Seventy-five years ago, September 2, 1945, the Empire of Japan signed articles of unconditional surrender in a solemn ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay thus bringing the Second World War to its formal end. Stephen H. Sachs, who grew up in Baltimore and served as U.S. Attorney here and as Maryland Attorney General during a long career at the bar, offers a remembrance of the war from boyhood.
By Stephen H. Sachs
I was too young to be a member of “The Greatest Generation,” the G.I. Joes who were hurled into combat and the Rosie the Riveters who galvanized the workforce at home during the war. But shards of childhood memory remain clear — none sharper than my shame when a family friend, a war hero, opened my eyes to war’s horrors. He was H. Raymond Cluster, who later became a distinguished member of the Maryland Bar and a nationally recognized arbitrator in the railroad industry.
Some remembrances of that time in Baltimore:
- A summer Sunday in early September 1939: My father’s voice was grave. He told us that German troops were pouring into Poland.
- December 7, 1941: A buddy and I had been at the movies. (Laurel and Hardy in “Great Guns” at the Ambassador Theatre). His father picked us up and told us the news. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor and did not immediately understand that we were at war. My return home helped me focus. My cousin’s boyfriend, a Marine, was summoned to report to base; a neighbor, a Navy reservist, was ordered to report for duty. Tears were the order of the day on Forest Park Avenue.
- I came home from P.S. # 64 to hear the staccato shrieks of Adolph Hitler on our radio. My grandmother, born in Latvia, was standing nearby, trembling.
- I checked the Sun daily and posted the advances of our troops on huge maps glued to my bedroom walls. I filled a scrapbook with pictures of Allied generals.
Of course, I was a kid and oblivious to war’s carnage. My pre-adolescent mind was shaped by a mixture of Arthurian tales of knighthood’s flower and John Wayne’s Hollywood. The war was good — a romance. We were the knights in shining armor.
I did not comprehend war’s brutality until it was nearly over. I watched newsreels of the charred remains of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki; shrunken bodies, dead or barely alive, at Buchenwald and Treblinka; German and Russian frozen corpses lying side by side in the snow; a dead Marine face down in the sand on Tarawa.
But it was a simple rebuke from a personal hero that did most to curb my juvenile enthusiasm.
Raymond Cluster was a former student of my father’s at Johns Hopkins. As a junior naval officer, he commanded landing craft in the hell that was Anzio and in the first wave on Omaha Beach. Ray visited his old prof at our home after he left the service. He described the chaos and terror of those landings. And he recounted, with a lump in his throat, the certain death that awaited so many of our troops as they stormed the beaches.
When Ray paused for breath, I blurted out something like “Gee, I hope there’s a war when I grow up!”
Firmly, but gently, Ray replied evenly, “No, Steve … No, you don’t.”
The slap-down was mild. But it was from a war hero whom I deeply admired, and it stung. Its memory has never faded.
Notwithstanding my growing understanding of war’s ugly face — or perhaps because of it—our role in World War II has maintained a kind of magnetic pull.
I have read deeply about the war and visited many of its sites of triumph and of mourning.
During my own military service, in the summer of 1956, I was assigned to the American Battle Monuments Commission as it dedicated our military cemeteries across France. These temples of memory moved me profoundly. I walked among the rows of gravestones. Many of these men had been younger than I when they fell. When the band played The National Anthem and a bugler sounded the mournful notes of Taps, I cried.
Ray Cluster died in 2005. I spoke recently with his son, Dick, who told me that his father had been a vocal protester against our military misadventures in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. According to Dick, Ray Cluster believed that “his war” — the one whose memory has absorbed me for more than three quarters of a century, the one in which Ray played a heroic part, and the one in which he helped open a kid’s eyes to war’s dark side — was “the last good war.”