American History
Turning the Tide

*The commander-in-chief of the Japanese Pacific Fleet was Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku.  He had visited America in his youth, and thought it dangerous to attack America.  However, when ordered to do so, he said he would, and could then run wild in the Pacific for six months—after that, he made no promises.


*The bombing of Pearl Harbor was the first of several attacks on the United States by the Empire of Japan.  They attacked airbases on Wake Island and on Guam and in the Philippines.  Although the commander of the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, had heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not prepare for an attack in the Philippines.  On 12 December, the Japanese landed on Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, and moved towards the capital, Manila.  MacArthur withdrew his troops to the Bataan Peninsula which he hoped would prove more defensible.  In March, at the President’s orders, MacArthur fled to Australia, but he made a promise:  ‘People of the Philippines, I shall return.”


*The Japanese surrounded the American forces, and starvation forced them to surrender.  The Japanese, who followed bushido, the code of the warrior, considered anyone who surrendered a coward, and unworthy of decent treatment.  A good warrior fought to the death, or committed seppuku, also known as hari-kari, a form of ritual suicide.  The 76,000 Americans and Filipinos who surrendered were forced to march in small groups 60 miles to a railroad junction, where they were sent on to a prisoner of war camp.  Along the way the starving, dehydrated prisoners were guarded constantly and pushed along as fast or faster than they could march.  If any fell down, stopped for water, or acted disrespectfully towards the captors, they would be beheaded on the spot with one of the swords that were part of the Japanese uniform.  Of 75,000 prisoners, 10,000 died on what has come to be called the Bataan Death March.


*Between these invasions and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans were terrified of a Japanese invasion of America.  Lights were shut off at night to foil air attacks.  Fearing sabotage and espionage, the US government interned about 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, even citizens, in interment camps in remote areas away from the coast.  They stayed there until 1945, except for those of draft age who were citizens, who served in the US Army in Europe while their families were held in these prison camps. 


*Among those Japanese who were drafted were the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American unit that fought primarily in Europe; the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. armed forces


*As concentration camps went, the Japanese internment camps were not bad, but many Japanese resented the loss of their freedom and this infringement on their rights.  In the case of Korematsu v US the Supreme Court said in 1944 that it was legal because it persecuted the Japanese for their nationality and not their race, but many people felt it was done for racist reasons.  In 1988 the US government paid each survivor $20,000 tax-free and apologised.


*Beginning in 1941, the Japanese also seized British Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (already invaded to get resources America would no longer sell them), and invaded Burma, India, and China, which officially declared war on the Axis on 9 December.  The Japanese also threatened Australia, and the Aussies considered plans that would give up most of the country and make a last, desperate defence in the populous South-East.


*The war between the US and Japan was initially a war of sea and air power.  Japan’s main goal was to sink America’s aircraft carriers, but the Lexington, the Saratoga, the Yorktown, the Hornet, and the Enterprise were not in Pearl Harbor on the 7th. 


*USS Hornet was rigged up to carry bombers in April, 1942.  Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel James Doolittle, US Army Air Corps bombers flew to Japan and bombed a hundred buildings, killed 50 Japanese, and wounded hundreds more.  Some of the pilots were captured, while others flew on to crash-land in China, not having enough fuel to return to their carriers.  Although the damage to Japan was minimal, it was a great boost to American morale to attack Japan itself.


*The Japanese advance on Australia was stopped at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  The battle was a draw, but that was enough to save Australia.  It was also a naval battle fought primarily by aircraft.  The opposing fleets were about 70 miles apart, and could not even see each other.


*The Japanese attacks on America reached their furthest point and were stopped at the Battle of Midway on 4-7 June 1942, ending exactly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  During this battle, American warplanes surprised the Japanese while they were refuelling their own planes on the carrier decks.  This meant all the planes were in the open, unable to move, and tied to fuel pumps.  When hit, they exploded into terrible fires.  The Japanese lost four heavy carriers, 250 planes, and most of their best pilots.  Afterwards, Japan was almost entirely on the defensive. 


*The process of mobilising for war required government involvement to run things.  To direct the war, FDR created the Office of War Mobilisation.  These regulated much of the economy, especially manufacturing, during the war.  Among other things, they supervised the Ford Motor Company’s transformation into a tank factory, and Henry J. Kaiser’s auto plants into facilities to produce Liberty ships, mass produced vessels made of pre-fabricated parts that could be assembled in 40 days, instead of 200.


*Federal spending rose during the war, as the US spent far more money than they had.  Partly the government made money through war bonds, which made $186 billion, and partly by raising taxes, but the government went deep into debt and has never really gotten out.


*Shortages meant there was not enough food of some kinds, especially sugar, fruit, and coffee.  Metal was all used in war materials, as was rubber.  Nylon stockings, invented in 1939, vanished because nylon was used in making parachutes.  The government had to ration certain types of food, gasoline, and many other non-essentials, and to buy rationed food or fuel, one had to present tickets from a ration book.


