Enoch Waters’ “American Diary”

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Enoch Waters called his memoir American Diary. I admit to being confused by the title. I had chosen it mainly as a source of war reporting from the Pacific, especially from an African American correspondent for The Chicago Defender. I expected the “diary” part to meet my needs, but “American”? It seemed so general, so generic. I started in, vaguely dubious.

Waters explained on the first page of his foreword that the book is not so much a diary of his life as a diary of the Black Press in the United States. (The subtitle, A Personal History of the Black Press, should have made this clear but was obscured on the cover.) Apparently, the working title of his book had been Diary of a Race. Why not Diary of the Black Press? In the end, a “diary” of a whole race was still too limiting. Waters expanded it to include the entire country. “The diary of blacks is really a neglected part of the diary of America. Hence, American Diary.” [xx]

It crossed my mind that Waters might be trying too hard. He might be forcing a concept on his work that it could not bear. Perhaps so, yet the title was not, in fact, false advertising. Waters’ intention to write an American story is manifest throughout. He makes his case for equal rights and full citizenship rest firmly on a foundation of black contribution to American society. His “diary” is equal parts personal memoir and history of black journalism in America. Where those two parts intersect, Waters’ reporting on events from the 1930s to the 1970s, the American story comes most alive.

Waters, both the author and the subject of the book, emerges as a determined reformer yet who refuses to be made radical. It’s not so much that he acquiesces to gradualism. It’s that he wants black equality within the American nation as it otherwise is. He seeks the equality of blacks, free from discrimination, in civil society, not a wholesale overturning of society itself. Some of today’s multi-cultural warriors might disdain his outlook as essentially conservative, yet, they would be a mistake to overlook his commitment to change. There is, first, the simmering-yet-controlled anger that pervades almost every page his narrative. And, too, there is the positive change he helped bring about. As reporter for The Defender, Waters gave his people pride and hope on a daily basis.


The title of his first chapter, “Childhood: Days of Play/Years of Learning,” promises straight memoir. Yet we learn early on that it will be in the best, confessional tradition of Augustine and Rousseau. Though the young Enoch grows up surrounded by sisters, he knows nothing of their different anatomy until the day his friend asks Susie to show them her “pussy.” After giving them a chase into the woods, she obliges. (Flat on her back, skirt hiked up, panties pulled down.) She even demonstrates how she pees, upon request. The scene brings back a tangible feel of childhood, even for those of us who never had the benefit of such a vivid demonstration (and few of us did!).

Waters’ family was solidly middle class. At least, as solidly as was possible for a black family in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Waters’ father was a train porter, bringing home a steady wage. His family never knew poverty. Yet Waters makes clear that Enoch, Sr.’s career as a redcap was “not because he chose to be one, but because he was denied the opportunity to be what he wanted to be.” [3] Waters understands that his own success as a journalist was built on the back of his father’s less glamorous labor (whose work was infinitely preferable to large swaths of his peers). Waters understands that he is one of few Negroes born in the early twentieth century who enjoyed the opportunity to “be what they wanted to be.”

Waters says he benefited from growing up in an integrated neighborhood. Yet he documents how, at every new stage of his life, he confronted limits imposed by racial prejudice and discrimination. His best childhood friendship with a neighborhood Jewish boy, does not survive the transition to adolescence. His father finagles Waters’ admission to the best (all male) public high school in the city, only to be denied participation in every school activity, including, most frustratingly, the school newspaper.

As luck would have it, he gets a kind of internship with the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s only Negro newspaper. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. Waters learned years later–and we learn a hundred pages later–that his own father had secretly arranged with the publisher to hire his son for a job that didn’t exist. Enoch, Sr. paid the publisher who turned around and paid it back to the son as (minimum) wages. Enoch, Jr. earned his father’s money and a boon for his paper by creating a popular column on high school news and views.

Waters does not glorify his introduction to the black press. The Tribune‘s offices and plant were dishearteningly seedy as he arrived for work that first day. His assigned desk–such as it was–“was one of the most abused pieces of furniture I had ever seen. It was so battered that it might have been in continuous existence since the days when Frederick Douglass was publishing The North Star in 1858, and it might have been second hand then.” [42] The editorial staff were hardly more inspiring: The Tribune‘s “was not a fast paced operation. In fact, the atmosphere was very casual and informal. The men worked in spurts to the accompaniment of banter and conversation consisting mostly of comments on the copy that flowed across their desks. The mail and telephone produced most of the news.” [44] He acknowledges the paper’s practice of printing as many names of community members as possible, a blatant attempt to flatter potential customers into purchases.  He reveals reporters accepting money from community members to put their names, or pictures, in the paper.

This is the confessional style pervading the other half of his memoir. Waters’ “diary” of the black press is unblinkingly honest. No rose-tinted glasses. Waters is a realist, neither (especially) a booster nor a critic of the institution he served for four decades. “Paid news” was a fact of life for a business living so close to the edge of financial solvency, whose advertising revenue among both black and white businesses was limited, whose market was not fully literate and tended to pass the product around to friends and neighbors. And yet, Waters allows that it was at the Tribune he came to see Negro newspapers as “the heartbeat of the community.” [52] The reporters did more than gather information and write stories. They shared their knowledge with community members who came to them in crisis, as if they were providers of social service agency.

After a chapter on his Hampton days, in which he reported on school clubs and sports teams, and two on the history of the black press from its inception to the twentieth century, Waters focuses his gaze on Chicago, “A  Tainted Heaven, But Still a Haven.” [68] He exposes equal amounts of taint and haven. Waters goes inside the so-called policy (gambling) racket in an attempt to understand the Negros at its heart. He is discouraged to find these racketeers spending money ostentatiously, as fast as they can take it in. Was this what their forebears dreamed of in emancipation? Waters passes no judgments. He decides their profligate behaviors “were involuntary efforts to compensate for the low esteem in which Negroes were regarded. With money to do so, the policy barons wanted the Negroes, if not the whites, to know they existed, that they had achieved some measure of success and that they were somebody.” [79]

Later, assigned to the crime beat, Waters was shocked to discover “Negroes had so little regard for the lives and property of other Negroes” [320]–until a friend of his, a beat cop, set him straight. The sergeant asked Waters to think like a small-change punk criminal. “Would you go to a white neighborhood, unfamiliar to you and where your presence would arouse suspicion and where all the cops are white, even if you had the money to get there?” [321] It wasn’t meant as a rhetorical question. Waters got the picture. White criminals didn’t go into black neighborhoods for much the same reasons. A journalist conducts his education in public, and Waters is not afraid to revisit the progress of his own in his memoir.

Nor does he balk at examining the seamier side of black American life. His thoroughness, both in coverage and in his efforts at understanding, serves a rhetorical purpose. It makes his case for full civil rights for all that much stronger, that much more urgent.

This, after all, was his and the black press’s overriding mission during these middle decades of the twentieth century. “The pursuit of that goal was total and took precedence over all else,” writes Waters. “More accurately, [black newspapers] were organs of personal, and usually, militant expression rather than newspapers as we know them today. They were heavy on opinion and short on news that was not related to the mission.” [135] Today, we might laugh–or scream back at the page–after reading that black newspapers “didn’t conform, at the time, to the stark, unbiased reporting that was the guiding principle of white journalism.” Waters tells us that “black newspapers were criticized as propaganda sheets…and they were in a sense.” [267] Yet we would do well to take Waters at his word. His concern is not how well white journalism did or didn’t live up to the ideal of “objectivity.” His interest is in the black press, whose mission was avowedly one of advocacy as well as of journalism. As the managing editor at The Defender told his staff after they had reported a particularly good day on the civil rights front, “Keep this up and you’ll put the Defender out of business.” Then he added, “Don’t worry, that’s a long way off….” [295]

Waters pushed himself throughout his career to widen his view and to expand his understanding. (“A black journalist reporting news of a black community for a black newspaper is likely to develop a narrowed perspective of life in America without being conscious of it.” [320]) In 1942, and again after the war, he made a tour of the South: thirty-eight states, fifty-seven communities, thirty military installations in a total of twenty-eight months on the road. The people he met in his travels were as interested in his view from the Promised Land of Chicago as he was of theirs. They plied him with questions, which made them all the more open to his own questions of them. His stories in the two chapters covering these months make some of the most compelling of the entire book.

