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Wold War II and Me

By Henry Chenoweth

Sixty years have passed since the end of World War II and nary a word have I written relating to my experience and thoughts that made a difference in my life from then to now. I write this for my own reasons but also as a means of collecting thoughts and remembrances long forgotten but important to only one person—me. I record them here and now.

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri, of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, in Tokyo Bay, bringing to an end the bloodiest war man has ever known. It was six years and one day since Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, sent his armies into Poland, igniting a conflict that would spread warfare from the skies of London to the sands of North Africa, from Scandinavian mountains to Italian farmlands, from Atlantic shipping lanes to the waters and islands of the Pacific, from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the hedgerows of Normandy.

World War II was fought by more men and women, over more of the globe, with greater loss of life and destruction of property, than any other war. Ninety million soldiers took part. Seventeen million of them were killed—nearly one out of five. Another eighteen million civilians died because of the war. The total of wounded and missing, soldiers and civilians, will never be known. The advent of the nuclear age, under the pressures of war, in itself forever changed the military and political patterns of life on this earth.

To this day I grieve for the more than 320,000 Americans who gave their lives in the struggle. One of them was my friend and comrade and he lies in a military cemetery in France. He is constantly in my thoughts and will forever be.
I remember while making the tools of war, the American people at home fed and clothed themselves, bought $157 billion worth of war bonds and paid the heaviest income taxes in their history. Every family was, in one way or another, participating in the war effort. And the battles themselves, on the ground, in the air and at sea, held our people in prayerful suspense. I know for I was one of them.

On that fateful day of December 7, 1941 I was attending church services with my wife in a Methodist Church in Oakland, California when word came of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A note was passed to the pastor during his sermon. He made the announcement in a firm and resolute voice followed by prayer for he knew some in the congregation that morning would not survive. And some did not. During the early months of the war a large plaque was designed and placed in the foyer leading into the sanctuary that contained the names of those who would not come home. The list grew with time until the war’s end in 1945. I never knew how many names were on the plaque.

The attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the Second World War and Japan herself on to ultimate disaster. Ironically, the United States, more than any other nation, was responsible for awakening Japan from her ancient isolation and sending her on her reckless quest for power and dominion. Unwelcome though Commodore Matthew C. Perry was when his four warships dropped anchor in Tokyo Bay in 1853, his visit served to stir the dreams of empire that were soon to arouse the island people of Japan. In the short space of eighty-eight years, Japan turned herself from a feudal state into a nation with an army and navy trained and equipped to rival those of the great European powers.

In less than two hours on the morning of December 7th, 1941, a total of 2403 Americans were killed in the succession of Japanese air attacks that marked U.S. entry into World War II. Fleet Chaplain William A. Macguire spoke in a firm voice: “Don’t say we buried our dead with sorrow. They died manfully. They were buried manfully. And we will avenge their deaths, come what may.”
My father, a retired and much decorated Army officer, counseled me when I was but sixteen years old that the world was headed for another World War. He urge for me ROTC training. He remembered well the lessons he thought the world had learned as a result of World War I. But he was well aware of the role Germany was playing both politically and militarily during the early 1930s. His thoughts and analysis of European political affairs afforded him a clear view of what the future would hold for America’s young men and women. His views were almost clairvoyant.

Early German conquests between 1936 and 1939 made war in Europe inevitable. Adolf Hitler on August 31, 1939 gave the order to invade Poland and World War II began and was to last until May 8, 1945. Although not drawn into the war until late in 1941, twenty-seven months after its start, the United States lost more men than were killed in the Civil War on both the Union and Confederate sides. More than 320,000 Americans—out of an armed force of 15.5 million—gave their lives in the struggle. Winston Churchill expressed what free men were fighting for when Britain early in the war stood virtually alone against the German blitzkrieg:

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. . . . Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.

America provided material for Britain and took economic sanctions against the Japanese who had been at war with China since 1931. Otherwise, our nation was divided by debate and controversy over what we should do. But we had not been attacked. Then, out of the skies over Hawaii on December 7, 1941, came Japanese planes to bomb Pearl Harbor, sending many great ships of America’s navy to the bottom. Through nearly four years of work and sacrifice, America would cast off the burden of the longest economic depression in its history to become the most productive and most powerful nation in the world.

My father predicted accurately the military emphasis would first be placed in Europe to defeat Germany while defensive action would dominate the struggle in the Pacific. On June 6, 1944, the very day the largest invasion fleet in the history of the world was moving across the English Channel to the shores of France, America was able to send a fleet of 110 troop and cargo vessels escorted by the most powerful naval force in history to Saipan, halfway across the world. In Europe and the Pacific these invasion fleets were covered by enough aircraft to provide absolute superiority over the once-vaunted enemy air forces.

Being a husband and father, my entry into the war was delayed until June 3, 1943. It was during this time in my life that I clearly realized the importance of my father’s teachings for I was conscious of my surroundings. America was at war. Military service brought into focus the need for discipline, the need for dedication and commitment, the need to sacrifice for the good of the whole. I learned much during those years and feel I am better for it. America was greatly influenced by the military discipline that millions of veterans brought home to civilian life. And that may be the big difference between my generation and subsequent generations.

It is said veterans of World War II are dying at the rate of 2000 a day. At this rate, I belong to a dying generation. The few are getting fewer. But I, along with the few remaining others who took part in the war, am forever mindful of the unforgettable episodes of nobility and agony, of despair and triumph.

Henry B. Chenoweth
January 19, 2005

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