The “Good War” (1941-1945). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

The “Good War” (1941-1945). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

Early defeats.

Turning points: victory in North Africa and at Midway.

Collapse of Germany.

Use of the atomic bomb against Japan.

 

When America had entered World War I, it rushed to mobilize forces for a European war. Now, even as Europe was being overrun by Nazi Germany, Japan had struck directly at United States territory (Hawaii did not become a state until 1959). Preparations for war were even more urgent in 1941. than they had been in 1917, and the blow at Pearl Harbor was just one of many Japanese assaults. Japanese forces attacked Wake Island and Guam (both U.S. possessions), British Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines (at the time a U.S. commonwealth territory). The U.S. garrison on Guam was overwhelmed and surrendered. On Wake Island, Marines repelled a first Japanese attack but yielded to a second. Britain’s crown colony of Hong Kong collapsed, soon followed by Singapore (another British possession), and then the Dutch East Indies. Burma likewise fell, despite the efforts of Claire L. Chennault (1890-1958), a former U.S. Army Air Service officer and now air adviser to China’s premier Chiang Kai-Shek. Chennault led his famous Flying Tigers—a small force of U.S.-made Curtiss P-40 fighter planes—in crippling action against the enemy’s aircraft.

For the United States, as for the rest of the formerly “free” world, the opening years of World War II were humiliating, dismal, and terrifying.

I Shall Return. The hardest blow in the Pacific came in the Philippines, where General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), commanding 55,000 Filipinos and Americans, made a heroic stand on the Bataan Peninsula, but at last, in February 1942, was ordered to escape to Australia to assume command of the Allied forces in the southwestern Pacific. Regretfully, MacArthur left his troops to their fate. “I shall return,” he pledged—but it would take until 1944 for the Allies to put him into a position to redeem that pledge.

Under Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright, the Filipino-American forces held out until May 6, 1942, when they surrendered and were subject to unspeakable brutality at the hands of Japanese captors.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Desperate for a counterstrike against Japan, the Army Air Force approved the plan of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (1896-1993) to take 16 B-25s aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet and launch, on April 18, 1942, a surprise bombing raid on Tokyo. This attack was the closest thing to a deliberate suicide mission American military personnel ever undertook during the war. Everyone well knew that the twin-engine bombers could not carry sufficient fuel to return to any American base. Even if they had had enough fuel capacity to return to the Hornet, the bombers, not designed for carrier flight, would have been unable to land. The plan was to ditch the planes in China, find safe haven among Chinese resistance fighters, and somehow, find a way to return home. Miraculously, most of the bomber crews were, in fact, rescued, and while the damage to Tokyo was minor, the psychological effect was great. The attack shocked the Japanese, who were forced to tie up more fighter aircraft at home, and American morale was given a terrific boost.

Home Front. for all its horror, World War 11 is recalled by many Americans as an almost magical time, when the nation united with single-minded purpose in a cause both desperate and just—a struggle, quite literally, of good against evil. Everyone pitched in to produce the materials of war, and women joined the work force in unprecedented numbers as the men were inducted into the armed forces.

Activity on the home front also had an ugly side. On February 19, 1942, responding to pressure from West Coast politicians, FDR signed Executive Order 9066. The order required all Japanese-Americans living within 200 miles of the Pacific shores—citizens and resident aliens alike—to report for relocation in internment camps located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. Military officials feared sabotage, but non-Japanese farmers in the region feared competition even more and were eager to get rid of their Japanese-American neighbors.

Afrika Korps. In 1941, Northern Africa was held by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), known as the “Desert Fox,” whose Afrika Korps was seemingly invincible. The British and Americans agreed to conduct a North African campaign, defeat the Germans there, and then attack what Britain’s great wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe.” Forces under British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and American generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton decisively defeated the Germans and Italians in North Africa by May 1943, and an Italian invasion was launched.

Coral Sea and Midway. While the Germans began to lose to their grip on Africa, U.S. forces also started to turn the tide in the Pacific. During May 3-9, 1942, the navy sunk or disabled more than 25 Japanese ships, blocking Japan’s extension to the south and preventing the Japanese from severing supply lines to Australia. However, the Japanese soon returned to the offensive by attacking the island of Midway, some 1,100 miles northwest of Hawaii. Marshalling a task force of 200 ships and 600 planes, the Japanese counted on the element of surprise to achieve a rapid victory. But, unknown to them, American intelligence officers had broken Japanese codes, and the navy had advance warning of the task force.