The Southside Chicagoan in the Jim Crow South reads like a kind of “innocence abroad.” Waters describes having to carry toilet tissue in his briefcase to use in basement bathrooms that were never cleaned. He recounts his dependence on the kindness of Negro contacts to put him up for the night, and all the benefits (home-cooked meals) and drawbacks (curtailed nighttime typing sessions) that entailed. He details the difficulty of carrying out his work when transportation and telephones were difficult to come by, and access white domains nearly impossible.

Yet the Negro population is more than willing to assist a reporter from the hallowed Defender. The people he meets provide rich material for his series of articles and for his two chapters on this period. The profile of Henry Taylor stands out. Henry works in the local, white-owned barbershop, opening to close, sweeping up hair, racking magazines, and generally performing every odd job that needs to be done. At the end of each day, after boarding a bus and alighting in the colored section of town, Henry became Mr. Taylor. “A miraculous transformation from boy to man occurred in the twenty minutes it took to reach his destination.” [347] For those of us who weren’t there, especially those of who aren’t black, this story–whose plot thickens: read the book!–tells us more about what it meant to black in the South than any scholarly monograph could.

Henry Taylor may have been exceptional, but he wasn’t an exception. “At this time, no Negro could be taken at face value,” Waters explains. “Often the stereotypical southern darkey, smiling, respectful, and unlearned was a dedicated and active foe of white dominance” when among his own kind in the black part of town. [329] Enoch Waters’ reporting, related in his memoir for a new generation of readers, gives substance to racism of that time.

As promised (American Diary), Waters considers the effect of these racial attitudes and practices on whites, too. He concludes, “Whites didn’t understand the little worlds they dominated. They knew they were in charge, but they did not realize they were not as superior as they assumed. While they successfully depressed blacks, they were not progressing. As measured against whites from other regions of the nation, they, too, were inferior in all respects.” [337] It was a theme he sounded in his 1943 reporting, that I found by scanning through ProQuest historical newspapers. In an article from the very end of his tours, Waters portrayed the South as a giant Gulliver, strapped down by Lilliputian strands, never considering that “he has the strength to free himself.” [Waters, The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.]

As he was reporting from the South, Waters was waiting for permission to go overseas as a war correspondent. His application to the government, though held up for political reasons, was finally approved in May, 1943. Waters caught a transport ship to Australia and spent the next thirty months reporting on the Pacific war and its aftermath.

How would he and The Defender report the war? More to the point, how could Negroes more generally support a country that daily denied them full citizenship? Forty years after the fact, Waters attempts to provide an answer:

If America were not our home, what was? We hadn’t come here willingly, but once here we had made contributions to the nations development as great as any other group of Americans. What we gave was far in excess of what we had received. We knew we had gained a proprietary interest in this land and because we knew of no other, we regarded as our home, a home we had to defend with our lives if it came to that. What alternative did we have? [365]

The passage reminded me of an anecdote shared by James Alexander Thom, who asked a Native American Vietnam veteran how he felt about fighting for a country that had displaced, even exterminated, his people. The man replied, “You White people don’t get it. This is my country.” Waters, too, makes a strong case not for black inclusion into a white country, but for the country itself to be conceived properly as black, white, and red, or Native American (his wife was part Cherokee). (Asian Americans, he would argue, have made equally defining contributions to American society and require equal respect and citizenship.)

The most affecting part of his two war chapters comes when Negro GIs challenge The Defender‘s editorial stance on segregation in the armed forces. More specifically, they disputed Waters’ contention in an article they read that blacks be assigned combat roles equal to whites. For these men in the so-called service units, war work was not all that different from what they had done at home: unloading supplies, driving trucks, operating a laundry, painting signs, repairing auto engines, cooking, building roads, burying garbage, hauling water. Yet they were perfectly fine with it. “Why should we volunteer to sacrifice our lives for a Jim Crow country?” one asked Waters. “Have you ever seen how the infantry lives? Then you know they are like nomads, always on the go. Never settling down. Living on the worst rations, dirty and always fearful of being killed or at least shot at. That ain’t for me.” And another: “Let them have the medals. You can’t eat ’em and you can’t buy anything with ’em.” [389-390]

This was uncharted territory for Waters. For the first time, he was having to defend The Defender‘s editorial stance to its own readers. He seems to concede the men’s point at the end of the chapter when he admits that he, too, benefited from the Army’s racial policies. By reporting on Negro service units he received more perks unavailable to other war correspondents: better food, cold beer, clean clothing, more comfortable quarters, and a closer relationship with the GIs. [394]

Occasionally, one has the  impression of  listening in on dialogue between Waters and unseen speakers offstage, the septuagenarian engaging with the next generation of civil rights advocates. Like any respectable old fogey, he aims to show respect while distancing himself from elements of their rhetoric he cannot endorse. “Black is beautiful,” he says, was a misguided slogan that, unintentionally, conveyed arrogance. To make his point, he asks the reader to consider it converted to a proclamation of white beauty. “Black is also beautiful” would have been better achieved its aim of instilling black pride, he says. [227]

Waters also finds arrogance in the vogue among left-leaning members of his community to adopt African names.  Waters sounds touchier than he needs to be at one point in his argument. However, his reasoning overall is perfectly sound: “My surname has a greater significance to me than one that I might select from an alphabetized list of African names I can purchase at a bookstore. My surname not only links me to my forebears, some of whom may have been white, but with my living kinsmen.” Again, the argument is of a piece with his comments, cited above, on the Negro’s loyalties in the Second World War. He doesn’t want to apologize for seeing himself as American. To the contrary, he wants racist whites, racist society, to apologize for denying his claim to equal American citizenship.

In Waters’ heyday as a journalist, both white and black newspapers used “Negro” and “colored” to talk about members of Waters’ community. (Though white papers took longer to capitalize Negro, and The Defender‘s publisher, Robert Abbott, preferred “the Race” whenever he published commentary.) Even the Oklahoma Black Dispatch used Negro rather than Black. Waters, from the perspective of the mid-1980s, avers that he is equally amenable to all the various appellations for his people, though he adds that he is most comfortable with Negro because he is of the period “when it was generally acceptable and in common use.” [228]

The discussion is of special interest to me because I was in college as Waters wrote these words. I was of the period, the late 1970s, when “black” was “generally accepted and in common use.” African American was starting to displace it as the preferred nomenclature in the 1980s. Writing in that decade, Waters works to include the former in his text (I sense him making a conscious effort), and occasionally approximates the latter with “Afro-American,” which is perhaps an earlier form of the expression my generation became comfortable with. I have learned, along with everyone in my generation, to use the more modern term. We have (or haven’t) learned to adopt terms that post-date our coming-of-age: Latinx, cis-gender, etc. But spending time with Enoch Waters underscores the relative puniness of language policing. Waters speaks with more authority on the issues than most of those today who uses the more politically correct terms. Language matters, of course, but a richness and openness of expression matters, too.

The wokest might object to more than his terminology. Black Lives Matter would take him as a reactionary for quibbling with its organization’s name. (Black Lives Matter, Too? Please!) #MeToo would object to his focus on aviatrix Willa Brown as a “shapely young brownskin woman.”[196] (And let’s please ditch the sexist term for aviator while we’re at it.)  Fair enough. Yet crimes of racism, sexism, classism, etc. are negative features and add up to little on their own. Besides, we can add presentism to the list of sins, while we’re at it. Waters had no control over the color of his skin, nor over the year of his birth, nor does anyone else. If I can respect those who from other places, with different cultures and ideas about how the world works–and let’s admit it can be difficult to do so, or else we wouldn’t need to talk about it so much–then surely I can respect people from different times whose formative experiences were so different from mine.


