(Tribune News Service) — Robert McCaffrey remembers floating in the Pacific Ocean with burning gasoline lapping inexorably toward him after the action of a Japanese suicide pilot.
Leading up to Wednesday's 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, McCaffrey recalled his experience and offered his perspective on the events that led to the end of the war.
"When we heard that Japan had agreed to surrender, I was on a cattle car in Seal Beach, Calif., headed toward the docks," McCaffrey recalled Tuesday. "The car turned around and they gave us all liberty instead."
McCaffrey, 89, attended a fall celebration of World War II veterans at Streamwood High School in Illinois. He said he was a Navy radioman aboard the tanker USS Mississinewa when an unknown new Japanese weapon called a kaiten — a torpedo steered by a human suicide pilot — exploded against it, igniting its thousands of gallons of gasoline and oil like a torch and killing 63 of his crewmates.
McCaffrey and another man found themselves in a lifeboat as what seemed like an unstoppable wall of flame drifted toward them. Finally, a seaplane pilot landed on the water near them, tossed them a rope and towed them away from the fire.
If Japan had not agreed to surrender on Victory Over Japan Day (Aug. 14, 1945) and signed that surrender Sept. 2, they likely would have been ordered into a bloody invasion of Japan that some think might have cost as many American casualties as the whole rest of the war up till that time, he said.
"The atomic bombs saved a lot of lives," McCaffrey said, referring to the August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that persuaded Japan to give up. "If we had to invade, every Japanese person from kids to women to old men would have been fighting us to the death," just like the man riding that suicide torpedo.
Peter DeRivera had his right index finger shot off during fighting in the Pacific during World War II. After returning to combat with nine fingers, DeRivera would be wounded again, by shrapnel in a leg, during the year's final battle on Okinawa in the summer of 1945.
DeRivera, 92, also attended the Streamwood High School event. But now, his wife, Daniella, says, his mind has largely slid into dementia.
DeRivera served with the Army in the invasions of Japanese-held Makin, Saipan and Okinawa islands. Carrying a Browning automatic rifle, he was an obvious target for enemy riflemen.
"We were married just before he went overseas," Daniella DeRivera recalled Tuesday. "I was at work at the A.B. Dick plant in Chicago when I heard about the surrender. When Peter was on his way back to Hawaii, the actor Caesar Romero was also on the boat, and he spent time with my husband because they were both Latin."
Daniella DeRivera said she and Peter went on 50th-anniversary reunion trips in the 1990s to Saipan and Okinawa, and that brought them face to face with people from the nation Peter once fought.
"On Saipan, there was also a group of Japanese people, and we had a big banquet with them," she recalls. "At first it was kind of awkward, because these people had been shooting at each other 50 years before. But we exchanged little gifts and had friendly interactions with them. And on Okinawa the next year, which is still part of Japan, there were Japanese everywhere who welcomed us."
McCaffrey said he never returned to the Pacific. He said he has become friends with a Japanese-American man from his generation who lives in the same assisted-living complex. Sharing their life stories, the man said he had been living in California when the war began. He was forced to move into an internment camp for the duration because of racist fears that even people born in the United State could never quite be trusted if they were descended from the people who had attacked Pearl Harbor.
"It's funny. One day you're shooting at people like that and the next you're good friends," McCaffrey said.
Daniella DeRivera also recalled how during their 1995 trip to Okinawa, they attended a banquet at which an American general recounted all the wars of United States history.
"After he told about each war, the general would say, 'and then they forgot,' and he'd tell how we got into the next war," she said. "It never seems to end."
©2015 The (Elgin, Ill.) Courier-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.