World War II dominates military history today the way it dominated the death lists of 70 years ago. It’s a dizzying truth that, combined, WWII and its companion killing frenzy, World War I, probably killed more people than the total of all other wars of human history.
Though military buffs have searched the events of 1941-45 as carefully as crows working a cornfield, new findings still peek out from obscurity.
San Diego writer Roger Conlee is a genial provocateur. He’s a 75-year-old former journalist living in a downtown condo and the author of five historical novels, mainly focused on the war. His latest is “Fog and Darkness.” His work is at rogerconlee.com.
In poking through the record, Conlee uncovered enough fresh material to challenge the smugness of some “settled” beliefs.
• One of the deadliest episodes related to D-Day happened before a shot was fired in anger, Conlee says. Five weeks before the actual invasion, Gen. Eisenhower decided a dress rehearsal would be a good thing. So, on an English-coast beach that resembled what would become Normandy’s Utah Beach, a mock invasion was held. In a blood-soaked oversight, nobody told the participants they were shooting live ammo. The result was blood in the water to far exceed the real Utah Beach.
That wasn’t all. In the pre-dawn dark, nine fast German patrol boats torpedoed three LST landing craft that couldn’t be warned because of mixed-up radio frequencies.
“When it was all sorted out, 946 Americans had been killed,” Conlee says. “The actual Utah Beach tally on June 6 was 197 dead. This huge military disaster was covered up for 40 years, before being grudgingly acknowledged by the government.”
One can fairly assume that Army death-notification telegrams after the catastrophe were artfully worded.
• The Allies may have lost a chance to shorten the war by choosing the wrong location for the D-Day invasion.
Eisenhower was a skilled political general, but did he suffer from a lack of strategic vision? Conlee says the war might have been shortened by staging the invasion of Europe on the coast of Germany itself. It also would have spared the ensuing devastation to ally France.
“Instead of invading Normandy in June 1944, the Allies could have considered landing on the Baltic coast of Germany. With complete air and sea supremacy at the time, that might have succeeded. With German forces tangled up with the Russians on the eastern front and the bulk of their European forces guarding the French coast, we would have faced only a small home guard and a few thousand German soldiers on furlough.
“This might have ended the war fast, but Eisenhower refused to consider it. He said the distances were too great, that the invasion fleet would be too exposed for too long a time. However, in the Pacific, huge seaborne invasions thousands of miles from base were almost commonplace.”
An invasion of the Fatherland might have devastated German civilians’ will to go on, and would have exploded the Hitler “victory” myth.
• The Pearl Harbor tragedy that cost almost 2,500 American lives can, in a sense, be considered a greater strategic disaster for Japan, according to the perverse reckonings of warfare, Conlee says.
“The Japanese essentially lost much value of their surprise attack on the naval base, because they hadn’t done their intelligence homework. (Commanding) Adm. Nagumo declined to order a third strike from his carriers to hit the oil storage tanks and ship-repair dry docks. A bombing run on those facilities could have put Pearl Harbor out of business for months.”
Nagumo’s reticence was caused by the absence of three American carriers that were not at Pearl Harbor as he had presumed. Unaccounted for, somewhere “out there,” they were a potential threat to his task force. Better spy intelligence at Pearl Harbor would have radioed to him that they weren’t in port, and he could have just sailed on, as though on maneuvers.
Consequently, what the Japanese accomplished, in the main, Conlee says, was to sink some battleships that were already virtually obsolete. That reality became clear six months later when those “missing” carriers destroyed his at the Battle of Midway, the event that foretold Japan’s defeat. Without those carriers, a Japanese victory at Midway would have been a walkover.
• Conlee believes the Japanese high command knew the war was effectively lost when Saipan and the Marianas (islands) were taken in June 1944. “The Japanese knew that island chain was their inner defensive ring. Once that was pierced and (their mainland) was within bombing range, they knew it was all over.
“The Japanese never thought they could defeat the United States. Their objective was to build a big enough empire in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific that the United States would make peace with them and let them keep that.”
• The 1945 battle of Okinawa, which took 14,000 American lives, needn’t have been that sacrificial if Army Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. had been more sensible and less stubborn. Conlee says that bad judgment by Buckner caused many thousands of American, Japanese and Okinawan civilian casualties.