Enoch Waters had a radically reformist side, to be expected in a one on the receiving end of so much discrimination and prejudice. He had a temperamentally conservative side, befitting a child of a relatively educated, middle class family and one who pursued a professional career his entire adult life. Why should anyone begrudge him the latter? Aren’t those the opportunities that too many African Americans were denied? Besides, the strength of Waters’ memoir of his life within the black press resides in the synthesis of the two sides. The full humanity of the writer, and of the everyday and exceptional Negroes he wrote about, is palpable for that very reason.


Waters, Enoch P. American Diary: A Personal History of the Black Press. Chicago: Path Press, Inc., 1987.

———-, “Color Lines Bind Dixie To Economy Of Poverty,” The Chicago Defender, May 8, 1943, 13.

National Air and Space Museum: https://airandspace.si.edu/multimedia-gallery/dale-l-white-and-chauncey-e-spencer-nasm-9a12445 




War Games II

posted in: WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

As the Japanese Imperial Navy was gearing up for war with the Allies, destroyer captain Tameichi Hara was brushing up on his Sun Tzu. The axiom from the third chapter of The Art of War jumped out at him:   “If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win [some] and lose [some]; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Captain Hara took these words to heart and made a study of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as the war progressed. In retrospect, at least, he could be hard on himself, admitting a weakness for impulsiveness and, at times, an overindulgence of drink. He could be hard on his superiors, too, criticizing their mindless overuse of tactics that had worked once but became ineffective as the enemy made adjustments. After Japan’s string of early advances, Hara held no illusions. He told a reporter, “We have won a series of battles simply because the enemy out-blundered us.” [Hara 87]

All Japan’s military leaders had Sun Tzu in their training, yet few evinced an inclination to his precepts. In their righteous rage against the West, they seemed to lost sight of their civilization’s most valuable teachings. In other words, even as they invoked racial and cultural superiority, they failed to exploit the most advantageous elements of their heritage. They failed to seek to understand either own or their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

At least, these are the thoughts I have had as I have been studying the Pacific War and simultaneously learning the ancient Japanese game (also originated in China) of Go. The game is an obvious analogy for war, with territory claimed and lost, positions strong and weak, attacks and invasions, battles and fighting, walls and supporting stones. The game awed me with its complexity and competitiveness, with the richness of its lore. How could a nation raised on such a game conduct a war so deficiently? Why was I seeing no evidence of its wisdom in the thinking of Japan’s commanders?

The following is a personal musing on Go teachings that might have been overlooked in the heat and fog of the Pacific War, 1941-1945.



4-dan Go player and master teacher Jonathan Hop has a tongue-in-cheek name for aggressive Go players. He calls them “Barbarians,” out to slash and burn any “civilization” their opponent has built on the board. [Hop 134] They wreak havoc by compulsion rather than with strategic intent. Hop concedes that this type of player can be unsettling to play and challenging to beat. Early in his career the “Barbarian” gave him fits. To rookie players of this type, though, Hop cautions that attacks poorly planned can backfire and strengthen your opponent.

The same caveat applies in a war of expansion. Japan was on the short end of a demographic trend and needed its own version of lebensraum. As an island nation three times as dense as Britain, yet with only fifteen percent of its land suitable for agriculture, Japan struggle to feed its people. With few natural resources to bolster trade, she struggled to pay for the raw materials necessary for industrialization.

And militarization.

One Japanese officer explained his presence in Manchuria, 1931, candidly: “There are only three ways left to Japan to escape from the pressure of its surplus population…: …emigration, …world markets, and …territorial expansion.” [Edgerton 236] The first two were precluded by other nations’ quotas and tariffs, leaving the last as the only realistic option. The world had forced Japan’s hand.  Manchuria gave the Empire access to coal and fertile land. China proper gave it Shanxi iron–and eight years of headaches, besides. Malaya, Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines in 1941 supplied the oil, aluminum, iron, nickel, tin, tungsten, chrome, manganese, and rubber to satisfy its industrial appetite.

Yet, in the language of Go, Japan had established a “zone of control” rather than true “territory.” [Hop 151] It failed to build a “framework” for mounting future attacks and defending against future counter-attacks. Nor did it create “influence in a useful direction.” To the contrary, it seemed to be projecting its might in all directions at once. The Aleutians? Solomons? New Guinea? Burma? India itself? Which were the priorities? Could the Empire defend the full extent of its reach?

While the Allies were still recovering from the setbacks of December 1941 to May 1942, Japan might have done better to strengthen its defense-in-depth, as James Wood argued. [Wood 40, 97] It could have converted a loosely held zone of control into genuine territory, with the equivalent of “eyes,” as in Go. Territory in war is never logically “alive” or “dead,” as it is in Go. Yet defense-in-depth likely would have made prosecution of the war too costly for a democracy, sending its young men to die thousands of miles away. Japan needed to think more in terms of establishing territory and less about winning attacks.



In Go, every stone played in the middle of the board gets four liberties, surrounding spaces that are free, available. As each player places stones upon the board, one at a time, like-stones can connect and increase their strength by sharing liberties. Opposing stones can attack and reduce another stone’s, or group of stones’, liberties, its freedom of movement, as it were. Reduce a stone or group to one liberty, and it is said to be in atari, in danger of being surrounded and thus captured. When the opportunity arises to put another player’s stone(s) in atari, the novice player fairly jumps at the chance. He believes he has caught his opponent napping as is on the path to victory. Nothing of the sort. Putting an opponent’s stone(s) in atari can be a bad, even the worst, move to make at a given time. Experienced players know to consider the ramifications of all possible moves and to make the most profitable one, even if it means foregoing a chance to atari.

Japan was not a beginner in game of war. She had been expanding her borders for more than half a century and successfully challenged the Chinese and Russian giants in the process. Still, by 1930, a noxious mix of militarism, racism, and fascism clouded her military thinking. By February, 1942, she had put Allied “stones” in atari all across the board. Many were captured outright. Those that held out were left to fend for themselves. Wake fell, unreinforced, in late December. The Philippines in early May. The Allies did not rise to the bait.

In this regard, United States was playing above her experience level. She would make many tactical errors in the early months, but strategically, she was wise enough to buy time and build up her resources. Rather than respond directly to Japanese instigations, U.S. naval units merely harassed Japanese ships. “Hauling ass with Halsey” took some of the sting out of Pearl Harbor for naval officers and men. Though the damage inflicted on enemy ships was small (far less than what was hyped in American media), the boost to troop morale was great. The Halsey and Fletcher raids gave naval units experience returning fire, and with it a sense of confidence.

It also gave officers immediate feedback on their units’ deficiencies. Ian Toll identifies at least five of them, including antiaircraft ineptitude, inability to identify enemy and friendly aircraft, jumpiness at nonexistent submarine “sightings,” poor cruiser gunnery, and an insufficient number of fighter planes. [Toll 229] Identifying these vulnerabilities was critical to future success in the war. Furthermore, the mosquito-bite attacks were effective enough get inside the Japanese commanders’ heads. Suddenly the possibility of a carrier raid on Tokyo became a realistic possibility. Such a strike would dishonor the Imperial Navy and shatter its prestige, to say nothing of the casualties within the capital city itself.

Playing away from atari won the Americans significant benefits on which they would capitalize later in the war. When they did respond to the ultimate atari threat at Midway, in June 1940, a combination of pluck and luck helped them escape capture and inflict great damage on the enemy. They were aided by the Japanese decision to try for two ataris at once, dividing the strength of her force between at the atoll and the Aleutians. It was first outright victory for the Allies in the Pacific.

