By D. Allan Kerr
Roland Glenn can tell you some horror stories.
He can tell you what it’s like to look into the faces of men trying to kill each other, as he and his fellow American soldiers experienced fighting Japanese enemies during World War II’s bloody battle for Okinawa.
Not a choreographed Hollywood dance where performers rise from the dead after a director yells, “Cut,” but a muddy, life-or-death struggle in which a split-second decision can end it all, forever.
He can tell you what it’s like to come across a severely wounded young Japanese lieutenant, maybe 18 to 20 years of age, holding his hand and firing two bullets into his forehead to end his suffering. And he can tell you what it’s like to be haunted by that kid’s face for 75 years.
But Glenn, now a 96-year-old former U.S. Army captain and infantry platoon leader, also offers a unique perspective not often shared by combat veterans.
Immediately after Okinawa, the last major battle of the war, he and his comrades fully expected to take part in an invasion of the Japanese mainland he did not believe he would survive.
Instead, Japan surrendered after the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed and Glenn was shipped to Korea to help arrange for his former enemies to return home. Over the next year-and-a-half, he formed friendships with men he would have otherwise met only from the opposing side of a battleline.
“I had to make the transition from killing Japanese to collaborating with them,” he said. “If I’d not had that opportunity, I would have come home thinking of them as nothing but subhuman animals.”
The great majority of us, thankfully, have never had to grapple with the psychological aspects of warfare. Glenn described it with brutal honesty in a book he wrote in 2009 about his experiences, appropriately entitled, “The Hawk and the Dove.” In his situation, he ultimately had to be both.
Glenn grew up in the small town of Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, the son of a World War I veteran often unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, who literally dropped to his knees in prayer every night. Glenn had just 18 years old when he was drafted in 1943.
While he grew up in a religious household, when Glenn was getting ready to ship out to the Pacific to join the fight, his father – described as a quiet, gentle man who despised racial discrimination – wrote in a letter:
“This war won’t last much longer. The Germans are done for and you will soon kill off the Jap devils.”
Glenn says he received basic training as a private at Camp Wheeler in Georgia and was then selected for a three-month Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned a second lieutenant at just 19 years of age, one of the “90-day wonders” churned out as replacement troops in the late stages of the war. By the time he headed to the Pacific theater, he and his comrades were itching to kill the enemy.
“We hated the Japanese,” he wrote. “During previous training, we’d been brainwashed to think of them as non-human creatures.”
And later he noted:
“I doubt that we, so-called civilized men, could have carried out our mission in combat if humanity toward the Japanese had entered our heads.”
On Okinawa, the southernmost of the five main islands that make up Japan, the Americans’ approach was to gun down enemy soldiers the way they had hunted rabbits, skunks and muskrats in their youth, Glenn says.
As a platoon leader in the Seventh Infantry Division, not much more than a kid himself, Glenn was charged with leading his men into the thick of fighting. In his book he describes being wounded in action by shrapnel, getting patched up at a field hospital and then sent right back into battle.
On another occasion, while leading a patrol he walked past a Japanese soldier hiding in bushes who popped up and put a gun to the back of his head. Before the attacker could pull the trigger, one of Glenn’s men shot the Japanese soldier dead.
But the memory of the wounded young lieutenant Glenn found and finished off behind a boulder is the one he thinks of most often. He covered the dead soldier’s body with ferns afterward. Describing the incident in a June 1945 letter to his father, he wrote, “Dad, he looked like me.”
Glenn is fortunate in that not long after returning home from the war he encountered a therapist who helped him cope with his emotions, long before post-traumatic stress disorder became a commonly-known condition. Later in life, Glenn tutored a young Japanese boy in Scarsdale, New York, and his therapist made him realize helping this boy may help ease his guilt.
“That technique only partially worked,” Glenn wrote in his book. “I’m still haunted by the face of the man I killed.”
After the Allies took Okinawa, Glenn and his comrades prepared for the next projected stage of the war – the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Based on the tenacity displayed by Japan’s military up to that point, it appeared likely the country would fight to the bitter end.
Fearing he wouldn’t survive the brutal fight ahead, Glenn wrote what he expected to be farewell letters to his family and friends. But one night, while sitting and drinking Japanese beers with his buddies, they heard shooting and commotion and thought Japanese paratroopers were attacking.
