Joel Freedman

Joel Freedman

For the six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan took the Malay Peninsula, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, most of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. As the war progressed, American servicemen moved toward Japan by attacking strategic Solomon, Gilbert, and Marshall islands. During the spring of 1945, the Japanese were defeated on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, from where American planes launched numerous bombing raids on Japanese cities. Japan finally surrendered after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

America’s Marine and Army heroes who, with the assistance of the Navy, captured each island, experienced a ferocious Japanese enemy willing to fight to the death rather than surrender. It took the U.S. six months to vanquish the Japanese just on Guadalcanal. Japanese guns were calibrated to train their maximum firepower on the Americans during amphibious landings, after which there was brutal hand-to-hand combat at close quarters.

After the coral atoll of Tarawa was captured, Gen. Julian Smith said, “There was one thing that won this battle, and that was the supreme courage of the Marines. They (the few captured Japanese soldiers) tell us that what broke their morale was not the bombing, not the naval gunfire, but the sight of Marines who kept coming ashore.”

In “Unknown Valor: A Story of Family, Courage and Sacrifice from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima,” Martha MacCallum takes readers back to World War II’s Pacific Theater, in which ordinary young Americans did extraordinary and heroic things under the worst combat situations, including Harry Gray, a member of MacCallum’s family. MacCallum also takes us back to our country’s homefront, where Americans began to learn about what “our boys” faced overseas.

Films such as “With the Marines at Tarawa,” which was filmed during the actual battle, brought home the realities of the “island hopping” campaigns. Movie producer Norman Hatch’s camera had captured the dead “just as they lay. This was the first time this type of death was shown, floating in the water.” Hatch later said he would never forget the stench of thick black smoke and death that he experienced during the filming.

As MacCallum brings readers back to these times, she explains that Americans on the homefront could now “see U.S. Marines, not shiny faced and heading off to war, but lifeless and fallen in the unnatural crumpled posture of death by gunfire and shelling. They see young boys who will never come home floating face down, tossed back and forth at the water’s edge, thrown like shells crushed by waves, scattered on the shore.”

From Iwo Jima, Harry Gray wrote to his mother: “I suppose you are worried to death over me. Well I am in the best of health and feeling fine with the exception of a few scares … The chow is pretty good mom as we eat c-rations which fill me up pretty well. The weather is quite chilly here and haven’t seen an all blue sky all day since I have been here. Mom will you please buy Dot (Gray’s girlfriend) a nice corsage for Easter and have the tag say ‘To my Sweetheart with all my love, Harry.’ I will send five dollars to you. Hope everyone, and everything is fine — Love, your son, Harry.”

The next morning, Gray and his comrades hear the order, “Gubish, Graeter, Gray, Graham! Up to headquarters.” A fellow Marine recalled what happened next: “We are supposed to go to the relieving outfit, to give them a break. And as we’re marching, the mortars are coming from over there to the street. Nobody pays attention. We think they are ours. Then there is one on this side, the same distance, then I know it’s coming from the other side. Its enemy fire, and I holler to Gray and (Herman) Graeter, ‘Hit the deck!’ and I lay alongside of an engine, and that’s when we got it. I see them laying there as sure as Christ, they got us right in the middle. Gray is hit direct. When I see him, he’s bleeding from his head. He and Herman are both dead. It is a shame. We were great buddies. What are you going to do? War is war.”

After Iwo Jima was in American control, a memorial service was held at the 5th Marine Division cemetery. Lt. Roland Gittelsohn, a Jewish chaplain, said: “Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. And any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because the men who lie here beneath us had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men is not easy. Of them too it can be said with utter truth: ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.’”

MacCallum’s Christmas Eve Fox News Channel program “Honoring the Valor of Our World War II Heroes” is another memorable tribute to all Americans who fought the Axis nations in the Pacific, Asian, European and African battlefields.

Most libraries possess many books and films about all aspects of World War II. I recently read another excellent book, “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage” by James Bradley (who also wrote “Flags of Our Fathers”), which tells the harrowing true story of nine American airmen shot down in the Pacific. Only one of these men, future President George H.W. Bush, was rescued before the Japanese could capture him.

May the courage and sacrifices of America’s World War II heroes and the many heroes of our other wars, living and deceased, never be forgotten.

Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, frequently contributes essays and book reviews to the Finger Lakes Times. Now retired, he taught U.S. history at Finger Lakes Community College. He was a social worker at the Canandaigua V.A. Medical Center for 25 years prior to his teaching experiences at FLCC.

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