.
At the end of the war, British private soldier Don Lewis of 1/5th Sherwood Foresters recorded the fate of his battalion, almost a thousand strong when it went into action in Malaya at the end of 1941. 35 men were killed in battle, and a further 11 died of wounds. in captivity, one died of diphtheria, nine of beri beri, 17 of malaria, 21 of malnutrition, 31 of dysentery; 11 of cardiac illnesses, 55 of ‘complaints unknown’; one was killed by a falling tree and one by an allied bomb; 45 were lost on Japanese convoys; 24 were recorded merely as ‘missing’. Lewis was among just 287 of his comrades who returned to Britain in 1945.
Civilian internees suffered almost as grievously as servicemen, in Japanese hands. In Majorie Lyon’s group in the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia, 19 out of 114 died. One British woman who perished in a camp on a derelict rubber estate was an elderly fugitive from Singapore named Margaret Dryburgh. A devout Christian, she cherished the captives’ hymn:
Give us patience to endure
Keep our hearts serene and pure
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own thy will,
Be we free or captive still.
On 21 April 1945, less than four months before the war ended, Margaret Dryburgh lay on a sickbed trying to say her favourite 23rd psalm. A friend, understanding what she wanted, stumbled through the words on her behalf. When she had finished and a silence fell, the old woman murmured: ‘that’s what I wanted’ and died.
A captured Japanese battalion order in Manila in October 1944 decreed: ‘When Filipinos are to be killed’- and many thousands of them were systematically slaughtered in the Philippines capital in those days, amid Japanese rage at their defeat- ‘they must be gathered together in one place and disposed of in a manner that does not demand excessive use of ammunition or manpower. Given the difficulties of disposing of bodies, they should be collected in houses scheduled for burning, demolished, or thrown into the river’.
The conduct of the Japanese, which matched or even transcended that of the Nazis, remains one of the great cultural enigmas of modern history. Much of what they did had nothing to do with military necessity or national interest. It reflected a perversion of nationalism, of the supposed demands of military masculinity, which continues to baffle posterity. I started my book determined to set aside all the old cultural prejudices about Japanese behaviour. I ended it, believing that the Japanese had conducted themselves far more hideously than the world knows, even today.
The two events connected with the war in Asia which the world remains most conscious of today are, of course, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is remarkable that at the time, it took a lot of people in the West a good time to understand the vast, history-changing significance of the bomb. At first, there was some amazing flippancy. The Washington Press Club produced a sixty-cent atomic cocktail. A newspaper cartoonist depicted President Truman presiding over an engelic gathering of his advisers, each sprouting wing as they contemplated a bowl of split atoms on the table. At the Los Alamos test centre, scientist Otto Frisch recoiled in disgust from the exuberance of some of his colleagues, who on news of Hiroshima phoned to book a table at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, to book tables for a celebration.
Yet I am an unashamed revisionist about the dropping of the bombs. I believe that, as the world stood in August 1945, the US government was absolutely justified in its decision. A good many people, and a few historians, have argued over the past 62 years that Japan was anyway ready to quit. That is simply not true. Japan was certainly ready to negotiate. But opposition in the Tokyo Cabinet, and above all in the army, to unconditional surrender remained resolute. They wanted terms- above all for the maintenance of their empire; to be spared allied occupation; to be allowed to conduct their own war crimes trials, if any. Some people have suggested that Japan represented a lesser evil than Hitler’s Germany, and thus deserved more sympathetic terms. The peoples of Asia, who had lost at least 20 million lives under Japanese occupation, would not have agreed. There seems no reason at all why the US, already on the brink of absolute victory, should have made concessions to the pride and self-esteem of the Japanese, who had brought untold misery upon the continent.
A common mistake in judging these events, it seems to me, is to regard the dropping of the bombs as representing the worst possible outcome of the war. Yet American scholars have convincingly shown that if the war had continued for even a few more weeks, far more people would have perished- both in Japan and under Japanese tyranny- than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one sane could suggest that dropping atomic bombs is ‘a good thing’. But I am also one of those who believes that if the world had not had that unspeakably vivid demonstration of the power of this new weapon in 1945, in the half century which followed somebody, on one side of the Iron Curtain or the other, would have deluded himself that atomic weapons could not be as terribly as scientists said, and used them. I believe that all of us have been spared from a nuclear holocaust since 1945, partly because the world was then shown in incontrovertible terms what nuclear weapons meant.
It was three weeks after VJ day before British and American prisoners at Aomi barracks in Japan saw allied planes overhead, which dipped low enough for the pilots to wave. These were the first friendly faced seen by Stephen Abbott, a young officer captured at Singapore, for 1,302 days. He ran inside and wept. Before the prisoners left, Abbott was asked to call upon the president of the Denki Kagaku Kogyo company, in whose quarry they had laboured and more than a few had died. In the boardroom, the Japanese said to Abbott: ‘Our country is in ruins, but you understand Japanese people. We will never lose our pride. Return here in 5 years and we will be tidy; allow us ten and you will find a prospering nation. Soon afterwards, the prisoners quit what Abbott called ‘those few square yards of Japanese soil we loathed with all our hearts- but on which a volume of human tragedy and learning had been recorded’.
I found it a revelation to write Nemesis, because I learnt so much from the experience of researching it about events and cultures of which I had known nothing. I emerged from it with the same profound sense of gratitude I gained from describing Armageddon, the matching volume about the last year of the war in Europe, that our generation has never been called upon to endure any such stupendous human ordeal for ourselves.
The longer I write books about WWII, the more conscious I become that humility is in order, when passing judgements on those who fought it. Harold Macmillan, who served as minister in the Mediterranean alongside general Sir Harold Alexander, once told me a story of his last encounter with Alex. ‘We were going into the theatre together, and I turned to him and said one of those old mens’ things: ‘Alex, wouldn’t it be lovely to have it all to do over again’. Alexander shook his head decisively. ‘Oh no,’, he said, ‘we might not do nearly so well’. Those of us who have never been obliged to participate in a great war seem wise to count our blessings and incline a bow to all those, mighty and humble, who did so.