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Or maybe it’s geography. Each year, Americans learn how increasingly ignorant their school children are when it comes to geography. I guess that halfwits who can’t locate Manhattan or Omaha are unlikely to find Manila or Okinawa on a map. But that’s only part of it. Americans have always been geographically predisposed to Europe given the fact that the vast majority of us have roots there. It’s no surprise, then, that people during the war could better identify with and comprehend news reports of events taking place in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Eastern European countries, the Balkans and other familiar locations. When it came to the Pacific war, there was just no frame of reference for the often times difficult to pronounce or spell islands, atolls, straits and seas where most of the fighting took place.

In any event, for various and sundry reasons, the U.S. government’s wartime “Europe First” strategic mandate has seemingly lingered all the way into the 21st century, 70 years since the start of the war, and I believe it’s time to alter that perception.

In my opinion, just about the only area that the Nazis had the Japanese beat was in evil “style” points. I have to admit that the uniforms of the Third Reich were hardcore. The death’s head on SS officers’ caps. The Iron Cross. Those long, slick leather coats and shiny, polished knee-high boots. The Nazis goosestepped and clicked their heels better. Japanese Army soldiers and officers, meanwhile, often looked rumpled and disheveled; I had once heard them described as resembling “poorly-wrapped brown paper parcels.”

But that’s all the ground I’m going to give. In fact, I’ve got some news for people, namely the editorial dictators that run our nation’s media, the suits and green eye-shades at the television networks and Hollywood studios that decide our viewing choices: the war in the Pacific was worse. Inconceivably worse. And I truly believe that the Japanese were greater villains than even the Nazis. Let me explain.

My first point of argument is to assail the belief that the D-Day landings and subsequent battles were some sort of great liberation, a “Great Crusade,” as General Eisenhower called it. Of course, the Allied victory in Europe was a monumental acheivement. But while we’re on the subject of monumental acheivements, what then can we call the much larger fight in the Pacific? The Greatest Crusade? After all, the Pacific Theater dwarfed the ETO, MTO and North Africa in terms of logistics and sheer size. Japan’s Imperial march across the vast expanses of the Far East and Pacific well surpassed the size and scope of Hitler’s astounding early successes. Upon the conclusion of the war-opening Centrifugal Offensive, Emperor Hirohito reigned over nearly ONE-SEVENTH OF THE GLOBE by mid-1942, an area larger than the United States and the whole of Europe combined. As a result, three long, bloody, difficult years later, Allied victory in the Pacific meant the liberation of more territory and tens of millions more people.

And it was a much more difficult fight. Not only because the Americans, Australians, British and Chinese had more territory to deal with, but they had less war materiel to work with, too. According to Admiral Ernest King, Europe received nearly 85% of the prodigious output from America’s assembly lines. What did the Pacific receive? A paltry 15%.

And Europe was essentially an Army show; in other words, there was no interservice rivalry to obstruct operational progress. A lot is made of Ike’s political savvy, his skill at manipulating and harnessing all of the various European allies and political entities for a greater good, but the Pacific was just as messy and overflowing a melting pot of commands, egos, strategies and rivalries. MacArthur. Nimitz. Halsey. Stilwell. Mountbatten. Blamey. The Generalissimo. While the rivalries weren’t nearly as disastrously dysfunctional as those which characterized Imperial Japan’s armed forces, from the get-go the Pacific had to be divided up into separate, well-defined bailiwicks, SOPAC, SWPA, etc., to keep the Marines from chop-blocking the Army, the Army Air Force from stiff-arming Naval aviators, and so forth. To continue the football comparison, the Pacific war was like a massive Army-Navy game played every day for nearly four years by two all-star studded teams. Besides beating the Japanese, each American side wanted to one-up the other and gain greater glory.

