Two welcome rings.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a four-part series excerpted from the introduction of Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, reprinted with Doubleday’s permission. Part I of the series can be read here and II here.
But still this was not the end to this strange unfolding cycle of events. Finally, on March 31, 2002, on the eve of the fifty-seventh anniversary of the landing on Okinawa, I received an unexpected call from one Louis Ittmann, another veteran of Fox Company who had also learned of my inquiry. Yes, he too had known Victor Hanson quite well, and confirmed the picture of him — a massive, good-natured Swedish college graduate who bled to death from a machine gun burst on Sugar Loaf Hill. After an engaging conversation, Louis Ittmann finished by requesting something quite unexpected: would I, he asked, like Victor’s ring?
Was this 1945 or 2002, I thought — and was I a comfortable forty-eight-year-old professor, or the old Swedish patriarch Nels Hanson, tottering out in his vineyard at eighty-one, stricken with the news of his lost grandson? Ittmann then explained. In a premonition of his death on Sugar Loaf Hill, Victor had earlier asked his friends to, in the event of his demise, remove his treasured ring and send it home. They had tried; but in attempting to deliver it to Kingsburg, California, out of courtesy they had first called our farm. The distraught family — my uncle, grandparents, and cousins — was too upset to come to the phone. Thus the good steward, Louis Ittmann, since that awful night fifty-seven years ago, had watched over Victor’s ring. On May 21, 2002, it arrived in the mail, its band cut, either from wear or the necessary efforts to remove it from the finger of Victor sometime after he was brought down from Sugar Loaf Hill. I am now holding it as I write this, and as a classicist I am mesmerized by the engraved silhouette of a Roman legionary. When did Victor buy it? And why was a Roman soldier on a ring of a farm boy in central California of the late 1930s and 1940s?
Since my parents are dead and the rest of most other Hansons as well, those and other questions I suppose will remain unanswered. But I do know that I have never communicated with more gracious men than those 6th Marine Division veterans of that awful night on May 18 on Okinawa — Whitaker, Sherer, Senko, Twigger, Ittmann, and a few others — who kindly and freely shared their remembrances with me by letter and phone some fifty-seven years later. There was no bitterness evident in their prose and in their voices against the questionable strategy of sending them all head-on against the entrenched and veteran crack troops just weeks before the war’s end; nor any lasting hatred mentioned of the Japanese; nor apologies for their tough combat; nor anything but moving appreciation expressed for this present country, especially in this current trial of our own.
When I asked whether there could have been another way to win Okinawa, one sighed and said, “Maybe — but Okinawa was an island of thousands of enemy soldiers in our way to Japan, and we couldn’t just leave that many of them behind us. We were at war.” When I pressed further whether the tactics of head-on charges against entrenched troops made sense, the general consensus was, “Who knows? But that was the Marine way and we accepted it. It was our job to take the island, and we did it.” Despite the horror of what they went through, there seemed a Virgilian sense of pride in their sacrifice:Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit [Perhaps there shall come a day when it will be sweet to remember even these things].
Given the large number of American dead on Okinawa, I do not believe that the good and experienced men who planned the storming of Okinawa — Operation Iceberg — in the luxury suites of the San Francisco St. Francis Hotel were all that wise in the manner of their war making. Neither do I give all that much credence to the United States Army’s official narrative of the campaign, which concluded with the confident excuse, “The military value of Okinawa exceeded all hope.” I acknowledge that both traditional and revisionist historians have only scorn for those like me who question the need for or the logic of Iceberg — and I can offer no alternative to the strategy of taking the island that might have ensured fewer dead on either side. Surely I do not know how the Americans could have gone ahead with plans to invade Japan with the knowledge that they either could not or would not eliminate first a veteran army of 110,000 Japanese on Okinawa at their rear. And I also know that others more illustrious died on Okinawa — Ernie Pyle, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner himself, and several Medal of Honor winners. And I grant that the death of a twenty-three-year-old farm boy I never met from Kingsburg, California, pales besides two hundred thousand combined Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians incinerated, blown apart, and slowly starved to death that summer. Yes, I accept all that, but I also know of the wide ripples of one man’s death, and as I look at his ring they have not ended — at least not quite yet.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson