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Walking to Washington Grade School and to downtown, I saw Gold Stars in windows along the way. They signified that a family member had been killed in the war. Blue Stars signified that a family member was serving.
American losses in the Asia/Pacific theater, as in other war theaters, were relatively small compared to those of other major combatant countries. But the fighting in the Pacific was brutal and intense. The Japanese, with a long warrior tradition, held to a no-surrender, fight-to-the-death doctrine. When defeat was apparent in battle, they often made suicide charges. They also undertook suicide airplane and submarine attacks. They scorned adversaries who did not follow suit and who surrendered. American and other allied prisoners were often maltreated, sent to slave labor, and/or beheaded or used for bayonet practice. The best account of the Pacific fighting is perhaps contained in British historian Max Hastings' 2008 book Retribution (Knopf). If you prefer fiction, based on fact, there are Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line.
Could the war in the Pacific have been averted?
It is difficult to see how it might have been. Japan was bent on Asian conquest — and the establishment of a so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in which colonial powers would be expelled and it would dominate. Its conquests and occupations had proceeded during the 1930s. Finally, FDR ordered an embargo of Japanese petroleum, without which the Japanese economy and war machine would soon starve. He knew the Japanese would not yield and, in doing so, knew that he was pulling the U.S. toward a war it otherwise had wanted to avoid. A Japanese attack was, in fact, expected, although not in Hawaii. The Dec. 7 raid on Pearl Harbor destroyed battleships, aircraft, and other vessels. But, to our good fortune, American aircraft carriers were on maneuvers at sea and avoided the attack.
Japan had no intention, of course, of invading or conquering the United States. It believed that strong and decisive early Japanese blows in the Pacific would open the way to a negotiated end to the war. But that was a misreading of the American character. From that point forward, there was never a real chance for anything but an outcome resulting in unconditional Japanese surrender.
Lives were lost in the Pacific war that might have been spared. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded pre-war troops in the Philippines, insisted on the islands' reconquest. The lives and money expended on that reconquest, and that of the stepping-stone islands en route to the Philippines, need not have been expended at all. U.S. and allied forces could have bypassed them and proceeded in a straighter line toward the Japanese homeland.
In the latter stages of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay and his aide, Robert McNamara, oversaw unprecedented firebombing of major Japanese cities, with mainly civilian casualties, which claimed hundreds of thousands. They also pushed for and oversaw the dropping of nuclear weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashing a nuclear-weapons race which is still proceeding, most notably now in Iran. No time was given to the Japanese, between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, to consider terms of surrender. The carnage simply proceeded. Just as at the beginning of the war, an alternative blockade-and-isolation strategy could have starved the homeland of vital energy and other resources and forced an eventual Japanese capitulation.
There never was an inevitable choice between dropping the nuclear weapons and/or undertaking a massive and costly land invasion of Japan. But war fever still ran high and President Truman OK'd the dropping of the nukes.
My most vivid recollection of VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day) was of horns and bells coming from the direction of downtown Bellingham. I saw two young wives, with husbands in the Pacific, race from their homes across the street and embrace each other in the middle of the intersection. They were sobbing with joy. I ran downtown to see similar street scenes. Not a day to forget. A few weeks later, a formal victory parade came down Holly Street downtown. It was led by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, a Washington-state native who had succeeded MacArthur in command in the Philippines and been imprisoned by the Japanese. He rode a white horse. He was pale and weak and could not have weighed 130 pounds. A real hero, I thought, which the narcissistic MacArthur was not.
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