- - Sunday, August 16, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LAST TO DIE: A DEFEATED EMPIRE, A FORGOTTEN MISSION, AND THE LAST AMERICAN KILLED IN WORLD WAR II

By Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press, $26.99, 288 pages

Given that Japan started the Pacific War with a cowardly sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, it comes as small surprise that the last American to die in the war was killed by military extremists after both sides had agreed to end hostilities.

The victim, one of more than 800,000 casualties in the Pacific theater during the war, was Anthony James Marchione, born to Italian immigrant parents in Pottstown, Pa. Machine gunfire killed him six days after his 20th birthday while on a reconnaissance mission to determine whether the Japanese military was abiding by the cease-fire.



Stephen Harding, the editor of Military History, is fast achieving a reputation as a World War II historian of the first order. In engrossing and well-researched prose, he tells a two-tier story. First is that of Marchione, a youngster who was determined to fight for his country, only to die after peace had supposedly come. (A photo of a smiling Marchione brought a lump to the throat of this father).

Then there is the saga of hard-core Japanese militarists who adhered to the “bushido code,” which equated surrender with cowardice, and who tried to thwart Emperor Hirohito’s decision to spare his country further devastation. One senior air officer pointed to the 5,300 kamikaze aircraft “hidden from Allied eyes in caves, underground storage areas, and heavily camouflaged airfields across southern Japan,” awaiting suicide pilots. Last-ditch defense intentions were obvious to U. S. ground troops (see, for instance, George Feifler’s 1992 book “Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb”).

Here Mr. Harding puts paid to the claque of leftist deniers (especially in American academia) who still challenge President Truman’s decision to end the war with atomic weapons. As the Japanese army chief of staff pointed out to dissident officers, continuing the war was pointless. “Given that the Americans seemed entirely willing to keep dropping atomic bombs on Japan’s major cities — and one had to assume … that Tokyo was quite likely next on the target list — attempting to continue he war would most certainly result in many more dead Japanese.”

But the diehards persisted, and their threats sent many superiors into hiding to escape assassination. Here Mr. Harding treats us to history at its most dramatic, offering undeniable evidence that Hirohito was on the verge of losing control of his country. Officers make a frenzied effort to find and destroy a recording in which Hirohito agreed to Allied surrender; fortunately, they fail. A ranking Air Force officer, drunk and delirious, is thrust into a straitjacket and hauled off to a psychiatric wards to curb his rebellion. And perhaps most importantly, there is continuing confusion over whether all elements of the far-flung Japanese military were aware of the agreement.

Indeed, American planes which flew over Japan the day the agreement supposedly became final encountered resistance. Their mission was to determine whether the Japanese showed signs of hostility, and to select landing sites for American troops to start the occupation.

Despite these attacks, American commanders decided to send eight more aircraft over the same area the following day on other reconnaissance missions. But no one attempted to determine whether the earlier interception “had been the last hurrah of a small band of fighter pilots” or evidence of a continuing broad resistance.

As Mr. Harding comments, “the idea that no one attempted to verify that assumption before sending multiple crews back into what was quite possibly still the lion’s den is staggering.” One intelligence officer did speculate that sending the planes back over Japan, without a fighter escort, was a “fidelity test” of whether the Japanese were actually carrying through their surrender.

That the American planes did not attack the Japanese defenders was of no import to the Japanese airmen. Their commanders argued that the bushido code compelled them not to surrender; further, their base had received no official notification that the peace agreement was in effect. After weighing the evidence, Mr. Harding concludes that their resistance was mutiny.

In any event, Hobo Queen II, the craft carrying Tony Marchione, encountered trouble from the start. Mechanical problems meant that neither the belly nor nose turret guns would work. Camera mounts were broken. And mechanical problems caused two planes to abort and return to base before the flight reached Japan — cutting defensive firepower by half.

Japanese 20mm rounds riddled the plane, one hitting Marchione just below the sternum. He died in the arms of friends. Mr. Harding himself suffered severe wounds in Vietnam, and he acknowledges empathy with the young airman: “the surprise, the blinding pain, the frenzied efforts of buddies trying their best to stop the bleeding “

A five-star military read.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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