“Thank you for providing documentation in support of your claim of having received a Purple Heart Medal,” the Veterans Administration informed an ailing William Manchester three years prior to the prolific author’s death that provided the sad coda to 2004’s Memorial Day Weekend. “Unfortunately, the documentation you provided is not sufficient for us to make a determination regarding your receipt of the medal; therefore, we are requesting additional documentation from you.”
Of the many boasts the historian made about his service as a Marine during World War II, this undoubtedly true claim ironically failed to persuade federal bureaucrats. Nine months later, President George W. Bush bestowed upon the “gifted historian and biographer who makes the past come alive for millions of the readers” a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) medal.
“Manchester’s life has been showered with awards,” the NEH noted in the biographer’s accompanying 2002 biography. “He was valedictorian at the University of Massachusetts. He received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts for his time as a marine.”
Manchester wrote such blockbusters as The Death of a President, The Glory and the Dream, and a trilogy on Winston Churchill. He did not serve as valedictorian at the University of Massachusetts. He did not win the Navy Cross. He did not rate a Silver Star. He did not receive two Purple Hearts.
The lists of Silver Star and Navy Cross recipients maintained by the Department of Defense omit Manchester’s name. His 199-page service record, obtained by The American Spectator, contains no mention of the Marine-turned-historian receiving two of the most prestigious awards given for combat valor. In the decades immediately following the war, Manchester not only never made such claims about his wartime heroism, but when noting the honors he did receive excluded any mention of a second Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a Navy Cross.
Even the valedictorian boast proves false. College transcripts and records provided by the University of Massachusetts Special Collections show that Manchester, a transfer student, graduated without distinction after receiving mostly Bs and Cs in the last class at Massachusetts State College before it became the University of Massachusetts. The May 16, 1946, issue of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian does report his speaking slot at a senior convocation. But not only did other students deliver prepared remarks at the actual graduation ceremonies, the school did not feature a valedictorian in those years.
Why did the NEH promulgate these specious claims on matters trivial and significant?
“All that information was from an interview with William Manchester. Whatever I wrote there was exactly what he told me,” Lynn Fraser, an NEH freelancer writing thumbnail biographies for several 2002 honorees, tells The American Spectator. She recalls Manchester as old but coherent during their phone conversation. “Everything was from him. There was no other source that I used.”
The historian’s efforts to rewrite history go beyond telling tall tales to an NEH interviewer. The voluminous collection of papers he donated to Wesleyan University include a forged Navy Cross citation for researchers to stumble upon in apparent confirmation of his claims of heroics on Sugar Loaf Hill, a 50-foot-high mound near the southern tip of Okinawa that took 12 days to capture. It reads:
“For extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy while serving with a Marine infantry battalion on OKINAWA SHIMA, RYUKYU ISLANDS, on 18-19 May, 1945, Sergeant MANCHESTER was leading a squad on outpost duty when confronted by an enemy counter-attack. On his own initiative, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Sergeant MANCHESTER crawled forward of his own post and single-handedly picked up an unattended machine gun. Carrying the gun in his arms, Sergeant MANCHESTER advanced, firing the weapon, breaking up the attack, destroying many of the enemy, and thereby saving a position which had been previously lost to the enemy ten (10) times.”
The verbiage deviates from the rote “The President of the United States takes great pleasure” that uniformly begins hundreds of Navy Cross citations reviewed from the era for those who lived to tell the tale (“takes pride” substitutes for “takes great pleasure” for posthumous honorees). It identifies Manchester, then a corporal, as a sergeant, the rank he attained upon his medical discharge five months later. It includes a date, May 19, that fell after Sugar Loaf Hill fell to the Americans.
Manchester’s papers also contain a special commendation noting his “gallantry in action and extraordinary achievements” on Okinawa. Though Manchester led neither a fire team nor a platoon, the acknowledgment declares: “Your courage was a constant source of inspiration to your men.” The parchment on which it appears does not look 72 years old. More damning, the signature of Lemuel C. Shepherd looks nothing like extant samples.