In pushing for Midway, and likewise New Guinea and New Caledonia, the Japanese were playing for the quick atari and quick capture. It made a certain sense to strike while the Allies were reeling from the devastating initial strikes. Capture pieces early, get them off the board and they cannot exert influence later in the game. It didn’t work out that way. The Allies didn’t play their game (at least not primarily). In going for the kill, the Japanese conducted the war like beginners.



“It is not a wise strategy for the player who is ahead on the board to engage in complicated and risky fights or exchanges on the board. He should strive to settle the shapes and decrease the complexity of the game.”

In May, 1942, both sides knew the Japanese were ahead on the map. Settling shapes–shoring up lines of communication and supply, constructing self-reinforcing airfields, establishing a zone of defense-in-depth–these were the actions Japan’s Imperial Army and Navy should have prioritized. Instead, the Navy carried out a Midway operation that was, in Toll’s words, “a farrago of compromises struck to quell internal dissent and to balance the demands of rivals. …shot through with contradictions, flaws, and unnecessary risks.” [Toll 379] It paid dearly for the mistake.

The strategic error went beyond Midway and preceded it. Unrestrained advances west and south aroused the Allies’ resolve like nothing else. Britain feared a Japanese incursion into India from Burma. Australia was alarmed by the Japanese push south into New Guinea, a stone’s throw, or easy air raid, from its mainland. The United Sates understood the Japanese drive through the Solomons toward New Caledonia threatened to cut off its transports from the Allied base of operations in Australia.

All these threatening Japanese actions called into question the Allies’ natural inclination toward a Europe First policy. [Toll 266-267] By pressing the issue, Japan stiffened the Allies’ resolve and hastened their turn to the counter-offensive. By attempting to take Port Moresby in early May, the Japanese instigated the Battle of the Coral Sea, which gave Allied naval forces more valuable experience and a strategic victory. As a result, no JIA troops were landed at Port Moresby, and the next attempt at the port, by land over the Owen Stanley Mountains, would prove an unmitigated disaster.

In August, two months after Midway, the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal, beginning another months-long train wreck for the Japanese. According to destroyer captain Tameichi Hara, military planners at the time underestimated both the Americans’ willingness and their ability to launch such an attack. These were symptoms of the so-called “victory disease” that had infected much of the country, even those who were in positions to know better.

In May, 1942, the Japanese military was a rich man but it picked unnecessary fights with a weaker opponent. It complicated the war, rather than simplified it. The Allies fought harder as a result. Another Go proverb comes to mind: GIVE YOUR OPPONENT WHAT HE WANTS. Japan could have let the Allies have Australia, New Guinea, and nearby archipelagos. Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia and Indo-China provided the raw materials it needed for empire. Allowing the Allies time to build  up its Pacific forces and bases would have given Japan time to build up its own communications and supply networks, infrastructure, including air bases, and fortifications. She would have been hard to defeat without an attrition rate too high for democratic populaces to stomach.

Unfortunately for her, Japan did not do that.



It is a liability in Go to be too attached to one’s stones, to cling to unfailingly to one’s territory. There are times, many times in the course of any single game, when stones will have to sacrificed, territory conceded. It is better to take the initiative and build a more favorable position elsewhere than to give up sente or throw good stones after bad.

The Allies conceded territory, even if unwillingly, then reluctantly. Toll quote Roosevelt trying to buck up Churchill, “There is no use giving a single further thought to Singapore or the Dutch Indies. They are gone.” [Toll 266] He might have said the same of the Philippines, but that was a loss harder for him to swallow. The Japanese might have benefited from letting Guadalcanal and New Guinea go earlier and with less of a fight. They needed time to strengthen their defensive position. They squandered it and would never regain it.



I have not quite convinced myself that Go proverbs have much bearing on the planning and execution of the War in the Pacific. I am still too inexperienced with both the game and the war to make a convincing case. My ideas inchoate and have relied too heavily on a simplified understanding of James Wood’s already somewhat simplified argument about Japanese prosecution of the war.

Still, I sense the Japanese were less in tune with their own traditions in the 1920s through 40s than they might have been. The country had westernized so relentlessly for half a century that its “progress” sowed the seeds of virulent reaction. Japan became…well, a farrago of contradictions. To counter racial prejudice, she invoked racial superiority. To exploit Western weakness, she employed Western military methods. She tried to beat the Allies at their own game.

The uniforms, the salutes, the ranks, the ships, the planes, the armaments: they were all Western, if improved upon in certain cases by Japanese ingenuity. While I have seen evidence of Eastern, philosophical ways of thinking in Hara, Yamamoto, and Kuribayashi, the military, as a whole, has seemed almost willfully blinded by hubris and rage. Over-estimation of their own powers, underestimation of their enemy’s, and a surfeit of wishful thinking were the results.

If the Japanese were deaf to Sun Tzu’s precept to know thyself and thine enemy, they were still more obtuse toward his predilection for “winning” without fighting. Both before and during the war, too little thought–and too little action–was given to the winning of a negotiated settlement. Certainly, Japan should have sought to negotiate from a position of strength. Yet she did not actually seek the negotiation in the first place. Japan lacked a realistic endgame strategy.

In Go, close games are won and lost in costly endgame moves. That wasn’t the case with Japan. Her opening  moves, fuseki, gave her a strong position at the start of the war. Her failure to build strong shapes of territory, simplify the game, and have an overall strategy for winning through negotiation, cost her dearly. A little more Eastern philosophy; a little less Western fasco-militarism.


Hara, Captain Tameichi (with Fred Saito, translator, and Roger Pineau, annotations). Japanese Destroyer Captain: Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Midway–The Great Naval Battles as Seen Through Japanese Eyes. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967 (translation, 1961).

Edgerton, Robert B. Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997.

Hop, Jonathan. So You Want to Play Go? (Intermediate Level 2, 19-10 kyu). Sunday Go Publications, 2008.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.



War Games

posted in: WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

“I was asked once how we were able to fight the war in the Pacific, and I said that we fought it just as we had fought it all on paper in the Naval War College. I fought the whole war of the Pacific when I was there in 1923.” [Toll 132-133]

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Nimitz’s words to War College students after the war have the feel of overstatement. Can we take him seriously when he says that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise–absolutely nothing”? [Pellegrino 3:30] (He did except the use of kamikaze tactics.) NWC senior analyst Peter Pellegrino encourages students of history to take the admiral at his word. The College’s extensive war gaming curriculum in the 1920s and 30s prepared the future naval officers of WWII in a way of thinking, of anticipating problems and responding to them. That’s what Nimitz meant by fighting it all out on paper–he and two decades’ worth of students who followed him.

Pellegrino wants us to consider that the so-called War Plan Orange (code for Japan, likewise red for Britain and black for Germany) was not a single plan, written in stone, that foresaw every eventuality. It had roots at least as far back as 1905, when the Japanese navy surprised the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait, sinking eight of twelve warships. WPO had, according to Pellegrino, been worked and reworked in simulation over a generation and more, each class discovering new problems and finding new ways to respond. The results of each war game was fluid, ever-changing, as in any actual war situation.

At the same time, Navy brass–all graduates of this war gaming process–devised their own iterations of War Plan Orange. At first the Mahanians held sway. At the end of the previous century, Alfred Thayer Mahan had posited that a sea power must concentrate its naval forces for a decisive victory. His influence spread to naval commanders around the globe. Applied to the War Plan Orange, his theory meant the small Asiatic Fleet the  in the Philippines would avoid a fight, escape an anticipated blockade, and await the arrival the main fleet, mobilized from San Diego and through the Panama Canal. Anyone recalling the fate of the Russian fleet at the hands of Admiral Togo could be forgiven for their skepticism. Logistical difficulties might be overcome, but “mid-ocean attrition”–loss of ships to aerial attacks, a tactic Mahan could hardly have imagined–was deemed too costly. War gaming brought this “attrition” to light and made its consequences inescapable.

