World War II: Pacific Theater--Nature of the Fighting


Figure 1.--.

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.

Fighting in the West

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.

Concept of War

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.

Savage Nature

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.

Imperial Army

A far as we know, the Japanese attrocities were almoast ebtirely committed by the Imperal Japanese Army. We know of no similar attrocities conducted by the Imperial Navy, although our research is still incomplete. Of course the Navy 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. Commander Greg "Pappy" Boington (Black Sheep Squandron) was recuded by the Navy after he was shot down and survived the War.

Japanese Attrocities

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).

American Strategic Bombing Camapaign

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.

Reasons

A range of explanations have been offered to explain the savagery of the conflict.

Race

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.

Bushido

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>

Allied responses

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 nimerous 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. Numerous Japanese attrocities were approved if not ordered by high level Japanese commanders.

Expectation of victory


Allied strategic bombing campaign

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]

Sources

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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Created: 4:32 AM 6/6/2005
Last updated: 4:17 AM 8/18/2007