Veteran decries deaths just before war's end

Bill Cart was a Marine Corps captain who flew a Corsair fighter-bomber in World War II, like the one on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown, where he is a volunteer.

Former Marine Corps pilot Capt. Bill Cart remembers the hour 65 years ago today that Japan surrendered in Tokyo Bay, formally ending the war in the Pacific.

But what he remembers most is that in the three weeks between the two atomic bomb drops and the formal surrender, he and his squadron buddies were still flying and dying in questionable missions to keep Japanese troops isolated on long-forgotten islands.

"We had a guy shot down the day before the war ended, and we knew the war was going to end the next day at 12 o'clock," Cart said, recalling his last days on the Kwajelein Atoll where he flew the resilient gull-winged Corsair fighter-bomber.

By that time, he said the shooting should have been ordered halted across thousands of miles of the far Pacific, if only to save American lives.

"There was no reason for the attack," the Mount Pleasant resident said. "We all looked at each other like someone had lost their mind."

Like thousands of others, Cart survived months of fighting to return home, arriving long after many of the soldiers and airmen who had served in Europe were back and already rebuilding their interrupted lives.

But he is thankful for this: The atomic bombs and subsequent Japanese surrender meant no attack on the home islands where an invasion meant prolonging the war for years.

"I was elated because we had brand-new aircraft and we were waiting for an aircraft carrier to come pick us up," Cart, 83, said.

Sixty-five years later, many veterans who fought in the Pacific say they don't plan to do much celebrating today in honor of the final chapter of their war. The fighting was so long ago that the memories have faded.

Some don't know for sure where they were the moment the surrender was signed aboard the battleship Missouri. Yet many are quick to remember one special fact -- it meant they would not have to invade Japan.

"We got the word and everybody was just happy as hell," said John Young, 83, of Hilton Head Island, who was in the Army stationed in the Philippines in 1945.

"We were all happy we didn't have to invade Japan," he said. "It was supposed to be as bad or worse than Normandy. We're talking about 1 million casualties. Every one of us was real happy."

That's the same view of Summerville resident Harold Arrighty, an Army veteran who survived landing on deadly Peleliu Island and expected to be in the first wave that would have invaded Japan in the fall of 1945. He eventually would make it to Japan, arriving after peace was declared.

"When we did land, we landed the same way we would have if we had made an assault," he said. "We actually took over a Japanese airfield."

Although all admitted their Pacific memories have faded over the decades, the three veterans will visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16 as part of the next Honor Flight Lowcountry, a one-day, all-expenses-paid trip for war vets.

The men are part of a fast-disappearing breed of American servicemen. U.S. Census figures estimate there are about 39,000 World War II-era vets in South Carolina. The numbers are not broken down into Pacific or European theaters of service.

Nationally, projections are the fighting men and women from that period are dying out at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, and that within 10 years practically all of them will be lost.

Arrighty, 85, said the war was a defining part of his life, but that it was so long ago that his thoughts seldom return to that time.

"After all these years," he said, "you just sort of forget about it until somebody asks."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.