Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
This isn't going to be pleasant.
Talking about war never should be.
But on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, it's one of the times we should discuss why we want to avoid sending our citizens into harm's way.
And who better to tell the story than someone who was there?
University Park's Reinhard Edward Bauer agreed to meet me at the home of his son, Barry Bauer, at Del Webb in Lakewood Ranch. At 95, Bauer is among the dwindling number of World War II veterans who can recount personal experiences of a war that killed an estimated 70 to 85 million people worldwide.
He was honored Nov. 10 as the Del Webb Lakewood Ranch Association of Veterans and Military Supporters unveiled a veterans memorial in front of the clubhouse.
Bauer was 19 years old when he was sent with his fellow U.S. Marines to the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1944. He was there in the months leading up to the U.S. dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9, 1945).
Japan considered the Northern Mariana Islands, which was about six hours flight time from Japan, as key to defending its borders so the fighting there was fierce.
As Bauer began to talk about his experiences, he seemed unattached, almost like he was reviewing a movie.
He was sitting next to his wife of 73 years, Rose, who interjected that her husband never before had talked publicly about those days. She prodded him, "If you don't talk about it, who will?"
Eventually, that wall separating Bauer's mind from what he had endured came down.
"What I remember most was the smell of death," Bauer said. "The flies ... the swollen bodies."
Two of the Northern Mariana islands, Tinian and Saipan, were Japanese strongholds and the United States decided to take them over at all costs. Bauer was there.
On Tinian, an 8,000-man Japanese garrison was wiped out. Four thousand Japanese civilians died, many of them by suicide.
Bauer said the Japanese soldiers had told citizens not to let themselves be captured by the Americans, who would kill and torture them. The same situation existed in Saipan, where 20,000 civilians perished, including more than 1,000 who committed suicide by jumping from "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff."
"People were jumping off those cliffs, it was a lousy thing to see," Bauer said. "Death was all around you. You looked at those bodies and it was like they had doll faces. And it was amazing how fast they bloat."
More than 29,000 Japanese soldiers died on Saipan and 3,426 Americans died there as well. The Americans took over the islands and set up bases. The B-29 bombers that carried the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki took off from Tinian.
Twenty-five days after Nagasaki was bombed, Bauer arrived there with the 2nd Marine Division's occupation force.
I asked him if he was in shock at what he saw.
"We were not philosophers," he said. "We were just young guys.
"The city was divided by a big hill that separated the industrial half from the residential half. We dropped the bomb on the industrial half. On the residential side, most of the big buildings were knocked down. On the other side of the hill, everything was flattened."
Nagasaki was Japan's major shipbuilding center and therefore a prime target. After an estimated 90,000 or more people died in Hiroshima, an estimated 60,000 or more people died in Nagasaki.
"It was weeks later, and we would see bodies just laying around," Bauer said.
Even so, Bauer said the Japanese civilians were polite to the American solders. He said they were relieved the war was over.
"They gave us no trouble at all," he said. "The treated us with respect. They realized they didn't have a chance."
Bauer, who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 3 years old, was born in Wolfstein Germany on Oct. 6, 1924. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines because he knew he would be sent to fight the Japanese and not the Germans. He didn't want to be involved with the invasion of his former homeland.
I prodded Bauer, who was a Marine corporal, for another story. Rose asked him to talk about one fateful night in a foxhole on Tinian.
"It was dark outside and we had orders to dig a foxhole," he said. "You had two men in each foxhole and you were an hour on and an hour off. One guy would watch, one guy would sleep. It was raining and I had my poncho, sitting above the foxhole with my feet in it. During the day, our planes would strafe the line right in front of us and you would feel safe. But after it got dark ...
"I was sitting there, disgusted, when suddenly I saw something move. I must have made some noise, because the noise stopped. I took my rifle and — boom — he went down in the sugar cane field. He landed in a little, cultivated ditch, but we couldn't see him. My partner had an incendiary grenade and he threw it, almost on top of him. We saw him. He had a Japanese hand grenade, which you had to pull the pin and then hit on a rock before you threw it. If I had just wounded him, he would have thrown that grenade in our foxhole."
After a brief occupation of Nagasaki, Bauer and his fellow Marines headed home to the U.S. and civilian life. A couple of weeks later he met Rose in a bar.
"I must have been out of my mind," he said with a laugh. "I married her six months later."
He did share one more memory before I left.
"I had come across this (dead) Japanese man and his arm had been blown completely off, it was just a stump. Next to him was a photo album. I looked at it and I saw all the photos of his family in Tinian. I looked back at him ... he just laid there. We gave the book to (our superiors). I don't know what happened to it.
"You know, when we arrived, we were so gung-ho. It felt like I was in a movie. But it doesn't take long before you feel ... my God! ... this is real. I could get killed here."