Enter the Cautionaries, who were not so much cautious as deliberate. Admirals Nimitz and Spruance would eventually be counted among their number, advocating a sequence of island-hopping west across the Pacific, building lines of communication and supply from which to encroach on Japanese-controlled territory. As it happened, this was the strategy the general staff implemented, even if the particulars were always under discussion and strongly argued over.

And not always correct in their application. Pellegrino points out that the Navy generally assumed Japan would employ technology in tactically similar ways to themselves. They did not anticipate the development of Japanese nighttime naval tactics or its enhanced torpedo technology. Nor did planners adequately foresee their own use of submarines or amphibious landings. [Pellegrino 5:17] But, Pellegrino argues, the graduates of the Naval War College, in positions of power during the war, had practiced making the same types of decisions in game situations as they were making during the fog of war in the Pacific. This prepared them in the way that Nimitz meant, speaking in hindsight.

The abandonment of the Philippines in the short  run (“They Were Expendable”!) was foreseen and carried out as planned. [Toll xxxv] Two weeks after the assault began General MacArthur, commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East ordered a general withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula. “Put WPO-3 in to effect,” was all he needed to say. [Toll 239] USAFFE was now on its own. MacArthur and his lieutenant General Wainwright would make it up as they went, hoping to hold out until the combined Pacific Fleet and accompanying air forces could come to their rescue. But their short term survival was never really part of the plan.



“For a while we’ll have everything our own way, stretching out in every direction like an octopus spreading its tentacles. But it’ll last for a year and a half at most.” [Toll 273]

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku

Japanese tentacles grasped a large chunk of the western Pacific in just three months of naval Blitzkrieg, from Burma and Malaya in the west to Tarawa and Wake in the east, as far north as Luzon in the Philippines and as far south as Java in the Dutch East Indies. Admiral Yamamoto’s instincts had been at least half right. Japanese forces had had their “own way” to start the war. But it had all gone so quickly. Neither the General Staff nor the Japanese equivalent of the War College had war gamed the next phase. What to do next was an open question.

It didn’t help that Imperial Army and Navy were locked in a turf war of their own. Though Yamamoto and the Navy planned and executed the attack at Pearl Harbor, in 1940-41 it was the Army that had been “straining at the leash” and the Navy that had cautioned against unnecessary provocations–at least for as long as was politically feasible. [Toll 123] Even with the war progressing as well as either branch could have hoped, the rivalry roiled.

Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka argued for safeguarding Japanese gains: shoring up interior supply lines, constructing airfields and fortifications on perimeter islands, expanding production of war materiel and training of replacement personnel. These efforts would drive an overall strategic goal of establishing air superiority “through a network of interlocking, mutually supporting air bases,” as Ian Toll put it. [Toll 275] James B. Wood used much the same language when he argued that “defense in depth”–hundreds of airfields on the Philippines, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Formosa, Ryukus, and Bonins–could have yielded a much different ending to the Pacific War. [Wood 41]

Ryunosuke’s voice was drowned out by commanders determined to take the offensive and to expand the perimeter. The Allies–American, British, Dutch–were unprepared and on their heels, their argument went. There was no better time to strike than now, in the spring and summer of 1942. The Army set its eyes south through New Guinea to Port Moresby, the Navy through island chains to the southeast–Admiralties, Bismarcks, Solomons–toward New Caledonia, Samoa, and Fiji. What these actions had in common was an urgency to take advantage of Allied weakness and the strategic goals of breaking enemy lines of communication and of isolating Australia. They also shared more than a hint of impetuousness. They seem driven more by self-interest in their own military branch than by a unified strategy and coordinated plan of operations. How would any new gains be supported, lines of supply be maintained? Those questions were ignored or deferred.

If that were not enough, a third offensive was thrown into the mix by the hero of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto: an assault 3,000 miles in a completely different direction against a target of questionable strategic value: Midway Atoll.

Japanese naval officers, Yamamoto not excepted, had been schooled in Mahanian doctrine as much as their American counterparts. The strike at Midway, with its airbase a mere 1,000 miles from Hawaii, was primarily a means to draw out American surface ships and thus provoke a classic Mahanian encounter. Smashing the U.S. fleet, according to Yamamoto, would do more to isolate Australia than the acquisition of Port Moresby and New Caledonia combined. The Navy General Staff approved his plan in April, with a provision: that Yamomoto divide his fleet and send the smaller part to take Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians. More strategic muddling and anti-Mahanian to the core. But Yamamoto had threatened to resign once before, when the NGS wavered over his Pearl Harbor plan. He could hardly challenge them to call his bluff a second time, in the same way. He accepted the provision.



“In shogi too much fighting causes all-out defeat.” [Toll 461]

–Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku

The fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy might have been partly divided, but it was still an awesome armada. Yamamoto’s Midway force included the better part of 200 ships and 700 planes, with four fleet carriers and air forces, collectively known as Kido Butai, forming its core.

A month before his fleet sailed out of Kure Naval Base, Yamamoto assembled his commanders on his flagship super-battleship Yamato to war game the upcoming battle. More than one gaming result revealed the vulnerability of Kido Butai to air attack, a potentially fatal flaw in the plan. In one instance the game was invalidated as too unlikely. In another, the variables were arbitrarily manipulated to yield more favorable results. When Yamamoto asked, pertinently, what would happen if the U.S. fleet turned up suddenly, undetected, famed aviation commander Minoru Genda dismissed the thought with a Japanese idiom, Gaishu Isshoku! (“We shall crush them!”) [Toll 381-382]

This wasn’t war gaming. This was mutual self-delusion.

What happened next, as they say, is history. In the space of a few hours’ engagement (including the five minutes that turned the tide of the entire war) the mighty Kido Butai was destroyed–four fleet carriers sunk or sinking, two hundred and forty-eight planes down in flames (or run out of gas with no place to land). Even then, Japanese commanders groped for ways to salvage the mission on which they had staked so much.  Yamamoto ordered his surface ships to hunt down the American carriers (there were three, though he did not know for sure) in the darkness of the night of June 4/5. Admiral Spruance and his commanders played hard to get until morning.  Though his officers egged him on the next morning, Yamamoto finally faced reality. He halted to their pleas with reference to the game he knew and played so well: In shogi too much fighting causes all-out defeat.”

He ordered all ships to turn toward home.



“To end a war that is going favorably for one’s own side, requires a special, different kind of effort.”

–Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku [Toll 274]

Yamamoto understood the dangers of senshoubyou, the “victory disease” that infected so much of the Japanese military (and civilian population, too) in the heady days of spring 1942. Yet he, too, fell prey to its most pernicious symptom: overconfidence. How? How could he and his staff have been so slipshod in their war gaming? Besides Western forms of knowledge, the Japanese had access to a whole tradition of gaming and philosophy of war that they apparently ignored. Yamamoto had been raised on the wisdom of Shogi. Other Japanese officials must have learned from Go deep ways of thinking about both attack and defense. How were these lessons forgotten in the heat of battle? These questions will be the focus of the next post, leaving the answers as matters of supposition.


Pellegrino, Peter. “History of War Plan Orange,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXal8JUqAfQ.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Wood, James B. Japanese Military Strategy: Was Defeat Inevitable?  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Wikimedia Commons for all images


Enduring What Cannot Be Endured

posted in: WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

“Reliving this chapter of my life is not an easy thing to do because of the trauma and excruciating pain it caused me for many years. Yet I know it must be told….” [130] The sentence leads the ninth and climactic chapter of Enduring What Cannot Be Endured. But it might well have come on page one to introduce to the entire book. The title has already set the stage. As a young women coming of age, Dorothy Dore Dowlen endured trauma no one of any age should experience, let alone a teenager. She was sixteen-years-old when the Japanese naval air force began bombing her home country, the Philippines, just hours after its attack at Pearl Harbor. For the next four years she and her family went on the run and into hiding, became resistance fighters and prisoners under house arrest. She saw family members die and heard grapevine reports of others being tortured and killed. She came close to being raped or killed at least seven times herself.