The battle commenced on June 3, 1942, and U.S. aircraft, launched from the Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise, sank four Japanese carriers. Reeling from this blow, the Imperial Navy withdrew their fleet, but the Americans gave chase, sinking or disabling two heavy cruisers and three destroyers, as well as destroying 322 planes. Although the U.S. Navy took heavy losses—the carrier Yorktown, a destroyer, and 147 aircraft—Midway Island remained in American hands, and the Japanese were never able to resume the offensive in the Pacific.

Island Hopping. After suffering defeat at Midway, the Japanese turned their attention to mounting a fullscale assault on Australia. They began by constructing an airstrip on Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. In response, on August 7, 1942, a U.S. task force landed Marines at Guadalcanal, where the Japanese resisted for six months. Guadalcanal was the beginning of a U.S. strategy of “island hopping”: a plan to take or retake all Japanese-held islands, thereby gradually closing in on the Japanese mainland itself. The campaign promised to be a very long haul. Guadalcanal, having taken six hellish months to conquer, was fully 3,000 miles from Tokyo.

The next step was to neutralize the major Japanese air and naval base at Rabaul, on the eastern tip of New Britain Island, just east of New Guinea. Under General MacArthur, U.S. and Australian troops attacked through the Solomons and New Guinea. When the Japanese rushed to reinforce their position on the islands of Lae and Salamaua, on March 3-4, 1943, U.S. B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses attacked troop transports and their naval escorts with devastating results. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea cost the Japanese 3,500 men; the Allies lost only five planes. The defeat was a severe blow to the Japanese presence in the southwest Pacific. By the end of 1943, Rabaul had been neutralized, severing some 100,000 Japanese from any hope of supply, support, or reinforcement.

In the central Pacific, U.S. forces moved against Tarawa and Makin islands. Makin quickly fell, but Tarawa was defended by veteran Japanese jungle fighters, and the battle, begun on November 20, 1943, was extraordinarily costly to both sides.

Mediterranean Shores. By mid-May 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to postpone crossing the English Channel to invade France until the “soft underbelly” of Europe had been penetrated via an invasion of Sicily from North Africa. On July 9-10, 1943, British and American forces landed in Sicily, and the Italian army crumbled before them. German resistance was a different matter, however, and costly fighting ensued. The invasion of Sicily culminated in the fall of Messina to the Allies on August 17, 1943.

By this time, Benito Mussolini had been overthrown (July 25, 1943) and was saved from arrest only by a German rescue mission. The Italian government, now under Marshal Pietro Badoglio (1871-1956), made secret peace overtures to the Allies while the Germans dug in on the Italian peninsula and awaited an invasion.

On September 3, 1943, British and U.S. forces left Messina and landed on the toe of the Italian boot. The Fifth U.S. Army, under General Mark W. Clark (1896-1984), landed at Salerno, and within a month southern Italy fell to the Allies. The Germans evacuated the key city of Naples on October I but then greatly stiffened their resistance, struggling to hold After Badoglio’s government signed an armistice with the Allies and, on October 13, declared war on Germany, Hitler installed Mussolini as head of a puppet regime in northern Italy.

For the balance of 1943, the Allied armies in Italy were stalemated. On January 22, 1944, 50,000 U.S. troops landed at Anzio, just 33 miles south of Rome, but were pinned down by German forces. Not until June 4, 1944, did Rome fall to the Allies. From this point on, the Germans steadily retreated northward. On April 28, 1945, Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were captured by Italian anti-Fascists, then shot and hung by the heels in a Milanese public square.

The Beaches of France. Although U.S. forces entered Europe through Italy, fighting on the continent was more widespread. The Soviets, who suffered the heaviest casualties of the war and who had been devastated by a surprise German invasion begun on June 22, 1941, were fighting back with a vengeance. The Battle of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd), fought from July 17 to November 18, 1942, resulted in the loss of 750,000 Soviet troops, but also 850,000 Nazis. This battle turned the grim tide of warfare on the Eastern Front. In the meantime, British Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers and U.S. Army Air Corps bombers pummeled industrial targets throughout Germany. At sea, the Battle of the Atlantic had raged since early 1942. From January to June, German U-boats sunk three million tons of U.S. shipping. However, the development of longer-range aircraft and more advanced radar systems led to effective defenses against U-boats, and by the spring of 1943, the U-boat threat had been greatly reduced.

With pressure applied from the south, from the east, from the air, and at sea, the time was at last right for a major Allied thrust from the west: a full-scale assault on what Hitler liked to call “Fortress Europe.” For this offensive, the Allies mounted in Britain the largest and most powerful invasion force in history. Officially christened Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy became popularly known by the military designation of the day of its commencement: D-Day, June 6, 1944.

