An Interview With Professor Tom Collier

Professor Tom Collier recently retired from teaching History at the University of Michigan, a decision that surely upset thousands of undergraduates. For Professor Collier has been one of the most popular professors on campus, consistently filling the largest auditoriums for his lectures, and receiving the Golden Apple Award in 1995 for being the students' choice for best professor. Before Professor Collier entered the realm of academia he served in the U.S. Army as an officer in Vietnam, and as an instructor at West Point. For this interview, I wanted to contrast his memories of growing up during World War II with the perspective of a historian which he has developed over the years. In addition, I sought to compare the images of the enemy which he experienced in Vietnam with the portrayals of the Japanese which had been so common in World War II. --- John Kennan

1. To start out, some introductory information; where you grew up, when you were born.

My name is Tom Collier, and the key thing for this interview I think is that I was born into a Marine Corps family. I was born in Washington D.C. in 1927 and my father was a Marine officer, so all my life I grew up with the Marine Corps, and that very much influences my view of the second World War. And it also important that in 1939 I left the States and sailed across the Pacific stopping in Japan, visited Kobe and Tokyo because the ship stopped there and went to Shanghai and lived there for a year of what would be junior high school and the first year of high school. During that time, I not only saw the Japanese but I heard consistently from my father how bad the Japanese were, and the hatred he had for them, because of the way: A.) the way they treated the Chinese, and B.) their increasingly arrogant attitude towards Americans and British. Which he saw in slightly racist terms as "how dare those Orientals treat American and English people that way." So I was predisposed, I think, before the war ever started, to be hostile towards the Japanese. I never heard anything kind said about them.

2. Starting with Japan, how long were in you in Japan?

Oh, just for a couple of days, as the ship stopped.

3. So you didn't have much direct contact with them?

No, but we went ashore, and the hustle and bustle of an Oriental street scene is really something for a kid from Virginia [laughs], and I had never seen anything like that. And little things - the customs officials in Japan were very snotty towards us, and left us waiting until the last minute whether or not they were going to give us permission to go ashore. And my dad was furious with them, he thought it was a deliberate ploy - it might have been. And then when we lived in China, in Shanghai, I could only stay in the city because the entire city was surrounded by the Japanese Army. They were always the bogeymen; you didn't want to travel along the border areas because the Japanese were there, and you could never tell what they were going to do. So as of being a 12 or 13-year old boy, I very much had the idea that the Japanese were the bad guys.

4. And you got out before the Japanese attacked.

We left on short notice - on State Department orders in 1940. All civilians - my Dad stayed out there for another year, but we all left in 1940. So again, why? - Because of the Japanese. So I had already had a pattern that it was the Japanese that made bad things happen [laughs].

5. So what did you think when you heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed? Did that confirm your view of the Japanese?

Yeah, I was in North Carolina, my father was in the 1st Marine Division, which was preparing for the war that everyone knew was coming. One Sunday he and I went down to get the paper at the hotel lobby and found that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Of course his reaction was to immediately get in the car and drive back to his duty station, and our reaction was essentially, "that's the war that we've been expecting for a long time." So yeah, we were suprised, but we were not completely suprised.

6. Was that because of your experience in China?

Because I had always heard of him [Collier's father] saying that, "we're going to go to war with those people." The actual details of the attack on Pearl Harbor were absolutely stunning, and of course it was months and months before we realized how bad it was. All we knew was that Pearl Harbor had been hit, period. They didn't give any figures [laughs]. And they didn't show those pictures with the smoke pouring out of the sunken ships - we didn't see that.

7. Your father was in the 1st Marine Division? Right. What was his role, was he an officer?

Yeah, he was an officer in the 1st Marine Division, he was a lieutenant colonel, or a major to a lieutenant colonel. And a few months later, the whole division - we went down to say goodbye - the whole division got on trains and disappeared, and we didn't know where they were going and they never told us where they were going. We were pretty sure by now that it was the Pacific - the initial rumor was that they were going to Africa, but that never turned out. Months later, we started getting letters from New Zealand, and later from New Caledonia from my father.

