A chat with William Toti
BACKSTORY | On lessons about unrighteousness learned amid a righteous war
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We like to print fun facts about our writers in this space. Here’s one about our cover story writer, Capt. Bill Toti: At last count he’d spent more than four years of his life underwater.
I met Toti, a retired Navy submariner, in the course of co-authoring (with my friend Sara Vladic) a book about the World War II heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis. I think of Toti as a man of parts. He’s skippered a nuclear submarine, commanded a sub squadron, and executed classified missions he can’t talk about for the rest of his life. In 2000, he helped complete the 55-year fight to exonerate Charles B. McVay III, who was wrongfully court-martialed for Indy’s sinking in 1945. On 9/11, he helped pull survivors from the burning wreckage of the Pentagon.
Today, one of Toti’s passions is helping Americans remember World War II—both the heroic moments and the lessons learned. I asked him why:
Of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, only 1 percent are still living. Why is it so important to remember these veterans in particular? World War II was the worst conflict in the history of the world. Over 40 million people died globally, including about 400,000 Americans. The casualty rates in recent wars were unacceptable, but those who joined up during World War II understood there was a fairly good chance they weren’t coming home. I’ve known dozens of the heroes who did come home, and a message I heard from them over and over was, “Learn from our sacrifice.”
You write that Gen. MacArthur, Adm. Halsey, and Gen. LeMay made egregious mistakes. Why is that important now? History gets a vote, and history is judged globally—not just by Americans. Immediately following any event, personal histories are often hagiography. We often bury hard lessons in the glow of success, particularly in the military. Sometimes this leads not to truth but mythology, and future historians then have to “rediscover” what we really knew all along, but wouldn’t talk about. I believe the conduct of the leaders I discussed diminished the morality of our victory, taking us from a place where we were fighting a righteous war, to one where some can argue that we killed innocent civilians with abandon and even relish. We may not be far from another terrible war in the Pacific, so it’s critical that we study everything we can about the last war to ferret out terrible mistakes we must not repeat.
Your wife’s family was involved in the war, right? Yes. My wife is Korean, and her father was brought to Japan in the 1930s as a teenager. His description of the horrors of war provided a perspective for me I would not have otherwise received. It very much cemented my opinion that the Japanese perpetrated evil acts on their enemies and slave states—hence the U.S. response was righteous. But his descriptions also highlighted for me that not every American act in support of the war was equally righteous.
You’ve launched a WWII podcast. Tell us about that. It’s called The Unauthorized History of the Pacific War. My partner, former National World War II Museum historian Seth Paridon, is unique in that he did most of the video interviews of World War II survivors when he was working at the National Museum. That means he came to know personally many of the veterans we talk about. My contribution to the podcast is looking at the war from the point of view of a Pacific strategist, since I spent most of my adult life in the Pacific sailing those same seas.
—WORLD has updated this column to clarify the percentage of U.S. WWII veterans who are still living.
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