On Veterans/Armistice Day, I often remember my four Johnston Great-Uncles who served in the European Theater. But this Veteran’s Day, I have been especially thinking and remembering my Great-Great uncle Howard Blythe, who served with the New Mexico National Guard, 200th Coastal Artillery (Anti-Aircraft).
The 200th Coastal Artillery was deployed to strengthen the defense of the Philippines in September of 1941, 1,800 of the over 300,000 National Guardsmen mobilized by President Roosevelt in 1940 in the grumbling pre-war mobilization that bolstered the much smaller Regular Army. For over a month they assisted the American forces, mostly Filipino National Guardsmen, in preparing for a Japanese invasion. They were tasked with protecting the skies over the Island of Luzon and the capital, Manila.
The Japanese bombing of Luzon began the day after Pearl Harbor, December 8th, 1941. The Guardsmen found to their despair that their anti-aircraft shells could not bring down the bombers, due to the fact that the shell’s effective range (an elevation of 20,000 feet) fell 3,000 feet short of the altitude flown by Japanese aircraft. Japanese landings began on December 12th, and the 200th New Mexico, newly re-formed into the 515th Anti-Aircraft battery, retreated with American and Filipino forces away from the northerly approach of the Japanese, who also advanced from their east and west. Eventually they found themselves walled in on the Bataan Peninsula looking into Corregidor bay. Cut off, General Douglas MacArthur had withdrawn, promising to return. That he would was in doubt to the defenders of Bataan, at least according to their songs:
We are the battling bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces;
And nobody gives a damn.
Unable to fall back further, 75,000 Filippinos and Americans surrendered in April of 1942.
Howard Oscar Blythe was born in 1915 in Kansas, the younger brother of my Great-Great Grandfather Bill. He followed him to New Mexico, where he worked alongside him during the Depression, and like so many of that time joined the National Guard to supplement his income, whereupon he was made a Sergeant. The mobilization of 1940 and the assignment to the Philippines saw Howard, then 26, rush like many others to get married, which he did to his wife Loretta on August 1st, 27 days before he shipped. He went to war with the cross section of that multi-ethnic frontier of New Mexico, in a regiment as heterogeneous as any that marched with Wallenstein or Hannibal. Among the names of the rosters, one finds English, Scots-Irish, Italians, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Native Americans, and Hispanics. Originally sent to Fort Bliss in August, the 200th Coastal Artillery arrived in the Philippines in September, part of an effort to shore up the defenses of the American protectorate in an attempt to dissuade the Japanese from attacking and overrunning America’s bastion in the Far East.
They were a fore-lorn hope, as War Plan Orange-3, developed before the war to counter a Japanese thrust into Far East Asia, envisioned only a holding action on Bataan and Corregidor until the Pacific fleet could arrive to halt the tide. With the Pacific fleet all but sundered the day before at Pearl Harbor, the little Army on Luzon tried to make a robust defense, but had supplies only for the 6 month delaying action and could not stem the better organized and concentrated Japanese assualt. Many of the Filipino regiments were ill-trained and equipped (the Yankees not wanting the ‘little brown brother’ to have access to too many weapons in memory of the recently crushed insurgency). They were all bastards, abandoned by the guns of the fleet and General MacArthur, and they were out of luck.
The fate of the 75,000 prisoners on Bataan is infamous in American memory, the ‘Death March’: a prolonged trek of 65 miles over the lands they had relinquished without food and with barely any water. 1,000 Americans, and 9,000 Filipinos died in this march, many bayonetted by their Guards as they fell from exhaustion. Howard Blythe survived, though in what condition is unknown, but likely poor. He was held somewhere in the Japanese Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, which certainly did not prosper him. He did not survive long as POW, though from the last heard of him in January 1942, it was originally unclear whether he died in 12th October of 1942 or in June of 1943, the month news of his death arrived. His remains were returned, and he is buried in his native Kansas with the former date.
He had, to my knowledge, no children. His father had been a hardscrabble farmer and rent-collector with little time for him after his mother had gone off with a lodger to Oregon. No mama, No papa indeed. It was mostly my Great-Grandfather and his New Mexico in-laws that remembered him, though some family did come from Kansas for the ceremony according to his obituary.
Howard Blythe did not return from Luzon, though General MacArthur did return to it too late to help him. I have grown up in the world that the war made, and I have been fortunate enough to travel across the world. I have made friends of many nationalities, including many great and wonderful Japanese and Filipino friends who I deeply love and respect. I have been blessed to be who I am at this time and place, prosperous for what my family and condition made me.
I am under no illusions that this represents a peace from the depths of human goodness or that my condition, or his, is something more than either the plan of God or simple luck. This is the peace conquered and maintained by atom bombs, barbed wire fences, demilitarized zones, cultural subversion, and the breasts, all too fragile, of American soldiers. Bataan and Pearl Harbor led to deep recriminations against Japan that linger in American memory, and resulted in the fiery devastation and conquering occupation of that country. The violent racism and atrocity of the Pacific War is the apogee of man’s savagery and organized capacity for destruction and cruelty, and my great-great uncle knew it from the position of the doomed, where as I only sense it as an academic, much like sensing a ghost across a dark room.
Yet what gives me hope, what breaks circumstance and thwarts my deterministic pessimism on Veteran’s Day, is the knowledge that Howard Blythe, like all the Blythe men, must have had a big heart and a big smile. The Johnston brothers too were smilers. They had great love and kindness in their hearts, which they gave their family, friends, and neighbors. They went to war unwillingly, but determined. They were citizens-in-arms, and they wanted to fight to get it over with, so they could go back to their families and live at peace.
War may simply be an evil we cannot dispense with, for humans are not without their needs, their faults, and their sins, for which we pay in systemic and spasmodic violence. Yet, though American soldiers across time and space have been cruel, many, if not most, have been kind and looking to help rather than hurt. They have performed their duty as becomes the soldier, been true to one another, and been there to aid in the preservation of free conscious and hope for a better tomorrow. These are the Veterans we remember, and should remember, for they speak to the best in our country and what it values.
Many thanks to all American veterans, to our allied veterans, and to the fallen, who we remember for their sacrifices each Veteran’s Day, and should be thankful for everyday.