Kelly: WWII vet says Japanese propaganda mostly backfired -
Published Friday, July 5, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:22 pm
Kelly: WWII vet says Japanese propaganda mostly backfired

• Poster slideshow: View Japanese propaganda posters from World War II.

* * *

World War II veteran Lyle Stevens of Omaha saw a lot in the Pacific theater that he would like to forget. But he can't.

Besides the horror, he remembers the Japanese efforts to break the morale of young Americans.

“Have you ever seen the propaganda sheets the Japs left us?” he asked, spreading several on a table at his home in the Keystone neighborhood.

For seven decades after picking them out of island swamps, the 91-year-old former Navy chief petty officer has saved the colorful leaflets.

One is a print of a well-dressed couple back home, kissing on a porch under a bright moon, with an inscription:

“That unforgettable embrace under the beautiful moon with the warmth of HER shapely body nestled against yours; that blood-tingling kiss; that overpowering sense of passion that sweeps over you. These and many other pleasant memories you'll be able to relive again if you'll throw down your arms, surrender and prepare to get out of this hell-hole.”

When a soldier, a Marine or a sailor turned the page, he saw a bloodied U.S. military man under that moon.

“If you continue to resist,” the propaganda continued, “then, under the beautiful tropical moon, only DEATH awaits you. Bullet holes in your guts — agonizing death!”

Another leaflet, depicting a smiling soldier, says: “This guy was smart. He got his food. He got his cigs. Above all, he's assured of life and the chance to get back home.”

A third, which opened like a greeting card, shows a young woman looking at a list of casualties: Tom, John, Peter, George ...

“Think how she is suffering,” the front of the card says. The inside shows a bloodied soldier — Australian, judging by his helmet — waving a white flag and walking away from a battlefield littered with casualties.

“To hell with this bloody war!” he says in the card. “I ain't going to be on that fool's list! I'm coming home alive, Mary.”

A dead soldier lay nearby on a tattered American flag.

* * *

Early today on the Fourth of July, Lyle will do what he does on every patriotic holiday: proudly place his own American flag in its holder outside his front door.

Last week, he attended a fireworks show, his first in years, and he said it was very nice. But nothing like what he saw from his ship at the end of World War II.

“That was the greatest fireworks I ever saw in my life,” he recalled. “The day the Japanese actually gave up, we were between Saipan and Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Shells went off that night. Flares and big guns. It was the darnedest celebration you ever saw.”

To get to that point, though, so much had happened. So many lives were lost. So much fighting, bravery, fear, loss — and victory.

Yes, the empire of Japan had done its best to undercut American morale, with the leaflets and “Tokyo Rose” on the radio, but Lyle said it didn't work.

“We were a determined nation,” Lyle said. “I've got to give the people back home a lot of credit. In the last few years, people have said, 'Thanks for your service.' But the other side of the coin was that a lot of folks back then did without flour and new cars and other things. We fought two wars on two continents and won 'em both.”

As in most wars, WWII propaganda at home and abroad — call it the art of persuasion or psychological warfare — was surely part of the effort on all sides.

American planes in Europe dropped leaflets showing a large field with the graves of thousands of German soldiers. In Japan, civilians read U.S.-dropped leaflets saying that bombings would end if people demanded new leaders.

Because it was wartime, there was little, if any, trust in what enemies had to say.

For the most part, Lyle said, Americans laughed off the Japanese leaflets — even as they admired the artwork and the color.

“The idea was to make us homesick,” he said. “Actually, it had the opposite effect on the fellas I was around. We said, 'The hell with 'em.' ”

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* * *

Lyle graduated from the old Omaha Tech High in 1939 and won a scholarship to learn about automobiles. That led to his becoming a motorist machinist's mate in the Navy.

He was 20 when he joined the Navy in August 1942 and soon served on a 327-foot-long LST 458, the letters standing for Landing Ship, Tank.

Letters home to his mother were censored so as not to indicate his location. But the Oct. 11, 1943, edition of Life magazine told her — his LST was at the New Guinea base of Lae, where Americans mingled with Australian troops.

Another time, a U.S. Signal Corps photo published in newspapers showed him smiling and holding a cup of coffee “en route to the invasion of Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea.”

He is proud that he took part in 11 invasions. Among them were those on Admiralty, Wake, Morotai and Leyte islands. The ship repelled various dive-bombing and strafing attacks.

And then came the worst landing, in a different LST, dropping off troops in February 1945. It was one of the most famous battles of the war: Iwo Jima.

Recalling Iwo, Lyle shook his head and raised a hand to his eyes.

“Those poor Marines,” he said. “That was awful. The water was stained with blood. I'd just as soon forget that.”

The seawall where his ship dropped off troops was 12 feet high. Marines threw up grappling hooks so they could hoist themselves over the seawall and onto the beach.

Lyle saw many of them slaughtered.

His ship eventually took dead and wounded to Saipan. He still has nightmares.

The United States won the monthlong battle for the island, intending to use it as an air base for an expected invasion of Japan. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the iconic planting of an American flag on Mount Suribachi inspired the Iwo Jima statue near Arlington Cemetery near Washington.

The price of Iwo was heavy. About 6,800 Americans were killed, as were nearly 22,000 Japanese.

The invasion of the Japanese homeland wasn't necessary after atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced surrender.

President Harry Truman's decision to drop the bombs is still debated, but not in the mind of Lyle Stevens, who said he and many others wouldn't have survived an invasion of Japan.

“If not for Harry Truman,” he said, “I wouldn't be here.”

* * *

In the postwar years, Lyle got back into the auto industry. He and two others owned the Deluxe Body Co., and he retired in 1985.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

He and wife Jean raised a son and a daughter and in retirement spent winters in Texas and summers in Minnesota. She died four years ago.

Lyle said he is entitled to wear an Asiatic-Pacific Medal with four bronze stars. Several years ago, he appreciated receiving a medal of gratitude from the Northern Marianas islands.

He recalls his youth as “a cocky kid without a care in the world” and then growing up, like lots of others, in the middle of war.

“I'm one of the lucky ones,” he said. “The Navy took very good care of me, and I'm very proud of my Navy record.”

The propaganda leaflets he picked up were laughable, he said, but war was not. There were times — a kamikaze plane crashed into the sea nearby — that he was “so scared I couldn't yell.”

A few years ago, he took an Honor Flight with fellow veterans to see the World War II Memorial in Washington. While there, he was also moved by the Korea and Vietnam memorials.

The number of WWII veterans is dwindling. Lyle comes from a family with good longevity genes, so he is planning to be around for a while. He has a lady friend, Linda Jacobsen.

Now a great-grandfather, he is proud that he played a part in a great victory. His war remains part of him, even as the memories sometimes wake him at night. He owns a Japanese soldier's helmet that he picked up on the island of Bougainville, and he refuses to eat pineapple because of a bad association with the Pacific.

As he puts out his American flag today, he will be thankful once again for our nation's independence — and that in his war, despite the enemy's effort, the morale of troops was not broken.


Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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