Fighting World War II (1941–1945)


“Somebody gimme a cigarette!” shouted Private Eugene B. Sledge, an assistant mortar gunner in the 1st Marine Division at Peleliu. After crossing the beach, a fellow Marine in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, responded to his request. Corporal Merriell A. Shelton, who was nicknamed Snafu, teased him: “I toldja you'd start smokin', didn't I, Sledgehammer?” With the smell of burning flesh and exploding ordnance in their nostrils, a few Marines paused for a smoke during Operation Stalemate II on September 15, 1944.

As the Marines dashed inland, Company K encountered a Japanese corpse in the tangled thickets. Sledgehammer watched his comrades conduct a “field stripping,” that is, they plundered the enemy dead for souvenirs. From time to time, some even extracted gold-crowned teeth with their Ka-Bar knives.

After passing through the jungle, Company K formed a deep salient on the right flank of the entire division. Scattered along the edge of the thick scrub, they were isolated from other companies, nearly out of water, and low on ammunition. The Japanese counterattacked along the eastern shore, forcing them to assume a new position within the division line at the airfield. Beyond them loomed Bloody Nose Ridge, where the enemy's artillery covered nearly every yard from the beach to the airfield.

While Sledgehammer prepared for nightfall, artillery shells shrieked back and forth overhead. As small-arms and machine-gun fire rattled everywhere, he dug a gun pit to set up his 60mm mortar. Huge flares illuminated the darkness, revealing shadowy targets moving along the hard coral. The shelling produced thunderous explosions, while the ground quaked with fury. Fragments ripped through the air and struck limp and exhausted bodies. None but the dead were unshaken by the blasts. Those still alive anticipated abanzai charge, in which Japanese soldiers desperately hurled themselves into Marine foxholes. Throughout the night, their Ka-Bar knives remained within reach. While a few catnapped on the coral gravel, the sounds of the dueling cannons kept most awake.

Figure 12.1 Marine Private First Class Douglas Lightheart at Peleliu, September 14, 1944. Record Group 127: Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, 1775–9999, National Archives


Sledgehammer kept notes about that day inside a Gideon New Testament, which he carried in his breast pocket until World War II ended. Because only 26 of the original 235 men of Company K remained with the outfit, he called them “fugitives from the law of averages.” Numbering 16,459 before landing at Peleliu, his division counted 1,111 killed and wounded after its first day in action. The figure grew to 6,526, as fighting to secure the island continued for 10 weeks. Combined with the subsequent carnage at Okinawa, division losses reached 14,191. While preparing to storm the beaches of Japan's home islands, the Marines heard the news about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Sledgehammer noted an “indescribable sense of relief” at the final staging area, where he sat trying to imagine a world without war.

Almost everyone engaged in World War II became either a potential killer or a potential victim. With approximately 1 million American casualties between 1941 and 1945, exactly 292,131 combat deaths were recorded by U.S. forces in the theaters of operations. Another 115,185 died from other causes such as disease or accidents. About half of the American fatalities occurred in the European theater, while the rest died in the Pacific. No nation suffered more casualties than the Soviet Union, though. Accordingly, the Russians counted close to 26 million deaths. Worldwide, as many as 60 million people perished during the hostilities. According to some estimates, half of them were civilians. Over the course of 2,174 days, World War II claimed a life every 3 seconds.

World War II shook the American people loose from the Great Depression and flung them to the forefront of an armed conflict. To defeat the Axis Powers, the U.S. joined forces in a Grand Alliance with Great Britain as well as with the Soviet Union and Nationalist China. The Allies resorted to “total war,” which involved the mobilization of national resources, conscription of military personnel, domination of operational theaters, disregard for enemy noncombatants, and pursuit of unconditional surrender. They rolled back the tide of totalitarian aggression in Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, Americans in uniform seldom expressed their wartime experiences in the sweeping terms of human freedom. Instead, most of them fought for a band of brothers on the land, in the air, and at sea. In the end, they evinced a penchant for the quick, direct, and decisive actions that defined the American way of war.

War Machine

While amassing the arms, resources, and personnel to fight World War II, Americans enjoyed the benefits of both “guns and butter.” In the U.S., civilians did not experience firsthand the destructive effects of wartime production. Though hardships abounded, workers in munitions factories were neither bombed nor burned. The industrial heartland rested safely distant from the theaters of operations in Europe and Asia. Separated by oceans from the rest of suffering humanity, Americans remained insulated from the horrors of the war machine.

Once Americans joined the war effort, the financial cost to the U.S. reached $304 billion. Citizens ultimately paid a portion of the swollen budget through a withholding system, whereby employers deducted taxes directly from paychecks on behalf of the federal government. Tax rates for a few skyrocketed to 90 percent. Nevertheless, direct taxation funded only 45 percent of the military expenditures. The rest required financing through bonds, which amounted to nearly $200 billion. Individual bond-buyers purchased one-quarter of the amount, while banks and various financial institutions acquired the remainder. Although the national debt increased substantially, mobilization occurred without diminishing the American standard of living.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a hodgepodge of federal agencies to handle the logistical complexities of fighting the Axis Powers. Key agencies included the War Production Board, National War Labor Board, War Manpower Commission, Office of War Mobilization, and Office of Price Administration. They attempted to regulate the allocation of labor, to retool plants and facilities, to establish manufacturing quotas, and to fix wages, prices, and rents. Some mandated the rationing of items such as nylons, rubber, metals, gasoline, meat, butter, eggs, coffee, and tobacco. An imposing structure of bureaucracies and committees emerged in Washington D.C. to supervise the mobilization of civil society.

With few exceptions, central planners in Washington D.C. preferred to deal with familiar firms for the mobilization of industry. Amid a great deal of political bargaining, the profit motive spurred competition and expansion in a manner commensurate with free enterprise. However, the largest companies such as Ford, General Motors, U.S. Steel, General Electric, and DuPont obtained the lion's share of the defense contracts. In fact, more than two-thirds went to just 100 companies. Given the concentration of economic power in the U.S., the war made the nation's biggest, richest corporations considerably bigger and richer.

The actual contracting for the purchase of munitions and other war materials remained largely in the hands of the military establishment. The War Department and the Navy Department retained a degree of autonomy in controlling requirements for the planning, production, and distribution of military assets. The traditional bureaus such as the Army Service Forces, Army Air Forces, U.S. Maritime Commission, and Office of Procurement and Material refused to relinquish their negotiating authority to the civilians. Although the procurement system often failed to align strategic plans with nonmilitary concerns, most of the goals for mobilization were achieved without interruption.

Mobilization required the direct involvement of the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. Shortly before staff offices relocated to the Pentagon, the general urged Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to launch a major reorganization of the War Department. With the exception of the War Plans and Intelligence Divisions, the General Staff was reduced and limited in function to offering broad planning and policy guidance. The War Plans Division became known as the Operations Division, which served as the command post to coordinate large-scale campaigning. Marshall oversaw the training and the deployment of U.S. air and ground forces while exercising considerable influence over both strategic and operational planning.

While advising the Roosevelt administration, Marshall worked with senior officers across the services to form the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Given the significance of air power in shaping battlefields, he insisted on the participation of General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the deputy Chief of Staff and the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces. In addition, membership included Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations. Eventually, the commander-in-chief added his trusted friend, Admiral William D. Leahy, as the ad hoc chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

In the melding of power and interests, the Joint Chiefs took their cue from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, or CCS, of Great Britain and the U.S. Chaired by Marshall, the combined staff planners and secretariats offered administrative support for logistical and organizational imperatives. They agreed to strategic responsibilities that spanned the globe. Formally meeting during wartime conferences, they integrated the management of military operations for each geographic theater. Consequently, the high command determined the balance and the nationality of the armed forces deployed for combat.

The essential machinery for mobilizing the armed forces in the U.S. remained the Selective Service system, which inducted more than 10 million males out of a registrant pool of 36 million. The director, General Lewis B. Hershey, insisted on the appearance of local control and democratic participation through draft boards. According to classification, draft boards often excused from service individuals with medical defects deemed irrelevant by other nations that resorted to conscription. The list of “essential occupations” expanded from month to month, permitting the exemption of over 4 million men in industrial trades. Moreover, virtually all agricultural workers received exemptions from the draft. Compared with figures from World War I, college deferments doubled. Once Congress ended formal volunteering for the armed forces in 1942, draftees were expected to serve for the duration of the war. A steady flow of replacements kept the combat units up to strength. Despite its biases and blunders, the Selective Service system generally mobilized manpower on a rational and effective basis.

Even though a large, able-bodied population dwelled in the U.S., civil society strained to meet the titanic challenges of mobilization. To conduct military operations around the world, the Army required large numbers of soldiers for support functions as well as for combat missions. To carry the fight across the oceans, the Navy needed sailors and equipment for its powerful fleets and far-flung bases. Furnishing men for the Army and Navy conflicted with the plans for outfitting U.S. and Allied forces for the global struggle. Of course, both defense contractors and theater commanders called upon the nation for more human resources. With a profound sense of urgency, American leaders strove not only to select men for the uniformed services but also to employ manpower for the military buildup.

From the beginning of the war, the Roosevelt administration feared that mobilizing the armed forces to fight abroad threatened to undermine economic growth at home. Time and again, manpower calculations for the War Department changed in relation to the needs of the labor market. After several revisions downward, central planners settled upon a smaller number of divisions as the uppermost limit for the size of the Army. By 1943, they had scaled back their estimates of future troop levels and agreed to what experts called the “90 Division Gamble.” They expressed confidence in the ability of the Soviet armies to check the German advance as well as in the technology of warfare to maximize the advantages of mechanization and mobility. Accordingly, the U.S. recognized that the productive capacity of an industrial economy represented a tremendous advantage in wartime.

