World War II seems both near and far away. In one sense, it seems like only yesterday that I was 17 years old, in uniform, and in Georgia and California. In another sense, that period is ancient history. We have traversed a century or more in human experience since the early 1940’s.
The conflict was a vast maelstrom that changed the world more than anyone imagined at the time. The war involved colossal sacrifice for those who were thrown into baffle. It shattered peaceful lives. It sent Americans from quiet communities into the most remote regions of the globe. It brought the United States out of the Great Depression and turned sharecroppers into riveters in shipyards. It caused a major migration from the sleepy Southern back country to the industrial heartland of the Midwest, thereby producing severe social upheaval in the decades to follow. It spawned different social and economic realities, a different and higher technological order, different politics, and different sets of notions about how people should behave toward each other. Those of us who were born in the 1920’s found ourselves catapulted into another age.
I saw nothing of the violent side of World War II, actual combat, or the faraway places, though at the time, the military encampments of California seemed very far away indeed. I also recognized nothing of the change that the war was working in American life. I never anticipated the social transformation that would result from the conflict. I didn’t see anything beyond my own small journey in the direction of adult life.
I was 16 years old on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and I heard news of the attack on the radio in our living room at 10 Legare Street in Charleston. In the afternoon I sat in my friend Craig Bennett’s automobile and listened to the follow-up reports on the car radio. The next day we gathered in the assembly hall at the High School of Charleston and listened to President Roosevelt’s broadcast in which he referred to “a day of infamy.” The perfidy of the attack made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. More than 40 years later, I continue to view our Japanese “allies” with deep suspicion, as many Frenchmen in their innermost hearts must view the Germans.
In the months after Pearl Harbor, Charleston organized for attacks that never came. My friend Rufledge Webb and I, accompanied by his father, did spells of duty as air raid watchers on the roof of the Sumter Hotel. We scanned the skies for the Junker bombers that were thousands of miles away. Other Charlestonians were organized on a block-by-block basis, prepared to lead their neighbors to shelter in the event of attack. The harbor mouth was closed by a steel submarine net, as were the creeks, for Lowcountry residents feared invasion by minisubs such as the Japanese had used at Pearl Harbor. People were deadly serious about the peril, and anyone who let a light shine in a blackout received a stern reprimand. Off the Carolina coast, German submarines were active, destroying tankers that carried precious fuel. And one night Charlestonians heard the rumble of naval gunfire at sea. They went to the High Battery to watch for signs of the naval action, but there was nothing to be seen. There also were rumors, as there had been in World War I, that certain Charlestonians with German names were ferrying supplies to U-boats off the coast.
The next fall, while at school in Massachusetts, the war impinged in only the most minor of ways—a dormitory heated by wood instead of coal, sugar rationing, odd types of meat in the dining hall, old men serving as train conductors, servicemen on leave in downtown Boston, and the ubiquitous headlines telling of battles in places with strange-sounding names. The war was a minimal presence, however, and didn’t interfere seriously with my newfound appreciation of Mozart and Faure or my interest in school politics and a beautiful girl with the nickname of IDB (for idle brain). By the end of the year, however, there was much talk among my classmates of future military service. It was simply a matter of when one would go and in which service. To make a bad pun, I jumped the gun and abruptly volunteered for the Marine Corps.
By summer, I was on my way to the V-12 officer training program at Emory University in Atlanta. No sooner had I arrived at Emory, received my uniform, learned the rudiments of marching and military procedure, engaged every day in hateful unit calisthentics, than I realized I was thoroughly unmilitary and, certainly, not suited to be an officer in the Marine Corps. In the first place, the V-12 program required that one complete courses in trigonometry, chemistry, and physics—courses for which I had no preparation or aptitude and which I knew I could not pass. The only thing I remember about the physics course was that the professor told us that an extraordinary secret weapon was under development—a bit of information that showed his lack of discretion in wartime.
As I soon gave up on homework, I had plenty of time to play the piano in the Sunday school building attached to this Methodist University, to browse in the library, and to enjoy my speech course in which we read from radio plays such as Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.” I also had time to write numerous letters to IDB (Adele Rodgers) and mail them at the little post office down the road from my dormitory turned barracks. The noncommissioned officers attached to our V-12 unit included Old China Hands, who wore the distinctive ties and other gear appropriate to the Old Corps and took a surprisingly tolerant view of the V-12 Marines. Many of the members of the unit were former college athletes who were as unprepared as I to pass the science and math courses. In time, we would all be shipped out.
The summer, however, was pleasant. We had liberty on the weekend evenings. With my Marine pay—perhaps $25 a month, which went far in those distant days (it was the first real spending money I ever had)—I took the trolley down Ponce DeLeon Avenue to Five Points, the heart of downtown Atlanta. The trolleys were open-sided cars in the summer months and offered a delightful, leisurely ride. In no way did they seem archaic. It never crossed my mind that trolleys would disappear before many years—along with steam engines.
