MINNEAPOLIS — A military policeman during World War II, John Fleming said his main duty was to "direct traffic."
But he'll never forget standing in a guard tower in the fall of 1945, watching dispirited Japanese prisoners in an Okinawa POW camp just a couple of months after the devastated island was taken by Allied forces.
"If you were captured, you were better off dead — that was the Japanese code," Fleming said.
After atomic bombs in 1945 had destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, respectively, and Japan surrendered Sept. 2, Fleming was among the American soldiers who volunteered to take prisoners back to Japan and release them.
On the ship, Fleming said, the men were docile until they spotted the Japanese coastline.
"One of them started jumping up and down and pointing," he said. "He could see his home in Yokohama."
Fleming, now 88, recently told the story of his experiences as a military policeman during World War II for a local documentary project, "Stories from the Heartland: Kansans in WWII."
The multimedia project was initiated by Salina documentary filmmaker and educator Phil Black, who said his objective was to document as many personal World War II stories from Kansans as possible before it was too late.
"We don't have a lot of time," Black said. "We need to tell their stories while they are still alive."
Black has been using high school students to assist in interviewing and editing the footage shot of these veterans for future television and radio broadcasts and museum exhibitions. A story about Black's project is featured in this Sunday's Life section.
Fleming, who lives near Minneapolis, was one of the first World War II veterans interviewed by Black and his team. Fleming said it's a valuable project, especially for the younger generation.
"It's history," he said. "How many kids in high school know about any of this stuff?"
In May 1943, Fleming, a senior at Wichita High School North, enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was trained as a military policeman and assigned to the 726th MP Battalion, Company C.
Frankly, I don't think we got much training," Fleming said. "They just put us there to have bodies."
In the fall of 1944, his company was sent to Boston to catch a crowded ship headed to Liverpool, England.
"They stacked us five high on the ship on canvas bunks," he said. "You couldn't sleep without hitting the guy above you."
After landing in Liverpool, Fleming and the other MPs took a train to Southampton, England, and then another ship to Cherbourg, France, which had been liberated from German occupation by the Allied army in June 1944.
According to the book "The Soldier at the Crossroad: The 726th MP Battalion in World War II," the duties of MPs in France at that time were to regulate traffic on both the critical White Ball and Red Ball Express supply routes, escort supply and troop convoys, maintain a semblance of order in devastated towns and provide security for military trains.
"Most of my duties were directing traffic," Fleming said. "We also walked around at night and made sure none of the guys got too drunk."
The closest call Fleming had in France was the time he stopped a British convoy for having their lights on too bright, which made them easy targets for German bombers. After letting the convoy pass with dimmed lights, he discovered that just a few miles down the road they turned their full lights back on and were strafed by a German fighter plane.
"That was the closest I've come to being shot at," he said.
The most fun Fleming had during his stay in France was introducing the French people to something they hadn't seen before.
"My mother sent me popcorn, and the French hadn't seen popcorn," he said. "This French family gave me a pan to pop it in. I put oil on the bottom, put the corn in and it started popping. They ran into the next room in a panic."
In the early fall of 1945, Fleming and his company were sent to Okinawa, just a couple of months after the famous Battle of Okinawa. The island had been devastated by the 82-day battle that lasted from early April until mid-June and included the war's largest amphibious assault in the Pacific.
After the island was taken, a POW camp had been set up and filled with Japanese prisoners, Fleming said.
"There was no honor being a prisoner to the Japanese," he said.
In late 1945, Fleming was discharged from the Army. He went back to Wichita, where in 1950 he met and married Margaret, a farmer's daughter from Minneapolis,.
Fleming was trained as a medical technologist at St. Francis Hospital in Wichita and worked as a clinical laboratory technologist in Salinas, Calif. After his retirement in 1981, the couple moved back to Kansas and settled on a farm in rural Minneapolis. Margaret died in 2011.
In 1983, Fleming said he met a group of Japanese high school exchange students who had traveled to study for a semester at Minneapolis High School. The Japanese supervisor told Fleming that before World War II, his country's leaders had a misconception of the U.S. They assumed it was just a collection of "little countries," and not united at all.
"He told me that if Japan had known just how big the U.S. was, they wouldn't have started the war," Fleming said.