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Japan’s surrender 70 years ago kept six area veterans alive, which affected millions more lives

Ben Nicks, 96, of Shawnee is a retired Trans World Airlines executive with six children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Ben Nicks, 96, of Shawnee is a retired Trans World Airlines executive with six children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. deulitt@kcstar.com

Seventy years ago this week, millions of American fighting men got their futures back.

Japan’s surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, eliminated the need for the United States to launch an unprecedented invasion force against a dug-in foe determined to fight to the death.

As six Kansas City area veterans recall now, everyone shared a vast sense of relief.

It meant they were going to live.

That, in turn, had a profound impact on America, both then and now, 70 years later.

Although historians still debate how many would have died in the invasion, one key midrange estimate settled at 500,000 Americans and perhaps 5 million to 10 million Japanese.

Instead, those Americans returned home, where they resumed or began family lives, launched or continued careers, and contributed to bettering their communities.

Assume that each had, on average, two children. And those children grew up to have two children, who grew up to have two children. Some of them would have little ones today.

That scenario would mean 7 million to 14 million Americans lived because those 500,000 fighting men didn’t die 70 years ago.

Consider the six Kansas City area veterans. Combined, they boast 24 children, 38 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

And the veterans’ impact extends well beyond mere numbers.

One helped organize KCPT Channel 19 and later led St. Luke’s Hospital.

Another made sure that Hispanic names didn’t get left off an Argentine district war memorial.

A third taught college anatomy to a generation’s worth of doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nurses. One of his grandsons, an operatic tenor, performed in “Madama Butterfly” near Washington on Friday and is to sing when the Kansas City Symphony performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony next June.

If these men had participated in an invasion of Japan, some or all of the above might not have happened. Had 500,000 Americans not returned, the contemporary United States would be vastly different.

“We would have lost a generation, just like the way Europe did in the Great War,” said Henry I. Miller, a public policy expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“The baby boomer generation, which is my generation, would have been much smaller. Who knows? Maybe we would have lost the progenitors of Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Maurice Hilleman, who was responsible for some of the great public health advances with the vaccines he helped develop.”

When Japan surrendered, our “Kansas City six” were spread out — aboard U.S. Navy ships near Okinawa, Guam and the Philippines, clerking at a battalion headquarters, stocking a destroyer’s galley in California and en route to Texas on leave.

As most of them celebrated, so did Kansas City and the rest of America.

EDWARD MATHENY JR., 92, KANSAS CITY. A retired lawyer, he has six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

On Aug. 1, 1945, Navy Ensign Matheny reported to Raymond Spruance, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and hero of the 1942 Battle of Midway.

“Are you looking for excitement?” Spruance asked.

For several months Matheny had served in the relative safety of a bunker basement at Pearl Harbor, where he helped plot the progress of the Pacific War on a vast horizontal chart.

During one key conflict, Matheny, 21, who 10 months earlier had been a starting forward on the University of Missouri basketball squad, nudged aside top brass to mark the coordinates of American and Japanese vessels.

But Matheny had requested a transfer to the Fifth Fleet, expected to lead the invasion of Japan.

I wanted sea duty. The war was the biggest thing that was going to happen in our lives, and you almost felt sorry for the guys who were 4-F (medically ineligible).

I got some inkling of what was going to happen from the operations orders. We were aware of what the guys on Iwo Jima and Okinawa had encountered and how the closer we got to the home islands of Japan, the more suicidal the resistance was going to be.

On Aug. 6, the on-duty communications officers had picked up dispatches about this tremendous explosion. Guys were saying, “What the hell is that?” Nobody at my level knew there was anything like the atomic bomb.

We realized it had the potential to end the war. Then came the emperor’s pronouncement, but I don’t remember much celebration. We knew that we weren’t going home. What had been an invasion force now was going to be an occupation force.

For me, the bomb was an instrument of deliverance. Its use posed no abstract, ethical question. It meant that I, and hundreds of thousands of others, would live.

