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William Manchester: The humiliation of John Wayne


There was a small story this month that someone had finished William Manchester’s third volume of his Churchill biography. I read the first two, and was among the thousands, if not millions, who were disappointed that Manchester — one of the giants of 20th-century journalism and biography — could not finish the job.  I’m not sure I could handle a substitute for Manchester. A few years ago, I went on a Manchester kick, reading almost everything he has written. There was one essay that appeared in The New York Times Magazine June 14, 1987 that I think about still.

Manchester was a Marine in the Second World War. He was wounded in the battle for Iwo Jima, returned to combat and almost killed in the furious fighting at Okinawa, among the bloodiest of the war. The piece for the magazine was prompted by a meeting of the Japanese and American soldiers who faced each other on Okinawa. Here are two excerpts from that article.

This was the lede:

“ON OKINAWA TODAY, Flag Day will be observed with an extraordinary ceremony: two groups of elderly men, one Japanese, the other American, will gather for a solemn rite. They could scarcely have less in common.

“Their motives are mirror images; each group honors the memory of men who tried to slay the men honored by those opposite them. But theirs is a common grief. After 42 years the ache is still there. They are really united by death, the one great victor in modern war.”


Here is an unforgettable scene:


“Once we polled a rifle company, asking each man why he had joined the Marines. A majority cited ‘To the Shores of Tripoli,’ a marshmallow of a movie starring John Payne, Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Hara. Throughout the film the uniform of the day was dress blues; requests for liberty were always granted. The implication was that combat would be a lark, and when you returned, spangled with decorations, a Navy nurse like Maureen O’Hara would be waiting in your sack. It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.

“After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white.

“Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya, guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.

“This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”