75,000,000 people. You read that right! 75,000,000 is the estimated number of people in total who lost their lives in WWII.
Russia lost the mother load. Literally, 15% of her population perished in that war, an estimated 8-10 million soldiers along with an estimated 20 million civilians. Mostly at the hands of the Germans and the Russians. That’s right. They also killed their own, and even more so after June 1941 when Hitler pulled out of the ghoulish and evil nonaggression pact which he and Josef Stalin had made together two years prior. A pact to wage war, violently and unmercifully, against the rest of the free world in exchange for splitting up the spoils of European lands at the end.
“To prevent his soldiers deserting the front line around the capital, Stalin ordered special ‘blocking detachments’ to shoot all deserters. The Soviet leadership also instructed Soviet partisans operating in the countryside to kill anyone whom they believed was disloyal. This resulted in an effective carte blanche for partisans to abuse their power and extract whatever they wanted from helpless villagers.” BBC: Hitler’s Invasion of Russian in WWII
But Hitler did what what he perceived was the most strategic move in the war up to this date. And in a surprise attack, his highly skilled, crackerjack war machine invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) stretch of the Eastern Front with Moscow in their sites.
Suddenly in very short order, Russia was our ally. (Eyebrows raised) Literally, one day she was the enemy and the next day an ally.
Think about that for a minute.
Your two biggest adversaries back in grammar school were maliciously opposing you, stealing your lunch money every day, calling you names, and threatening your very life, and then, one of them turns the tables on the other. The snubbed bully suddenly sees the advantage in changing sides, and wants to team up with you. You would be a little wary right? He’s still the enemy, but now he is an enemy-ally of sort. It wouldn’t exactly give you a warm fuzzy.
And that is exactly how it was when Russia suddenly joined up with the Allies. Russia wasn’t really anymore trustworthy on Monday morning than she had been on Sunday. (Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa began in earnest Sunday June 22, 1941.) Nevertheless, there would not be an additional front for Great Britain and her Allies to be fought in the East. Thankfully, Hitler sealed that deal for all of us.
But I digress.
Here’s a little timeline: (Hint: There were two theaters of war in WWII: European and the Pacific)
The German war machine revs back up. After their humiliating defeat in WWI which ended in 1918, Germany had been devastated economically and socially by that war. Sanctions were tough and arguably harsh. Unemployment was widespread. Families were starving, literally for both food and solid leadership. Reconstruction from the ravishes of the first world war lagged behind the rest of the continent.
So….Germans were a soft target for the likes of Adolf Hitler and his fiery speeches to take back all that he perceived was rightfully his. He and his gang of ghouls wreaked havoc for 10 years leading up to the declaration of war by England. This included book burnings, taking over the media, censorship, persecution of Jews, and the destruction of Jewish businesses, violating basic human rights of all people groups, and terrorizing their own citizens-particularly the Jews, Jewish sympathizers, and anyone at all who opposed this new regime, even in speech. Effectively, personal rights in Germany had been suspended. The Führer was a Socialist Dictator, and not to be crossed.
The Japanese Imperial Army invades Nanking (Nanjing) China. The conquest of China is intended to provide resources and labor for the Japanese war machine. Michinomiya Hirohito crowned Emperor of Japan in 1926, after his father’s death, was believed by the Japanese people to be a divine deity.
December 1937- January 1938
What became known as the Rape of Nanking ensued for hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, and civilians. Relentlessly and with extreme brutality, the Japanese Imperial Army raped their women, and performed mass executions of soldiers and civilians. Surrounding villages were looted and burned. China was effectively overthrown before WWII even started. (Sort of like Czechoslovakia and Poland. Read on.)
A pantywaist agreement called the Munich Agreement was signed by Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and two pantywaist politicians, British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier. It was both a travesty of justice and judgment. It allowed for the annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hitler(Liar). Seriously folks, Czechoslovakia, was not even a party to the Munich negotiations.