U.S. General Dwight David Eisenhower was in command of the high—stakes operation, which—astoundingly-caught the Germans off guard. True, the Germans expected an invasion—but not at Normandy. Through an elaborate program of deception and disinformation, the Allies had led the Germans to believe that the invasion would come at Calais. Nevertheless, German resistance was stiff, but the Allies prevailed and on August 15, 1944, launched a second invasion of France, this time in the South between Toulon and Cannes. The objective was to trap German forces within the laws of a giant pincers. On August 25, Paris—beloved capital of France, in German hands since 1940—fell to the Allies.

To Berlin and Victory in Europe. From France, the Allies launched an invasion into the German homeland itself. By early September, British forces liberated Brussels, Belgium, and American troops crossed the German frontier at Eupen. On October 21, the U.S. First Army captured Aachen—the first German city to fall to the Allies.

The Germans had lost the war. At least, that is how any rational leader would have viewed it. But Adolf Hitler was no longer rational—if he ever had been. Hitler ordered his soldiers to fight to the last man, and he reinforced his thinning lines with underage boys and overage men. Although the Germans continued to retreat, resistance was always fierce. Then, on December 16, 1944, General Gerd von Rundstedt (1875-1953) led a desperate counteroffensive, driving a wedge into Allied lines through the Ardennes on the Franco-Belgian frontier. With German forces distending the Allied line westward, the ensuing combat was called the Battle of the Bulge. The U.S. First and Third armies—the latter led brilliantly by General George S. Patton (1885-1945)—pushed back the bulge, which was wholly contained by January 1945. The battle was the last great German offensive, and it was Germany’s last chance to stop the Allies’ advance into its homeland.

Toward V-E Day. During February 1945, General Patton sped his armored units to the Rhine River and, after clearing the west bank, captured the bridge at Remagen, near Cologne, on March 7. Allied forces crossed this bridge and at other points along the Rhine, and were now poised to make a run for Berlin. However, General Eisenhower, believing Hitler would make his last stand in the German south, chose to head for Leipzig. With U.S. troops just 96 miles west of Berlin, the Supreme Allied Commander sent a message to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, telling him that he was leaving the German capital to the Red Army.

While the British and Americans had been closing in from the West, the Soviets had executed a massive assault on the German’s Eastern Front. By the end of January, the Red Army had pushed through Poland into Germany itself. In truth, little was left of Berlin. A combination of U.S. and British air power and Soviet artillery had razed the capital of Hitler’s vaunted “Thousand-Year Reich.” On April 16, 1945, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov moved his troops into Berlin. Many German soldiers and civilians, terrified of the vengeance the Soviets might exact, fled westward to surrender to the Americans and the British.

Indeed, Germans could have found few places of refuge in the spring of 1945, for the entire world was learning of war crimes committed on an unimaginably vast scale. In their drive toward Berlin, the Allies liberated one Nazi concentration camp after another—centers of extermination to which Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and others deemed by the Reich as “undesirable” had been sent for extermination. Such names as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau seared themselves into history. The Nazis bad not been content with conquest; they intended nothing less than genocide.

Westbound Soviet and eastbound American troops met at the river Elbe on April 25, 1945. Five days later, Adolf Hitler, holed up in a bunker beneath the shattered streets of Berlin, shot himself. On May 7, 1945, senior representatives of Germany’s armed forces surrendered to the Allies at General Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims. The very next day came a formal unconditional surrender. From the pages of American newspapers, headlines shouted the arrival of V-E—Victory in Europe—Day.

Fat Man and Little Boy. German scientists discovered the possibility of nuclear fission—a process whereby the tremendous energy of the atom might be liberated—in 1938. Fortunately for the world, Hitler’s tyranny drove many of Germany’s best thinkers out of the country, and the nation’s efforts to exploit fission in a weapon came to nothing. Three Hungarian-born American physicists—Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Edward Teller—were all intimately familiar with what a man like Hitler could do. They asked America’s single most prestigious physicist, Albert Einstein (a fugitive from Nazi persecution), to write a letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of Germany’s nuclear weapons research.

Late in 1939, FDR authorized the atomic bomb development program that became known as the Manhattan Project. Under the military management of General Leslie R. Groves (1896-1970) and the scientific direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the program grew to vast proportions and employed the nation’s foremost scientific minds. A prototype bomb—called “the gadget” by the scientists—was completed in the summer of 1945 and was successfully detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.