Matheny, Navy lieutenant junior grade, returned to the United States the following spring. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he graduated from Harvard University Law School in 1949. He returned to Kansas City and joined the law firm Caldwell, Downing, Noble and Garrity, now Husch Blackwell, where Matheny keeps an office as a retired partner.

His legacy: In the early 1970s he helped establish KCPT, Channel 19. He later served 15 years as St. Luke’s Hospital president.

His time at Channel 19 and St. Luke’s was part of his generation’s ethic of community service, said his son, Edward Matheny III, a lawyer who serves as a grant writer for Kansas City’s Lyric Opera.

“Civic responsibility was important,” Matheny III said. “It was all about maintaining and nurturing all the institutions that they went to war to fight for and then hoping that subsequent generations could live up to that.”

BEN SANTILLAN, 90, KANSAS CITY, KAN. A retired railroad supervisor, he has four children, 10 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

Santillan reported to the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois on Christmas Eve 1942.

Training officers asked if he was familiar with guns. He and friends had shot small game along the Kansas River in Argentine.

So Santillan began gunnery training. He served on the destroyer USS Thorn, making two trips across the Atlantic protecting supply ship convoys. In 1944, he received orders to report to the USS Sarasota, a combat troop transport ship.

Now a gunner’s mate 3rd class, he participated in two invasions of the Philippines and the invasion of Okinawa. In late April 1945, the Sarasota crossed the Pacific to San Diego to pick up Marines at Camp Pendleton.

We were taking green troops, just out of boot camp, back to the coast off Okinawa. They were being trained for the invasion of Japan.

They had told us that it was going to be one of the worst invasions ever, and we thought we already had been in some bad ones.

The kamikazes were the worst. One came down right behind us, burning, like a blast furnace, into the water. The heat peeled the paint off the back of our ship. Imagine if it had hit us.

So we knew what to expect and how the Japanese were going to throw everything they had at us.

One morning, I told the guys, “Wake me when the war is over.” All of a sudden somebody woke me, saying, “Get up. The war is over.”

Earlier, a guy had asked me whether a friend, who was a cook, could give us some apples, raisins, yeast and sugar so he could make some applejack (moonshine). The day the war ended, we all had some of that applejack.

We had no idea what the atomic bomb was. All we knew was that it was big and was going to bring the Japanese to the surrender point, and we were all in favor of it.

Santillan returned to Kansas City in 1946 and went back to work as a laborer for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in Argentine. Using the G.I Bill, he took typing courses and refresher courses in English and arithmetic.

He served 40 years as a Santa Fe clerk and supervisor before retiring in 1987.

His legacy: After being turned away from a local American Legion post, he and other Hispanic veterans formed their own.

In the mid-1950s, he helped convince a business association to include the names of Hispanic war veterans on an Argentine war veterans memorial honoring those killed in action.

“For a long time my father was very quiet about his service,” said son Danny Santillan, a Fontana, Calif., construction manager and Marines veteran. “It’s just been in the last 10 or 15 years that he has opened up. … Now he is active in the community, talking to school kids who may be oblivious as to how pivotal World War II was.”

BEN NICKS, 96, SHAWNEE. A retired Trans World Airlines executive, he has six children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

In the summer of 1945, Nicks was a captain piloting a B-29 bomber out of Tinian Island in the Pacific.

A graduate of St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, he had enlisted in the Army infantry in January 1941. They put papers in front of him to sign. He didn’t realize that one was an application for pilot training.

On Aug. 6, 1945, he and his crew were hours from completing their 35th mission, a 21-hour flight to drop mines in the port of Rashin, on the eastern coast of Korea. A radio bulletin reported that a “big bomb” had been deployed over Hiroshima.

None of us ever had heard of Hiroshima, although our navigator soon estimated that we had flown within 50 miles of it on the way to and back from Rashin, before the bomb was dropped.

When we got back, we learned that the bomb had been dropped by the 509th (Composite) Group. Their tents were within walking distance of ours, but we had no knowledge of what they had been doing.

