Friday, Aug. 14, marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the bloodiest war in human history, during which an estimated 60 million people lost their lives.
For the United States, the toll was approximately 418,000, with American GIs fighting and dying in places as far-flung as North Africa, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, France, Germany and Belgium, to name a few.
The war in the Pacific had already been raging for years when on a quiet Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched their surprise attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor in the American territory of Hawaii.
Days later, Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler declared war on the U.S. in keeping with a defense pact he had entered into with the Empire of Japan.
Now, America found itself in a two-front war in Europe and the Pacific.
For Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who would ultimately accept the Japanese surrender, the war would be quite a journey that took him from the depths of devastating defeat early on in the conflict to being named Supreme Allied Commander, charged with overseeing the occupation of Japan in August 1945.
Among the first casualties of the war were the American forces fighting under his command in the U.S. commonwealth of the Philippines, which the Japanese invaded shortly after their attack on Pearl Harbor.
After putting up a brave fight, tens of thousands of the combined American and Filipino forces surrendered to the Japanese in April 1942, marking the worst loss in U.S. military history.
The previous month, when defeat looked imminent, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines and go to Australia to lead the counterattack against the Japanese.
Heartsick, the general obeyed, but famously pledged upon reaching Australia’s shores after breaking through the Japanese blockade of Manila Harbor via PT boat and narrowly escaping capture, “I came through and I shall return.”
It would take the next two-and-a-half years to fulfill that pledge as Allied forces under his command in the Southwest Pacific Theater of the war fought the 3,500 miles back to Philippine shores in October 1944.
— WWII Pictures (@WWIIpix) October 20, 2017
Meanwhile, in the Central Pacific Theater, forces under U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz spent those same years drawing closer and closer to the Japanese homeland.
Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in the Pacific would take place in 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima in February and March and on the Japanese island of Okinawa beginning in April 1945.
The U.S. Marines lost more soldiers in the first six months of 1945 than in the previous three years of the war combined, and most of the deaths came on Okinawa, the southernmost of the five main islands that make up Japan.
When the battle ended on June 22, the United States counted 12,500 military personnel dead and 36,500 wounded, while the Japanese suffered approximately 110,000 dead soldiers and an additional 40,000 to 150,000 civilians killed, according to History.com.
The enemy also introduced kamikaze planes in the battle. The suicide pilots flying the explosive-laden aircraft managed to sink 36 U.S. Navy ships and damage 368 others.
I wrote this a while back for the @spectator. A review of the brilliant book by @sauldavid66 on the Battle of Okinawa. It’s a horrifying story and a clear explanation — though not an endorsement — of the logic of the atomic bomb: https://t.co/MJ7fzkWztU@questingvole
— JayElwes (@JayElwes) August 6, 2020
All this weighed heavily on the minds of President Harry Truman, MacArthur, Nimitz and other top War Department brass as plans for the invasion of the most populous islands of Kyushu and Honshu (where Tokyo is located) continued to be developed.
“Truman … is looking at Okinawa. Before, in the war on Japan, we were killing almost 10 Japanese for every one of our guys that got killed,” James Zobel, director of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, told The Western Journal. “But you get to Iwo [Jima] and Okinawa and it flips. We’re taking immense casualties.”
When Truman asked MacArthur to give an estimate of how many American casualties (dead and wounded) would be suffered in the upcoming invasion, the general told him, “one million.”
The president later wrote in his memoir that Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall told him to anticipate up to 500,000 dead U.S. military personnel.
MacArthur believed that the Japanese would likely suffer millions killed if previous experience held true.
Neither MacArthur nor Nimitz knew that the United States had been developing a new weapon, the atomic bomb, which, if successful, could potentially end the war without the costly invasion. The military leaders were not told about it until just before its use, in the event the bomb failed.
Dr. Conrad Crane, chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center, told The Western Journal that besides just the chance to save U.S. military personnel’s lives was a recognition that the American people were growing tired of war, especially following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May.
“One of the other reasons for the pressure behind the use of the bomb … any means necessary to end the war in the Pacific was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a perception the American public was war-weary,” Crane said.
“There were a lot of signs that American society was cracking under the effort,” he added. “There was a lot of disgruntlement in Europe when soldiers were told, ‘You’re going to have to go fight the war in the Pacific.’ They said, ‘We won our war; why do we go have to fight this other war?’”
Before using the atomic bomb, the U.S. sent a message to Japan calling for its unconditional surrender, but Tokyo refused.
On Aug. 6, 1945, at Truman’s direction, the United States dropped the bomb on the military-industrial city of Hiroshima. An estimated 80,000 of the city’s 400,000 inhabitants perished in a blazing inferno. Another 60,000 would die from the effects of the fallout by the end of the year.
In keeping with an agreement made with the United States at Yalta, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 8 and attacked the Japanese-held territory of Manchuria.
The Allies again called for the Japanese to surrender. When no word was received, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Aug. 9, this time on Nagasaki, which decimated the city and killed approximately 70,000 more inhabitants.
Still there was no word of surrender, so the United States recommenced the bombing of Tokyo. Finally, on Aug. 15 (Aug. 14 in the U.S.), Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced to his people and the world the surrender of the nation.
— American Veterans Center (@AVCupdate) August 14, 2017
“If Japan had not abruptly surrendered, an allied invasion would certainly have been bloody and protracted on a vast scale with massive casualties on both sides, as well as untold civilian deaths,” Dr. James Carafano, a national security expert with the Heritage Foundation and former West Point history professor, said in an emailed statement to The Western Journal.
“The Japanese surrender spared millions the terrible fate experienced by too many in this terrible war,” he added.
Crane contends it was a series of blows that brought about the Japanese capitulation: the two atomic bomb attacks, the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the entrance of the Soviets into the war chief among them.
“All of these are necessary. You take away any one of those blows and the outcome is probably different and later, with major implications for both sides,” he said.
Crane recalled giving a talk at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in the 1990s regarding the use of the atomic bomb to end the war. At the event, a senior Japanese historian argued one implication of not ending the war quickly would have been his nation being divided in two like Germany.
“Because of those terrible blows, we surrendered in August. If we had not surrendered in August, the Soviet Union was going to invade Hokkaido [Island] in September,” the historian said.
“We would have had a communist north and a non-communist south, just like East and West Germany.”
MacArthur oversaw the formal surrender of Japan on Sunday, Sept. 2, on board the USS Missouri in overcast Tokyo Bay.
After both the Allied representatives and the Japanese signed the surrender documents, the five-star general stepped up to the microphone and pronounced, “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”
It was 9:25 a.m. At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds, and 400 B-29 bombers and 1,500 American fighter planes flew in formation overhead. The timing could not have been better.
MacArthur, then 65, addressed the American people via a radio broadcast immediately after the ceremony.
“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won,” he said. “The skies no longer rain death, the seas bear only commerce, men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world lies quietly at peace.”
“The holy mission is completed.”
MacArthur concluded by extolling the virtues of those who fought to secure the peace.
“And so, my fellow countrymen, today I report to you that your sons and daughters have served you well and faithfully with the calm, deliberate, determined spirit of the American soldier and sailor based on the tradition of historical truth, as against the fanaticism of an enemy supported only by mythological fiction,” he said.
“Their spiritual strength and power has brought us through to victory. They are homeward bound — take care of them.”
Portions of this article first appeared in the book “We Hold These Truths” by Randall DeSoto.
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