Americans invaded from the north end of the large island and then drove south until they encountered the main line of Japanese resistance that turned such dulcet names as Shuri Castle and Sugar Loaf Hill into bitter words of death. In those places, the Japanese were bottled up, but also deeply entrenched and defiant. They exacted a river of blood from the attacking Americans.
Conlee thinks Buckner should have sealed off the Japanese defenders who had no place to go and no means to get there. Buckner also refused a Marine request to stage a landing on the south coast to create pincers. Buckner himself was killed toward the end of the battle.
• If the Japanese were disappointed at what they bagged at Pearl Harbor, the way Gen. Douglas MacArthur bungled the U.S. response to their attack on the Philippines must have revived their spirits.
The day after Pearl Harbor, MacArthur knew the attack was coming, but he seems to have developed stage fright. He prevented his air corps commander from launching a bombing attack on the Japanese on Formosa, and he also allowed planes on Clark Field near Manila to be parked crowded together, ripe for destruction.
Most critically, Conlee says, MacArthur failed to move 50 million bushels of rice from Luzon to the battle areas of Bataan. It could have fed U.S. and Filipino troops for years. This huge blunder caused starvation among the defenders and hastened the surrender and the subsequent Bataan Death March.
Roosevelt gave MacArthur a pass for his unaccountable lapses because he believed the country was in dire need of white-charger heroes. The general was to that manner born. He raked in adulation like small change.
He probably deserved the nickname “Dugout Doug” for his refusal to visit the troops on the Bataan Peninsula during the battle.
“It was stupid of him. It was a bad PR move, because he wasn’t a coward or anything like that. He had fought at the front with his troops in World War I. On Corregidor, he would stand out in the open and watch Japanese planes attack when everybody else said, ‘Take cover, general!’ ”
• MacArthur earlier had tempted criticism by taking a Filipino mistress, Isabel Rosario, to Washington, D.C., with him before the war when he returned in the ’30s to be Army chief of staff.
Prominent columnist Drew Pearson got wind of the relationship and was going to publish it when MacArthur bribed him into silence, Conlee says. Though the general was single at the time, he feared what his mother might think. “MacArthur was a momma’s boy.”
• MacArthur was an overweening, egotistical pain in the nether regions, but he also gets a bum rap for the many good things he did, Conlee believes.
“MacArthur’s arrogant demeanor has denied him credit for devising the island-hopping strategy on the march up the Pacific toward Japan.”
MacArthur was opposed to the 1944 bloody landing on the island of Peleliu as unnecessary. “(Marine) Gen. Roy Geiger, who commanded the operation, predicted it would take three days. It took 45.”
I posed a counterfactual question to Conlee and asked what MacArthur would have done had he commanded in Europe. He says, “MacArthur always went around the enemy. He thought the European commanders were stupid with all their frontal battles and high casualty rates in the sweep across France and on into Germany.
“Whether he could have done better and maneuvered better, we can’t know. I’ll bet he wouldn’t have advanced on a broad front as Eisenhower did. He would have probed for weak points and tried to punch through, kind of like (British Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery and (Gen. George) Patton wanted.”
• In Europe, “Gen. William Simpson’s 9th Army crossed the Elbe on April 12, 1945, and was less than 50 miles from Berlin with meager opposition between. Churchill was furious when Eisenhower told Simpson to stop there and not push on to Berlin. Churchill wanted the western allies to have the glory of taking the German capital, but Ike wouldn’t have it. Obviously, a political decision had been made by Roosevelt to allow the Soviets the honor. Roosevelt, incidentally, died that same day.”
• Although massacres of POWs and civilians were common during the war (Malmedy, against Americans; Chenogne, against Germans) one obscure massacre might have been racial, Conlee says.
“On Dec. 17, 1944, 10 black GIs who’d become separated from their unit walked into the German town of Wereth, where the town’s mayor took them in and gave them food and shelter. Somebody in town tipped off the SS, though, and pretty soon a patrol showed up and machine-gunned them all. The SS executioners were never identified.”
Conlee says, “World War II changed everything. It was one of the great turning points in history. It was the last of Europe’s big land wars and was the death knell of the great colonial empires, bringing on the emergence of independent new African and Asian nations. The war also gave great impetus to women’s emancipation from the kitchen, to racial integration, and led to a world where power was no longer centered in northern Europe.”
All of that is true, but the memories are personal for the millions still living who were caught in the maelstrom. For them, the war is not found in history books, but creeps into their minds at 3 a.m.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.