Just 75 years ago in 1945, a series of momentous events were bringing to a close the worst cataclysm in human history — World War II.
The war officially began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany brutally invaded Poland. However, their allies, the Japanese and Italians, had already been fighting for several years to expand their territorial empires in China and Africa.
The war expanded to encompass all the continents and oceans of the world with the exception of Antarctica. No one will ever know for sure, but the best guesses are some 40 million to 50 million people perished worldwide. The German invasion of the Soviet Union spawned the single highest death toll with estimates running from 15 million to 20 million killed.
When America entered the war after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that the American strategy would be that the war would only end one way — by the “unconditional surrender” of our enemies.
Our more war-ravaged allies, the British and Russians, might have considered less harsh terms such as an “armistice” that ended World War I, or even some type of negotiated cease-fire. Such an ending was unacceptable to Roosevelt. This was the second time in just more than 20 years that American boys had to be sent to Europe to deal with German aggression. Roosevelt was determined this problem would be conclusively eliminated and not left to fester again.
The German army began to collapse during the winter of 1945 after their decisive defeat by the Americans at the Battle of the Bulge, the final desperate gamble by the Germans to change the fortunes of war.
Their army reduced to shambles, the Germans were unable to effectively defend their homeland against powerful Allied armies attacking from both the East and West. After the suicide of Adolf Hitler, and the reality that its industry, transportation systems, and cities were bombed into rubble and ruins, Germany finally surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945.
The attention now turned to the other side of the world and the matter of bringing Japan to its knees. In 1942 the Japanese Pacific expansion had been contained just short of Australia. The years 1943 and 1944 saw Japanese gains methodically and painfully rolled back across the Pacific, China and Asia.
Finally, 1945 would see the last two climatic Pacific battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. These islands would provide air bases and supply facilities from which to launch the ultimate foreboding assault against Japan. But ominously, as the fighting approached the Japanese homeland, it would only get bloodier.
On Feb. 19, 1945, U.S. Marines stormed the dark volcanic ash beaches of Iwo Jima. The sand was so fine it would sink back in when Marines tried to dig a “foxhole” for shelter against Japanese fire. This tiny speck of an Island barely over seven square miles in size had been transformed by the Japanese into the most ingenious fortress the world had ever seen. An incredible system of tunnels and underground fortifications ensured that the Americans would pay a terrible price for every foot of Iwo during the five weeks of relentless fighting required to secure it.
And pay they did, the casualty list was staggering — almost 7,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. All but 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders fought to the death. No other battle in WWII saw 27 Americans awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, famously said of the men who fought on Iwo: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
The last battle of the Pacific war was Okinawa, only 350 miles south of the Japanese mainland. Okinawa is an island about the size of the state of Connecticut that was defended by some 120,000 Japanese troops. Okinawa also had a native population of close to half-a-million people who had nowhere to run when the savagery of modern warfare descended upon their island.
The invasion occurred on April 1, 1945, only a few days after Iwo Jima had been declared secure, and was the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific war. It started as a great April Fool’s joke because the invasion was completely unopposed by the Japanese on the beaches. But after the high casualties just experienced on Iwo, no one was fooled that it would be easy. The Navy had to fight off continuous kamikaze suicide air attacks, and the Japanese army did its usual fight to the death. It took three months of bloody combat to secure Okinawa.
Once again, the death toll was staggering. More than 14,000 Americans were killed, with more than 50,000 wounded. However, on Okinawa, there was also another less remembered tragedy. The widespread death of civilians was a gruesome preview of what fighting in the Japanese homeland would be like. Facing constant pounding from the air and sea, and caught between two fierce and desperate armies, there were few safe places to hide. Civilian deaths on Okinawa were estimated at close to 100,000.
As American war planners began to consider the grim necessity of invading Japan to end the war, they logically evaluated Iwo Jima and Okinawa as miniature dress rehearsals of the death and destruction that was sure to come. Based upon the carnage of Iwo and Okinawa, military experts began estimating American casualties for an invasion and eventual capitulation of Japan could easily approach 1 million.
The Japanese had already earmarked a few thousand planes for kamikaze duty to attack an approaching American fleet full of troopships loaded with hundreds of thousands of soldiers. There were several million Japanese soldiers still in Japan and prepared to defend their homeland to the death. In addition, there were millions more of barely trained civilian militia composed of the young and the old who would probably get thrown into the fight. And, to recall the civilian horrors of Okinawa, who could guess how many millions of Japanese civilians would be put at risk of death and destruction?
Of course, this possible monumental tragedy was prevented by the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. Both cities were destroyed with a total loss of life of around 150,000. But the shock from the bombings compelled the Japanese emperor to seize control of the government from the military and accept the American demand of unconditional surrender, which mercifully ended World War II.
As we remember the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs, be prepared for the misguided or uninformed historical revisionist to question the morality of using them. This is flagrant historical nonsense. A fair, objective interpretation of all the known facts would persuasively argue that dropping the atomic bombs saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.
When Germany and Japan unconditionally surrendered in 1945, their citizens could observe their cities, industry and transportation reduced to a state of almost total devastation. They had no doubt that an atmosphere of complete and total defeat permeated the countryside. There are several hugely important lessons of history that directly flow from World War II’s conclusive, decisive outcome.
First, the problematical task of “nation-building” becomes possible rather than impossible. The aftermath of World War II saw two long time authoritarian, militaristic societies, Germany and Japan, transform themselves into peaceful, prosperous democracies. Next, when your country resembles a wasteland, there is not much motivation for an insurgency. Thus, the postwar occupations of both countries were peaceful and productive.
WWII is the last war the United States fought to a conclusive outcome. Ending a war prematurely, with a non-conclusive outcome, leaves your enemy standing intact, with the potential to regenerate, rearm and come back to haunt you at a time and a place of their choosing.
A quick review of post-World War II history clearly illustrates the undesirable consequences that arise from a non-conclusive outcome. Consider Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and the two different wars in Iraq, and assess the turmoil, instability and continuing threats and violence in those countries. Today, U.S. policy still deals with unresolved situations requiring action, expenditures, and even casualties.
Where is the spirit of FDR and the great World War II commanders who understood that the one unthinkable possibility was for the free world to lose? The widely-recognized military strategist Col. Ralph Peters convincingly expresses his strategy of victory: “Never discount the value of ferocity and power, because war’s immutable law — proven yet again in Iraq — is that those unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill up front, will pay it with compound interest over time.”
In other words, the threshold for war should be high. However, when all other reasonable options are exhausted and war is the appropriate alternative, have the power to fight it quickly, have the will to fight it thoroughly and finish the job.
The writer is a Savannah-area real estate developer and a longtime amateur World War II historian. He lives on Tybee Island.