1945: Welcome back to an impoverished Britain

View of St Paul's Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.
View of St Paul’s Cathedral and the bomb damaged areas surrounding it in London.

The war may have been won in Europe but it would take a long time before living conditions improved for many people. In Britain food rationing would continue for many years after the war. Almost every town and city had wide expanses of bomb sites, a daily reminder of the acute housing shortage that would also take years to remedy.

For the great multitude of people who had been damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, resources were scarce. Anthony Faramus had lived on the island of Jersey before falling foul of the German occupiers and being sent off to a concentration camp. Hopelessly emaciated, he was too weak to walk when he was finally liberated. He was to discover that his welcome back to Britain had much to be desired:

My reintroduction into civilization fell somewhat short of my expectations. Incredibly, there were times when I regretted my return. Flown to England courtesy of the American army, who treated me liberally, with compassionate understanding and without counting the cost of a boarder in their hands, I quickly became exasperated by British officialdom; first, when I was abruptly removed from a friendly cottage-type hospital in the peace and quiet of the countryside to a large institution for incurables and the terminally ill.

‘Be grateful,’ I was told, ‘it’s far better than the place you’ve been at, by all accounts’. It was put to me straightforwardly and I understood. Unable to procure the longed-for privacy and medical care for lack of pounds, shillings and pence, I was obliged to accept charity.

I was fed three times a day, bathed and given a book to read. I was not ungrateful, but I was tired of the bedlam and the emotional disturbances of unfortunate people on every side of me. I had some physical discomfort, a loss of power in my legs, but I was neither neurotic nor mentally unbalanced.

I had not informed my mother or any member of my family of my return from the grave. My intention had been first to rehabilitate myself, to put back the five stones I had lost and to see my hair grow to its normal thickness and length.

The institution with its system of rigid rules did not help me to improve. I did not believe the inmates were ever meant to be let loose on the streets, and I resolved to extricate myself from the trap. I made an urgent appeal to my sister, the wartime evacuee from Jersey island to Rochdale in Lancashire.

I was tied down to an invalid carriage, a ridiculous ‘granny’ Bathchair with two large wheels at the back of the basketwork chassis and a small one at the front steered by a long rod with a T-shaped handle. But I was able to move to a warm and loving pied-a-terre with neighbours, run-of-the-mill Rochdale people like the corner grocer and baker, brightening up my days.

‘You need fattening up, lad, those daft buggers at Welfare will give you nowt, not even the skin off a bloody rice pudding, they won’t.’ Young cotton mill girls were an inspiration too, knocking at my sisters street door and bringing me hard-to-come-by eggs and fruit, and pies baked by ‘Mum’. They offered to wheel me out to the park and, after a while, made passes and aroused my passions, breathing fresh life into me with the kind of kisses I hadn’t experienced since leaving Romainville.

But it was those ‘buggers’ at Welfare, the ‘gauleiters’ of bumbledom who gave me the hump. The to-ing and fro-ing, the waiting in line, the form-filling, the fatuous questions, all for a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a jar of malt extract and a pittance in a warrant to be cashed at the post office, not enough to cover what my sister was paying out.

Perseverance and strength of will put my wheel-chair up ‘for sale’. I took to a pair of crutches, an event ruled unrealistic three months before, and, before my first Christmas of liberty, I was standing on my two feet unaided.

See Anthony Faramus: Journey into Darkness.

In 1945 there was no ‘Welfare State’ and the National Health Service was just a manifesto promise of the Labour Party in the General Election that was now under way.

Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.
Bricklayers repair the front wall of a terrace of houses badly damaged by German bombs.

