World War II was probably the most catastrophic and heinous war in the entire history of man. Though lasted just five years, the carnage slaughtered 60 million to 70 million people and God only knows how many more were physically and mentally scarred for life. It created and nursed atrocities so hideous it’s difficult to believe human beings were actually reduced to such vile depths.
I’m a student of WW II, though not in a formal sense because in my college career I never had a history class. However, I’ve always been fascinated by the war years – from 1940 through 1945 – and I’ve read and researched so much about that period, I probably know more about it than most history professors.
The list of combat veterans from that era is rapidly shrinking. When I’m lucky enough to run across one, I like to spend some time talking with him. You may recall a column I wrote about Buckley’s John Blanusa, who was a tailgunner on B-17 bombing raids over Germany.
Well, the other day I sat down with Don Munger who, at age 89, can still relate vivid memories of his experiences in the Pacific Theater. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was working in a sawmill in Seattle. Three days after the U.S. declaration of war, he turned 18 and immediately joined the Marines. (He’d gone to the enlistment center to sign up for the Navy, but that line was so long he chose the Marine line instead.) He was abruptly pulled up by his moral and social roots and shipped off to San Diego and Camp Pendleton and, upon completion of basic training, shipped halfway around the world to New Zealand, where he spent another few months before being sent to Guadalcanal.
That island had already been invaded and secured by U.S. forces, but Japanese planes still bombed the place and these raids were Don’s first encounters with combat. One of the most terrifying sounds he’s ever heard, before or since, is the high-pitched scream Japanese planes made when they fell to earth after being shot down.
His first front-line battle experience came on the islands of Bougainville and Guam. Fortunately, in these campaigns he wasn’t in the first wave of invading troops because their landing crafts often got stuck on coral reefs surrounding the islands and, so situated, the men were sitting ducks for enemy mortars and rifle fire. And thus began the utter horror of headless bodies, legless Marines pumped full of morphine, splattered blood and body parts, and the dreadful ordeal of bombs and artillery falling all around.
And then came the legendary battle for Iwo Jima. (For the younger set, that’s where the famous flag-raising scene was photographed.) It was the bloodiest, most savage, campaign in Marine history. More Marines were killed on Iwo Jima than on all the other Pacific islands combined. It was during this epic battle that Don injured his back to such a degree he could no longer run –which is an awkward situation for a warrior – so he was pulled off that volcanic outcrop and sent to a hospital on Guam. All in all, he spent 28 months in the Pacific.
Then he came home, got married, raised three children and started breeding, training and racing thoroughbred horses. That’s one of the amazing things about WW II veterans. After defeating two of the worst dictatorial, militaristic empires in history and after witnessing some of the most horrible atrocities ever conceived, they came home and carried on with the rest of their lives as though nothing much had happened. It’s as though the war was just another job that had to be finished before moving on to other jobs. No wonder they’re called the “Greatest Generation.”