“For three years, Camp Stoneman remained one of the best-kept secrets of the war. All in all, a million soldiers were processed en route to the Pacific through Camp Stoneman between 25 May 1942 and 11 August 1945. Covering one thousand acres, Camp Stoneman…billeted an average of thirty thousand troops each day of the war” Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams; California in War and Peace, 1940-1950[i]
Practically next door to Port Chicago, the site of the huge explosion that terrified my cousin Joanne, was Camp Stoneman, the processing center for the majority of soldiers who fought in the Pacific. Camp Stoneman was located just east of Carquinez Strait, where the combined waters of the San Joaquin and Sacrament Rivers flow into San Francisco Bay. Stockton, the town where my family lived, was located on the San Joaquin, about forty-five miles inland. Reading about Camp Stoneman in Kevin Starr’s history of World War II in California, I suddenly realized that Camp Stoneman was most likely the destination of those passenger trains filled with soldiers that passed behind my family’s house on Coronado Avenue. All these young men were on their way to fight the battle to win the war in the Pacific.
Uncle Frank, the next to the youngest of my father’s brothers, was one of the million plus soldiers processed through Camp Stoneman. Sent to Hawaii for basic training, he was then sent out to join the troops fighting their way across the islands in the South Pacific.
One of my memories from that time is of my mother crying as she read a letter. When I asked why she was crying, she said that Uncle Frank had been wounded, shot in the shoulder, but he would be ok. I later head the name Saipan when my parents talked about the letter. That name, Saipan, stuck in my mind. Later, at the movies, when I saw newsreels that showed film shot during the invasion of Saipan and other Pacific islands, those images, too, stuck with me, images of landing craft and flame-throwers used like guns to blast into caves where Japanese soldiers were hiding.
In 1997, Uncle Frank wrote a short history of his life for his children and sent me a copy. He knew I was working on a book about the Willems family and gave me permission to quote directly from what he wrote. Below is the section on his experience in WWII:
“I was sworn in on October 27, 1942, and reported to the Presidio of Monterey on November 11. After a couple of weeks there, we went to Oakland from where we got on board a ship and went to Oahu, Hawaii, where we got our basic training. After basic I was assigned to the Anti-tank Co., 105th Infantry, 27th Division. We received extended training in Hawaii before we went into combat. It was while getting this training that our first son, Joe, was born on April 7th, 1943.
“We sailed for Saipan in either April or May of 1944. On this campaign I drove a Jeep pulling a trailer hauling ammunition for the anti-tank guns. Even though we didn’t get into any tank battles we did have some difficult times. Our biggest danger was that we drew a lot of artillery and mortar fire. Sleeping in open fox holes in heavy rain with artillery fire didn’t make for much sleep.
“I believe it was on July 7, the day the island was secured that we ran into a heavy battle. The Japanese made a desperate Banzai attack. Since we had dug in for the night after dark, the placing of weapons was not well organized. We set up our guns to cover a good area and crawled into our foxholes with men on guard. After we were settled, another outfit came in and parked their equipment in front of our guns making them useless. Thousands of Japanese soldiers came swarming down all liquored up in a final attack. If we could have used our guns we could have done a lot for that day. We had anti-personnel ammo that would have made our anti-tank guns into giant shotguns. As it was, we got driven back to the beach. That was the day I got wounded, but the Island was secured.
“We left Saipan for some R&R on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. While we were there we got training on bigger guns. We went from 37mm to 57mm guns, from jeeps to 1 ½ ton trucks. Again I drove the ammo truck. After a rest of a few months, we went to Okinawa. Here we got more shelling because our bigger guns were taken for Artillery. I didn’t get any wounds here. I only lost a lot of weight from what was scared out of me.
“We had secured the island and were back at a rest camp packing our bags for an assault on Japan when the Atomic bomb was dropped. Talk about a bunch of happy people when we heard that we weren’t going to Japan! The war was over. Around the first of October we set sail for home. We landed in the States in Seattle, Washington. After physicals and shots we got on a long slow train for California. When we got to Camp Beale we got more physicals and finally our discharges. I phoned Jack who was then living in Stockton. Velma was there to meet me. We drove back to Dinuba that night. It was September 24, 1945 when I got my discharge papers.
“I had reported to the Army on October 27, 1942 and got out September 24, 1945. In that time I got to see Velma one time before we shipped out, and I didn’t see Madeline from the time I left till I got out. The first time I saw Joe was when he was almost three years old (1997).”[ii]
On 6 August 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay, released a new kind of bomb over the city of Hiroshima, an atomic bomb. On 9 August a second atomic bomb was released over the city of Nagasaki. Six days later, on August 15, Japan surrendered. There would be no invasion of Japan. The World War II was over. For Uncle Frank and his buddies, Japan’s surrender meant that that they would not have to participate in an invasion of Japan, an invasion that was expected to be brutal and hard. The Japanese people would be fighting to defend their homeland. A high casualty rate was expected, and there was a real danger that fighting there would go on and on with no real surrender. For Uncle Frank and his buddies the dropping of the Atomic bomb meant that they could go home; they could stop fighting. They were safe. Their families were safe. They were happy, more than happy. They rejoiced.
For Americans in general the atomic bomb meant the end of the war and the return of sons and brothers, husbands and boyfriends. The terrible crisis was over. People could get on with their lives. It was only after the war was over that ordinary people realized that the atomic bomb was not just a bigger than usual bomb. They began to understand that the atomic bomb was something radically new. What had been unleashed was an entirely new way for people to kill each other, an instrument of war that carried terrible consequences, horrific possibilities.
I’m not sure when or where I first saw photos of the devastation visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may have been in the newsreels at a movie theater; it may have been in a magazine like Life or Look. My family did not subscribe to those magazines, but my girlfriends’ homes had copies that I looked at every chance I got. What I clearly remember is images of naked, horrible burned people standing in a devastated landscape that had once been a city. Later, I don’t know where, I learned that those people who had not been killed by the bomb blast were doomed to die a lingering death.
Radiation and radioactive. New words, a new concept. Ordinary people, including little girls like me, began to understand what an atomic bomb really was—something that could not only wipe out a city with one bomb, it was something that even if you survived the initial explosion, could make you sick and kill you years later.
Suddenly the regular bombs used during WWII felt almost ‘clean’. If you survived one of the explosion of one of those old bombs you could feel relieved. It was over; you’d survived. With the A-bomb, there could never be that relief. The effects would linger and linger.
Why would anyone make such a bomb? I was angry. It shouldn’t be allowed. I was angry, –and I was afraid. The fighting in World War II had been “over there”, far away, across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But America’s geographical location no longer felt like adequate protection. I no longer felt safe simply because I lived in America. War had finally became real. It was something that could hurt me and my family and all the people I knew, something that could destroy all that I enjoyed and loved.
I didn’t talk about this fear. This fear belonged to the night when I lay in bed. There in the dark, just before sleep, images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would come, fear would surface. I don’t want to overstate my fear—I didn’t lie awake every night worrying about the bomb; fear of the bomb did not set the tone of my days. But that fear was there, a shadow on the horizon of what was a basically sunny landscape.
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