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Pacific War Stories: A Q&A With Jerry Meehl

From Pacific War Stories. National Archives, 80G-48557.

Jerry Meehl is a writer, photographer, and the co-author, with the late Rex Alan Smith, of Abbeville’s Pacific War Stories, a compilation of gripping eyewitness accounts of one of the bloodiest war theaters in world history. To commemorate the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, as well as the release of Pacific War Stories as an e-book, Meehl took the time this week to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog.

Q. What sparked your interest in the Pacific theater of WWII? Do you have a relative who fought or other personal connection?

A. I had three uncles who served in the Pacific (all three of their stories are in Pacific War Stories–Harlan Wall in the Army in the Philippines, Al Hahn in the Navy on PT boats in the Philippines, and Louis Meehl who was a gunner in the Air Force and flew all over the Pacific). My dad was also in the Air Force but served in England. As you can imagine, as a kid growing up, I heard a lot of war stories at family gatherings, and I always thought the stories from the Pacific sounded particularly exotic, strangely evocative.

Q. In photographing major battle sites in the Pacific theater, what lingering evidence of the war have you found in the landscape?

A. In the 1970s I had a couple of jobs that took me to the Pacific, and I was amazed that it was just as exotic and strangely evocative as I’d imagined. I was also surprised when I saw a lot of remains from the Pacific war just laying around. I lived at Pago Pago in American Samoa for five months, and the old packed-coral WWII air strip, built by the Americans, was still there though not being used at that time. They had built a longer modern runway on the reef that connected to the old WWII runway, but I was intrigued that a packed coral runway could have survived nearly intact after all that time. There were also these little WWII-era concrete pillboxes built every quarter of a mile or so along the coast. The Americans had constructed them to repel a Japanese landing if it had come. During the course of my job, I visited a lot more islands, and it was the same story as on Pago Pago–legacies from the war were everywhere you looked. As at Pago Pago there were a lot of old packed coral runways, some built by the Japanese and some by the Americans, and many still in use in their original WWII configuration. On islands like Pohnpei, Truk, and Tawara, modern passenger jets were landing on those old coral WWII runways well into the 1980s! There were also traces of combat, especially in the Solomon Islands–rusting amphibious landing craft, guns, plane wrecks, and vehicles. It dawned on me that you didn’t see that many war relics where they were left after the war in Europe because Europeans had the resources to tidy things up after the fighting stopped. Pacific islanders had no such resources, so war relics were left where they lay. This was all infinitely fascinating to me, and I took a lot of photos of those war remains.

From Pacific War Stories. National Archives, Marine Corps 54377.

Q. What do you find is the most common misconception about the war in the Pacific (or Pearl Harbor specifically)?

A. Most people think the Japanese fired the first shot of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. They’re wrong. The Americans did. The USS Ward, an American destroyer patrolling the mouth of the harbor, actually fired on and sunk a Japanese mini-sub trying to enter the harbor over an hour before the aerial attack started. Most people think the only time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor was on Dec. 7, 1941. Wrong again. The Japanese tried a second attack in March of 1942, carried out by two huge four-engine flying boats. They tried to attack at night, but cloud cover thwarted their efforts. One Japanese plane presumably dropped its bombs over the ocean, and the other released its bombs over the island of Oahu nowhere near Pearl Harbor, and lightly damaged a high school. Most people think the USS Arizona is the only sunken battleship still left from the December 7 attack. You guessed it, wrong again. There is a second sunken battleship still left in Pearl Harbor, the USS Utah. Like the USS Arizona, the Utah still lies mostly beneath the surface with only a part of the ship protruding above the water, and it also has a very well-designed shoreline memorial on Ford Island. But it’s difficult to visit at present since it is in an area of the naval base that’s off limits to civilians.

There are many ironies associated with the Pearl Harbor attack. One is that of all the battleships sunk or damaged on December 7, the only two that survive today are the two that were deemed too damaged to resurrect during the war, the USS Arizona and the USS Utah. All the other battleships were raised and repaired, but one was lost at sea after being raised (the Oklahoma), two were sunk at sea after being used in post-war A-bomb tests (the Pennsylvania and Nevada), and the rest were scrapped shortly after the war.

Q. Of the stories told in the volume, which resonates most with you personally?

A. Of course I have a personal stake in the stories told by my three uncles. To be able to have their experiences described in print was very gratifying to me. Two of the three (Uncle Har and Uncle Al) lived to see their stories published, and they got a big kick out of attending book signings with me and autographing books–they were suddenly celebrities!

