As Memorial Day approaches (May 27) I share a few thoughts. My youth was spent in military communities, most everyone was a veteran with service in WWII. Many also served in Korea, recalled to active duty. Most family members served in the Pacific but one uncle served in Europe, fighting the Nazis. All of them were overseas for most of the conflict.
Many people today don’t really understand the level of commitment those young men made at the time or the toll the war took. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in a surprise attack, young men lined up around the block at local recruiting stations. Most were young, 17 or 18 years old, some only 15 or 16, “blessed” with looking older to fool military recruiters.
The first six months of the Pacific War involved a series of military disasters for an unprepared military that had been starved for resources since the end of the WWI. In the first five months of the war, we lost every ship in the Asiatic Fleet, over 80 ships. Our combined land, sea and air losses to Japan amounted to 25,000 men between the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the end of April 1942.
Meanwhile, the Nazis had declared war on us four days after Pearl Harbor and their submarines immediately began sinking merchant ships a few miles off the Atlantic coastline. We were slow to catch on so we kept our city lights on at night, perfectly illuminating ships against our coastline, making great targets for Nazi submarines. Many mariners paid with their lives for our failure to recognize the threat just off our coast.
Fighting in the Pacific was brutally primitive, compounded by tropical disease such as malaria, infecting most of our forces who continued to fight on the ground and in the air between bouts of fever. We were outnumbered in the Pacific by the Japanese who were able to mass their Navy in one theater of war, matching their 10 aircraft carriers to our three early in the war. In April 1942 we fought them to a standstill in the Coral Sea north of Australia, halting their offensive. A month later we inflicted a major defeat on Japan at Midway, sinking four of their carriers; three in the first 15 minutes of battle and a fourth the next day. From that day forward the Japanese were retreating. The fight for strategic islands continued for the next 3 ½ years, each island-fight being more bloody than the last as the Japanese heavily fortified each island and literally fought to the death. During the 10-week battle for Okinawa in 1945, Japanese suicidal resistance took the lives of over 12,000 Americans and sank around 30 ships. In total, the Pacific War took the lives of 100,000 Americans, several million Japanese and uncounted millions of Asian civilians (includes the Sino-Japanese War in China).
The European War against the Nazis was on an unimaginable scale with casualties in the tens of millions when civilians are included. Russia incurred 95% of the casualties
fighting the Nazis, suffering 20 million dead, over half of whom were civilians. The United States experienced about 400,000 military deaths in all theaters of WWII.
In Europe, Americans fought from the North African desert to Sicily, Italy and Western Europe. Many Americans are somewhat familiar with the “D-Day” invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. Our forces stormed the French coast of Normandy where 180,000 Americans, British, Canadians along and expatriate Free French and Polish troops fought to breach the Nazi “Atlantic Wall,” Hitler’s massive fortification of the Normandy coastline.
One young soldier, Don Ellis, a 20-year-old Private First Class, parachuted into Normandy with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division around 1:30 a.m. at a small town called Ste. Mere Eglise. His unit fought against a furious Nazi counterattack involving “SS Panzer Divisions” but they held until relieved by heavier forces. It was Ellis’s 3rd combat jump, having previously parachuted into Sicily and Salerno, Italy. He would make a 4th combat jump in September during “Operation Market Garden” to seize the Nijmegen Bridge as part of an Allied campaign to seize bridges across the Rhine into Germany. The 505th was the only U.S. airborne unit to make 4 combat jumps in the war.
At the beaches of Normandy, the 29th Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry Division stormed ashore at Omaha Beach, the most bitterly contested beach in Normandy. The 29th, led by Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment led the attack into a storm of fire from entrenched Nazi gunners. The 29th was previously a National Guard unit federalized and incorporated into the regular Army. Pre-WWII, National Guard units were “home town affairs” with brothers, cousins, fathers and sons comprising units. Company A came mostly from a rural area of Virginia, the town of Bedford, (with a population comparable to Templeton’s a decade past). Within 15 minutes of landing, 19 boys from Bedford had been killed in the assault; they lost three more in the days following.
Hollywood has memorialized all of these actions in films such as “The Longest Day,” “Band of Brothers,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “A Bridge Too Far,” and “The Pacific.” Older films such as “They Were Expendable” and “So Proudly We Hail” show the desperation of American forces in the early days of the Pacific War. Sadly, too many young people today are oblivious to America’s military history. History doesn’t have to be dry statistics; history is about people and film brings their stories to life.