WWII Pacific Revisited

by Steve on January 10, 2011

I’ve learned more in the last year about the real war that took place over 70 years ago in the Pacific than I got from history classes or while on active duty with the Navy. The beginning of this education involved research for the segment I wrote for The Solomons Campaign. It obviously influenced my reading list since then culminating with Flyboys by James Bradley.  As I learned of the atrocities committed by both sides in the Pacific two thoughts kept reoccurring. One was I must have been an even worse student than I thought because I don’t remember learning the grizzly details in the classroom and secondly Americans at home in the 1940’s would not have been able to persevere as they did if they had been subjected to our modern media. 

What I remember from history class is primarily centered around the war in Europe, D-Day, and Hitler.  Then we unleashed the nuclear genie on Japan to end it all. I failed to remember or never knew about the indiscriminant and massive bombing campaign against major Japanese cities utilizing B-29’s and napalm once we had cleared the way by capturing Iwo Jima. We burned Japan to the ground before we ever nuked them and it was done under the pretense of destroying industry. As a nation we have carried the guilt and responsibility of being the only military to ever use a nuclear weapon against an enemy. Placed within the context of the war, continued conventional bombing of a country that could not conceive of surrender, and an entire population that had been programmed to fight to the last breath, I now have a much better understanding of why President Truman gave the order.

Flyboys is a very difficult read that takes you through the darkest acts of humanity and back again. Bradley also wrote Flags of Our Fathers, his dad’s story as one of the Marines who scaled Mt. Suribachi and raised our flag into history. Look at a map of the Pacific and draw a line north from the Marianas to Japan. Iwo Jima sits almost midway along that line and the Japanese forces stationed there were inflicting huge losses on our bombers trying to reach the Japanese mainland. We’re all familiar with the fierce battle that ensued when the Marines fought their way ashore on Iwo Jima but the story of the Flyboys centers around lesser known Chichi Jima to the north and the strategically critical communications station the Japanese established on its peaks. Iwo was the Marines’ job, the Flyboys were tasked with taking out the heavily fortified station on Chichi. Eight were shot down and captured, their fates known to only a few sworn to secrecy for over 50 years. President Bush (senior) narrowly escaped being included on that list. Flyboys finally tells their story and provides context through the buildup of the Japanese military machine and mindset which Americans found impossible to comprehend. Parts of this story are difficult to read even for an old warrior and yet Bradley counters the darkness with rays of hope. If the men who fought each other can forgive then who are we to judge? I came away with a far greater understanding of the war with Japan – my prior ignorance can best be summed up by Paul Fussell, a WWII vet Bradley quotes:

The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war.

Far more Japanese were killed by the incendiary bombing than by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many more would have died had we continued with conventional bombing rather than dropping the nukes. Japan was beaten militarily long before Hiroshima yet refused to admit it. The invation of mainland Japan would have resulted in unprecedented deaths on both sides – the killing had to stop but the Emporer and his military refused to accept reality. We have beaten the nuclear weapons debate into dust ever since Paul Tibbets and his crew dropped on Hiroshima but consider the following conversation between Tibbets and Mitsuo Fuchida who led the attack on Pearl Harbor:

You did the right thing. You know the Japanese attitude at the time, how fanatic they were, they’d die for the Emporer… Every man, woman, and child would have resisted that invasion with sticks and stones if necessary… Can you imagine what a slaughter it would be to invade Japan? It would have been terrible. The Japanese people know more about that than the American public will ever know.

Bradley does an outstanding job of closing that gap.

{ 1 comment }

Brian McDevitt January 10, 2011 at 16:49

Steve. My mom bought me FLYBOYS when it came out and, as I read it, I don’t think she really realized the savagery described within it’s pages. Flags of our Fathers was another truly great book on the War in the Pacific. For those who prefer to sit in the lazy boy and watch, instead of read, Ken Burns “The War” is a great DVD set. Nothing could surpass his “The Civil War” but the Pacific War gets the full raw coverage needed. Cheers.

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