Dowlen’s tale could be a thrilling adventure story if it weren’t so painfully tragic.

Why then was she rejected “several times” by publishers who were “too uncomfortable with my unusual war story.” [189] After all, adventure and tragedy is what all publishers seek–he more unusual, extraordinary, the better. So why didn’t they snatch up her story? My guess: she needed a co-author, or perhaps a ghost writer, to make the text crackle and to push her thinking past the safe and comfortable. It is not quite fair  to say that Dore shows no self-awareness, no philosophical examination of events. There are moments when she shows admirable honesty. Yet, overall, the narrative feels cramped. Too often Dowlen seems to be guarded, staying within safe parameters, speaking in lofty ideals, occasionally contradicting herself unwittingly. There is no evidence that she did the necessary research of the war in the Philippines to accurately place her own story within the greater documented narrative.

Let’s look both at what is to be admired and questioned in this powerful but somewhat disappointing book.


Dowlen’s father was English-American and the grandson of the acclaimed French-English illustrator Paul Gustave Doré. His own father was a farmer, though, and the farm life was too limiting for young Victor Alexander. At sixteen, with  his parents’ grudging blessing, he made his way to Liverpool and sneaked aboard a ship bound for New York. He sneaked off the boat, too, since he had no official papers. Living in the shadows in New York, he eventually learned he could come into the light if he enlisted with the army. He did and gained his citizenship. In 1901, he was sent to the Philippines to help quell ongoing resistance to American colonial rule. He had many adventures, which he later related to his daughter (and sons), often in a spirit of impish good humor. One story, he told more seriously: the time he was attacked by a Moro (Muslim) rebel and lost his arm to amputation. For the rest of his life, he was often called One-Arm.

Dowlen’s mother was Filipina from the island of Bohol, though Dore describes her heritage as a mix of Spanish, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Pacific Islander: mestiza. Paulina Cueva graduated from high school with honors and could have gone to college, but she chose to go to work teaching underprivileged children, instead.  One day, walking home from school laden with schoolbooks, she passed a tall man with blue eyes dressed in typical haciendero clothes (Without an arm, Victor Dore had been discharged from the army and now worked as business manager for a rich plantation owner): white suit, dark tie, and straw hat. From Dowlen’s account it was love at first sight for both of them. At twenty, Pauline (at some he changed her name to the more American/English spelling) was half her new husband’s age. They built a life and a family on Mindanao, the largest and southernmost main island of the Philippines.

Dorothy had two brothers precede her, Samuel and George, and one come after, Philip. (Her older sister Mary died in infancy.) The four siblings were separated by less than five years, 1922-1926. They all came of age at the wrong time.

The family’s story reveals that Philippine resistance, by both Americans and Filipinos, extended beyond Bataan and Corregidor, even after the main USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) had withdrawn onto the Luzon peninsula. Sixty-three-year-old One-Arm served as a quartermaster for the remnant of USAFFE on Mindanao. His sixteen-year-old daughter served as a nurse, picking up on the job how to clean and bandage open wounds, give injections with a syringe, dispense sulfa powder and other drugs. If there is anything perfectly clear in this book, it is that young Dorothy Dore was a quick study. She worked hard and learned fast.

On April 8, word arrived that Bataan had fallen. But the USAFFE holdouts fighting at the Digos line, outside Davao, Mindanao, had their “own troubles to deal with,” as Dowlen put it, and never let up their resistance. [55] They kept fighting until General Wainwright‘s surrender of Corregidor a month later. The forces on Mindanao were  given three days to present themselves to the Japanese and lay down their arms. The alternative was to take to the hills and the jungles. The Dore family faced the same dilemma as  everyone else. They chose to turn themselves in.

The Dore family were not incarcerated as POWs in central Mindanao, mother and daughter were women and Filipina. The sons had gone their own ways. The father had but one arm. Still, he looked American and remained out of sight. The Dores lived in a hut near the Casisang concentration camp which was not even enclosed. Prisoners were free to wander to the stream to bathe and among the civilians to socialize and trade for goods. Dorothy and her mother took in laundry from the  officers who paid them in cigarettes and canned goods. The cigarettes were as good a currency as any, and they traded them in town for other supplies they needed. After a month or six weeks, the Japanese rolled out the barbed wire. Exchange between POWs and civilians, commercial and otherwise, was severely restricted.

What Dorothy chose to do for one group of prisoners was either brazenly foolhardy or an act of selfless courage. Or both. She smuggled in a compass and two radio messages to a certain Captain Richardson who had had enough of Japanese hospitality. He and a small group of men were going to escape into the jungle and needed these items to find their way to safe hiding. As the civilian peddlers awaited their turn at inspection, Dorothy walked out of line and offered the Japanese commander with a sampling from her basket of cookies. As he munched, she kept him talking. Just as she had hoped, the flattered commander let her in without a search. She slipped the contraband to the POW Captain and asked never to be imposed upon again.

She was not out of danger yet. In her chat with the commander, he had asked her address and, in the uncertainty of the moment, she had given it to him. She dreaded the day he would come to seek her out. He came that very night, in a drunken uproar. Dorothy hid out in the outhouse, and the drunken officer left, thwarted and angry. Dorothy learned the next day that three young girls had been raped by a Japanese officer that night. Evidence supported her guess that it was the commander she called the Walrus. The three were not merely girls. They were virgins, and the shame was too much both for the families and the girls themselves. All three promptly took their own lives rather than face that shame. The author expresses sympathy but makes no effort to condemn the cultural attitudes that led to this  drastic and irrevocable response. She provides no evidence that the sexual revolution in the United States, where she lived after the war, had any impact on her. She did say, “Although we shared our neighbors’ grief, I could not help but feel thankful that I had not become a victim that night when the Walrus came to our home.” [86] Close call number one.

The Japanese feared the Casisang POW camp had become too tempting a prize for rebels still at-large. They feared an impending jailbreak, as it were, and preempted it by removing the POWs to other camps off the island. In a stroke, Dorothy lost her trading partners. She was forced to conduct business with locals, some of whom she worried were Japanese collaborators. She tread cautiously but kept up her peddling; kept her family supplied and fed. Her father, a pale-skinned American, was under self-imposed house arrest. He went nowhere, until one day in early December, around the first anniversary of the Japanese invasion, he could stand it no longer. Over Pauline’s desperate objections, Dore ventured out to find a barber–with his protective daughter close behind.

They were stopped almost immediately by a patrol of Japanese soldiers. Taken in and questioned separately, father and daughter succeeded in getting their stories straight. Dore was a French national, dispossessed of his farm by invading Japanese and forced to seek refuge in Malabalay. The two were set free. Close call number two.

On the heels of this incident, Dorothy came down with a virulent strain of influenza. Spanish-Filipino Dr. Cid employed an experimental treatment to keep Dorothy alive. He took breast milk from a lactating flu survivor, siphoned it into a syringe, and injected it, complete with antibodies, into Dorothy’s backside. It was the first time Dr. Cid had ever tried such a thing, but it worked. Dorothy survived her third close call.

She recovered in time to be caught in the middle of an all-out crossfire between Japanese forces and members of Salipada Pendatun‘s guerilla army. The resistance fighters arrived at the POW camp too late to spring the captives, but they took out their aggression on the Japanese at Malaybalay. Dowlen contends that Pendatun struck at Malaybalay for the main purpose of freeing her family, the daughter and wife of Pendatun’s one-armed friend. This feels far-fetched. Wouldn’t they rather have stolen in under cover of darkness, and take them out surreptitiously? Pendatun would have been foolhardy to believe that he could hold Malaybalay, even if he won it. In any case, the Dores, father, mother, and daughter, hid out in the basement of their building while bullets zinged into the upper floors and bombs blasted in the streets outside.