September of 1939:
- Germany violated said pantywaist agreement by invading Poland. What was that agreement with Hitler: “Give me the Czechs and I’ll stop there….?”
- USA proclaims its neutrality.
- UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, and Canada all declare war on Germany.
- Now Russia invades Poland (Remember they’re on Hitler’s team at this point). Poland is surrounded on every side by Germans and Russians.
- Nazis and Italy sign a pact.
- Poland capitulates.
- April- May 1940, Nazis invade Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland.
- April – May, 1940, The Katyn Massacre: A series of mass executions of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers is carried out by Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (“People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”, the Soviet secret police).
- May 10, Winston Churchill replaces Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England, and so the fight against the Nazi regime finally begins in earnest.
- Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
- May 15, Holland capitulates to Nazis
- May 26-June 3, Dunkirk evacuations. The most successful retreat in battle in the history of the world.
- May 28, Belgium capitulates to Nazis
- June 10, Norway capitulates to Nazis.
- June 14, Nazis Occupy Paris
- June 22, France capitulates to Nazis, and signs an armistice with France in the French countryside of Compiègne. This took place in the same railroad car in which Germany surrendered to French General Ferdinand Foch, at the close of WWI in 1918. Hitler’s bitterness over that war’s outcome was somewhat vindicated in that train car. He ordered the train car destroyed right after the signing. The train car on site today is a replica.
- American Journalist William Shirer was present for this event: “I am but fifty yards from him. (Hitler) I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.”
- The Vichy government of France, headed up by collaborators Marshal Pétain and Pierre Laval, is installed by the Nazis as a puppeteer French government.
- June 28, Britain recognizes General Charles de Gaulle as the Free French leader. Ever heard of this little network of fighters called La Résistance? The French people were ostensibly divided into two primary groups. “Collabos” and “Non collabos,” or The French Resistance as the latter quickly came to be known.
- American Doctor Sumner Jackson, his wife Toquette, and young son, Phillip become intricately involved in French Resistance activities. They were eventually arrested by the Gestapo. Sumner died in captivity in April, 1945. His son survived captivity, and his wife survived Ravensbrück concentration camp. Read “Avenue of Spies,” Alex Kershaw.
- July 10, Battle of Britain begins. The USA was still in “neutrality” mode. Consequently, there were 9 American pilots, a few of them crop dusters, who are known to have smuggled themselves overseas to fight in this battle. One of these men was Pilot Officer William ‘Billy’ Fiske, a Cambridge graduate and a member of the US Winter Olympic bobsleigh teams of 1928 and 1932. Fiske did not survive the battle. A memorial was unveiled to Fiske at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1941 with the words: “An American citizen who died that England might live.” Recommended reading: The Few, Alex Kershaw.
- Churchill in a speech exuding appreciation to the Royal Air Force: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
- September, 1940, the Triple (Axis) Pact is signed by Germany, Italy and Japan.
- September 1940–May 1941, The Nazi Blitz, nighttime bombing raids against London and other British cities ensued which killed an estimated 43,000 British civilians and wounded over 130,000. Recommended reading, “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson.
- For two years London sustained heavy casualties both civilian and military, on her British Island and on French soil where the battle against the Germans raged on, as the Americans continued to hem and haw about getting involved. Meanwhile, actions, like Franklin Roosevelt’s Land Lease Act, kept Churchill connected to the great hope that the USA would enter the fight for freedom with he and his comrades, literally before it is too late.
- Romania and Hungary join the Axis.
- April 1941, Greece and Yugoslavia capitulate to the Nazis.
- June 22, 1941, Hitler reneges on his pact with Josef Stalin, and Germany invades Russia.
- June 25, 1941, USA Executive order prohibits racial discrimination in the national defense industry.
- December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor. Japan executes a successful, surprise attack on our Pacific fleet, killing 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships, including 8 battleships. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor would reportedly write in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Thank God he was right!
- December 8, 1941, America and England declare war on Japan.
- December 11, 1941, Hitler declares war on the USA, what a foregone conclusion.
