In mid-1945, General Douglas A MacArthur (1880-1964) stood with a briefing officer near a large map of Japan. Described by biographer William Manchester as a “planning conference for the invasion of Honshu,” the two men were debating the conditions of various beaches around the island. The briefing officer had been doing his homework and pointed at one beach, telling MacArthur that the “surf” there was “treacherous.” MacArthur nodded, then went back into a memory from 40 years before.
“Certainly,” he told the officer, “I remember seeing it when I came out to Japan with my father in 1905.”
MacArthur then shared specific details about the tides there, and the briefing officer, whose job it was to be even more informed of the location than MacArthur, was surprised. He checked other records. Sure enough, MacArthur had been “correct in almost every particular.”
Douglas MacArthur was one package of love letters away from not existing.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), his father, Arthur MacArthur, had a gun pointed at him while fighting on the battlefield. According to the Atchison Daily Globe in Kansas, Papa MacArthur, around 19 years old at the time, had been exchanging letters and trinkets with a girlfriend and decided to carry their correspondence inside his front left pocket. When the Confederate soldier shot at him, the bullet’s speed slowed after plowing through a bulky stack of keepsakes, cardboard and paper, turning what would have been a fatal shot to the heart into a flesh wound.
Douglas’s father eventually married Mary Pinkney Hardy, or “Pinky,” who gave birth to three sons — Douglas being the youngest. In 1883, the military family lost their middle child, Malcolm. As MacArthur recalled in his memoir, Malcolm’s “loss was a terrible blow to my mother, but it seemed only to increase her devotion to [my brother] Arthur and myself. This tie was to become one of the dominant factors of my life.”
With a devoted, loving mother and a military hero as a father, MacArthur’s future path was laid out before him. The military was life for the MacArthur family, and the youngest one’s earliest memories are not of peace, but of combat: watching from afar at 4 years old as soldiers protected “the fords of the Rio Grande River from the ever-present danger of Geronimo’s marauding Indians.”
It’s not hyperbole to conclude that MacArthur’s entire childhood was framed around the idea of military success. The heroic image of his father and, more importantly, his older brother’s ascendance through the naval ranks, placed within him the desire to somehow overcome both of them in a way that would make his mother proud. “The goal instilled in him was to be Superman,” said longtime MacArthur friend Tommy Davis. “MacArthur’s tie to his mother… represented possessiveness and dominance, with the son never free of an imposed destiny or from fear of failing it.”
Still, MacArthur didn’t always strive for some superhuman level of brilliance. He was mortal, and he even wrote bad poetry to his high school crush.
Enjoy this verse from a young man dealing with a bout of unrequited love:
Fair Western girl with life awhirl
of love and fancy free,
Tis thee I love
All things above
Why wilt thou not love me?
At West Point Military Academy, MacArthur was able to survive intense hazing rituals and graduate near the top of his class. MacArthur biographer Arthur Herman would write that West Point acted as a rite of passage into manhood, and “created” MacArthur’s “essential core.” During his years at West Point, Douglas’s mother chose to move nearby so that she could support his efforts. With his innocent can-do attitude, a war hero father and a coddling mother, West Point cadets had plenty of ammunition to haze him.
According to Herman, one episode nearly killed MacArthur. In the middle of the night, cadets grabbed MacArthur and blindfolded him. Then they “stripped him stark naked, and ordered him to exercise “over a bed of broken glass.” Cadet MacArthur was forced to do reps until the other cadets told him to stop. They didn’t. Eventually, MacArthur “passed out,” and “when they revived him, he went into severe convulsions, with arms and legs jerking uncontrollably.”
MacArthur survived and gained the respect of his fellow cadets. But hazing did lead to the death of one fellow cadet, Oscar L. Booz. MacArthur, who could most definitely relate to the tragedy, having been close to death himself, decided to not denounce hazing as a ritual at West Point. In fact, the 20-year-old later refused to reveal the names of the cadets responsible for Booz’s death. “Come what may, I would be no tattletale,” he wrote in his memoir.
Close call in the Philippines
Soon after graduating from West Point in June 1903, MacArthur was assigned to the Philippines as a second lieutenant of engineers. His father knew the country very well after serving as a military governor there for close to four years. After receiving some guidance from his father on how to best understand the country, MacArthur worked with teams on “harbor improvement in Manila Bay, fortification installations off Corregidor” and even “traverses over the steaming wooded hills of Bataan,” an area where on April 9, 1942, over 70,000 of MacArthur’s own soldiers, American and Filipino, were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese and forced to march over 65 miles under the blazing tropical sun without food and water — known now as the Bataan Death March.
For the then 23-year-old MacArthur, the Philippines “charmed me. The delightful hospitality, the respect and affection expressed for my father, the amazingly attractive result of a mixture of Spanish culture and American industry, the languorous laze that seemed to glamorize even the most routine chores of life, the fun-loving men, the moonbeam delicacy of its lovely women, fastened me with a grip that has never relaxed.”
Similar to his father during the Civil War, MacArthur had an excruciatingly close brush with death. Once, while wandering off a beaten path to cut timber for a dock on Guimaras Island, MacArthur, who admittedly had been “careless” by trekking into unfamiliar territory, found himself cornered by two guerrilla fighters. It’s unclear who shot first, but as MacArthur recounts, “I dropped them both dead in their tracks, but not before one had blazed away at me with his antiquated rifle. The slug tore through the top of my campaign hat and almost cut the sapling tree immediately behind me.” Centimeters from being shot in the head, MacArthur stared at his “hat still smoking from the blast,” and realized how lucky he was to still be alive. He made sure to tell his mother of, as Herman put it, “the almost pleasant sound of a bullet whistle by his head.”
After contracting malaria, MacArthur was sent back to the United States to recover. A pleasant year passed in and around San Francisco, but soon enough he was called back to Asia, thanks to his father, who’d been gathering intel during the latter half of the Russo-Japanese War. MacArthur, now a first lieutenant, was ordered to join Major General Arthur MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan as an “aide-de-camp.”
To put it simply, it was a sweet gig — an “officially sanctioned” tour of Asia patched together by then-Secretary of War and future American President William Howard Taft. Instead of granting Papa MacArthur’s wish to return to help with policy in the Philippines — a contentious topic between them — Taft gifted an all-expenses paid trip for the MacArthur family (Pinky included) to enjoy.
So, on Oct 29, 1905, MacArthur arrived at Yokohama’s Oriental Palace Hotel, his parents waiting for him. His initial feelings about Japanese people and culture were positive: “I was deeply impressed by and filled with admiration for the thrift, courtesy, and friendliness of the ordinary citizen,” MacArthur later wrote. “They seemed to have discovered the dignity of labor, the fact that a man is happier and more contented when constructing than when merely idling away time.”
But in those first few weeks of November, MacArthur also harbored doubts. Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt had negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905, officially ending the war between Japan and Russia, many in Japan were furious at how much they were forced to compromise and for how much debt they would be accountable. Hadn’t they won?
What followed, seven weeks before young Douglas’s arrival, became known as the Hibiya Riots, an event where around 30,000 people protested the unfairly lopsided conditions of the treaty, leading to the deaths of at least 17 people.
By being clearly victorious against Russia, Roosevelt was now concerned that Japan would become power hungry, so he chose to clamp down on Japan’s ability to finance war, a decision he’d been arriving at for most of 1905. “If Japan is careful,” Roosevelt wrote in January 1905, “and is guided by the best minds in her Empire, she can become one of the leaders of the family of great nations; but if she is narrow and insular, if she tries to gain from her victory in the Russo-Japanese War more than she ought to have, she will array against her all the great powers, and however determined she may be she cannot successfully face an allied world.”
MacArthur, now in his early 20s, saw this potential “insularity” firsthand while touring Japan’s military bases with his parents, and he blamed the men who still carried the traditions of old Japan. “I had the uneasy feeling that the haughty, feudalistic samurai who were their leaders, were, through their victories, planting the seed of eventual Japanese conquest of the Orient. Having conquered Korea and Formosa [Taiwan], it was more than evident that they would eventually strike for control of the Pacific and domination of the Far East.”
