Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Trouble I've Seen: The Nils Andersen Story



Sculptor Nils Andersen's story has never been told in detail. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, he later moved with his family to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, where he attended public schools. Quitting high school at 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. After basic training, Andersen shipped out to Guadalcanal, where he joined the newly activated 6th Marine Division training for the invasion of Okinawa.

Sixty miles long and 18 miles across at its widest point, Okinawa is barely a third the size of Rhode Island. The contest for possession of this tiny island was the final battle of the war, the last before the dawning of the atomic age. Mounting the invasion was the U.S. Tenth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. Jr. A Kentuckian, he was the son of the Confederate general of the same name, best known for accepting the humiliating terms of unconditional surrender of Fort Donelson demanded by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1862.

A traditional "by-the-book" commander, Buckner vetoed suggestions that the Japanese could also be attacked from the rear in a surprise landing at the southern end of the island. He preferred to slug it out against the strong Japanese defensive positions. Code-named "Operation Iceberg," one of the largest armadas in history was assembled, including more than 40 carriers, 10 battleships, 12 cruisers, 23 destroyers and hundreds of other vessels--transports, submarines, minesweepers and auxiliary vessels. Approximately 182,000 troops--75,000 more than were landed on Normandy on D-Day the previous June--were poised to climb down the cargo nets into assault craft.

The shelling and aerial bombing went on for six days so that Okinawa would not become a repetition of the hard-fought landing on Iwo Jima, which had only three days of softening up. L-Day (Landing Day) was set for Easter Sunday, chosen because it was a religious holiday and thus an unlikely day on which to stage a landing. It was also April Fool's Day.

The Battle is Joined
The landing on April 1, 1945, met almost no resistance. The reason was simple. Japanese Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima had decided not to defend the beaches. Instead, he had concentrated on fortifying the southern end of the island, holing up in caves in hard coral outcrops and in camouflaged bunkers. The only solution for American troops was to use flamethrowers, satchel charges of explosives and grenades to root them out--a slow and costly process.

U.S. plans had called for the entire island to be in American hands by the end of April. Ushijima had been the commandant of the Japanese Military Academy. Buckner had been the commandant of cadets at West Point. It would be a contest between two textbook generals.
As a result of the bitter fighting, however, it took almost three months of close combat before the last bastion of Japanese resistance was overcome. Not until June 22nd were the Stars and Stripes raised at the southern end of the island.

After landing, Andersen's outfit, the Sixth Marine Division wheeled to the north, while the First Marine Division cut directly across the island. Soon the Marines had control of the entire northern part of the island. In the south, the Army divisions, the 7th and 96th, later joined by the 27th Division, encountered successive lines of Japanese defense. The Sixth Marine Division, was ordered south. Its objective was a hill called Sugar Loaf. Here, back-and-forth mortal combat at close quarters was so customary it soon became known as "the Meatgrinder." Uncommon valor was common, and boys became men overnight.

Long before the battle ended, controversy swirled around General Buckner. The slow progress made against Japanese troops concealed in caves and bunkers and the high number of casualties attracted attention back home. On June 4, columnist David Lawrence wrote, "Why is the truth about the military fiasco at Okinawa being hushed up?" He called the Okinawa campaign "a worse example of military incompetence than Pearl Harbor." Indeed, the severe losses in ships and men were far greater than in that debacle. In a series of articles, New York Herald Tribune war correspondent Homer Bigart was highly critical of Buckner for vetoing a second amphibious landing behind the Japanese lines. Using a football analogy, Bigart wrote, "Instead of an end run, we went down the middle of the line."

Questionable Tactics
Gen. Douglas MacArthur also weighed in against Buckner's tactics. Boldly using air power and sea power, MacArthur had started the long trek back to the Philippines from Australia by brilliantly leapfrogging Japanese units, leaving them to starve and wither on the vine. He accused the commanders on Okinawa of unnecessarily "sacrificing thousands of American soldiers." MacArthur pointed out that the territory already taken in the central and northern parts of the island provided airfields, anchorages and sufficient open areas to mobilize troops for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Having pushed Japanese forces into the southern part of the island, they could have easily been contained there. Any forays they may have attempted would surely have resulted in fewer American casualties than Buckner's adamant head-on approach.

Buckner himself died toward the end of the campaign, the highest-ranking U.S. officer killed by enemy fire during combat on Okinawa. In the land battle, U.S. losses totaled more than 48,000 casualties, including over 12,000 killed or missing in action. U.S. forces suffered their highest casualty rate from combat stress (48%). The Navy reported 36 ships sunk in kamikaze suicide attacks, 368 damaged, 763 aircraft lost, 4,907 seamen killed or missing, and another 4,874 wounded. This was the highest total of American casualties experienced in any campaign against the Japanese. Japanese losses were even higher and more grievous--a total of 107,599 dead, with 27,764 sealed in caves and 10,755 taken prisoner. Many of this number were Okinawan civilians caught up in the fighting.