I prowled the book and music stores in Atlanta and even made a record of several short piano pieces I had composed. There always seemed to be enough money for supper, a movie, and a cherry smash on the way home to Emory, where, late Saturday night, I read the first edition of the Sunday Atlanta Constitution. All this summer, the war seemed far away and unconnected with what I was doing, though I was in uniform, took part in military formations, and attended classes on military duties and discipline. Looking back on it, the program was too leisurely and civilianized for the purposes of the Marine Corps. Basically, of course, it was a Navy program, and the Marines constituted only a small contingent.
Come fall, however, those who couldn’t pass the courses were cut from the program—more than 200 of us, if I recall correctly. We were bused to the railroad station in downtown Atlanta and put on our own private troop train, which took five days to cross the country from Georgia to Southern California. It was a memorable journey in Pullman cars—my first opportunity to view the vast expanses of the United States. We crossed the Mississippi, came into Houston at night, passed the white sand maneuver grounds in New Mexico where tanks were exercising, climbed the mountains, and sped down the California coast to the old Spanish-style railroad station at San Diego.
Our unit was unlike any other unit that had arrived at the San Diego Recruit Depot up to that point. To the frustration of the drill instructors, who customarily terrorized recruits by subjecting them to the special Marine Corps shock treatment, we were already Marines, already had our hair cut short, already were in uniform, and already knew how to march with precision, and, in the main, knew all the military routines normally taught in boot camp. This put the DI’s in a position they had never experienced before. Moreover, many of the men in my unit were college football players to whom an obstacle course was child’s play. The intelligence level in the unit also was well above that of the typical recruit platoon. Fortunately, the DI assigned to my platoon was a savvy, older, and better educated corporal who was able to deal with the markedly different situation without loss of face. Our platoon sailed through boot camp, except for the time in the rifle range outside the city where the noncommissioned range officers were very tough and regularly kicked us or hit us with ammunition boxes if we didn’t hit the target. Also, working in the “butts” behind the targets was unpleasant duty.
After the final boot camp parade, we were mustered onto a field to receive our assignments. That was a turning point in life for us, and, for some, a turning point towards death, for a number of Marines in our training company were assigned to replacement battalions. That is to say, they were shipped overseas to fill holes in battalions that had been shot to pieces in the fierce island campaigns of the summer and fall of 1943.
As it happened, I was assigned to the headquarters Fleet Marine Force at Camp Elliott north of San Diego, a dull, eminently safe assignment in the personnel office which selected the specialists assigned to the 5th Marine Division then in formation at Camp Pendleton. My days there were not so different from my days at Emory University. After duty, I returned to the barracks and read, chiefly about music, which was my principal interest at the time. On weekends, I went on liberty in San Diego, hitching rides into the city and returning late at night on a Marine bus—actually a truck trailer with board seats. In the city, I hung around the military YMCA and played the piano, wrote letters to IDB, and ate the inexpensive meals. Sometimes I splurged and spent a dollar on a steak at a greasy spoon. However, it was necessary to stand in line to get a seat at the counter. Everyone in the city seemed to be a sailor or a Marine, and every girl who walked down the street was followed by a string of servicemen who tried to pick her up.
Memories of my time in the Marine Corps are devoid of the dramatic. While countless Marines truly went to war, engaged in acts of valor, and made sacrifices on which the United States is still living, my “war” consisted of the most mundane little things—field days in the barracks when we scrubbed the floor, listening to a Li’l Abner in our platoon sing “Birmingham Jail” (he was from Honea Path, South Carolina), eating cheese from a food parcel in my bunk after lights out, joshing with my former Emory roommate who ran the military post office at Camp Elliott and otherwise was a real operator who knew how to pull all the strings, pressing pants under the mattress of my bunk, and helping the old sergeant major get to the upper deck of the barracks after he returned from liberty dead drunk, which was his custom every evening. For many servicemen that’s all war amounted to. The burdens and sacrifices in war are very unevenly imposed. Bureaucratic decisions control one’s fate—while I was pulling personnel cards at Camp Elliott, my first cousin Nolan Harrigan was flying fighters in the Pacific.
The work at Camp Elliott was boring paper shuffling, and I applied for a transfer to Marine aviation maintenance, but my request was turned down. Eventually, I was assigned to the Specialist Training Regiment at Camp Pendleton, which turned out to be a training center for field interpreters in Japanese. The little camp, consisting of a small number of Quonset huts, was located in an isolated corner of a vast, unbelievably isolated stretch of California coastline. Much of my time was devoted to working on a pick-up crew assigned to miscellaneous camp repairs and to digging up grease traps. The only Japanese that stays with me is how to count from one to ten.