We knew we had been headed home for at least a 30-day leave. We knew that if the war did go on, that we would be called back. But we all thought the war was over. That was the reaction in the Officer’s Club bar that night.

After returning to Kansas City, Nicks he became a Trans World Airlines ticket agent. He retired after 36 years in various posts.

His legacy: His children have worked as a microbiologist, a registered nurse, a government contract scientist, a food services sales executive, a U.S. Navy base accountant and a former Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank staff member.

A seventh child, Benjamin Nicks III, graduated from Rockhurst College and had been accepted to law school before dying in combat in Vietnam in 1970.

In 1994, Ben Nicks and four other World War II veterans protested a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit devoted to the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the Hiroshima atomic bomb. After the veterans maintained the exhibit represented a revisionist history that highlighted the horror of atomic weapons at the expense of Japan’s aggression, Smithsonian officials scuttled their plans.

The next year, Nicks helped organize the Harry S. Truman Appreciation Society, which for years placed a wreath each anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing at former president Harry Truman’s grave, saluting him for “using every weapon available” to end the war.

All of Nicks’ children earned college degrees.

“He told all of us, ‘Go out and do what you want to do,’” said daughter Catherine Malins of Albuqurque, N.M. “He was thrifty and would say, ‘I grew up in the Great Depression.’ But he paid to send us to Rockhurst or Benedictine and then supported us, helping all of us get established.”

JESSE REYNOLDS, 99, PLATTE CITY. A retired mechanic and business owner, he has two sons, four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Navy cook Reynolds was preparing breakfast below deck of the USS MacDonough, a destroyer anchored in Pearl Harbor.

He cut up 100 steaks before walking up on deck. Three planes came around the front of his ship. At first, he couldn’t see their markings. Then the planes turned and he saw the rising sun on their wings.

As a child growing up among Missouri farms, he’d never wanted to be drafted into the Army. He didn’t want to end up in trenches the doughboys had occupied during World War I.

He and shipmates rushed to fire one of the ship’s machine guns. The destroyer’s action report later claimed two Japanese planes downed, one by machine gun fire.

In August 1945, Reynolds was stocking the galley of the USS Haynsworth, a destroyer being refurbished in California after being damaged in a kamikaze attack.

All they told us was that we were going to join the fleet and head for Tokyo. I thought, “Gol dang, I’m going to have to go through it all again?”

I was dreading going. Every time I got in a battle I felt my time was coming. I figured I would never make it back home.

Out in the Pacific, you would sometimes get phosphorus in the water that would flicker when something moved in it. One night standing outside I saw a torpedo headed right toward us. We were standing above a bunch of ammunition stored just below us. I was paralyzed. I thought, “This is my last day on earth.” I was shaking like a leaf, but the torpedo went right under us.

They dropped the first bomb and that gave me a little hope. Then they dropped the other bomb.

I’m still alive and you always wonder about all those who never came back. I just got lucky. I might not even be here and none of this — my family — would exist.

Discharged in the fall of 1945, Reynolds worked in a St. Joseph meatpacking plant before attending a Kansas City mechanic school. He found work at a Parkville car and implement dealership.

In 1948, he moved his family to Gallatin, Mo., when the dealership moved there. When that closed, Reynolds opened a mechanic shop, operating it until 1979.

This spring, following a broken hip and slight stroke, he moved into his son’s Platte City home.

His legacy: In June, Reynolds received a lifetime achievement award during the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Missouri convention. Today, state VFW officials consider him Missouri’s oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor and World War II veteran.

His offspring include two grandsons who grew up to work for the Kansas City Fire Department. One also served in the Navy.

“I chose to go into the Navy simply because my grandfather had been in the Navy,” said grandson Mark Reynolds, a retired Kansas City firefighter. “My family has a history of service to the country and that comes from my grandfather and his brother, who both were in the Navy during the war.”

One of Jesse Reynolds’ great-grandsons, Daniel Reynolds, chose to go into the Army. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

BOB RUSSELL, 89, OVERLAND PARK. A retired anatomy professor, he has four children and six grandchildren.