*Before the United States began fighting, FDR and Churchill met in secret and set up their plans for the war and after it in the Atlantic Charter.  Among other things, the war plan required unconditional surrender and set its sights on Germany first.


*Initially, the United States just fought at sea, to keep U-boats from sinking ships carrying supplies and food to Great Britain.  Allied ships banded together in convoys for protection, then the German U-boats formed ‘wolf packs’ supplied by a ‘milk cow’ to launch concerted attacks of up to 20 U-boats at once.  In just the month of June 1942, the Germans sank 175 ships.  Later, aircraft and sonar were used to locate submarines, and U-boats became much less of a threat.


*Although the Allies had been driven out of Europe, the British Empire was still powerful in the rest of the world, particularly in Africa.  The Italians also had a colony in North Africa, and Axis troops out of Libya attacked neighbouring French and British colonies.  The goal was to ultimately seize Allied oil reserves in the Middle East.  Germany sent a small force under the command of Erwin Rommel to Africa.  This came to be known as the Afrika Corps, and opposed the British under Bernard Law Montgomery, who stopped them in Egypt at el-Alamein so they could not get to the Middle East.


*The overall commander of the US Army, and eventually of the entire Allied command structure, was Dwight Eisenhower.


*To hit the Axis from the other side, Americans and other Allied troops landed in the Vichy French colonies of Morocco and Algeria, where they first fought French troops, but later pushed east while Montgomery pushed west, until they drove the Axis out of Africa, especially the Italians, most of whom did not want to fight for Hitler, who had bad equipment, and who therefore often surrendered or quit, despite being individually brave soldiers.


*The British and French also had a new and powerful ally.  On 22 June 1941, Hitler, now that he had knocked France out of the war and had Britain isolated on their island, thought he could take the Soviet Union.  German troops, assisted by Finnish and Rumanian soldiers, poured across the entire Soviet border.  Initially the blitzkrieg worked.  The Red Army was poorly trained, poorly led (partly because Stalin had killed so many of his generals in his purges), and for the moment easily defeated.


*Furthermore, many Soviet citizens, especially in Lithuania and the Ukraine, were so tired of Stalin’s cruelty that they welcomed the Nazis as liberators.  In most cases, these Slavic subhumans would be proven wrong, as they were made to do forced labour and those who resisted were executed.


*The Red Army retreated, and it used the tactic of scorched earth, destroying anything useful they could not carry with them, so the Germans would not be able to use anything left behind.  They were able to replace much of this, because since Hitler’s invasion, Stalin had benefited from American Lend-Lease.


*The Nazis laid siege to the city of Leningrad, and approached Moscow, although the winter, which began in October, slowed them down.  In 1942, the Germans pressed on and surrounded the city of Stalingrad.  During the next winter, however, the Red Army rallied and attacked the Germans, surrounding the Germans surrounding the city of Stalingrad, capturing over 90,000 starving Germans.  Over 330,000 Germans died in the battle overall, and uncounted Russians, although guesses reach 1,100,000.


*In fact, Russia shouldered most of the burden during the war, losing 50 men for every one that America lost.  Suffering terribly, Stalin begged the Allies to attack Hitler somewhere more important that Africa in order to open up a two-front war and take some of the pressure off the Red Army.


*Stalin wanted America and Britain to attack France, but Churchill thought it would be too tough.  Instead, he suggested the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, taking Italy and from there, hopefully, moving into the rest of Europe.


*Italy was not as easy as was hoped.  The island of Sicily was captured quickly by George Patton and Montgomery.  Disgusted with Mussolini’s failure, the government of Italy removed him from office and the King of Italy ordered him arrested and Italy surrendered to the Allies.  Hitler sent in special forces to rescue him and invaded Northern Italy, setting Mussolini back up as a puppet ruler of Northern Italy and sent the German army to back him up.


*Stopped by the Germans a ways south of Rome, the Allies attempted a sea invasion to get around the German line, landing at a beach named Anzio just 35 miles south of Rome.  This force got stopped too, and Rome did not fall until 1944, and Northern Italy would remain under German occupation until April 1945, when the Germans surrendered, Mussolini was captured and killed by the Italians.


*The soft underbelly had proven not to be so soft, but the beaches of France did not look too inviting either.  The US Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force tried to open a front in the air.  By 1943, the US and Britain were, at least in theory, following Churchill’s promise to ‘bomb the devils ‘round the clock.’  This was called strategic bombing, an attack on German factories, roads, and other facilities to   The Air Corps, with good sights, bombed specific targets during the day.  The RAF, who could not aim as well, practised carpet bombing at night, dropping bombs indiscriminately on large areas.  They also used firebombs, which do not need to be aimed too well.  In Hamburg, fires raged out of control to the extent that they sucked all the oxygen out of the air in places, and the Hamburg fire department invented the term ‘firestorm’ to describe this type of massive, out-of-control fire.  More than 40,000 civilians died in four firebombings of that city alone.  To the British, though, this was just revenge for the Blitz, as the British called the years-long bombardment of London.

This page last updated 13 October, 2015.
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