Friday, March 16, 2012

War in the Pacific in August 1945: Letters across the Pacific

Map of Okinawa showing the lines of advance for the American troops. They moved fairly quickly to control the central and northern part of the island, but it took much longer to secure the south where the Japanese had strong defenses and were determined to fight to the death. Okinawa was the last major battle of WW II.

This short excerpt is taken froma book I am compiling from the letters written between Norma Jensen Kowallis and Reinhart Theodore Kowallis while he was on the island of Okinawa in the Pacific and she was living with her parents in Pleasant View, Utah. It gives a different view of the close of WW II. All of you siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews, let me know if this is worth the effort.

Atomic bomb explosion on August 9, 1945 over Nagasaki, Japan. The picture was taken from one of the B-29 bombers used in the attack. This was the second of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, both of which wreaked horrific destruction killing thousands of civilians and creating long-term health problems for many more.

As August begins, the men in Okinawa and their loved ones at home were all feeling as if the war might soon be won, but they did not know how very soon it would end, nor did they know how those first few days of August in 1945 would change the world forever. Reinhart was thinking that there was a good chance that several more months of fighting would be needed to capture the Japanese islands. The 10th Army is preparing its men for this by giving lectures and training on fighting and survival in the colder weather expected in Japan during the coming winter.
Even though the war in Europe is over, men there are concerned that they will now be shipped over to the Pacific to help fight the war there. Norma’s brother-in-law, Spencer Garner, has been in France but is being moved and cannot tell those at home where. They speculate that he is being sent to the Philippines or somewhere else in the Pacific. However, it turns out he was only being moved to Belgium.

On the night of the 4th of August, a few planes fly over Okinawa and drop bombs. It is the last air raid reported in Reinhart’s letters. Then on the 6th and 9th of August with the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man everything changed and by the 14th, the war is over. Interestingly, on August 11th in his letter home, Reinhart reports on what he knows about the destruction caused by the bombs:

“I have seen the pictures of the areas that were hit by it. There is nothing left of them but a couple of cement buildings. There is no crater to be found because the bomb goes off before it hits the ground. The great pressure & heat exerted by it simply smashes everything to the ground where it burns like chaff. The heat that is produced must be tremendous. If such an instrument of war ever fell into the hands of our enemies it would just be too bad. There is no doubt but what a nation could be wiped out with one good air raid.”

On the evening of the 10th of August, while the men are at the show, a rumor was somehow started that the war was over. Reinhart, who was at the show, reported this in his letter home.

“Last night we were all sitting at the show when a red flare went off up on the hill, then some one started shooting tracer bullets into the sky. Pretty soon, from another direction, more tracers went up, and then several other areas started it. In about three minutes some one came yelling that Japan had surrendered. Well that is all it took. Every one jumped up with a yell, and about the same time the island seemed to explode with tracer bullets & A.A. fire. It went on for about half an hour before a stop was put to it. Of course this morning we learned the truth and from the news tonight it looks like it will be some time yet before things are settled.”

Servicemen on Okinawa watching a movie in the evening. It was an evening like this on 10th of August when the false alarm was sounded that the war was over.

Norma heard about this false alarm the next day on the radio and then the following day in the paper where it was reported that 6 men had been killed in the celebration and several others wounded. But the war was indeed almost over, and at 5 p.m. on August 14th, Norma and her family huddled around the radio to listen to President Truman. Here is her account:

“This morning we picked five gunny sacks full of corn & I spent the morning husking it & cutting it off the cob. We were all feeling rather low & uncertain of everything because The Code, which we had thought was the note of surrender turned out to be something else. I went to Relief Soc. & after meeting I went down to Barker’s store. Donna told me that the Jap note of surrender had now been received & in about two hours the Pres. would make a statement about it. I dashed home. Phyllis, Jay, David & Lynette were there & she too was getting corn. I went to work cutting corn & just at 5 P. M. the Pres. went into a news conference & about 5 min later we heard the news ‘The Japs have accepted the terms & have surrendered – This is official.’ A few minutes later they played the Star Spangle Banner. Glena & I both stood up with our pans of corn. You just couldn’t help it. It seemed so wonderful.”

Glena Jensen, Ruth Jensen (in costume as a soldier), Lester Brown, and LaMar Jensen probably about 1943. Lester is mentioned several places in Norma’s letters. Lester was apparently sweet on Glena, but she wasn't too interested in him. LaMar had enlisted in the Navy by August 1945 and was no longer at home.

Detailed map of the central part of Pleasant View, Utah showing families that are mentioned in Norma’s letters. As a member of the Relief Society Presidency, she frequently spent time visiting the homes of ladies in the ward. And because the Jensens did not get a telephone until after August of 1945, she would go to neighbors who had phones to make calls and arrange visits.