Pendatun and his men, predictably, were forced to retreat. The civilians of Malaybalay, potential collaborators all, were rounded up and taken into custody at the local municipal building. The Dore family and scores of other prisoners could only wonder what their fates would hold. Mostly, they remained docile, not wanting to draw attention to themselves or provoke their captors. When three young girls were taken away, kicking and screaming, Dorothy feared she would be next in line for mass rape.

Once again, she slipped between the cracks. In the middle of the second night, she awoke to hear a handful of mysterious men tiptoeing around bodies, asking for the Dore family. Salipada Pendatun had sent a rescue just for them. Here Dowlen’s story takes on the feel of a movie thriller. Out to rear balcony and over the railing they went, shimmying down the cliffs by a fixed rope. Old One-Arm was helped down first, followed by mother and daughter and the other men. Among the boulders on the ground, they heard a cry from the building above: “Escape! The Americano and his family have escaped!” [107] All eight fled, dodging bullets as they ran. Close call number 4.

Everyone reached the rebel hideout safely, and the Dore family were reunited with their youngest son/brother, Philip, who had already joined up to fight with Pendatun’s guerillas. Escape to freedom had been exhilarating; reunion with Philip was an overwhelming relief. For the first time in many months, the Dore family felt a modicum of control over their war-shattered lives. They went back to working for the rump USAFFE (these guerillas guarded their military legitimacy), driving cars in the motor pool. It was during this time Dorothy met and fell for a mechanic in the motor pool, Captain Jack Grant of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Jack was six year older than Dorothy, and he was attracted to her, too. Significantly, he “remained a gentleman,” and did not press his suit aggressively. [126]

Dowlen recalls this period of the war with some fondness. Her work was purposeful. Her love interest was progressing apace (cautiously but steadily). She admired the man who led them all, General Salipada Pendatun. Here is one of the few places when she ties her own story into the wider narrative of the Philippine war. She recounts how in mid-1943 (she provides few dates with which to place events) General MacArthur ordered, apparently from his headquarter in New Guinea, the replacement of Pendatun by an American officer, Colonel Wendell Fertig. In fact, all Moros officers were shunted  aside in favor of their lighter-skinned, American-educated comrades. Dowlen expresses controlled outrage that they could have been treated so cavalierly and unfairly. “I believe that the Moros from Cotabato and their leader Salipada Pendatun should have their names etched in the history books.” [114]

Yet somehow General MacArthur‘s mystique loses none of its burnish, though he, as the man at the top, was first to deny Pendatun the support he deserved. Dowlen takes time out from her narrative to give a brief yet sweeping apologia for the man who cast aside her beloved Pendatun. Responding to MacArthur’s outspoken critics from a half-century before, Dowlen contends that they “could not see the depth of his ingenious military mind.” She goes so far as to assert that if MacArthur had been given “full power of command to follow his instincts of destroying the enemy; …it is possible that all wars would have ended with World War II.” [117] The readiness to bypass democracy, to ignore the separation of civilian and military leadership, and to cede total power to a charismatic military leader is disturbing enough without the unsupported audacity of the final phrase. Dowlen needed a less obliging editor. In  my opinion.

In the same vein, she makes several questionable geographical assertions, giving the wrong order of magnitude for distances. It was not “thousands of miles away from” [27] her home in Kidapawan, Mindanao to Silliman school in Dumaguete, at the southern tip of Negros. By bus and ferry it appears to be 200 miles. (Of course, I have the luxury of Google maps!) But I suppose if one went by boat from Davao City around the entire island of Mindanao, it would be at least 700 miles. Later, when she must travel from Malaybalay to Talakag, she emphasizes the endurance that will be required, saying that it will be “several hundred miles of unfamiliar mountains and jungles.” [158] The Google map shows it could have been no more than thirty miles–which makes sense. Thirty miles of bushwhacking would be demanding in the extreme. Several hundred miles would be beyond the abilities of anyone but the most thoroughly trained and prepared.

Her history feels questionable, too. Writing of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, Dowlen writes that the United States “helped the Filipinos obtain their freedom from the cruel Spaniards.” After that time, “the people of the Philippines did not forget what the Americans had done for them.” [57] I imagine the Moro insurgents who turned their arms on the new colonial overlords did not forget. But Dowlen never acknowledges the dark side of American colonial rule in the Philippines. Her account never rises above a schoolbook history. Only one sentence, much later in the book (see below), shows any recognition of the full complexity of her country’s past.

But first, there was a love story unfolding. Dorothy and Jack got their first kiss, but the bliss was interrupted by her father. Dore père fumed and sent Jack packing. Mortified, shamed by her “unforgivable sin,” [127] Dorothy packed up, too, and made to run away. Jack leapt on his own bike and trailed his girlfriend. He caught up to her, kissed her, and proposed marriage. Dorothy agreed, and the two returned to ask the blessing of the so-recently angered father. Old One-Arm accepted with both alacrity and enthusiasm. All were playing their appointed roles. A fascinating, delicate ballet.

The eighteen-year-old Filipina and the twenty-four-year-old American were married on the spot, and their honeymoon began with a bang. The bang of gunshots and mortar fire. The halcyon days, such as they were, had passed. Rump USAFFE, Americans and Filipinos, was on the run again, this time into the jungle where dangers as frightening as Japanese soldiers lurked: wild animals, poisonous snakes, malarial mosquitoes, and unwelcoming, possibly hostile, natives.  Not the stuff of newlywed romance.

Yet Dorothy and Jack sneaked away from the group each night to do what all newlyweds do with abandon, especially when they have respected “the sanctity of marriage” during their courtship. [124] Dowlen writes about their first jungle tryst: “Then I gave up my virginity and discovered the meaning of heavenly sex in marriage between two people in love. The tender emotion, the sweetness of the hour, and the lovemaking were things I had never experienced before that night. My young body gave into my husband’s need to be loved, and I enjoyed being consumed by his passion.” [134] The account is at once open and constrained. I don’t doubt her honesty, yet I can’t credit this as the full picture. Can her first sexual experience–with, one might suppose, sticks and rocks jamming into her back, blanket notwithstanding–have been so heavenly? My world view and temperament are so radically different from Dowlen’s that I find more truth in Ian McEwan’s fictional depiction of a wedding night gone badly awry. And what are we to make of “things I had never experienced before that night”? Didn’t we already know that? She told us more than once that she respected the sanctity of marriage. The two kissing scenes she shared both ended in her feeling intense shame. Besides, as stated, the sentence could apply to the first sexual experience of almost any of her readers. The power of this seen is diminished by its saccharine aftertaste.

The newlyweds’ ardor did more than seal their marriage and bind them in intimacy. It would yield a pregnancy. This was a blessing because their brief spate of sexual relations would soon come to an abrupt end.

The band of guerillas and resistors were searching the jungle for a certain Datu Taylor, a native leader with known Western sympathies. One morning two “half-naked men” [141] wandered into their camp and, behind a façade of goodwill, promised to lead Jack, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s cousin Beth to the tribal chief they sought.

It was all a ruse. The three were to be sacrificed according to a sinister and arcane practice of the Magahat tribe. As it happened, Dorothy was away from the group when the attack began. As it happened, Jack had uncharacteristically removed his gun-in-holster and left it with his young wife. Dorothy fired the gun and the murdering natives scattered. She was able to save Beth, who was badly cut up, but Jack was already dead. Together, unharmed and wounded fled the crime scene in search of help.

Close call number five and the climax of the book. But there were still more to come.

