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1942: Its Lesson for Today

Wednesday, 18 May 2005 12:00 AM

It was the opening days of 1942.

The story of that year is told in a new book, "1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls," by Winston Groom.

When America and Europe recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of VE day – the day the Nazis were finally defeated - I wondered if we would ever have a similar day to mark the defeat of global terror.

I looked again at "1942" sitting on my desk. As an editor, I am deluged with books to review. Only a few make it to my lap for reading.

By starting Groom's "1942," I discovered the tale was so gripping I could not put the book down. Groom is a masterful storyteller and best known perhaps for his fictional work "Forrest Gump" – a story that later became a movie classic.

Groom's "1942" reads more like a novel. Opening with America's involvement in the war amid the backdrop of historical events, Groom quickly ties these events with the up-close and personal stories of the men and women who struggled to defeat fascism.

For sure, "1942" is not an anachronism. Its messages are timely as we wage a war on terror.

Apparently, Groom has said the genesis of his book was September 11th. After the devastating blow to America's homeland and psyche, Groom wondered if the nation could find some solace from history. He rummaged through his mind and wondered when we had faced such a similar challenge.

Already, September 11th has been compared to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Both were national tragedies. And from both, America has made a stunning comeback. "1942" is an inspiring book for us today because America was then in a far more dire situation. Yet we managed to gain victory in a short time.

Consider that at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had sunk or severely damaged 18 warships – including our large battleships - and killed 2,340 American servicemen. Our Pacific military defenses were devastated, as was the nation both militarily and psychologically.

Perhaps the most telling comment after the attack came from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the new Navy commander for the Pacific appointed by President Roosevelt.

Congratulated by his wife on news of his "getting the fleet," Nimitz replied with dark humor: "The fleet, dear, is at the bottom of the ocean."

By January 1942, America too looked like it had hit bottom. Japan had swept through most of Southeast Asia and appeared on the doorstep of both Australia and India.

In Europe, the Axis powers controlled almost the entire continent, and the Nazi blitzkrieg was smashing up against Moscow and Stalingrad. It seemed the Germans and their allies were also poised to secure control of oil-rich North Africa and the Middle East. Lonely England hung on by a thread.

And yet, just over three years later, Allied forces would find Hitler's burned body outside his Berlin bunker and Japan's Hirohito would bow to General Douglas MacArthur aboard the U.S. Missouri.

How did it happen - and so quickly?

Groom's insight into America's stunning comeback has some important lessons for America today. Among these lessons:

I was surprised to learn that after Japan's successful opening attacks on American forces in the Pacific, both Gen. MacArthur and Winston Churchill believed that Germans, not Japanese, had piloted the Japanese planes.

Since the American media, both Hollywood and the press, had long portrayed the Japanese as hapless, many thought they were incapable of sophisticated military attacks.

Groom writes, "The typical Japanese soldier was depicted in newspaper cartoons as a short, bandy-legged, buck-toothed, nearsighted, chattering ape."

Oh, what a surprise those Japanese had for the Americans. Not only did they pilot their planes, their Japanese-manufactured Zeros were superior to American fighters.

Do we today have a clear picture of enemies such as al-Qaida, Iran and North Korea? Do we clearly understand both their capabilities and their intentions?

What was remarkable about 1942 was just how quickly America moved to engage the enemy even though we were not fully prepared for war.

Roosevelt wanted to hit the Japanese homeland, but our large bombers and their bases were well out of range of Tokyo.

Military leaders came up with a daring and risky plan to launch B-25 bombers from the aircraft carrier Hornet after it sailed close to Japanese waters.

Carriers were not intended to launch such bombers, and certainly not to land them. So the plan called for the American bombers to fly on to China after bombing Japan and land at a Nationalist airstrip.

In April 1942, just over four months after Pearl Harbor, Col. Jimmy Doolittle took off with his group from the Hornet to strike Tokyo.

The bombing was a great success, but in the dark of night, the U.S. planes could not find their Chinese landing strip. In the end, the planes crashed and crews simply parachuted into Japanese-held territory or Russia. Clearly the bombing raid was akin to a suicide mission, but Doolittle and his crew all volunteered for the dangerous assignment.

Doolittle's bombing of Tokyo turned out to be a major morale booster for America, and a heavy blow to Japan. Groom's account of what happened to Doolittle and his crew after they bailed out makes for fascinating reading.

Meanwhile, outnumbered Americans in the Philippines and on Wake Island did not surrender easily, and Allied forces quickly planned an invasion of North Africa.

The same strategy – engaging the enemy even before we are fully prepared – seems to be a hallmark of President Bush's war on terror. In response to the September 11th attacks, we quickly launched operations in Afghanistan, smashed the Taliban, and prepared for a major assault on Saddam Hussein – all while launching global operations against terror networks.

While Donald Trump's dictum holds that location is the key to success in real estate, Groom's "1942" suggests that intelligence was the key to America's surprising turn of fortune.

Little-known U.S. code breakers clearly shortened the length of the war and saved U.S. forces from humiliating defeats.

Early in 1942, the U.S. had broken the Japanese code and we were able to read their most sensitive military communications.

In June of that year, the Americans had evidence that Japan was sending four of its carriers to Midway Island to help with a planned Japanese invasion. Knowing of their plans, the U.S. was able to concentrate its smaller naval forces to engage the Japanese and take them by surprise.

As a result, the U.S. sank four of Japan's eight aircraft carriers in one day. In less than six months from the date of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. inflicted a crushing blow on the Japanese at Midway – and the early battle is considered the turning point of the Pacific War, a defeat from which the Japanese never recovered.

Another heroic episode in "1942" tells of an American woman who spied for the British. Her name was Amy Elizabeth Thorpe. Using her "explosive sexual charms," Thorpe developed relationships with officials at both the Italian Embassy and the Vichy French Embassy in Washington. By doing so she was able to get the secret codes of both countries – codes that proved invaluable during the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Both Pearl Harbor and September 11th were catastrophic failures of American intelligence. Fixing intelligence has been central to dealing with terror, just as it was after the Japanese attack. Intelligence may be even more critical when dealing with terror networks that are not seen on a radar screen, so to speak.

America learned some vital and costly lessons from December 7, 1941.

But there was also friction on the home front. Some still complained about America's "interventionist" war. Corruption, racism and bureaucracy also hampered the war effort.

One anecdote in Groom's book shows how set in its ways the U.S. was during the early stages of the war: For the first two years, American torpedoes almost never worked. Our submarine forces, time and again, would hit Japanese ships – to no effect. Repeatedly told of the failure, military officials blamed the submarine crews for missing targets. Finally, it was demonstrated that the torpedoes, first made in 1926 on a shoestring budget, were defective.

Thankfully, other factors overcame such failures. Most notable was the heroism of the American people, the many men and women who gave or risked their lives to defend their loved ones and their way of life. As the recent war on terror shows, that aspect of America has not changed.

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It was the opening days of 1942. The story of that year is told in a new book, "1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls," by Winston Groom. When America and Europe recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of VE day - the day the Nazis were finally defeated - I...
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