Thursday, February 11, 2010

Last Man Rescued

Every once in a great while, I read something new in my studies of World War II that makes my jaw go slack. In early 1944, the Allied Strategic Bomber Offensive adopted the transportation plan attacking German synthetic oil plants whenever possible and otherwise attacking the German rail system. By February of 1945, German rail traffic was at a standstill. A few months later, while reading Richard Frank’s Downfall, I learned that in the Pacific, the U.S. Army Air Force did not adopt their version of the transportation plan until August 11 of 1945, just before the end of the war.

On August 12, bad weather made flying missions against Japan impossible. On August 13, a young Army P-47 pilot named Bill Taylor flew a mission to strafe railroad traffic on Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese home islands. His plane took a great deal of ground fire and, by a narrow margin, he managed to fly his crippled aircraft out to sea before making a crash landing on the water. He got into his one-man life raft and noticed that he was within sight of the Japanese coast. He knew full well that if the Japanese spotted him and sent a boat after him, his chances of survival would be nonexistent. The Japanese had a habit of killing downed American flyers in very unpleasant ways. At first, Lieutenant Taylor told himself he wasn’t going to pray just because he was in a bad situation. However, after twenty-four hours in the water, he changed his mind. He later related that he told God that if he lived, he would become a minister…and a gymnastics coach.

In the early morning hours of August 15, the last day of the war, a U.S. Navy ship managed to pick him up and Bill Taylor achieved the distinction of being the very last man rescued in the entire war in the Pacific. Little did he know at the time that he had almost exactly another fifty years to live. Lieutenant Taylor made good on his promises. He became an ordained minister…and a gymnastics coach. In later years, I got to know Bill Taylor pretty well. When I was a kid, he was my church’s youth minister and he taught a gymnastics program. Stop snickering people, Reverend Taylor was a good gymnastics coach and more than forty years ago, I was a pretty good gymnast. Bill Taylor is just a footnote to history. He also plays a role in a great historic “what might have been.” A great many Americans engaged in guilt-mongering over the end of the war in the Pacific with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What most people fail to understand is that the results could have been far worse. The U.S. Army Air Force only targeted the Japanese rail system for the last four days of the war. Had the bombing continued, the country would have been completely destroyed. This, along with the near-total destruction of Japanese merchant marine shipping, would have had ghastly consequences. Before the development of Japanese ocean shipping and rail in the 1850s,, the population of Japan was just under 30 million people. During World War II it was 70 million.

Readers, it staggers the imagination what would have happened to Japan’s civilian population with no effective food distribution system. Way before the end of 1945, Japan would have faced a famine reminiscent of what the Ukraine experienced in the early 1930s. Even after a Japanese invasion, please explain how the Japanese could have fed their people without a rail system. When General MacArthur arrived in late August of 1945, he soon became aware of the desperate nature of the Japanese food situation. He ordered his troops not to eat the local food to avoid exacerbating the situation and he cabled his superiors in Washington, “Send me food or send me bullets.” Only prompt American grain shipments prevented catastrophe. Even with American aid, the entire population of Japan was on very short rations until late 1946.

All things considered, General MacArthur and the American occupation authorities showed the Japanese a great deal more humanity than the Japanese ever showed any country they overran.

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