Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Did I ever tell yeh me brother's in the Navy?
"He's on a destroyer, H.M.S. Harrier.
"He told me he's spent the last five years escortin' convoys from America an' Canada. Food an' fuel. Supplies for industry.
"It all goes to Britain, but enough of it ends up in Dublin or Rosslare.
"That's why we've not gone hungry, just in case yeh were wonderin'.
"He said the Royal Navy's lost a lot o'ships to U-Boats. A lot o lads've gone down with them.
"He told me that... an' I didn't feel very neutral."
I wasn't intending to review this volume of WAR STORIES, figuring readers know what they're getting by now, but exactly as with WAR STORIES VOL 3, I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to. As always with Ennis, in addition to giving us a brilliantly well written piece of action, we get tales that educate as much as inform. They're always as heavily grounded in reality as a bogged-down infantry patrol taking heavy fire in the muddy lanes and densely packed trees of the Reichwald, the Imperial Forest, a historic woodland since the time of the Holy Roman Empire in the heart of Germany.
Which not-so-coincidentally, is the backdrop for this story of a rather personal moral conflict amongst two members of the remnants of the 3rd platoon of the Irish Rifles. Having already enjoyed the delights of the bocage in France, life wasn't getting any easier for the Allied footsoldiers as they headed into the Fatherland itself en route to Berlin. I was well aware that a number of brave men from the Irish Republic, many with long family traditions of fighting for British regiments, had joined up in WW2, despite initially facing arrest from their own government if even they tried to leave the country, including several thousand who deserted from the Irish Defence Forces.
I wasn't aware, however, that there was no conscription from Northern Ireland, a decision taken by the British government due to the heated political situation at the time, as was the case at the time of WW1 as well, though in both conflicts that didn't stop a great number of volunteers signing up, around 38,000 Northern Irishmen in the case of WW2. I won't give you any more information about the tête-à-tête in question here, but suffice to say this particular platoon has some soldiers with, shall we say, rather differing political views...
Then, as with WAR STORIES VOL 3, this volume is also a double header, and here the second tale features the fighter pilots of a US air squadron stationed on Iwo Jima, escorting bombers on their 660-mile trip to Tokyo. Plus, of course, the equally daunting return over a vast stretch of ocean, where weather conditions and mechanical failures were just as likely to prove fatal as a dogfight with the enemy.
There's much food for moral thought again here, this time on the absolute opposite statistical end of the scale to the first story. But even so, whilst this is partly a tale about the sheer numbers involved in the war of Pacific attrition as the Americans attempted to sap the Japanese will to fight to the death for their Emperor, for those on the front line, it was still a very personal affair.
Here we see matters through the eyes of the grizzled, war-weary veterans and also the very raw fresh-out-of-flying school recruits. Still, combat in the skies seems a much more survivable option than being a Jarhead tasked with hand-to-hand fighting fervent fanatics intent on defending their divine leader and blessed nation to the very last man...
"What's your opinion, Captain? I mean the marines are pretty obviously going to be the first ashore..."
"I think it's going to be the usual bloodbath, Doctor. Or worse than usual: if you look at how hard they fought for this little pimple, you can imagine what Japan itself will be like. I just hope it'll be worth it this time."
"Well... of course it'll be worth it..."
"I think what the Captain means is Iwo Jima wasn't."
"You know, I'm a guest here, Major. I should probably shut up, I don't mean to repay your hospitality by saying anything out of line..."
"Not a bit of it. We're all grown-ups here."
"Well... we lost nearly seven thousand marines taking this place. That's lost as in killed, not including wounded. My company took eighty-eight percent casualties, and, well, what is it you boys do here again...?"
"What do we do? We escort the bombers knocking hell out of the Japs... which'll make it a lot easier when you go up on those beaches..."
"I've heard that one before, Captain. But say Iwo Jima didn't exist, or we'd failed to take it: those bombers wouldn't be sent to Tokyo anyway?"
"Because I happen to know they've been sending them out since last summer. We only hit this place in February."
"They took losses operating without us, don't forget."
"Heavy losses? How many men in one of those things?"
"So how many aircraft do you have to save to justify the men we left behind on Iwo?"
"I'm not sure it's quite as simple as that."
"Forgive me, Doctor. When I said my company, I meant the one I was in charge of. To me it's twice as simple as that."
Set against the prospect of a protracted campaign to take the Japanese home islands - with the firebombing of cities with houses made from wood and paper being the targets of choice (due to poor accuracy making well defended industrial targets like refineries nearly impossible to hit) seemingly having little or no effect on Japanese morale or desire to continue to wage war - you can perhaps understand why the US government took the decision to drop two atomic bombs. It undoubtedly greatly shortened the war in the Pacific by forcing the Japanese to capitulate, despite incurring huge civilian casualties in the process. They probably weren't using the term collateral damage at that point in time, but it's certainly the most spectacular examples of it still. This, then, is a little glimpse into what was happening at the sharp end of the Pacific theatre that undoubtedly factored heavily into that stark choice.
It's a shame BAREFOOT GEN is currently out of print, because as anti-war stories go, Keiji Nakazawa's loosely auto-biographical opus is a tough, emotionally bruising, but essential read. For more WW2 material from a Japanese point of view in general I can't recommend highly enough Shigeru Mizuki's autobiographical inspired ONWARDS TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS about the defence of the Pacific islands. Also his SHOWA material, SHOWA VOL 2 1939-1944 and SHOWA VOL 3: 1944-1953, detailing the modern history of Japan, again spiced with a dash of autobiography, particularly if you are interested in what was going on in Japan itself during WW2, and its aftermath on the Japanese psyche. If you're also interested in finding out about just how Japan suddenly started focusing outwards and rose in global prominence to become such a fascistic, military dominated regional powerhouse, I'd suggest starting with SHOWA VOL 1: 1926-1939.