And what of climatic differences? While those who fought the Battle of the Bulge endured the worst winter in 50 years in Europe, that was just about the worst of it. They didn’t experience the full fury of Mother Nature’s meteorological arsenal like those who fought in the Pacific. The men and women who won the Pacific war not only conquered an implacable enemy, they conquered the arctic cold of the Aleutians, the relentless heat and humidity that pervaded the impenetrable jungles of Burma, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, the torrential rains of Cape Gloucester, and the massive waves of Typhoon Cobra. And with the tropical climate came tropical diseases. Allied personnel in Europe did not have to deal with malaria, dengue fever and a slew of other bizarre and debilitating maladies.

While the Allied bomber and fighter pilots flew through the worst flak/fighter interceptor storms of the war in raids over occupied Europe (Ploesti, for example), when they bailed out, more often than not they ended up, in best-case scenarios, hiding in the hayloft of a sympathetic farmer or in the hands of the local resistance or partisan units. Worst-case, they landed inside the barbed wire confines of a spartan, yet reasonably safe Stalag. In the Pacific, there was no best-case scenario. Many airmen were machine-gunned by Japanese pilots minutes after hitting the silk, something that rarely happened in Europe, where the notion of combat chivalry was largely maintained by both sides. In the Pacific, the notion of crashing down to friendly territory was rare. Pilots could end up in dense, primordial jungle hundreds of miles from civilization or smack in the middle of the ocean, where death from dehydration or drowning was more likely than rescue. They could be set upon by sharks, tigers, massive pythons and tribes of primitive cannibals. They could even be eaten by the Japanese. Don’t believe me? Read James Bradley’s Flyboys. They could undergo the living hells of vivisection by sadistic Japanese “doctors.” Or they could be chained naked in a Tokyo zoo for civilians to gawk at. I’ve never read nor heard of any such things happening to Allied fliers in German hands. As for Army troops and Marines fighting on the ground in the Pacific, well, after the nightmare first-hand accounts of Japanese atrocities from ten escaped American POWs from the Philippines were finally released to the American public in early 1944, none would even consider the thought of surrender. For those who are unaware of what is perhaps the war’s most staggering statistic, I’ll repeat it: 37% of all Allied POWs held by the Japanese perished in captivity. Only 1% of Allied prisoners (not including Russians) held by Germany did not survive the war.

And while the History Channel constantly celebrates everything from Germany’s advanced superweapons and secret spy programs to its attempts at taking the war to America’s shores, let’s not forget that the Japanese actually pulled off such feats. Japanese spies infiltrated American military installations in Hawaii and the Philippines. The Imperial Navy not only stealthily traversed the entire Pacific to execute the sneak attack upon Pearl Harbor, their submarines also shelled California. They even succeeded in landing a handful of long-distance hydrogen-filled balloon bombs in remote areas of our West Coast. The Japanese also occupied American soil – the Aleutians – however briefly. The Germans, on the other hand, despite all of their fearsome technical know-how and espionage expertise, could manage only the überfailure known as Operation Pastorius.

Most of all, I cannot fathom the absurd, though widely accepted notion of the Nazis being the purest personification of “evil,” their Hollywood-anointed role as America’s greatest historical villains/antagonists, while the notion of the Japanese being some kind of bumbling inferior enemy, an amateur Axis sidekick, persists.

The Nazis, everyone knows, had a special affinity for killing Jews, Communists, Soviet POWs, gypsies, mental patients and others labeled by the Third Reich as “undesirable.” The Japanese, on the other hand, didn’t practice any such discrimination. Equal opportunity torturers and killers, the Japanese killed captured combatants and civilians with the same fanatical zeal. Innocent babies were skewered on bayonets about as often as samurai swords chopped the heads off downed aviators. White, Asian, or native islander, American, Australian, British, Chinese, Dutch, Filipino, Indian, Jews, Catholics, Protestants or atheists, generals or privates, pilots or cooks – it didn’t matter. And I’m certain most people don’t know that the Japanese even killed their allies. The German Club massacre, which took place in the midst of the Battle for Manila in 1945, is one of the most unbelievably revolting atrocities that I’ve ever researched.

