Veteran recalls war 60 years later

Above, George McLean (far left) attends a World War II veterans discussion in 2003.

George Wallace McLean fought in the European and Pacfic conflicts of World War II. He was able to see his brother in the Pacific, shortly before he was killed in battle.

By Jonathan Friedman/ Assistant Editor

George Wallace McLean was aboard the USS Pontus in the Pacific Ocean on Aug. 14, 1945 when it was officially announced that Japan had surrendered to Allied forces. Two months later he would return to the United States after serving in the Navy for more than six years. During his time, McLean fought in the European and Pacific conflicts of World War II.

McLean, who is now an 84-year-old man living in Malibu with his wife of 58 years, Heidi, joined the Navy in May 1939. He said at that time he had no idea the world was on the brink of war. Then on Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and World War II officially began. Although it would be more than two years before the United States would be dragged into the conflict, the nation was on alert and McLean was sent onto naval ships to participate in various missions.

In the summer of 1940 as France fell to the Nazis, McLean was aboard a ship that went to Spain to pick up American refugees who had come there from the conquered nation. He later went to the Panama Canal and was there on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

McLean spent the first few years of the war traveling back and forth through the Panama Canal, battling with German submarines at both ends. He was transferred to the USS Orestes in 1944, which traveled to the Pacific Ocean. McLean’s job was to restock the ship. He had to go onto the islands to get the supplies, often having to walk through mud. This caused a fungus to develop on his legs.

“I had no skin from the knees down, it was just raw meat,” McLean said.

Joy came in war for McLean in December when the ship on which his brother, Donald, was stationed came near his. McLean had not seen his older brother in four years and was granted permission to visit him. When he reached his brother’s ship, the Japanese had begun an attack. He quickly found his brother at his battle station, but could not disturb him as he watched him from behind.

“I just stood there for half an hour,” McLean said. “He then turned around and there I was. It was just a nice thing.”

The brothers sat and spoke for two hours. Donald McLean, a lifetime Navy officer, would be killed two months later at age 26 in battle, so it was the last time George McLean ever saw him. He remembers the conversation vividly.

“He [Donald McLean] had been here to Malibu to see my folks on leave,” McLean said. “He loved Malibu. He said, ‘When I retire, I’m going to retire to Malibu and open an electrician shop.’ He had it all figured out what he was going to do.”

Later that month, McLean experienced his most frightening few days of the war. On Dec. 30, the soldiers aboard the Orestes were awoken by an alarm to go to their battle stations. McLean said when he reached his station, he saw a Japanese bomber headed toward the ship. All the ships in the area fired at it. By the time it reached the Orestes, it was a ball of fire. It hit the ship about 30 feet from McLean.The plane contained a 500-pound bomb that went straight up the inside of the ship. It instantly killed 50 men located in one area.

The men aboard the Orestes were ordered to abandon the ship. McLean jumped off and began swimming. He was eventually picked up by a cargo ship. McLean was carried to the island of Mindoro with nothing on him but a pair of shorts and a belt with a knife. The Japanese later attacked the men on the island. And the same thing happened the next day. McLean said he was lucky to survive the ordeal as many men were killed.

After spending two weeks in sickbay healing his legs, McLean was eventually transferred to the USS Pontus. There he remained until October.

Japan’s surrender on Aug. 10 (it was announced to the public four days later) came at the conclusion of a five-day period that will forever remain one of intense debate. On Aug. 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people. Despite the urging of Emperor Hirohito to surrender, the Japanese War Council refused. On Aug. 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Japanese-ruled Manchuria in China. The next day, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing more than 60,000. The Japanese War Council finally agreed to surrender, although some of its members were against it, with one committing suicide rather than see his nation give up.

Many people have suggested the atomic bombings were unnecessary and that Japan was going to surrender once the Soviet Union attacked or the empire would have given up if the United States had simply demonstrated the power of the bomb. But McLean said the bombings were necessary because Japan was not going to surrender otherwise.

“I think had [President Harry] Truman not dropped the atomic bombs, we would have all been killed,” McLean said. “The battle for Japan would have been millions [of lives lost]. It would have been just horrible.”

After the war, McLean came to Malibu where his mother moved from Massachusetts. His father had died while he was away. McLean then went to school, where he met his wife. He later earned an accounting degree and has had jobs with various companies in that field. The McLeans have five children, 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.