At this time, the Allies were planning the final invasion of Japan, which, based on the bloody experience of “island hopping,” was expected to add perhaps a million more deaths to the Allied toll. President Truman therefore authorized the use of the terrible new weapon against Japan. On August 6, 1945, a lone B-29 bomber dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, obliterating the city in three-fifths of a second. Three days later, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki, destroying about half the city.

On August 10, the day after the attack on Nagasaki, Japan sued for peace on condition that the emperor be allowed to remain as sovereign ruler. On August 11, the Allies replied that they and they alone would determine the future of Emperor Hirohito. At last, on August 14, the emperor personally accepted the Allied terms. A cease-fire was declared on August 15, and on September 2, 1945, General MacArthur presided over the Japanese signing of the formal surrender document on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.

The Least You Need to Know. Never before or since World War II have Americans fought with such unanimity and singleness of purpose.

If ever a war was a contest of good versus evil, such was World War II, and America’s role in achieving victory elevated the nation to “superpower” status in the postwar political order.

Main Event. The Japanese military was guided by the code of the Samurai warrior, as ancient as it was harsh. To be killed in battle was an honor, but to be taken prisoner, a disgrace. Accordingly, the Japanese treated its prisoners of war as dishonored men. America learned this fact the hard way when U.S. and Filipino soldiers who surrendered at Corregidor on April 9, 1942, were sent on a forced march to captivity in Bataan. The infamous Bataan Death March resulted in the deaths of 10,000 P. 0 W. s because of abuse and starvation.

Voice from the Past. For many Americans, the most stirring voice of the war was that of a Britisher, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The man was so greatly admired in this country that, in 1963, Churchill was made an honorary citizen by act of Congress—a unique event in American history. His first address as prime minister was delivered on May 13, 1940:

“…I say to the House as I said to Ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

“You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs—victory in spite of all terrors—victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival…

Stats. The Japanese characteristically fought to the death. Of the 5,000 Japanese troops defending Tarawa, only 17 were taken prisoner when the island fell on November 26.

Stats. Approximately 5,000 Allied ships, 11,000 Allied aircraft, and more than 150,000 troops participated in the June 6 D-Day landing.

Real Life. Dwight David Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, was the single most powerful military figure in World War II.

After World War II, Eisenhower served briefly as army chief of staff, wrote a memoir of the war (the 1948 Crusade in Europe), and served as president of Columbia University. In December 1950, President Harry S Truman named him military commander of NATO. Two years later, Eisenhower was tapped by the Republican party as its presidential candidate. He served two terms as, quite possibly, the most popular president in American history. Retiring to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1961, Eisenhower wrote a series of books. He died in 1969.

Main Event. World War II was conducted with an unprecedented degree of cooperation among the Allies, whose leaders held several key strategic and political conferences during the conflict. One of the most important was the Yalta Conference, held from February 4 to February 11, 1945, in the Crimea. Here Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin planned the end of the war and laid a foundation for the postwar world. Stalin promised to establish provisional governments in the nations of eastern Europe now occupied by the Soviets, and he pledged to hold free, democratic elections as soon as possible.

The group agreed that the Soviet Union would annex eastern Poland and that Poland would be compensated by German war reparations. The conquered Germany would be divided into four zones of occupation, to be administered by the U.S., U.S.S.R., Britain, and France. Reluctant to enter the war against Japan, Stalin agreed that his nation would do so within three months of Germany’s surrender. In exchange, the U.S.S.R. would receive the southern half of Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Islands, and special rights in certain ports.

Stats. Civilian deaths in World War II exceeded 25 million, of whom 6 million were Jews systematically murdered by order of Adolf Hitler.

Main Event. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected to an unprecedented four terms as president of the United States and having seen his nation through the Depression and the blackest days of World War II, succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. Roosevelt was succeeded by his vice president, Harry S Truman (1884-1972). Truman attended the last wartime Allied conference at Potsdam, Germany, during July 17-August 2 with Churchill (who was replaced by his successor, Clement Attlee, during the conference) and Stalin.

The conference crystallized plans for the postwar world, confirming the four-zone division of Germany, establishing plans for de-Nazification and demilitarization, and establishing a tribunal to prosecute those guilty of war crimes and atrocities. resolved that nothing less than unconditional surrender would end the war against Japan. Truman also revealed at Potsdam that the United States had successfully tested an atomic bomb, which could be used against Japan.

 

Stats. Dropped on Hiroshima, with a population of about 300,000, “Little Boy” killed 78,000 people instantly; 10,000 more were never found; more than 70,000 were injured; and many subsequently died of radiation-related causes. Nagasaki, with a population of 250,000, instantly lost some 40,000 people when “Fat Man” was dropped. Another 40,000 were wounded.

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