And there was no official method to Japan’s madness. While Imperial functionaries did occasionally put their horrific policies in writing – such as the notorious “Kill All Prisoners” order issued in 1944 – they did not hold a secret Wannsee Conference to plan their extermination programs. They didn’t waste military resources transporting civilian via trains, or building crematoriums. They simply marched their captives to death on foot, withheld food and medicine from both civilian and POW camps to accelerate death by malnutrition and disease, and, easiest of all, simply loosed drunken, heavily armed hordes on densely populated civilian areas – perhaps you’ve heard of what happened at Nanking, Hong Kong and Manila?

While the Germans had Dr. Josef Mengele, aka. the “Angel of Death” who performed ghastly experiments on Jews and political prisoners under the guise of medical research, the Japanese had an entire outfit dedicated to similar grisly pursuits, a staff of Mengeles called Unit 731 which endeavored to poison entire villages, reportedly even Chinese cities, as well as experimented with anthrax, typhus and cholera on live human subjects, mostly Chinese peasants, but also Allied POWs.

The Gestapo had nothing on the Kempei Tai, the Japanese secret police. Ask anyone who spent any amount of time in the Kempei Tai torture chambers known as the Cathay Building in Singapore, or Fort Santiago in Manila – and lived to tell about it. And while I’m sure the Nazis introduced sexual slavery in various forms in their conquered territories, but I’ve never read about any officially sanctioned scheme of kidnapping, brothels and legalized rape as sickening and as extensive as that which has come to be known as the Japanese “comfort women” system.

I remain convinced that the Nazis will never relinquish their undisputed No. 1 ranking as history’s most evil empire for one reason – actually, six million of them. That number, 6,000,000, which is invariably a part of any discussion of this type, is the number of Jewish people killed by the Third Reich in the Holocaust. It’s because of that number that the Nazis have the reputation that they have today. I’m not attempting to marginalize those victims, either. The Holocaust – because of both the scale of the crimes perpetrated and the ignorance of “good” nations that allowed the event to happen – remains one of the biggest black marks on humanity’s historical record. But it wasn’t the only holocaust. Some believe that the Holocaust in Europe, when compared to the numbers of deaths and wanton destruction of the “Far East Holocaust,” as some historians called the 14-year dark age ushered in throughout Asia and across the Pacific Rim by the expansionist Imperial Japanese armed forces, pales in comparison. But we’ll never know for sure.

With the exception of rare circumstances – such as an astounding newspaper series detailing a beheading contest between two Japanese officers during the Sino-Japanese War – the Japanese were not as skilled, nor as dedicated as their Nazi counterparts when it came to recording the efficiency of their killing machine. Resultantly, there was no extensive postwar documentation of Japanese atrocities, no long paperwork trail. The Japanese kept few incriminating records and what they did keep was consciously and expediently destroyed in the time period from V-J Day to the official surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. By the time Allied occupation forces finally landed on Japanese soil, incriminating documents were smoldering ashes, witnesses erased from existence, the locations of mass graves expertly concealed for eternity. Other than photos of recently liberated skeletal Allied POWs – which eerily resembled their comrades in captivity who had survived Nazi concentration camps – the world saw and knew little of the horrors that had transpired behind Japan’s bamboo curtain in the Pacific.

And there would be little to no effort in the ensuing decades to educate the world about such horrors. The Tokyo and Manila War Crimes trials received but a fraction of the media attention that accompanied the famed proceedings in Nuremberg. One notable example of the bias shown towards the publicizing of Nazi atrocities is what I like to call the “Tale of Two Reprisals.” Thanks to Euro-centric media, before war’s end practically the entire world was aware that in the spring of 1942 the Nazis had slaughtered the 503 inhabitants of the Czech village of Lidice as a reprisal operation following the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich by British-trained Czech commandos. The Germans even went so far as to divert streams that passed through the town and dig up the village cemetery and relocate corpses so as to literally wipe the village from the map. At the same time, few know of what has been called the “Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign.” Following the famed Doolittle Raid in April 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army launched a reprisal operation of its own, one that would make the Lidice liquidation look like a field exercise. In retaliation for their rendering assistance to crashed Raiders, the Japanese tore up all airfields in a 20,000-square mile radius near the Chinese coast and employed germ warfare against all Chinese civilians living in the area, eventually killing an estimated 250,000 men, women and children.

