The Writer at War
Professor John Wheatcroft ’49
discusses his enlistment in the Navy,
the battle of Okinawa, kamikaze pilots
and coming home at war’s end.
Compiled from an interview with Matthew Stevenson ’76
John Wheatcroft ’49 in 1959.
Ijoined the Navy in 1943 at age 17. I had two friends in high school who were Jewish refugees. The father of one did not get out. My father had been a very strong antifascist from the beginning. He knew about the Armenian genocide and talked about it at the dinner table, so to me, the real war was in Europe, but they sent me to fight
in Japan. I was assigned to the USS Wisconsin,
one of the biggest battleships in the Navy.
I felt no anger toward the Japanese, and in a strange way
I admired their courage. The kamikaze pilots must have been
brave young men.
On Sept. 2, 1945, the Wisconsin was moored next to the
Missouri, and I was in the rigging. We went in with every battery
loaded because there was talk that this might be treachery by
In April 1945, we headed toward Iwo Jima.
There, it was mainly the kamikazes that
could get to us. They were small and they
were fast, and I have to say I was mighty
frightened. One kamikaze came so close
that if he hadn’t had a mask on, I could
have seen his face. In a couple of seconds,
he would have taken me out, but he was hit
by a five-inch shell.
John Wheatcroft in 1943.
the Japanese. We waited and waited and finally
saw a little boat coming across the bay. The
Japanese diplomats had on tall silk hats, as if
they were going to the opera, and they were
dressed in black suits and ties. And they went
up the ladder and the treaty was signed.
On Easter Sunday, 1945, we went to Okinawa as cover for
land forces. There were three battleships, three or four carriers,
and on the outer rim, destroyers. We were all just blasting
away, and underneath our fire these brave guys went in on
motor craft. One man from our ship jumped off the fantail
and swam toward Okinawa. A destroyer picked him up. His
plan was to swim ashore, convert the Japanese to Christianity,
and we would all stop fighting. Poor fellow. He just cracked.
Everything on shore was flattened. People
were sleeping in holes that had been created
by shells and bombs. Whole families were
down there, and they’d pull a piece of card-
board or a piece of tin across the top. I also
saw a man, his wife and three children standing
near a yellow brick building, which had been hit. I asked
him if it was a factory, and he said it had been turned into
a hospital, because all the hospitals in Yokahama had been
destroyed. They had painted big red crosses on the roof of it,
and the planes came and bombed it. I gave the kids some candy
and gave him a pack of cigarettes, and I just felt like hell.
The kamikazes would go for the carriers. The Yorktown was
badly hit, and many of the burned sailors were brought aboard
our ship. I can still remember seeing them lying on wire cots
that would be carried by a man at each end. When the cots came
up from sickbay, there would still be pieces of flesh on the wire.
I couldn’t write anything during the war or immediately
after. In fact, I went into what I now recognize as a deep
depression, and I wouldn’t leave my parents’ front porch. I
tried twice to start a novel, but I just couldn’t do it. I really
came back by way of poetry.
Planes had to be catapulted off the deck of the carriers. In
the worst days at Okinawa, one out of three planes would not
make it off the deck. To see those pilots walk up and get into
their planes knowing the plane before them never made it
into the sky — it was something.
I always felt complicit guilt. That’s all I can say, and I don’t
think that it’s purged by writing abut it, but at least I can say
that I think I have told some truth, and it differs in major ways
from what is supposedly an accurate portrayal of what happened.
To hear the entire interview between Wheatcroft and Stevenson, visit