While the American military frequently competed with industry for able-bodied men, the demands of wartime created millions of new jobs for civilians. The large pool of unemployed cushioned the shock of mobilization initially, but rising wages encouraged many to stay on the job. Overall, the nation's unemployment rate fell from 14 percent in 1940 to only 2 percent in 1943. The demand for labor encouraged internal migrations, as whites and blacks from rural areas of the South relocated to manufacturing centers in the Midwest and the West Coast. Under the bracero program, thousands of contract laborers from Mexico migrated legally across the border. Americans appreciated the work of the iconographic Rosie the Riveter, for women constituted over one-third of the labor force during the war. Though most women worked in clerical and service fields, a number found jobs in aircraft and shipbuilding factories. The achievement of full employment in the U.S. brought the Great Depression to an end.

The U.S. represented the only Allied nation able to field and to equip armed forces operating in both Europe and Asia at the same time. American firms retooled their facilities to produce millions of trucks, jeeps, and other types of motorized vehicles. By the war's end, approximately 40 percent of the world's weaponry came from the U.S. For instance, the M-1 rifle was one of the best shoulder arms of the period. Moreover, industrial “wizardry” such as radar, sonar, bombsights, and jet engines enhanced the technological sophistication of military operations. The world's first computers were designed to assist Allied code breakers. Fire-control mechanisms enhanced the precision of gunnery, which allowed for proper lead on a moving target. The proximity fuse, which used a tiny radio to detonate shells with variable timing, rolled off the assembly lines after 1943. Making the U.S. into the “arsenal of democracy” reinforced the popular notion that wars were won by industrial might – not by mass killing. In other words, Americans waged “a gross national product war” against their foes.

The Liberty Ship exemplified the American talent for manufacturing. It was a 440-foot long cargo vessel that could steam at 10 knots with its hold packed full of military items. U.S. workers built 2,751 of them during wartime. Instead of riveting while shipbuilding, welders crowded together into new plants to rapidly complete the hulls. In 1942, Henry Kaiser's shipyard in Richmond, California, assembled one spacious ship in only 4 days, 15 hours, and 26 minutes. Admirers dubbed Kaiser “Sir Launchalot” for his industrial leadership.

American factories delivered the B-24, which represented the aerial battlewagon of the bomber fleet. With a combat range of 3,000 miles and an operational ceiling above 35,000 feet, its specifications exceeded what the B-17 previously offered to pilots. The bomb bay included two compartments that each accommodated as much as 8,000 pounds of ordnance. By 1944, the work crews at Henry Ford's Willow Run factory near Detroit, Michigan, were rolling a new B-24 out the exit every 63 minutes. Ford produced half of the 18,000 “Flying Boxcars” made in the U.S.

As the U.S. mobilized for war, the Roosevelt administration pursued an ingenious strategy for overwhelming the Axis Powers with superior assets rather than with more flesh. “We must not only provide munitions for our own fighting forces,” the commander-in-chief instructed his cabinet, “but vast quantities to be used against the enemy in every appropriate theater of war.” Wartime mobilization revitalized the industrial economy, while the federal government summoned individuals to do their part in defense of the nation. The arrangements between the central bureaucracies and the large corporations formed the foundation of the war machine that bolstered national prosperity for decades.

The GI Way

More than 16 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. Out of a U.S. population exceeding 130 million, more than 12 percent directly participated in the war effort. Known as the GIs, the initials probably derived from military slang for their “government issue” of standard clothing and accouterments. With a wide range of individuals assigned to outfits in a short space of time, a fascinating mixture of traits and attitudes formed the GI way.

The average GI was 26 years old and physically impressive. Before entering the military, most service members completed one year of high school. Among the rank and file, a typical private received about $50 a month in pay. For each soldier in combat, at least three others stood behind him in a support capacity. In fact, about half of those who served in uniform never left the North American continent. According to some ratio-of-fire studies, no more than one out of every four infantrymen actually fired a weapon during combat. In hard-fought battles for contested ground, they shared a three to one munitions advantage over opponents. Whatever the case, GIs tended to pride themselves on a job well done.

In the Army, one GI required 4.5 tons of material to deploy abroad and 1 ton a month to maintain operational readiness. Each dressed in ODs – olive drab cotton twill shirt with trousers. In cold weather, a field jacket was added to the “layering system.” Combat boots featured rubber soles and heels with leather cuffs. The M1 helmet with liner not only protected the head but also served as a stool, bucket, basin, bowl, or pillow. Basic gear included socks, underwear, packs, bags, mess kits, entrenching tools, ammunition carriers, shelter halves, sleeping gear, and web gear. In combat environments with surf and sand, most carried a special plastic bag for the M1 rifle to keep it functional. After American troops stepped onto the European continent, almost 63 tons of tobacco immediately followed them to the beach. Both friends and enemies of GIs envied the material wealth of the “rich Americans.”

The GI was the best-fed soldier in the world, or so the Pentagon calculated. Mobile kitchens in the field prepared A-rations or B-rations with vast quantities of meat, fruit, and vegetables, though many griped about the powdered eggs. Composed chiefly of canned food, the C-ration provided over 3,400 calories per day to the GI. The emergency D-ration was a 4-ounce bar of fortified chocolate valued at 600 calories. Packed into boxes, the K-ration contained processed meat, biscuits, crackers, bouillon, dextrose tablets, fruit bar, chocolate bar, instant coffee, lemon juice crystals, sugar tablets, chewing gum, and a four-cigarette pack. All too often, the American military left a trail of cans, boxes, envelopes, and waste abroad.

Wherever deployed around the world, military personnel tried to remain in contact with loved ones waiting nervously at home. Mail call and letter-writing represented vital activities to ease anxieties and to pass time. Despite censorship by military officials, the volume of correspondence with friends and family appeared staggering. By 1943, the average GI received 14 pieces of mail each week. Some avoided any reference to the war, which made an official telegram bearing the news of a sudden death all the more shocking for folks at home.

In contrast to civilian etiquette back home, GI ways seemed vulgar. References to human anatomy and to excretory functions pervaded conversations around the barracks. A colloquial word was snafu, an acronym translated for stateside audiences as “situation normal, all fouled up.” Soldiers in the field commonly used a more graphic “F-word” in their parsing of it. When off duty, they became notorious for “blowing off steam” in brawls, barrooms, and brothels. While teasing “buddies,” jokes and pranks offered diversions from the seriousness of the war.

Popular culture accentuated the positive imagery of happy warriors, who represented icons of the “good war.” To boost morale and recruiting, sports legends such as boxer Joe Lewis appeared on wartime posters. When Yank magazine began publication in 1942, it contained an original cartoon by Corporal Dave Breger titled “GI Joe.” Comic books, which were more popular with American troops than glossy periodicals, spawned simple stories about superheroes fighting evildoers. Hollywood films delivered a winning combination of entertainment and patriotism to service members, but nothing on the screen surpassed the compelling propaganda of Frank Capra's Why We Fight series. Roosevelt encouraged civilian volunteers to organize the United Service Organizations, or USO, a non-profit group that provided a “home away from home” to military personnel. In an age of broadcast radio and camp shows, the Andrews Sisters topped the charts with upbeat songs such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Scores swooned to Bing Crosby's version of “I'll Be Home for Christmas.” At the forefront of America's greatest generation, the GIs contrasted themselves to other belligerents.

Few Americans rendered the GIs more distinctly than Sergeant Bill Mauldin, who served in the 180th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division. His comic strip characters Willie and Joe appeared regularly on the pages of Stars and Stripes. One even graced the cover of Time magazine in 1944. Unshaven, dirty, and fatigued, Mauldin's characters faced the war with a sense of humor.

Thanks to the demands of the war, the armed forces expanded opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities in uniform. At least a million African Americans served their country, though usually in segregated units. Officer candidate schools began to integrate during the early 1940s. The Army Air Forces included 600 pilots dubbed the “Tuskegee Airmen,” who distinguished themselves in aerial combat. After members of the 332nd Fighter Group painted parts of their P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, they became known as “Red Tails.”

In combat zones, American Indians defied enemy code breakers with radio transmissions using their native languages. The Marine Corps assigned over 400 Navajo signalmen to use their Athabaskan language from Bougainville to Iwo Jima. In addition, Hopi, Lakota, Sauk and Fox, Oneida, Ojibwe, and Comanche “code talkers” operated in the European and the Pacific theaters.

To increase the manpower for military operations, the armed forces included uniformed branches for women's auxiliary service. Nearly 200,000 women served in the Women's Army Corps, or WAC. The Navy organized the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. In smaller numbers, women also served in the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard. Though an important step in advancing equal opportunity in the U.S., senior military officers maintained a division of labor based upon gendered assumptions. In other words, female service skills appeared essential but remained secondary to male combat missions.

The Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, included female aviators known as “flygirls.” In 1942, the Army Air Forces called upon Jacqueline Cochran, a world-famous aviatrix, to help women earn their wings. Another renowned pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, suggested the formation of a small squadron of trained ferry pilots. The next year, the brass merged the training programs under Cochran's leadership. Although General Arnold ordered the WASPs to disband after the war, Congress eventually awarded veteran status to the pilots.

Prodded by the American Legion, Congress passed a law to help GIs transition back into civilian life after the war. Officially named the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, Roosevelt signed the GI Bill of Rights into law on June 22, 1944. Accordingly, it made the Veterans Administration into “an essential war agency,” subordinate only to the War and Navy Departments in regard to military affairs. The first title of the law expanded federal support for hospital facilities and medical care. Other provisions promised low-interest loans for veterans buying homes and starting businesses or farms. One clause enabled veterans to receive $20 a week for 52 weeks while seeking employment. Because they “make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us,” the president insisted that service members were “entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.” Thus, the federal government planned to regulate the flow of returning GIs into the labor market.

