To Ruth, from Red

In 1944 Ruth Racke left Claryville,Kentucky. She went north to Covington, a city on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, and lived there with her sister and her sister’s two kids while her brother- in- law was off at war. Ruth was eighteen, a sensible and responsible brunette with brown eyes, who just had finished high school. Her father ran the general store and gas station in Claryville, her mother raised chickens with five boys and five girls on the family farm. Ruth might have stayed with her family in Claryville, if not for the war. The war had split her family apart, with four of her five brothers and a sister overseas with the Army and Navy.

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

In Covington, Ruth worked at Grote Manufacturing, painting the tail fins of bombs. At Grote, Ruth met other girls, girls who had come from different cities and towns across the state and America. She met Norma Combs, a girl who grew up poor in the countryside of Carollton, Kentucky. They complimented each other, each being what the other was not. Ruth was thoughtful and practical, Norma was impulsive with a wild streak. Norma’s mother had died when Norma was young. Her father was abusive and had worked off and on for the railroad until his kids were old enough to work for him and he could stay home. Norma had a brother too, his name was Hubert but she called him “Red” because everyone else did. Red left school after the eighth grade to work in construction, earning money to support the family because his father wouldn’t. He was drafted a month after Pearl Harbor and had been overseas since 1942 when he was sent to Australia. Now he was somewhere in the China-Burma-India Theater. She had a picture of him, he was handsome in his uniform with a look of quiet, amused confidence.  He didn’t have a girl to send him mail other than his sister, and Norma wondered if Ruth would write him.

Ruth and Red began a correspondence, friendly notes between people who never met and did not know much about each other. Ruth wrote him things about her life and Red’s sister, mundane things about work and her thoughts and feelings. Ordinary things that brought the touch of home and femininity that mean so much to a man. Red wrote Ruth of his life in India, of his travels from Assam to Bengal to New Delhi. He wrote about the bugs that crawled into the dough and got baked in the bread and the wild monkeys that sat on his shoulders in the cafes. He saw the Ganges river, where people bathed and drank the water as dead bodies floated by. Red saw the kindness of the Indian people and learned of Ghandi, a man he came to admire.

Hubert "Red" Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Hubert “Red” Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

He wrote other things to Ruth. He told her how much her letters meant to him. How much he enjoyed hearing from her and of his plans for the future. If Ruth had known Red when he left Kentucky, she would have seen a man from a poor and broken home with little education; a man beat down physically and emotionally by his father; a man who saw no way to pull himself up.

But in India, Red saw people from poverty worse than his. It gave him perspective on his situation and helped him realize the opportunities that were awaiting him in the U.S.A. By 1944 Red was a confident man. He had been commended by his commanding officer out of hundreds of others for his military appearance and bearing. He was a radio operator, trusted with valuable machinery, and charged with important communication duties. For the first time in his life, Red felt valued and gained a sense of self worth.

He began to send Ruth things: handkerchiefs, aprons, hosiery bags and a gold laced purse with the map of India on it. Small things he could imagine her being beautiful with. As Red’s time overseas came to a close he wrote her “I can’t give you the world, but I’ll work hard and do the best I can to make a good life for you.”

Red came back to the U.S.A. in January 1945. Ruth met him as he stopped in Kentucky before being sent to an Infantry Training Battalion in Arkansas. Their life returned to what it was, separated but connected by letters. But things had changed since they met and there was future that was waiting for them. World War II ended on September 2nd 1945 and there was no more need for painting bombs or training soldiers. On September 24th 1945 Ruth Racke and Red Combs married in Little Rock, Arkansas. A month later Red was discharged from the U.S. Army and went home to Kentucky with his wife.

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

The two eventually settled down in the city of Independence. They had their only child, Vera in July 1946 and raised her to respect people of all races, religions and backgrounds. Red opened his own construction business and Ruth became a housewife. They were well known in the church and became active in the community. As the years went by the only reminder of the war that brought them together was a book about India Vera flipped through as a child. Even the gifts Red sent Ruth from overseas were put away in boxes. The two didn’t talk much about the war and the part they played in it. They didn’t see the need to dwell on the past. Ruth and Red Combs were more interested in their future, busy living the rest of their lives together as a family, in peace.

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera
(Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)


Animation for Dreams

Seo's Japan

Seo’s Japan

The beginning of 1945 was inauspicious for Japan. The first four months of the New Year saw the Empire lose Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma,  Iwo Jima, and much of the Philippines. In February, the United States Army Air Force started using fire bombs and incinerated 100,000 people in just one raid in March. On April Fool’s day the Americans invaded Okinawa,  four hundred miles from Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan. Okinawa would soon fall, then a country that hadn’t seen invasion since the days of the Kublai Khan would face the might of America on its home soil.

Early 1945 also saw the release of a new film, funded by the Japanese Navy. It had four main characters: a Monkey, a Bear, a Pheasant,  and a Dog. These four animals were the stars of the first feature length animated film in Japan. Their story was a take off on the traditional tale of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. Like the original story, the animals would join Momotaro and travel to the Demon’s Island.  Except  in World War II, the Devil’s Lair was the Celebes Island and the monsters who occupied it were the British.

Mitsuyo Seo 瀬尾 光世

Mitsuyo Seo
瀬尾 光世

The films creator was a thirty-four year old animator named Mitsuyo Seo. Seo was an artist and a socialist, a man allowed to pursue his art only if it was done for a military regime.  By World War II, Seo had his own production company and pioneered the use of the multiplane camera in Japan. His 1945 movie, called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, was a sequel to his 1943 film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles also funded by the Navy.


Momotaro’s warriors do what is expected in a propaganda piece. They use the friendly population to build an airstrip, they teach the natives culture and letters as a kindly benefactor. Then, the warriors unite to defeat a cowardly, ridiculous enemy.

The Pheasant receives mail from home

The Pheasant receives mail from home

Seo’s vision was not just of war and victory. By 1945, a Japanese victory was something only attainable in the movies. Its improbability was brought home daily with every bomb that fell, with every soldier that died, and in every Kamikaze pilot that flew his last mission. Seo the man, not the conscripted propagandist, wanted to create something beautiful. In his vision, there were flowing rivers and forests under Mount Fuji. There were rice fields and mountains. Children played and sang and parents welcomed their son home. In his film Seo created a Japan that people would know. A Japan of family and beauty. He hoped what he was making was something people would want not to die for, but to live for.


The movie brought a sixteen year old boy named Tezuka Osamu to tears. He had recognized its message, hidden beneath the layers of propaganda. Osamu decided the day he saw the film to become an animator and would go on to be the “Father” of modern Japanese Animation and Comics, creating works such as Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy.

The Monkey character

The Monkey character


A few months after Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was released, two Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the War came to a close. Seo’s dreams of peace had arrived, but Post War Japan was not easy for an animator. By the 1950’s Seo had left the animation business and had become an illustrator for children’s books. His wartime work disappeared from public consciousness and became a sense of shame for him, having helped a regime that went so much against his ideals and principles. Seo largely vanished from public view and even his death in 2010 was largely unreported.


The film, like its author, faded into obscurity. It remained unseen until a copy was rediscovered in 1983. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was Mitsuyo Seo’s greatest work and his biggest shame. But in it he succeeded in sharing his dreams with  the generation of people that would take Japan from a totalitarian regime to a new, freer society. It would be the precursor and inspiration of the Japanese animation that would eventually captivate the world. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors  came at a time when young Japanese people needed hope for a future without war; when they had nothing more than film to animate their dreams for tomorrow.


From Monkey poses for a portrait

The Monkey poses for a portrait

For those interested in watching Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei 桃太郎海の神兵in its entirety, you can do so here (Japanese Language only) :

The Professor and The Fabled Fifteen


The fighters are first. Their folding wings lock in place, their two thousand horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines rev and kick to life. Behind them the Avenger Torpedoes get in position, followed by the Helldiver bombers.

