Saturday, March 20, 2010


Within months of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, Japanese Imperial troops had conquered and occupied much of the southwestern Pacific, captured the “impregnable” British fortress of Singapore, and laid claim to the petroleum and rubber-rich Dutch East Indies. By June, the last U.S. troops holding to a small piece of Bataan had surrendered, and the Philippines were in the hands of Japan’s rampaging forces. Even as the U.S. Navy prevented the impending fall of strategic Midway Island, Japanese troops landed and established a foothold on Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians, threatening both coastal Alaska and the American west coast as well as sea routes across the north Pacific.
Because we enjoy the benefits of “rear-view vision”, it is easy for historians of today to see that the battle of Midway in June, 1942 was the turning point in the Pacific war. Japan was never again able to resume the offensive, and while the U.S. military capacity was expanding month by month, Imperial Japan had lost the core of its Pacific fleet, and the best of its most experienced airmen by the end of that first summer. The successful amphibious landings on Guadalcanal signaled the beginning of the so-called island-hopping campaign which would ultimately take U.S. forces to the very home waters of the “Land of The Rising Sun”. Knowing this, it might be difficult for those of us who study World War II history to recognize that the enemy did not see things that way. To the Japanese people and members of her fighting forces, who were never permitted to have access to war news, defeat was an inconceivable concept. A century of militarism and a military culture imbued with Yamato damashii (Japanese Warrior Spirit) made surrender an unthinkable eventuality. Undoubtedly, some Japanese fighting men took this ancient code more seriously than did others, and that brings us to one of the most compelling stories to come to us from the steaming jungles of that faraway but not so long-ago conflict.
Hirro Onoda became a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941, at the age of nineteen. Trained as an Intelligence Officer, he found himself in December, 1944 serving his Emperor in the Philippines at a time when things were not going well there for his side. On October 20th, General Douglas MacArthur himself had waded ashore at Leyte, as Americans and Australians began the bloody campaign to retake the country MacArthur had previously called “home”, and to which he had famously promised to “return”. On December 26th, Onoda was put ashore on the island of Lubang, a jungle-clad strip of land situated about 75 air miles southwest of Manila. He was given direct orders from his commanding officer, Major Taniguchi to rally other soldiers on the 80-square-mile island in its defense, with the added words, “under no circumstances will you surrender, nor are you to take your own life”.
An American and Filipino invasion force finally got around to Lubang island on Feb. 28, 1945 quickly killing or capturing the Japanese garrison; all that is except for Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda and three other soldiers he took with him to hide in the hills. Unlike the ordinary Japanese fighting man, Onoda had received special training in guerilla warfare, and with his small band he set about doing just that.
On August 15th, 1945, the people of Japan heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito on their radios for the first time, but what surprised them most was his announcement that the war was over. The Empire of Japan had accepted terms agreed to with the enemy. Just two weeks later, on Sept. 2nd, the instrument of surrender would be formally signed on the veranda deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo harbor in a simple ceremony that took only 23 minutes.
In October, Lt. Onoda and his men saw the first leaflet claiming that the war was over, but since they had been fired upon several days before, they discounted it. Still later, leaflets were dropped on them from U.S. aircraft, demanding surrender, but the soldiers were sure it was just one more Allied hoax. One member of the small band walked away in September, 1949, and after six months on his own, surrendered to Filipino forces. In 1952, letters and photos from their families back in Japan were dropped to them, but they continued their guerilla activities, disrupting transportation, burning rice fields, and firing on “the enemy” whenever they had the chance. The last of Onoda’s team fell to police gun fire in October, 1972, leaving Lieutenant Onoda on his own to continue his duties as a soldier of Nippon, living off the country and shooting a cow now and then for extra protein.
In February, 1974, Onoda’s whereabouts were uncovered by a young Japanese student who had been searching for him. Norio Suzuki befriended and won the confidence of the bearded warrior, but found he did not have the kind of authority Lt. Onoda would accept. Armed with photos and details of his encounter, Suzuki was able to arrange a meeting on Lubong between Onoda and his former commander, Major Taniguchi, now a humble bookseller in Japan.
Finally, on March 9th, 1974, Hiroo Onada, Second Lieutenant, Japanese Imperial Army, dressed in uniform and with his sword at his side, laid down his perfectly-maintained arms and ammunition, and with tears streaming down his face, accepted the fact that his country had been defeated, and he must surrender. Lieutenant Onoda’s War had finally come to an end almost thirty years after the official end of hostilities. He had spent 33 of his 52 years under arms in the service of his country.
Onoda found life in modern Japan difficult, and became a cattle rancher in Brazil, where he and his wife raised a family and lived for several years. In 1996 he returned to Lubang Island, where he donated $10,000 to the local school. As far as I know, he is still alive and would be 88 years old.

Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda emerged from the mountains of Lubang 29 years after the end of World War II. He was pardoned by the Philippine President and has devoted much of his life to working with youth.


Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart wearing the star which was a capstone to more than 27 years of devoted service. Stewart died at his home in Beverly Hills July 2nd, 1997 at the age of 89.

He was born James Maitland Stewart, on May 20th, 1908 in a Pennsylvania town with the confusing name of Indiana. Known from the beginning as “Jimmy”, he grew up in small town America, working in the family hardware store, singing in the church choir, and playing the accordion at Sunday evening “family nights” He is fondly remembered – and will long be remembered – as one of Hollywood’s most famous and well-loved actors. Tall, trim, handsome and modest, he projected the very image of the characters he portrayed in such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both on and off the stage or the Big Screen. His cadre of close friends included the likes of Henry Fonda, (with whom he shared living quarters in New York, and later in Hollywood), Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Ginger Rogers, and other Hollywood luminaries. That is one side of Jimmy Stewart; the side well known to several generations of movie-goers, and those who today, still watch the late-night reruns of hits that never lose their luster.
From an early age, young Jimmy was fascinated by aviation, and while a high school student, he was captivated by his first fifteen minute flight with a barnstorming pilot, in return for the fifteen dollars, (one dollar per minute), he had been saving from odd jobs all summer for the opportunity. Jimmy’s sometimes overbearing father, Alex Stewart gave his permission reluctantly, so worried that his son might be injured that he insisted on bringing along the family doctor, who sat with him in the car with the engine running until his son was back safely on the ground. For Jimmy, his feet never really touched the ground again.
With a Princeton degree in architecture, some acting roles on Broadway, and a contract with MGM in Hollywood behind him, his love for airplanes found some fulfillment when he obtained a pilot’s license, and began accruing flying time, even competing in a coast-to-coast air race as co-pilot. He flew regularly, out of a then-modest airstrip known as Minesfield, now known as LAX; Los Angeles International Airport.
What should have been the best of times for Stewart, who had just starred in The Philadelphia Story, became a time of uneasiness, as the war in Europe took on a new urgency, and as old Hollywood friends, like David Niven, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard left to fight for their English homeland. In the face of an isolationist sentiment which dominated America, Jimmy decided that he should not wait until the inevitable happened to join the military. His decision was opposed not only by his ever-concerned father, but his boss at MGM. He tried to explain, “It may sound corny, but what’s wrong with wanting to fight for your country. Why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism ?”
When he tried to enlist, he was rejected as underweight for his height-weight ratio. Only after an appeal to the Army, and an assist from a body-building expert he knew did he become “Private James Stewart” on March 22, 1941. He was 34 years of age and Pearl Harbor was still nine months in the future. The other side of the Jimmy Stewart story was about to begin.
From the start, Stewart never sought to receive special treatment. As an enlisted man, he soldiered right alongside his much younger peers through Army basic training. He applied for flight school, and since he already had both private and commercial pilot’s licenses, and hundreds of hours of flight time, he was assigned to train at Moffet Field near San Francisco. As he progressed through training and an assignment with a strategic bombing squadron flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, he found that the high profile nature of his background played against him, as his superiors sought to “protect” him from a combat role, seeing him as a possible asset in the area of public relations, war bond sales, and recruitment efforts. At a crucial point in his chosen USAAF career, he discovered that a “hold” order in his file was keeping commanders from giving him a combat assignment. In what was the only time Jimmy Stewart ever asked for a favor from anyone, he finally got the “hold” order to disappear.
When he finally joined the Eighth Air Force in England, it was not in B-17s, but in the unlovely B-24 Liberator which he came to love with a pilot’s passion. On November 25th, 1943, Captain Jimmy Stewart brought the 703rd Bomb Squadron he had trained, and now commanded to East Anglia, where they joined the 445th Bomb Group at Tibenham. Jimmy Stewart quickly proved himself, not just as an excellent pilot, but as a leader. Soon, as a major, he was the Group Operations Officer, planning missions for hundreds of 8th Air Force bombers, still later becoming the Group Commander, involved in thousand-plane missions. In each of these positions, he inspired great confidence and trust among those he commanded.
By the summer of 1945, now Colonel Jimmy Stewart commanded the entire 2nd Air Division, where he continued to play an important role in proving the concept of Daylight Precision Bombing in the war against Nazi Germany. Long after he no longer was expected to fly on missions, he continued to show up at take-off time to fly with one of the crews. He made sure these missions did not get added to the official twenty already in his record.
Asked to sum up what those he served with thought of him, one who flew with him said: “James Stewart was one person that if his life ever touched yours, you could never forget him.”
Jimmy Stewart – Broadway actor, movie star, accordion-player, husband and father and one-time Army Private, also made his mark as a leader of others, going on to fly little-known jet combat missions in Viet Nam, retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve June 1, 1968 as Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart To quote Jimmy ….”why are people reluctant to use the word patriotism ?”.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


