Select Page



By William H. Benson

November 6, 2003


     Although I am not a big fan of Stephen Ambrose, I did read his last book, To America—Personal Reflections of an Historian, which he published just prior to his passing a year ago in October, and I liked it.  Right in the center of the book he began his chapter “The War in the Pacific” with a short declarative sentence–“It was the worst war that ever was.”—and then backs it up with reasons.

     And he really should know why it was the worst.  Ambrose claimed that over his lifetime he had studied and visited most of the major battle sites all over the world: those of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian battles, and the European battles of World War I and II.  Still he concluded that “None was as testing, as difficult, as dangerous, as shocking in the ordeal they presented to the Marines as Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.”

     In Europe during World War II it was often Germans fighting German-Americans.  Cousins fighting cousins.  But in the Pacific the Japanese hated the Americans, and the Americans hated the Japanese.  Infantrymen on both sides had been fed a steady diet of racial propaganda by their leaders that had dehumanized the other side.  “The extent of the mutual hatred was higher than the tallest mountains and deeper than the bottom of the sea.”

     The Marines intensely hated the Japanese, in part due to racism and in part due to Pearl Harbor, but mainly because of the Japanese way of fighting.  They shot the medics who wore red armbands.  One of them would pretend to surrender, and then as the Americans approached, others would crawl out of hiding and shoot them. 

     And both sides committed unspeakable atrocities.  Unlike in Europe where the Germans, once out of ammunition, would surrender and expect to be treated decently as a POW, in the Pacific the Japanese would fight to the death, never surrender, hoping to take ten Americans down with him.  There were few POWs.

     Ambrose argued that it is a mistaken idea that Americans won the war in the Pacific because they had superior air power and bombing capability.  From a distance the Marines would watch the pre-invasion bombardment of an island and conclude that “nothing could live through that.”  And yet when they hit the beach, the Japanese defenses were intact, and the men ready to fight.

     The Japanese held out in caves, trenches, foxholes, and tunnels, and so if the battle was to be won, the Americans would have to fight it man-to-man, diving into each tunnel and each cave and each foxhole, until the last Japanese soldier was pulled out.  Superior air power and bombing capability did not give the Marines on those islands as distinct advantage as believed.

     Ambrose is very convincing that the “Marines were the best fighting men of World War II.  The U.S. Army was second, and not far behind.”  In order to take one after another of those islands, the Marines just had to be better soldiers than the Japanese.  And they proved themselves.

     All of those battles on each Pacific island during 1942—1945 were just a warm-up for what they suspected would be the final all-consuming battle, the invasion of Japan itself, the Battle of Tokyo, scheduled for November 1, 1945.  Estimates of the casualties ran as high as 800,000, based on what had happened on the islands.

     But then in August President Harry Truman gave the ok to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and the Japanese surrendered.  “The worst war that ever was” was over.


     Next Tuesday is Veterans Day, and we should pause and remember the ordeal that those soldiers endured, descending into hell itself, “not as visitors but as participants,” as Ambrose put it.  The citizens of the United States enjoyed peace and security, free from attack, for the next fifty-six years, until 9-11, in no small part because of what those American men did on those treacherous Pacific islands.  It was the worst war that ever was.