8. So did he participate in the Guadalcanal campaign?

No, when the division went forward, he was left at the supply base at New Caledonia, which of course made him as a Marine very bitter. Very disappointed.

9. So what did you do during the war? I was actually a high school kid. So you were just under the draft age?

No, I became seventeen in April of 1944 and enlisted in May of 1944 and went to the Marine Corps myself as a private in, I think it was actually July. So I joined the Marines in '44, and went through boot camp and all that stuff, but never went overseas. The war ended before I was overseas. So for most of the war I was a high school kid.

10. What do you recall, being a high school kid, of what we call in class the "public transcript," images of the Japanese in movies and such.

There were a couple. First was the fact that I had a personal image, of sorts, which already predispositioned me to think of them. Second, was the newspaper stories. And third was the movies. And I would say that the newspaper stories, which we read minutely, we were really interested and read the paper very, very closely - we all had maps and stuff like that and tried to follow the actual facts of the war, which of course for the first six months of the war were shocking, just unbelievably bad. And then the first good news we ever got was in the battle of Midway, which we didn't understand - but then the invasion of Guadalcanal in August of '42, which we understood. Now we were moving back. And in our innocence I think we probably figured, "OK, we won the war." Of course, that was August of '42, and there were three more years to go of very hard war. But that was the end of the unmitigated bad news in terms of newspapers. Newsreels, the actual newsreels in the movie theaters were essentially bullshit - it was airplanes flying by, big ships sailing around, troops marching up and down on parade ground somewhere, almost none of it was actual combat footage back in those early days. The movies started coming out, Hollywood was really quick on its feet, the movies started coming out in 1942 already, and the first one I recall was Robert Taylor in the movie either "Bataan" or "Back to Bataan." It was something about the fighting on Bataan. He was still wearing the old-style helmet [the British-style helmet the Americans wore in World War I] and carrying a tommy-gun. Kind of left over from the gangster movies, and that was the way he was portrayed. And instead of Jimmy Cagney in the hold-up saying, "OK, you coppas, come in and get me," now it's Robert Taylor standing in the jungle with his tommy-gun saying, "OK you lousy Japs, come get me." And they do - but he takes a lot of them with him, you know. And I can remember, even though I now realize it was an entirely false picture, had nothing to do with reality, it was whipped up in some sound studio - feeling so good - "oh man, look at Robert Taylor, he's really mowing those Japs down." And we were so anxious for something that we could call victory after those six months, I mean that was really appalling, that these Japanese, my God, wherever they went they were victorious! And I just felt great, and I don't remember if I stood up and cheered in the theater or not, but I sure felt like it. And the idea that it was Robert Taylor wearing a steel helmet and carrying a tommy-gun - that didn't really bother me, it just made me feel great - not unlike watching a ball game or something like that. So that was the first movie that I can remember. The second one was very much the same kind of thing, it was the Wake Island film. I don't remember the what the title was - it was about Wake Island and the principal characters were Brian Donleavy [sp?] played the Marine commander on Wake, tough guy, you know, "send us more Japs," which he [Colonel Deveraux, the commander on Wake Island during the battle] later said he never said. I actually knew the real commander because I had lived with him in Virginia when I was a kid, Colonel Deveraux. But again - I suspended disbelief - here were these tough Marines on Wake Island - OK, so they're all Hollywood actors, what do I care? And they're really giving it to the Japs - OK, so they lose it, that doesn't matter. They really hurt the Japanese, and I was really happy with that. So that I had to say, I should have had some predisposition to recognize the falsehood - I was completely taken in, willingly taken in, I wanted to believe that was the way it was. And I think that those movies, at a time when there was very little good news, those movies made the American people feel good even though they were completely false. Didn't matter [laughs]. We were perfectly willing to believe that stuff.

11. Do you think that the movies, as the war progressed, and even though the news got better, glorified war? Oh yes, there's no question. And, in that experience, how did you feel when you were enlisted? You have this one image being delivered by the movies that war is exciting and glorious, but then I'm sure from...