1945: The occupying armies start to cope with Germany

Major H P G L O'Connor of Southampton and Sergeant W W Lynas of the Public Safety Department of the Allied Military Government disarm German policemen shortly after the entry of British forces into Hanover.
Major H P G L O’Connor of Southampton and Sergeant W W Lynas of the Public Safety Department of the Allied Military Government disarm German policemen shortly after the entry of British forces into Hanover.
Picture taken on 4 July 1945 shows the entry of troops into Berlin of the 7th Armoured Division, led by the 11th Hussars, the famous "Desert Rats" who had travelled with them from El Alamein, to Berlin, via Benghazi, Tripoli, Tunis, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Belgium and Holland. Major General LD Lyne CB, DSO, COG 7th Armoured Division and commander of the British forces in Berlin took the salute as his troops entered the city.
Picture taken on 4 July 1945 shows the entry of troops into Berlin of the 7th Armoured Division, led by the 11th Hussars, the famous “Desert Rats” who had travelled with them from El Alamein, to Berlin, via Benghazi, Tripoli, Tunis, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Belgium and Holland. Major General LD Lyne CB, DSO, COG 7th Armoured Division and commander of the British forces in Berlin took the salute as his troops entered the city.
Signaller R W Chater from North Shields and Signaller Syddall of Horwich look at the scorboard in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin, set up by some unknown British humorist.
Signaller R W Chater from North Shields and Signaller Syddall of Horwich look at the scorboard in the Olympic Stadium, Berlin, set up by some unknown British humorist.

Europe remained convulsed by change two months after the end of hostilities. The occupying armies of America, Britain, France and the Soviet Union were struggling to come to terms with their responsibilities – and the carve up of Germany into different zones of responsibility was only just under way.

The British entered their sector of Berlin on the 4th July – the beginning of an uneasy relationship with the Soviet forces who had completely occupied the ruined capital until then.

British Army General Sir Brian Horrocks describes the situation elsewhere in Germany:

During those first few days after the German capitulation we all felt as though an immense weight had been lifted from our shoulders; but this wonderful, carefree atmosphere did not last for long. We were faced by the many intricate problems involved in the resuscitation of a stricken Germany.

Having spent the last six years doing our best to destroy the German Reich, almost overnight we had to go into reverse gear and start building her up again. This required a considerable mental switch.

The British zone of occupation, containing some twenty million Germans, was divided up among the corps for administrative purposes, and I found myself responsible for the Hanover Corps District.

There is something terribly depressing about a country defeated in war, even though that country has been your enemy, and the utter destruction of Germany was almost awesome.

It didn’t seem possible that towns like Hanover and Bremen could ever rise again from the shambles in which the bulk of the hollow-eyed and shabby population eked out a troglodyte existence underneath the ruins of their houses.

Things were better in the country districts, but what struck me most was the complete absence of able-bodied men or even of youths – there were just a few old men, some cripples, and that was all. The farms were almost entirely run by women.

How appalling were the casualties suffered by the Germans was brought home to me forcibly when I first attended morning service in the small village church of Eystrop where I lived. The Germans commemorate their war dead by means of evergreen wreaths; and the whole wall was covered with wreaths — dozens and dozens of them. In a similar church in the United Kingdom I would not expect to see more than eight to ten names on the local war memorial.

The Germans certainly started the last war, but only those who saw the conditions during the first few months immediately after the war ended can know how much they suflfered.

See Brian Horrocks: A Full Life

Germany under Allied Occupation: German U-Boat pens at Hamburg with a scuttled U-Boat in the foreground.
Germany under Allied Occupation: German U-Boat pens at Hamburg with a scuttled U-Boat in the foreground.
Germany under Allied Occupation: German civilians employed by the Economics Department of the Allied Military Government requisition furniature from a former Nazi party or SS member's house in Hanover. British soldiers are present to assist the civilian workers in case of trouble.
Germany under Allied Occupation: German civilians employed by the Economics Department of the Allied Military Government requisition furniature from a former Nazi party or SS member’s house in Hanover. British soldiers are present to assist the civilian workers in case of trouble.

1945: Okinawa – US forces face a gruesome clear up

In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare.
In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare. More than 100,000 Okinawa civilians, not including those who were conscripted, are also believed to had been killed or forced to commit suicide during the battle and its aftermath.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.

