How I Became a Pacifist: An Interview with Lee Thomas

FJ: How did you feel about the war effort? Were people at that time okay with it?

Lee: Well, sure. Everyone then was gung-ho. My parents were gung-ho.

FJ: How did you end up in the military? Were you drafted?

Lee: Yes.

FJ: Tell us what it was like for you when you heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Lee: It brought us into the war, and at that point, we thought the Japanese were evil. And, of course, Hitler was evil. We didn’t have an ally in Stalin yet, but later on I became aware of the slave labor camps in Siberia, and of all the horrible things that Stalin did. I saw hate films about the Japanese; we saw these in order to get us to kill. At this point, I was just an ordinary soldier, going to war, because I believed in it.

FJ: You went to the Pacific theatre?

Lee: Yes, I went to the Pacific. I experienced some pretty brutal things there.

FJ: Where were you situated?

Lee: Mindanao, in the Philippines. We attacked the town of Santa Cruz. That is the town I remember because we killed everything that moved. When we entered Santa Cruz, we went into a service station. I went over and we moved a body off the stool, and I sat down and ate my lunch. How callous can you get? He looked about 30 years old; I didn’t know what kind of family he had. He was Japanese.

FJ: So the experience of being on the front lines was very desensitizing?

Lee: Yes. You get to where you’re not a person, you’re an animal! It’s terrible.

FJ: Were you aware of the firebombing of Dresden?

Lee: I didn’t know anything about it at that point.

FJ: So U.S. soldiers in the Pacific theatre didn’t know anything about that; you didn’t know how many people were dying in these mass killings?

Lee: No.

FJ: When did you learn about that?

Lee: I think I read about it when we were on occupation duty in Japan.

FJ: Tell us how you ended up in Japan.

Lee: We made an amphibious landing on Saragani Bay on Mindanao after we finished at Santa Cruz. And we fought way up into the mountains. Later, I was on another LCM (Landing Craft Manpower) for the invasion of Japan, and we were anchored just off of Japan. Given the character of the people, and the fact that we were waiting there to be the first in, we were convinced that we were all going to die because the first in were going to get killed. The second and third wave—some of them would survive. That was what we figured was the plan.

FJ: Did you know the reputation of the Japanese—that it was a point of honor to fight to the death, and that was going to be incredibly difficult on the ground with them?

Lee: We knew; we knew it was going to be a nasty, nasty war. We figured we were done, and we were going to die. Then, at 2:00 pm on August 6, 1945, we were called down in the hold of the ship to listen to the news of the bomb. It saved our lives. We had a party. We got drunk. It saved our lives! The war was soon over and the surrender was signed.

FJ: And Hiroshima?

Lee: I was soon in Hiroshima.

FJ: Tell us about it.

Lee: Well, the people who were left had made lean-tos because it was still warm enough to use that for cover from precipitation. People exist, I don’t say you live, but you exist. They poked holes in the water-filled cover at the corner. Put pegs in, take a peg out, catch the water. Everything was radioactive. None of us knew it.

FJ: When you first saw Hiroshima, tell us, what was it like? There must have been people with horrible burns, so many people who were so sick that they could not be saved.

Lee: There were people begging to die, there were chunks of human beings all over the street. Just chunks. I was told about this. I was on a train and could see a little of it. I am trying to remember what happened 63 years ago.

FJ: How do you become hardened to that kind of thing? How do you cope with that kind of inhumanity?

Lee: This is what made me a pacifist!

You can’t!

It was unbelievable devastation from a single bomb. Looking at this and seeing how many people—how many thousands of people—how many tens of thousands of people were killed was unbelievable. And, recognizing there was another city not very far away that suffered a similar thing—it’s a shock.

When we got on occupation duty, they put me in charge of the payroll for the Japanese working on the base.

FJ: What was the relationship with the Japanese like when the U.S. troops came in?

Lee: We were putting some money in the economy; that was doing something right. We paid decently. So, I never experienced any recrimination. I was able to make friends.