The shrillest opposition to the GI Bill came from critics of Title II, which offered higher education benefits to veterans. For instance, elite academicians sneered that the benefits threatened to turn campuses into “educational hobo jungles.” Their carping lacked merit, because future students attended the nation's colleges and universities with great enthusiasm. Returning soldiers often demanded a vocational curriculum, which continued a wartime trend away from the liberal arts tradition at American institutions. The language of the statute made no explicit references to race, although local administrators of federal programs tended to discriminate against people of color. Over the course of the next decade, more than 7 million World War II veterans benefited from the educational opportunities afforded to them.

However divided by race, class, gender, and ethnicity at home, GIs stood for American values around the globe. In combat, they learned to control fear, to think clearly, and to show initiative while exerting physical strength. They battled enemies in jungles, deserts, valleys, and mountains and overcame adversity from one theater of operations to another. Many crossed the oceans and saw the world, eventually returning home after winning the war the GI way.

Empire of the Sun

Americans and the Allies were stunned by the scale and the scope of Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Seemingly unstoppable, Japan aimed to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere through conquest and occupation. The home government promised to unite Asians in a grand cultural and spiritual system free from the taint of outsiders. Tokyo signified militarist ambitions for an empire with the Rising Sun flag, which displayed multiple rays of light emanating from a red circle.

With an imperial strategy to “go south” in 1941, the Japanese armed forces conducted a six-month campaign that brought them to the gates of India. They seized Hong Kong, Guam, New Britain Island, the northern Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, Wake Island, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies. “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year,” Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, once predicted, “but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.”

Beginning on December 22, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur commanded 100,000 Filipinos and 30,000 Americans in the archipelago, but they were easily overrun by the Japanese. Afterward, MacArthur ordered a general withdrawal into the mountainous Bataan peninsula. He hoped to hold the position until help arrived. Disease and starvation decimated his troops, who ate monkeys and insects to survive.

At the behest of Roosevelt, MacArthur escaped to Australia but vowed to the American press: “I shall return.” General Jonathan Wainwright remained with his command. On April 9, 1942, the Japanese captured approximately 80,000 American and Filipino troops during the Battle of Bataan. After capitulating, thousands died on an 80-mile march from Bataan to Luzon. On Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, Wainwright endured a barrage of shells but surrendered the last of his forces nearly a month later.

Meanwhile, the worrisome prospect of an impending Japanese attack on the continental U.S. disturbed Americans living along the West Coast. General John L. DeWitt, the chief of the Army's Western Defense Command, warned that Japanese spies posed a security risk. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 to begin the internment of around 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – two-thirds of them U.S. citizens called Nisei. He created the War Relocation Authority to oversee their evacuation to camps. Two years later, the Supreme Court called the commander-in-chief's decision a “military necessity.” Despite the injustice of Japanese American internment, approximately 30,000 Nisei agreed to serve in the American military.

Reeling from the Japanese blows in the Pacific, the American military attempted to strike back. On April 18, the U.S.S. Hornet launched heavy B-25 bombers into action, although they were not designed for flight from a carrier deck. Led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, the pilots conducted a hit-and-run raid on Tokyo and a handful of other Japanese cities. Since none fell to air defenses, the raid demonstrated to Japanese military leaders the vulnerability of their home islands. At the limit of the flying range, the American bombers crash-landed in China.

While the Japanese advance in 1942 continued, Roosevelt dispatched General Joseph Stilwell to command U.S. forces in China, Burma, and India. His command incorporated American volunteer aviators known as the “Flying Tigers,” who were organized by a retired Army colonel, Claire Chennault. Once British and Chinese lines collapsed, Stilwell helped the Allies to execute a 140-mile retreat through rugged mountains to India. The Japanese victory closed the Burma Road, a path that ran from the Irrawaddy River north of Rangoon eastward into China's Yunan Province. Afterward, all American supplies for China were airlifted from India over a series of towering Himalayan ranges known as “the Hump.”

As the Japanese Navy pushed to Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and seized Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, took action. From May 3 to May 8, 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea stretched across hundreds of miles. For the first time in naval history, carrier-based aircraft conducted all the fighting in a clash of arms. In fact, the American and Japanese warships never directly fired salvos upon one another. Although Japanese forces withdrew after suffering significant losses, the U.S.S. Lexington was badly damaged and scuttled. The U.S.S. Yorktown sustained damage as well, but crews of workers and sailors repaired the carrier to fight again. Consequently, the battle provided Americans with their first victory against a relentless enemy.

Figure 12.2 World War II in Asia


The Japanese Navy planned a decisive battle in the Central Pacific, although American cryptologists began to decipher enemy communications. The collective effort to crack the Japanese codes became known as Magic, which interpreted roughly 10 to 15 percent of most intercepts. During the spring of 1942, intelligence officers determined that the Japanese planned to hit the U.S. Fleet at Midway Island next.

Unbeknownst to Yamamoto, Nimitz expected their attack at Midway. From June 4 to June 7, 1942, he directed naval task forces to confront the Japanese threat. They included a mix of carriers, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, submarines, minesweepers, and support craft. To protect Midway, the garrison on the atoll possessed hundreds of planes and anti-aircraft guns. On board the repaired U.S.S. Yorktown, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, commander of Task Force 17, coordinated the entire flotilla of U.S. ships in the surrounding waters. Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commander of Task Force 16, directed the launch of aircraft from the U.S.S. Enterprise and the U.S.S. Hornet. During a 5-minute aerial assault on the exposed Japanese carriers, American flyers in the skies described “a beautiful silver waterfall” of dive-bombers cascading down on a surprised enemy.

Armed with intelligence about Japanese plans and capabilities, the U.S. Fleet defended Midway with great success. American fighters dispatched most of the attackers, even though the torpedo bombers could not match the capabilities of the Japanese Zeros. Spruance wisely refrained from pursuing the Japanese vessels in retreat to the west, where he would have collided with Yamamoto's battleships at nightfall on the final day of the clash. American fatalities overall numbered 362, but Japanese deaths reached a staggering 3,057. While the U.S. lost one aircraft carrier as a result of a submarine strike, four Japanese carriers became wrecks beyond saving or salvaging.

Though not a decisive victory for the U.S., the Battle of Midway marked a turning point for the war in the Pacific. The Japanese lost the strategic initiative after the setback, while the Americans partially avenged the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The former abandoned any illusion of a swift victory over the latter and turned instead to strengthening a defensive perimeter. With the mobility of their carrier striking forces curtailed, Japanese leaders braced themselves for a protracted war of attrition.

While committed to halting the German blitzkrieg first, the Roosevelt administration permitted Admiral King and the Joint Chiefs to plan offensive operations against the Japanese dispositions. In fact, the great bulk of U.S. forces sent overseas during 1942 arrived in the Pacific theater of operations. A Marine division sailed for New Zealand in anticipation of fierce combat. Of the eight Army divisions departing the U.S. before August, five headed westward. Furthermore, over half of the Army aircraft sent overseas that year operated in the Pacific as well. A year later, the larger and faster carriers of the Essex class and the lighter carriers of the Independence class joined the formations of the Navy. Around them, the admirals built naval task forces tailored to the needs of each particular operation. The F6F Hellcat, a carrier-based fighter designed to outperform the Japanese Zero, soon established American supremacy in aerial combat. Both air and sea power enabled the ground forces to thrust forward.

The thrust against Japan challenged the interoperability of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. From Australia, MacArthur commanded Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific theater in a campaign to neutralize the Japanese bastion of Rabaul. Outside of his command but geographically parallel, the South Pacific theater fell to Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley initially and to Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey eventually. Across the broad expanses of the ocean, a series of military actions targeted Japanese bases and shipping.

The Solomon archipelago, which encompassed a double string of islands stretching 600 miles from San Cristobal to Buka, represented one of the most embattled sectors. Codenamed Operation Watchtower, an American offensive began on August 7, 1942, when the 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal and nearby islands. Japanese forces utilized interior lines from their bases at Rabaul and Truk to support attacks on the American dispositions. Over the next three months, intense fighting erupted on land, at sea, and in the air. The campaign included no less than six separate naval battles and three major clashes on Guadalcanal itself. Due to the number of sunken ships offshore, the waters became known as “Iron Bottom Sound.” U.S. forces concentrated upon securing Henderson Field on the island's north coast, which provided an important air base for an ever-widening range of sharp engagements in the jungles. Bloodied but unbowed, the Marines held the contested ground. During the prolonged, brutal campaign that participants labeled the Battle of Guadalcanal, Americans counted 1,768 fatalities and over 4,700 wounded. By February 9, 1943, U.S. commanders declared Guadalcanal secure.

Bolstered by surges in manpower and supplies, U.S. forces advanced successfully along the New Guinea shore. Under MacArthur's command, they operated jointly with Australians in Operation Cartwheel. While taking advantage of intelligence gleaned from decoding Japanese radio communications, they avoided frontal attacks against strongly entrenched positions whenever possible. Accordingly, they bypassed enemy enclaves with no strategic significance. In the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on March 2–3, 1943, American bombers sank eight Japanese troopships and several warships carrying reinforcements. Many Japanese strongholds were left unsupported thereafter, which meant that some of their troops simply starved.

By early 1943, Yamamoto decided to cut his losses in the South Pacific while awaiting a more favorable opportunity to fight a decisive battle elsewhere. Alerted by intercepted radio messages, American P-38 Lightnings ambushed his flight during an inspection tour. On April 18, he died when his flaming aircraft crashed into Bougainville's jungle. Though his sudden death represented a significant blow to the Japanese military, Rabaul remained in their hands until the end of the war.

