Most accounts of World War II find that the Pacific War was fouught more savagely than the European War, especially the fighting between the Germans and Western Allies. The differences can be exagerated. There were German attrcities in the West (Oradour-surGlane and Malmedy). Both the Germans and Allies carried out air raids on cvilian populations. There are, however, reasons to conclude that the fighting in the Pacific Theater reached a level of savagery not normally experienced in the Western Front of the European War. A range of explanations have been offered to explain the savagery of the conflict. Race certainly was a factor. The overwealmin factor, however, appears to be the Japanese martial code (Bushido) and the assumtion as in the case of the NAZIs that the War was won and Japan would never have to answer for the attrocities committed. In fct Japan has a nation has never come to terms with the attricities committed by the Imperial army in its name.
Most accounts of World War II find that the Pacific War was fouught more savagely than the European War, especially the fighting between the Germans and Western Allies. The differences can be exagerated. There were German attrcities in the West (Oradour-surGlane and Malmedy). Both the Germans and Allies carried out air raids on cvilian populations.
The American concept of war surviving and as in the Civil War song "marching home again". Americans were and the time of World War not familiar with Japanese mythology. We are today a little more familiar, largely as a result of Japanese films. Americans were struck with the similarities of cowboy and Samurai films. Only in American films like "Shane" and "High Noon", the hero not only wins, but survives. This is not the case in Sanmurai tales where the hero often dies a glorious death. The "Tale of the 47 Ronin" is one of mny such examples. Many Japanese soldiers assumed that they would not return from the War. And many, especially the officers, gave considerable thought to a glorious death. There was a veneratin of death that was totsally alien to the American mind. It is unclear to the extent the averahe soldier internalized the warrior mindset that the Japanese militarists sought to inculcate. The extent to which Japanese soldiers fought to the death in hopless engagements, suggest that the militarists achieved considerable success. There is no doubt the senior officer corps thought this way. A good example here is what transpired on deck of the buring and sinking Hiryu at Midway. Admiral Tamon Ymaguchi gathered his senior officers and had them face the Imperial Palace and give three cheers for the emperor. He drank a silet toast, order his officers off the sinking ship. He handed one of those officers his cap to take back to his wife and trned to Captain Tomeo Kaku and said, "There's such a beautiful moon tonight. Shall we watch it as we sink?" [Evan, p. 84.] This happened so much that Admiral Yamamoto who was losing so many senior officers that he ordered them not to do this.
There are, however, reasons to conclude that the fighting in the Pacific Theater reached a level of savagery not normally experienced in the Western Front of the European War. Not only would the Japanese soldier not surrender, but they looked at those who did surrender as contemptable. Army commanders even discouraged civilians from surrendering. The treatment of POWs by the Japanese defies human understanding. Even more atrocious is the Japanese treatment of civilians. The Rape of Nanking (1937) is only the best knon of these attrocties.
A far as we know, the Japanese attrocities were mostly by the Imperal Japanese Army. But this was because it was mostly the Imperial Army that were in close contact with Allied soldiers and civlians. Ships at sea have lmited ability to commit atricities. The Imperial War did not maintain POW camps and had no comparable scope to commit attrocities. We do know, however, that the Navy picked up stranded avaiators and seamen at sea. Faned Marine aviator, Commander Greg 'Pappy' Boington (Black Sheep Squandron), was recuded by the Navy after he was shot down and survived the War. But most did not and were executed. And the Rape of Manila (December 1944) was conducted primarily by Japanese Marines, an Imperial Navy formation.
Allied servicemen were treated barbarously by the Japanese from the beginning of the War. Men in Singapore and on the Philippines , however, had to surrender and accounts of what the Japanese did only slowly trickled back to the Allies. There was little or no first hand experience among the Marines and Australian infantry that subsequently confronted the Japanese on Guadalcanal and at Milne Bay in New Guinea. The Marines baptism of fire occurred at Alligator Creek (August 21, 1942). The Japanese began to ammass a force to retake Guadalcanal. Col Kiyonao Ichiki commanding the experienced 28th Infantry Regiment arrived first. (Col. Ichiki was to have landed on Midway.) And instead of waaiting other units, he wa determined to achieve a great victory to add to his laurels. (Some Japanese scholars say that he was pushed to attack by the Army Genrral Staff.) He ordered a massed night assault firectly into intrenched Marine positions. The result was a blood bath. These tactics worked in China against poorly armed and trained soldiers. They did not worked against well-armed and trained if inexperienced American Marines. Ichiki's entire command of some 900 men was virtually wiped out. Ichiki in shame is believed to have committed suicide in the Japanese manner -- seppuku. At dawn the Marines saw the results. The beach area in particular was literally covered with dead and dying Japanese soldiers. Marine medics rushed into to aid the few survivors. Several of the wounded Japanese soldiers exploded grenades, killing themselves and the Marine medics trying to save them. Other Marine detachments found what was left of Marine prisoners captured by the Japanese. The Japanese delighted in grotesquely posing the remains along jungle trails. This quickly confirmed to the Marines the nature of the Japanese soldiers. Now politicians can be stupid and slowlearners, the Marines rarely are. They decided that if that was how the Japanese soldier wanted to fight the war, so be it. And the Pacific war became a savage slug fest with no quarter offered or given. Although the Marines generally did not torture prisoners like the Japanese did, they just killed them. And unfortunately for the Japanese after Guadalcanal, it was the Americans who had the overwhelming power to win each and every slug fest. The dead on some island engagements were ten to one in favor of the Americans. Often the only Japanese to survice a battle were thise that were tyaken unconscious or too severely wounded to resist.