Although the battle for Okinawa was effectively over by 22 June the formal surrender did not take place until 7th September, after Japan had surrendered as a nation. While organised fighting had collapsed there were many Japanese soldiers still holding out in their caves and dug outs, some would choose suicide but many felt it their duty to take an American with them.

For the American soldiers and marines engaged in the final ‘clearing up’, operations continued to be difficult and dangerous. Even if they did not confront resisters the business of dealing with mass suicides was as gruesome as it is possible to imagine. US Intelligence officer Frank B. Gibney describes some of the final scenes:

Japanese troops who were preparing a last-ditch “defense.” The flower of the island’s youth — teenage girl nurses’ aides as well as boeitai boy soldiers- were sacrificed to the directives of the Japanese army command. In many cases they were forced to hurl themselves from the low southern cliffs into the sea, so they, too, could “die for the Emperor.”

Even after entering the stockade as prisoners, many soldiers still regretted their decision to stay alive. This was a backhanded tribute to the cruelly effective indoctrination of Japan’s militarists.

As sophisticated an observer as the novelist Shohei Ooka, whose book A Prisoner’s Journal (Furyoki) became a Japanese classic, could later write of his capture (in this case in the Philippines): “I did not regard capture by the enemy as the heinous disgrace our drill instructors had pictured… Soldiers in the field had every right to abandon hopeless resistance. Yet once I had fallen captive, how discomforting, how reprehensible it felt to be idly enjoying life among the enemy while my brothers in arms continued to risk their lives in battle. I felt a sudden urge to throw myself into the ocean and kill myself…”.

At 10th Army G-2 interrogation headquarters we mobilized every Japanese speaker in American uniform — officers and noncoms, army, navy, and marines — to extract militarily useful information from our prisoners. Because of the numbers involved, we sometimes interrogated POWs in groups — for the first time in our experience.

Various interrogators were assigned to different Japanese units to elicit information on their tactics during the campaign, all the while screening prisoners for further questioning.

In addition, we were on constant call to accompany intelligence officers from various division headquarters, in efforts to talk out the last survivors of 32nd Army battalions from their cave hideouts. Generally we were unsuccessful. And time and time again the attempts of individual soldiers to turn themselves in were frustrated by the determined resistance of hard-liners in these caves who wished “Death for the Emperor!” to be the fate of all.

At one point we were led by an engineer captain, just taken prisoner, to a cave where General Amamiya and many of the surviving 24th Division troops had blown themselves up. With 7th Division intelligence officers, I went down to one of the cave entrances and crawled in.

After a walk through a long tunnel we came on a huge underground cavern and one of the ghastliest sights I ever saw. Here lay General Amamiya, surrounded by his staff and some two hundred officers and men. They had all killed themselves, most with grenades, although Amamiya had thoughtfully given himself a lethal injection to avoid the rigors of ritual suicide. The cave floor was literally carpeted with corpses.

In the middle of this carnage we found one survivor, a private who had been the general’s orderly. Amamiya had told him to stay alive and report how they died – to the Emperor, presumably. The orderly had faithfully remained, prepared to do so. He found an underground spring that gave him a steady water supply and subsisted for almost a week on bits and pieces of rations which had been left behind by the suicides.

The captain who had taken us to the cave was unhinged by the experience. He suffered, to put it mildly, a mental breakdown; it took him a long time to recover. But the general’s orderly, once released from the cave, seemed to shrug off his ordeal. Late that aftemoon I saw him in one of the prison camp yards playing volleyball with his fellow captives.

This account appears in Hiromichi Yahara: The Battle for Okinawa

Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 550 km (340 mi) away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.
Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 550 km (340 mi) away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.

1945: Okinawa – Generals commit suicide as defeat looms

F4U of Marine Air Group 33 on its rocket run attacking a Jap strong-hold on Southern Okinawa.
F4U of Marine Air Group 33 on its rocket run attacking a Jap strong-hold on Southern Okinawa.