Nimitz's next objectives were the atolls in the Gilbert archipelago, which formed Japan's outmost defensive perimeter. Beginning on November 20, the 2nd Marine Division assaulted Tarawa, a 3-square-mile atoll encircled by a coral reef. At the cost of 1,000 American lives, the defenses fell to U.S. forces. Flamethrowers fired streams of burning napalm into caves, bunkers, tunnels, and pillboxes. The 27th Infantry Division seized Makin, an atoll at the northern edge of the Gilberts. From the new bases of operation, U.S. forces pushed into the Marshall and the Caroline Islands. The “frogmen” of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams blew holes in reefs to clear paths for landing vehicles. In a matter of weeks, the Japanese bastions of Majuro, Kwajelein, Eniwetok, and Truk were overrun. Outraged by the reversal of momentum, General Hideki Tojo, the Japanese premier, replaced naval leaders and assumed power over the Ministry of War himself.

The drive against the Empire of Japan restored American confidence, although success came at a high price. By early 1944, the Allied operations benefited significantly from the protection of land-based air cover and the availability of carrier-based air support. As a result, Japanese forces reluctantly formed a new defensive perimeter along the Philippines and the Marianas. No longer backpedaling from the stunning aggression, the American military began to see the signs of a setting sun over their foes.

A Second Front

World War II exposed the glaring weakness of the Axis Powers – their inability to conduct mutually beneficial and jointly designed military operations. In contrast to the disharmony of their adversaries, the Allied countries planned to work together ceaselessly. On January 1, 1942, more than 26 governments signed the Declaration of United Nations in support of the war effort. Though eager to fight, most needed time to ready their armed forces for the European theater. On the Eastern Front, the Red Army of the Soviet Union battled the German juggernaut alone. Bearing the brunt of the war, the Russians pleaded with their counterparts to relieve the pressure by opening a “second front” of operations elsewhere.

Even though the Allies agreed on basic war aims, American and British war planners disagreed in regard to the “second front” controversy. From the beginning, Marshall advocated an early invasion of France across the English Channel. British military leaders, however, preferred to keep the German command off balance with quick raids and aerial attacks. The Allies initially agreed to postpone a major offensive for a year, because a direct invasion of continental Europe seemed a logistical impossibility.

During 1942, German submarine “wolf packs” threatened the movement of troops and materials across the North Atlantic. The Allied shipment of equipment and supplies, particularly to support cantonments, airfields, and bases, fell behind schedule. Hundreds of American vessels were lost, although the Navy gradually devised effective countermeasures to protect the Atlantic lifeline. Using convoy tactics in which warships and airplanes escorted vulnerable merchant ships, U.S. and British forces sank more and more German submarines. The clashes across thousands of ocean miles also involved salvos between battleships and cruisers. Within a year, the Allies began turning the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic.

On August 17, 1942, the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force conducted its first heavy bomber raid on targets inside continental Europe. A squadron of B-17s struck railroad marshaling yards near Rouen in France. Even though the bombs caused minimal damage, the appearance of American planes over Nazi-occupied territory indicated the potential for air power to disrupt the enemy's interior lines.

Through a program called Ultra, London helped Washington D.C. to gain a strategic advantage by decrypting enemy communications and secret messages. Thanks to British cryptologists at Bletchley Park, they broke the German and Italian ciphers and routinely obtained valuable intelligence. Although the British and the Americans never shared their secret weapon with the Soviets, Ultra contributed to the increasing effectiveness of Allied operations at sea, on land, and in the air.

Again and again, President Roosevelt assured Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin that the Allies eventually planned to open a “second front” in Europe. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, preferred to move on French North Africa, which was controlled by the Axis Powers. Rather than a direct assault on the Nazi behemoth, he advocated peripheral operations against the “soft underbelly” in the Mediterranean Sea. Marshall opposed the idea, because the dispersion of forces threatened to further delay Allied plans for crossing the English Channel. Eager to launch Americans into the fight against Adolf Hitler anywhere, Roosevelt agreed with Churchill. “When President Roosevelt began waving his cigarette holder,” Marshall later confessed, “you never knew where you were going.”

Marshall selected General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a member of his staff, as the American commanding general, European theater. Born in Texas and reared in Kansas, he distinguished himself over the course of a 25-year military career with the insight of his analysis and the lucidity of his reports. His leadership skills fostered amity within the high command, prompting British General Bernard Montgomery to observe: “He is the incarnation of sincerity.”

Known affectionately as Ike, Eisenhower took charge of Operation Torch in North Africa. Beginning on November 8, 1942, U.S. forces landed at Casablanca in Morocco and at Oran and Algiers in Algeria. The inexperienced Americans encountered unexpected difficulties while confronting the Vichy French, which underscored how inadequately prepared they were for fighting the seasoned Nazis. On February 14, 1943, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel launched a surprise attack against the Army's II Corps at the Kasserine Pass. Eisenhower benefited from the tenacity of General George S. Patton, who wore cavalry boots and ivory-handled revolvers while leading his troops. Regardless of American missteps during the first encounters, he managed to prevail during the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia. Hammered from all sides, over 250,000 German and Italian forces surrendered to the Allies on May 12.

The Allies continued to fight against the Axis in the Mediterranean, where they launched Operation Husky next. On July 10, 1943, the Americans and the British landed in Sicily. Patton's Seventh Army captured Palermo and reached Messina, but he faced criticism for slapping two GIs suffering from shell shock and malaria in Sicilian hospitals. While the Allies slowly advanced across the island, the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini collapsed in Italy.

For Operation Avalanche, General Mark Clark's Fifth Army landed at Salerno in Italy on September 9, 1943. With five divisions of Germans awaiting them, the battle for the beachhead raged for days. Aided by supporting fire from U.S. warships and aircraft, the 45th Infantry Division made a valiant stand to avert a potential disaster. Withdrawing inland, the Germans established the Gustav Line as a defensive position. The bunkers, emplacements, and trenches across the Apennine Mountains frustrated the Americans.

On January 22, 1944, Clark attempted an end run around German defenses with an amphibious attack at Anzio, which stood only 30 miles away from Rome. Blocked by stiff German resistance, Operation Shingle left American troops trapped on the new beachhead. The intense fighting turned into an artillery duel. As winter passed into spring, the entire campaign in Italy seemed to stall. The Allied forces struggled to break through the enemy line at Monte Cassino, which guarded the highway to Rome. Following months of ruthless combat, the Fifth Army finally reached the city on June 4, 1944. Over the course of the campaign in Italy, the Allies suffered 312,000 casualties while inflicting 435,000 on the Nazis.

Long before the floundering campaign in Italy ended, Roosevelt and Churchill informed Stalin about their plans for a “second front in the air.” The U.S. and Great Britain launched a combined bomber offensive in Europe called Operation Pointblank, which included round-the-clock air raids against German defenses. Accordingly, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces followed their own preferences for strategic bombing. The former preferred nighttime bombing raids against major population centers, while the latter preferred the precision of daytime strikes against German military and industrial targets. The aerial assaults caused massive destruction to submarine yards, aircraft facilities, ball-bearing factories, and oil refineries. German Luftwaffe fighters and antiaircraft guns shot down thousands of B-17s, which resulted in attrition rates as high as 20 percent for some bombing raids. Owing to the longer range of the P-51 Mustang, fighter escorts began flying with bombers all the way to Berlin and back. By the spring of 1944, the Allies achieved air superiority over France.

While the Red Army battled hundreds of German divisions in the Russian heartland, an impending invasion of France remained the foundation of the grand strategy to defeat Nazi Germany. Beginning on November 27, 1943, the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin – met for the first time face-to-face at the Tehran Conference. The heads of state and their military advisors discussed numerous global issues, including the eventual participation of the Soviets in the Pacific theater. However, none of the issues seemed more urgent than the “second front.”

Stalin insisted that the northern coast of France represented the best location for the Americans and the British to concentrate their armed forces. Churchill suggested expanding military operations in Italy, the Aegean, and the east Mediterranean, which implied another delay that strained Allied unity. After several animated sessions, Roosevelt finally agreed with Stalin and committed to a firm target date of May 1, 1944. The Big Three approved what was dubbed Operation Overlord, which would be coordinated with Operation Anvil in southern France.

“Who will command Overlord?” Stalin asked Roosevelt before the Tehran Conference ended. No one knew the answer at the time, but Secretary of War Stimson advised Roosevelt to appoint Marshall. The Chiefs of Staff preferred that the general remain at the Pentagon, where his leadership helped to solve the logistical problems of the different services, theaters, and commands. He avoided expressing his own preference to lead the long-awaited invasion, even though he began planning it a year earlier. Apparently, he showed no sign of disappointment when Roosevelt informed him of the decision to select someone else. The commander-in-chief told Marshall: “I didn't feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.”

Despite rumblings in London and Moscow, Roosevelt knew his choice. A few days later, he flew to Tunis to meet with Eisenhower, who greeted him at the airport. “Well, Ike,” remarked the president, “you are going to command Overlord.”

Great Crusade

Eisenhower departed for Great Britain, where he took command at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, or SHAEF. Summoning all of his skill and resolution, the supreme commander anticipated the largest, most complex military operation in the history of the world. Amid confusion and delay, he finalized Allied plans.

Eisenhower faced the Atlantic Wall of Nazi dispositions that extended from Holland to the Bay of Biscay. He further complicated the logistical problems by increasing the size of the projected Allied force, which required more landing craft than anyone expected. The coastline of northern France, which contained sandy beaches pounded by surf, lacked available ports capable of berthing ships large or small. Given the rate of factory production in the U.S., the target date for the invasion in May became infeasible. On account of the moon and the tides, the Allies rescheduled the landing to take place between June 4 and June 6.