Japan did not and does not today admit the full extent of its responsibility for launching World War II. Many Japanese attempt to hide the extent of their country's war crimes and prefer to view their country as a victim of the War. The list of Japanese attrocities and war is very long, involving the deaths of millions, mostly innocent civilians. The list in its entirity is too long to list here, but we need to mention some of the most grevious attrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces. The primary war crime is the launching of aggerssive war first against China (1937) and then the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands (1941). Specific examples include the terror bombing of undefended Chinese cities (Shanghai); mascres of Chinese civilians (the Rape of Nanking), use of biologcal and chenical weapons, mistreatment and massacres of Allied POWs (the Batan Death March), abuse of civilain internees, use of slave labor, conscription of civilian women for prostitution (Korean comfort women).
It is the American strategic bombing campaign that most Japanese and some Amerians point to unconscionanable and barbaric. The two atom bombs were only the culminatin and not the most deadly attacks of that campaihn. The Japanese of course began such attacks on civilian populations with the same naive assmption as the NAZIs that they would be able to bomb other countries and no one would be able to bomb them. Only when bombs began to fall on Japan did the Japanese begin to view bombing attacks as uncivilized. We do not disagree that the fire bombing and atomiv-bom attacks on Japanese cities was a horendous action. The more difficult question is how to fight a war against an ememey that refused to honor the accepted internation conventions and committed as well as continued to commit horendous attrocities.
A range of explanations have been offered to explain the savagery of the conflict.
Race certainly was a factor. Here we are not just talking about Western racial attitudes, but also Japanese attitudes. Generally raccism is associated with America and Europeans. Japanese racist attitudes delegating the enemey as sub-human during the War appears to overcome many normal human inhibitions.
The overwealmin factor, however, appears to be the Japanese martial code (Bushido) and the assumtion as in the case of the NAZIs that the War was won and Japan would never have to answer for the attrocities committed. In fct Japan has a nation has never come to terms with the attricities committed by the Imperial army in its name. What we do not understand is why the Japanese Army behaved so differently than it did in previous wars. There were in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) and World War I (1914-18) none of the attrocities reported during World War II. We would be interested in any insights here that readers may have. >br>
The Allied soldiers responded to the brutalities of the Japanese soldiers by brutalities of their owned. Some Allied soldiers refused to take prisioners. To some extent this was brutality. It also was a fear that the Japanese were feigning surrender as a ruse to launch an attack or explode a grenade, There were numerous such instances. More importantly there were major differences between Allied and Japanese conduct. The Allied attrocities were committed by individual or small groups of soldiers in battle field conditions. Once a Jpaapnese soldier was taken prisoner and in custody, he was treated correctly as a POW under the terms of the Geneva Convention. In contrast, Japanee soldiers frequebtly tortured Allied service men taken live anmutalted them in various horrible ways before acually killing them. This did not occur on the part of Allid servicemn. In addition, numerous large Japanese atrocities were approved if not ordered by high level Japanese commanders. This occured in much large numbers wih the civiliand in occupied areas, most notably the Rape of Nanking, but there are many other horendous examples. We notice a tndencvy for modern historians and film majers to try o raw some equivalency between the Allied and Japanese soldier. And it is a worhy enterprise to make this effort> Millions of young Japnese mem as American were cught up in this brutal war through no fault of their own. But the xsimple fact is tht thy cimported themselves very diffrntly. Notice how the American Marines and Soldiers on Saipan and Okinawa cradeled Japanese infants and assisted the infirm and elderly. Compare this ih the grisly conduct of Japanese soldiers in Nanking, Singapore, Manila and a thousnd other places in Oceania and Southeast Asia during the Pacific War. And this included the murder of theer own people, including women and children, on Saipan and Okinawa.
Some authors maintain that the Allied strategic bombing campaign caused the Japanese soldier to brutally strike out at Allied prisoners. There is little reason to believe tht this is the case. The American strategic bombing campaign only began in late 1944 and did not prove effective until 1945. The attrocities conducted by the Japanese began with the invasion of China (1937). The Rape of Nanking occurred within months of the initial invasion. It seems difficult to imagine a more brutal operarion than that carried out at Nnking. Horendous treatment of POWs began immediately after Pearl Harbor. The Batan Death March occurred in the Philippines (April 1942) and had no relation to the strategic bombing campaign. The same was true with the tratment of the Allied POWs taken at Singapore and in the Burma campaign. One author argues that the Allied bombings convinced the Japanese population that Americas were monsers who would rape and torture them. [Miller] (This of course is precisely what the Imperial Army had been doinmg since 1937.) Japanaes propaganda had persued this line well before the strategic bombing camapign began. The Marpi Point suisides on Saipan occured before the bombing campaign. Ironically, it was incidents like this and the die hard Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima and Okinawa that convinved American planners that the A-bombs should be used to end the War. [Miller]
Miller, Donald L. D-Days in the Pacific (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Thomas, Evan. Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign, 141-1945 (Simon & Dchuster: New York, 2006), 414p.
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