It was just a normal rotation (the term we use for a series of scheduled flights) from Los Angeles to the Far East and back. I would be away from home for 11 days. Very routine in every respect. Except that once we were underway, it became difficult to ignore significant moments.
The first was landing in Honolulu. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Do people look out the window as we pass Pearl Harbor and notice the Arizona Memorial next to a large, gray ship? The start of WW2 for America began here, on December 7th, 1941. The war ended on the deck of that gray ship, the USS Missouri, the place where McArthur and representatives from the government of Japan signed the instruments of surrender in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945.
The next day we flew to Tokyo and along the way passed over Midway. In WW2, the Japanese gave it the code designation AF. In June of 1942, the Japanese planned to draw the remaining American carriers into a fight by invading Midway. America would then try to retake Midway and in the attempt, provide Japan the opportunity to destroy the remainder of the Pacific fleet. That didn’t happen. Code breakers figured out that AF was Midway and to the total surprise of the Japanese, the Americans set a trap that resulted in the loss of 4 Japanese carriers and hundreds of experienced pilots.
From Tokyo’s Narita airport, my next stop was Saipan. Almost exactly half way to Saipan, we passed over a cloudy little island the Japanese call Iwoto. We know it as Iwo Jima. Here, in February 1945, U.S. Marines and Japanese soldiers battled. Though the U.S. prevailed, total U.S. casualties exceeded Japanese casualties. The island provided America a base from which it could operate fighters and recover wounded bombers. Over the next few days, as I flew back and forth to the Marianas, I would pass over that island 4 times.
On approach to the east runway in Saipan, our plane flew over a smaller island, just a few miles from the Saipan coast. It is Tinian. You can still see the many runways there and imagine the hundreds of B-29s that must have choked the taxiways and parking pads. Very visible, there is a recess on the main runway ramp that was used to load the atomic weapons into the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar. Saipan has its own terrible history and evidence of the war anywhere on that island is not difficult to find.
After touching base in Tokyo, we flew to Guam. Guam, like Saipan and Tinian, was an important center of B-29 operations in WW2. Today, with numerous active U.S. military installations, Guam is a cross between Hawaii and Saipan. Andersen AFB dominates the north end of the island and many B-52 missions during the Vietnam War began and ended there.
The last set of flights on my rotation took me to the Palau Islands. Located 7 degrees above the equator and 750 miles to the WSW of Guam, Palau is a visual paradise that offers some of the finest diving in the world. The Palau Islands owe their existence to the subduction of the Pacific Oceanic Plate beneath the Philippine Oceanic Plate. Toward the south end of this limestone archipelago, lies the island of Peleliu. Here, in September of 1944, in 110 degree temperatures, the Japanese and U.S. Marines from the 1st Division met (the 81st Army Infantry Division later relieved the Marines). Natural and enhanced caves provided excellent concealment and protection and defensively, this island, with its surprisingly low but steep ridges, made every advance extremely difficult. What was thought to be a two-day battle stretched into a two-month battle. All but 37 of 10,500 Japanese soldiers perished; U.S. Marine and Army casualties numbered just under 10,000; one third of the Marine 1st Division was lost. Eight Medals of Honor were earned, five posthumously. (Suggested Reading: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge.)
After a final flight back to Tokyo, a nonstop flight home ended my rotation. Just a regular, run-of-the-mill series of flights to the Far East. To beautiful islands ringed with green and turquoise waters. Swaying palms and cool winds and a reminder that if you look carefully, you can still see caves and broken equipment; the fate of entire nations decided by the comparative few who gave their lives for the hallowed ground that lies just beneath all the flowers and white sand beaches.