“They seemed to have discovered the dignity of labor, the fact that a man is happier and more contented when constructing than when merely idling away time.” —Douglas MacArthur
From mid-November 1905 to June 1906, MacArthur joined his parents on a tour of Asia. The eight-month trip opened MacArthur’s eyes to the rest of the world, later stating that it was “without doubt the most important factor of preparation in my entire life.”
In Singapore, MacArthur saw the dark side of colonial domination and, in his words, “how it brought law and order, but failed to develop the masses along the essential lines of education and political economy.”
In India, he observed an army of British and Indian soldiers working together, a quarter of a million strong. In Thailand, they visited Buddhist statues in the city of Ayutthaya.
But it was Japan that left the strongest impression on MacArthur.
He returned in June 1906 and it may have been at this time that he finished visiting military camps, meeting, as he reported in his memoir, “Oyama, Kuroki, Nogi, and the brilliant Admiral Heihachiro Togo — those grim, taciturn, aloof men of iron character and unshakeable purpose. It was here that I first encountered the boldness and courage of the Nipponese soldier. His almost fanatical belief in and reverence for his Emperor impressed me indelibly.”
There was one particular lesson about the Japanese soldier, however, that he would never forget...
At some point during this first trip to Japan, MacArthur saw that 58-year-old General Yasukata Oku’s soldiers were suffering from a deficiency in vitamin B-1, then known as “beriberi,” which caused muscle atrophy, nerve degeneration and general physical weakness. If untreated, beriberi can lead to a slow and painful death, so General Oku’s doctor recommended each soldier take a pill in the morning, afternoon and nighttime. The doctor placed the pills in tin cans for each soldier with a one-sentence message: “To prevent beriberi, take one pill three times a day.”
MacArthur, who believed that “soldiers are much the same throughout the world” when it came to toughing something out, saw the Japanese soldiers pretend to take the pill then spit it out later. Beriberi? Please… give me the battlefield.
General Oku’s soldiers continued to weaken, and the doctor was, as MacArthur observed, “at wits’ end.” Finally, a Japanese officer made one phrasal change to the sentence on the tin can: “To prevent beriberi, the Emperor desires you to take one pill three times a day.”
To MacArthur’s surprise, the attitude of each soldier was transformed. “Not a pill was wasted. Nothing but death itself could stop the soldiers from taking the medicine.”
Thirty-five years later, on Dec 8, 1941, ten hours after Pearl Harbor, General Douglas MacArthur, then in Manila and in charge of the Philippines Armed Forces, experienced a surprise attack by the Japanese army as they destroyed American planes still on the ground. On the radio, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo began speaking to the Japanese public at 11:40 a.m. Citing the West’s “direct severance of economic relations,” Tojo delivered this statement to his country:
“We by grace of heaven, Emperor of Japan… hereby declare war on the United States of America and the British Empire. The men and officers of Our army and navy shall do their utmost in prosecuting the war… the entire nation with a united will shall mobilize their total strength so that nothing will miscarry in the attainment of our war aims.”
General MacArthur was in for the fight of his life.
Our next installment of Japan Yesterday will feature famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh flying with his wife to Japan in 1931.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:
Volume 2 (September 2019 – present)
- J. Robert Oppenheimer father of the atomic bomb visits post-war Japan
- Alexander Graham falls asleep meeting Emperor Meiji
- Frank Lloyd Wright designs Japan’s Imperial Hotel during a mid-life crisis
Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)
- The ‘Sultan of Swat’ Babe Ruth visits Japan
- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état
- When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation
- Mrs and Mr Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan
- American President Ulysses S Grant talks peace in Meiji-Era Japan
- Helen Keller brings hope and light to Japan
- Margaret Sanger brings 'dangerous thoughts' to Japan in 1922
- Bertrand Russell’s blinding Japanese resurrection
- Audrey Hepburn casts a spell over post-war Japan
- Ralph Ellison makes himself visible in 1950s Japan
- John Hersey visits the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946
- Russia’s Nicholas II is scarred for life in 1891 Japan
Patrick Parr is the author of The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age (now out in paperback). His work has appeared in Politico, the Atlantic and American History Magazine, among others.© Japan Today