While meticulously preparing for D-Day, the Allies implemented a secret plan of misdirection known as Fortitude. They assembled dummy camps, fictitious armies, and rubber tanks to convince the German high command that the invasion targeted Pas-de-Calais, where the English Channel narrowed. Instead, staff officers to the supreme commander selected Normandy for “a lodgment.” Without betraying the location of the impending Allied landing, squadrons of bombers and fighters ramped up their attacks on the Nazi transportation system.

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade,” announced Eisenhower in his orders for D-Day. In the predawn hours of June 4, 1944, the Allied soldiers filed into landing craft in southern England. However, stormy weather in the English Channel forced another delay in the launch. A day later, the forecast began to improve. On the evening of June 5, Eisenhower watched thousands of paratroopers board their assigned transports. “Well,” he said as they departed for Normandy, “it's on.”

Figure 12.3 General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the Order of the Day, 1944. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


At 2:27 a.m. on June 6, Lieutenant Robert Mathias rode aboard a C-47 Dakota toward Normandy. He was a platoon leader in E Company of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division. “Stand up, hook up,” the jumpmaster ordered, as each platoon shuffled to the door. With the green light for the jump flashing, Mathias looked through the doorway at the explosions and the tracers. From the drop zone, the Germans furiously fired 20mm four-barreled antiaircraft guns and machine guns at the American planes.

Suddenly, flak knocked Mathias down, but he got up again. Instead of calling for first aid, he called out “follow me” while leaping into the night. When he was located on the ground a half-hour later, he was in his parachute – dead. As paratroopers scattered across the Cotentin peninsula, Mathias became the first American officer killed by the Germans on D-Day.

The amphibious landings on D-Day surprised the Germans, who initially dismissed the military action as a diversion from an anticipated attack at Pas-de-Calais. The Allied colossus included some 4,000 ships carrying no fewer than 195,000 sailors and 130,000 troops to Normandy. Over 11,000 planes provided a protective umbrella from the skies. Approximately 12,000 vehicles, 2,000 tanks, and 10,000 tons of stores crossed the Channel. Five American, British, and Canadian divisions along with three British armored brigades made the initial assault. They penetrated a heavily fortified area, which 58 German divisions defended.

During the first 48 hours of fighting, the outcome of Operation Overlord remained uncertain. The British units quickly seized Gold Beach and Sword Beach, while their Canadian counterparts stormed Juno Beach. U.S. airborne divisions dropped near the westernmost flank of the beachhead and attempted to support VII Corps at Utah Beach. Once the 4th Infantry Division landed on their segment, General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the assistant division commander and son of the former president, told them to “start the war from here.”

Narrowly averting disaster, the American landing on the 4-mile segment known as Omaha Beach proved quite tenuous. Few of the amphibious tanks or howitzers made it through the rolling surf. With the German defenses along the shoreline largely intact, a deadly crossfire mauled the scrambling soldiers of the 1st, 2nd, and 29th Infantry Divisions. The survivors crawled across the sand to the seawall, while the mangled bodies of their comrades washed ashore. Because much of the demolition equipment sank in the water, mines and obstacles made every movement on the beach that morning perilous. By the end of the long day, Americans had suffered 3,881 casualties at “Bloody Omaha.” Nevertheless, the bulk of the troops fought their way up the draws that passed through the towering cliffs.

Suffering some 4,900 casualties on D-Day, the Allies massed more than 100,000 men to consolidate the beachhead at Normandy. Within two weeks, their numbers grew to a million men. Their foothold on French soil extended approximately 60 miles wide and 15 miles deep. Tons of supplies and equipment poured into the forward positions. Naval guns offshore helped to clear the remaining coastal defenses. Despite bouts of stormy weather, Eisenhower's attention to detail made the “thin wet line of khaki” possible.

While the aerial assault continued to blast German lines, the Allied boots on the ground attempted to break out from the beachhead. General J. Lawton Collins handled the drive to Cherbourg, although the Nazis destroyed the port facilities before he arrived. Soldiers maneuvered inland to face a deadly combination of mortars, snipers, and machine guns. More than a month behind schedule, Montgomery's troops eventually took Caen. The Allied advance slowed in the heavy bocage – a landscape of woods, heath, fields, and orchards marked by tall hedgerows and farmhouses.

Spearheading the American advance through the difficult terrain, tanks such as the M-4 Sherman appeared inferior to the German Panzers. Its “thin skin” of armor caused the vehicle to “brew up” and burn when hit by a shell. Fast but vulnerable, its 75mm gun was outclassed in tank-to-tank duels. American tankers often survived counterattacks by firing on the move – something the Germans never did. According to conventional wisdom, it took five Shermans to knock out one Panzer.

Eisenhower asked General Omar Bradley to command Operation Cobra, which pushed westward from Saint-Lô in late July. Under Bradley, Patton led the Third Army through Brittany in an “armored parade.” The speed of his columns demonstrated the significance of mobility, which involved a complex balancing of movement with equipment, organization, communications, command, and logistics. They traveled over 50 miles per day. They penetrated Argentan that August, but Bradley stopped Patton from promptly closing the Falaise gap to envelop the Germans. Thousands escaped the Allied pocket and lived to fight another day.

Meanwhile, the sheer weight of American air power and artillery fire fell upon the escape corridor to the River Seine. As retreating Germans braved a narrowing gauntlet, the roads, highways, and fields became choked with wrecked equipment and charred bodies. It was possible to walk through the “killing grounds” while stepping on nothing but corpses for hundreds of yards.

Along a broad front, the Allied divisions crossed western Europe to roll back the Third Reich. Operation Anvil was renamed Dragoon, which involved the landing of U.S. and French forces on the southern coast of Nazi-occupied France. Beginning on August 15, they raced up the valley of the Rhone to link up with the other divisions on the move. With supply lines stretched dangerously thin, Allied troops liberated Paris on August 25. The Americans reached the banks of the River Meuse, while the British entered the valley of the Somme. Supported by a transportation convoy system dubbed the “Red Ball Express,” infantry patrols set foot onto German soil. Unfortunately, Montgomery and Patton began to squabble about the next step. Eisenhower insisted that the Allies should advance shoulder by shoulder, so that no nation might claim all the glory for defeating Nazi Germany.

Eisenhower agreed to Montgomery's plan for Operation Market Garden, which involved the deployment of 35,000 British and American paratroopers near Antwerp. Beginning on September 17, they attempted to seize several bridges for British armor units attempting to dash into the German heartland. The American 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions captured most of their targeted bridgeheads. However, the British 1st Airborne Division faced heavy resistance from German SS divisions at Arnhem. Montgomery underestimated the number of Panzers along the River Rhine, where strong resistance and bad weather hindered the foray. For more than a week, soldiers tried but failed to take a “bridge too far.” Because the Allies withdrew after intense fighting, Operation Market Garden represented a costly mistake.

Near the Siegfried Line, autumn mud and winter cold slowed the Allied momentum. In the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the Germans inflicted as many as 20,000 casualties on the Americans. The defensive barriers along the western border remained formidable, even after bomber squadrons pounded them for months. Although the “Great Crusade” liberated western Europe, German morale up front showed no signs of cracking.

The Philippine Sea

The Japanese strategy to stop an American tsunami in the Pacific theater largely depended upon Germany halting the Allied advance in Europe. Though alarmed by the rapid mobilization of U.S. resources and population, Tokyo expected the Axis Powers to force Washington D.C. to negotiate an eventual settlement. Since the beginning of the war, Japanese leaders discounted the possibility that the American military would achieve the capabilities to conduct major operations in two theaters simultaneously.

During 1944, the American military quickened the pace of operations with amphibious assaults across the Pacific. Hopping from island to island, General MacArthur targeted key Japanese positions to attack while simply outflanking others. Admiral Nimitz preferred to take almost every island in his path, including ones that some of his counterparts deemed unimportant. Through a process of trial and error, U.S. commanders organized an offensive campaign to drive the Japanese military from the Philippine Sea.

U.S. forces penetrated the Marianas, where the islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian represented potential forward operating bases for submarines and long-range bombers. Nimitz's Fifth Fleet launched Operation Reforger on June 15, 1944, when four Marine regiments hit the beaches at Saipan. In less than an hour, 8,000 Marines went ashore. Soon, the Army's 27th Infantry Division entered the fray and trekked across the rocky and mountainous terrain. At Marpi Point, American troops witnessed thousands of Japanese civilians and soldiers committing suicide rather than surrendering. In three weeks of arduous fighting, the U.S. suffered 14,000 casualties but gained control of the island. News of the loss resulted in Kuniaki Koiso, another general, succeeding Tojo as the Japanese premier.

As the fight for Saipan raged, U.S. carriers in Task Force 58 intercepted a smaller Japanese naval force approaching the Marianas on June 19. The Battle of the Philippine Sea turned into the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” because the carrier-based Hellcats ravaged the Japanese Sea Eagles. By the end of the day, American pilots had shot down more than 300 Japanese planes while losing only 20 of their own. Furthermore, U.S submarines sank two Japanese carriers that day. However, the caution of Admiral Spruance permitted the remaining Japanese vessels to escape total disaster. Despite missing an opportunity for a decisive outcome, U.S. forces achieved another important victory at sea.

After a brief delay, the amphibious assaults on the islands of Guam and Tinian commenced. On July 21, a Marine division and brigade assaulted Guam, 100 miles south of Saipan. Reinforced by the Army's 77th Infantry Division, they took the long but narrow island by August 10 at a cost of almost 2,000 American deaths. Americans absorbed another 328 deaths while taking tiny Tinian by August 1. With the Marianas secured, the Army Air Forces began placing new B-29 Superfortress bombers within striking distance of Japan's home islands.

