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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Pacific Time on Target’

- - Thursday, September 27, 2012

PACIFIC TIME ON TARGET: MEMOIRS OF A MARINE ARTILLERY OFFICER 1943-1945
By Christopher S. Donner
Edited by Jack H. McCall Jr.
Kent State University Press, $29.95, 160 pages

"Pacific Time on Target" may be one of the last World War II memoirs by a veteran of that war. The vast majority of veterans have departed the scene, and the author of this book is 99. I'm happy to report that he is still alive, well and living independently in South Florida. This book has been literally 70 years in the making. Christopher Donner is a modest man, and he wrote the original manuscript shortly after the war ended as a way of describing his experiences to his family. It was not intended for publication, but his editor and sons eventually convinced him that it was a story worth telling for posterity.

As his editor, Jack H. McCall, points out, the book is also important because it is one of the few memoirs by an artillery forward observer to come out about the war. Even more than the infantrymen they were supporting, the observer teams had to put them in exposed positions to call in fire on the enemy. Their casualty rates in Europe and the Pacific were appalling.

Like so many of the Greatest Generation, Mr. Donner interrupted a promising life in the wake of Pearl Harbor to do what he felt had to be done. He was the product of an upper-middle-class upbringing in Philadelphia at a time when residents were something other than obnoxious sports fans. He graduated from Princeton, got married, and was beginning graduate studies at Stanford when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. He joined the Marine Corps as an officer candidate and was commissioned in time to see the end of the Guadalcanal fighting and other combat in the Solomon and Russell islands. Mr. Donner also survived the fighting on Guam and then went on to see the carnage that was the Battle for Okinawa, which provides the real meat of his memoir.

Although overshadowed by Tarawa and Iwo Jima in popular memory, Okinawa was a true hell on Earth for more than 70 days, and Mr. Donner, a lieutenant, was there every step of the way -- from a bloodless landing on Easter Sunday 1945 until the end in June.

Unlike most other battlefields in the Pacific, Okinawa was heavily populated. Although considered to be Japanese citizens, the Okinawa population saw themselves as a conquered people after the Japanese annexed their kingdom in the 19th century. Today, the population of any disputed territory is called "human terrain" and both sides take care to try to win over local civilians. In World War II, the Okinawans were seen by both sides as merely being in the way. The Americans treated the natives better than the Japanese, but the author witnessed some behavior by American GIs toward the native Okinawans that would be considered war crimes today.

Okinawa was a horrendous ordeal of mud and blood. It did not spare even very senior commanders. Army Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner became the second-highest American general to be killed in World War II. He died while visiting an artillery forward observer team similar to the author's, and in fact, had visited Mr. Donner's company several days before.

Mr. McCall, who edited the book, is an Army veteran. He wisely lets the author speak in his own voice after writing several introductory chapters explaining some of the terminology and giving context to the author's experience.

Modern readers may be somewhat put off by the author's dispassionate tone in the account. He viewed himself as a professional fighting an unpleasant but necessary job in an industrialized war. Although clearly disturbed by much of what he saw, he keeps his narrative flatly objective. This is a change from some of the highly charged memoirs of some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that have been recently published. He also writes in the argot of the times, as he first penned the account within a year of the war's end. Educated people really used to talk that way; in that respect, his account is a welcome fall-back to a more refined era.

If the book had been published in the 1940s or even the early '50s, it probably would have been controversial and shocking as people did not frankly discuss the atrocities and leadership failures that the author witnessed. War has changed much since Mr. Donner heard his last shot fired in anger. As terrible as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are, they have never approached the level of carnage of the World Wars. We occasionally need to be reminded of what our predecessors endured.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel and an adjunct professor at George Washington University.