My months in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton were a very unhappy and traumatic time for me. I was an inadequate Marine. I got off on the wrong foot through the V-12 unit. Undoubtedly, I would have had better service if I had enlisted in the Navy instead of the Marine Corps. Nevertheless, for all my unhappiness, the influence of the Marine Corps has remained with me through the years. It is a remarkable branch of service which provides psychological as well as physical conditioning and which imposes certain patterns on anyone who serves in it. From the Marine Corps I derived an idea of proper bearing that is always in mind. The Corps teaches one how to stand, how to hold one’s hands, much as the Jesuit order teaches its priests a pattern of outward behavior. The unstated objective of the Marine Corps is to create soldiers of the sea who are capable of serving as shock troops. In the process, it creates a personal style and outlook that is stoic. Because of my deficiencies as a Marine in World War II, I relished the opportunity in 1965 to spend a short time with a Marine Corps helicopter unit at Danang in Vietnam, experiencing what the serving Marines were experiencing. In so doing, I felt I had tied up some loose ends that had been left untied at the end of my service in the Corps. In other words, there was a psychological satisfaction in flying the missions along the Laotian border and on skirmishes near the old capital of Hue.
My World War II military experience left me disoriented. In the space of about three years, I had moved through a progressive school in Massachusetts and military service in a region of America remote from my roots. I had encountered ideas and experienced a disciplined existence for which I had not been prepared in my childhood. At the same time, and in the process, I was discovering who I was, groping towards what I would become as an adult. This passage in life always is difficult and is accelerated in wartime when one is taken out of accustomed scenes and routines and plunged into different worlds. Another year of prep school would have helped me move more smoothly towards maturity, as would have the gradual discovery process of college, but the war aborted that slow, effective process. Across the country and across the world, war aborted innumerable processes of development. War is disorienting not only for individuals but for nations and civilizations. The ultimate disruptive experience involves the termination of a national entity, society or civilization, which was the case when the old nations of Christendom in Eastern Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain.
The United States was fortunate not to suffer in World War II as other countries suffered. America was the victim of a surprise attack, and hundreds of thousands of Americans paid with their limbs and lives for the recovery of national territory and maintenance of American freedoms, but the United States was not invaded. Its civilian population remained unscathed. Nevertheless, America was changed by the war to a much greater degree than was realized when the war ended. The America of 1941 was much closer to its roots than the America of the 1980’s. Whether the changes brought about by wartime were primarily liberating or destructive continues to be a subject of debate. The construction of army camps and air bases in rural areas of the United States, especially the South, pushed many backward areas into the 20th century. Many of these communities in the South had a prewar economy in which cash played only a small part. Public education was marginal. Contacts with a larger world did not exist. Then, in a burst of national activity, came the camp construction, the building of new roads and airfields, and the honky-tonks that kept the troops amused. Many meager, half-forgotten communities had a crash exposure to a different world. People moved out of the Plains states to work in the aircraft factories and shipyards on the West Coast.
Indeed the great national migration to California began in earnest during the world war and has continued ever since, with profound effect on the politics of the United States. World War II ushered in a new era of technological change. The sleepy East Tennessee area around the small town of Oak Ridge became the center of atomic energy development. The greatest impact was on the people who were caught up in the war effort. Soldiers stationed in Australia and New Zealand brought war brides home to Vermont and South Dakota. The country was mixed up and blended anew as it had not been since the turn of the century. Perspectives were widened beyond anything that might have been anticipated in the 1930’s. My horizons in 1940 were Charleston’s Broad Street and King Street and the nearby beaches. Three years later I was viewing Hollywood with wonderment—a microcosm of the change that was in progress. Other young Americans were dispatched to distant South Pacific atolls and the jungles of New Guinea. Undoubtedly, we all became less regional in outlook, less provincial, for good or bad. This set the stage of the changes in morality that would surface in the 1960’s. The country gained sophistication and lost much of its simplicity. The old verities suffered as windows were opened that let in, first, a gentle breeze of change, and then, a hurricane that transformed American society.
Even as profound underlying changes were at work during the early 1940’s, Americans went to war or to war work with a resolute and bright spirit. I am reminded of this in reading Don Ball’s account of America published in The Decade of the Trains—the 1940’s. “During the 1940’s,” he says, “America ‘worked.’ It seemed to be an era of good times and almost innocent merriment—even with the dark and terrible war. The forties were, as some say, natural— without pretense or guile. Still, responsibility was a meaningful term in the forties; no one forgot Pearl Harbor and the fact that a job had to be done . . . it was a time to enjoy yet not waste life. America’s pride, friendliness, and grace were never for a moment lost during the war.”
