Thursday, 25 April 2013

Talk : Field of Spears

Café Sci hosted another fascinating talk recently entitled “Field of Spears - The last mission of the Jordan Crew”.

Presented by Professor Gregory Hadley, the talk described the background to the downing of an American B-29 bomber over the Japanese town of Niigata in Japan on Jul 20th 1945, in the closing weeks of WW2. The incident, and its aftermath, has been written up as a fascinating book and forms the basis of this blog post, together with some extra links and information. The story of how Prof Hadley came to write the book is an interesting tale all of itself, which you can read here.

The Historical Background
Prof Hadley argued that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the “Age of Empire”. The Japanese leadership had seen how Western Powers had forced trade agreements onto China, and how the native North American peoples had been decimated by the new European immigrants. The lessons that the leadership learnt were that their previous policy of isolation was unsustainable, and that they needed to adopt - fast - the military and technological systems of the West and that they needed an “Empire”. These, then, were some of the forces that, along with the rise of a more very nationalist government a propelled Japan into the second World War,

Niigata is a port city on the West coast of Japan. As it had not been bombed during the conflict, by 1945 it had become home to much of Japans intelligentsia and was placed on the initial list of nuclear bomb targets. Prof Hadley suggested that this was with the aim of destroying much of Japans cultural and academic resources with one bomb - something that Prof Hadley described as being “a cruel strategy”. However, it was later taken off the list, partly because the lack of surrounding hills reduced the blast effect of nuclear weapon and partly because its relatively northern location represented an additional risk for the somewhat unreliable B-29’s.

The Jordan Crew and their fateful last mission
Prof Hadley pointed out that while the image of British aircrew was that of gentlemen, the US air force was crewed by young rebellious men from the working class and the Jordan Crew, lead by Captain Gordon Jordan was no exception. With many missions already under their belt, the crew were part of a five plane flight that was tasked with flying from Tinian (near Guam), and mining Niigata’s harbour, part of a countrywide campaign to starve Japan into submission. The mines would be dropped from the relatively low height of 600m.

A B-29 Superfortress

The Jordan crew, whose B-29 was called the "Sharon Linn", had performed this type of mission on a number of occasions before and, on the night of Jul 20th, they deviated from the flight plan by flying directly south after dropping the mines. This was a shorter (and so quicker) route back home than the planned flight path, but took them over the Niigata city instead of around it. The crew had done this on previous missions without problems. But tonight there was a difference - the city now housed radar controlled searchlights and fresh anti-aircraft batteries. The searchlights homed in on the bomber and lit it up for the AA guns to target.

The bomber was hit and the inboard left engine and fuel tank began burning. Attempts to put out the fire with steep dives failed and the plane began to lose what little altitude it had. Parachutes were seen emerging from the plane before it hit the ground

Of the 11 crew, only 7 survived, with some of the 4 who died doing so under mysterious circumstances.

The survivors were placed in military custody and classed as “Special Prisoners”, somewhat akin to the “enemy noncombatants” of today. Special Prisoner status was given to soldiers who had violated the rules of combat and thus, in the view of the Japanese military and political leaders at the time, had forfeited any rights nominally given to POW’s. In this case, the violation had been the firebombing of Japanese cities that had happened earlier in the year.

The survivors were taken to an interrogation camp in Tokyo where they were kept, until the end of the war, enduring terribly cramped and unsanitary conditions, as well as many beatings during the frequent interrogations. Some of the trauma techniques were similar to those who suffered at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, the trauma of these few weeks would haunt the survivors until their 70’s.

The legacy
Perhaps the most interesting part of the talk, and of the resulting discussion, revolved around the long-term effects of trauma suffered in war.

Prof Hadley explained that, in the case of Japan, the returning Japanese soldiers had not wanted to talk about their experiences overseas. This left the national narrative as being the one experienced by the women and children who stayed behind, a narrative of hunger, bombing and defeat.

The fact that the US lost the Vietnam war is one reason why many US police dramas of the 70s and 80s had a Vietnam vet with a tortured past as one of the characters.

Most troubling of all was the way in which returning soldiers who began to suffer PTSD (often several years after the end of the conflict) cause terrible stress in their families, and that their children can often grow up to show the same problems that their soldier parents had (e.g anger control, alcohol abuse) - thus repeating the cycle through multiple generations. One of the daughters of a Jordan crew member commented to Prof Hadley how she had felt that there was “a huge invisible B29 in the living room” throughout her childhood

But engaging with the tramatised could really make a difference, even a long time after the event. For example, one of the Jordan crew had refused to talk to Prof Hadley during the research for his book, but the Prof had sent him a copy of it afterwards anyway, just in case he or his children might want to read it later. A couple of months later, the Prof received a long letter from the crewman which began “This book is about me. I had a good cry. I can talk now…”, and later discussions with his family revealed that the book had been a catalyst for a change in his character, from a quiet angry man to someone who was more at ease and cheerful.

In another example, the daughter of one of the crewmembers went back to Niigata, and in a meeting facilitated by Prof Hadley, talked (via a translator) with one of the (now elderly) villagers who had seen the crash. Prof Hadley noticed how, as the villager explained what he had seen that night, his body language and tone of voice both became softer and gentler, and that this of itself encouraged others to come and give their perspectives too.

And, perhaps most touchingly, please read the testimony of a US soldier who was captured in the Philippines,endured death marches and was sent to work in the Niigata POW camp. After the war, he had problems dealing with the anger that his war time experiences caused. He found some measure of peace, unexpectedly, in a trip to Japan...

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