A Lost Victory in the Pacific

This newspaper appears on newsstands on June 6; like Dec. 7,

it is a date that some of us assume every fresh-faced school child associates

with the war from which there is no escape. Even if the schools believe that

this kind of knowledge is not helpful in the self-esteem-building process, the

kids could hardly not know something about both dates. After all, June 6 and

Dec. 7 are celebrated in movie blockbusters starring the grandchildren of that generation-you know the one. June

6 has its Saving Private Ryan ; Dec. 7

now has its Pearl Harbor. Somewhere

in the last 20 years, we forgot about V-E Day and V-J Day. Those days are for

fogies, young and old, who don’t necessarily learn history from Hollywood.

Memorial Day (a barbecue-and-beach holiday originally set

aside for the decorating of soldiers’ graves) brought the predictable plethora

of World War II programming on the tube, a staple of which was the shot of the

bowed and graying veteran revisiting the battlefields of his youth: Normandy

and Anzio; Iwo Jima and Okinawa-peaceful places now. Interspersed with these bittersweet

images were black-and-white clips of the fighting and the dying from so long

ago.

The message was pretty clear. Because of these bowed and

graying men, because of the horror they endured, children laugh as they run

along the sands of Northern France; couples share romantic dinners along the

Italian coast; and an economic colossus has risen along the Pacific Rim. That

is, of course, the moral of the World War II literature-America’s citizen

soldiers, and their allies (the wise-cracking tommy; the dour Russian; the

haughty Resistance fighter), fought, suffered and died to liberate humankind

from oppression.

Like most other Americans, I believe in and indeed cherish

that story, that legacy of sacrifice. And that may explain why I find the story

of Saipan so appalling-the antithesis o f the story of the good war and its

soldiers of liberation.

The Marines landed on Saipan on June 15, 1944. By the time

they secured the island, 22,000 of Saipan’s32,000 Japanese defenders were dead,

and about 4,000 were missing. Fewer than 2,000 were taken prisoner. About 3,000

Marines died and another 10,000 were wounded in some of the most desperate

fighting of the war. The Battle of Saipan was overshadowed by the gigantic

events underway in Normandy, but it was a pivotal moment in the Pacific war.

Americans saw what they would face for the remainder of the conflict-suicidal

Japanese defenders, sometimes charging Marine positions with handmade spears.

Admiral Nagumo, who directed the attack on Pearl Harbor, committed suicide to

inspire his troops to do the same; after the battle, Japanese Prime Minister

Tojo resigned.

Saipan today is at peace, but perhaps next Memorial Day some

creative television producer will invite a Marine back to the battlefield. What

he will see will shock him, and perhaps inspire some decidedly unsentimental

reflections. Saipan is an island sweatshop, a place where, were it not for

liberators of another sort-those much-ridiculed anti-globalists-workers still

would be held in virtual slavery on behalf of some of America’s most famous

fashion labels.

Until sweatshop monitors sued the island’s garment industry,

the liberated people of Saipan were among the most exploited workers in the

Pacific Rim. This may sound like a variation on a theme: tinpot South Pacific

dictator and crony capitalists colluding in the oppression of the citizenry,

while reaping enormous profits to be spent on golf courses, yachts and shoes.

The problem with this formula is that Saipan is an American territory, freed by

the blood of U.S. Marines, answerable to the Labor Department and various other

bureaucracies charged with the well-being of workers of the several states.

Among the conditions on Saipan cited in the anti-sweatshop

movement’s lawsuit were unsanitary company housing; 12-hour work days, seven

days a week; illegal union-busting; and recruitment contracts that made

employees virtual indentured servants of their employers. And because Saipan is

an American territory, garments made under these conditions carry a “Made in the

U.S.A.” label.

Since the lawsuits were filed and the public began paying

attention to Saipan, more than a dozen companies, including Calvin Klein Inc.,

Donna Karan International Inc., J. Crew Group Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A.

Inc., have settled without admitting wrongdoing. But other brand-name companies

have not, and sweatshop monitors continue to press their case.

The Marines of 1944 stormed the beaches of Saipan to

liberate the island from oppression, not to make it safe for unscrupulous

haberdashers. One wonders if a Marine returning to Saipan would get misty-eyed;

more likely, he would become enraged.

Not something we’re likely to see as part of the next

Greatest Generation celebration.