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by William H. Benson

November 11, 2010

     For an American soldier or sailor who served during World War II, the words “called to serve for the duration” meant until “death, serious wounds, or captured” rendered that fighting man or woman ineffective, useless, or incapable. Of course, none of those three options were desirable, but the American people, between the years 1941 and 1945, were fiercely committed and utterly determined to fight the Axis powers—the German Nazis in Europe and the Japanese Imperialists in the Pacific—until they surrendered without condition to the Allied powers.

     The American soldier and sailor was then an expendable fighting unit, but the American people understood that they were fighting a just and a moral war, that the Nazis and the Japanese Imperialists were vicious thugs who were holding tight to an abhorrent set of bankrupt ideas that needed crushed.

     The times were desperate. Save for southern Africa, and Central and South America, the entire world was at war. The Allies were desperately trying to conquer the Axis powers at the same time that the Axis powers were desperately trying to defend themselves from absolute destruction. It was a world-wide fight-to-the-death series of ferocious battles in the middle of Europe as well as in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The reality of such an all-out war is unimaginable in 2010, just as it was unimaginable in the dark days of 1942.

     The historian, Kenneth W. Rendell, wrote that, “In recent wars there has always been a step the United States didn’t take. In Korea we could have used atomic bombs against the Chinese; in Vietnam we could have obliterated Hanoi. Political and humanitarian considerations stopped us. But in World War II there were no such considerations. It was all-out war. Hitler would have dropped atomic bombs if he’d had them first. . . . It was total war.”

     The numbers of casualties in World War II are truly staggering. “Sixty million people were killed. Twenty million soldiers and forty million civilians.” And those numbers may be low because the records in China and the Soviet Union were not always accurate. It was the Soviet Union that took the brunt of those deaths: over twenty million people, mostly civilians, were killed inside the Soviet Union when Hitler’s military machine swept across Eastern Europe and attacked Russia.

     As all good things eventually come to an end, so do all bad things, and this world war found its ending in 1945. In Europe, in the spring of 1945, when surrounded by the Allied forces and virtually all alone, Adolf Hitler, with his mistress Evan Braun, took his own life, and so without their leader to instruct them to keep fighting, the Germans surrendered.

     The Japanese people required a different kind, a far heavier and punishing form, of persuasion. Think of this: “When you consider all of the industrial might of the United States—in a total war, involving every person and every industry—after three and a half years not being able to defeat  Japan—it brings a startling sense of reality to the war.” The Japanese military leaders refused to consider surrendering.

     Indeed, the Japanese government on June 6, 1945 wrote and agreed to the Ketsu-Go Plan, the “Fundamental Policy to Be Followed Henceforth in the Conduct of the War,” an all-out plan to defend the Japanese Islands from the anticipated American attack. Of this Japanese defensive strategy, according to the historian Paul Johnson, “2,350,000 trained troops would fight on the beaches, backed by 4 million army and navy civil employees, and a civilian militia of 28 million.”

     It was anticipated that this Japanese civilian militia would then be armed with “muzzle-loaders, bamboo spears, and bows and arrows,” not a pleasant thought for those U.S. soldiers, sailors, and marines expected to be dropped onto Japan’s beaches, perhaps as soon as later that summer.

     Rendell wrote that, “One of the top-ranking military leaders stated that the loss of 20 million Japanese civilians (from a population of about 70 million) in an American invasion was acceptable.” Also, American military strategists believed that “a minimum of 250,000 Americans would be killed in an invasion, and another 750,000 hospitalized from wounds.”

     The President, Harry Truman, did not hesitate. He ordered that the newest American invention, the atomic bomb, be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945; it killed 75,000 people. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki; it killed 39,000. Still, the Japanese dawdled. Without hearing any hints of a surrender, Truman, at noon on August 14 ordered that the third and final atomic bomb then available be dropped on Tokyo. That same day, at 4:05 P.M., Truman received word that the Japanese would surrender, and World War II ended.

     The news of the dropping of the two atomic bombs thrilled those American soldiers who were in line to invade the Japanese islands, for “They knew then that they had a chance to survive the war.” It is a myth to argue that the atomic bomb was unnecessary: Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.


     In August of 1945, Douglas MacArthur wrote: “I thank a merciful God that this mighty struggle is about to end. The magnificent men and women who have fought so nobly to victory can now return to their homes in due course and resume their civil pursuits. They have been good soldiers in war. May they be equally good citizens in peace.” November 11th this year is Veterans Day, a day to pause and reflect what those men and women did sixty-five years ago.