In April 1945, Russell arrived on Luzon, the largest Philippine island, where he joined his infantry troop. He spent about four months in close combat before being relocated to a nearby seaport, where they practiced climbing into landing boats and invading a tiny mock shore village.

They knew another operation was coming.

It was only after the Japanese surrendered that Russell learned their ultimate destination: the Japanese island of Kyushu, which planners had decided to invade Nov. 1.

They announced on the PA system that they had dropped this new bomb on Japan, called the atom bomb.

That meant something to me, as I had been in college at Texas A&M and the chemistry professors had been talking about the amount of energy stored in the atom. I thought, “My God, they found a way to release that energy.”

We knew what the invasion would have been like. We had been killing the enemy every day, using rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and mortars. In about 120 days of combat, my outfit turned over almost three times and lost everybody but about 30 to 40 men.

Later they had us practicing beach landings. Medics told us that they were getting supplies specifically for waist-up injuries, because of the trajectory of the beaches. Out of a division of about 15,000, they thought we were going to lose about one-third the first day.

Luckily, I survived.

One day after the war my wife asked me, “What is that so shiny on your neck?”

It was a little piece of metal. For the next seven years I had about six small pieces of shrapnel come out of my neck and shoulders.

Russell served 11 months of occupation duty and left Japan as a sergeant in 1946.

Using the G.I. Bill, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and then a doctorate from the University of Kansas. He retired after 36 years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he taught anatomy and other courses.

His legacy: Growing up as Professor Russell’s daughter, Shannon “Rusty” Watson routinely encountered dentists, doctors or pharmacists who studied anatomy under him.

“He was considered a tough professor,” she said. “He knew they had to know anatomy backwards and forwards.”

ED BOSWELL, 88, PRAIRIE VILLAGE. A retired railroad security supervisor, he has two sons, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

On Feb. 24, 1945, Boswell, a Marine rifleman from Lawrence, who had enlisted at 17, walked onto the beach of Iwo Jima.

In anticipation of an American invasion, approximately 21,000 Japanese soldiers had developed a complex series of bunkers and tunnels there.

His regiment, which included his 30-member platoon, advanced through the center of the island over about four weeks. By late March, Boswell was the only platoon member not killed or wounded. Every now and then, officers sent replacements, but they weren’t there long enough for Boswell to get acquainted with.

The Japanese used a smokeless powder, so unless you saw the flash of their guns’ muzzles, you didn’t know where they were. During my entire month on the island, I think I only saw about seven live Japanese soldiers.

The last two days, I escorted a Marine officer who spoke Japanese. He tried to get them to come out of their tunnels. But they didn’t. It was disgraceful to surrender; they wanted to fight to the death.

I was a sorry mess when it ended. They finally took me to a naval hospital on Guam.

I heard about the first bomb while coming back from the showers to my tent. Then came the second bomb and the surrender.

There was quite a celebration. It was quite a load off our minds, because we were pretty sure we would be boarding a ship for Japan very soon.

Now we knew we didn’t have to invade, which would have been disastrous, if Iwo Jima had been any example. I believe there would have been millions of people killed, not thousands, and I don’t know how many of us would have survived.

A corporal when he left the Marines, Boswell attended the University of Kansas before becoming a Douglas County deputy sheriff.

In 1952, he joined the Union Pacific Railroad as a security and special services agent. He retired in 1986.

His legacy: For close to 60 years, Boswell seldom spoke of his war experiences.

But 10 years ago, he joined a Marines alumni group. Five years ago, he attended a reunion and reconnected with an old friend who had been a Navy corpsman. They posed for a photograph in front of the famous U.S. flag raised over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

Today, Boswell speaks to corporate groups and schoolchildren about his war experiences.

Brad Boswell, a son, believes his father’s wartime stories are his father’s gift to the community.

“I know it took every bit of 65 years for him to really talk and open up about that,” he said.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

Editor’s note

These veterans’ recollections, as told to Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes, have been edited for length and clarity.