The outcome of the bloody Okinawa struggle had never really been in doubt – the Japanese strategy had simply been to make it as costly for the U.S. invaders as possible. To achieve this end they considered all of their men expendable – and Okinawan civilians were treated little differently.

Then in the final few days of the battle, trapped in their extensive underground tunnels, the expectation was that almost all would commit suicide to avoid the shame of surrender. In one incident all of the remaining Japanese sailors on the island committed suicide together – over 4,000 men.

For the most senior officers the end came by ritual suicide.

Colonel Yahara was the most senior surviving Japanese officer – ordered not to commit suicide because:

If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame but endure it. This is an order from your army Commander.

So it is that we have an account of the final hours of Generals Ushijima and Chō:

Time was running out. Everyone in the cave formed a line to pay their last respects. Major Ono, a man of innocent face and indomitable spirit, returned and reported that the final message had gone to Imperial General Headquarters. It read:

Your loyal army has successfully completed preparations for homeland defense.

Ono, who had been a code clerk for many years, laughed bitterly. We have used those same words, he said, ever since the capitulation of Attu Island in the North Pacific. General Cho and I nodded agreement.

Officers and men who had shared the hardships of war, as well as Miss Heshikiya and the other young women, came to pay their respects. The young women were scheduled to descend with the remaining soldiers and reach the caves along the cliff before daybreak.

General Cho’s orderly, Nakatsuka, gave them his canteen of precious water, saying he no longer needed it. Cho’s personal assistant said, “Excellency, I am sorry I must leave before offering incense at your funeral.” Cho gave a wry smile.

General Ushijima quietly stood up. General Cho removed his field uniform and followed with Paymaster Sato. Led by candlelight the solemn procession headed for the exit, with heavy hearts and limbs.

When they approached the cave opening, the moon shone on the South Seas. Clouds moved swiftly. The skies were quiet. The morning mist crept slowly up the deep valley. It was as if everything on earth trembled, waiting with deep emotion.

General Ushijima sat silently in the death seat, ten paces from the cave exit, facing the sea wall. General Cho and Sato sat beside him. The hara-kiri assistant, Captain Sakaguchi, stood behind them. I was a few steps away. Soldiers stood at the exit, awaiting the moment.

On the back of General Cho’s white shirt, in immaculate brush strokes, was the poem:

With bravery I served my nation,
With loyalty I dedicate my life.

By first light I could see this moral code written in his own hand, in large characters. General Cho looked over his shoulder at me with a beautifully divine expression and said solemnly, “Yahara! For future generations, you will bear witness as to how I died.”

The master swordsman, Sakaguchi, grasped his great sword with both hands, raised it high above the general’s head, then held back in his downward swing, and said, “It is too dark to see your neck. Please wait a few moments.”

With the dawn, the enemy warships at sea would begin to fire their naval guns. Soldiers at the cave entrance were getting nervous. Granted their leave, they fled and ran down the cliff.

People were still nudging me toward the cave exit when a startling shot rang out. I thought for a moment it was the start of naval gun firing, but instead it was Sato committing suicide outside the cave. When that excitement subsided, the generals were ready. Each in turn thrust a traditional hara-kiri dagger into his bared abdomen. As they did so, Sakaguchi skillfully and swiftly swung his razor-edged sword and beheaded them. Ushijima first, then Cho.

Like a collapsed dam, the remaining soldiers broke ranks and ran down the cliff. I sat down outside the cave with Captain Sakaguchi, who declared with solemn amazement, “I did it!” His ashen face bore a look of satisfaction. Utterly exhausted, we watched the brightening sky. What a splendid last moment!

It marked a glorious end to our three months of hard battle, our proud 32nd Army, and the lives of our generals. It was 0430, June 23, 1945.

See Hiromichi Yahara: The Battle for Okinawa

A Japanese prisoner of war sits behind barbed wire after he and 306 others were captured within the last 24 hours of the battle by 6th Marine Division.
A Japanese prisoner of war sits behind barbed wire after he and 306 others were captured within the last 24 hours of the battle by 6th Marine Division.

