Last to Die: A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II
As a war winds down, with victory in sight, no one wants to be the last one killed. As a rule, participants tend to become somewhat cautious or reluctant to put their lives on the line. Not so in this particular instance.
In this book, author Stephen Harding not only chronicles the last American killed in combat in World War II but incorporates his story with that of the mechanically troubled aircraft that he flew at the time of his death along with a more detailed account of the “palace revolt” by the Japanese military against Emperor Hirohito’s decision to surrender and finally end the war. In effect, there are three threads to this story woven to constitute the whole.
Harding recounts the short life story of 20-year-old Sergeant Anthony Marchione of Pottstown, PA, and his resultant tragic rendezvous with destiny in the skies over Japan after the ostensible Japanese agreement, in mid-August, 1945, to a ceasefire and the terms of the Potsdam Declaration of the previous month.
In spite of Hirohito’s decision and stand down orders to the military, a few diehards refused to submit and, essentially, committed mutiny by attacking overflying American aircraft on photo-reconnaissance missions to locate airfields, other facilities and infrastructure prior to the arrival of occupation forces. It was during one of these missions that Marchione was killed, a mission for which he had volunteered and on which two fellow crewmen were wounded.
Although the reconnaissance aircraft were armed, they suffered from various mechanical and technical problems. The B-32 Dominator, a new type of heavy bomber, was being tested in combat as a possible replacement for the well-known but also initially trouble plagued B-29 Superfortress. Inclusion in this story brings to light its little known participation in the Pacific theater of operations.
In spite of the known attempted coup by the military to prevent Japan’s surrender, most of what has been publicized about it for the edification of the public barely touches more than the basics of the attempt to take over the Imperial Palace and confiscate the Emperor’s surrender recording prior to broadcast. Here, Harding has more than gone through the motions to detail what really happened behind the scenes.
He highlights and specifies all of the participants and the intrigues and machinations of their conspiracy which could have easily reignited the war and put many more Americans and Japanese in harm’s way. As it was, Japanese resistance to the two reconnaissance missions, resulting in Marchione’s death in the second, nearly did just that. To his credit, Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur stayed his hand and refused to order renewed strikes against Japan.
Marchione’s death, of course, devastated his family and their decision to bring him “home,” and the eventual postwar repatriation of his remains to the United States is recounted. He rests now in his hometown church cemetery, a tragic footnote in United States history.
To a certain extent, this event has been a kind of labor of love for the author although his earlier writings focused on the B-32 and its mission and not Marchione. Only in the last several years has he concentrated on telling the young man’s story.
The assistance of many was required to tell this tale. Sources include audio interviews with surviving crew and family members and the use of their letters and papers, official documents from the National Archives, and a variety of books, monographs, and magazine and journal articles.
Also included are two maps in the front of the book, showing Japan and the greater Tokyo area around which the missions in question took place, respectively, and a varied photographic section concentrating on Marchione, his family, his gravesites on Okinawa and in Pottstown, his fellow crew, and other personages mentioned as well as the aircraft featured, including the B-32 and Japanese fighter types which took part.
This is not only an interesting story from the aspect of the B-32’s participation in World War II and the specifics of Japan’s near continuation of the war but also the bravery and valor necessary for a young man to carry out his duty to the last, even if it results in death. Anthony Marchione’s example deserves this emphasis so that all may define and better understand the meaning of sacrifice.