Picayune soldier remembers WWII

Published 12:16 am Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brig. Gen. John Hawkins Napier remembers where he was 65 years ago today when he heard that Japan had surrendered and World War II was over.

He was with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan preparing for a Nov. 1 invasion of Kyushu Island, on which was located the city of Nagasaki, the second Japanese city obliterated on Aug. 9 by an atom bomb named “Fat Boy.” Nagasaki was the division’s objective in the planned land invasion of Japan, Operation Olympic.

Prior to the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, Hiroshima was obliterated on Aug. 6 with the first A- bomb named “Little Boy.”

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Napier, now 85 and retired in Raymer, Ala., and who had joined the Marines  when he was only 17 on Dec. 7, 1942, in California, says that if Truman had not used the A-bomb he would probably have died in the invasion of Japan 65 years ago.

“We Marines were happy and celebrating,” says Napier today.

Napier was reared in California but his family Napier and Tate roots went deep in Pearl River Co. His father, after an educational career in California, would return to Picayune and serve as superintendent of Picayune schools.

Military planners estimated that American casualties would hit 1 million if the troops had to assault the remainder of the Japanese islands.

Those estimates were based on casualties from Okinawa, so although we might debate dropping the A-bombs today, for those whose lives were on the line in 1945, there was no question about what to do: Use it!

Napier says that he later personally saw the plans for the invasion when they were declassified by the War Dept., and he says that by the second month, the plans predicted that the 2nd Marine Division would no longer exist. Planners believed it would be destroyed in the initial phases of the invasion.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” says Napier, who began his 50-year military career in the Marines, and later joined the Air Force after graduating from Ole Miss in 1949. In the Air Force he worked up to brigadier general before retiring in the 1990s.

If the two bombs had not been dropped and the invasion would have taken place, the Japanese were even training children to take up pitchforks and knives and charge the Marines.

It would have been a slaughter and bloodbath. Even on Okinawa over a quarter of the civilian population had committed hari kari. Only a handful of Japanese soldiers survived. It would have been worse on the main islands.

Napier is one of only four with deep Pearl River County roots who have risen to flag rank in  military service. The other three were Admiral Shirley Stovall (Annapolis 1929), Brig. Gen. Delos Burks and current District Three Supervisor Hudson Holliday. Holliday and Napier are the only two still alive.

Even though Nagasaki had been destroyed by the A-bomb, Napier’s unit was still sent to Nagasaki as an occupation force, and Napier was horrified when he saw first on Sept. 23 the harbor and how the city was situated on top of high hills, almost mountains. It was the damage to the city and its strategic location that awed the Marines.

“If we had not been wiped out, we would have been ineffective, even if we had been able to take the city. It was almost impregnable, the way it was situated at the end of that harbor,” he said.

Only 36 days after the second A-bomb wiped out Nagasaki and its inhabitants, Napier was in the city with his fellow Marines, patrolling the remains of the city. The battle-hardened 2nd Division troopers were themselves unnerved with what they saw. “There was nothing; it was gone,” he said. “We could not believe that one bomb could do that much damage.”

He said Japanese citizens, which he called “Nips”, were still dazed and traumatized by what had happened to them, and that they were docile and bowed to GIs as they patrolled what was left of the city.

Most had no clothing of their own, and wore Japanese army clothing distributed by what remained of the Japanese units.

Napier wrote his father and mother, Dr. John H. Napier, Jr., and Lena Mae Tate Napier, about what he saw, and the letters reached Picayune in mid-October and Item owner and editor Chance Cole ran them in the newspaper on the front page, giving Picayune residents some of the first descriptions of what Nagasaki looked like from an on-scene eye witness, a Picaayune residents’ son, who was actually there.

Dr. Napier was superintendent of Picayune schools from 1943 to 1949 when he died suddenly of a heart attack. Lena Mae Tate Napier was a daughter of E.F. Tate, one of the founders of Picayune, the Bank of Picayune and the Picayune Item. He founded the bank and the Item on the same day, June 1, 1904.