- December 12, 1941, Hitler takes complete control of the German Army. This was significant, because up until now, the Wehrmacht Army operated largely independently of Hitler’s German Gestapo. Now those old Prussian Generals who paid mind to things like the Geneva Convention or just in general, had a moral compass, are completely stripped of power by the Führer. INDEED, the plans of Hitler’s assassination and the multiple attempts on his life, were birthed inside the Wehrmacht. Dietrich Bonhoeffer a famed German Lutheran pastor and bible scholar, and leader of the Confessing Church of pastors, along with his older brother, and two of his brothers-in-law (married to his sisters), and several other high ranking Wehrmacht officials were executed late in the war by Heinrich Himmler on Hitler’s orders. Lest you think every German supported Hitler. Read my review on Eric Metaxas’ book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer here. The Confessing Church was necessarily borne out of the Lutheran church’s selling out and becoming the official church of the Third Reich. The Catholic church was mostly silent throughout the war.
- December 31, 1941 The War in the Pacific had only just begun. By year’s end, the Japanese Army, largely unchecked, had savagely invaded and occupied Thailand, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, and the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
- January 20, Wannsee Conference takes place with top German officials putting together “The Final Solution,” an insidious plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Reinhard Heydrich is one of the masterminds.
- February, an executive order in the USA begins the relocation of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to internment camps in California. While America is in the fight of her life for liberty and freedom, ironically, many Japanese Americans are losing theirs.
- May, the first thousand-bomber British air raid (against Köln). Köln is a lovely city a mere 45 minutes by car or train from where my family and I lived in Germany in 2008-2012.
- April – May 1942, Japan occupies the Philippines.
- April 9, 1942 , “Bataan Death March” – one of the most notorious crimes committed against Americans and Filipinos during the war in the Pacific theater was a 66 mile march across the peninsula. The sick, starving, and brutalized captives who didn’t die on the march, were herded into prison camps, one for Filipino soldiers and another for Americans, across the road from each other at a former Philippine army training ground called Camp O’Donnell. Here, from April to October 1942, thousands of men died of sickness and starvation.
- May 1942, Creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
- September 1942, Japanese floatplanes drop incendiary bombings in the forests of Oregon hoping to spark forest fires. Only minor injuries are reported, but it is the first time USA soil has been breached by the enemy. UNLESS you count the 5,000 seamen and passengers who died in American merchant and military fuel tankers and cargo ships along the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, and in the Gulf of Mexico, at the hands of Nazi U-boats.
- January, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is formed, composed of primarily Japanese Americans. This unit would become the most decorated unit in U.S. history.
- August 5, The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was established. Women proved themselves as tough-as-nails combatants and non-combatants, not only in organizations like WASP, but also back home in the factories doing 1000 different jobs, all necessary to support the war. Jobs left empty by the hundreds of thousands of men who were called to combat. Think Rosie the Riveter.
- November 27, The Cairo Conference. The Allies, represented by Churchill, Rosevelt, and China’s current general in command, Chiang Kai-shek, demand unconditional surrender from Japan and her immediate disembarkation of the Pacific Islands, Korea, and China.
- The brutal battle for the Pacific continues.
- November 18, The Battle of Berlin begins and will continue until March, 1944.
- Allied forces land in Sicily (not the least of which was at the hands of my old unit, the 45th Infantry Division from Oklahoma) and gain control of the Mediterranean. The precursor to the invasion of Italy would take 38 days to secure. In short order, Italy switches sides. (Eyebrows raised) Recommended reading, “The Liberator,” Alex Kershaw.
- June 6, 1944, D-Day. Operation Overlord headed up by General Dwight D. Eisenhower is a success but at a frightful cost, with approximately 5000 allied deaths. The highest number was in American sector, Omaha Beach, where over 2200 American soldiers died. Omaha Beach sustained half of the total number of casualties to perish on D-Day, among all 5 invasion beaches (Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha, and Utah). These beaches stretch along the Normandy coast for about 50 miles.
