Months after the end of World War II, my grandfather found himself holding a 50 caliber bullet on the island of Tinian. He planned on using the bullets to construct the propellers for a model of the B29 Bomber plane. My grandfather has always loved working on projects like this. In fact, before beginning his work on this model, my grandfather had already constructed a ring and a new handle for his GI knife during his time on Tinian.
The Allies captured Tinian from the Japanese in 1944. A few days later, they began building an airfield. Under the code name Destination, Tinian became the sight of one of the largest airfields in the world at the time. One section of these airfields, known as North Field, was home to the B29 Bomber planes that would eventually carry the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, a destination is “a place to which a person is going or something is being sent.” People tend to look for destinations in journeys. They believe that after a conflict, like World War II, there will be an endpoint to the struggle, and life will return to its normal peacefulness. Yet this couldn’t be farther from the truth. All struggles, including war, shadow people much longer than they’d like to admit, and then begin again before too long. Given this, people tend to forget about those who manage the conflict during the so-called time of peace. My family had a similar experience when my grandfather first told us his story.
In 2001, my mother recorded my grandfather, surrounded by his war projects and old photo albums, as he talked about his time on Tinian. I sat on the couch across from them and listened, as best as a nine year old could, to my grandfather’s story. Up until that point in my life, I had never thought about the origins of the ring that my Grandfather wore on his pinkie finger, or the model plane that was displayed on a small, round table in the guest room that also doubled as a playroom for me and the other grandchildren. The model plane was cool, but so was the collection of vintage toys in the closet adjacent to it.
The beginning of the story was a complete novelty for me. My grandfather explained that he had been a member of the Seabees, and, after learning that the war was over, was sent to the island of Tinian to deconstruct the war machinery. I had been in history classes in elementary school, but none of them had gone into detail about what really happens when war ends. I had always assumed that once the “good guys” won, everything about the war just stopped. Sure, there may be loose ends to tie up, but those struggles would be nothing compared to the major struggle of actually winning the war itself.
Evidently, I was not alone in this assumption. My grandmother, who took a break from cooking dinner to catch the beginning of the story, laughed after my grandfather explained that his job on the boat ride over was to chop carrots.
“You could have chopped carrots at home,” she said. “Why did you have to do it there?”
My grandfather’s journey to Tinian in mid-August of 1945 was marked by a surprise revelation as his ship was making its way through the Panama Canal. The Central American heat was rough, and most of the passengers had chosen to stay above deck. My grandfather, however, had been stuck in the sick bay since the ship had left from the States. He had gone through extensive combat training in the months leading up to his departure. Part of this training included participating in a mock invasion. The men would hop off a boat and run up the shore of the Rhode Island training camp. From there, they would have to crawl under barbed wire as fake explosions erupted around them. It was at this stage of the training that my grandfather, on his hands and knees and clutching a rifle to his chest, had made contact with the only real threat in the mock invasion – poison oak.
Now that his elbow was no longer twice its normal size, my grandfather was allowed to go above deck. Greetings are always appreciated after an absence, but the greeting that he was met with was better than he could have imagined.
“When I came up from the sickbay, they were all hollering ‘the war’s over, the war’s over!’ and everyone was throwing their hats around,” my grandfather said. “Most of us thought we were going back to Frisco [San Francisco], you know, and it never happened.”
Instead, after a few minutes of celebrating, one of the officers interrupted to inform the crew that they would still be going to Tinian to help deconstruct the war equipment. So as the rest of the world celebrated the end of the war, my grandfather began his involvement with it.
The end of the war prompted a nationwide celebration in America. Unlike my grandfather and the rest of the Seabees, America’s celebrations were not constricted to the confines of a ship. This left ample room for the magazine LIFE to immortalize the festivities. The magazine’s spread described the events in detail. People excitedly clamored into churches and bars to celebrate. Outside, the streets had their own fair share of activity as returning soldiers eagerly kissed as many women as they could find, providing they could wade through the five inch deep piles of confetti that littered the street. In San Francisco, two young women were so elated that they both stripped and took a dip in a lily pond.
