Ernie Pyle's War
Miller: After the German surrender, a jubilant Winston Churchill
declared that the war in Europe was won by American mass production. Without
disagreeing, the journalist Ernie Pyle put a different meaning on this. Pyle
wrote that he hoped people would celebrate the victory with a sense of relief,
not elation. For in high spirits, it was easy to forget the dead GIs.
"Dead," he wrote, "by mass production.... Dead in such monstrous infinity that
you come to hate them. To you at home they were columns of figures, or he is a
near one who went away and just didn't come back. You don't see him, lying so
grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him. Saw him by
the multiple thousands. That's the difference."
Pyle's editors refused to publish his dispatch. It was too dark a verdict on
total war by mass production. Pyle wrote this at sea, near Japan, where he had
been sent for the final act of the war. On April 12, he learned via wireless
that President Roosevelt had died of a stroke.
Young soldiers and sailors told him Roosevelt was the only President they'd
ever known. To many of them, he was America. Six days later, Roosevelt's
successor, little-known Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri announced:
"The nation is saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle." Pyle was killed by
enemy fire the day he landed in the campaign to take Okinawa, which was to be a
staging area for the invasion of Japan.
American forces had reached Okinawa, only 350 miles from Japan, by a
two-pronged offensive. General Douglas MacArthur's combined army and air wing
advanced northward from the Solomon Islands, just north of Australia, toward
the Philippines, which MacArthur had sworn earlier to liberate. The Navy and
Marines, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, pressed westward through the Central
Pacific, capturing, in brutal fighting, one tiny Japanese-occupied island after
another, until they finally took the Mariana Islands. There in the Marianas,
airfields were built for gigantic new weapons called B-29s -- "Superfortresses"
that would bring down fire and ruin on the wooden cities of Japan.
After MacArthur captured the Philippines, the invasion of Okinawa began on
Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1944. It was the greatest combined land, air, and
sea operation in history, and the bloodiest island fight of the pacific war.
Over 200,000 people died, and there were more American casualties than D-Day,
Japanese kamikaze, or suicide planes, each carrying one 500 pound bomb with
only enough fuel for a one-way flight, crash-bombed into the naval support
fleet, killing almost 5,000 seamen and sinking 30 ships. While on the ground,
U.S. troops used flame-throwers, each carrying 300 gallons of napalm, against
Japanese hidden in caves and underground shelters. The Japanese fought
according to the ancient code of Bushido, "the way of the warrior." It was
total resistance, defiance to the last man, no surrender, no prisoners.
Japanese soldiers wrapped packs of explosives around their bodies and flung
themselves against tanks. As Private E. B. Sledge wrote: "The only way you
could get it over with was to kill them before they killed you." It was kill or
be killed. You killed in order to keep on living.
This merciless fighting was fed by inflamed racism. To the Japanese, who
prided themselves on being genetically pure, uncontaminated by immigration,
Americans were mongrelized brutes, devils and demons -- while Japanese atrocities
against American war prisoners, and their suicidal banzai charges, were seen by
the Americans as signs of their barbarity.
Atrocity followed atrocity. In a break in the fighting, Sledge saw a Japanese
solder squatting on the ground in front of a machine gun. He was dead; the top
of his head had been blown off. "I noticed this buddy of mine," Sledge writes,
"just flippin' chunks of coral into his skull.... There was nothing malicious
in his actions. This was just a mild-mannered kid who was now a
"How could American boys do this?" Sledge asked, and then answered, "If you're
reduced to savagery, anything's possible. We were savages.... We had all become
hardened. We were out there, human beings, the most highly developed form of
life on earth, fighting each like wild animals."
Fire Bombing over Japan
The guys in the B-29s over Japan were hardened too, only they were killing by
remote control, pushing buttons. Here's John Ciardi, the great American poet
and humanist, who happened to be a gunner on a B-29 in the war. "We were in the
terrible business of burning out Japanese towns. That meant women, and old
people, and children. One part of me--a surviving savage voice--says, 'I'm
sorry we left any of them living.' But then," Ciardi adds, "your rationality
tells you, 'come on, this is the human race, let's try to be civilized.'"