Q. What do the experiences of the soldiers featured in the book have to teach us about war today?

A. One of the things I did when I interviewed veterans was to ask them how their wartime experiences affected the rest of their lives. These little epilogues appear at the end of most of their stories in the book, and are a unique aspect of Pacific War Stories. For those who were willing to talk about this aspect of their experience, they all said their lives were changed by the war, by what they saw, and what they experienced. Some had recurring nightmares throughout their lives. The trauma of war profoundly affects the participants in ways that cannot be anticipated or even understood by those who haven’t experienced combat. I fear that this has always been the case, and always will be.


Click here to learn more about Pacific War Stories, published by Abbeville Press.

Pacific War Stories: Pearl Harbor, 71 Years Later

Bombing of Pearl Harbor, reprinted in Pacific War Stories. National Archives, 80G-32424.

I was on North Atlantic patrol before the war started, in Battleship Division Three, onboard the USS New Mexico. I think we were about 300 miles off the coast of England when the officer of the deck got on the horn and shouted down, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” I was sitting next to a chief petty officer who said, “Boy, that guy is in real, real trouble.” The impregnable Pearl Harbor? He really thought the guy was kidding. He said, “The Japanese couldn’t attack Pearl Harbor.” And then all of a sudden, on comes the skipper, and he told us all about it. So we immediately turned around and headed back.

So begins the firsthand account of George Thoma, a WWII Navy veteran, as recorded by editors Rex Allan Smith and Gerald A. Meehl in the collection Pacific War Stories. That volume, originally published by Abbeville Press in 2004 and recently released for the first time as an e-book, compiles the recollections of the survivors of the Pacific theater of the Second World War, which encompassed some of the most hellish combat environments any soldier has ever endured. The curtain on that theater was raised, of course, at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which the Japanese air force attacked on December 7, 1941.

The anniversary of that event is this Friday; the date that FDR said would “live in infamy” is now 71 years in the past. To most living Americans and Japanese, the bombing of the harbor is pure history, a fact to be memorized in grade school. But to those few for whom the attacks are a living memory, the wounds can still be terribly raw. Smith and Meehl recount a fraught meeting of the American Pearl Harbor Survivors nine years ago:

Back over at the public ceremony, a contingent of Japanese Pacific war veterans was in attendance, including Yuji Akamatsu. On the morning of December 7, 1941, at the controls of a torpedo bomber, he took off from the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, on his way to attack Pearl Harbor. Sixty-two years later, on December 7, 2003, he returned to Pearl Harbor at ground level, having last seen it skimming twenty feet above its calm waters and dropping his torpedo on a track to the USS Nevada. The American Pearl Harbor Survivors had mixed feelings about seeing him sitting there in his wheelchair, exuding a weakened version of his former torpedo pilot persona, but still smiling and shaking hands and signing programs. Several of the American veterans went over to greet him, through his interpreter, and shake his hand. Others didn’t want to get near him. “I don’t have anything to say to that guy,” one Pearl Harbor Survivor stated gruffly, while a few others around him nodded in agreement.

The attacks, which killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282, are now in fact so infamous that it’s hard to grasp how shocking they were in the event. Few Americans had heard of the harbor itself (Hawaii was not yet a U.S. state), and while 52% of the country at the time believed war with Japan was imminent, a vocal and politically powerful minority still wanted nothing to do with the conflict that had engulfed Europe and Asia. Most experts even within the U.S. military believed that hostilities with Japan, if initiated, would begin in the Phillipines; hardly anyone believed the war would be brought so violently to our doorstep. In Pacific War Stories, Navy veteran Al Hahn remembers:

I heard about Pearl Harbor when I was in Longmont, Colorado, and I was working for a doctor there. I was over at one of his neighbors’, and he said, “Say, did you hear what happened to the United States naval fleet?” “No, I didn’t hear a thing.” And he said, “The Japanese bombed them at Pearl Harbor.” “Pearl Harbor,” I said, “where is that? Never heard of it.”

Reading this, one wonders what percentage of American schoolchildren could now say with certainty where the harbor is located. The widely panned 2001 movie Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, the attacks are no longer as prominent a feature of America’s psyche: they are most often discussed nowadays by analogy with the trauma of 9/11, which burns far brighter in the public consciousness. Still, it’s harrowing primary documents like those in Pacific War Stories that forge our strongest link to the event, securing our best hope that Pearl Harbor will remain “heard of,” and the witnesses to its tragedy, heard from.


Click here to learn more about Pacific War Stories, published by Abbeville Press.