- June 7, 1944, Bomber crews of the US Ninth Airforce leave their B26 Marauder aircraft after returning from a mission to support the D-Day landings in Normandy by disrupting German lines of communication and supply. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
- June 11, 1944, Wounded American soldiers are helped ashore by Black soldiers at a British port, after arriving from France during World War II. The soldiers had probably taken part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)
- February, 1945, Anne and Margot Frank die in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
- April 1945, Dachau’s main camp was liberated by units of the 45th Infantry Division.
- April 28, 1945 Italy’s fascist leader and Hitler groupie, Benito Mussolini dies. He and his girlfriend are abducted and murdered by Italians.
- April 30, 1945 Hitler dies when he and his bride of about 10 minutes, Eva Braun, commit suicide in his Berlin Bunker as the Russians are closing in.
- May 1, 1945 Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s nefarious and diabolical propagandist along with his wife, poison their 6 children. Then they killed themselves.
- 1942-1945, The Tuskegee Airmen, an all black American flying squadron, flew 1,578 missions and 15,533 sorties, destroying 261 enemy aircraft, and winning more than 850 medals by the war’s end.
- Tuskegee Airmen in Italy Getty Images.
One D-Day story: (There are a million) The soldiers of the 116th Infantry were the first to hit Omaha beach at 0630, coming under heavy fire from German fortifications. Company A, from the Virginia National Guard in Bedford was annihilated by overwhelming fire as it landed on the 116th’s westernmost section of the beach, along with half of Company C of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which was landing to the west of the 116th. The catastrophic losses suffered by a small Virginia community led to it being selected for the site of a National Memorial.
One Pacific Theatre Story (There are a million) The Battle of Okinawa.
“Okinawa was to witness the biggest single land-air-sea battle of all time, a brutal campaign which would see savagery and brutality that surpassed anything that had come before in the Pacific War. At sea, naval casualties were higher than at any point in the war, with Japan unleashing almost its entire kamikaze effort against the joint American and British task force around the islands. On land, the scale of killing was even worse. Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, in which more than a quarter of a million people were killed. Okinawa was to be the last, and one of the costliest battles of the Second World War.” HistoryExtra.com
When 91 year old Virgil “Bub” Simmons and 92 year old Ozzie Aasland were interviewed by Stars and Stripes magazine in April, 2015 they recalled in vivid detail the danger and the brutality of that 82-day battle. Some highlights of their experiences:
Simmons and his crew were ordered to destroy caves throughout the region, battle positions for Japanese combatants. “I was ordered to go up and blow this cave. So I went up there and all I saw was children and women. And I refused to blow the cave. It was huge. I just couldn’t do it.”
Ozzie remembers the island defenders allowing the 6th Marine Division to land with little resistance. They wanted the Marines concentrated in one area so they could decimate them. “It kind of backfired on them. The bullets were tracking along like a sewing machine.You only had a few seconds to know what was coming and analyze if it was going to hit you. You’re thinking, Is this my time?’ Ozzie would remain there for an unbelievable, 103 days, firing 105mm Howitzer rounds.
An American serviceman shares his rations with two Japanese children in Okinawa, Japan, 1945. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Were the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary?
On August 6, 1945, a US bomber dropped the uranium bomb above the city of Hiroshima killing around 140,000 people. Three days later on August 9, 1945, the US dropped the second atomic bomb ever deployed in conflict, hitting the Japanese industrial city of Nagasaki. and killing about 74,000 people.
Two weeks later Japan surrendered, ending World War Two.
After the Japanese defeat at Okinawa, many people thought for sure this would be the end. Japan would finally declare an end to this bleak and ferocious war which they initiated in Nanking in 1937. But they persisted in their misguided belief that their leader Emperor Hirohito was a God, and would render them victors at last. They forced the hand of the Allies to begin orchestrating the invasion of Tokyo.