Well, there was another movie that was important here, and it was not actually a Hollywood production but it was a Navy/Marine Corps production, and that was the filming of the battle of Tarawa. Tarawa took place in 1943, it was filmed, suprisingly, it was filmed in color - or at least the parts that I can remember were in color, I think the entire movie was in color. Anyway, it was released in the public theaters sometime during the winter of 43-44, I don't remember the exact date. But this was no bullshit, this was horrifying in terms of the reality of the flamethrowers, the guy falling over from machine gun fire, the grenades bursting. And the most impressive single scene is the tide going out, and those stiffened Marine bodies in their camouflage fatigues floating grotesquely and bobbing in the water. And they made no bones about it, they didn't spare anybody's sensibilities - they panned over a whole beach full of dead Marine bodies floating in the water. So you might say, "OK, that's the message, that's what it's really like." Didn't matter. Didn't matter. That movie in no way romanticized or glorified the war, but it just made me want to get over there all the more.

12. So were you excited to be in the Marines?

I was so impatient, I couldn't believe it. And when I finally turned seventeen, it was about six weeks before I graduated from high school - I didn't wait, I went down and got my folks' permission and enlisted, with the understanding that I wouldn't actually report until after my high school graduation. Yeah, I was dying to go. It was nothing personal with me; that's the way we all were. When I finally got into the Marines in the summer of `44, of my platoon at boot camp, 40-50 guys, all but two or three were right out of high school, just like me, seventeen years old, right out of high school, couldn't wait to go [laughs]. And the idea - in spite of what we had seen, like that film I mentioned - and most of those guys were dead meat within `45, by the end of 1945. Iwo Jima and Okinawa were coming up, and that got most of 'em, you could be sure that they were rifleman replacement privates [laughs]. I often wondered what happened to them, but that's besides the point. It didn't bother us a bit, we were so anxious to go, we wanted to be good Marines. Whatever the drill sergeant said we had to do, we did. He said we had to learn to shoot, we learned to shoot. He said we had to take cover, we tried to learn how to take cover [laughs]. And I look back on it, we weren't innocent - I mean we understood - the casualty figures from Tarawa, from Saipan and Tinian were published in the papers - we understood that. On an intellectual level. On an emotional level, no way. We were Robert Taylor with that tommy-gun, and we were going to get some Japs [laughs]. Can you believe that?

13. How did this attitude towards the Japanese, with all the attention paid to race, differ with the attitude towards the Germans? Oh, night and day. Being in a Marine family, with your father serving in the Pacific, I imagine there was a lot more attention given to the Japanese.

Yeah, yeah. The Navy/Marine Corps always looked towards the Pacific first. As far as they were concerned, all that was left in the Atlantic was the antisubmarine war, and that was over by 1943. The Japanese were bestial, hateful, sub-humans - to be bayoneted and shot, period. That's it. These racial stereotypes were very strong, and then the word started to get back - and it didn't come out at first, it took a while - from escaped prisoners and some nurses who got out, and some actual POW's from the Bataan Death March, on what had happened to the prisoners on Bataan, and the way they were treated. And of course that simply confirmed our worst racist views of the Japanese, that they were in fact doing these unbelievably cruel things. Again, no film, there were no photographs, no film of that, but the reports were coming back.

14. And that obviously fueled the hatred against the Japanese.

Absolutely. First was revenge for Pearl Harbor. And second was this idea of the mistreatment of our prisoners.

15. How do you think this attitude, putting it in a larger context, do you think that it was that much of an influence on our policy? A lot of people talk about the dropping of the atomic bomb, that it wasn't necessary and that it was a revenge weapon. Do you think we would have used it against the Germans?

I'm convinced we would have. Because what people tend to forget, while the racial attitudes towards the Japanese were much fiercer, much more savage and mean - the fear of the two - the Germans were very frightening [laughs]. Actually, according to what I know of it from the readings, were considered by the GI's to be more dangerous than the Japanese. Not more savage, not sub-human like the Japanese, but actually more dangerous as an enemy, because of their superior weaponry and their strategy and tactics and discipline. So, in my opinion, we would have used it on the Germans in a minute, if it had been ready. And to back that up I would say that raids on places like Dresden and Berlin were about as good as we could do, and if we had a bigger bomb we would have used it. So, I don't feel that there was any racial preference, it was just a matter of we ran out of targets in Germany and the war ended, so we used it on the Japanese. We would have been happy to use it on the Germans [laughs]. Particularly once the word of the death camps came out.