One of my favorite lines from HBO’s Band of Brothers occurred in an early episode, during a discussion between several members of Easy Company who were en route to Europe aboard a jam-packed troopship. “Right now,” said Muck, “some lucky bastard’s headed for the Pacific, get put on some tropical island, surrounded by six naked native girls, helping him cut up coconuts so he can hand feed them to the flamingos.” While there was no way guys in Europe could have known what reality was in the Pacific, I found that line amusing. It was probably representative of a lot of servicemen’s thoughts at the time, and a myth that probably morphed into truth after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” became a hit and once close-lipped Pacific war veterans returned home and silently went about the rest of their lives. Little did they know.

As bad as D-Day was from a bitter fighting/high casualty perspective, there were multiple Omaha Beaches in the Pacific – places called Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima – smaller-scale, but perhaps more hellacious amphibious nightmares. I recall reading memoirs from Europe veterans that discuss the difference between fighting against regular Wehrmacht troops and the SS. The regular German Army troops could be coerced into surrendering and, upon later personal interaction, were usually found to be regular human beings – not the evil supermen the media had made them out to be. The despised SS troopers, on the other hand, would never surrender and were never taken prisoner – every encounter with an SS unit was a grueling fight to the death. The moral of the story: the Pacific was like going up against the SS in every single action, be it a small-scale skirmish or full-fledged campaign. And the Germans didn’t send wave upon wave of kamikaze suicide pilots against Allied ships or planes, too.

It’s hardly surprising, then, to understand that those who fought in the Pacific were much more reluctant to talk about their experiences than their European counterparts. In my experience as a historian, I’ve noticed a profound distinction after conducting interviews with Europe and Pacific veterans. The guys who fought in Europe were mostly happy-go-lucky types and very conversational. The guys who survived the Pacific were very quiet, often suspect, introverted. I recall one Sunday afternoon drinking beers at the White Valley Club with a vet called Tucker while he rehashed his experiences in Italy during the war. Geno, an Army medic who saw plenty of action in Europe not long after D-Day, spoke guardedly, but answered some of my questions, too. Another veteran known as P.K. had no problem communicating his experiences as an artilleryman in North Africa to me during another memorable conversation that took place on fall break during my senior year in college. But some of the most vivid memories I have of growing up around WWII veterans are those of my mother’s Uncle Lou, who served in the Army in the Pacific and was severely wounded (he spent many months in a Stateside hospital and would wear a brace on his leg for the rest of his life) when a Japanese plane – perhaps a kamikaze – attacked his Navy transport just off the Philippines. But these memories are vivid not for what I was told, but rather for what Lou did not tell me. In fact, he never told me anything. He never spoke of the war or his experiences – to anyone, as far I know. When I was a youngster, my grandmother showed me a photograph that Lou had sent home from sometime earlier in the war. It featured a happier young G.I., along with a half-dozen other smiling guys standing in a row on some unnamed tropic island, holding in their outstretched arms a giant dead snake that had to be at least 15-feet long. I was mesmerized. The next time I saw Uncle Lou, I brought up the snake photo. Unfortunately, that seemingly innocuous topic, too, was forbidden. I’ll never forget seeing him sit off by himself at family reunions, seemingly content in his own isolation or silence. Tragically, there were and still are Uncle Lous out there. But not as many as there once was, and that’s another developing tragedy.

It’s sad that few of these men talk, and that few publish memoirs (Thankfully, Pacific war veterans like Robert Leckie, William Manchester and Eugene Sledge put their thoughts and feelings down on paper), but I believe that some surviving vets could potentially be enticed to speak and write if they thought the country cared. While our nation’s publishers seem to be sincerely working to balance bookshelves with Pacific war titles, they’re getting little help from Hollywood and the nation’s media.

