China Exclusive: WWII U.S. veterans recount victory over Japan

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-14 23:59:15|Editor: Yamei
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by Xinhua writer Zhai Xiang

BEIJING, Aug. 14 (Xinhua) -- On the island of Guam, Aug. 15, 1945, Dick Whitaker, a member of the Sixth Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps, learned the news of the Japanese surrender.

The end of WWII was also the end of China's war against Japanese aggression.

"I was training for the invasion of Japan scheduled for November 1945, in which I would very likely have been killed," he said. "The victory saved my life and properly avenged Pearl Harbor."

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, an American naval base in Hawaii, killing thousands of American military personnel and civilians.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as "a date which will live in infamy," and the United States declared war on Japan the following day.

Xinhua has interviewed U.S. veterans and their families over phone or email, who shared their memories of the victory and their hopes for the future.


"When I turned 16, I began to think about the possibility of serving in the military," Whitaker, now 91, recalled.

Upon graduation in 1942 and 1943, several of Whitaker's friends joined the military. Whitaker joined up in the summer of 1944 and landed at Guadalcanal with the Sixth Marine Division just six months later.

"My mission was to win battles, to defeat Japan, and hopefully to survive intact," he said.

"We sailed from Guadalcanal on March 13, 1945 -- my 19th birthday. On April 1, 1945, we landed in Okinawa," Whitaker said.

The Battle of Okinawa lasted 82 days and was one of WWII's fiercest. Whitaker's regiment suffered heavy losses, with 82 percent of his comrades wounded or killed. Last year, "Hacksaw Ridge," a film based on the story of the battle, was a hit with both Chinese and American audiences.

"After 82 days of killing Japanese soldiers, which was very satisfying at the time, I came to feel sorry for them," he told Xinhua.

"They were treated badly by their superiors. They were starving. They were fighting for a lost cause and instructed to kill themselves if defeated ... not much of a plan!" he said.

The Battle of Okinawa left over 90,000 Japanese soldiers dead; only 7,400 were taken prisoner. About 100,000 local civilians lost their lives.

"I weighed about 115 pounds, having lost about 20 pounds on Okinawa," said Whitaker, looking at a photo of himself taken on Guam in June 1945.

After WWII, Whitaker's division was dispatched to Qingdao in east China's Shandong Province to work on repatriating Japanese forces from north China.

"We were there for six months. I will never forget the welcome I received there. The Chinese are fine people," said Whitaker.

"The Japanese soldiers we rounded up and sent back to Japan knew we were marines and would take no crap," Whitaker said. "They were very aware of our reputation and our hatred of them. They were docile and seldom made eye contact."

On a Greyhound bus at 3 a.m. on Memorial Day of 1946, Whitaker arrived in Saugerties, New York, a town just 20 miles from Hyde Park, the hometown of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"The Memorial Day Parade kicked off at 11:00. I went to the parade with my mom and dad and had my hand shaken a hundred times. It was a great day to get home from a war," said Whitaker.

Before retirement, Whitaker spent 28 years at Kent School in Connecticut as Director of Public Relations, Alumni Secretary and Assistant Secretary to the Board of Trustees.

He now volunteers on the carrier USS Yorktown in South Carolina and speaks at schools and retirement homes.


Lester Tenney, then 21 years old and married for only two months, landed in the Philippines in late November 1941.

He had joined the National Guard in 1940. "I knew that the United States was going to have a draft, so I voluntarily entered the service," he recalled.

What he did not know was that within a month of his arrival in Asia, Japan would attack Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.

Japan defeated the United States on the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942, and 78,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered.

Following the largest ever U.S. overseas surrender, Japan forced the POWs to walk more than 100 kilometers to their camp, offering little or no food and water. Thousands died during the what became known as the Bataan Death March.

Tenney survived, strengthened, he said, by his love and affection for his young wife, a spiritual pillar for him. He spent the later years of the war as slave in a Japanese coal mine.

When Japan announced its surrender, the Japanese camp commander gathered the POWs at Omuta, less than 40 miles from Nagasaki, where the United States had dropped an atomic bomb six days prior, and announced that "Japan and the United States are now friends," Tenney told Xinhua last August.

"Then all the Japanese soldiers simply left the camp," he said.

"Out of around 12,000 American POWs there, only 1,500 survived to the end," said Tenney. He himself was so weak by then that he remained in hospital for a year.

All this time his wife had been in limbo. While news of Bataan reached his wife, there was no confirmation of Tenney's fate. His wife waited for three years for news, even though she was told that Tenney was "presumed dead."

After the end of WWII, Tenney found that his wife had remarried just months earlier. Over 70 years later, he recalls the revelation as "a tremendously traumatic experience," but even so, he got back on his feet.

