I had an amazing and unusual experience last night. I was able to attend a presentation by a Lt. Col. Henry Ratenski (USAF retired), a 90 year old man who flew on the final bombing mission of World War II, which was an incredible 18 hour, 3800 mile B-29 flight from Guam to Japan’s northern-most quadrant, with the objective of obliterating of the last functioning oil refinery in the country. The story was utterly fascinating. The men were told to deplane on the runway before taking off, because there were rumors that the Japanese were about to surrender in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then they were told to get back in the planes: their mission was back on and away they flew. Flying in the darkness of night, they hit their target successfully, and then learned on the long flight back to base that Emperor Hirohito had indeed surrendered.
Lt. Col. Ratenski informed us that the confusion over the timing of the surrender stemmed from plots by officers in the Japanese military to stop the surrender, overthrow the Emperor and keep fighting. At the same time, American leaders wanted the mission to occur. Stalin’s Red Army was accelerating through Manchuria, intent to reach the sea and then invade Japan as soon as they could. The Americans didn’t want to leave a major refinery in the north for the Russians to claim, and the Russians wanted to keep American military presence out of post-war Asia. Thus, as Mr. Ratenski put it, the last WW II bombing mission was actually the beginning of the Cold War. The Emperor knew from what had been happening in Europe in 1945 that Japan would be much better off surrendering to the U.S. alone. Fascinating stuff for the many history buffs in the audience.
But Henry Ratenski himself was the most fascinating thing about the evening. He looked no more than about 70 years old. He stood straight, lean and strong in his Air Force dress blue uniform, and he spoke in such a strong voice that he overpowered the microphone and it had to be turned off. With his upbeat humor, humility, patriotism and admirable role in re-establishing order in a world gone so wrong, he seemed the very embodiment of The Greatest Generation.
My father-in-law was a Naval officer on a ship in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender. My mother-in-law was stateside then, but also an officer in the WAVES. They both served in the nascent CIA in Germany in the early 1950s, helping scientists escape life behind the Iron Curtain. My father was in Burma as a member of the OSS in 1944-45. All three of them had American flags draped over their coffins at their funerals, my dad going first in 1999.
My father’s WWII uniform
My mother is still alive at 92. It’s her comment to me one day almost 50 years ago about war that I ponder every Memorial Day. My mom is as emotionally tough as anyone I’ve ever known and crying is something I’ve never seen her do. Life growing up in small Hector, Minnesota in the ’20s and ’30s was a fragile thing, and the untimely deaths of her 8 year old brother, a favorite uncle and a couple of aunts — all from fundamental medical failures — had given her a stiff upper lip. Knowing that she was a big fan of Glenn Miller’s music, I asked her once as a young boy if she cried when the bandleader’s plane was lost over the English Channel near the end of the war. Ironing sheets at that moment, she paused, staring down quietly at the linen and, without looking up, finally said with profound sadness, “No. No, I didn’t. By then, there were so many boys I knew in Hector who were never coming home, I was just too numb.”
This Memorial Day, here’s remembering with immense gratitude all those men and women across the generations — from Hector, Rothsay, New Orleans, Annapolis and every other corner of this great country — who never came home. May we forever strive to be worthy of their sacrifice and legacy.