Old Books and New Insights

I confess. I am a bookaholic, a bibliophile. New books, old books, it doesn’t matter. Turn me loose in a convention hall where the public library is selling off their excess and I’m in heaven for two hours.

In Cincinnati, I discovered a used bookstore that filled several floors of an ancient downtown building. I could have moved in.

I know where the best used bookstore is in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Birmingham, Alabama, and never pass either city without a brief stop-in.

But there is reason to this madness. And it’s far more than a nostalgia kick. (There is that too, but it’s not the major thing.)

Take the 1943 book I finished today. Purchased for 5 bucks somewhere–I forget where–“They Call It Pacific” is an eyewitness account of the opening days and months of the Second World War by Associated Press reporter Clark Lee.

Reading the book was a delight simply because it was not history. Lee was there, he saw it, he told of the conversations, described the people, and let us feel what he felt.

And like a preacher ought, I received several good sermon illustrations from the book. But more than that, these are “life” illustrations, not just grist for the sermon-making mill.

But first, a little background….

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Lee worked out of Japan. He saw the build-up to war first-hand and was friends with a number of government officials and military officers who later became our hated enemies. He escaped the country in November, 1941, just ahead of Pearl Harbor and full-scale war.

Clark Lee was in the Phillipines when MacArthur was forced to flee and the Japanese captured the country. Along with other leaders, he relocated to the island of Corregidor and went back and forth to Bataan to interview American soldiers who were fighting alongwith the Filipinos. Then, as those last bastions fell, he hopped a boat to Australia. He arrived back in Hawaii six months after Pearl Harbor and described the recovery going on. Then, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier that took part in the fight for Guadalcanal.

The book ends after the first full year of American involvement in WW II. I found it fascinating on several levels, some of them because of illustrations the book provides.

Illustration No. 1 Preparing for Disaster

Clark Lee was working out of Manila as the Japanese were tightening their grip on the Philippines. He keeps track of where they are located, where the U.S. and Filipinos are fighting, and knows what’s going on. That’s why I found this so strange….

“I went back to the Manila Hotel barber shop and had just gotten shaved and had one hand manicured, when Jacoby (one of his colleagues) telephoned. ‘Get over here as fast as you can,’ he said. ‘We may have to leave at any minute.'”

I find that stunning. The country is about to fall to the dreaded enemy and you are…getting…a…manicure?

What was it our Lord said about people who are living when He returns to earth? As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37-39).

Business as usual for the unbelievers.

Illustration No. 2 What fear does

The description of fear Clark Lee provides is as vivid as you’ll ever find. He’s on Corregidor and the Japanese bombs are falling from the sky bringing death and destruction.

“The bombs didn’t screech or whistle or whine. They sounded like a pile of planks being whirled around in the air by a terrific wind and driven straight down to the ground. The bombs took thirty years to hit. When they were falling they changed the dimensions of the world. The noise stripped the eagles from the colonel’s shoulders and left him a little boy, naked and afraid. It drove all the intelligence from the nurse’s eyes and left them vacant and staring. It wrapped a steel tourniquet of fear around your head, until your skull felt like bursting. It made you realize why man found he needed a God.”

The Bible says, “Fear hath torment” (I John 4:18). Indeed.

Illustration No. 3 Leadership Failures

Along with the rest of Americans and our Allies, Clark Lee was thrilled at the 1942 victories of our Pacific forces over the Japanese in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. These were the first battles lost by Japan in centuries and served as a wakeup call to its leadership.

However, what perplexed Lee was that when these battles were fought, the United States had no more planes and ships than they had had the day after Pearl Harbor. So the question is: why didn’t we take the fight to the enemy then? Why had we waited so long?

“The answer, apparently, is that the Pearl Harbor attack was a psychological blow to many of our admirals. They had put their faith in those ‘elephants,’ the battleships. Stripped of their battleships they were as lost as a man suddenly deprived of his trousers in the middle of Fifth Avenue. Their instinct was to cover up, to assume the defensive rather than to seek out the enemy for a finish fight. Nearly everyone who saw the Pearl Harbor attack told me that if the Japs had followed up and landed troops they could have taken Honolulu easily. Our aerial defenses had been smashed and there was a great deal of confusion and disorganization.”

On the same note, I recall reading somewhere that when Hitler invaded Russia, the Nazis were able to win so many victories at first because Stalin was shocked into inaction. It took weeks for him to emerge from that shock-induced coma and rally his people to face Hitler’s hordes.

That happens. It probably explains the federal government’s actions following 9-11, Katrina, and the Gulf oil disaster that is still going on as I write.

Leadership is a lot of things and is not easily defined, described, or delineated. But one thing a leader must always do is be prepared for any eventuality. So he continually bombards his underlings with “What contingency plans do we have?” and “What if that doesn’t work?” and “Who else can we call on for help?”

One more thing about Clark Lee’s “They Call It Pacific.”

As he writes, in 1943, the war still has over two years to go. He has, of course, no way of knowing what the outcome will be, other than a full confidence that “we” will win this thing.

Toward the end of the book, Lee devotes an entire chapter to analyzing the Japanese citizens, military, and leadership. He gives them credit for plans well made and faithfully executed, for their discipline (except when off duty and drinking), and the superior design and quality of many of their planes and weapons, at least at first. Alongwith the rest of the world, he stands in awe and dismay at the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. (At the end of the war, when the prison camps were opened, we discovered how little of that we actually knew.)

Then, considering the fierce determination of the Japanese to win at all costs and never to consider surrender as an option, Lee wonders what it will take to defeat them. He writes,

“I believe that when our big bombers can cruise over the Japanese islands night after night, spreading death and fire and bringing the horror of war home to the islands themselves, there will be such a widespread terror and panic as to seriously disrupt the life of the country, now devoted almost exclusively to feeding the Imperial war machine. Soldiers may have to drive civilians to work at bayonet point.

We know now that this did not happen.

“There is no reason to believe as yet, however, that even a series of serious defeats will break down the morale of Japan’s armed forces. Possibly one crushing blow after another might produce such an effect; but from all evidence in the first year of the war it seems more likely that the Japanese will fight vigorously and unflinchingly until an overwhelming weight of steel and explosives smashes their ships, shipyards, and munitions factories, and completely destroys their power to resist.”

At this distant vantage point, we know what it took to subdue the military and convince the leadership: nothing less than two atomic bombs. Clark Lee was right.

War is hell indeed. There are no victors, only survivors. I don’t recall who said that, but it’s true.

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