Magazine article The New American

The Raid on Truk Lagoon: Many Younger Americans Have Gained the Impression That America Dropped Atomic Bombs on Japan to Avenge Pearl Harbor, but Our Revenge Happened at Truk Lagoon

Magazine article The New American

The Raid on Truk Lagoon: Many Younger Americans Have Gained the Impression That America Dropped Atomic Bombs on Japan to Avenge Pearl Harbor, but Our Revenge Happened at Truk Lagoon

Article excerpt

Having grown up during the years following World War II, it never fails to surprise me how little most people who haven't reached their mid-60s know of that epic conflict, especially the Pacific Theater. During the 1950s, we did not have to be formally taught about World War IT--it was a topic in everyone's home. Every family had a veteran or two or had lost a son. War movies were regular fare at our local theater. The first series I watched on television was the incomparable Victory at Sea. The documentary footage, the music, and the narration--both the script and the delivery by Leonard Graves--penetrated into my heart and soul and have never left. It seemed that a new book on the war came out every week, and newspapers and magazines were full of articles about the war.

Because of all this, formal education contributed little to my knowledge of the war. Better to ask someone in the family who was there or read a book outside of school than ask a teacher. Most of the things that I had once assumed everyone knew about the war, though, have long ago been forgotten. One of the principal examples is what we called "payback for Pearl Harbor." Today, people think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was not the ease in WWII and certainly not the way we learned it growing up. Payback for Pearl Harbor was the U.S. Navy's famous air raid on Truk Lagoon during February 1944.

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Truk Atoll lies seven degrees north of the equator in the southwestern Pacific, some 1,000 miles northeast of New Guinea and 3,300 miles southwest of Hawaii. Dozens of islands and a great barrier reef make up the atoll, although only seven of the islands are of any size or have any significant population. The larger islands are marked by volcanic peaks, the tallest nearly 1,500 feet above sea level. The barrier reef, roughly triangular in shape and 140 miles around, forms a vast deep-water lagoon of more than 800 square miles. Visibility in the water of the lagoon is 50 feet or more. Abundant rainfall and sunshine, and a year-round average temperature of 81 degrees, leave the islands green and lush. Truk is a Pacific paradise.

A Quick Take on Truk

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first people arrived at Truk some 2,000 years ago, sailing outrigger canoes. They found a lagoon teaming with marine life and the fertile larger islands covered with indigenous trees and plants, including breadfruit, coconut, mango, banana, and taro. Although the original inhabitants must have found Truk a paradise, life was not paradisiacal. Warfare among the inhabitants of different islands and between different factions on the same island was not unusual. War clubs crushed many a skull. Moreover, human sacrifice and cannibalism were common practices. Victims were not only enemy warriors captured in battle, but also young maidens offered up to a volcano god.

The first Europeans arrived when the Spanish explorer Alonso de Arellano sailed his ship, San Lucas, into the lagoon in January 1565. Although Spain laid claim to Truk, and the rest of the Caroline Islands--named for Charles II of Spain--she did not bother to take formal control for more than 300 years. In the meantime, explorers from Portugal, England, France, the United States, Russia, and Germany also visited the atoll. By the middle of the 19th century, European and American traders, whalers, and missionaries were visiting Truk. Japanese traders began arriving during the 1890s. One, Mori Koben, married a chief's daughter, became a successful planter and trader, and amassed a small fortune.

The Spanish-American War saw control of Micronesia, including the Caroline Islands and Truk, pass from Spain to the United States. The United Stales, however, focused American ambitions on the Philippines and sold Micronesia, except for Guam in the Marianas, to Germany for $4.2 million. German rule was relaxed and benevolent, and short-lived. …

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