Finally, the war was over in both Europe and the Pacific. Like everyone else, Norma and her family want to celebrate and rush into downtown Ogden to be part of the big party. The party, however, turns out to be more raucous than the family expected. Norma reported that:

“We were all anxious to get into town & see the celebrating so we worked extra hard to get the corn done. Dad & Glena went down to milk the cows. Cheryl slept through it – Bless her little heart. When Dad got back we got into Audrey’s car & went into Ogden. Mom stayed home to finish the corn & take care of the kids. I’m telling you Ogden was just a bedlam. Dad, Audrey, Glena, Ruth & I were jumping, dodging & hiding behind display windows in order not to be blown up by firecrackers! I have never seen so many in all my life. We were really scared. One went off under Glena’s arm & burned her a little. One went off on a woman’s back. So many were drunk. There was confetti & paper all over. Cars had toilet paper streaming from them – tubs, tin cans & other junk rattling behind. Others had dummies of Tojo & Hirohito hangin from a pole. One drunk held out his arms for me to come along. We didn’t stay long because we were scared. It was really risking you life to stay. Dad said if he ever went down to such a celebration again, he would go alone. He had a time keeping up with us. Oh yes, there were snake dances too. The honking, rattling, banging was really something.”

It might seem surprising to find that “so many were drunk” in a Utah city where the predomintant L.D.S. Church preached abstinence from alcoholic beverages. However, Ogden, unlike most other Utah towns at the time, had a large population of non-Mormons due to its history as a center for the railroad. It is likely that not all of the drunkenness can be blamed on non-Mormons. This was an unusual time, a time when a great war had finally come to an end, and many must have felt the urge to celebrate in ways that they probably would not otherwise have done.

Ray A. Hales of Spanish Fork, Utah (left) and Enos J. Carlson of Logan, Utah (right) were fellow LDS Church members in Okinawa who spent time with Reinhart Kowallis. They likely had all been friends at Utah State Agricultural College. Ray and Enos had majored in engineering, while Reinhart had majored in forestry. Ray and Enos were also both in the ROTC at Utah State. The pictures shown here are from The Buzzer (1938), the annual yearbook published by the student association at Utah State.

Reinhart also has time in Okinawa to get together with two of his old college buddies from Utah State, Ray A. Hales from Spanish Fork and Enos J. Carlson from Logan. They reminisced on an old practical joke pulled by the forestry students on the Dean of Engineering, George Dewey Clyde (later the Governor of Utah). From his letters we read:

"Maj. Carlson came up tonight so he & I & Ray sat around and chewed the fat for a couple of hours. Both of them being engineers they did most of the chewing. But I did manage to remind them of the year 1939 when the foresters tied the cow to Dean Clyde’s door over in the engineer building. I recall very clearly that the cow was not too particular where she made her toilet, and the next morning several engineers were walking around with mops & pails."

George Dewey Clyde in 1938 as Dean of the College of Engineering at Utah State Agricultural College. Dean Clyde later became Governor of the State of Utah and served two terms (1957-1965). Dean Clyde’s brother, Harry S. Clyde, was married to Reinhart Kowallis’ oldest sister, Elizabeth. It is unclear if Reinhart participated in the prank pulled by the forestry students on Dean Clyde, but it would not be surprising if he was. The photo is from The Buzzer (1938).

Norma and her daughter Cheryl in the Jensen yard in summer of 1945.

Amidst it all, family and church and longing for home continue to be major themes in Reinhart and Norma’s letters. Norma reports on every little thing that Cheryl does, and every thing that Karla does to upset Cheryl. She continues to help her father with the fruit harvest, mostly apricots during August and to help her mother preserve beans and corn and other crops for the winter. From one of Norma's letters we read about a typical August day:

"We picked about 90 lugs of apricots today. Little Kenny Tams brought us our water as usual. He is the cutest kid. He brings us each a glass & then something to set them on. Then he brings us little presents all wrapped & sealed. Saturday it was carmels & today it was sweet pea seeds & a spool with two pins. He is just 7 yrs old but in just a short time he picked three lugs. He talks like a steam engine & keeps us entertained.
"Yesterday I took Cheryl to church. She is beginning to be quite a handful. She wants to get down & walk. Then she gets something to play with & some little kid comes over to look at it & she just bristles up like a banty rooster. She thinks all kids are like Karla & want to take everything from her & so she gets ready to fight for her rights. I hate to see her act like that. She is just starting & I try to tell her how nice they are but I don’t know that I can make her think Karla is nice when she is biting her or knocking her down every few minutes. Karla is getting such a pretty girl but she is really two handfuls."

Karla Garner in the Jensen flower garden in 1945.

Reinhart, on the other hand continues to take photos (war photos, people photos, scenery photos) and collect sea shells (mostly cowries) and send both the shells and the photos home. Towards the end of the month, he makes the offhand comment to Norma that she will need to start paying an additional $5.60 a month in tithing. She puzzles over this until she turns the letter’s envelope over and sees that the return address is to Capt. Kowallis, not Lt. Kowallis. He has been promoted, but doesn’t make a mention of it in his letters.

In August of 1945, Reinhart was promoted to Captain. The two silver bars of his hat and collar are indicative of the new rank.

Cowrie shells of various sizes and colors (photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Different_cowries.jpg). Cowries are gastropod molluscs, a type of sea snails common in many parts of the worlds oceans. They were used as currency among people in some parts of the world and have been also used in jewelry.

Native Okinawan women photographed by Reinhart Kowallis. He loved to take pictures of interesting faces and he found many of them on Okinawa.

2 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh, I love this, Uncle Bart. I want to get a finished copy. I wouldn't even mind paying for a printed copy. Great work, and thanks for putting this all together!

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  2. Thanks, Jernae. I appreciate the feedback. How's your book coming?

    ReplyDelete