The first U.S. military men to land on the Japanese mainland at the end of World War II were 5,000 lightly armed paratroopers of the 11th Airborne Division, racked with worries about a possible ambush by die-hard Japanese soldiers and civilians.
“When we landed, we were told to be alert and ready for any unforeseen hostile action by Japanese die-hards and fanatics,” said George Doherty, 70, of Anaheim. “Most of the Japanese officers who greeted each of the 250 planeloads of troopers from Okinawa had side arms and their Samurai swords swinging from their belts.”
“Everybody was scared to death,” said Len Wallach of Los Angeles, then an 18-year-old buck private and now a retired Army colonel.
Tuesday will mark 50 years since the wary paratroopers landed at Atsugi air base in a prelude to the formal Japanese surrender that rang down the final curtain on World War II. Both Doherty and Wallach will be back at Atsugi to commemorate the occasion.
Wallach left Saturday for Tokyo to speak at an anniversary ceremony there with former comrades, commemorating the operation that climaxed later that day with the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding general of the Allied Pacific campaign.
Japan, stunned and demoralized in early August, 1945, by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had sent word abroad of its intent to surrender and V-J Day was proclaimed by Allied nations on Aug. 15.
But Japan as a nation was still functioning under its own government. The military forces in its home islands were still armed, organized and unconquered, under leaders who had repeatedly vowed to defend their country to the death. The first troops to arrive would be outnumbered by thousands to one.
So when the first C-54 transport planes flew within sight of snow-capped Mt. Fuji in the early hours of Aug. 30, 1945 (Aug. 29 in the United States), most of the young paratroopers fretted over what reception they would meet.
“The Japanese were terrified,” Doherty said. “They had been told these were American paratroopers who had conquered Japan’s elite forces at Leyte, Manila and Corregidor and that they were ‘ferocious fighters.’
“Mt. Fuji was gorgeous--just as beautiful as we had seen in postcards,” recalled Doherty, who like Wallach headed for Tokyo on Saturday after helping organize the 50th-anniversary reunion.
Wallach, now a trim 68, born into a military family and himself a Green Beret officer in Vietnam, agreed that “the paratroopers were a bunch of deadly guys, all right.”
At the same time, said Wallach, that lone U.S. airborne division fighting in the Pacific war was at only 60% of its normal strength and was lightly armed.
“But the occupation forces found to their surprise that the Japanese were very docile,” Wallach said.
Another veteran of the 11th Airborne Division, William Letwin, observed in a reminiscence of the same landing in the current issue of National Review magazine: “The Tokyo area was not only safe but weirdly placid.”
Traveling in dilapidated open trucks supplied by the Japanese, Letwin was in a U.S. convoy that went from the airport to temporary quarters at Yokohama during the evening rush hour.
Citizens on railroad platforms “looked straight ahead, faces expressionless, like soldiers standing at attention,” wrote Letwin, noting that the Japanese were faithfully following the Emperor’s unprecedented radio broadcast earlier in the month, when instructions were given.
Wallach, interviewed in his home in Los Angeles’ West Hills area shortly before his departure, said that he wasn’t as worried as his comrades as they flew into Japan, and even that he was asleep when the transport plane landed at Atsugi.
“I was born in Hawaii and grew up with Japanese friends, and lived in Tokyo while my father was stationed at the U.S. embassy around 1932,” Wallach said. (He would later make his home with wife and children only two miles from Atsugi for 12 years while he fought in Vietnam.)
After Wallach’s plane landed, he immediately left on an assignment 15 miles away where he would be ferrying VIPs between temporary U.S. Army quarters and ships in Tokyo Bay, where on Sept. 3 the unconditional surrender pact was signed by Japanese leaders on the battleship Missouri.
Wallach said most of the 11th Airborne Division was soon assigned to three towns in the northern part of Japan’s largest island of Honshu and to the city of Sapporo on the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
“The [Army] wanted to get us out of the Tokyo area--the paratroopers were not exactly socially skilled,” Wallach said with a smile.
“But once we got up north it wasn’t long before we all had girlfriends.”
In ceremonies Tuesday at Atsugi, now a U.S. Navy base, a life-size statue of MacArthur will be unveiled in recognition of the general’s role as architect of Japan’s postwar constitution, Doherty said.
The bronze work was commissioned by Japanese businessman Kenkichi Takahashi of Ayaso City and sculpted by a Japanese artist, Doherty said.
Wallach, who was asked to speak on behalf of the ex-paratroopers during the ceremony, said he will try to walk a line between diplomacy and frankness.
“I haven’t written it yet, but I know I’m not going to pull any punches,” Wallach said.
“I got this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say something on behalf of the men who died because of the aggression of a heartless nation,” he said. “I have no animosity toward the Japanese soldiers, but it just grates me and thousands of others that the Japanese government has not apologized to Korea and the Philippines.”
The plain-spoken ex-soldier also said that, against the wishes of his wife and a number of colleagues, he intends to perform an act of defiance in the tradition of warriors before him.
After the ceremony, Wallach said he will walk out of sight of the crowd--but with a photographer in tow--and urinate on the airfield.
“It is a way of taking a stand against the [Japanese government’s] lack of contrition and [the U.S. government’s] lack of concern for the feelings of the soldiers that went before us.”
The tradition, according to Wallach, can be traced back to Athenian and Roman days and was most famously repeated in World War II by U.S. Gen. George Patton, when his armored division crossed the Rhine River into Nazi Germany.