Outside of Doug Mayotte’s house, an American flag is always flying. This Saturday, it won’t be the only one.
Aug. 15 marks the 70th anniversary of “Victory over Japan Day,” the moment when Japan signed a surrender pact and World War II officially ended. For the occasion, Mayotte will hang a cluster of red, white and blue banners in front of his house to remember all of his military brethren who have fought, died and, of course, grown old.
70 years ago, Mayotte was a petty officer in the US Navy working in a special operations unit on the island of Saipan. One year earlier in June 1944, he fought in the Battle of Saipan as a Higgins boat operator, landing troops and supplies on the small but heavily fortified island.
Saipan, which is about 12 miles long and 6 miles wide, is apart of the Mariana Islands chain, which sits less than 2,000 miles away from Japan. The capture of the island from more than 30,000 Japanese troops on July 9, 1944 played a pivotal role in stopping the war.
Not only could American bombers make efficient bombing runs over Japan from Saipan airstrips, but it was from Saipan’s neighboring island, Tinian, that the Enola Gay flew its infamous mission to drop the first-ever atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite taking back every Japanese-held island and completing hundreds of relentless bombing missions on Japan, military officials believed the use of atomic weapons was the only way to get Japan to give up. The other option was staging an all-out invasion, in which countless American soldiers would die.
By Aug. 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay left for Hiroshima, Mayotte had been transferred into an Aviation, Construction, Ordinance, Repair, Navy (ACORN) outfit. He had become an electrician’s mate at Saipan’s Kobler Airfield and was also a part of the base’s fire-fighting crew.
From his makeshift hut under the airfield’s control tower, Mayotte speculated with his fellow ACORN boys as to why six brand new B-29 bombers had been mysteriously gated off over at Tinian.
“Our control tower was talking to Tinian,” Mayotte recalls. “At that time, six brand new planes had landed and nobody could go near them. Then, we found out that the USS Indianapolis had unloaded two great, big, massive containers.”
Those containers held “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the bombs that would end the war.
An essay by retired US Navy Commander David Moore estimates that 78, 000 people were killed at Hiroshima in mere seconds. Three days later on Aug. 9, 1945, 70,000 Japanese perished at Nagasaki. Only then did Japanese emperor Hirohito decide to surrender.
Days later, on Aug. 15, 1945, commanders of the allied forces watched as the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri. Mayotte was “happier than all get out” when he heard the news. “We knew we were done fighting a major battle and that we were going home.”
Home actually couldn’t come soon enough for Mayotte, though. War or no war, soldiers were only allowed to return to the states after they accrued enough “points,” which were determined by combat experience, age, family status and other factors.
“It all depended on where you were and what you had done,” Mayotte explains. “Some of the boys that were on our fire crew, who were older and had families, were the first to be discharged. The first ones going home had a lot of points.”
In May 1946, Mayotte gained enough points to make his way back to Minneapolis and seek out what most returning soldiers wanted: a lovely woman to settle down with and a well-paying job. He got both after meeting his wife Norma at a alcohol-free dance in downtown Minneapolis and applying to the Western Bell Telephone Company.
It was a different story for Martin Jane Lally, who was drafted into basic training right as Japan surrendered. Because of the devastation caused in both the European and Pacific theaters, men were still being enlisted to help with cleanup and logistics. Lally was assigned to the 35th tank battalion, which acted as an occupying security force in West Germany.
Although Lally didn’t see any combat, he left as a staff sergeant and made a lot of good friends, he says. “My whole squadron got transferred to Füssen, near Austria.” Being in the Bavarian town was “kind of like being back home in Colorado,” Lally remembers.
Upon returning to Colorado in February 1947, Lally worked as a plumber’s apprentice and made a family of his own. He later joined the Denver Fire Department as a full-time firefighter and retired after 38 years on the job.
Meanwhile, Mayotte headed west at the behest of Western Bell, who sent him to engineering school in Aurora, Colo. He then became the Assistant Manager of Engineering for Pacific Bell Telephone in Seattle, only to retire and return to Colorado in 1995.
As retired veterans, Mayotte and Lally have turned toward the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars association for support, guidance and camaraderie over the years. Mayotte has been a VFW chaplain for nearly a decade and frequents post 9644 in Englewood, Colo. Lally on the other hand splits his time between post 2461 in Denver and post 5061 in Sheridan, Colo.
At 88 years old, Lally understands that veterans like himself aren’t going to be around forever. Mayotte, who just turned 89, agrees.
“We started getting together ACORN reunions and we used to get 30 or 40 out of hundreds,” Mayotte says. “Finally, it went down to about 15 of us at our last one in Phoenix six years ago and we said, ‘That’s it, we’re gonna give up.’ Losing so many goes on and on.”
“I think in post 2461 there’s only three or four World War II vets,” Lally continues. “I don’t know any personally at post 5061. I’ll tell you, there’s not many left.”
That’s why on days like Aug. 15, Mayotte and Lally want people, especially young ones, to remember what happened during World War II. They also want our current generation to understand that war is a horrific thing which cannot be ignored.
“It’s hurting us older folks,” Mayotte says. “They’re taking [World War II] out of the high school history books. They’re not getting the history unless people like me explain what happened. We’re at war right now. It’s not a fun place. It’s not freedom for free.”
An estimated 3,500 American soldiers were killed during the Battle of Saipan, while roughly 406,000 were killed throughout all of World War II, according to the Veterans Association. Read more about the VFW and America’s veterans here.