16. After the war ended and we occupied Japan, how did we go about taking these people who we regarded as savages and wanting to exterminate them, how did our attitude change all of the sudden they're now what, people we had to bring up?

I think the first that happened was, although the Emperor's life was spared and he was not humiliated, it was essentially unconditional surrender. And when our troops went ashore and the newspaper reporters went ashore and we started getting pictures and movies - there was a country that was devastated. I mean every city was leveled, never mind just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every other city was leveled, I mean this was a destroyed country. Its Army was stranded out on a bunch of islands, its Navy and Merchant Marine - we had to bring their soldiers back, they didn't have any ships left to do it. So the US Navy had to bring all of these starving bastards back from all these weird islands in the Pacific. And it was so clear that they were totally devastated, I think that made the psychological switchover - they were in no way a threat anymore. They had no arrogance, no pride left, we had humiliated them and completely defeated them. I think that was important. And then they become the underdog, then they become the poor Japanese who are suffering so terribly. Next point, Hersey's book, Hiroshima, a very moving book and very widely read. And the third point is the Cold War. And Korea in particular. All of the sudden they are our bulwark against Communism. And we need them. Now they become good guys because we need them. But I really think that the totality of their defeat was an important part - they paid, and we did get our revenge - and so, they're OK now.

17. You mentioned Korea and the Cold War - with your experience, did you remain in the armed forces after World War II? I went back home and was out for a couple of years, and then went back into the Army. So were you involved in Korea? I was in the Army, but I was at West Point as a student during the Korean War so I didn't fight there. I know Korea is called the "Forgotten War" and there wasn't a whole lot of attention paid to it, there sure wasn't [laughs] - was there anything in the media, such as the movies, that was similar to what had been showed in World War II?

Almost none - there was a deliberate effort I think by the government on one hand not to beat the drums of propaganda because they wanted to keep the war limited - they didn't want to infuriate the American people. Secondly, while there are some similarities with the Sunday morning invasion with the Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor, that's a long way from home, and there very few Americans in Korea initially, so there was nothing like this sense of "we've got to get even" which there was against the Japanese. What there was, because I was in the military, I followed the papers again, as in World War II, very closely - had every little scrap of news, again we had maps. I was at West Point, I was graduating and going to go there if the war lasted, and I had all the classes ahead of me as they graduated immediately go to Korea, got killed in large numbers, and so our little group was following the war much more closely than the American public. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the films that came out about Korea - and the only one I ever saw is the Bridges Of Toki-Ri - I never saw Pork Chop Hill, I haven't yet seen it. That's the only one I remember, and it was an air war movie, and it was kind of a "clean" war movie, and I was more interested in the airplanes than in the war, and I don't remember its date, but it didn't influence me very much. So Korea was forgotten even at the time. It was not in the forefront at all, and had I not been in the Army at the time, had I been at a civilian university I probably would have paid very little attention to it.

18. One of the things I'm trying to do is link images of the enemy through different wars and compare World War II and Korea with your experience in Vietnam. Now, you served a couple tours - yeah, I was in Vietnam three times between '62 and '67, three different times. I imagine that racism was pretty pervasive there, not only the images of the North Vietnamese but also of the South Vietnamese. What do you think was responsible for the hatred towards the North Vietnamese? Was this racism just like "it's easier to kill something that's a beast," just dehumanizing something that you're trying to kill?

