If you ever want to strengthen a conviction towards the cause of peace and non-violence, just read this book. The Story of World War 2 by Donald Miller is a compilation of first-hand accounts strung haphazardly over a loose timeline of the actual events. It’s a terrible book for all the right reasons. The stories captivate, human suffering is put on display, and the reader is forced to shake his head, repulsed by the reality of war.
I’ve known the general storyline of World War 2 for decades, below are some bits and pieces of this epic struggle that I did not know before now.
- From Hero to Zero — There was nothing to be feared more at the beginning of the war than the German U-boat force. Their destructive capabilities were so far-reaching that in 1942, 400 boats and 5000 seamen were lost all within sight of the United States coast. By 1943 technological advancements, and mind-numbing production had rendered the German U-boat force all but obsolete. Of the 39,000 U-boat personnel, 27,000 of them were killed, and 5,000 captured.
- U-Boat 505 — The U-boat was captured intact, with its crew in 1943. This intelligence bonanza had to be kept in absolute secrecy. So the U-Boat, it’s crew, and the 2400 U.S. sailors that were all involved in its capture were interned in Bermuda until 1947! The families of the US sailor’s were kept in the dark as to the whereabouts of their loved ones; not even the red cross was allowed to visit them.
- Mussolini out and then back in — In 1943 Italian leadership knew they couldn’t win, they cut a deal with the Allies, imprisoned Mussolini, and were preparing to sign an armistice ending the war in Italy. When Hitler heard about it, he sprang into action. Mussolini was rescued from an alpine chateau by daring S.S. commandos using hang gliders! 600,000 Italians were shipped off to German labour camps because they couldn’t be trusted to defend their homeland.
- Good Catholics, lousy pope — After Hitler pretty much annexed Italy in 1943, Jews were no longer safe in the boot-shaped country. However, over 80% of Jewish people were able to avoid extermination because good Catholics refused to turn a blind eye. Unfortunately, the Pope did not have the same sympathetic view as everyday Catholics did.
- Racism Sucks — African American soldiers proved their mettle in the war, as well as Japanese Americans, but the abuse and mistreatment they received as they attempted to serve their country was appalling. Comments by high ranking officials such as “The negroes don’t have sufficient reflexes to be 1st class fighter pilots” and “I don’t want you here, but the black loving people from back home have sent you. I’ll see to it that you see combat and your fair share of the casualties.”
- The Red Tails (an African American fighter squadron) were the only bomber support group never to lose a bomber
- Japanese American divisions were the most decorated soldiers of WW2, they were known as the Purple Heart divisions, they fought with fearless courage to restore honour to their families many of whom were interned in prison camps scattered across America’s interior.
- A great Irony –– The German’s had a legitimate atomic bomb program, but Hitler designated too many of his scientists and engineers to deal with the challenge of exterminating the Jews. Had he ignored the Jewish issue and used his resources to build an atomic bomb, the story might have been different.
- Humans are not meant for this — Psychiatric trauma was the most common reason for infantrymen exciting the war. Treatment of these patients was slightly better than WW 1, at least you couldn’t be shot for treason. But usually, you would be pumped full of drugs, given 48 hours to sleep it off, followed by a dramatic pep talk, and then sent back into the fray.
- Don’t Lie! –– The Japanese told all civilian personnel a terrible lie. “When the Americans come, you will be raped and tortured to death, so the only sensible thing to do if fighting is no longer an option is suicide.” The Japanese believed the lie. Thousands of them jumped off cliffs or blew themselves up with Japanese issued grenades as hapless GI’s watched. It’s also a lie to think that surrender is so great a dishonour that death is preferable. That lie was believed to such an extent that Japanese forces averaged a 98% casualty rate. The viciousness of their no retreat, no surrender perspective utterly destroyed any rules for engagement, turning many American soldiers into ruthless killing machines. The Americans had come to see this war as one of extermination.
- Production wins in a war of machines. America was the champion. They could crank out a B-24 every 63 minutes in one of their factories in Detroit. The Japanese soon realized that for every boat or plane they destroyed, there would be hundreds more rolling off the assembly lines.
- You dirty dog — Stalin sat his troops for 63 days on the edge of Warsaw. The Poles had risen in rebellion against the occupying Germans thinking that liberation from the Russians was coming. Instead, Stalin let the Germans slaughter around 200,000 resistance fighters, making things much easier for the communist takeover of Poland after the war.
- That was close. Dachau was liberated in part by Japanese Americans. Two female prisoners blindfolded in anticipation of their execution by firing squad waited patiently for their end. The shots never came, the women thinking the Germans were playing some cruel trick, stood there stoically. Finally a Japanese American discovered them and took off their blindfolds. The women upon seeing his Japanese face retorted that after all, they had gone through they were about to be killed by the Japanese! It took a lot of convincing to get them to see that the Japanese face in front of them was the good guy.
- The downside of supremacy — Late in the war the Japanese became desperate for workers to support the war effort. They began to empty their prisoner of war camps spread abroad and ship the slave labour back to the home islands. The cargo ships they used were old and slow, and they couldn’t afford to have them be well guarded. As they limped back to Japan, the American air and navy supremacy asserted itself by destroying nearly all of these ships. More American soldiers died in slave ships bound for Japan than did Marines in the entire Pacific theatre. Over 20,000!