Yet in their haste to arrive at the long-awaited destination of peace, many Americans forgot that most of the world was still not at peace – a fact that LIFE almost begrudgingly acknowledged by stating that, “Japs were still firing at U.S. ships and planes. Fighting on Luzon and other islands continued. The Russians were reporting Jap counterattacks in Manchuria. But nobody at home cared very much. The country forgot the war and for three days went on the biggest spree in U.S. history.”
Even with these grim details added, LIFE still only grazed the surface of the problems that were still going on in other parts of the world. Some of these were even caused by America.
General Douglas MacArthur, who had famously said that the world was now “quietly at peace,” had been sent over to Japan to both punish and reform the nation. This included forcing the Japanese to get rid of their army and forcing them to hold war crime trials in Tokyo.
Still, many Americans chose to ignore these facts. The actual conflict that they called war was over, and that was good enough for them.
Once my grandfather arrived on Tinian, he was able to experience firsthand the magnitude of the war equipment that still remained on the island.
“We were [living] on a high hill, and if you were looking towards the airfield you could see part of the airfield,” my grandfather said. “That was a thing when you got down there. Man, it was tremendous. That place had so much concrete there. Oh man was that place big!”
Despite the immediate carefree celebrations of America, the Seabees recognized the possible dangers of the now useless war equipment.
“Most of the other stuff [war equipment] was taken off the island. They put it on a barge and took it out to sea and pushed it off. They would just dump it in the ocean,” my grandfather said. “And we always figured, well why didn’t they take it back to the United States? But the thing is, that’s too expensive and the fact that you’re taking material [weapons] and putting it in civilian area.”
Other dangers also challenged the notion that peace had come to stay.
Even though the war was over, many Japanese troops were still hiding in caves on Guam and Saipan. Many of them refused to leave without being officially relieved of their duties by an officer. Others simply didn’t know the war was over.
There were no Japanese soldiers left on Tinian, but my grandfather almost came into contact with them anyway. A group of his friends persuaded him to take a motor boat with them to Rota, a neighboring island that almost certainly was still occupied by Japanese soldiers. Half way to Rota, however, the motor on the boat died, and my grandfather and his friends were forced to drift back to Tinian.
“Was I ever glad that motor conked out,” my grandfather said. “A rumor went around that a lot of the officers took a lot of the nurses over there. You know, up into the caves and stuff like that for immoral purposes, you might say. And a lot of the officers and women lost their lives that way.”
As much as many Americans wanted to believe that the trouble was over, there were still many issues, like hiding Japanese soldiers and dangerous war equipment, that blocked the coveted goal of peace.
Despite this turmoil, however, my grandfather often found himself with extra time on his hands.
“You had to do whatever they wanted done, but at that time, things were winding down, and they weren’t doing too much machinery work,” my grandfather said.
There is a big misconception that doing something heroic requires constant action. This can often be the case, but more generally, heroism seems to come from persistence even in the face of an unwanted task. Boredom is never pleasurable, but my grandfather stuck it out. He would continue his work on the island even though he knew that boredom would be part of the deal.
Though the world can never truly be without conflict, peace appeared to be the norm for a while after the war. For many Americans, the destination that they had been hoping to reach by the end of the war was now a reality, and they firmly held on to it.
Even some of the previously dangerous technological innovations from the war took on a fresh banality. Jeeps, which had been invented in 1941 for war purposes, were now flown around the country in an effort to market them to civilians. Similarly, new products like the mysterious Flotofoam bragged about having their roots in the war. These products clearly outlined the trajectory of war – the bad would eventually be replaced by the good. It was just a matter of getting to that destination.