Singer on deck in his Hellcat

Singer on deck in his Hellcat


Arthur Singer Jr. sits in his plane. His parachute harness tight around his flying suit, the one he had the parachute riggers sew extra pockets on. The propeller blast blows into his open cockpit, the roar of dozens of engines on deck deafen him. The first plane goes, edging down the carrier till it takes to the sky. Singer watches the man on deck, waits for the signal. When he gets it, he speeds down the flight deck, the plane vibrates as it reaches take off speed. He opens the throttle, faster and faster, shaking and rattling till the rumble of the deck is gone and there is nothing around him but air and sea.


The Hellcat drops for moment -a feeling Singer’s felt dozens of times, but one that always gives him a thrill- then it climbs skyward. Singer is twenty-three and handsome. He’s a fighter pilot, an Ace. That means he’s cocky and aggressive with a killer’s instinct. He flamed his first zero off Saipan. He got two more over Rota when he was jumped by four Japanese fighters. The first exploded, the second trailed fire into the sea. On a Photo Recon over Ie Shima he met a squadron of Japanese bombers, he shot down four of them single-handedly.

Arthur Singer Jr.

Arthur Singer Jr.


Singer’s squadron is Fighter Group 15, a squadron of aces. They call themselves “Satan’s Playmates” but they’ll be remembered by another name: “The Fabled Fifteen”.


In ten minutes or so, the whole Air Group is launched. The planes claw higher and higher, till their ship, the USS Essex,looks like a pebble in a desert. They are joined by aircraft from other carriers, till the sky glitters with planes.


Below them is Task Force 38, spread out for miles in all directions. In the center, the most valuable ship, the Aircraft Carrier. Back in 1942, there might have been one or two Carriers but in October 1944 there are six or eight or twelve carriers, and that’s just one Task Force. One group of ships in the most powerful maritime force the earth has ever seen, the United States Navy. The planes climb until they reach twelve or fifteen thousand feet. The ships below grow smaller till they seem to sit motionless on the ocean. The Avengers form in diamonds of four planes, two in front, two split out on the side. Higher up, Helldivers separate into divisions of six planes, split in three plane V formations. On the very top, in Echelon fours, are the fighters, the Hellcats.


Hellcats in flight

Hellcats in flight

The planes circle and wait. Last night, October 24th, enemy ships were spotted. Now on the 25th, scout planes are out trying to find them again. Somewhere out there is the Japanese Navy. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, four of them. One of them is the last remaining carrier from the attack on Hawaii on December 7th, the Zuikaku. The Americans want the Zuikaku; they want to sink the last reminder of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese know what the sinking means for the Americans and they will use it against them. They form Zuikaku and her fellow carriers into their Northern Force. The Northern Force will steam toward Task Force 38 and the 3rd fleet of which she is part of. The Japanese carrier’s mission is not to win. Their mission is to get the American force to follow them. The Japanese know they have no chance, they know they are floating ghosts. If they meet the bombs and guns of the U.S. 3rd Fleet the Japanese will have succeeded. It means they drew the powerful force away from the weak American Invasion Fleet, and the carrier-less Japanese Central Force of battleships can move in and destroy the invasion force before it hits Leyte.

Aboard the Essex heading to the Flight Deck

Aboard the Essex heading to the Flight Deck

At 7:10 AM a scout plane relocates the Japanese ships. The Air Group heads to intercept. Singer knows what combat is like. He’s been in it for almost half a year. He knows how the blue sea gives ways to turquoise reefs, sandy beaches and lush jungle. He’ll go in first, with the fighters. They’ll clear the skies then strafe the ground, open the way for the bombers. If a pilot gets hit, and he’s lucky, it’s quick. He smashes into a pulp and burns to nothing when his plane hits the ground. If he’s not, it takes longer. He’ll trail smoke, losing fuel and oil pressure until he has to bail out or ditch in the ocean. Maybe he’ll be rescued, maybe he’ll be taken prisoner. Or maybe he’ll be alone, drifting for days under the sun with no shelter, living on hope; hope that holds out longer than survival rations or fresh water; hope that keeps a man going until he realizes it’s all a sham, and he disappears without a trace. 