FJ: That’s amazing. There wasn’t a deep resentment?

Lee: No!

FJ: Once you realized the extent of the devastation, did any of you have a different feeling about it?

Lee: Yes, we were all horrified that this would happen. And of course, the Japanese were “animals.” But, the next thing, here we are passing out checks and making friends. Now, now the shock hits. The shock hits. I have killed God’s children.

FJ: Do you remember the moment that happened? It sounds like quite a revelation.

Lee: It was an epiphany. I was going home, and this elderly Japanese man came over to the train station to wish me bon voyage.

FJ: And that’s when it hit you?

Lee: Yes, but it was gradually building. Because you know, you work with these people.

FJ: What was the Japanese attitude about all this?

Lee: They realized that if they had the bomb, they would’ve used it. That was a universal thing. That’s why they didn’t have the bitter blame that I had expected. And they also recognized that if we had ground warfare it would also have cost a lot of lives on both sides.

FJ: That is said about the use of shock weapons: that, in the end, it saved perhaps a million lives. How did you feel about that at the time?

Lee: The bomb obviously saved American lives, but it cost a lot of Japanese lives. The thing that Americans are quick to forget is that the bomb made it safe for Stalin to continue the slave labor camps.

FJ: How is that?

Lee: He was a U.S. ally. He won the war. We were certainly not going to stop the slave labor camps. We would’ve had a huge mess on our hands if we had. In war, you get some very unsavory allies.

FJ: So the decision was to cut the losses.

Lee: The decision was to cut the U.S. losses. Never mind the Russian losses.

FJ: How long were you there with the occupation?

Lee: About a year.

FJ: Did you maintain any relationships from that period?

Lee: No, I’ve made friends since, who were there in the area too, because I’ve done business there. I came back from the war in ’46, and I went back to Yale. I got acquainted with a guy by the name of Wight Bakke. He was part of a Quaker meeting, and he was my advisor for four years at Yale. This guy was magnificent. He was the foremost expert in the world on labor relations. He established the School of Labor Relations in Norway and in Egypt. He knew every labor leader in the country, I think. I would go through labor contracts with him, sitting as the clerk of the meeting. He would bring the sense of the meeting to the table. Here we are, trying to run a business after the war, and I have a Friend trying to have a business that takes away the occasion of war.

FJ: Was that a revelation to you? Was this something that you had been exposed to before you met him?

Lee: No, because I was not a Quaker when I first met him. But I was searching; I was grasping because of the experience I had been through.

FJ: When you went into the war, you certainly weren’t a pacifist.

Lee: I was not.

FJ: Tell us about how that evolved in you.

Lee: Okay, I went back to Yale. I met Wight, and we talked and talked. I asked Wight about attending meeting for worship and he said, “Yeah, come on!” So I started attending meeting for worship and I became involved with Quakers and pacifists. I joined the meeting there after my sophomore year.

There was an American Friends Service Committee project in Philadelphia—they called it “Intern in Industry.” You went out, got a job in industry, you joined a union, and learned something about labor relations. Speakers would come in the evening and give us an education. Sometimes it would be a personnel manager from a company; sometimes it would be an education director. At the Intern in Industry Project I met Joan, who shared my values. After our children were in school she went to medical school and practiced medicine for 21 years in the slums of Louisville. We have been married 58 years.

FJ: How much do you think the experience of the war itself was why you became a pacifist? Do you think you would have become a pacifist anyway or was it really the experience?

Lee: It was the experience.
I’ve known Lee Thomas, a member of Louisville (Ky.) Meeting, for a number of years. I am aware that he served in the military during World War II and that he was one of the first U.S. citizens to arrive at Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped. Knowing that the number of people still living who had that experience is growing smaller, I wanted to ask him to tell us about it, and how it affected him personally. Lee is currently chair of the board of Universal Woods and executive in residence at Ballarmine University School of Business. This interview took place in October 2007.

Susan Corson-Finnerty

Susan Corson-Finnerty, publisher and executive editor of Friends Journal, is a member of Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

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