I think that the dehumanizing of the enemy is important, armies do consciously try to foster that, I do believe, like J. Glen Gray says in his book [The Warriors] - that the worst image you can have of the person you have to kill is that "he's just like I am," got a wife and kids, loves to play baseball and one thing and another - that's tough. Our views of the enemy in Vietnam was less racist than cardboard. They were just shadows, they had no identity, no personality. Sure, they were "gooks" and we called them "gooks." We were racist in those terms. But we didn't think of them as hateful, like the Japanese, see. Because their actions, yes there were atrocities committed against American troops, even as there were Americans committing atrocities themselves, but those were limited. And our actions against them were more as, "tough enemies, hard to find, fought hard, very hard," and we killed them. In large numbers. And they were essentially de-personalized instead of de-humanized, if you see what I mean. We didn't consider them rats and snakes and monkeys, we considered them just a shadowy enemy, difficult to work with - when we could get them and get our hands on them we could usually take care of them, but they were very hard to find. And they were cardboard to us, they didn't mean anything. And I never worried about their mom and dad back home or anything like that, I never thought of them in those terms at all. And that in itself is a variation I think of racist thinking - I mean it isn't the kind of virulent racial thinking against the Japanese in the second World War.

19. From what you're talking about, that they were shadowy, that they were de-personalized, cardboard figures. The Japanese were also shadowy on the battlefield, you know, they lived in caves and the only time you'd ever see them is probably on a banzai charge. Why do you think that this de-personalization did not occur in World War II?

I think that the first difference was the treatment that I mentioned earlier of prisoners. And while certainly the North Vietnamese did in fact torture for interrogation purposes, our downed airmen for example, generally speaking the American prisoners had to live like VC, and that was torture enough, because they lived so badly. We didn't feel like this was a fiendish enemy - that if they captured us they would in fact torture us and we would die a terrible death, whereas that was the feeling in the Pacific. Second point is that tactically the war was so different, that is to say, when you fight them, they usually ran away. Whereas when you fought the Japanese, they were stuck on an island, and you had to kill literally each one. I don't remember the figures on Peleliu - out of something like 10,000 Japanese, 19 surrendered. The rest were killed. That's astonishing! And had they had to be killed up close, and frequently with a bayonet or rifle shot at close range. The VC weren't like that. And when you started to get the edge on them, they'd just disappear. OK, they dragged their wounded with them and left their dead. We didn't get that intensity of combat with them that the guys in the second World War did. And I never felt, I can't speak for everybody, but I certainly that kind of bitterness and hatred towards them that was felt for the Japanese regularly.

20. With people such as Dower [author of War Without Mercy: Race And Power In The Pacific War], who was the first person who really brought this issue of race to the forefront - do you think people like Dower are going too far? Ultimately, how would you define this role that racism played in World War II?

I would not say that Dower is going too far, that is to say that I don't disagree with anything he says in terms of what happened - what messages were sent back and forth from the two sides on racism. I think Dower's mistake is that he's single-causing it. He's laying it all on racism, the ferocity of the war in the Pacific is because it's a racist war. And I don't think you can escape that, I think that's true, but I think other things are involved - the tactical nature of the combat, and the effects of the early mistreatment of prisoners - mistreatment is too mild of a term - savagery, cruelty towards prisoners. A lot of mutilation of corpses, even on Bataan, before the surrender, we were stumbling across patrols where guys had been butchered, brutally butchered - sexual mutilation, penis cut off and stuffed in the mouth and stuff like that. So the word was out, these guys are really bad. So I think that's a really important second point, or third point, with the tactical situation being another one. So I don't disagree with Dower, I just think that as a single cause he's making a mistake. It was a contributory cause.

21. Another thing we have discussed about the media was that there was this "public transcript" - the Japanese are bastards, and everyone is involved, and you have to do your part - there is also what we called the "private transcript," which is sort of a subversive image, an image that doesn't correspond to what is being portrayed everywhere else. For instance the Tarawa filmed that you mentioned, that's what war really is - they're not supposed to show that! Can you remember any experiences you had, whether it was in school, or a film that you saw, that didn't go along with what was accepted?

