The 81st anniversary of the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is an opportune time to recall some forgotten key facts about World War II. The most destructive war in history caused the deaths of between 23 million and 25 million combatants; and between 38 million and 55 million civilians.
As Williamson Murray and Allan Millett document in their excellent “A War To Be Won: Fighting the Second World War,” the Soviet Union’s armed forces, with 11 million to 13 million military deaths, were “the most dangerous in which to serve.” The American armed forces were the least dangerous, with 405,000 uniformed deaths.
Despite the recent claim by military historian Edward Luttwak, that “the Americans had refused to enter the war even after the Germans had conquered most of Europe,” the United States is the only nation that fought and vanquished the armies, navies and air forces of the Axis countries, in all theaters.
While the Soviet Union played the leading role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and her collaborating nations on the European continent, the Communist nation only entered the Pacific War on Aug. 8, 1945, with a multi-pronged blitzkrieg against Japanese forces in Manchuria. One week later, Japan unconditionally surrendered.
The Soviet Union and Imperial Japan had signed in April 1941 — and honored for more than four years — a nonaggression pact. Nearly two years earlier, a battle between the two military powers erupted on the Manchurian-Mongolian border, which ended in Aug. 1939 with the Soviet forces, under Gen. Georgy Zhukov, destroying the Japanese combatants.
It took just 11 months after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, for the Allies to turn the tides on multiple fronts. By early June 1942, in the Central and Southwestern Pacific theaters, U.S. Navy pilots had sunk five Japanese aircraft carriers and disabled two others, in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.
These two victories thwarted the Japanese Navy’s plans to invade Australia, India, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Two months later in Aug. 1942, Marines landed at Guadalcanal and began America’s relentless counter-offensive that three years later climaxed with Japan’s unconditional surrender.
On Nov. 8, 1942, the U.S. Navy and British Royal Navy successfully landed 107,000 American and British soldiers in Morocco and Algeria. “Operation Torch” turned the tide in the Mediterranean theater against the forces of Vichy France, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
November 1942 was also when the tides irrevocably shifted to the Allies at El-Alamein, and in and around Stalingrad.
On Nov. 3 in central Egypt, Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Commonwealth Army, with potent support from the U.S. Army Air Corps, shattered the defensive line of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s German-Italian Army. The Allied breakout sent Axis soldiers fleeing toward the Libyan border, and eventually to Tunisia.
On the Eastern Front on Nov. 19, 1942, the Red Army counter-attacked on the flanks of Stalingrad, and over the next two and one-half months, killed, wounded, or captured hundreds of thousands German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian soldiers and pilots.
In May 1943, American and Commonwealth soldiers captured 275,000 German and Italian soldiers in northern Tunisia.
The most competent senior Allied — or Axis — commander during the war is little-remembered Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, who on Dec. 7, 1941 was commanding the Atlantic Fleet. During the previous year, he had effectively supported the United Kingdom in its life-and-death battle with the German U-boats.
A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed Admiral Husband Kimmel, as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, and appointed King as his replacement.
At the end of March 1943, FDR replaced Admiral Harold Stark, as Chief of Naval Operations, with Admiral King, who very successfully discharged both positions until the Japanese surrender.
President Roosevelt was a seasoned naval expert, having served during World War I as President Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy.
In May 1943, Admiral King finally persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to abandon their pipe dream that a United Kingdom, Indian, Chinese and American army and air force would defeat the Japanese in the China-India-Burma Theater.
Instead, over the next two years, Admiral King’s American-only Central Pacific Drive destroyed Japan’s naval and air power. It began with the successful, but costly, invasion of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in Nov. 1943.
Then came the monumental amphibious liberations of the Marshall Islands (Jan. 1944); Mariana Islands (June 1944); Philippines (Oct. 1944); Iwo Jima (Feb. 1945); and Okinawa (April 1945).
Visionary Congressman Carl Vinson, D-Ga., chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee between 1931 and 1947, played a critical role in building up Navy’s strength.
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Ocean commander during World War II, cogently remarked that “I do not know where this country would have been after Dec. 7, 1941, if it had not had the ships and know-how to build more ships fast, to which one Vinson bill after another was responsible.”
Unquestionably, the 16,113,000 Americans who served in uniform in World War II were the most powerful and effective fighting force in human history.
Amazingly, 81 years after America’s entry into the war, 389,000 veterans are still blessing us with their inspiring presence.
Mark Schulte is a retired New York City schoolteacher and mathematician who has written extensively about science and the history of science. Read Mark Schulte's Reports — More Here.
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