1945: U.S. military chiefs consider next move on Japan

Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall - 18 June 1945
Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall – 18 June 1945
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.

Over a month after the war had ended in Europe the Supreme Allied Commander finally managed to get home – and was greeted as the conquering hero that he was. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s contribution to steering the Allies to victory had been hugely important, overseeing great military undertakings with many imponderables, not least of all D-Day, and pulling together a team of military leaders that included more than one ‘difficult’ individual, as well as dealing with enormous political pressures from above, both British and American.

Now the wider U.S. military command faced more difficult decisions as they determined how to bring the war with Japan to an end. Not all were privy to the atomic bomb secrets – and in any event the weapon remained untested even now. They had to proceed on the basis that it would eventually be necessary to invade the Japanese mainland, and had to face up to the likely scale of casualties. Admiral Leahy was not alone in thinking that it might be possible to avoid horrendous casualties by now seeking some sort of peace accord:

General of the Army, D. D. Eisenhower, arrived in Washington from Europe and led a parade from Army Headquarters to the Capitol Building. The streets were crowded by a larger number of spectators than has been seen before by anybody now in Washington.

In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, before a joint session of the House and Senate, General Eisenhower made a very well prepared address which was not delivered with particular skill. The galleries were crowded with visitors and on the floor of the Chamber seats were provided for the Supreme Court, Cabinet Officers, Ministers, and Ambassadors from foreign countries, and the American Chiefs of Staff.

Immediate1y following General Eisenhower’s address we proceeded to the Statler Hotel and participated in a luncheon for 1,000 guests given by the City of Washington in honor of the General…

From 3:30 to 5:00 PM. the President conferred with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy; and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy, in regard to the necessity and the practicability of an invasion of Japan. General Marshall and Admiral King both strongly advocated an invasion of Kyushu at the earliest practicable date.

General Marshall is of the opinion that such an effort will not cost us in casualties more than 63,000 of the 190,000 combatant troops estimated as necessary for the operation.

The President approved the Kyushu operation and withheld for later consideration the general occupation of Japan. The Army seems determined to occupy and govern Japan by military government as is being done in Germany.

I am unable to see any justification from a national defense point of view for a prolonged occupation of Japan. The cost of such an occupation will be enormous in both lives and treasure. It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provision for America’s defense against future trans- Pacific aggression.

Dined with the President at a dinner given in honor of General Eisenhower to a large number of military and political officers. For the first time in my experience cocktails were served to the guests in the East Room of the White House. A number of enlisted men, brought by General Eisenhower from Europe, attended the dinner which was served on small tables filling the State Dining Room.

See William D. Leahy: I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time

The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles."
The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles.”

1945: Okinawa – mounting U.S. casualties on Kunishi Ridge

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.
Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.

On Okinawa the bloody struggle continued as intensively as ever. On the 11th June a combined attack by US Marines and US Army forces had begun the final assault on the last major Japanese holdout. The struggle for the Kunishi Ridge was to be as costly as any of the Okinawa battles.

Between 11th and 18th June 1945 the 1st Marine Division alone would suffer 1,150 casualties. Amongst the men of K (King) Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5) was E.B. Sledge, who would later write one of the classic memoirs of the Pacific war. He describes the perilous situation that they found on the Ridge, and the predicament they encountered when trying to evacuate the wounded:

With daylight I got a good look at our surroundings. Only then could I appreciate fully what a desperate, bitter battle the fight for Kunishi Ridge had been—and was continuing to be. The ridge was coral rock, painfully similar to Peleliu’s ridges. But Kunishi was not so high nor were the coral formations so jagged and angular as those on Peleliu. Our immediate area was littered with the usual debris of battle including about thirty poncho-covered dead Marines on stretchers.

Some of our riflemen moved eastward along the ridge, while others moved up the slopes. We still didn’t set up our mortars: it was strictly a riflemen’s fight. We mortarmen stood by to act as stretcher bearers or riflemen.