V-J Day: A pivot point in history

V-J Day marked the end of World War II and unleashed economic and social forces that reshaped America and the world. Here are a few, in statistics contrasting 1940, before the U.S. entered the war, and 1950, when the postwar boom was on.

Military forces

The U.S. armed forces were about three times as big in 1950 as in 1940 — but nothing like their wartime peak.

1940

1945

1950

Active duty U.S. military

458,365

12,055,884

1,459,462

Population

The U.S. population grew 14.5% in the decade, and growth accelerated after the war. Kansas and Missouri grew more slowly than the country.

1940

1950

% growth in the decade

U.S. population

132,165,129

151,325,798

14.5

Number of people added

1,242,728

3,083,287

U.S. population growth rate

0.95

2.05

Missouri pop.

3.79 million

3.96 million

4.5

Kansas pop.

1.80 million

1.92 million

6.7

KCMO

399,178

456,622

14.4

KCK

121,458

129,553

6.7

Population really took off in Independence, Johnson County and the Northland’s Clay County. In fact, Independence had the decade’s ninth highest growth rate among urban areas larger than 25,000 by 1950 — just ahead of Anaheim, Calif.

1940

1950

% growth

Independence

16,066

36,963

130.1

Johnson County

33,327

62,783

88.4

Clay County

30,417

45,221

48.7

Jackson County

541,035

622,732

15.1

Wyandotte County

145,071

165,318

14.0

Platte County

13,862

14,973

8.0

Education

Though the rates were low by current standards, the percentage of people completing high school and college rose sharply, and with population growth, the numbers rose even more: 17.7 million Americans with four years of high school in 1950 versus 10.6 million in 1940, and 5.3 million with four years of college versus 3.4 million in 1940.

(Citizens 25 and older)

1940

1950

2000

High school diploma

24.5%

34.3%

80.4%

Men

22.7%

32.6%

80.1%

Women

26.3%

36.0%

80.7%

Bachelor’s degree or more

4.6%

6.2%

24.4%

Male

5.5%

7.3%

26.1%

Female

3.8%

5.2%

22.9%

Economy

The gross domestic product, not adjusted for inflation, doubled in wartime, from $103 billion to $228 billion in 1945. And it kept rising postwar, to $300 billion in 1950. Adjusted for inflation, it rose 72% from 1940 to 1950. Given population and economic growth, the rise in employment wasn’t surprising but was particularly marked among women.

Employment

1940

1950

% increase

Total

44.9 million

56.2 million

25.3

Men

33.7 million

40.5 million

20.1

Women

11.1 million

15.7 million

41.1

Most sectors grew rapidly, but not all.

Change in full-time equivalent workers, 1940-1950:

Manufacturing: 39%

Motor vehicles: 47%

Transit, utilities: 34%

Retail: 28%

Government: 19%

Farming: -13%

Private household workers (maids and related services): -22%

Inflation

Prices at the grocery store went up, but because incomes rose even faster, by one estimate the share of average income needed to buy food dropped from 18.4% in 1940 to 15.7% in 1950.

Prices / pound (except noted)

1940

1950

Apples

0.05

0.13

Steak

0.41

0.99

Chicken

0.30

0.44

Bread

0.09

0.15

Butter

0.41

0.74

Coffee

0.22

0.80

Rice

0.07

0.17

Sugar

0.05

0.09

Eggs (dozen)

0.42

0.67

Milk (gallon)

0.28

0.88

Potatoes (bushel)

0.25

0.43

And home values in particular rose.

Median home value, unadjusted

1940

1950

% rise

U.S.

2,938

7,354

150

Kansas

1,733

5,462

215

Missouri

2,392

6,399

168

Median home value, in 2000 dollars

U.S.

30,600

44,600

46

Kansas

18,000

33,100

84

Missouri

24,900

38,800

56

Sources: U.S. Census, 1940 and 1950; Bureau of Economic Analysis; Michael Hurley, Bryant University

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