The American Air Group flies onward. On the horizon are small shapes that get larger with each passing minute. Long block-like objects, big and small, surrounding four flat ones, aircraft carriers. There are more shapes in the sky above, enemy planes. The Japanese fighters peel off and head for the American Air Group. They go for the Helldivers, dropping in from 9,000 feet above them. Machine gun and cannon fire racks the formation. The Hellcats rise to meet the Zeros, breaking them up.

Arthur Singer Jr.'s Flying Suit

Arthur Singer Jr.’s Flying Suit

Aerial Combat is not pleasant. It’s like a roller coaster, only there’s no rail and you’re going over two hundred miles an hour. Singer’s head snaps back and forth as he twists and dives. He downs a Zero, flame streaks from its engines as it falls. He sees another, making a rising turn, he shoots and pieces fly off it as it screams by. Singer doesn’t have time to chase it, his wingman spots four other Japanese and they go after them. Tracers fly under Singer’s wing. He snap rolls right, but the Zero is still with him, he twists and turns but the enemy follows his every move. Another Zero comes to join the hunt, sensing blood. For an instant, the second Zero passes before his sights and Singer lets off a long range deflection shot. Smoke pours from the Zero but Singer can’t watch, the first Zero is still stuck to his tail. The pilot is good, Singer can’t shake him. The nimble zero turns with the Hellcat, matching it move for move. The Japanese gunsight inches onto the American, it won’t take long before it passes him with enough lead to open fire on a moving target.

Singer slams his controls forward, his plane goes in a dive:7,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 5,000… The Zero follows, waiting to open up with its machines guns to get the range, then start with the large wing mounted twenty-millimeter cannons. The stick goes hard in Singer’s hand, the engine whines as momentum increases. The plane vibrates as it goes straight down towards the water. 4,000 feet, 3,600, 3,500, 3,400… at 3,000 feet Singer pulls out and jerks the stick right. The sudden change of direction yanks him in his seat. The windshield fogs up in the warmer lower altitude. Singer looks behind, above, to his right and left. Nothing. Maybe he lost the Zero in the dive, but he doesn’t think so. The pilot was too tenacious, too good. He looks again, all over, then he catches a glimpse of something moving through the thawing edges of his windshield. It’s the Zero. It comes head on, wings spitting fire. Singer pushes his trigger, the Hellcat vibrates as its machine guns empty their load. They catch the Zero as the two meet, the Japanese airplane explodes almost on top of him.

Singer after combat with a bullet hole in his windshield

Singer after combat with a bullet hole in his windshield

When October 25th is over, the
Zuikaku is underwater. All three other carriers in the Japanese force, the Chiyoda, Zuiho and Chitose also sink. The last of the ships that were the pride of the Imperial Navy are below the waves. But they did their job. The lured the U.S. 3rd fleet away to attack them. Their loss allowed the Japanese a crack at the unguarded American Leyte Invasion Force, who by luck and determination held out with the loss of a carrier, two destroyers and a destroyer escort.


In their six month tour of duty VF-15, Satan’s Playmate’s, shot down 310 enemy planes in aerial combat, the highest scoring Fighter Squadron in US Naval history for a single deployment. Twenty-six of them became aces. Arthur Singer Jr. finished as a double ace with ten victories, one of only sixty-five men to reach that status in the entire U.S. Navy.