Okinawa was a prefecture of Japan, the first part of Japan proper to be invaded. The battle for Okinawa was widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for what could be expected in an invasion of the home islands, where the role of kamikazes was to be paramount. There is no doubt that stubborn Japanese resistance on Okinawa plus the massive American casualty figures played a role in the decision of President Harry S. Truman two months later to employ atomic weapons against Japan.

Home from the War
Andersen returned to Brooklyn after the war. Physically uninjured in the bloody battle for Okinawa, he could not suppress his memories of the interminable artillery shelling and mortar fire, the screams of the wounded, the bloated bodies and mangled body parts of the dead, and the fighting at close quarters that went on beyond human endurance. He married, fathered two daughters and became a carpenter. He also became an alcoholic, never understanding the demons that caused him to seek solace in a bottle. His descent into his personal hell was swift. After he abandoned his family, his wife filed for divorce. Before long, he was part of the anonymous army of homeless living on the city's streets or in shelters.

At the time of the First World War, his condition would have come under the rubric of "shell shock." In World War II and the Korean War, it would have been attributed to "battle fatigue." With the Vietnam War it became "post-traumatic stress disorder." Despite variations in terminology, they are all essentially the same malady. In 1986, at the age of 60, Nils Andersen found his way to the Montrose Veterans Administration hospital. Named for the president who had guided the nation through four years of war, this hospital specialized in long-term psychiatric care and offered programs for veterans suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.

History of the Sculptures
As an outpatient, Andersen came to the attention of therapist Florence Quillinan. As part of his therapy, she encouraged him to release his repressed emotions by making a series of clay masks. These led to the eleven busts of servicemen and servicewomen, now permanently exhibited in the hospital's sculpture garden. Andersen attended state conventions of the major veterans organizations with his sculptures in 1987 hoping to attract financial support for casting them in metal. His efforts were unsuccessful. Help would come from an unexpected source: the estate of an 89-year-old veteran who never knew Nils Andersen. Kathryn Poland, a World War I captain in the Army Nurse Corps, died in the Montrose hospital in 1983 without heirs, leaving an estate of $36,700. It paid a portion of the cost of casting the sculptures.

The first ten sculptures were cast in bronze in 1988 at Tallix, Inc., in Beacon, N.Y. For many years, the Tallix foundry was located on Center Dock in Peekskill, N.Y., occupying a former coal storage shed. Landscape architect Henry H. Liede, of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., generously volunteered to design the sculpture garden. It was dedicated on May 25, 1989, dubbed "Nils Andersen Day." A proud Andersen, Marine Corps brass, hospital officials and hundreds of veterans were present.

An eleventh bust depicting a Desert Storm soldier, the first in the Hudson Valley to honor veterans of the Gulf War, was completed by Andersen shortly before he entered the hospital in 1992 for complications of diabetes. This sculpture, portraying a helmeted and goggled Desert Storm warrior, was cast at the Argos Art Foundry in Brewster, N.Y., and added to the garden in early 1993.

Final Days
Andersen maintained a studio in Ossining, N.Y., at 20 Everett Avenue, where he created other sculptures. A bust of Gen. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, is displayed in a New York City Salvation Army shelter Andersen had once called home. The Montrose hospital also has in storage three unforgettable Andersen statues of homeless men. These await some benefactor who will underwrite the cost of casting them in metal.

At the end of his life, Nils Andersen was nearly blind; his years of alcoholism had also left him with diabetes. He died on August 2, 1993, in the Bronx (N.Y.) Veterans Affairs Medical Center, three weeks after his 67th birthday. He is buried among other veterans in Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island. Paradoxically, in the last seven years of his troubled life, he had found his true calling in art.

A Clouded Future
The story of the Montrose sculpture garden does not end here. A new and longer war is still in progress, churning out tens of thousands of wounded and mentally troubled veterans. Headed by a president and vice president who both dodged the Vietnam War, yet subjected the country to phony lectures on patriotism, the Bush administration exhibited its characteristic lack of concern for those of us who served. Despite having created tens of thousands of Iraq War veterans needing specialized care, the Bush administration pushed forward with its plans to dispose of the Montrose facility. The sculpture garden's fate remains unclear to this day.

There's one small consolation, a sort of insurance against the total disappearance of Nils Andersen's remarkable legacy. A second set of casts from the eleven original sculptures was made. These are on display at the Westchester County Veterans Museum in Somers, N.Y. Because veterans of the War of 1812 had not been recognized in Andersen's series, Westchester Chapter 49 of the Vietnam Veterans of America researched the uniforms of that period and commissioned an additional bust in the style of Nils Andersen. The twelve bronze busts now line the Museum's Trail of Honor.

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