Snipers were all over the ridge and almost impossible to locate. Men began getting shot one right after another, and the stretcher teams kept on the run. We brought the casualties down to the base of the ridge, to a point where tanks could back in out of the view of snipers on the ridge crest.

We tied the wounded onto the stretchers and then tied the stretchers onto the rear deck of the tanks. Walking wounded went inside. Then the tanks took off in a cloud of dust along a coral road to the aid station. As many men as possible fired along the ridge to pin down the snipers, so they couldn’t shoot the wounded on the tanks.

Shortly before the company reached the east end of the ridge, we watched a stretcher team make its way up to bring down a casualty.Suddenly four or five mortar shells exploded in quick succession near the team, wounding slightly three of the four bearers. They helped each other back clown the ridge, and another stretcher team, of which I was a member, started up to get the casualty. To avoid the enemy mortar observer, we moved up by a slightly different route.

We got up the ridge and found the casualty lying above a sheer coral ledge about five feet high. The Marine, Leonard E. Vargo, told us he couldn‘t move much because he had been shot in both feet. Thus he couldn’t lower himself down off the ledge. “You guys be careful. The Nip that shot me twice is still hiding right over there in those rocks.” He motioned toward a jumble of boulders not more than twenty yards away.

We reasoned that if the sniper had been able to shoot Vargo in both feet, immobilizing him, he was probably waiting to snipe at anyone who came to the rescue. That meant that anyone who climbed up to help Vargo down would get shot instantly.

We stood against the coral rock with our heads about level with Vargo, but out of the line of fire of the sniper, and looked at each other. I found the silence embarrassing. Vargo lay patiently, confident of our aid. “Somebody’s got to get up there and hand him down,” I said. My three buddies nodded solemnly and made quiet comments in agreement.

I thought to myself that if we fooled around much longer, the sniper might shoot and kill the already painfully wounded and helpless Marine. Then we heard the crash of another 105mm short round farther along the ridge – then another. I was seized with a grim fatalism – it was either be shot by the sniper or have all of us get blown to bits by our own artillery. Feeling ashamed for hesitating so long, I scrambled up beside Vargo.

For unknown reason, even as Sledge looked directly into the sniper’s cave, he was not shot. See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor . Years later he would say "There is no 'mellowing' for me - that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To 'mellow' is to forget."
Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor.
Years later he would say
“There is no ‘mellowing’ for me – that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To ‘mellow’ is to forget.”
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.

1945: For millions of people the war is not yet over

Some of the first Russian displaced persons and former prisoners of war to leave transit camps near Hamburg for the Russian zone of occupation from where they will be repatriated to the Soviet Union. Trains ran direct from Hamburg to Crivitz, 31 May 1945.
Some of the first Russian displaced persons and former prisoners of war to leave transit camps near Hamburg for the Russian zone of occupation from where they will be repatriated to the Soviet Union. Trains ran direct from Hamburg to Crivitz, 31 May 1945.
The Displaced Persons and Refugees in Rees, Germany. One of the forced labourers, a Pole, sits with his belonging waiting to be repatriated.
The Displaced Persons and Refugees in Rees, Germany. One of the forced labourers, a Pole, sits with his belonging waiting to be repatriated.

For millions of men, women and children across Europe the official end of the war was merely a technicality, something that they barely noticed. The Allies struggled to cope with the huge numbers of ‘Displaced Persons’, former concentration camp inmates, slave workers, forced labourers, prisoners of war and refugees, most of them stranded hundreds of miles from their home countries.

Ingoushka Petrov, later to become better known as the film actress Ingrid Pitt, was an eight year old living in the forests of Poland with her mother. Months earlier they had escaped from one of the death marches from a concentration camp:

I missed the end of the war.

It was three weeks or so before the news filtered through the forest that the Allies had crushed the Germans and it was safe to go home. Home! What did that mean to an eight year old with only memories of overcrowded camps, rank fear of anything out of the ordinary and living in a forest, frequently ill, usually freezing cold and constantly starving?