After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese military leaders debated six days, and the peace party won the debate, and on Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Hirihito announced on radio the unconditional surrender of Japan. It was the first time the Japanese had even heard the emperor’s voice, whom they believed to be a god. Members of the Japanese military who disagreed with the decision committed suicide. Also, some Japanese commanders executed 100s of American prisoners as an act of revenge.

News swept across the Pacific and reached Picayune at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, Aug. 14. Picayune and Pearl River Co. residents were just getting off work and headed home, but a spontaneous celebration eruped. Japan and the Orient are one day ahead of the U.S. President Truman announced the surrender at 6 p.m. EST in a national radio broadcast on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

News of Japan surrendering coming in over radio and Western Union swept Picayune and PRC, and although there were no celebrations when the war ended in Europe, V-E Day, on May 8, the outbreak of celebration was spontaneous in Picayune when the Japanese surrendered because people knew the war was over.

People mulled around on the streets; drivers honked their horns; and filling stations remained open to well into the a.m. as residents pulled in and told the attendant to “fill-ER-up,” something they had not done for five years. Gasoline was rationed during the war.

The next day on Aug. 15, a Wednesday, exactly 65 years ago to this day, the churches opened their doors and citizens, according to the Item, streamed into the churches to give thanks to God that the war was over. “The churches were full,” reported the Item when it hit the streets the next day on Thursday. All businesses and plants closed down on Wednesday and Picayune and Pearl River Co. celebrated all day long before returning to work on Thursday.

Napier’s description of Nagasaki 36 days after the A-bomb exploded are vivid.

“They are still terrified by the bomb,” wrote Napier. “The harbor would have been impregnable to an assault. It was protected by inlets and mountains rose from the waters and the city is perched precariously on surrounding hills. The harbor is like a winding fiord, winding up to the foot of the city.”

“When we anchored, the damage from the atomic bomb was immediately apparent. Half the city is gone — the earth is just bare — a wide fringe around that is ruble, and the rest of the city has suffered a certain amount of damage as well.

“For instance only about two buildings of any size in town still have windows, and one of them constitutes my present quarters. Flimsier buildings even a good distance away look like a huge fist had smashed one side.

“The shipyards are about a half mile from the center of the blast, but they couldn’t turn out a rowboat, as only the metal frameworks stand. The aircraft factories were in the middle of it and exist not at all.

“Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I seem to feel contempt behind these Oriental frozen faces just because we act like good Joes instead of conquering tyrants. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I have a feeling that their contempt for us is really there.

“Yesterday we gabbed a long time via phrasebook, with the Nip guards here, guarding their old armory on our grounds. I’d like to know what they were really thinking. Lord knows we treat them like buddies instead of enemies — everytime there’s a lull in talk, someone passes the cigarettes — we’re smoking the Nips to death.”

An estimated 87,000 Nagasaki citizens eventually died from the explosion and its effects. Nagasaki was one of four targets selected for attack on that day, but the other three cities were pulled from the target list because they were covered with clouds.

The Nagasaki damage and deaths would have been more horrific except for the protection that the steep hills afforded portions of the city. Nagasaki was on the bomb list because it was a military port and large ship building city.

The scenes and destruction right after the bomb exploded seem to come from a science fiction movie.

The bomb itself was 10 ft. 8 in. long and weighed 10,000 lbs. Its explosive capacity was 20,000 tons of TNT. It was dropped from 28,000 ft. and exploded about 2,000 ft. over the city.

One of the most horrific stories was recounted by Sadako Moriyama. She had gone to a bomb shelter when the sirens sounded an approaching attack. Most ignored the warnings. After the bomb had exploded, she saw what she thought were two large lizards crawling into the shelter with her. Then she realized to her horror that they were human beings whose skin and flesh had been seered from their bodies by the blast that was as hot as the sun.

B29 superfortress bombers carried the A-bombs to their targets, the “Enola Gay” to Hiroshima and the least known “Bockscar” to Nagasaki. “Bockscar” made three bombing runs over the primary target of Kokura before giving up and turning toward Nagasaki.

Kokura was covered with clouds. Aug. 9, 1945, was Kokura’s lucky day.

While the Japanese announced their surrender on Aug. 15, historians say the war officially ended on Sept. 2 when Japanese representatives formally signed surrender documents aboard the “Missouri.”