Laurence Rees: Gene La Rocque was brought up in the American Midwest during the 1930s – and it was here that he first formed an opinion about the Japanese.
Words of Gene La Rocque: When I was a young man growing up in Illinois, we had definite feelings about the Japanese. Rather unpleasant feelings in many ways, because we knew that the Japanese products, whatever they manufactured, were not very good. We could tell it even as young children that their toys were terrible. They didn’t last overnight. But we also had another view of the Japanese from our newspapers and from the movies. We found the Japanese doing things in the world that we didn’t think were correct. For one, the Japanese were raping Nanking and that was shown in a dramatic way on our movie screens for five or ten minutes. In Illinois too, where I grew up, in the midwest of the United States, the Japanese were looked down upon. First of all they were of smaller stature. They were not as big as we were and they looked very funny in their caricatures. They always wore dark glasses, that is dark rimmed glasses, and they looked as if they were kind of strange, funny characters. We didn’t take them seriously. Our concept of the Japanese, prior to the time the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbour, was that they were a weak, not very sophisticated people. And it was so foreign to us. After all, the head of the country was supposed to have been a descendant of God and we thought how primitive that situation was. The Japanese were just of small stature, kind of looked like monkeys to us. They were not a very friendly, but also not a very intelligent group of people. That grew out of our ignorance of them and our arrogance about ourselves. We thought we were capable of pushing the Japanese around at will. They sure surprised us at Pearl Harbour.
Laurence Rees: Gene La Rocque joined the United States Navy just before the outbreak of war with Japan – a war he had predicted would happen.
Words of Gene La Rocque: It looked as though - to all of us as we joined the navy - that we were certainly going to have a war some day with Hitler and the Germans, but many of us also knew that the Japanese were a real threat to us in the Pacific. I think it’s very interesting that just before the war, when I was at Pearl Harbour, at the area off of Pearl Harbour, we were exercising as if the Japanese were going to attack us at any minute. We knew the war was coming. We’d been pretty well convinced that the Japanese were going to attack the Philippines or Guam or somewhere, not Pearl Harbour, but we were preparing for war at sea with the Japanese before World War Two.
Laurence Rees: Gene was posted to serve with the Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. And he was there when the Japanese started the war.
Words of Gene La Rocque: The night before the attack I went ashore and enjoyed some liberty and the sights of Honolulu. The next morning, as I was returning to the base, just entering the gate to the US Naval Base there, the Japanese attacked and all hell broke loose, and while I was going back to my ship in a small boat the Japanese were attacking. When the Japanese first attacked we were so surprised - amazed - that I personally thought that that was the United States Army Air Corps who’d mistakenly dropped their bombs on us, until we saw the red circles on the Japanese planes as they went over. And we could of course then see the devastation that they were causing as the bombs fell. We knew something tremendous was happening to us. We, however, were anxious to get to our ships and get out there and kick the heck out of those Japanese. When the bombs first fell and the torpedoes were fired, I wasn’t the least bit afraid. Again the hubris, the arrogance which we had, I wasn’t at all fearful of being hit. I was just eager to get back to my ship and start shooting at the Japanese and get under way and put to sea, so that we could sink the nasty old Japanese for having attacked us. I reached my ship and went aboard, and the Japanese stopped attacking for a little while - a matter of minutes - and then they came back. So in the second phase of my engagement with the Japanese I was able to shoot at them. They came very close to our ships. We thought - when the Japanese attacked - we thought this is a dirty trick. Those stinkers, they attacked us by surprise in our own base. They weren’t fair, they weren’t honest, they didn’t do battle with us at sea. Instead of that these sneaky Japanese outsmarted us, and that was a matter of some concern to us. We were very surprised, all of us, that the Japanese were crazy enough to attack us in Pearl Harbour. We didn’t think they had the capability, nor that they would be bold enough to do it. But we learned later, of course, that they had tremendous capabilities in many ways that were better than ours for the first couple of years of the war. For some reason or other we thought the Japanese just could not see well, particularly at night, because all the pictures we’d seen of the Japanese over the years, they were wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses. We should have known better because we knew about the efforts of the Japanese in fighting the Chinese and how tough they really were.
