Five Things to Know About World War II

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  1. A Global Conflict Explodes Onto the US: Just 20 years after the end of World War I, the world was again descending into chaos. In the Pacific, Japan, led by Emperor Hirohito, was seeking to build its empire in Asia. Japan invaded China in 1937 with horrific brutality and in 1940, occupied Vietnam. In Europe, avowed racist Adolf Hitler had become dictator over Germany, and also began building an empire by annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia. In 1940, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, led by Josef Stalin, partitioned Poland and Germany invaded France. This left a desperate Britain, led by Winston Churchill, alone to defend Europe from Nazi rule. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese aircraft attacked the US Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, causing critical damage to the US defenses in the Pacific Rim. Eight of the Navy’s nine battleships in the Pacific were berthed there, and all were damaged. 2,403 Americans were killed; half of them were aboard the battleship USS Arizona. In the days following the attack, President Franklin D Roosevelt and the US Congress declared war on Japan and Germany.
  2. Millions of Americans Join the Fight: Between 1941-1945, six million men volunteered for military service, and another 11.5 million were drafted. Women were also allowed to serve for the first time, and 350,000 of them volunteered for groups such as the Women’s Army Corps, the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, and the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Nearly one million African Americans served in segregated units, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the US Army Air Corp. 33,000 Japanese Americans also served, even as many of their families were forcibly relocated from their homes into internment camps. Some were employed as translators, while others served in segregated combat units, including in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated in US military history.  25,000 Native Americans enlisted, too. Four to five hundred of these were ‘code talkers,’ using their little-known native languages to transmit coded messages through the Pacific theater.
  3. Changing the Direction of the War: American servicemen and women rushed to Europe’s aid, fighting in the air and on the ground in places like North Africa, Italy, Belgium and France. In the Pacific, Japan won a quick series of victories over American and British fleets. But the tide of the Pacific War shifted to the Allies in June, 1942, when the US, guided by US Navy intelligence, defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Midway.
  4. Dramatic Campaigns Bring the War’s Conclusion: On June 6, 1944, Allied forces crossed the English Channel to invade German-occupied France. The “D-Day” landing was massive in scope, merited by the need to stop the murderous Nazis, who were imprisoning and killing millions of Jews and other “undesirable” people. The Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, with assault troops facing entrenched German machine guns. Over 4,000 Allied soldiers were killed, but the attack was successful in gaining a foothold in France. By the end of August, two million Allied soldiers were in France. Following another year of fierce fighting, including intense bombing of German cities and the bloody Battle of the Bulge, Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. It was only than that the Allies discovered the full horror of the concentration camps. In the Pacific, major battles were fought in the Philippines, Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima. [The iconic image on this monument is of the Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, as taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945.]  The brutal fighting as the US advanced toward Japan, including by Japanese citizens on Okinawa island, however, made it clear that Japan would not soon surrender. To end the war, the US dropped a nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and a second on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9. In response to this ruthless and indiscriminate weapon, Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945. Nuclear weapons have never again been used in war.
  5. An Incomprehensible Human Cost: Thirty million of civilians died in the war, and 19-28 million more, most in China and the Soviet Union, died from war-related famine and disease. 20-25 million combatants were killed or died on all sides. 291,557 American soldiers, sailors and airmen were killed in battle, as were 5,662 Merchant Marines. Another 113,842 American military personnel were killed in accidents or died by other causes. 6,007 were from Utah. 671,278 American servicemen were wounded. During the war, more than 120,000 Americans were held as prisoners by the enemy, including 77 women — American military nurses held on Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. The bodies of one in three deceased servicemen were not returned home to the US. They are interred in one of fourteen international WWII American Battle Cemeteries -in Belgium (2), France (5), Britain (1), Italy (2), Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Tunisia, and the Philippines. Thousands of the 72,000 men who were lost at sea or remain missing in action are also memorialized in these cemeteries. The body of one serviceman is interred at Arlington National Cemetery in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.