A scene photographed by Al Cooper during a recent visit to South Korea is reminiscent of the farm house in which he shared that unexpected meal nearly sixty years ago.

The village of Chi Hyang Ri was little more than a clutch of old-style, thatched buildings nestled among rice paddies just south of the 38th parallel in war-torn South Korea. The fighting had raged across the area in three campaigns, as that piece of farming country was occupied by succeeding sets of victors. Even as I arrived in-country in the Fall of 1952, the area was scarred by trenches and “fighting holes”, and pock-marked by craters in which live ordnance could be a hazard anywhere outside the barbed wire which circled our encampment. The village was occupied by a few hardy inhabitants, some of whom had fled from the north. They scraped what must have been a skimpy living from the rice harvest gleaned from paddies they worked hard to restore to a pre-war level.
The small unit of U.S. Air Force forward observers and close-air ground support controllers to which I was assigned carried out our mission mostly from a nearby mountain top named Kookla-bong, known to us merely as “Radar Hill”, several very long and dangerous miles north of the village next to which we had our living quarters. Our association with the local people, therefore, was very limited outside of the handful who worked for us as contract employees.
Returning to our tent area from a security inspection in the field one day, I was walking on a well-worn path which snaked its way between rice paddies and dwelling places when I met an elderly Korean gentleman. After exchanging bows and polite greetings, he motioned toward a thatched-roof building from which a thin ribbon of smoke and cooking smells escaped. I knew little Korean, but this native of the area knew enough English to make conversation possible. Motioning for me to follow, he led me to the small courtyard just off the path to introduce me to his wife, who bowed deeply, obviously honored that I should pause to visit them. With much pointing and smiling, they invited me to sit with them around a cooking fire and what was clearly their dinner. I tried to beg my leave, not wanting to intrude on the intimacy of their meal time, but I wished also not to disrespect such a sincere invitation.
The main dish was rice, with cooked soy beans. My clumsy attempts with chop sticks could not match the natural dexterity with which my hosts maneuvered the food from bowl to mouth. My obvious discomfort brought first smiles, then giggles from Mamma san. Rising to her feet and disappearing for a moment, she returned carrying a spoon which she generously handed to me. It was a very old, handmade utensil, carefully forged from brass and shaped by hand, probably by some long-ago craftsman, and it saved me from further embarrassment. The rest of the meal was marked mostly by the hard-to-hide pleasure my presence somehow brought to the residents of this humble, dirt-floored abode. For reasons I was too young and immature to appreciate at the time, sharing their meal with an American soldier who was a stranger to their beleaguered land represented for them a moment of honor. So much so that upon my departure, they forced me to take as a gift the ancient and valued spoon with which I had partaken of their own generous hospitality. I understood that this was the kind of gift one could not refuse without offense. And so over the years, I have kept the brass spoon in a box containing mementoes from my life, a repository I refer to as my “treasure chest”.
In connection with the Utah Veterans’ visit to South Korea in 2009, the story of the spoon became part of a film documentary produced by Korean National Television which has been shown widely across that country. That fact leads to the second part of this nearly sixty-year-old story.
Among those citizens of South Korea who watched the documentary was 28-year-old Kang Hur of Seoul, whose parents had lived through the war but who, himself, had been born long afterward. For Kang, the film brought about an awakening to the realization that he had become so comfortable with the freedom he inherited, that he had failed to experience the deep sense of gratitude which now overwhelmed him. For Kang, revisiting the history of United States intervention brought about an epiphany, and for some reason, he was especially touched by the story of the spoon. All of this is recorded in a letter he sent to me by way of Mrs. Sunny Lee, a Korean-American friend and neighbor, who had been the moving force behind both the Veterans’ Revisit and the documentary. With her own emotions impossible to hide, Sunny translated the touching letter for Shirley and me. The two-page letter itself is a thing of beauty, elegantly hand-printed with great precision in Korean characters. The letter had been attached to an attractive gift box, in which lay nestled an incredibly-beautiful matched pair of engraved, gold-plated Korean spoons and chop sticks.
The 2010 gift of sparkling gold has taken its place near my “treasure chest” and next to the 1952 gift of hammered brass. And Kang Hur’s heartfelt letter sings to me like an echo of that long-ago moment in time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