Instead, it turned out the U.S. had just bombed a large city called Hiroshima, a name he had never heard before. The soldiers on Okinawa were celebrating.
“We thought, how the hell could that happen, with one bomb?” he recently recalled.
President Harry Truman followed up by ordering the destruction of another city, Nagasaki, just three days later.
These two attacks prompted Japan’s surrender a week later. More than 100,000 civilians, including children, were killed by the atomic bombs dropped on these cities. However, Glenn and others believe Truman’s decision ultimately saved millions of lives by shortening the war.
So instead of invading Japan, Glenn’s regiment was sent to Korea to assist in the repatriation of Japanese forces occupying that country. “None of us knew what the word repatriate meant,” he recalled.
Glenn says now he wasn’t aware Korea had essentially been ceded to Japan during the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, negotiated in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region, which ended the earlier Russo-Japanese War.
There were already decades of tension between Korea and Japan when Glenn and his fellow Americans – most of whom knew little or nothing about the cultures of these nations, he says – arrived to help end the occupation.
He recalls large crowds of Koreans cheering and waving small American flags to greet their liberators, and children running alongside the smartly marching U.S. troops. A band of Korean kids played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on rudimentary instruments, and Glenn still remembers tearing up and swelling with love for his country.
These troops were now “storybook soldiers,” he says, whose mission had been transformed from killers to diplomats. Glenn says his company led the U.S. contingent during a parade in Seoul, the Korean capital, for the ceremonial “lowering of the Japanese flag and the raising of the Stars and Stripes.”
Although just a 21-year-old lieutenant, Glenn says he was appointed America’s liaison officer to the Japanese in the Korean city of Taejon. In this capacity, he was required to interact with a much older Japanese general, old enough to be his grandfather. The first time they met, the general presented Glenn with a German Shepard puppy as a gesture of friendship. Glenn named the puppy Taejon.
But Glenn recalls once observing a portrait of a young Japanese soldier in the general’s quarters and being told this was the general’s son, who had been killed at Okinawa. “I thought, ‘My God, is it possible I killed this general’s son?’”
Later, when this general and his troops finally departed for their return to Japan, he entrusted Glenn with his prized Palomino stallion, fearing the Koreans would will the horse for its meat.
For the remainder of his time in Korea, Glenn often took the horse for a ride in the Korean countryside, accompanied by the German Shepard.
He also struck up a surprising friendship with a muscular six-foot-four Japanese lieutenant named Ioto Masayuki, described as “the tallest Japanese we had seen while in Korea.”
Masayuki had trained as a kamikaze pilot, men who purposely flew their planes directly into the enemy. He had been slated to fly his suicide mission when Japan surrendered, sparing his life.
Shortly after meeting for the first time they went pheasant hunting together, and Glenn suddenly became aware a Japanese soldier – until recently a deadly enemy – was lurking behind him with a rifle. Then he heard a “metallic click.”
“I turned around and was ready to shoot him because I thought he was about to kill me,” he recalled.
Masayuki dropped to the ground in terror and Glenn apologized profusely. They proceeded with their hunt and eventually stopped to rest near a rice paddy. The Japanese pilot took out his wallet and showed Glenn photos of his family.
“I thought they looked like my family. His little sister looked like my sister, and his girlfriend looked like my girlfriend,” Glenn said. “I realized I was sitting here with another human being. He was no longer an enemy.”
Glenn wound up presenting his carbine rifle to his former enemy as a gift, and Masayuki in turn gave Glenn his pistol. The two wound up socializing and double-dating on several occasions over the next few months.
Then Masayuki returned home to Japan.
Glenn was in Korea for a year-and-a-half. He considered the Army as a career but was ultimately discharged as a captain in 1946.
He got engaged to his wife Carol on Valentine’s Day in New York City the following year and they married a month later. They had two children together – a son and a daughter – and Glenn went on to enjoy a long career as an educator and corporate executive.
Carol died in 2007 and Glenn has lived with his family in Kittery ever since.
Although he has often thought of his enemy-turned-friend, Ioto Masayuki, Glenn never saw or spoke with him again after the Japanese left Korea.
He also recalls the Japanese general with whom he coordinated as liaison and had invited him to Japan so the general could bring him to Mount Fuji.
“Sadly, I never accepted that invitation,” Glenn said. “Right up to this day I regret I was too stupid to do that.”
(Dec. 7, 2020)
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