There had been a lot of talk about going home for the last month or so. The sound of distant battles had stopped. Opinion on the cause of the cessation was divided. Some said that it was because the Germans had been defeated; others that they had won. It didn’t mean a thing to me at the time.

Another interesting factor to be stirred into the argument was the sudden absence of refugees — farmers and residents of the surrounding countryside fleeing their homes before the advance of the Russian Army or deserting soldiers on the run.

They were either allowed to stay, threatened with violence if they didn’t move on or, if times were particularly bad, led off into the woods, never to be seen again.

We, my mother and I, had been lucky. When the threat of the advancing Russians compelled the Germans to pull out we had been marched off with the other inmates of the camp. Constant strafing by Allied planes had soon convinced the Nazi guards that being in close proximity to a column of prisoners, which from the air probably looked like troops movements, was not good for their health. After one strafing my mother managed to haul me off into the woods without being noticed by the few remaining guards.

It was winter and all we had on were the rags we had managed to scavenge before leaving the camp. On top of that, I had a streaming cold, which reduced my face to a mask of thick mucus. I think I whined a lot. My mother encouraged me with, ‘Not much farther,’ but I soon began to disbelieve her.

We trudged on through the wood. My mother was displaying confidence she could not possibly have felt. At last even she began to fail. We huddled down in a thicket. By this time I felt too ill to even cry.

Then the miracle happened. Two indistinct figures passed close by. My mother called to them. She didn’t care who they were. If we stayed where we were we were doomed anyway. They were two ‘partisans’, locals who had found it safer to live in the woods rather than be sitting ducks for marauding soldiers from whichever army might be in ascendance at the time. They weren’t keen to take us but my mother suggested they either shot us or took us with them. Luckily, they decided on the latter course.

So we joined the ill-assorted group living in the forest in ramshackle huts and waited out the war. The news of its end came with the Russian soldiers. They fed us and took us out of the forest.

It was the start of two years wandering around Europe looking for my father. At last we found him. That was the real end of the war for us.

One of many recollections of the end of the war to be found in VE Day – A Day to Remember

Ingrid Pitt in a publicity shot for the 1968 film Where Eagles Dare.
Ingrid Pitt in a publicity shot for the 1968 film Where Eagles Dare.

1945: U.S. Ex-POW Kurt Vonnegut writes home

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany during World War II, April-May, 1945.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany during World War II, April-May, 1945.

In May 1945 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut was just one of millions of U.S. servicemen who had one thing uppermost in their minds – getting home. All of them had stories to tell, although few would write about them in the same way as Vonnegut later did. His experiences during and after the bombing of Dresden, when he and fellow prisoners was detained in a meat store – Schlachthof 5 -were to form the basis of one of the great U.S. novels of the 20th century – Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut while in the army, early 1940s
Vonnegut while in the army, early 1940s

Trying to make sense of the experiences they had gone through would be a challenge for many men now returning home. For the moment Kurt Vonnegut kept things factual

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people [this was the figure given by the Germans at the time] in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39′s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

See Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest.
Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest.
A sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945. The remains of the camp itself were about to be burnt to the ground by the British occupation forces. A similar sign in German was also erected.
A sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945. The remains of the camp itself were about to be burnt to the ground by the British occupation forces. A similar sign in German was also erected.

Okinawa – Medal of Honor for Conscientious Objector

GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. The M1919 machine gun was the standard issue for the US Army.
GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. The M1919 machine gun was the standard issue for the US Army.

The intense fighting on Okinawa saw many acts of heroism. Conditions were so fierce and so sustained that it must have taken great courage just to stay on the battlefield and remain in combat. In amongst the mayhem some individual acts stood out and were subsequently recognised, there were a total of 24 Medal of Honor recipients during the three months of battle.

Desmond Doss, Medal of Honor recipient
Desmond Doss, Medal of Honor recipient

One award was unusual because it went to a non combatant. Sergeant Desmond Doss was a Seventh-Day Adventist who served with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. His citation gives a series of examples of his heroism each illustrating the nature of conditions on Okinawa:

He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet (120 m) high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.