Changes set in motion by World War II took two decades to work their way through society and alter it radically. One can’t help wondering what would have been the course of American society if the war had not taken place. The United States most probably would be a much quieter place with closer links to its roots. Technological change would have been infinitely slower, for war always creates technology. The level of sophistication would be much lower, perhaps much as it is in such an isolated spot as New Zealand. The internal migrations would not have taken place in equal volume. The South might well be poorer, but the old cities of the Northeast and Midwest might also be healthier in every way. The West Coast would not be congested with people to the same degree. Crime most probably would be much less of a problem. The whole tenor of national life undoubtedly would be more restrained, more pedestrian. The dangerous and weird would be less conspicuous in American life. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s would not have occurred. The family would be stronger. This is not to say that American life, without the fact of World War II, would have been entirely placid. The consequences of the Depression would have been felt in the 1940’s and later in profound ways. The Depression—an experience in American history, almost as decisive as the Civil War—exposed fundamental flaws in American life. It made clear that the American mechanism of government was inadequate to deal with the complex economic system that had emerged. The Depression also brought to the surface the radicalism that had come into the country in the late 19th century as a result of unrestricted immigration from countries where hostility towards government was endemic and the product of severe repression. This hostility was automatically manifested towards the new country, despite its freedoms, on the part of a number of newcomers, even as others sought to become completely Americanized and part of the established culture. Hard times caused the hostility to bubble up in the 1930’s, especially as the children of the migration gained a higher education and came to articulate their inherited hostility.
Irving Howe, in his book A Margin of Hope (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich), recounts the rise of a hostile intelligentsia in New York City in the 1930’s and recalls socialism as “an encompassing culture. . . . Almost everyone seemed to be a Socialist of one sort or another. . . . Only radicalism seemed to offer the prospect of coherence, only radicalism could provide a unified view of the world.”
Mr. Howe also notes, in connection with the rise of the New York intellectuals, that “This was probably the first time in American cultural history that a self-confident group of intellectuals did not acknowledge the authority of Christian tradition.” I was hardly out of the service before I made contact with the New York intelligentsia that was so influential and also so isolated from the America in which I had my roots.
During my year at the Cambridge School, I encountered, for the first time, liberal political and social sentiment, but it was very much New England liberalism. New York leftism was unknown to me at the time, and I would only discover it, in a tentative way, when I began to peruse issues of The Nation in the library at Emory University. It didn’t touch me, however, until 1946, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about societal goals during my time in the Marine Corps. I was concentrating strictly on myself and the frustration of my personal interests, such as music, that had begun to take hold during my year in Massachusetts. Indeed I never heard anyone in my time of service ever discuss the goals of the war, apart from smashing the Japs for their sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. The labors, tedium, and petty annoyances of military service wholly occupied everyone’s attention—an unpleasant sergeant who tried to get our squad to wash the captain’s automobile, endless field stripping of our rifles, periodic midnight marches with full packs as punishment for talking after lights-out in the Quonset hut. These were incidents that were at the center of our concern. Those of us who were safe in camps in California hardly thought of combat, except once, when a contingent of Tarawa survivors were assigned to our camp. Their ghastly appearance woke us, temporarily at least, to the grim reality across the Pacific. Given the fact that Americans fought from Normandy to Okinawa, it is amazing that I am acquainted with hardly a soul my exact age who ever heard a shot fired in anger. One friend was a tailgunner in a bomber and was shot down over Italy and placed in a German prison camp. Another acquaintance in Charleston was wounded in France. Other friends who served in the war and were sent overseas were attached to aircraft maintenance crews in India or Saipan, piloted small boats shuttling around an island anchorage, or were in units that went overseas after the fighting was over. With a few exceptions, my crowd—those who were 17 in 1943—were a bit too young, a little too late, for the epochal side of World War II.
Looking back on the war years, I have often wished I could relive them, demonstrating better qualities and experiencing more of the realities of war. Participation in a real war would have—I believe—better prepared me for a more complete and constructive life. Of course, it’s hard to be sure, and it may be an absurd wish. We can’t do life all over again. An imperfect vessel can’t be reworked. It is impossible to implant into the personal past the daring, the stamina, or what Tom Wolfe has called “the right stuff,” if these qualities weren’t there. Other people came to the war with a better preparation for it, and, I suppose, many came with a poorer preparation than I had. One simply has the early experiences one has. We are—handed certain cards in life and have to play with these cards and no others. Nevertheless, I think of myself during that time of national testing and view myself as inadequate, unprepared, foolish, ignorant, naive, and immature. However, I also realize now that our country, for all its sterling qualities, also was foolish, ignorant, and naive, unprepared for the war and its grim aftermath.
In many ways, America then and now remains the innocent in the world. Its life experience, while hard, was not the life experience of cruelty, repression, cynicism, and disappointment that many of the old countries of Europe knew. America was thrust into an ugly world by World War II, its isolation ended, precisely as innocence and isolation were ended for millions of individual participants in the upheaval that was the Second World War.