One would scarcely know it by looking at those of them left today, or by thinking about current Japanese-American relations, but oh my, how they hated each other. If possible more than the Russians or the French hated the Germans, and vice versa. From beginning to end, the Japanese-American war was waged with a barbarism and a racial hatred that was staggering in scope, savage almost beyond belief and catastrophic in consequence.
Each side regarded the other a subhuman vermin. They called each other beasts, roaches, rats, monkeys and worse. Atrocities abounded, committed by individuals, by units, by entire armies, by governments. Quarter was neither asked nor given. It was a descent into hell.
Contemplate these photographs. The instruments of death and destruction are scattered across the Pacific, tucked away in islands that had no fame before the war and nothing but memories today, memories of screams, cries, weeping, mortification, blood wounds, death and more death.
At Iwo Jima, almost 80,000 marines invaded. There were more than 20,000 Japanese to defend the insignificant little island whose only claim to importance was where it was and that it had an airfield on it. The Japanese fought from caves, bunkers, tunnels, and they fought until dead. Virtually no Japanese were taken prisoner. The marines meanwhile suffered 5,885 dead and 17,272 wounded.
At Okinawa, 200,000 soldiers, sailors, and civilians died, including 12,281 Americans, including the commander, General Simon Buckner (whose father had been the Confederate General at Fort Donelson in the Civil War eighty years earlier).
The fighting in these Pacific islands, where the guns and fortifications seen today contrast so sharply with the peaceful scene of trees and sand, was of unimaginable ferocity. American POW's in Japanese hands were treated as slave laborers under conditions as dreadful as those in Hitler's camps American POW's in German camps suffered a 4 percent death rate, as compared to a 27 percent death rate in Japanese camps. The United States bombed Japanese cities into oblivion, and with her submarines sank virtually all Japanese ships afloat, including men-of-war cargo ships, troop ships, tankers.
These catastrophes were caused by many factors, but the chief was the Japanese high command, which was criminal. The generals running the country would not quit, but instead were ready to fight to their last men - and women and children, come to that - who were being trained in the summer of 1945 to fight with sharpened bamboo sticks against invading Americans.
The generals were already disgraced. They had led their country into war that they could not possibly win and carried it out with a brutal disregard for the dictates of decency and of the law of war. And they had fought stupidly. But they insisted on fighting on, to save their honor at the expense of their country.
Only the two atomic bombs forced then to surrender. Only thus was the worst war ever fought brought to its conclusion.
These pictures of that war, almost peaceful in appearance, speak to the horror of it all.
My father was there, a flight surgeon in the Navy stationed on Espereto Santo.
Stephen E. Ambrose
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
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The late Stephen E. Ambrose is the author of numerous histories including Citizen Soldiers, Undaunted Courage, and D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was also Director of The Eisenhower Center at The University of New Orleans and the founder of The National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
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