By the 1987 publication of an article on the Battle of Okinawa for the New York Times Magazine, Manchester remembered “mastering” Sugar Loaf Hill as “the central experience of my youth.” He also quotes from the fraudulent commendation from Major General Shepherd.
But the gushing commendation from a future Marine Corps commandant and the “central experience” goes unremarked upon in Manchester’s wartime letters home to his mother, in an account of his service written as part of the application to graduate school at the University of Missouri, in his service record, and in his war memoir. Twelve years after the war, Manchester also forgot the “central experience” of his youth and the Navy Cross reminder of it when he queried the Marine Corps regarding the medals he rated.
“I am writing in request for medals,” Manchester wrote the military on February 20, 1957. “I enlisted at Springfield[,] Massachusetts, on July 2, 1942 and was discharged honorably in San Diego, Calif., on October 24, 1945, with the rank of Sergeant. I served with Headquarters Company, 29th Marines, 6th Mar Div, and was wounded in action on Okinawa June 5, 1945. I have received the Purple Heart. I believe I am also entitled to the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with one star for Okinawa), and the Victory Medal World War II.”
Manchester makes no mention of the second Purple Heart, a Navy Cross, or the Silver Star in this request for clarification of decorations owed him. The response and his service record indicate that while the Marines did not owe him the good cookie medal as he had suspected, he did indeed rate the Victory Medal World War II, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with a bronze star authorized for that ribbon, and the American Campaign Medal.
The legitimate citations reflect service honorably performed under trying circumstances. What compelled him to inflate his laudable record into something beyond that?
“Yes, the Purple Heart is very pretty,” the convalescing corporal acknowledged in a letter home in the summer of 1945. “A good many people think it’s the nicest medal they award, though I’m partial to the Silver Star.”
The former Eagle Scout, even from his earliest days in the Marines, seemed inordinately interested in uniforms and medals. His father, who passed away prior to World War II, brought home a Purple Heart from the First World War. Manchester appeared eager to outdo his late pa. By 1980, when he authored his war memoir, financial considerations added to ego and honors as a motivation for fabricating his combat record.
For 1980’s Goodbye, Darkness, Little, Brown advanced Manchester the handsome sum of $350,000, which proved a sound investment. Starting on October 5, the book spent more than four consecutive months on the New York Times bestseller list, peaking at #5 during the week that crucially coincided with Christmas (and subsequently hitting that spot again weeks later). Critical acclaim fueled the commercial success. Esteemed reviewer John Barkham called Goodbye, Darkness “the most stirring, unforgettable, poignant personal book on the Pacific war I have read.” With its focus on Okinawa, one of the most significant battles of the war, Goodbye, Darkness oriented a peacetime nation’s attention to one of its most violent periods.
The battle for Okinawa began with the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific theatre appropriately on April Fools’ Day, 1945. Though Manchester initially characterized it as “the Okinawa Garden Party — the easiest campaign of the Pacific War for the Marine Corps,” events quickly made a cruel joke of his judgment. The nearly-three-month-long battle played as a dress rehearsal for the anticipated struggle for the Japanese mainland, for which Okinawa figured to act as a base of operations before a Little Boy and a Fat Man made this moot. Conscientious objector Desmond Doss, the subject of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, won the Medal of Honor for saving dozens of lives and enduring four wounds on the island, and Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle breathed his last at the battle. The Americans lost 14,000 men, and Japanese deaths of soldiers and civilians amounted to about ten times that number. As Manchester himself pointed out, the Japanese lost more lives at Okinawa than in Hiroshima and the Americans suffered more deaths on the island than they did at Gettysburg. So, if young William Manchester did not experience the hellish existence of the front that so often led to nonexistence, he surely served his country honorably in one of the most dangerous spots on the planet.
But a reader of Goodbye, Darkness gleans the impression of Manchester as a rifle-toting grunt accustomed to fighting in close quarters with the Japanese, which, along with the author’s flair as a historian, moved books. His wordsmith specialty for description commanded attention. But his military specialty — maps — kept him far from the front, the fighting, and the fatalities. To keep readers’ eyes glued rather than glazing over, Manchester assigned himself a more exciting role in perhaps the greatest drama of the 20th century.