"It was easy for a veteran to get a job, but I wanted to get education. I hadn't had a chance to because of the war," he said. "I wanted to be a better member of society."

Tenney eventually received a PhD from the University of Southern California and became a professor.

In his later years, he was an active campaigner in the struggle to gain both an admission of responsibility and apology from Japan. It was thanks in part to his efforts, that in 2009, the Japanese ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki delivered a "heartfelt apology" for "having caused tremendous damage and suffering" to the Bataan victims.

Tenney joined other victims in a class action against several Japanese mining companies for reparations. "They were afraid that if they apologized, we would sue them," said Tenney.

Lester Tenney passed away in February aged 96.


Jay Vinyard, who served in the U.S. Air Force between 1942 and 1946, was in St. Joseph, Missouri with his wife on Aug. 15, 1945.

"We heard the news on the radio in our hotel room. We watched from our second floor hotel room window as the crowds gathered below on the downtown streets to celebrate," he recalled. "It was quite a sight -- a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"Aug. 15, 1945 will always be remembered by me as the day when victory finally arrived after so many terrible years of devastating conflict... It also proved that when two great powers such as China and the United States agree on a goal and work together to accomplish it, they will always be victorious in the end," said Vinyard.

In 1944, he was assigned to fly "the Hump," a vital airlift route over the Himalayas and the primary way the Allies supplied China between 1942 and 1945. Prior to the 2015 V-Day parade in Beijing, China awarded Vinyard a medal for his services.

"Like all members of our armed forces, I felt that day finally brought an end to a great nightmare and that we would now be able to get on with the rest of our lives," he added.

U.S. General Claire Lee Chennault, founder of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), was on his way back to the United States on Aug. 15 when the Japanese surrendered. The AVG, also known as the Flying Tigers, was a legendary air corps that fought alongside the Chinese against Japan during WWII.

"He was of course extremely relieved, after eight years of combat, that we were victorious. He had served both countries to the best of his ability and now they were at peace," Chennault's granddaughter, Nell Calloway, told Xinhua.

"The sign of the Flying Tiger during WWII was a symbol of victory for people of both the United States and China. When the war ended, this symbol never faded from the minds of people who were liberated and it remains a symbol of fascination for people in both countries," Calloway said.

"People may not remember the history that it represents, but they remember that it represents a historic moment."

"We have a responsibility to all who sacrificed so much to put aside our differences in a time of peace and make the world a better place," she said.

Frank Losonsky, now 96 and one of only two surviving AVG members, was a crew chief with the Flying Tigers.

Losonsky was back in the United States training to be a B-29 flight engineer when he heard the news of the Japanese surrender.

"Today, Aug. 15 means remembering those who died in hope of peaceful times," he said.


While WWII concluded 72 years ago, a few diehards in Japan still avoid to acknowledge the suffering inflicted.

In Whitaker's opinion, "old-school" Japanese leaders remain uncomfortable with their mistakes and eventual defeat.

"They lost face and are attempting to restore that old respect they once had," he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor in December 2016 to "pray for the souls of victims."

"I say, 'stay home,'" Whitaker said when asked about his reaction to the gesture. "We will never forgive Japan for its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and nothing they could ever do will ever alter the events of Dec. 7, 1941, a 'day of infamy.'"

Jan Thompson, a professor at Southern Illinois University, was angry at the abuse her late father received at the hands of the Japanese during the three years he spent as a POW.

"The POWs I knew did not buy Japanese products, like Japanese cars and TVs," she said.

The Japanese government has apologized to American POWs and their families as a gesture of reconciliation. Thompson believes that Japan could apply this model to other countries as well.

"There is still so much tension in East Asia, and it is all because of WWII," Thompson said.

"WWII is so important for what is going on in Asia now. We have to be accurate and embrace the truth, no matter how painful," she said.

China fought shoulder to shoulder with the other Allies, including the United States, and made major contributions to the victory.

Perry Dahl enlisted in 1940 and fought in the Pacific. He was a flying ace who shot down nine Japanese fighter jets.

"I was 17 years old when I joined the National Guard," said Dahl. "Everyone then was rather patriotic."

Dahl recalled that "my colleagues and I wanted to do the best we could for China as an ally."

"China's contributions to WWII are undervalued," Dahl said.

Throughout WWII, China was a major battlefield in the fight against the Japanese fascist invasion and the major Asian battlefield in the war against fascists worldwide. By the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945, around 35 million Chinese military personnel and civilians had lost their lives or got wounded.

"As we approach the 72nd anniversary of the end of the war, the symbolic value of the Flying Tigers is as important today as it was then. It represents a time when two great peoples put aside their differences and defeated an enemy that sought to conquer the world," Calloway said.