For many veterans, however, the war had come home with them. The term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not yet been coined, but there were many reports of veterans with “combat exhaustion.” This early term for PTSD created many problems for veterans, including nightmares and alcoholism. A study conducted in 1989 on a group of World War II prisoners of war found that 55% of them had developed PTSD after the war and were still suffering from it in 1989.
Since these problems were much harder to see than the very tangible examples of peace, it’s no wonder that so many Americans were able to pretend as if the past was behind them.
As PTSD was becoming a problem with the veterans, my grandfather began to experience his own set of problems on Tinian.
“Boy was I lonely,” said my grandfather. “That was the first time I was away from home. That was an experience all by itself, you know, to know you can’t go anywhere. You’re stuck there. You can’t do nothing.”
Yet once again, my grandfather stuck it out. He was willing to sacrifice the life he had known at home to clean up after a war that had already been forgotten.
Though there may have been a guise of peace in America, life on Tinian served as a reminder that it couldn’t last. One of the most salient examples of this occurred when a dog wandered into my grandfather’s campsite one day. Within days, my grandfather and the other men had essentially adopted the animal. It lived with them in their Quonset huts and accompanied them on their explorations of the island. Unbeknownst, to the men, however, their new friend was pregnant, and soon crawled under one of the Quonset huts to give birth. It was around this time that the men began to realize that the dog was acting strangely. Her previously friendly nature was now nowhere to be seen, and she rarely chose to interact with them anymore. She had contracted rabies.
“They took the dog and took it to the dump and put it out of its misery,” my grandfather said. “A month later, we went back and all that was left was the hide, and you could see where the bullets went in there, and you could compare the size of the 45 [bullet] to the 32 [bullet]. And if you got hit with a 45, you ain’t gonna last long. It’s as simple as that. That cuts a big hole.”
If this incident hinted at the impermanence of peace, then what happened next made it blatantly obvious.
After spending a little more than a year in the Pacific, my grandfather returned to the U.S. and boarded a train in California. One part of the train ride stuck out to him the most.
“We went north through the deserts, and they had big airfields out there. Well, not really airfields, it was just more desert, but they were using it as airfields. And what they did was, they took various different planes and mothballed them, which means they set them up so they could use them again sometime,” my grandfather said. “And for miles you could see the B29s, the B24s, the P51s, the P38s, in various groups. All these different planes in all different sizes and shapes, stretched out for miles.”
Peace could persist for a while, but the cycle would inevitably repeat itself. Eventually, these planes would have to head out to a new destination.
Recently, my family and I had dinner with my grandfather in his new apartment. Normally, this would involve hearing all about the various activities my grandfather had been up to, but this time was different. He was in a bit of a dilemma. He had received an advertisement from the Freedom Honor Flight. This organization offers veterans the chance to fly to Washington D.C. to see the war monuments. As much as my grandfather wanted to go, he felt that it wouldn’t be right to take advantage of this opportunity since he didn’t actually fight in the war.
“Maybe I could push some guy in a wheelchair around,” he said. “Then I could at least tag along.”
I’ve been encouraging him to go on the trip anyway. I think it’s often easier to carry out a difficult task when there’s widespread support for that task. The task that my grandfather did came at a time when support for the war had all but vanished. I think that in many ways, this left him to carry out his task not because others were urging him to do so, but from his own desire to complete it. Whether it was boredom, homesickness, or even the loss of a pet, my grandfather persevered through all of the challenges that accompanied his task. He did what no one else was willing to do at this time, and or that, I think that he’s just as heroic as those who fought.
So it’s true, my grandfather didn’t actually fight in the war, but at the end of the day, that’s only half the battle.
Information and pictures on the postwar environment of America is credited to the August 27, 1945 edition of LIFE magazine:
Information on PTSD in World War II veterans is credited to:
Information on the island of Tinian is credited to:
Information on America's involvement in Japan after World War II is credited to:
Information on Japanese troops after World War II credited to:
MacArthur quote credited to:
Definition of destination credited to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Definition of Seabees credited to: