On 15 August, 1945 — six days after the second atomic weapon detonated on the Japanese mainland (Nagasaki) — the United States accepted the intention expressed by the Japanese government of their willingness to cease hostilities. Between that day, recognized by most sources as V-J Day (for Victory over Japan), and 2 September, 1945, the actual day of the peace treaty signing ceremony, a tense situation developed in the northern highlands of Luzon, Philippine Islands.
News of the 15 August agreement had reached the Red Arrow Division’s front lines by radio. Famously, in a Saturday Evening Post Article published later that year, a “grimy sergeant flicked the butterfly of the mike” upon hearing the news, “the war’s over” by muttering, “yeah, ‘all over’ these mountains.” That same day, facing a still-sizeable Japanese military force led personally by their Commanding General Yamashita Tomoyuki, men of the American 32nd Infantry repelled several probing attacks and banzai charges. After 15 August, however, the American doctrine was solely defensive, after having received orders “not to continue aggressive action.” Despite this directive, they remained engaged in sporadic hot combat against this large garrison still under arms in the Kiangan-Asin Valley northeast of Baguio. Yamashita’s original mission, with over 120,000 troops — many times the number the Americans had faced when liberating Manila and the Bataan Peninsula–was to fight a slow war of attrition, a delaying action intended to weaken the potential American strength for the inevitable invasion of the Japanese homeland. Now, however, surrounded by three American Divisions and with his strength down to around 40,000, Yamashita could only hope to break out to another wilderness area further north, then continue gradually until his own forces were decimated.
Immediately after 15 August, American forces began flying small L-5 spotter planes over the vicinity of the Japanese lines, dropping leaflets and information about the official surrender communication. This activity persisted for the rest of the month. In one case, the pilot of one of these planes had bailed out after developing engine trouble; he was captured by Japanese troops and taken to Yamashita’s headquarters, briefly interrogated, then escorted back to the American lines with a letter signed by the Japanese General. Evidently, this same pilot was ordered back over the location to drop a message from General William Gill, the 32nd’s Division Commander, and a ground panel to be laid out as a signal indicating receipt of the message by Yamashita. The next day (26 August), a Japanese detachment approached the American lines with the Japanese response indicating willingness to enter discussions but with regrets that no communication had yet been received from Japan to do so. Nevertheless, some courier dialogue was established between the two sides, and an American radio set was furnished to Yamashita’s headquarters.
On 30 August, a spotter plane flying over the Japanese garrison and attempting to establish voice contact with this radio carried Colonel Merle Howe, one of the heroes of the Division’s National Guard legacy. Originally a high school teacher form Grand Rapids, MI, Howe had the unique distinction to have commanded all three of the Division’s Infantry Regiments at different times over the course of the war. At the end, Howe was in command of the 128th, and on this day he had chosen to go personally as part of this tense negotiation mission. The plane developed engine trouble and crashed inside the enemy lines, killing Howe and injuring the pilot. The Japanese recovered Howe’s body and treated the pilot; Yamashita sent another dispatch to General Gill advising him of the outcome and his deep regrets. Incidentally, when reading the transcripts of the dispatch correspondence between Generals Yamashita and Gill, one is stricken immediately by the language and tone, each of which exude the utmost in diplomacy, formality, and respect between the two opposing leaders.
On 2 September, 1945, roughly simultaneously with surrender ceremonies taking place miles away on the deck of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General Yamashita, trailed by his staff, walked out of the stronghold and surrendered his remaining forces. The event took place in the American sector manned by the 3rd Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment. Colonel Howe’s former Executive Officer, now commanding the 128th, received Yamashita’s party. General Gill was not present but his Division Chief of Staff was. General Robert Eichelberger, commanding US Eighth Army, later wrote that it was “entirely fitting that the 32nd Division should receive the vanquished enemy. Three years before at Buna they had won the battle that started the infantry on the jungle road to Tokyo.” Eichelberger would have known this firsthand, since it was he who had controversially finished the job begun by General Edwin F. Harding at Buna.
The actual American troops who had received Yamashita that morning were members of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 128th Regiment. However, it appears that men from other companies congregated to get a glimpse of their former foe. For a short time, until transportation arrived to take the party to the rear, Yamashita mingled freely with the G.I.’s who were present. One of them, Lt. William Harold Thackston, was a Clemson graduate, Class of 1939.
Thackston had been in the thick of the effort against the Japanese since November of 1942, when he had coordinated loading and unloading of American cargo planes during the airlift effort over the Owen Stanley Mountains. He had supervised this activity actually on both the South Coast and the North Coast of Papua New Guinea as the Buna campaign progressed. He was also on the small boat schooner Alacrity at Cape Sudest, 16 November 1942, when the flotilla was attacked and destroyed by Japanese planes. Later, he assumed command of K Company 128th and remained in that capacity for the remainder of the war. Interestingly, he eschewed promotions and advancement; while his fellow Clemson ’39 classmates rose to Captain and Major, he remained a First Lieutenant. One can only presume that, out of humility and devotion to the job as well as to his men, this was his own choice. As such, he was one of a mere handful of South Carolina officers who rightfully earned the sobriquet “most days in combat” expressed by the Red Arrow Division Association. Thackston did not rotate home until October 1945, well into the Occupation of Japan period and a full three years after beginning his combat duty in the war.
Having worked on the Clemson Tiger newspaper in college, Thackston was also an avid observer of the historic, and on this day he captured several snapshots of General Yamashita in American custody. These pictures are included within the text of 32 Answered. Many sincere thanks go to the Thackston family for sharing these pictures and also the partial war memoir written by Wm. Harold Thackston later in his life.
The jovial nature portrayed in Thackston’s photos subsided rather quickly. General Yamashita was transferred later that day to the custody of the American 37th Division, and then moved on to Baguio, where a formal surrender ceremony was held the next day (3 September). This was attended by former ranking Allied POW’s General Percival, who Yamashita had defeated at Singapore, and General Wainwright, who had surrendered American and Philippine forces at Corregidor. Still later, in a rapid and even to this day a somewhat controversial trial, Yamashita was convicted of war crimes and executed.
This is something we should all remember, exactly 70 years after the fact.
2 September 2015