VAN STOCKUM: Peace and War, The Path to World War II Part 2: The people, events that took us to Pearl Harbor

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The days leading up to the start of World War II may well have had hints of what was to come, but there were lots of people along the way who made an impact. This is the last of two parts of what the world was like in those days.

By Ron Van Stockum

Maj. John W. Thomason was perhaps the first Marine to gain prominence outside military circles as an artistic and literary figure. As a major at the San Diego Marine Barracks in 1939, he was highly respected and greatly admired.


We second lieutenants had enjoyed his stories of marines in combat, including those in his popular book Fix Bayonets, which were based upon his experiences in combat with the Marine Brigade in France in 1918.

Following Britain’s entry into the war in September 1939, the biggest harbinger of World War II, mobilization of our armed forces picked up momentum, even though the mood of the country favored neutrality. Later that year, reserve officers joined the 6th Marines, including several who were multitalented. like Thomason.
One of the first reserves to join me in Company D, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines was 2nd Lt. William K. “Bill” Jones. Company D was an infantry heavy weapons company consisting of three machine gun platoons and an 81mm mortar platoon.

The 6th Marines, a famed regiment, had won the French Croix de Guerre three times – for its actions at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and Blanc Mont in World War I.  As a result, all those serving in the regiment were authorized to wear on the left shoulder a braided cord, representing the fourragère of the Croix de Guerre.

Jones remained with the battalion to add to its luster, becoming its commanding officer and winning the Navy Cross in the invasion of Saipan in 1944.  Years after his retirement in the rank of  lieutenant general, his nephew, James L Jones, became a 4-star general as Commandant of the Marine Corps (1999-2003).


Talented contributor

Another recently mobilized officer who joined the 1st Battalion, Sixth Marines, was 2nd Lt. Loren Haffner.  Easy-going, with a keen sense of humor, he was very popular among his colleagues. 

He also possessed considerable talent in drawing cartoons, spoofing his fellow officers or expressing the frustrations of the times. Several of his cartoons came into my hands and are now part of my collection at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

He remained in the 1st Battalion, serving in the Pacific campaigns under the command of his good friend, Bill Jones.  However, his greatest contribution to corps and country may have been a special mission to Laos in 1959 to provide information about that country for Gen. David M. Shoup, then the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

In an article about this mission, he quoted Shoup:

“Haf, I want you to go into that G. D. country. I want you to crawl on your belly, walk over mountains, wade through swamps, and tell me what operational conditions would be on the field boot level.  I don’t want you to come back and report on the cultural attributes of the country, crap like that I can read in Life, Time, and Newsweek.”

Haffner accomplished his mission, posing as a scientist and traveling alone for most of his journey, gathering information that would not have been available had he identified himself as a Marine Colonel.



Showing leadership

On May 10, 1940, following a relatively quiet period of the war, called at that time “The Phony War,” Hitler destroyed the complacency of the West by launching his “blitzkrieg.”

Six weeks later France was defeated and forced to sign an armistice.

Shortly afterwards, following a tactical field exercise, my brigade commander, Gen. Barney Vogel, Vogel conducted the customary military critique.

The commander of my battalion, then Lt. Col. O. P. Smith, a graduate of France’s prestigious École de Guerre, was a tall, lean, quiet-spoken officer, highly intellectual and deeply religious.  In his remarks he mentioned tactics the French had successfully employed in World War I.

I shall not quote the general’s immediate retort, but it was not complimentary to the French!

Ten years later, as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division in Korea, then-Maj. Gen. Smith proved in the field his knowledge of military tactics. 

In November 1950, he found his command surrounded near the Chosin Reservoir, close to the northern Korean border, by Chinese forces that had crossed the Yalu river to enter the war surreptitiously.

He carefully extricated his troops, fighting his way out in a classic withdrawal action, bringing back all his wounded and most of his equipment in a retrograde 70-mile march to the seaport of Hungnam. 

When asked about his “retreat,” he responded, “We are not retreating. We are just attacking in a different direction.”


Vigilance at sea

In January 1941, I returned to sea duty, serving in the Marine detachment of the USS Wasp (CV-7), a recently commissioned aircraft carrier, based in Norfolk, Va.  The Navy in the Atlantic was already on a war footing, and our guns and planes were ready for any threatening action by Axis forces.

In mid September 1941, the secretary of war, Frank Knox, speaking at the American Legion Convention, announced publicly that the United States Navy was engaged in providing protection for all ships carrying lend-lease supplies between the American continent and the waters adjacent to Iceland.  Knox said the orders to the fleet were to capture or destroy every Axis surface or submarine raider encountered in the American defense waters.

This announcement was not news to us, because we had been given orders two months before to open fire on any Axis submarines, even without permission from the captain on the bridge.


And then Pearl Harbor

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Wasp was anchored in Grassy Bay, Bermuda, having just returned from one of our “neutrality” patrols in the Atlantic.  I was ashore having Sunday dinner with Bermudian friends.

At about 3 p.m., turning on the radio to listen to the latest war news, we were astonished to hear that “the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor and Manila from the air, causing considerable damage.”

I immediately returned to my ship where I was handed a copy of this dispatch originated by the Commander of the Pacific Fleet:


The next day I wrote in my journal:

“8 December 1941

“It simply amazed me to realize that the Japs had launched an attack 3,500 miles from their home country.  There are reports of the Oklahoma and W. Va. [battleships] being damaged and a Japanese carrier being sunk.  Communication has been lost with Guam, which has probably been taken.

“It seems that the Rising Sun relied upon this surprise move to paralyze our Hawaiian and Philippine bases and damage our fleet so that she would be unopposed in her attack on Siam [Thailand].  Reports of what has happened are very meager but Japan has certainly risked a great deal and she will “pay through the nose” when U. S. recovers from the initial shock.

“I am not one to believe that this war will be over in a few months.  It may take two years and the defeat of Germany before sufficient British and American forces can be collected in the Pacific to launch an all out attack against Japan.  All the world is at war and the defeat of all the dictatorships will come pretty much at the same time.

“Japan is certainly foolish, having now to face Russia, China, D.E.I [Dutch East Indies], Australia and the British and American Pacific fleets, without possibility of help from Germany.  After the war her millions will be confined to her own islands – she will give up her interests in China and will also hand over her fortified Pacific islands.”

And so war, which had been threatened when I was carrying newspapers in Seattle, Wash., in 1931, finally involved our country.

It is 70 years to the day since the Pearl Harbor attack. I was then 25 years old and shortly to be promoted to captain and to command of the Wasp's Marine Detachment.

To read more columns by Gen. Ron Van Stockum, visit www.SentinelNews.com/features. His latest book, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, a collection of 17 columns from two series published in The Sentinel-News,may be purchased locally at the Shelby County Library or at Smith McKenney Drug Company in Shelbyville.  It is also available at Amazon.com and directly from the author, ronvanstockum@mac.com.