Constable: Recognizing war heroes and horrors part of Veterans Day
As a little boy who just found out his dad fought in World War II, the bloodiest war in history, I had to know.
"Dad, did you kill anybody?" I asked.
"Not that I know of," Dad answered. As the flight engineer on a B-29 flying out of the island of Tinian, Dad said he never fired his pistol in battle. He said he was polite to the men, women and children who lived on the island where his base was built. He noted that while he was shot at a lot, he never even saw the faces of the enemy soldiers trying to kill him.
It wasn't until years later that I realized my father, U.S. Army Air Corps Master Sgt. Wilson Constable, flew 25 missions over Japan and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in a firebombing of Tokyo that killed more people in a single night than died when atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
I'm proud of my dad, who died in 2003 and certainly ranks as one of the "Greatest Generation" who saved the world from fascism and cruel dictatorship. But that war was never as simple as good versus evil. In a long-overdue trip to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans last week, we were given a more complete story of that war.
World War II killed a whopping 416,800 American military personnel, but that's only a portion of the 15 million military members killed across the globe. Three times as many civilians, 45 million, also perished in that war. While it's easy for us to visualize World War II as Americans defeating Adolf Hitler's Nazis and the Japanese, the war truly involved the entire world.
The United Kingdom lost 450,700 people. An estimated 457,000 Italians died. Korea had as many as 473,000 killed. About 567,600 people were killed in France. Hungary lost 580,000. Greece lost as many as 800,000 people. Romania lost 833,000. Yugoslavia lost a million. French Indochina lost 1.5 million. A million or so people died in the Philippines. Another 2.5 million lost their lives in India. Japan lost 2,120,000 military members and another million civilians. Poland lost 5.6 million people. Germany lost 5.5 million soldiers and another 3 million or so civilians. At least 20 million Chinese died during the war, and that figure could be as high as 50 million. And the Soviet Union had 24 million people killed during World War II.
A map in the museum of the Japanese cities firebombed by B-29s shows the percentage of each town that was destroyed, and compares the size to an American city. Destroying 39.9% of Tokyo was the equivalent of wiping out 39.9% of New York City. Osaka, the same size as Chicago, had 35.1% of the city destroyed, while Nagoya, the same size as Los Angeles, was 40% destroyed. Smaller cities also suffered tremendous damage. The same size as Evansville, Indiana, Fukui was 86% destroyed. Hiroshima, which was the size of Seattle, was 41.8% destroyed, and Nagasaki, the same size as Akron, Ohio, saw 35.6% of the city destroyed.
After the two atomic bombs had fallen and Japan was about to surrender, the museum tells the story of First Lt. Maurice Picheloup, whose B-29 flew the last firebombing mission over Japan on the night of Aug. 14-15, 1945, waiting for the code word "Utah" that would abort their mission. The crew felt "disappointment as we approached Japan with no Utah," Picheloup said. "That we would once again be burning relatively small cities was abhorrent to all of us."
Only 389,292 World War II veterans remain in the U.S., and we lose another 294 daily. "Every day, memories of World War II -- its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs -- disappear," the museum notes. Recognizing the abhorrence, the sadness, the horror, the loss, is as much a part of Veterans Day as celebrating the defeat of fascism, and honoring the bravery, heroism and sacrifices of Americans.