World War II was the mightiest struggle humankind has ever seen. It killed more people, cost more money, damaged more property, affected more people, and caused more far-reaching changes in nearly every country than any other war in history. The number of people killed, wounded, or missing between September 1939 and September 1945 can never be calculated, but it is estimated that more than 55 million people perished. More than 50 countries took part in the war, and the whole world felt its effects. Men fought in almost every part of the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Chief battlegrounds included Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. The United States hoped to stay out. Drawing on its experience from World War I, Congress passed a series of neutral acts between 1935 and 1939, which were intended to prevent Americans becoming entangled with belligerents
While America was wallowing in neutrality and isolationism, events were occurring in Europe and Asia that were causing increasing tension across the regions. Japan and the United States had been edging toward war for decades. The United States was particularly unhappy with Japan’s increasingly belligerent attitude toward China. The Japanese government believed that the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into its neighbor’s territory and take over its import market; to this end, Japan had declared war on China in 1937(Tsukiyama, 2006) . American officials responded to this aggression with a battery of economic sanctions and trade embargoes. They reasoned that without access to money and goods, and especially essential supplies like oil, Japan would have to rein in its expansionism.
Instead, the sanctions made the Japanese more determined to stand their ground. During months of negotiations between Tokyo and Washington DC, neither side would budge. It seemed that war was inevitable. No one believed that the Japanese would start that war with an attack on American territory. For one thing, it would be terribly inconvenient for the Japanese. Hawaii and Japan were about 4,000 miles apart. For another, American intelligence officials were confident that any Japanese attack would take place in one of the relatively nearby European colonies in the South Pacific: the Dutch East Indies, for instance, or Singapore or Indochina(Tsukiyama, 2006) . Because American military leaders were not expecting an attack so close to home, the naval facilities at Pearl Harbor were relatively undefended. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was moored around Ford Island in the harbor, and hundreds of airplanes were squeezed onto adjacent airfields.
To the Japanese, Pearl Harbor was an irresistible target. The Japanese plan was simple, Destroy the Pacific Fleet. That way, the Americans would not be able to fight back as Japan’s armed forces spread across the South Pacific. On December 7, after months of planning and practice, the Japanese launched their attack. At about 8 a.m., Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor. Bombs and bullets rained onto the vessels moored below. At 8:10, a 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men trapped inside. Next, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma(Tsukiyama, 2006) . With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater. By the time the attack was over, every battleship in Pearl Harbor–USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada had sustained significant damage.
In all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled or destroyed 18 American ships and nearly 300 airplanes. Dry docks and airfields were likewise destroyed. Most important, almost 2,500 men were killed and another 1,000 were wounded(Tsukiyama, 2006) . The Japanese had failed to cripple the Pacific Fleet. By the 1940s, battleships were no longer the most important naval vessel: Aircraft carriers were, and as it happened, all of the Pacific Fleet’s carriers were away from the base on December 7. Moreover, the Pearl Harbor assault had left the base’s most vital onshore facilities–oil storage depots, repair shops, shipyards and submarine docks–intact. As a result, the U.S. Navy was able to rebound relatively quickly from the attack. The following day president Roosevelt addressed the nation stating “Yesterday the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked. No matter now long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.” On December 8, Congress approved Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. For the second time, Congress reciprocated. More than two years after the start of the conflict, the United States had entered World War II. Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States defeated Japan in one of the most decisive naval battles of World War II. This fleet engagement between U.S. and Japanese navies in the north-central Pacific Ocean resulted from Japan’s desire to sink the American aircraft carriers that had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor.
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, Japanese fleet commander, chose to invade a target relatively close to Pearl Harbor to draw out the American fleet, calculating that when the United States began its counterattack, the Japanese would be prepared to crush them. Instead, an American intelligence breakthrough–the solving of the Japanese fleet codes–enabled Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to understand the exact Japanese plans. Nimitz placed available U.S. carriers in position to surprise the Japanese moving up for their preparatory air strikes on Midway Island itself. The intelligence interplay would be critical to the outcome of the battle and began many weeks before the clash of arms. American radio nets in the Pacific picked up various orders Yamamoto had dispatched to prepare his forces for the operation.
