As the World War II generation ages, American society has been innundated with a renewed fascination with what is arguably the most enduring event of the 20th century. From Holloywood movies, to television series, to more memoirs than one can read, World War II continues to capture the American imagination. But do our high school textbooks do this event justice? When it comes to the Pacific Theater in World War II, the textbooks often miss the most compelling aspects of the fight. Unless one reads the memoirs, one misses the harsh, painful stories of poor conditions, racial hatred and atrocities.
Many American high schools use the textbook, “The Americans.” It's a fine book, well organized, useful graphics and, for the most part, good information.1 However, when it comes to the Pacific Theater, “The Americans” falls short. Of necessity, “The Americans” focuses on the major battles, why they were important, who won and how many men died. The graphics show who moved where, pictures of anonymous men and maybe women. The questions focus on large questions of political or social importance. One expects this in a survey course textbook. However, if you ask any student of history, he or she will tell you with starry eyes that it was a personal story that captivated the imagination. Generally, we choose to study history because, some way, some how, it became personal. Outside of section introductions and the occasional sidebar, “The Americans” relegates personal stories to the supplementary reading booklets.
More recent history books and documentaries about WWII focus on these personal stories. For example, in Ken Burns' PBS series (and companion book), one hears about Eugene B. Sledge and his service in the Pacific Theater.2 In a concise, understated way, Sledge demonstrates the deprivations faced by American soldiers in the South Pacific. For example, water. While fighting on Peleliu, Sledge and his company were ordered to restock their water from 5 gallon drums of water. After intense fighting in 100+ degree heat, you didn't have to ask Sledge and his buddies twice. They poured out the water, thirstily drank, only to discover the drum used to be used for gasoline and it hadn't been clean properly. Despite being so obviously tainted, Sledge and his men drank up because even awful water was better than dying of thirst or heat stroke. Nothing like having an upset stomach on top of the normal terror that accompanies fierce fighting!3 Eugene Sledge’s story provides insight to the on the ground realities of the Pacific theater so often missed in survey textbooks.
Fighting was not the only thing that was fierce in the Pacific Theater. By reading sources outside the standard textbook, one learns of the fierce racial hatred that permeated the Pacific Theater. Sledge describes this hatred as “A primitive brutish hatred as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands.”4 This is a hatred that goes beyond labeling Japanese or Japanese-Americans as “Japs” or putting them in internment camps. This is a hatred that, for many soldiers, justified atrocities and is often sanitized out of standard textbooks. Was it really men of the “Greatest Generation” that used K-bar knives to dig gold teeth out of wounded―not dead―Japanese soldiers? Was it really men of the “Greatest Generation” that argued over this wounded enemy soldier as to whether or not he should be killed before being divested of his teeth?5 Indeed it was. This begs the question: does this hatred, and its subsequent atrocities, make the soldiers of the Pacific theater any less great?
Interestingly, our textbooks do not bleach out the Japanese atrocities committed against American soldiers. For example, the Bataan Death March is conspicuously discussed. American soldiers died by the thousands. American soldiers were starved (maybe even a picture illustrates it). Personal testimony given as to the horrible conditions American soldiers faced. What does the book leave out? Quite simply the fact that Japanese soldiers of World War II did not believe in surrender and they had no respect for soldiers who did surrender. Soldiers who surrendered did not have to be treated honorably because soldiers who surrendered were without honor. Add this to extreme ethnocentrism and it's easy to see Japanese racial hatred towards Americans.6 Racial hatred was a part of the Pacific Theater but too often our textbooks only give one half the story and, even then, do not tell the whole story. An understanding of Japanese culture does not exonerate the actions of the Japanese in the war, but provides historical depth central to a valid investigation of the past.
To learn the whole story, one must study a variety of sources. Over and over again, WCSD's Teaching American History Project has shown teachers the value of primary source documents. From a Comstock era dry goods store's ledger pages to newspaper articles about woman suffrage in Nevada to war memoirs, these primary source documents bring history to life. Never is this more true than while studying war. Reading what soldiers such as Eugene B. Sledge had to say deepens the regular narrative of the Pacific Theater. Is the “Greatest Generation” great because they survived events such as Peleliu or Bataan? Is the appellation “Greatest Generation” a bitter lie because, when on the battlefield, American soldiers did things that would make civilians shudder in horror, things textbooks imply only Germans or Japanese soldiers would do? Or, is the truth somewhere in-between? Perhaps Harry Fosdick had the right idea, “The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst.” With primary sources, students of history discover a muddier, yet infinitely richer understanding of events such as the Pacific Theater during World War II.
1 Danzer, Gerald A. McDougal Littell The Americans. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2003. Print.