I’d have to say about thirty minutes after the Japanese attacked there was a lot of oil on the water. We could see the battleships had been sunk. Some of our ships had been overturned. The air station there was on fire and smoking. There was kind of a quiet that settled down over the whole area. There were no more guns shooting, no more attacks and we were then horrified at the devastation the Japanese had caused in a matter of minutes as we were caught completely by surprise. I should mention when the attack occurred most of our navy ships had a very limited number of people on board. Most of the people were ashore on liberty. After all it was a Sunday morning. Many people had gone, or prepared to go, to church services. That was another thing that angered us about the Japanese. They attacked us during our church services. We thought they would have had better sense than to do that. It wasn’t fair. We had been provided with so much misinformation on the Japanese. I'd have to say that I certainly didn’t think of them perhaps as monkeys, but perhaps monkey like. They didn’t seem to have the customs that we had in the United States, so it was easy, at the time, to misunderstand the Japanese. We were shocked when the Japanese attacked and they came in on their planes and skillfully swept down on us at Pearl Harbour, dropped their bombs, torpedoes and then went off into the morning sun, away from us before we could really lay a hand on them. I felt it was an accident. I didn’t think they were that good. We did not think of them at that time as being skillful. Later, of course, we began to realise we had a terrific adversary.
Laurence Rees: A few months after Pearl Harbour, Gene La Rocque witnessed personally the determination of the Japanese - a determination which was at odds with the prejudices about the Japanese he’d previously absorbed.
Words of Gene La Rocque: I remember one incident when we were capturing our first island, or one of the early ones. We had moved into the lagoon, we’d captured the little island and appeared to have subdued the few Japanese that were defending the island. And in the late afternoon a couple of my shipmates and I saw this Japanese patrol boat, probably 150 feet long, and we decided to go over to see how they lived, because we didn’t see anybody on board. As we approached this Japanese patrol boat in this lagoon on a peaceful afternoon, after the attack that we’d made on it was over, two men rushed out from down below and we thought they were probably going to surrender or that they were going to shoot at us. Instead they went up on the bridge structure, walked out and back and hung themselves right before our eyes from the yardarm. That gave us a good idea of what we were up against. These folks were not going to give up easily.
Laurence Rees: And what was also clear to Gene La Rocque was that the war in the Pacific would be a war in which some of the darkest of human emotions would be engaged.
Words of Gene La Rocque: The Japanese had fired at us from their planes with bombs, they’d run torpedoes through us, we’d watched ships, our ships, hit, and some sunk. And so we were angry with the Japanese. And if you’re in a battle you have to hate your adversary. You have to dehumanise them. They have to be less than human for you to kill them. We were killing them, maiming them, and they were doing the same to us. So war is a vicious, cruel, bitter, nasty affair and it cannot be conducted with Marquis of Queensbury rules. Some people think there are rules by which we ought to fight and even the Geneva Convention, but I can tell you when you’re face to face with the enemy and he’s shooting at you, you shoot at him and you don’t even know nor care about any convention. It’s a matter of he kills me or I kill him. And I’ve had torpedoes fired at us, we’ve been run into by a Japanese submarine, we’ve sunk Japanese submarines and see their bodies coming up, and we didn’t feel a bit of compassion for them. One has to kind of keep in mind, I do believe, that we had been taught that the Japanese were sub-human when we got into the attack. Of course we had no love for Hitler or the Nazis, but we also had many people in America who are of German descent. Or of descent from Italians. It was an entirely different view we had of the Italians and the Germans that we had of the Japanese. We knew the Japanese were sort of sub-human. We thought they were. Obviously, of course, we were wrong and I suppose one could say too bad, no use being ashamed of it, because that’s the way the times were before the attack on Pearl Harbour, and it carried through during the war. We were racist. Of course we were racist. But that again comes from the fact that they were foreigners to us, a culture we didn’t understand, a language we couldn’t understand. They were inscrutable and so it was a different culture.