Meanwhile, the U.S. submarine force in the Pacific increased its underwater attacks. Japanese merchantmen appeared vulnerable, because they rarely convoyed and failed to develop adequate countermeasures to American harassment. Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, the commander of the submarines in fleet operations, oversaw the introduction of new classes, torpedoes, and tactics to the “silent service.” Modifications to the hulls, engines, deck guns, and radar-sonar systems of submarines gave the crews important technological advantages against their adversaries. By the end of 1944, the Navy counted more than 156 submarines on the prowl. Americans sank 2.3 million tons of Japanese shipping that year, which created severe shortages of raw materials, fuel supplies, and food products on the defensive perimeter.

Allied forces advanced slowly in Burma and China, where the Southeast Asia Command, or SEAC, struggled to dislodge the Japanese military. General Stilwell led an overland campaign that reached Myitkyina by the summer of 1944. A composite force of Americans and Chinese fought ferociously under the leadership of General Frank Merrill, prompting American war correspondents to dub them “Merrill's Marauders.” Though tensions remained, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong attempted to put aside their ideological differences while forming a united front against the Japanese occupation of the mainland. The Allies pushed the Ledo Road eastward with blood, sweat, and tears, but Chinese leaders appeared content to leave the job of defeating Japan to U.S. forces in the Pacific theater.

Naval commanders in the U.S. doubted the strategic value of the Palau Islands that bordered the Philippine Sea, but the amphibious assaults proceeded as scheduled. Beginning on September 15, 1944, the 1st Marine Division stormed Peleliu. After capturing the airfield on the island, they faced an enemy emplaced in caves, pillboxes, and mountains. They endured day after day of horrific brawling, during which 8,769 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing. A smaller Japanese garrison defended nearby Angaur, which the Army's 81st Infantry Division assailed and secured by September 30.

Beginning on October 5, Admiral Halsey's Task Force 38 hit Japanese positions on the Ryukyu Islands. Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher's 1,100 carrier-borne fighters and fighter-bombers engaged a comparable number of Japanese aircraft. Americans scored a victory by destroying more than 500 planes while losing only 110. They also struck air bases on Japanese-occupied Formosa. Though unable to win in battle, the Japanese military vowed to inflict heavy losses on U.S. forces in the Philippine Sea.

With the American flanks in the Central Pacific protected, U.S. forces entered the Philippine archipelago. Though no single individual actually led the entire operation, MacArthur exercised unified command over the air, ground, and naval forces conducting the attack. Nimitz directed Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, to provide cover for the landings on the island of Leyte. “In case of opportunity for destruction of major portion of the enemy fleet offers or can be created,” ordered Nimitz, “such destruction becomes the primary task.” To his subordinates, Halsey put it bluntly: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!”

The American offensive at Leyte began on October 20, 1944, as four Army divisions landed abreast on the eastern shore. Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, MacArthur's naval subordinate and commander of the Seventh Fleet, directed the naval gunfire support and carrier-based air support for the amphibious assault. Also in support, the land-based aircraft of the Southwest Pacific Area received orders from General George C. Kenney. General Walter Krueger, commander of the Sixth Army, controlled the ground forces on the beaches. In a choreographed moment before cameras, MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte to announce: “I have returned.”

From October 23 to October 26, the Battle of Leyte Gulf constituted the largest naval battle in history. It actually involved a number of concurrent engagements on the waters as well as in the skies. Inside the San Bernardino Strait, Halsey sent Task Force 38 to attack a dispersed Japanese flotilla. Kincaid's six battleships formed a deadly line across the neck of the Suriago Strait, where the Japanese lost two battleships, three cruisers, and four destroyers. To bait the Americans into a chase, the Japanese carriers remained disengaged to the north. Failing to deploy Task Force 34, the irascible Halsey left the straits undefended and steamed with his entire fleet in pursuit of the prey. At Cape Engaño, his bold action sank all four Japanese carriers and three destroyers. However, Japanese naval forces struck the outgunned vessels of Taffy 3 off the coast of Samar. Exploding bombs threw geysers of spray upward, as anti-aircraft shells dispersed black puffs of smoke overhead. Japanese pilots launched kamikazes, that is, aircraft deliberately and desperately prepared to crash into U.S. warships. Americans lost one carrier and three escorts before the remaining Japanese warships scattered for safety.

More than 3,500 Americans perished in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, while as many as 10,000 Japanese died. Whereas the former lost only 37,000 tons of naval might, the latter lost an irreplaceable 306,000 tons. The last carrier responsible for the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor sank to the bottom. Consequently, the Japanese fleet no longer posed a direct challenge to U.S. operations in the Philippine Sea.

Moving inland from the eastern coast of Leyte, American troops proceeded with the offensive as planned. Miserable weather, inhospitable terrain, and enemy aircraft slowed the pace of operations along the Central Mountain range. The Sixth Army doggedly advanced with artillery and armor, eventually turning southward to take Ormoc. In December, Krueger landed the 77th Infantry Division on Leyte's western coast in order to link with the Sixth Army. Together, they began to envelop and to batter the enemy. U.S. forces soon controlled the most important sectors of the island, although sporadic clashes in the mountains continued for months. On Leyte, American fatalities numbered 3,500 compared with close to 60,000 Japanese deaths.

Though falling behind schedule, MacArthur prepared to assault the main island of Luzon. The first step was the swift capture of an air base on Mindoro, 150 miles south of Manila, in late 1944. On January 9, 1945, four Army divisions landed along the shores of the Lingayen Gulf. With Halsey's Task Force 38 providing support to U.S. landing craft at Luzon, the Japanese launched suicide speedboats against them. Later that month, General Robert Eichelberger landed divisions of the Eighth Army at Bataan and near Manila Bay. Americans took Clark Field for additional aerial operations and freed ill-treated prisoners of war.

Street fighting occurred during a 10-day contest for Manila, where Americans liberated the capital city through intense urban combat. Japanese animosity produced a rampage of murder, rape, and mutilation. Within the ruins, as many as 100,000 Filipino civilians perished. American deaths in Manila reached 1,000, but around 16,000 Japanese were slain.

On February 27, 1945, MacArthur arrived in Manila to reestablish the Commonwealth government. U.S. and Filipino forces drove Japanese troops into hideaways and tunnels inside the fortified islands, where most died in an onslaught of demolitions, ordnance, and flamethrowers. Military actions in the countryside continued until summer, but Americans eventually cleared their foes from the Philippines.

Victory in Europe

The Allies in Europe pressed for the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers. As U.S. and British forces hammered the Siegfried Line, the Red Army pushed the German military into a full retreat from the Soviet border. Though outgunned and outnumbered, the Nazis endeavored to stiffen their crumbling lines from the Baltics to the Balkans. With the winter of 1944 approaching, Hitler issued directives to the Third Reich based not upon a coherent strategy but on irrational, erroneous, and bizarre hunches.

Figure 12.4 The European theater, 1942–1945


As snow fell on Allied dispositions in the Ardennes Forest, the German high command ordered one last offensive. On December 16, 1944, German infantry and armor counterattacked between Monschau and Echternach. The Führer's gamble caught his opponents off balance, although it lacked the personnel, equipment, fuel, and supplies to reach Antwerp. Despite the shortages, the German thrust created a 50-mile “bulge” westward into Belgium and Luxembourg.

During the Battle of the Bulge, U.S. forces withstood ferocious assaults for days. Americans gallantly defended the crossroads town of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division and other elements held out. The Panzers bypassed the location but cut them off from reinforcements and provisions. General Anthony C. McAuliffe, the acting division commander, answered one German demand for an American surrender in a word: “Nuts.”

Even though the Germans briefly breached the line at St. Vith, the dark skies over the Americans cleared. Just before Christmas, C-46s and C-47s conducted airdrops of supplies to the troops in the Ardennes Forest. Allied fighter bombers and howitzers blasted the Nazi spearhead near the Meuse. Recently promoted to General of the Army, Eisenhower directed Patton to dispatch a relief column to Bastogne. With astonishing speed, three divisions from the Third Army wheeled 90 degrees and rolled northward – throttles open and guns firing. Just after Christmas, tank crews of the 4th Armored Division shook hands with the grateful survivors of the 101st Airborne Division.

On January 7, 1945, the German side of the “bulge” burst. In their single most costly victory of the campaign, American losses in the Battle of the Bulge numbered 19,000 deaths, 15,000 captured, and 47,000 wounded. German casualties exceeded 100,000, but they also bled energy and resources in defeat. Allied assets on the battlefield overwhelmed Hitler's waning reserves of men, armor, and aircraft.

With the Luftwaffe's planes no longer airborne, General Carl Spaatz, commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces, intensified the strikes on Germany. He touted “daylight, precision bombing,” even if daylight sacrificed planes and pilots and precision remained unattainable. Nevertheless, the bombing devastated German cities, degraded oil and transportation facilities, and destroyed heavy industries. A deluge of ordnance over Berlin helped to inspire the Nazi fascination with exotic technologies of revenge such as the V-1 cruise and the V-2 ballistic missiles. Likewise, Americans clung to their own fantasy that air power alone would break the enemy. In Operation Thunderclap, a combined American and British aerial campaign was launched expressly to destroy civilian morale in Germany. On February 3, an attack on Berlin killed 25,000 people. Ten days later, an attack on Dresden ignited a firestorm that killed 35,000 people. Accordingly, the American press referred to the strategy as “terror bombing.”