One month before his war abruptly ended in Okinawa, Manchester wrote of the necessity of soon drawing an M1. But he called carrying a rifle “too plebian.” He seemed especially sensitive to the notion that carrying maps instead of a machine gun made him any less an infantryman.
“I was also amused by the assumption on your part that an intelligence scout in an assault battalion should be a man who sticks pins in maps,” he wrote his mother on April 4, 1945. “Sure, I carry a .45. So do officers and machine gunners. I’m still an infantryman; an intelligence man is an infantryman who must think as well as fight. With my maps, my job is to know where we are, where adjacent units are, and where the enemy is — no small job when you’re in a strange country mapped only by aerial photographs. Excuse me if I seem a trifle deliberate, but it is a little trying roaring in on Love Day, marching your feet down to bloody stumps and getting shot at occasionally to have your mother think you were not even in the campaign, and that if you had been, you would have been in the rear echelon.”
The memoir painted a more colorful portrait than its author as a combat cartographer. In the opening pages, the author-subject describes dramatically killing an enemy soldier. He missed his target only to inflict the fatal round followed by a string of better-safe-than-sorry shots. He gagged, cried, vomited, and wet his pants. “Not only was he the first Japanese soldier I had ever shot at; he was the only one I had seen at close quarters.” Letters sent home weeks before the Marines sent him home note him yet to kill his first Japanese. Manchester never makes a claim of firing a weapon at the enemy let alone killing one at close quarters in any missive. Three weeks before his tour abruptly ended, the corporal reported to his mother of seeing his first dead Marines of the war. His letters home detail witnessing action involving other Marines closer to the front. But save for the description of the shell that sent shrapnel into his back, the detailed correspondence contains nothing to indicate that Manchester engaged in exchanging fire with the enemy.
Tales of heroism that failed to make Manchester’s initial drafts of his personal history meandered into his life story decades after war’s end.
“On Okinawa, on Saturday, June 2, 1945, I suffered a superficial gunshot wound just above my right kneecap and was shipped back to a field hospital,” Manchester wrote in Goodbye, Darkness. “Mine was what we called a ‘million-dollar wound.’ Though I could hear the Long Toms in the distance, I was warm, dry, and safe. My machismo was intact; I was simply hors de combat. The next day I heard that my regiment was going to land behind enemy lines on Oroku Peninsula. I left my cot, jumped hospital, hitchhiked to the front, and made the landing on Monday.”
On June 3 Manchester sent a letter to his mom. Neither taking a Japanese bullet nor fireman-carrying another wounded American off the battlefield merited inclusion in the missive as they did in Goodbye, Darkness. In fact, he reports of recovering from Dengue fever that left him “flat on my back” for the previous week. He writes, from a “sea of mud” rather than a “warm, dry, and safe” field hospital, that “I’m feeling fine and I’m in good health now.” The Marine’s medical records similarly display ignorance of this gunshot wound. Records so meticulous as to note his eight cavities and the mole on his left biceps nowhere indicate a bullet wound. His service record contains no Purple Heart citation for the wound on Okinawa on June 2. When he wrote his life story for the consumption of University of Missouri graduate school admissions officers, he explained: “I stayed on Okinawa for sixty-six days, until June 5, when I sustained shrapnel wounds of the back, being evacuated to a field hospital on Saipan.” Again, the heroics of June 2 do not enter into the discussion.
Even the legitimate story of Manchester taking shrapnel on June 5 received substantial embellishments with the passage of time.
“The best man in my section was blown to pieces, and the slime of his viscera enveloped me,” Manchester maintained in 1987. “His body had cushioned the blow, saving my life; I still carry a piece of his shinbone in my chest. But I collapsed, and was left for dead. Hours later corpsmen found me still breathing, though blind and deaf, with my back and chest a junkyard of iron fragments — including, besides the piece of shinbone, four pieces of shrapnel too close to the heart to be removed.”