No, only that Marine documentary on Tarawa, and that was portrayed in the guise - I shouldn't say guise - in the name of realism, this is what the war is really like, and again it was a Navy/Marine effort, combat photographers. The only other one I remember making that kind of an impress on me, and it was the first ever, was that now-famous picture of two or three American GI's on New Guinea lying face-down in the sand, their bodies partially covered. They're dead, and very dead, and very obviously dead. Although there are no gaping wounds on them, you can't see their faces - it's a soft picture of death - their corpses are not yet bloated, that sort of thing. But they're very dead. And that picture made a very sharp impression on my mind, I can recall it right now as we're talking. But again, I didn't get the message, "hey, you don't want to go in the Army or Marines because you'll end up like those guys." Seventeen-year olds don't think that way [laughs]. I understood that this was happening, again, on an intellectual basis, but on an emotional basis it just did not deter me from wanting desperately to get in there and take my chances - I didn't think of it in those terms of taking chances, I still thought of myself as invulnerable. But those are the only ones that I can remember going "against the grain." I might mention another part of "the grain," in addition to the newsreels, newspapers, and Hollywood films, is all the sort of secondary stuff - the cartoons in the movies, the songs - "In The Fhrer's Face" - the comic books, in which, "zap, pow, bam!" the Japs were all dead, we killed them all and our guys never got hurt. So there's that secondary, almost jokey, literature of cartoons and comic books on the war as well as the more official one. And the music too, "Goodbye Mama, I'm Off To Yokohama," "Goodbye Dear, I'll Be Back In A Year," "In Der Fhrer's Face," that sort of stuff, making fun of the enemy. That was a lot easier to do early in the war [laughs] than it was later. Later in the war it wasn't nearly as fun [laughs].

22. To sum up, as a historian and one who teaches history, how do you think something like the Pacific War should be taught, specifically was Pearl Harbor inevitable, should it be classified anymore as a suprised attack, and also the role of Hiroshima, because there's a lot of controversy about it.

I think what needs to be done, and your generation will start to do it I'm sure - the war needs to be examined by people who didn't experience it, because the experience itself was so important in forming attitudes. It needs to be served up much more dispassionately - the Japanese had a lot of good reasons for doing what they did - we didn't like it because it hurt, the attack on Pearl Harbor for example. There are a lot of mistakes, a lot of dumb things done on the American side. We tend to gloss over them because we won and it was a glorious effort and it worked, so why bother about the details. One of the views on the bombing campaign for instance, was "yes, it was effective, but it could have been much more effective." And that's the way I think we could look at the American side of the war in the Pacific - what did we do that wasteful and inefficient, what mistakes did we make. Because that's where you start learning, that's where you start learning from the experience. And there's too much emphasis on the American side on how wonderful it was instead of what we did right and what we did wrong. On the Japanese side, they should be looked at much more dispassionately. Here was a nation on an overcrowded small island, been screwed over by white people for a long time, suddenly saw themselves as the champions of the Asiatics - OK, so it's the Japanese Asiatics first, but still, their motto was "Asia for the Asiatics." And they really believed that. And I think that what they did was much more logical, much more militarily sound than we gave them credit for at the time. And the common American view of the Japanese war is, "those crazy bastards, why did they do those crazy things?" And their logic we never bothered to understand. So I think there's a great field there. Sure, we have a lot of personal accounts, John Toland's Rising Sun, and some of the books about the battle of Midway which are actually written by the Japanese naval aviators in translation - interrogated by an American. But that's the up front view of what did you actually do - this squadron took off from this time and hit that target - but the kind of book that looks at why did you do it, why did you not do this, what was your decision making process? The Japanese were so different from us, they just looked weird to us - so we just tend to blow it off and concentrate on how wonderful we were. I think that the history of the Pacific War was set back a hundred years by Samuel Elliot Morrison, who was a great historian, but at heart he was a naval officer, you could even say at heart he was a sailor. I mean he loved the sea, and the ships, and the navy, the US Navy specifically. So his "Victory At Sea" series, plus his official Naval History series, which are the first ones out on the war in the Pacific are "Wow! Look at '31-knot' Burke!" or "'28-knot' Burke" or whatever the hell his nickname was and "Bull" Halsey and all these great bomber pilots and fighter pilots! And what a great job we did. OK, that's nice [laughs], but you have to look a lot more rationally at both sides, and that's what I see needs to be done. And the only book that I know has done it recently is Ronald Spector's book Eagle Against The Sun, and that's a good book, but it's only a beginning. You can't do it all in one volume, and that's what he tried to do.