As air superiority over Germany elevated American confidence, Roosevelt won re-election to a fourth presidential term. Rising from his wheelchair to grip a lectern, he uttered only 573 words in the shortest inaugural address ever delivered. “In the days and in the years that are to come,” he said from the South Portico of the White House, “we shall work for a just and honorable peace, a durable peace, as today we work and fight for total victory in war.”

Pursuant to their grand strategic vision, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Yalta to plan for the end of the war. During the first session on February 4, 1945, they discussed voting blocs in the United Nations as well as a “sphere of influence” for the Soviet Union. They issued the Declaration on Liberated Europe, which pledged mutual support for the conduct of elections in countries freed from Nazi tyranny. The Allies remained committed to the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers and tentatively agreed to divide Germany into zones of occupation. However, Roosevelt's failing health affected American leadership at Yalta. With the Red Army firmly in control of eastern Europe, the commander-in-chief noted that he “did not believe that American troops would stay in Europe for much more than two years.” In return for Stalin's promise to declare war on Japan within three months of Germany's surrender, Roosevelt consented to the Soviet annexation of the Kurile Islands in addition to portions of Sakhalin Island and Outer Mongolia. The Yalta Conference closed on February 11, but critics complained about its “secrets” for years.

In early 1945, Eisenhower ordered a riposte that crushed the residual German units in the Ardennes. Approximately 1.4 million combat troops – the largest field command in American history – began pushing through the Siegfried Line. Some maneuvered between small, truncated pyramids of reinforced concrete called “dragon's teeth.” The Americans and the British headed eastward, while the Russians rolled westward. Their vise on Germany tightened that March.

The Allied forces from the west reached the Rhine, taking the city of Cologne and the bridge at Remagen. Engineers assembled more bridges, which enabled the infantry and armored divisions to sprint over the waterways. They overran the valley of the Ruhr, where more than 300,000 Germans were captured. Although the Third Reich clung to power, the 101st Airborne reached Berchtesgaden. However, Eisenhower decided to stop his drive at the River Elbe, west of Berlin, allowing the Russians to seize the city. As the German defenses collapsed, the Red Army conducted an orgy of rape, murder, and mayhem. With Patton's Third Army held in abeyance, the Soviets also seized Prague, the Czech capital.

Elsewhere, Americans observed the crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich. In previous years, trains of cattle cars hauled human cargo to mass death in concentration camps. The gas chambers and crematoria provided the modern mechanisms for genocide. The Nazi regime systematically exterminated 6 million Jews and countless others. Eisenhower gazed upon the piles of naked bodies and issued a stark order after visiting a subcamp of Buchenwald: “I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place.” The emaciated survivors testified to the horrors of the Holocaust. That fall, the Allies brought 24 German officials to trial in Nuremberg as “war criminals.”

The war in the European theater of operations climaxed, although the last German garrisons fought with fanatical determination. With Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman became the commander-in-chief and began planning for the American occupation of Germany. Following Hitler's suicide in a Berlin bunker, the Nazi regime surrendered unconditionally on May 8 – VE Day. Thanks to victory in Europe, Allied forces brought an end to the evils of the Third Reich.

Japanese Resistance

As American troops secured more islands in the Pacific theater of operations, Japanese resistance became stronger rather than weaker. Militarists on the defensive invoked the spirit of bushido, that is, the way of the warrior that recalled national traditions. They stressed ancient tenets to encourage soldiers, sailors, and airmen to fight to the end. Instead of making rational calculations about retreating or surrendering, scores made fanatical stands or launched suicidal charges. U.S. commanders recognized that they faced a defiant enemy while advancing toward Japan's home islands.

On January 20, 1945, General Curtis LeMay assumed command of XXI Bomber Command to intensify the aerial offensive against Japan. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, he entered the Army Air Corps through the ROTC program at Ohio State University and honed his skills by leading air strikes against Germany. His subordinates referred to him as “Old Iron Pants.” He abandoned the concept of daylight, precision bombing in the Pacific, which seemed incapable of forcing the enemy to capitulate. After arriving in the Marianas, he ordered his squadrons to conduct area bombings at night that destroyed Japan's major industries and cities. Flying at lower altitudes permitted aircraft to carry heavier payloads. After test raids against Nagoya and Kobe, the strategic bombing campaign concentrated on Tokyo.

On March 9, B-29s dropped 1,665 tons of incendiaries on Tokyo. The M-69 projectile spewed burning gelatinized gasoline on targets. When the firestorm finally ceased burning, more than 80,000 Japanese had perished and another 40,000 were injured. Bomber crews leaving the scene observed the blaze from the sky for more than 150 miles. Eventually, the bombardments killed as many as 250,000 civilians. American ordnance damaged many industrial plants beyond repair. One of the air raids destroyed Japan's nuclear research laboratory. “If the war is shortened by a single day,” LeMay declared without remorse, then “the attack will have served its purpose.” While ramping up the sorties over the urban areas, the general also directed an airborne mining operation that targeted Japanese waterways and ports. Although U.S. squadrons struck the home islands night after night, fighter interceptors occasionally downed vulnerable bombers returning to the Marianas.

U.S. commanders wanted to build air bases on Iwo Jima, a tiny island between the Marianas and Tokyo. Just over 4.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, it smelled of sulfur from the dormant volcano of Mount Suribachi. Inland from the beaches, the Japanese possessed two operational airfields with a third under construction. Their radar stations forewarned the home islands about B-29 flights. They also built 800 pillboxes, 3 miles of tunnels, and deep concrete bunkers to protect 21,000 troops.

Operation Detachment began on February 19, 1945, when the men of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions sank their boots into an unforgettable mixture of surf, sand, and ash. Mauled by Japanese shells and gunfire along the shoreline, they advanced yard by yard against the complex of entrenchments and arms. They overcame minefields and machine guns in addition to howitzers, mortars, and rockets. A few days later, an American photographer captured a picture of five Marines and a Navy medic raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi.

Even if Americans appeared triumphant, the battle raged for another month in hostile enclaves around the island. Marines entered the Motoyama Plateau, which included hot spots such as Hill 382, “Turkey Knob,” and “The Amphitheater.” Under the cover of close air support, a handful of “Zippo” tanks equipped with flamethrowers cleared key emplacements. More than 20,000 Japanese died in ghastly combat or from ritual suicide, while they inflicted almost 30,000 casualties on the Americans. Once the Battle of Iwo Jima ended, engineers began constructing air bases for launching more bombing runs against Japan.

The Ryukyu chain of islands included Okinawa, which loomed just 350 miles south of Japan's home islands. Some 60 miles long, it ranged in width from around 18 miles to merely 2 miles. Defending four airfields, Japanese strength amounted to over 100,000 soldiers. The 77th Infantry Division quickly captured the uncontested Kerama Islands to the west of Okinawa, where U.S. forces would conduct the largest amphibious assault of the war.

In Operation Iceberg, the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions under General Roy S. Geiger landed on Okinawa on April 1. From the northern beachhead, they moved inland with little opposition. However, Japanese resistance soon turned deadly. Marines cleared the Motobu peninsula yet continued to encounter guerrilla raids. General Simon Buckner commanded the Tenth Army, which faced a network of fortifications among the hills and escarpments on the island's southern end. The hand-to-hand combat slowed the advance, but some 300,000 Americans slugged their way through the defenses. Without flinching, they pressed onward through monsoons and mud to secure the airfields. They eventually took the Kakazu Ridge, Conical Hill, and Sugar Loaf Hill, although the Shuri Line remained an enemy bastion for weeks. A Japanese counterattack on May 4 failed due to naval gunfire, artillery barrages, and aerial bombardment.

While providing support in the Ryukyuian waters, the Fifth Fleet endured desperate attacks from the remnants of the Japanese Navy. Submarine patrols monitored offshore movements, as Task Force 58 operated to the east of Okinawa with as many as eight destroyers and 13 carriers. They battled against multiple kamikaze waves from Kyushu in addition to individual kamikaze sorties from Formosa. Furthermore, land-based motor boats launched suicidal strikes against U.S. warships. Underwater divers strapped explosives to their bodies as well. A Japanese task force conducted another futile operation, but American torpedo bombers pummeled the battleship, destroyers, and cruisers.

Japanese forces on Okinawa offered the strongest resistance at the Yaeju-Dake position, which American troops dubbed the “Big Apple.” American firepower eventually annihilated every machine gun nest and foxhole on the high ground, where desperate men made their last stands. Hiding in caves and tunnels, Japanese officers ordered them to defend the narrow pocket “to the death.” All too many chose suicide over surrender.

The Battle of Okinawa became a bloodbath, but it largely ended on June 22. Officially, 7,613 Americans were killed in action or remained missing on the island, and another 4,900 died at sea. Thousands more received wounds that kept them in military hospitals for months. A shell fragment struck Buckner, making him the highest-ranking American killed by enemy fire in the war. As many as 140,000 Japanese perished, including thousands of Okinawans.

In spite of the awful carnage, the slog across the Pacific brought U.S. forces to the doorstep of Japan. American control of critical landing strips permitted aircraft to “firebomb” Japan's major cities, while naval vessels operating offshore stifled Japan's maritime commerce. Moreover, the battlefields of Iwo Jima and Okinawa shaped the strategic thought of those planning future operations for the home islands. Given the sheer brutality of the fighting, the combatants on all sides came to believe that it was a war without mercy.

Atomic Warfare

Atomic warfare was American-made. The U.S. possessed a unique combination of capital, resources, talent, space, and time to build atom bombs. Although programs for nuclear weapons research appeared in Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, only one altered the course of history.

