The Upside of Power

My January birthdays have never been a big celebration.  My choice, a quiet meal with my wife and family, is perfect.  However, I reflect more deeply on my life every August and ponder what might not have been.

In August, 1945, the war in Europe had been over for three months. American casualties included more than 400,000 killed in action in both Europe and the Pacific theaters.  In the United States, population 134 million, virtually no family had been spared the war’s impact. Most everyone knew, or was related to, a soldier, Marine, sailor, or airman, who had been wounded or killed in combat. After years of rationing of meat, sugar, gasoline, tires, and other staples, coupled with their losses, the American people were war weary. 

The Japanese had been driven back in the Pacific with a final, bloody campaign on Okinawa. All that remained was the ground invasion of the Japanese homeland. This was to occur in two stages: the first step was to take Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s islands, in November, 1945. The second stage was the invasion of Honshu at a point south of Tokyo, in March, 1946.

By all counts, casualties would be horrific for both sides. An estimated one million more American combat troops would die.  Americans at home would be asked to bear a tripling of those already lost and another year of war. Some estimates of Japanese deaths were as high as ten to twenty million. Japanese civilians were likely to be among the defenders. One junior high girl was issued an awl, and told she must kill at least one American. She was instructed to aim for the abdomen.

Back at home, my parents lived in San Francisco. My dad, a Chief Signalman, was based at Treasure Island. When he joined the Navy, he had both bachelors and master’s degrees from Sam Houston State. Men with college degrees were usually directly commissioned as officers. He was not because he was color blind. So the Navy sent him to signal school – where he would be required to read colored flags. This was a source of great amusement to him, lifelong.

Beginning his service in 1942, he had been around the world twice on his combat supply ships, and at sea until early 1945. Like so many Americans, when he enlisted after Pearl Harbor, the length of his commitment was the duration. Married in April, 1945, he and my mother had just learned that their first child, my older brother, would be born the following March. They hoped that my dad would not be reassigned to the fleet. However, they knew that should the Japanese invasion occur, he would be part of that armada.

As a signalman, his battle station was the ship’s bridge with the captain. His signal light was steps away on the flying bridge. In his later years, he told me of his greatest fear during the war. He had learned that plans for the Japanese invasion included beaching supply ships and sacrificing the vessel to hasten resupply. That had been done successfully, he said, in other battles. The problem for him was that on those beached ships, none of those on the bridge had survived. He believed that, if the invasion took place, he would be one of the one million.

In preparation for the Japanese invasion, the United States ordered 500,000 Purple Heart medals. We know what followed. 

Little Boy, the untested uranium gun-model bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  On August 9, Fat Man, the plutonium companion of the weapon, proven the month before in New Mexico, was designated for Kokura, but bad weather dictated a diversion to Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered in a matter of days.

In a random act of semi-efficiency, the United States used those 500,000 Purple Heart medals in all its subsequent wars. For wars in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, and all others, the wounded and those killed were awarded Purple Heart medals cast in 1945. As of the start of Gulf War II, in 2003, over 100,000 of those medals remained.

I wish the government had never decided to issue those particular Purple Heart medals over subsequent decades. I wish there was a dedicated room in the Smithsonian complex in Washington, D.C. where all 500,000 Purple Hearts were displayed as a tribute to my father and all the others who had not died.  I wish I could take my wife, children, and grandchildren, to Washington and see those medals in that room.

Despite controversy about the use of nuclear weapons, my view is rather simple: I’m grateful and humbled to have my life. For having been a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a physician, my cup runneth over. Men like Truman, Oppenheimer, Tibbets, Sweeney, and thousands of men and women I can never know, are all heroes to me. With gratitude, we reflect on their lives each August. 

German industrialist --and Nazi -- Oskar Schindler saved 1100 Jews, and they and their descendants, now numbering in the thousands, are called Schindler’s Jews. In that same light, America has its Purple Heart Babies. Those of us born after the war to those who were spared have had our children, and now grandchildren, and we collectively number in the millions. We were born to those warriors who did not perish in 1945, because American’s leaders were unwilling to spend one more year, or lose one more million. 

Those warriors who lived, and we millions of their descendants, are the upside of power.