Whether viscera enveloped him remains unclear. But the proximity of shrapnel to his heart — the medical report indicates fragments near the ninth rib, third lumbar vertebrae, and left hip — does not match his description. His service record, which notes blindness in the left eye for two hours, says nothing of being left for dead for hours. In a letter home, he lists in a-b-c seriatim style that coral, part of an entrenching tool, and pieces of the exploded ordnance made its way into his back. Neither his letters nor his medical records refer to the weaponized shin bone.
Elsewhere, he describes a helmet saving him from a Japanese bullet that struck him in the head. Again, neither Manchester’s service records nor his medical records note any such thing. Late in life, he told the New York Times that a bullet remained near his heart from his days in Okinawa. “As his doctors are studying X-rays of his heart, they discover a foreign object some two centimeters long in the right ventricle,” Bob Herbert explained in 1996. “It is a bullet. William Manchester apparently had been shot as he lay on the ground, unconscious, after being blown up on Okinawa. Memories may fade and interest may wane, but history doesn’t get more real than a bullet in the heart.”
Alas, X-rays taken during World War II, which revealed pieces of shrapnel in his lower back, found no bullet in him.
Just as he expropriated the battlefield heroics of greater men, he projected his own wartime floundering upon others.
In Goodbye, Darkness, Manchester mocks servicemen who go souvenir hunting on the battlefield. “The GI was a stranger,” he disgustedly writes of an anonymous comrade who loses his life to such pursuits. “His behavior had been suicidal and cheap. Everything I had learned about wounds told me his were mortal. I couldn’t just leave him here, but I was raging inside, not just at him but he was part of it, too.”
But in his letters home, he repeatedly boasts of hunting for keepsakes, sending back a helmet and other knickknacks.
“I’m sort of disgusted with myself this morning,” he writes his mother. “I went thru a Jap cave with a flashlight and didn’t find a darned thing except an empty banjo box to send gear home in. Ten minutes later another character came thru and found a beautiful Jap flag.”
The juxtaposition makes the reader of his private papers wonder upon perusing the public memoir if the author used his preoccupations as a literary device, shaming a nonexistent GI for behavior in which he regularly partook in during the war.
Manchester’s fabrications became fact in obituaries.
His hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, claimed a Silver Star, a Navy Cross, and three Purple Hearts. The Washington Post wrote, “He was shot in the kneecap on Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill but left the military hospital when he heard his regiment was moving on to Oruku peninsula. Wounded by mortar fire, he also was shot by a Japanese soldier near his heart.” The Guardian also played stenographer to Manchester’s boasts: “Wounded in the knee at Okinawa, he left hospital, hitchhiked to the front and joined his regiment in a fierce, nine-day battle just a few weeks before the dropping of the atomic bomb ended the war. Blown up by a mortar round, he was left for dead for four hours, until an orderly saw he was still alive and gave him two shots of morphine. His bravery won him the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.”
The victors write history. But more so do the historians. And the reporters repeat it.
Senator Hiram Johnson famously observed during the Great War, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Such casualties piled up for William Manchester before his war in the Pacific began. Like many gifted tellers of tales, Manchester favored a compelling narrative over concrete facts. The stories he told about himself, even on inconsequential matters, especially reflected this penchant for confabulation. Dubious stories preceded his entry into the war.
Manchester wrote his mother in the spring of 1944 of signing for his payment as “2nd Lieut. William R. Manchester Jr.” and picking out an officer’s uniform for $17.50. Then the Marines informed the confident candidate that he did not make the cut as an officer. He told his mother his slim build ruined his prospects.
“The Colonel, it seems, wants barrel chested, square shouldered young men for his officers, and the embarrassing fact remains that P.F.C. W.R. Manchester, O.C.S., is not built as a truck driver,” the five-foot-ten, 140-pound Manchester explained. “Well, I talked straight to the captain. I said I’ve been thin all my life, that that was the way God made me, and that though I could use fifty or sixty lbs. more, still I felt that I had the brains to compensate for the lack of brawn.”
