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The flag of my father
by Hudson “Bill” Phillips
The flag of my father was a small chaplain’s jeep flag, no larger than a dish rag. It was navy blue with a white cross, marred only by a hole in the fabric just large enough to fuel imagination. It represented where my father, Hudson Phillips, had been during the years of 1944 and 1945 as Division Chaplain of the 11th Airborne: months of battle in New Guinea, the liberation of the Philippines and the occupation of Japan. My father closeted these memories, as most veterans do, causing moments of jealousy each time he encountered another paratrooper and broke away from me for conversation,
Over the years the hole in the flag seems to grow larger as the fabric becomes thinner. It became imbued in my own life as a deep sense of loss, but it also forged a connection with something very remarkable. I think about it on those special days when our country looks back to honor the courage, duty and sacrifice of our veterans.
World War II chaplains, whether Jewish, Protestant or Catholic, marched through jungles and braved the kamikaze attacks against their ships even though their role was officially defined as a noncombatant supportive one. In most cases they were subjected to the same risks, jumped out of the same planes, sailed in the same ships and endured the same discomforts. It is in war where bravery is revered the most, and usually combat is where it is measured. Strangely, chaplains in both the Pacific and European theaters often found their greatest tests during the postwar period following World War II.
One of the untold stories of courage occurred at the time of the American occupation of Japan. When my father returned to his family in spring of 1946 his first words were not about the war but of a meeting that he and other chaplains had with General Douglas MacArthur, concerning prostitution in post war Japan. At the age of 12, I had hoped to hear tales of combat and narrow escapes. Instead, I was led out of the kitchen and shielded from words and issues that he would talk about only with my mother. I remember that the subject matter upset him, as if he felt he was in some sort of serious trouble. Friction with superior officers is a cause for alarm to any member of a military family because it has direct bearing on where the family lives and how they are treated. I did not then realize how proud I would later become as I learned the details of what my father and his fellow chaplains had done.
William Manchester describes, in his biography, “The American Caesar,” the kind of eminence that MacArthur reflected. MacArthur had absolute powers of governance over the affairs of the defeated nation. Only MacArthur could greet Emperor Hirohito in an open shirt (as he was to later appear with President Harry Truman when they met over the subject of Korea.) He served as surrogate emperor and moral guide as well. If there was any moral authority beyond that which the General had usurped for himself, the chaplains would have to identify, define and apply it.
Throughout the war, the Japanese authorities provided prostitutes for the use of their military personnel by subsidizing 150,000 “Comfort Women” in Tokyo and other major cities. With the full knowledge of the General and sanctioned by American authority, this network had been passed along by the Japanese to the Americans. (“GIs Frequented Japan’s Comfort Women,” Eric Talmadge, the Associate Press, April 25, 2007.) My father would have been well aware of this. In August 1945, the first wave of 11th Airborne troops (my father’s own unit) arrived in Atsugi airport, just south of Tokyo. By nightfall, the troops found the first brothel. "I rushed there with two or three Recreation and Amusement executives, and was surprised to see 500 or 600 soldiers standing in line on the street," Seiichi Kaburagi, the chief of public relations for the RAA, wrote in a 1972 memoir. He said, “American MPs were barely able to keep the troops under control.”
In response to this problem the chaplains formed the Army Navy Chaplain’s Association, to include all of the chaplains in Japan. My father, as the ranking chaplain, was chosen at the spokesperson to carry out the Association’s one order of business: to address MacArthur over the issue of the comfort stations and get them put off limits for moral, social and health reasons.
Dad told the story this way: “The ‘old man’ loaded his large pipe, which made a terrible sucking sound as he lit it. He got up and stood in front of a window, looking out for the longest time. He took several puffs…” My father, a pipe smoker, would have been fascinated by this tactic of stalling in order to think a thing through. I could imagine MacArthur running through the questions: Morale at what price? What effect did this have on the readiness of the troops? How would this look to the American public, in particular, the voting public? The general had much to mull over.
Failure to act on the request of the delegation from the newly-formed chaplains' group represented a potential public relations disaster. It is easy to see that MacArthur had been given little choice. What the Supreme Commander to the Allied Powers actually thought about the matter, or of the group of chaplains is not known (William Manchester has no listing of: comfort women, prostitution, chaplains or sexually transmitted diseases in the index of his biography of MacArthur. Military protocol required each chaplain to act under the direction of his commanding officer.) The act, of chaplains going over the heads of their commanding officers, to address the issue, had a conspiratorial flavor that could have been taken as an attempt to embarrass MacArthur. Many of the highest ranking chaplains could have been reprimanded and sent home.
No heads rolled! MacArthur assented to the chaplains’ request, promising that the brothels would be permanently off limits and the women who had been handed down from the Japanese troops to the Americans would be relocated. He promised that all future violations of this policy would be subject to military discipline. In conclusion, the general handed each chaplain an autographed photo of himself as well as a pen.
Talmadge and other writers who have related these events characterized the chaplains’ involvement as random “complaints,” as if these criticisms were the uncoordinated scolding of isolated morality police. However, the chaplains’ concerns were much broader. Over one-quarter of American servicemen stationed in Japan during the early American Occupation would return home with a sexually transmitted disease as the reminder of their service experience. Priests, rabbis and ministers in uniform risked their military rank and their ecclesiastical endorsement to stand before, what to them was equivalent of the biblical King Herod and do what no admiral or general would risk.
The Army Navy Chaplain’s Association disbanded shortly after the meeting, its single task completed.
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