As I write this column, more than one million people in the northeast corner of the U.S. are without electric power, inundated by two or three feet of unexpected, late season snow, and sheltering from winds gusting up to hurricane speeds. Numerous are the personal “horror stories” being penned by observers describing the hardships growing out of the succession of such meteorological events which have made the winter of 2009-10 one of the most memorable in history. In some cases we hear of community evacuations being ordered by harried emergency responders, not because of any life-threatening scenario, but because householders had run out of food and the ability to stay warm.
Because I grew up in that country, I can easily picture how all of this impacts a modern, commuting society whose very technological genius leaves them relatively helpless when mother nature decides to “play hardball”. An earlier generation – one I often think of as “the hardiest generation” comes to mind as I read and ponder today’s media stories. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up on a Vermont hillside farm at a moment in time when I could easily look over one shoulder into the best of those rapidly-disappearing times, still peopled by staunch, proud “Yankees” whose roots were sunk deep in the rocky soil and harsh climate of the land they loved, and who had learned through long experience to take care of themselves and their neighbors in good times and in bad.
The very architecture of rural New England is a reflection of all that earlier generations had learned and passed on. A good example of that is the long, low interconnected farmstead still seen here and there, anchored by a center-chimney Cape style residence at one end, a commodious barn at the other, and with what I think of as an “hierarchy” of working structures in between. Built in the last decade of the 1800s, my own home place was just such a fortress.
The center chimney Cape is a veritable symbol of New England, with a roof (often slate-shingled), steep enough to shed rain and snow efficiently, but without long overhanging eaves to invite ice build-up and hinder run-off. The central location of the chimney not only insures uniform heat distribution, but permits two or more fireplace or stove flues to vent through it, including the upstairs. Often a smaller annex will be built on one end to house a kitchen or other room.
The kitchen of our family’s home place was by far the busiest room of the house, with six doorways leading to other parts of the house and ¬– most important of all – to the connected wood shed.
The wood shed connected to the shop, the shop to the equipment shelter, and from there it was only a few footsteps to the barn and milk house. No matter how blizzardy, wet or icy the outdoor environment, one could make the round trip journey between house and farm duties with ease. Freezing rain storms were an annual reminder of what far-sighted people engineered that thoroughfare, especially in the pitch black of a stormy night. With or without electricity, life continued without serious interruption.
Many of Vermont’s old barns have been abandoned, and the connecting buildings removed as unnecessary eye-catchers. Nowadays, as I roam the back roads of a land I love, I keep an eye peeled for survivors. And I still remember with fondness how good it made me feel to look out from an occasional window at the storm-tossed outdoors, while sheltered within an architectural wonder designed with “mother nature” in mind.

Shadowed by century-old sugar maples, a classic center chimney cape near Shrewsbury,Vermont is an Al Cooper Favorite. A red-painted wood shed hides behind the kitchen annex.
Al Cooper photo