Dowlen does not give us much window into Dorothy’s thoughts and feelings about the loss of her new husband so soon into her marriage. The narrative stays focused on their struggle to survive and to keep Beth’s wounds from festering. Dorothy might well have been in such shock that she did not allow herself to reflect on the horror she had just witnessed. In other words, the narrative Dowlen relates decades later might well be faithful to the events as they happened. Still, I would have liked to get inside the young Dorothy’s head a little more. What was she thinking and feeling in these most difficult of days. She did give readers this reflective passage on the first morning of their flight: “A  beautiful ray of sunshine broke through the opening in the trees, waking me up the following day. This day had to be better than the day before; I could not think how it could be worse.” [149] The “beautiful ray” braced me for an acknowledgement of irony of the contrast between the beauty/comfort of the rising sun and the ugliness/horror of what she had just witnessed. But, no. Dowlen continues with the tritest of comments–that the day could only be an improvement.

Actually, it could get worse. The reality of the murder could sink in more deeply and replace her initial shock with a post-traumatic memory that keeps looping through her mind, almost without cease. After such a sudden, violent loss, I doubt anyone could care about what kind of day they had. Contentment would be the last thing a survivor would want to feel. I would have liked a little more commentary on the teenager’s mental state. Dowlen had a half-century to examine her long-repressed emotions from those traumatic days.

Several pages later, Dowlen makes just such a revealing commentary, as revealing as any passage in the entire book. Dorothy and Beth meet up with a native who seems more trustworthy that the Magahats. Not that the wanderers had any realistic alternative. Unless they got help soon, Beth’s suppurating wounds would have advanced too far to save her limbs from the surgeon’s saw–and possibly too far to save her life. They were, in fact, taken to Datu Taylor. After examining the wounds, the chief chewed betel nuts into a paste and applied it to the wounds. Beth’s recovery was both dramatic and swift.

Then convalescing Beth made a shocking announcement. She would not follow Dorothy when Taylor’s men led her back to Mr. Dore and the resistance fighters. She would stay and marry the chief’s son. To Dorothy, this must have felt like a betrayal. A metaphorical slap in the face to the one who helped save her life. There was nothing figurative about Dorothy’s jab to her cousin’s cheek. Nor when she leapt on Beth’s fallen body, or when she grabbed her by the neck with both hands. This took guts to put in print and share with the reading public. It forced her to examine those thoughts and feelings, as I hoped she would: “All of the emotions bottled up in me simply exploded at that time: I felt a delayed rage over Jack’s death and took it out on the only other person who survived the attack. Was I so uncharitable as to be angry that Beth survived and Jack did not?” [156] This commentary reveals self-awareness and has the feel of authenticity.

Her husband of a few weeks dead; her mother, unable to keep up with the fleeing resistance fighters, captured and probably tortured; ditto her younger brother; Dorothy and her father had nothing left but each other. They would escape the jungle to the towns in the west. Datu Taylor offered father and daughter a raft to speed their flight downriver. It must have been an exciting trip until it became terrifying. The raft flipped. Dorothy got caught under the raft but managed to free herself. She saw her father’s hat floating on the river and was able to pull him up with it. Somehow, they recovered raft (but only one of their knapsacks) and complete their journey without incident. But only after a sixth near miss.

By this point the sixty-six-year-old Victor Dore had lost the will to live. Guilt over the fate of his wife and son had become too much to bear. Dorothy’s one-armed father died on Leap Year day, 1945. Now the nineteen-year-old widow was all alone. Pain in her abdomen led her to a doctor who told her she was pregnant. Jack’s legacy would live on. The way Dowlen tells it, the doctor who might have delivered her baby was called to another mother’s bedside, instead. His mishandling of the breach baby led to the death of both baby and the mother. Dorothy was cared for by a skilled midwife, who handled her breach baby adeptly. Labor was painful, but the breech delivery went off without hitch. The young mother survived a seventh close call and was able to name her daughter, Jean Louise Grant.

The young mother found a job, providing meals in a mess hall for soldiers and refugees. She hired a fourteen-year-old girl to care for little Jeannie during work hours. One day Dorothy heard an explosion coming from the back room, where Jeannie spent the days. Dorothy rushed in to see the place in shambles with blood widely splattered. She assumed Jeannie had been injured, but she was not. The babysitter had taken the full brunt of the explosive, apparently a Japanese booby trap mine. How it got there, remained a mystery, but Dorothy’s daughter was unharmed and the sitter was blinded and scarred on her face for the rest of her life. Fate seemed to shine on Dorothy Dore one last time, her eighth.

Dorothy attributed her good fortune to God. One could as easily say she was unfortunate to have witnessed so much violence and to have borne so much loss. Dorothy said as much herself. Looking up at the sky after her father’s death, she asked God, “Why did this happen to my mother, whom I dearly loved, God? My mother was taken, my youngest brother was beaten to death, my husband was killed, and my father died from suffering so long with tropical diseases and a broken heart. Now I am left all alone.” [173] Years later, after having relocated to the United States, Dowlen was told by a Baptist minister that God had given her the trials because she “had a strong faith and a strong spirit that could not be broken.” [173] Dowlen demurred. The God-doesn’t-give-you-more-than-you-can-handle theodicy didn’t work for her, not yet.

It took time–Dowlen gives little clue about how much or what milestones were–but she eventually settled on the idea that God allowed her to survive so she could tell the world of the horrors of war–including “the evil Magahats who lived in the Philippine jungles in WWII.” [143] Inevitably, my mind when back to Rickenbacker who survived at least as many close calls as Dowlen, even if his story seems almost tame in comparison to hers. Rickenbacker sought a purpose from God, too, and decided it was to badger…er, spur his countrymen on against the twin evils of Fascism and Communism. Dowlen’s God-given purpose might have been more modest: simply to share her story that others may learn. “I believe that any and all war stories must be  told,” she writes near the end of the book. “They cannot be swept under the rug, or wars will continue if their horrors are forgotten.” Then she waxes unusually philosophical. “I believe there are no winners in [war]. Both the aggressors and the liberators caused a great deal of destruction, after which the people of the Philippines have had to reconstruct their lives and their culture.” [189] Nothing that came before in the book can have prepared the reader for this assertion. The Americans–even if unnamed, left simply as “the liberators”–shared in the blame for her troubles. She seems to say this, but she drops it as soon as she brings it up. She leaves the thought unexamined. The reader is given no guidance as to what it means, what its implications are.

Reconstruction defined Dowlen’s postwar years, too, though she chose to do it in her father’s erstwhile country

Dowlen had to reconstruct her life in a new country, the United States. Her ability to work hard and learn quickly allowed her to build a life that was both fulfilling and thoroughly middle class. She wed another American, from whom she took her new surname. Though she doesn’t explain how she was able to break free from her traumatic past, it is clear that the publication of her book was an important step in the process. She needed to know that the pain and suffering–not just hers but her family’s–had a purpose in the divine plan. “God must have really loved me because he made me worthy of undertaking a difficult path in life and surviving. He needed a living witness of war’s hell, and I am one.” [189] (I appreciate the modesty in the last simple sentence. Her story is not the last word on war’s inhumanity, even if it is more “unusual”–haunting–than most.)

As she neared the completion of her WWII memoir, Dorothy Dore Dowlen was able to write, “Today I am finally free of any guilt or blame from the deaths of my family that took place during World War II….” [173] The sentence is pregnant with meaning. First, it hints at survivor’s guilt that must have haunted her for years and probably decades. More important, it announces the fact of her psychic healing? Did healing enable writing the memoir. Or did the writing enable the healing? My guess: The two formed an ongoing, circular, self-reinforcing act of recovery. I would have liked Dowlen to delve deeper into the psychological implications of her war experiences, but that was not her style. A different author might have done so. A different might not have lived to write the memoir. God didn’t give her trials because she could handle them. She survived because, by nature and upbringing, she had the inner strength to “endure what cannot be endured.”

Source: Dowlen, Dorothy Dore. Enduring What Cannot Be Endured: Memoir of a Woman Medical Aide in the Philippines in World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 2001.

Images: Wikimedia Commons