A Brief History of World War II

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Historians have said that World War II was the single most devastating event in all of human history--because of the number of people and nations and resources involved, from all of the continents of the world, in a terrible and unprecedented cataclysm.

Beginning of World War II

World War II began in the mid-1930s with Japan's encroachment into China and Manchuria, Germany's penetration and occupation of the Sudetenland, and Italy's declaration of war on Ethiopia. These three autocracies became the Axis Powers. European and North African countries became involved with them, as they were attacked and dominated, one by one, over the years. Asian countries and Pacific Ocean islands were conquered by Japan piecemeal.

The British Empire and its Allies Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and other European nations fought together against the Axis. Great Britain entered the war in September 1939 because of Germany's invasion of Poland, in violation of previous neutrality treaties. After the fall of the Low Countries and France, England and her Empire fought on alone. England, battered by aerial bombs and rockets, was never over-run.

Atrocities, such as the "Rape of Nanking," China, by Japan, and Germany's persecution of the Jews in every European country, resulted in emotional and political uncertainty in the United States--isolationism opposed to activism. The United States was not prepared for war, nor did a lot of the country want to be in a war. To overcome this lack of unity, strategies were devised by the government under the command of General George Marshall with the leadership of President Roosevelt, to help the allies, such as lend-lease of war materials, exchange of naval destroyers for strategic bases in the Caribbean, and dispatch of U.S. Marines to Iceland, a strategic island en route to Europe along U.S. shipping lanes.

Pearl Harbor

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Japan attacked and nearly destroyed the U.S. Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Roosevelt declared war with Japan. Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy declared war on the United States on December 11. The United States was at war against the Axis and with the Allies, now led by President Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, England's indefatigable prime minister, and Josef Stalin, Russia's stolid dictator.

American Theater Mobilization

At the home front, the American Theater, the United States mobilized to build the armed forces and equip the fighting men with ships, tanks, planes, and ammunition. Every person in the country shared the same purpose: to free the world.

From children participating in metal drives; to young men joining the four armed services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) to fight the enemy; to their parents, coping with government rationing of gasoline, of sugar, butter, coffee, of tires, shoes, and clothing; growing backyard victory gardens, donating blood regularly, and carpooling to work in defense plants to keep old cars working (there were no new cars; all new production went to the military); to grandparents volunteering for the American Red Cross folding bandages, manning local defense warden posts, knitting for the men in Europe; and ceaselessly feeding and entertaining the boys who were shipped through their towns, or to nearby installations. Women, young and old, took men's places in war plants; "Rosie the Riveter" learned skills and endurance she hadn't known before. When the armed forces later in the war opened their doors to young women, they released men to fight by taking their places as ferry pilots, pilot trainers, vehicle drivers, clerks, and any jobs they could do, establishing a strong and proud tradition of women serving their country, still advancing today in the armed services. Many of the black population gradually moved from the South to the North, gaining a foothold in industry, and eventually in the armed forces. Nurses in uniform were revered in every country of the globe, from the beginning of the onslaught to today, when the country's pride in their dedication under fire is unbounded.

European-African-Middle East Theater

In the European-African-Middle East Theater, England battled Adolf Hitler in the Netherlands and Belgium, until they were overcome, and in France, until it fell; then England fought on alone. Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, and British fought in the North African desert campaign, where the first Allied landing against the Axis powers took place in November 1942, to deny German control of the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. Striking north through Sicily (July 1943) into Italy, a grinding two-year war (1943-1945) of attrition was fought, made more difficult by large numbers of German troops. The defeat of Premier Benito Mussolini and his Fascist army finally came in 1945. Meanwhile, Russia had been pushing for a second Allied front in Europe to relieve its hard-pressed military. On June 6, 1944, "D-Day", the Allies landed on the coast of Normandy, France, in a massive invasion of Europe under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower of the United States. Slogging east through Belgium, France, then Germany, the western Allies ended their overland campaign with the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944. Russian troops fought west through their country; air forces of each country continued a relentless hammering of the enemy; the navy protected supplies in the Atlantic convoys. The combined Allied forces defeated the Germans May 8, 1945.

China-Burma-India Theater

In the China-Burma-India Theater, the war was motivated by the European nations' desire to recover their Asian colonial possessions taken over or threatened by Japan in 1941. Retired General Chennault of the U.S. Army Air Corps recruited American pilots, called the "Flying Tigers," to fly the "Hump" of the Himalayan Mountains to ferry lend-lease supplies to China because Japan had captured the "Burma Road." General Joseph Stilwell represented President Roosevelt with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of China in his plan to expel one million Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia. Stilwell planned the "Ledo Road" from India through Burma into China under the inter-allied Southeast Asia Command of British Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. The defense of China and Burma was completed in the spring of 1945. China did not figure prominently in the defeat of Japan because she was embroiled in her own civil war at that time.

Asiatic-Pacific Theater

In the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, Japan continued to conquer island after island, until August 7, 1942, when U.S. Marines made the first amphibious landing on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. Admiral Chester Nimitz directed naval warfare under Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations; the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway were turning points in this naval war, and the beginning of the slow but certain pursuit and defeat of Japan, island by island (1942-1945). Simultaneously, General Douglas MacArthur landed army forces in New Guinea, and ultimately returned to free the Philippine Islands. After President Roosevelt's death in April 1945, President Harry Truman authorized dropping two atomic bombs, first at Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945, then at Nagasaki, Japan a few days later, to forestall the Allied losses anticipated in a landing on the Japanese mainland. Japan surrendered September 2, 1945, and the war in the Pacific was over, four months after the European war. Essentially a naval war, the South and Central Pacific battles left many sailors and Marines buried at sea.

War's End

Thus the greatest tragedy the world had ever known was over, leaving a vastly different United States. The United States "stands at this moment at the summit of the world" (Winston Churchill, 1945). The United States had shaken free of the depression, and led the world technologically at the cost of 405,399 American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Those young men and women, who answered their country's need at the sacrifice of their lives, could never be returned to us. Those who were fortunate enough to return do them honor every day through this memorial. We will never forget them, nor will the country. We will remember the jaunty young man who fought with a "Big Band" song on his lips, who jumped aboard a troop train at the end of a USO dance, who kept all our spirits up with the latest news, who shared our fear, our love, our family, who could come up with a joke in a blinding storm, who griped about the GI (government issue) rations at every meal, who was our strength in fear, our right-hand in combat, our partner in love affairs and marriage, and our buddy! We live with many today, white-haired, slow-paced, reflective of the passing years, full of pride in the war years.