Under Air Force General Curtis LeMay -- gruff, cigar-chopping, tough as nails
-- the 21st Bomber Command went on a mission of annihilation. LeMay was a 20th
century William Tecumseh Sherman. "You've got to kill people," he said, "and
when you've killed enough, they stop fighting." And that's just about how it
To avoid an invasion of Japan, LeMay wiped out Japan, or at least most of its
urban culture. His specialty was low altitude fire bombing of densely packed
workers' housing. He used 100-pound oil-gel bombs, bombs in which the burning,
gelatinized gasoline sticks on people and things and is almost impossible to
LeMay's incendiaries didn't just set fires; they produced thermal hurricanes,
storms that sucked the air out of people's lungs. In just one raid, an
estimated 100,000 people died in Tokyo, and a million in that same raid were
injured. LeMay's airboys inflicted damage of that scale on 65 other Japanese
cities, killing nearly a million people. The only reason he didn't bomb
Nagasaki and Hiroshima was that his superiors wanted virgin targets to test the
power of the atomic bomb.
The Atom Bomb
Those tests came in August, 1945, and they were terrifyingly successful. People
who were alive one second were vaporized the next. People walked around in
shock, with skin hanging from their body. And at one infirmary, when they ran
out of medication, volunteers sterilized the wounds with salt water.
People were so damaged, one volunteer recalls, "We had to take brooms, dip them
into salt water, and paint the bodies." While the Japanese were fanatical
earlier in the war in their sacrifice of lives, America's countervailing
fanaticism might have been technological. As historian Stephen Ambrose writes,
in Japan "the bomber, long considered the ultimate in strategic might, had
reached its moment of total and awful triumph."
Philip Morrison, a scientist who helped invent the Atomic Bomb, later argued
that the atom bomb was, in his words, "not a discontinuity. We were just
carrying on more of the same," he says, "only it was cheaper." One bomb, one
city. Morrison insists that it's the cheapness of nuclear bombs that makes them
The legacy of World War II is a world cleansed of German and Japanese
despotism. But the legacy of that despotism is the bomb. Good men like
Morrison willingly hardened themselves and risked everything on the defeat of
evil. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the test of a first-rate intelligence
is to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain
the ability to function.
By that definition my father, who served in the war, was a genius. "Think of
the survivors at Dachau cheering the American troops," he would say; "and then
think of Nagasaki. The war was insane," in his words, "but we had to fight. No
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
So the greatest war in the history of the world ended with the surrender of a
government that boasted it would eat stones before it would give up. This
isn't the place to debate Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb. He did
it, he says, to save American lives in an invasion of Japan. And that's how
most Americans saw it then, especially after they read about the fanatical
Japanese resistance on Okinawa.
Had Americans not dropped the bomb, Japan might have surrendered before an
invasion. But all the sound scholarship on this question can't assure us that
it would have happened. And what if Truman had not used the bomb and there had
been an invasion, with lots of casualties, and people found out at this point
that he had this big weapon all along? Truman could never have withstood that
kind of protest.
But I have to ask: why Nagasaki, why that second bomb--and so soon after the
first one? Philip Morrison, who was in the circle, says that from the
beginning two bombs were ordered, so the Japanese would not think that we had
only one bomb, and made them one at a time. Somehow, that doesn't satisfy me.
But Americans back then saw it differently.
In my old neighborhood, my mother tells me that people celebrated, honked their
horns, and hugged each other when they heard of the word of Japanese surrender.
That's what the bomb meant to them: peace at last. The killing was over.
Husbands and sons would come home.
It's hard to imagine how much power and prestige America had in 1945. And here
at the end of the war, you have this power that sacrificed so many of its young
lives, sitting on top of the world, the only superpower in the world at that
point. We had the bomb, the `Super-bomb', that made us the only superpower
until the Soviet Union later developed one.