Due to the transplantation of highly educated refugees, Europe bestowed an extraordinary intellectual endowment upon the U.S. Over time, scores of physicists fled their academic posts in Germany to come to America, including Leó Szilárd, a Jew. Enrico Fermi, an Italian with a Jewish wife, emigrated from Rome to New York. Another Jewish immigrant, Albert Einstein, initially caught Roosevelt's attention with a letter about the military potential of radioactivity. Few doubted the scientific principles of nuclear fission, but the technological challenges of producing a deliverable weapon seemed daunting.

In 1942, the Roosevelt administration took action to make a deliverable weapon possible. Vannevar Bush headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which coordinated federally sponsored “wizardry” at university and industrial laboratories. The Top Policy Group also included Secretary of War Stimson and Army Chief of Staff Marshall. Under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist from the University of California at Berkeley, scientists gathered in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to design an atom bomb. The War Department spent more than $2 billion, employed 150,000 people, and required the cooperation of research and development facilities across the U.S. From the Army Corps of Engineers, General Leslie Groves managed the project code-named the “Manhattan Engineering District.” The prospects for nuclear power notwithstanding, the impetus for the Manhattan Project derived from fears that other nations – particularly Nazi Germany – would build the atom bomb first. On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear fireball rose above a test site in the Sonoran desert.

Meanwhile, the Truman administration planned for Operation Downfall, which forecast an American invasion of Japan's home islands from staging areas on Okinawa. The high command intended for the first phase, which was code-named Olympic, to commence on November 1, 1945. Supported by a large naval armada and a heavy bomber fleet, the projected landing force of 14 divisions would assail the southern island of Kyushu. Code-named Coronet, the second phase would begin on March 1, 1946. With 25 divisions assaulting the beaches of Honshu, they expected to converge gradually on Tokyo. Some estimates of American casualties for the combined operations exceeded a million. Truman approved the war plans but hoped to find a way of preventing “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another.”

At the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945, Truman met with fellow Allied leaders for two weeks. He briefly conversed with Churchill, who lost his seat at the table to Clement Attlee, the new British prime minister. Stalin reaffirmed his pledge to wage war on Japan, while Truman received a top-secret telegram about the completion of the Manhattan Project. As a stressful session at Potsdam ended, Truman casually mentioned to Stalin “a new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Through an interpreter, the latter encouraged the former to make “good use of it against the Japanese.” On July 26, they issued the Potsdam Proclamation. It called for “the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces” and warned of “prompt and utter destruction” if they refused.

Japanese leaders responded with an official “silence” known as mokusatsu, which the Truman administration interpreted as an outright rejection of the Potsdam Proclamation. Emperor Hirohito and Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, the new premier, seemed unshaken by the dire warnings. Whatever the ramifications, Tokyo circulated “peace feelers” that garnered no interest in Moscow. “I regarded the bomb as a military weapon,” Truman wrote in the wake of Japan's defiance, “and never had any doubt that it should be used.”

Upon Truman's orders, U.S. warships delivered two atom bombs to Tinian. Colonel Paul W. Tibbets commanded the 509th Bombardment Group, which operated under LeMay's supervision. His bomber crew loaded the Little Boy, a weapon that contained a large quantity of Uranium-235 fissionable material at one end and a smaller amount of the same material loaded into a gun at the other. Triggering the gun propelled the smaller into the larger, thereby creating a nuclear explosion. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a B-29 named the Enola Gay dropped the bomb over the city of Hiroshima. The blast immediately killed 80,000 Japanese, but the death toll from radioactivity and infections reached 140,000 by the end of the year.

Figure 12.5 Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., pilot of the Enola Gay, August 6, 1945. Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926–1951, National Archives


No word of surrender came from Tokyo, because the home government tarried. Shortly before midnight on August 8, the Soviet Union hastened to enter the war and attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria. Consequently, Truman ordered the second atom bomb dropped as soon as possible. Called the Fat Man, the weapon used plutonium instead of uranium as a fissionable material. It imploded upon the detonation of the TNT casing, which caused a chain reaction with devastating effects. On August 9, Major Charles Sweeney piloted a B-29 named the Bockscar over its primary target, Kokura. Due to hazy conditions, the bomber turned toward Nagasaki. At 11:02 a.m., the bomb fell on target and immediately killed 36,000 Japanese. As helpless civilians wandered the streets of Nagasaki, the fatalities eventually reached 70,000.

In the wake of the blasts, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey evaluated the military effectiveness of atomic warfare. They estimated that the damage and casualties caused by one atom bomb at Hiroshima would have required 220 B-29s carrying 1,200 tons of incendiary bombs, 400 tons of high-explosive bombs, and 500 tons of anti-personnel fragmentation bombs. At Nagasaki, it would have required 125 B-29s carrying 1,200 tons of bombs to approximate the damage and casualties of one atom bomb. The second explosion surpassed the first in sheer intensity, but the hilly topography of the target area reduced the impact comparatively. At ground zero in both cities, the heat charred corpses beyond recognition.

Horrified by the unforgettable fire of atomic warfare, Japanese leaders came to terms with the U.S. The emperor urged the Suzuki ministry to accept surrender as long as he retained the throne. However, the Truman administration insisted that the emperor's authority become subject to the Allied supreme commander. Though threatened by a military coup, the emperor himself announced Japan's capitulation in a radio message on August 14. On September 2, General MacArthur and other Allied representatives received the formal surrender on board the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The American occupation of the home islands ensued thereafter.


World War II leveled whole cities, dismembered entire nations, and reconfigured modern life. With the theaters of operations outside the western hemisphere, the U.S. developed the mass-production techniques that revolutionized military affairs. The wartime materials that came from American factories exceeded the annual production levels for the Axis Powers combined. As the infusion of arms quickened the tempo of fighting, the Allied forces worked together to overwhelm Germany, Italy, and Japan on every front. The GIs liberated the people of North Africa and western Europe from the Third Reich, while the Red Army swept across eastern Europe. From the Solomon archipelago to the Ryukyu chain, U.S. forces smashed the Empire of Japan. Great leaders such as Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Nimitz, and LeMay steered men and women in uniform to final victory. Able to harness science to the purposes of warfare, Americans transformed Hiroshima and Nagasaki into fireballs.

Atomic warfare accelerated the end of hostilities and saved the lives of many Americans, but it also insinuated, as MacArthur observed at the time, that “Armageddon will be at our door.” A whole generation of warriors defended the U.S. and invested themselves in the fate of the twentieth century. Their values envisaged a global struggle with more options for winning, which included ones that substituted firepower for manpower. Respecting the tenets of civil society, the Roosevelt administration employed the entire nation in the war effort. Furthermore, policymakers sought alternatives to the conventional strategies and tactics that produced enormous casualties among the GIs on the front lines. Military personnel remained a vital instrument of war, to be sure, but they often deferred to the logistics that achieved command of the seas and the skies. The myth of a good war glorified the triumph of the world's first superpower, even if it glossed over the foreboding implications of the mushroom clouds.

Armed with lethal weapons, the American military emerged from World War II as arguably the most powerful force on the planet. The fighter pilot demonstrated remarkable skill in bringing down enemy aircraft, while the bombardier fearlessly attacked munitions factories in opposing cities from a distance. Aboard the ships of naval fleets and task forces, the sailor bested anonymous foes in the North Atlantic as well as in the South and Central Pacific. Once ashore, the engineer buried anti-personnel mines in defense of forward positions. No infantryman, however, escaped from the grim reality of the killing, even though many grew dependent on an array of machines in combat. In fact, the majority of American combatants needed massive support to surpass the capabilities of their adversaries. For every million dollars in damage to the Axis Powers, the U.S. also spent a million dollars on assets to cause it. Whatever the unintended consequences of military technology, the “totality” of its destructiveness made World War II the deadliest fight ever.

The U.S. grew determined not only to win World War II but also to secure the postwar peace. Given the economic impact of wartime enterprises, the nation recognized both the pragmatic benefits of a better life and the idealistic dreams of a safer world. Planning and logistics made big business even bigger, as indicated by the military and industrial combinations that boosted commerce. Moreover, the incredible achievements of “total war” shifted the balance of power in the world to the corridors of the Pentagon. Strategic thought evolved in relation to the complex, dynamic threats to national security, which compelled Washington D.C. to assume responsibility for a constant struggle to adjust ends and means, to reconcile the tugs of coalition partners, and to promote freedom on a global scale and scope. Communication, calculation, and coordination made the American way of war effective. It was no mere accident of history, but the world that the war ravaged appeared ready for a new international order.

Essential Questions

1 What gave the Grand Alliance a comparative advantage over the Axis Powers?

2 Was Roosevelt an effective commander-in-chief? Why, or why not?

3 In what ways did military operations in the Pacific theater differ substantially from those in the European theater?

Suggested Readings

Adams, Michael C. C. The Best War Ever: Americans and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Altschuler, Glenn C., and Stuart M. Blumin. The G.I. Bill: A New Deal for Veterans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944–May 7, 1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade in Europe. New York: Doubleday, 1948.

Gambone, Michael D. The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society. College State: Texas A&M University Press, 2005.

Giangreco, D. M. Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945–1947. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kennedy, Paul. Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. New York: Random House, 2013.

Kennett, Lee. G.I.: The American Soldier in World War II. 1987; repr. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Koistinen, Paul A. C. Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940–1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Korda, Michael. Ike: An American Hero. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Linderman, Gerald F. The World Within War: America's Combat Experience in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1997.

McManus, John C. The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998.

Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Millett. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

O'Neill, William L. A Democracy at War: America's Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Perret, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II. New York: Random House, 1993.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Scrijvers, Peter. The G.I. War against Japan: American Soldiers in the Pacific and Asia during World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Sherry, Michael S. The Rise of American Air Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Sledge, Eugene B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1981.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1984.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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