The Marines didn’t see it that way. And though the 22-year-old subsequently informed superiors that they were “making a grave mistake” and “losing a fine leader,” his counsel held no sway. “I’m not a failure!” the crushed officer candidate insisted to his mother. “I’ve been put to the test before, and by better men than ‘tested’ me here.”
Goodbye, Darkness weaves a different story. Manchester writes of launching a “nonviolent protest” against noncommissioned officers canceling liberty, forbidding efforts to reach girlfriends and moms obliviously waiting on train platforms, and denying Catholics confession and mass all just to mess one last time with the men who would soon outrank them by ordering a needless weekend weapons cleaning. Manchester, who maintained that he harbored no desire to exercise his weekend liberty, nevertheless sat stoically on his bunk with rifle laid across his lap with no intention of cleaning an already clean weapon. This principled insubordination — not his slender build — he maintained in his memoir, ended his dreams of becoming an officer.
“Thus I was hailed before a hastily assembled court-martial Monday morning,” he recalls. “I still wouldn’t budge. I told the kindly, troubled lieutenant colonel who presided over the court that I had joined the Marines to fight, not to kiss asses and wade through the very sort of chickenshit we were supposed to be warring against. That, I’m afraid, is exactly how I put it.”
And when the enlisted man took liberty, the reader of Goodbye, Darkness senses he takes liberties. Manchester boasted that buddies cruelly christened him “Tripod” and “Sashweight” after eyes tripped over his penis in the shower. The sobering sight of his organ during a drunk hookup leaves his shocked paramour exclaiming “Jesus” and failing to rid Manchester of his virginity despite the aid of Vaseline. “I didn’t fit,” Manchester notes. “I tried again,” he explains. “She started to moan, but I simply couldn’t penetrate her.” The young man too small for the officer corps was too big for women.
“Any attempt to impose a structure upon the chaos of personal history, with the intent of attracting and holding the reader, necessarily involves some distortion,” Manchester concludes his memoir in an author’s note. “It may be as great as a Mercator projection’s — for instance, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, a riveting account of a disaster which struck when the writer was five years old — or as slight as H.L. Mencken’s genial caveat that his autobiography was ‘yarning’ and ‘not always photographically precise,’ that ‘there are no doubt some stretchers in this book,’ though ‘mainly it is fact.’”
Memorial Day, as its name indicates, pertains to memory. Our proclivity for amnesia during the rest of the year necessitates a day dedicated to reflection. The fact that everybody forgets who did what, where and when it happened, and how and why they did that or this meant for Manchester poaching a reputation without consequence. People in the business of remembering know better than most how much we forget.
William Manchester went native. The historian wrote himself into the history books. Becoming part of the story ranks as the worst nightmare for the journalist. For the biographer of Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy, and other of the 20th century’s leading figures, occupying center stage in the history books came as his dream. And in our dreams, where we fly like eagles and converse with the departed, the surreal trumps the real and fantasy steamrolls fact. The imagination that serves as fertile land for a novelist remains poisonous ground for the historian.
“After thirty-five years, any man who suffered a head wound (my medical discharge papers note that, among other things, I had sustained ‘traumatic lesions of the brain’) can never be absolutely sure of his memory,” Manchester admits, a judgment perhaps confirmed by his recollection but rebutted by his medical discharge papers noting no such lesions. “But everything I set down happened, and to the best of my recollection, it happened just this way, except that I have changed names to respect the privacy of other men and their families. But I have resorted to some legerdemain in the interests of re-creating, and clarifying in the spirit of, the historical past.”
The legerdemain, employed to enhance his status as Marine and historian, instead discredits both. This blow to his reputation, however self-inflicted, can’t help but also hit his millions of admiring readers as a punch in the gut. William Manchester wrote terrifically and served honorably. That might have been a nice epitaph. Instead, the historian succumbed to the great temptation of storytellers to overwrite and, in doing so, ruined a perfectly fine tale.