Aces of VF-15. Singer in back row second from left

Aces of VF-15. Singer in back row second from left

When peace came, Singer put the war behind him and moved on. He earned a PhD. and became a professor at San Diego State University. The man with a killer’s instinct for combat spent the rest of his life teaching education. He became a member of the Council for Exceptional Children and the California Faculty Association. When the Professor died in 2004 his obituary made no mention of Arthur Singer Jr., Ace pilot in the Navy’s premier fighter squadron. It made no mention of his air battles in the Marianas and the Philippines with the Fabled Fifteen. The obituary only made a brief note that “he served as a Naval Aviator in World War Two” then went on to the important things, what made Arthur Singer Jr. more proud of than his kills in the air: his academic accomplishments, his teaching and professorship, enriching lives rather than taking them.

Arthur Singer and his wife

Arthur Singer Jr. and his wife

Shattered Jewels

A boy and his dog

A boy and his dog

Young boys have a fascination with war; a fascination with bravery and glory, with medals and uniforms.  Since Hirohito took the throne, young boys were immersed in the beauty of war. They were taught the greatest glory was to die for the country and for God: the Emperor. They were taught when they fell their spirits would glow as deities in the Yasukuni shrine. It was for the young boys of Japan to fight the “Holy War” to free Asia from its European chains, and place Japan as the rightful leader in the east.

In less than a hundred years, what was once a feudal nation had modernized and joined Europe in the game of Imperialism.  Japan moved from isolation to colonization taking Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria and parts of China. By the twentieth century it established itself as a major power. It was the only non-European nation of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. In 1905 it defeated Russia, the first time in modern history for an Asian country to defeat a Caucasian power.

By the 1930’s Japan possessed, arguably one of the most powerful armies and most sophisticated navies in the world. As a nation, Japan moved to an increasingly militaristic stance, crushing any internal voices for peace or freedom.

Girls being trained to use bamboo spears to repel the American invasion

Girls being trained to use bamboo spears to repel the American invasion

In 1937, when Japan’s full scale war started with China, young men of twenty and older were being drafted to fight. The Japanese conscription laws passed in 1873 had many exemptions. It gave first born sons, students and people of wealth a path to buy their way out of servitude, leaving second and third sons of poor farmers to make a large percentage of the rank and file. As the need for manpower grew, boys as young as fifteen were called to active service. By the last year of the war the entire adult male population aged 15-60 and women from 17-40 were given bamboo spears and ordered to resist the coming American invasion.

Like all militaries, soldiers adopted mascots: animals and children being popular. Sometime during the war, a young boy was given a private’s uniform and served as a mascot with his dog. When the mascot was old enough, he would be promoted from a boy to a man and serve not as a good luck charm, but as a soldier, expected to fight to the end with the pure heart of the “100 Million” and die like a “Shattered Jewel”.

The Japanese military perpetrated unspeakable horrors upon the people they subjugated. They in turn suffered heavily. Twenty percent of sailors and one in four soldiers died in the war, around 1.7 to 2 million men in the name of the Emperor.

Starved Japanese soldiers captured on Saipan

Starved Japanese soldiers captured on Saipan

Most of them did not meet the glorious death on the battlefield they were taught to strive for. The majority of Japan’s youth did not die as cherry blossoms falling to earth, sixty percent of the dead met death from disease and starvation; their lives tossed away like petals in the wind. By September of 1945, the war in the Pacific had consumed the lives of thirty five million people.

Homeless Japanese boys after the war (photo credit: Tadahiko Hayashi)

Homeless Japanese boys after the war (photo credit: Tadahiko Hayashi)

Perhaps the young boy in the picture survived the war, or maybe he died a shattered jewel like so many others. Perhaps he was reunited with his family, or became like 123,510 other children in Japan after the war, orphaned and homeless.

The picture offers no clues. It remains a silent reminder of a moment in time; a boy and his dog caught up somewhere in the echoes of war.

Jitterbug goes to war

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

The greatest thrill of his life came as he landed for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Two years before in 1941, Elton Dale Snodgrass was a kid who read everything in the library and lived to go bowling and dancing. In the summer of 1941 he had just graduated high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. The summer after graduation is always memorable, the last vacation before friends got jobs or went off to college. The summer of 1941 was not special for that reason alone. It was the last summer before the storms in the East and West reached the isolationist beaches of the United States; the last summer where an eighteen year old from the Midwest would only have to worry about being a teenager. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the face of America.