Hollywood is by far the worst offender. There are so many fantastic, untold true World War II stories that would make outstanding films, yet instead of developing this material, we are force-fed a steady diet of Nazi and European war flicks, melodramas and movies from new genres that I can’t classify (see the fictionalized war stories using the ETO as a back drop – Quentin Tarentino’s “Inglorious Bastards” and Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna,” for example) as well as regurgitated remakes. Which brings us back to “Red Tails.” This movie is essentially a remake of a quality film from way back in – get this – 1996. The movie, which starred Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr, was called “The Tuskegee Airmen.” From what I’ve read, Lucas has been infatuated with the story of the Tuskegee fliers for nearly 20 years, but that interest aside, I still don’t see the reason for the need for a redux so soon. My guess is that George Lucas wanted to use all of the recent advances in SFX technology to make Star Wars in 1944. Depressingly, this remake resurgence is scheduled to get worse. Although I’m happy that a Pacific war story is being made, it’s yet another rehashing of a long-known story; there are reports that coming to a theater near you sometime soon is a redux of the 1976 Heston/Fonda blockbuster, “Midway,” only this time with 3-D special effects.

It’s a sad state of affairs. Instead of spending tens of millions on remakes, why not employ this technological wizardry to tell previously unknown stories? Why not finally do the Bataan Death March? If the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” and the battlefield realism brought to “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” is any indication of what Hollywood is capable of, the capability finally exists to portray the war’s most well-known “brand-name” atrocity with stunning realness.

Hollywood has attempted to make some inroads in regards to Pacific war movies in recent years, but the results have been less than commendable. The individuals helming and publicizing these flicks deserve an honorable discharge from the entertainment industry, if not a court-martial. “Pearl Harbor” was a sappy love story propped up by wooden actors and special effects. “The Thin Red Line” had a strong cast, but like “Pearl Harbor,” was a wishy-washy melodrama that did not capture the essence of the Pacific war in any way, shape or form. “The Great Raid,” the story of the liberation of American POWs from Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines in early 1945 that was released in 2005 after many false-starts, is another example of the story of an incredible victory that became a lost battle once Hollywood got a hold of it. I really enjoyed the film, and believed that the screenplay stayed reasonably accurate and realistic, but I thought the casting was poor and that the film received no publicity or support from the studio whatsoever. I recently learned that Hampton Sides, whose book Ghost Soldiers was the basis for the film, was so displeased with the way the project was run and the finished product that he called the film “The So-So Raid.” It’s no surprise, then, that these Pacific war films were not critically-acclaimed nor box office successes.

Another of Captain Jones’s e-mail communiques contained a link to a fascinatingWashington Post feature story about two elderly women living in the Metro DC area that served overseas with the O.S.S. – the forerunner of the C.I.A. – during the war. It was an educational read; I was unaware that women served in theater, and so near the front in some cases, and these heroines served in the Pacific no less. The WaPo story, I later learned, was likely the reactive result of an outstanding feature on these same women that just appeared in World War II Magazine. After all, our nation’s newspapers are rarely active, instead they’re reactive (unless, of course, there’s an award, such as Pulitzer, to be gained) and usually chase stories only after some other publication or entity has already found it. But this story is yet another prime example of the media and Hollywood dropping the ball. If these women had been working to thwart the Nazis, TMZ would be reporting a major catfight among Hollywood’s female A-listers for the leading role today. Hell, who am I kidding – if the story was Euro- or Nazi-centric, the flick would be in post-production by now.

Long blog post short, it’s 2011, high time for the editors, producers, screenwriters and studio heads in the nation’s media and entertainment industries to take a refresher history course – maybe a geography lesson, too – and learn that World War II truly was a global conflict. It’s the least they can do for those who fought the Pacific war, those who did not survive it and for the ever-dwindling numbers of those who did.

 

John D. Likacs