I’ve just finished and released into the wild a WWII novel, My Dear Cousin, for which the concept came to me in a dream last July. Since the current year-long plus covidiocy demolished nearly every fall market and holiday event which would otherwise have taken up my time, I set to work and finished it in six months.  As much as is possible, I did my research – and the internet makes the kind of information I needed available at my fingertips: a detailed 1930s map of Singapore, a hand-written diary of a woman who escaped Malaya in early 1942, a breakdown of what constituted the tents and facilities for a frontline Army hospital in 1944, and the newspaper archives of the wartime Singapore Straits Times and Brisbane Courier Mail. All that and more went into an account of the war, as seen through the lives of two cousins, on opposite sides of the world.  Accuracy is what I strive for – and most times, I think I come very close. The rest of this entry is what I felt obliged to include in the notes at the back of the book.

In the interests of fidelity to history and racial attitudes of the 1940s with regard to the Japanese and to a lesser extent, the Germans, the current social climate requires me to add the following caveat; yes, the general attitudes of American and Australians towards the Japanese were by current standards, viciously and unrepentantly racist. However, this book is, as nearly as I can make it, written with an eye to fidelity to the historical record. I will not cut and tailor my fictional cloth in accordance with current fashion. ‘Presentism’, wherein the accepted fashionable attitudes and conventional opinions of the current day are retrofitted, however unsuited and historically unlikely, onto those characters living in past decades and centuries, is a grim transgression against the art of bringing a past era into life, warts and all. Writing a so-called historical novel merely by placing 21st century characters in different costumes and strange technological shortcomings is a disservice to the past, and a hampering to complete understanding. It’s the past – they did things differently, back then.

As for wartime feelings, Americans, Britons, Australians, Chinese and other participants, even the ‘inadvertent by reason of geography’ had no reason to think well of the Japanese who made bloody, brutal, and imperial war upon them and plenty of excellent reasons to think ill. A brief list of those reasons begins with the war in China, including the ‘rape of Nanking’ and similar atrocities, the attack on Pearl Harbor while diplomatic negotiations were underway, the opening of aggressive hostilities throughout the Pacific theater of operations, extreme brutalities inflicted on those with the misfortune of living in Japanese occupied countries, and the horrific treatment of interned civilians and captured military by the Japanese. The most charitable comment which one can make on this all is that at least they were ecumenical in administering barbaric treatment to all those unlucky to experience the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere at first hand.

Americans are, or at least used to be, conversant with the Bataan Death march, but that was just one of the gruesome atrocities against Allied POWs during the war front in the Pacific. Even ghastlier than the Bataan forced march of POWs was the Sandakan Death March, a series of forced marches which took place towards the end of the war on Borneo. Internees and POWs were forced by the retreating Japanese Army to abandon a massive camp at Sandakan airfield and retreat 160 miles through the jungle with them. Of 2,500 British and Australian POWs at the start of those marches, only six men survived by escaping during the confusion. Ritual cannibalism, medical experimentation on living prisoners, mass forced prostitution of women, the deliberate sinking of the AHS Centaur by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Brisbane, massacres of medical personnel and patients at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, mass executions of native military there and in Hong Kong, the execution of civilian and military personnel on Bangka Island, the executions of American POWs at Palawan towards the end of the war when all seemed to be lost for the Japanese, the horrific treatment and the death rates of impressed civilian laborers and POWs on the Burma-Siam railway, the wanton destruction of Manila… All of these and even uglier accounts of Japanese brutality were publicized in the last months and weeks of the war, just as the reality of German concentration and extermination camps emerged earlier in 1945. Knowledge of these horrors was why contemporary opinion approved with mild reservations the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if many were startled by the suddenness of the events, baffled by the science, and apprehensive regarding the implications of atomic weapons.

A further element had to do with knowing how fanatical Japanese resistance had been in New Guinea, on Guadalcanal, on Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. An invasion of the Japanese home islands could only be much, much worse. And yet, planning for such an invasion went forward. Part of that planning involved a massive order of 1.5 million Purple Heart medals, in expectation of a huge number of American casualties. That backlog of medals was not drawn down sufficiently for another order until 2008; this after the end of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and two wars in Gulf and the many pinprick casualties from random terrorism over the following seven decades. Knowing that the cost in blood and human lives would be almost unbearably high for a ground invasion of Japan, among the invading troops, the defending Japanese and the hapless Japanese civilians, the choice for atomic bombing was a necessary albeit cruel calculation. Japanese cities were being pounded unmercifully by American bombing, with destruction and death by many conventional bombs equal to a single atomic bomb … I’m on the side of those historians who believe that turning segments of Nagasaki and Hiroshima into radioactive glass saved lives. A cruel calculation, but one which saved the lives of Allied soldiers who would otherwise have died in an invasion, the lives of Japanese civilians who would have been thrown into the maelstrom and saved the lives of prisoners and internees all across the Japan-occupied territories who were about two weeks from being killed by starvation or hours and minutes of being murdered outright.

Imagine, if you will; how it would have gone if President Truman had let the invasion of Japan go ahead – with all the casualties; the massive deaths of soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and internees … and then finding out that all that torment could have been avoided by dropping two bombs on Japanese cities (cities already being systematically destroyed by conventional bombing). No, the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, as many of these historical choices come down to – the least worst choice of the lot. This is why practically everyone who would have had a real stake in this choice – their lives, the lives of those whom they loved and who would now survive because of it – heaved a sigh of relief at the outcome of a mushroom-shaped cloud over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A perilous choice and one with regrets attached. Because of that decision, they and the ones whom they loved – would live.

The most amazing thing about writing historical fiction – is that most times, what really happened – is even more incredible and dramatic than anything which I could possibly create out of thin air.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I once worked with someone who, as a child, was a Dutch civilian interned by the Japanese during WWII. In 1990, he still remembered and hated the Japanese because of their treatment of him and his family. He would not buy Japanese products – cars, cameras, anything – if he could avoid it.

    • Celia

      I think it was George McDonald Fraser, of the McAusland series and the inimitable Flashman, who was dead set against buying anything of Japanese make, after his own real-life experience in the South Pacific front. Honestly, can sympathize. The treatment of POWs and civilian internees was absolutely horrific.