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

Elton Snodgrass joined the Navy and went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes Illinois. He applied for pilot training but they made him an aerial gunner instead. Leaving Indiana, he carried two things from home, a pair of black converse sneakers he bought in high school for $9, and his nickname: “Jitterbug”, after the dance step he loved.

By November 1943, he was an Aviation Ordnance Man 2nd class, and a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo plane in Torpedo Squadron Twenty-Two (VT-22) on sea duty aboard the USS Independence. He had already seen action in the Marcus Islands, and flown raids on Wake and Rabaul before VT-22 was given a new task. The Independence, along with the carriers USS Essex and Bunker Hill, was now part of Task Force 50.3, providing air support for the US Marine landings at the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

On November 18th the flight crews of the Independence, along with other carrier and land base planes launched 910 sorties against Betio, bombing the airfield and other installations, flying 170 sorties the day after.

At dawn on November 20th, Task Force 50.3 again launches its planes at the island, the focus is ground targets in preparation for the invasion.  The planes land, and the naval bombardment of the island begins, and the first of the Marine assault force climbs into their landing craft. At nine in the morning, a half hour later than planned, the Marines make their way toward the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

VT-22 too heads toward Betio, flying continuing close air support missions.  Below, landing craft shepherd the 18,600 Marines invading the island.  The 1,900 horse power radial engine vibrates the airframe. The plane dips and climbs slightly as it navigates the tropical air.In the front of the Avenger, the pilot sees what is coming and reacts to it.  The airplane responds to his touch, his desire. Below him, the radio operator has the most room, space to man the radios and the ventral machinegun, things to keep him occupied. The turret gunner’s world is confined to a metal seat with a 50. caliber machine gun, a thin veil of Plexiglas separating him from the blue sky. He is almost like a passenger, having no control over where he is going, just knowing whatever lies ahead will be dangerous and that he cannot see the danger because he faces the rear.

Jitterbug watches the sky and waits.  He thinks of stuff from when he was a kid back in Indiana, things he carries with him in his mind. Stuff like selling strawberries in grade school, and waking up before the sun rose to work a milk route with his mother. His sister Doris, bowling with friends, the things that keep him going, things from the past he wants a future with. He thinks of Mary, the girl who waits for him. He retraces the steps of their last dance on the metal turret, the rubber soles of the black converse shoes muted by the engine noise. He carries his nickname with him too, written on his flight helmet and goggles.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

There is another thing he carries, something he shares with every man on the plane and the men down below: fear. Fear as the ground at Betio flickers when the Japanese defenses open up, fear when black puffs of anti-aircraft buffet the plane, as tracer bullets fill the air with bright glowing streaks; fear that would change Jitterbug’s full head of black hair almost bald.

When they drop their bombs, they head back to the carrier. Below them the Marines are engaging the Japanese. There is smoke over the task force, and it is from the Independence. A torpedo from a Japanese plane struck its starboard side. The ship is badly damaged, its flight deck closed. Jitterbug’s Avenger makes an emergency landing on the USS Essex. The Independence sails to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands for temporary repairs.

Two days later, the fight for Tarawa would be over. In three days, 1000 Marines and almost the entire Japanese garrison will lay dead on the island. There will be a documentary film about the battle that for the first time would show the American public the uncensored carnage of war.

Without a ship, Jitterbug’s crew flies raids with the Essex against Kwajalein before going to Pearl Harbor to catch up with the Independence as it heads to San Francisco.

In February 1944, Jitterbug would marry his sweetheart Mary while on a 30 day leave in the US. His crew would train for night flying before orders came for them to be shipped to the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens.  On a stop at Pearl Harbor, Jitterbug’s application for pilot training is approved with orders back to San Francisco. His Avenger crew head to battle in the Pacific without him, where, on their first mission they are shot down and killed.