You can do your own research. I can assure you that you will find eloquent arguments made today, 75 years later both in defense of the atomic bombing, and still others in favor of a land invasion of Tokyo. Here are a few thoughts:
- The truth is, there was mortal fear that Tokyo would be the bloodiest sea battle and land invasion to date, perhaps 5 times the carnage of the Normandy invasion in France. The numbers of Japanese civilians and Allied soldiers to meet their death was estimated to be incalculable.
- Everyone was dang exhausted and battle weary. Americans were tired of receiving the ominous Western Union Telegram announcing yet another dead son, husband, or father. In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26 years old. The pressing and overwhelming conviction for most Americans was, “We didn’t start this war, but we are going to finish it.”
- By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, there were approximately 140,000 Allied military personnel (from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States) in Japanese POW camps. These camps were notorious for their brute savagery, starvation, forced labor and beatings. The Allies were ready to bring their boys home. As many of them as could be saved, should be saved. That was paramount in their thoughts.
- And finally.…..at the Potsdam Conference of the Allies, July 17 to August 2, 1945, total surrender was demanded of Japan. The ultimatum stated unequivocally, that if Japan did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction.”
Let’s face it. 75 years later, it is just too easy to be an armchair quarterback from the relative comfort of my 21 century ivory tower. But, the truth is, thankfully, most of us will never know the horrors of that war on such a personal level as those who lived it.
Total U.S. casualties in the war against Japan were 150,000+ dead or missing and another 253,000+ wounded.
Total U.S. casualties in the European theater were 200,000+ dead or missing and another 600,000+ wounded.
May 7-8, 1945
The unconditional surrender of the German Third Reich was signed at 2:41 am Monday, May 7, 1945 at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at Reims in northeastern France. The surrender ordered “all forces under German command to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time, on 8 May.” This set the official date for VE Day as May 8th.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing Street, gesturing his famous ‘V for Victory’ hand signal, London, June 1943. (Photo by H F Davis/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
August 15-September 2, 1945
On August 15 Emperor Hirohito went on national radio for the first time to announce the Japanese surrender. On Sunday, September 2, more than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The flags of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China fluttered above the deck of the Missouri. Just after 9 a.m. Tokyo time, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed on behalf of the Japanese government. General Yoshijiro Umezu then signed for the Japanese armed forces. This set the official date for VJ Day as September 2nd.
Crowds gathering in Times Square to celebrate the news of Japan’s surrender on V-J (Victory in Japan) Day, New York City. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
WWII embodied virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–45. There were 41 countries in combat. That’s 41 different nations of people. In American alone, there were 7 different ethnic groups of citizens who fought for democracy. All of these citizens were equally subject to the draft. All were given the same rate of pay. When they were released from military service in 1945-46, all were eligible for the G.I. bill and other veterans’ benefits on a basis of equality. Did America do everything right in the war? Not by a long shot. We interned Japanese Americans. African Americans were segregated in the war. They were also vastly underestimated in their skill and contributions. The civil rights movement was partly borne out of those African Americans who served and gave their all in that conflict. They knew personally and with intricate detail, the cost of freedom. Many veterans, having learned multiple organizational skills, and having become more alert to the nationwide situation of their group, became active in civil rights activities after the war. They brought much to that fight for equality and liberty.
Sadly, WWII did not solve our problems of inequality in this country. But it was foundational in the fight. It was and will always be a cornerstone of our freedom. Or else, they died for nothing.
Worldwide Deaths in WWII by Country, WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.
God help us, in the year 2020, as social unrest heightens and everyone has their claws out, that we would not pause to consider those millions of freedom fighters who 75 years ago made the ultimate sacrifice in order that we might, today, be able to live a life that exudes both joy and gratitude. Honestly, our ability to fully do that is largely contingent upon how well we know our own history. That fight 75 years ago should impact our choices today. It should make us pause. It should inspire us. Essayist and poet Jorge Santayana made famous these words: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let this not be said of us.
Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed — else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”