As early as May 2, messages that were intercepted began to indicate some forthcoming operation, and a key fact, the planned day-of-battle position of the Japanese carriers, would be divulged in a notice sent on May 16. By the time Nimitz had to make final decisions, the Japanese plans and order of battle had been reconstructed in considerable detail. American combat forces took over where intelligence efforts left off. Scouts found the Japanese early in the morning of June 4. Although initial strikes by Midway-based planes were not successful, American carrier-based planes turned the tide. Torpedo bombers became separated from the American dive-bombers and were slaughtered 36 of 42 shot down, but they diverted Japanese defenses just in time for the dive-bombers to arrive; some of them had become lost, and now by luck they found the Japanese. The Japanese carriers were caught while refueling and rearming their planes, making them especially vulnerable. The Americans sank four fleet carriers the entire strength of the task force Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, with 322 aircraft and over five thousand sailors.
The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma. American losses included 147 aircraft and more than three hundred seamen. The last and biggest of the Pacific island battles of World War II, what the battle of Okinawa the campaign involved the 287,000 troops of the U.S. Tenth Army against 130,000 soldiers of the Japanese Thirty-second Army. At stake were air bases vital to the projected invasion of Japan. Japanese forces changed their typical tactics of resisting at the water’s edge to a defense in depth, designed to gain time. In conjunction with this, the Japanese navy and army mounted mass air attacks by planes on one-way suicide missions. The Japanese also sent their last big battleship, the Yamato, on a similar mission with a few escorts(Lacey, 2003) .
The kamikaze tactics the Japanese used on these missions, although not especially sophisticated, but their determination made it especially difficult for the Allies. The net result made Okinawa a mass bloodletting both on land and at sea, and among both the island’s civilian population and the military. A series of defense lines across the island, both north and south of the American landing beaches, enabled the Japanese to conduct a fierce defense of Okinawa over many weeks. Using pillboxes and strong points, caves, and even some ancient castles, the Japanese defense positions supported one another and often resisted even the most determined artillery fire or air strikes. Mounting few attacks themselves, the Japanese conserved their strength for this defense(Lacey, 2003) .
Caves or pillboxes often had to be destroyed individually with dynamite charges. This battle took place in an environment much more heavily populated than most Pacific islands, with civilian casualties of almost 100,000 and equally heavy losses for the Japanese army. “It was a scene straight out of hell. There is no other way to describe it,” recalls Higa Tomiko, then a seven-year-old girl, who survived the battle. The commanding generals on both sides died in the course of this battle. American general Simon B. Buckner by artillery fire, Japanese general Ushijima Mitsuru by suicide. Other U.S. losses in ground combat included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action(Lacey, 2003) . The navy suffered 4,907 killed or missing aboard 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged; 763 aircraft were lost. At sea and in the air, the Japanese expended roughly 2,800 aircraft, plus a battleship, a light cruiser, and four destroyers, with losses that can be estimated at upwards of 10,000.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with spearheading the construction of the vast facilities necessary for the top-secret program, codenamed The Manhattan Project. Hiroshima, a manufacturing center of some 350,000 people located about 500 miles from Tokyo, was selected as the first target. After arriving at the U.S. base on the Pacific island of Tinian, the more than 9,000-pound uranium-235 bomb was loaded aboard a modified B-29 bomber christened Enola Gay. The plane dropped the bomb–known as “Little Boy”–by parachute at 8:15 in the morning, and it exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima in a blast equal to 12 to15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city.
Hiroshima’s devastation failed to elicit immediate Japanese surrender, however, and on August 9 Major Charles Sweeney flew another B-29 bomber, Bockscar, from Tinian. Thick clouds over the primary target, the city of Kokura, drove Sweeney to a secondary target, Nagasaki, where the plutonium bomb “Fat Man” was dropped at 11:02 that morning. More powerful than the one used at Hiroshima, the bomb weighed nearly 10,000 pounds and was built to produce a 22-kiloton blast. The topography of Nagasaki, which was nestled in narrow valleys between mountains, reduced the bomb’s effect, limiting the destruction to 2.6 square miles. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender in World War II in a radio address on August 15, citing the devastating power of a new and most cruel bomb.
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