By Dan K. Thomasson
WASHINGTON ― Some 25 years ago I was asked to speak at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the death of the famous war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, who had been killed by a Japanese sniper on a small island off Okinawa in the last days of World War II. The memorial was held in the Punch Bowl, the national military cemetery overlooking Honolulu.
It was a mid-morning affair that attracted more than a thousand spectators, most of them veterans of the bloody campaigns in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima and Okinawa ― all of them "Ernie's boys.'' In the mist and sunshine of a glorious Hawaii morning with the weathered faces of America's best generation surrounding me in campaign hats and medals, it was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had.
I recalled that day and the memories of loved ones lost during that bleak time of my boyhood as I read that Barack Obama had deployed the American ambassador to Japan as an official delegate to the 65th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, a decision that at best can only be described as insensitive to the feelings of millions of Americans who still remember vividly the pain and anguish caused by the Japanese Empire in World War II.
How surprising that Obama, who grew up not far from the sacred ground of Pearl Harbor and the cemetery where the victims of Japanese treachery lie, would become the first American chief executive to do so since the conflict in the Pacific ended in August of 1945 with the only two atomic detonations in anger in history.
One might blame the president's lack of perception or his youthful ignorance of the death and destruction caused by one of the world's most ruthless regimes if it weren't for the place of his birth and that he is too bright not to understand.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which came a few days later when the Japanese warlords failed to get the message of the first bomb, were the direct result of the Empire's perfidiousness and the xenophobic culture of its citizens.
The military-industrial complex that brutalized much of Asia for more than a decade, killing millions, had loosed the furies that in the end brought about the horror that was visited on these two cities and their residents. The dead and dying there were victims of their own government, not the United States.
No matter what revisionists would have us believe, without that ultimate retribution, America and its allies faced the loss of up to a million men and women in the invasion of the Japanese home islands where the fanatical leaders were prepared for whatever it took to resist, including the immediate murder of prisoners of war. President Harry Truman had little choice other than to give the order that ultimately would change the world and its balance of power.
There might have been some justification for the appearance of an American official at these ceremonies had there ever been such an official presence from the Japanese at any Pearl Harbor memorial or any admission of guilt in the horrendous atrocities committed on the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos and Burmese.
The mass beheadings and rapes at Nanking are only one small example. As far as I know, no official Japanese wreath has been laid at the tomb of the U.S.S. Arizona where American sailors rest, true victims one and all.
That April morning in 1985 with the bands from Pearl and Schofield Barracks playing solemnly and the shafts of morning lights filtering through the trees I confess I couldn't hide my emotions.
In making that short speech as the representative of a company for which Pyle had worked nearly all his professional career and which had lost eight other correspondents covering this awful conflict, I cried. Those brave veterans quite clearly forgave me. Whether or not the few remaining now will forgive Obama for his failure to demand the same respect for his nation's victims is anyone's guess.
The U.S. and Japan are allies now and have settled most of their differences, as they should have. But some injuries take longer to heal and should.
Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.