Jitterbug would never become a pilot with the US Navy. He was honorably discharged after a week of pilot training. He returned to Terre Haute, Indiana, the place he had left in 1942. He read in the library, bowled with his friends and danced with his wife. But things were never the same as they had been that summer long ago in 1941, when high school had finished and life was waiting to be found.  Jitterbug had gone off to war and come back and life had moved on.

Elton Dale "Jitterbug" Snodgrass

Elton Dale “Jitterbug” Snodgrass

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug's flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

Jitterbug’s flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

It takes more than heroes

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetary on Iwo Jima

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetery on Iwo Jima

On 9:00 AM on March 26th 1945 a small strip of land in the Volcanic Islands became silent. The last major action had ended the night before, with a 300 man suicide charge by the Japanese. Iwo Jima would become the iconic battle for the US Marines in World War Two. It would also be the only battle where overall US casualties exceeded that of the Japanese. 6,800 Americans lay in the volcanic ash, in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, where the iconic flag raising took place.

When I think of Marines and Iwo Jima, I think of tough men, pushing forward yard by yard, with rifles and grenades, against a determined foe; the marine with a grenade in his hand and a flamethrower on his back. These are the men that captured the minds of Americans; the heroes of Iwo Jima. But when the heroes got in trouble who could they turn to? Who paved the way for their trek to Suribachi and immortality?

The 5th Marine Division saw its one and only combat at Iwo Jima. It was one of three Marine divisions on the island, and the only one new to fighting. William Manning was a corporal in the 5th Marine division. William wasn’t the hero who led men into battle to grapple with the enemy in hand to hand combat. William was an artilleryman, in Headquarters battery, 4th Battalion, 13th Marine Artillery Regiment. He was one of the men those heroes turned to when they needed help. Assistance so they could move forward.

William helped for the thirty-six days of the battle, then he never fired a shot in anger at the Japanese again; his next encounter with them came when the 5th Division went to Japan, to occupy it peacefully.

Napoleon Bonaparte once made the comment:

“With Artillery, War is made”

So William Manning made war, so that he could find peace, a peace that 2,416 of the 5th Division’s men would never know. But because of him and the others in the artillery, maybe a few more got to see it. Sometimes in war, it takes more than heroes.

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Encounters with the Rising Sun

Pack of Corporal Kenney, 4th Marine Regiment

Pack of Corporal Kenney, 4th Marine Regiment

On May 6th, 1942 the death march on Bataan had happened almost a month before. Now the island of Corregidor fell to the Japanese. The men of the 4th Marine Regiment and the other defenders sat on the dock surrounded by their captors awaiting an unknown future. They didn’t know it yet, that three and a half years of beatings, humiliation, starvation, disease and cruelty awaited them. Names of places like 92nd Garage, Bilibid, and Cabanatuan didn’t mean much to them on that day.

They couldn’t imagine the Japan bound “Hellships”, cargo ships unmarked as holding POW’s to protect them from friendly fire, inside which men would die packed in the holds, with little food, or water in the tropic heat; where one in five would die at the torpedoes of American submarines.
If luck was with them and they make it to Japan, they would become slaves, working in coal and copper mines, shipyards and factories. When it is all over, one in three would be dead.
It is often said “if things could talk, think of the stories they could tell.” This pack could tell a few about a young man named Richard Kenney; A Marine who carried it from the regiment’s days in Shanghai, China, to the defense of Corregidor. Maybe it could tell us of the POW’s forced march through the streets in front of the Filipino’s and how those Filipino’s cheered the defenders and were beaten by the Japanese when they offered food and water. It could go on about the cruel days and nights of the Hellships, and of days in Osaka main Camp at Chikko. Perhaps it could tell us how Corporal Kenney died at the camp, years before liberation, and how it made it back to the United States without him.

If it could talk it might tell us these things. But it leaves us to imagine for ourselves what it saw. It bears a mute witness to history and the life of a young man who once carried it.