On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards (180 m) forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards (7.3 m) of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet (7.6 m) from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards (91 m) to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.

On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover.

The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm.

With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards (270 m) over rough terrain to the aid station.

Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

 

6th Div Marines Okinawa
Marines move through and over “CEMETERY RIDGE.” They are shown pinned down behind gravestones by enemy sniper fire.

Okinawa: the bloody occupation of Ishimmi Ridge

Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead. Okinawa, April 1945.
Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead. Okinawa, April 1945.
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave. Okinawa, May 1945.
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave. Okinawa, May 1945.

The grinding battle for Okinawa continued unabated. The Japanese were making full use of their huge network of underground tunnels and caves from which they conducted a suicidal defence. U.S. casualties had been heavy. Company E, 307th Infantry, 77th Division, were in reserve in the five days before the 17th. They received many replacements during this time, bringing them up to strength – although most of these men had no combat experience at all, and there was little opportunity fro these men to become properly integrated.

Then Company E were selected to lead an audacious assault deep into the main Japanese defence line, an attempt to disrupt the line and turn the battle.

Lieutenant Robert F. Meiser, a platoon commander with Company E, described the action in his duty report submitted shortly after they were withdrawn on the 20th May. To begin the night assault they had to move up over 450 yards of ground pockmarked with shell-holes, and then penetrate through Japanese lines for a further 800 yards, moving almost all of the way in single file. To maintain the element of surprise they would only use bayonets if they encountered the enemy. At 0415 on the 17th they left their Line of Departure with their objective, Ishimmi Ridge just visible where ‘three or four limbless trees’ were lit by flares:

Dawn began to break as we came upon our objective. About 50 yards from it, the 3rd platoon echeloned to the left of the 2nd and nearly on line, forming the left front and flank. The 2nd continued straight forward to occupy the center ar1d foremost position, while the platoon from Company C held the right front and flank. Our rear was protected by a well formed semi-circle of the 1st platoon.

We now found that the 125 yard part of the objective we were able to occupy was a very prominent, table top ridge. It was quite flat and made up of rock and coral where digging was very difficult, and in some places impossible.

The top center of Ishimmi Ridge was very narrow, being only about seven or eight yards wide, and then fanning out to either flank in a leaf-like pattern. Directly to the rear of the narrow section of the ridge was a pocket, 20 yards in diameter, in which the company Command Post was located, and this, ultimately, was the location of the company’s final stand.

To our right rear, 250 yards distant, were two grassy mounds of earth, each about 30 feet high and affording perfect observation into our positions. Likewise, to the center rear was a finger ridge extension which afforded the enemy an excellent OP as well as machine gun positions.

At 0505 we were on our objective, and as daylight was coming we hastened to dig in. The enemy on the ridge was completely surprised and was not aware of our presence for nearly 20 minutes. While initially caught napping, they soon made up for lost time and all hell broke loose at 0530. Mortar shells, heavy and light, began falling on our area in such fury and volume that one would believe the place had been zeroed in for just such an eventuality. Machine gun and rifle fire began pouring in from all directions and within a short time even enemy artillery began shelling us.

As daylight came, we finally realized that we were in a spot and that the enemy controlled the position from every direction, including the rear. The [3rd] Platoon on the left was receiving murderous fire, especially from both flanks and the high Shuri Ridge across the valley to our front.

Foxholes were only partly completed and to raise one’s head meant death on that fire-swept plateau. Mortar shells very often dropped directly in the foxhole, usually taking at least one man’s life or badly wounding several. The same action was taking place [with the Company C platoon] on the right flank as that area was almost identical to the one on the left.

In the rear, the 1st Platoon was faring no better and was taking a terrific pounding from all types of fire. However, they maintained continuous and effective fire on the enemy, especially to the right and left rear, greatly reducing his advantages there. Our light mortars were in this area and though only partially dug in, the mortar crews fired as long as the mortars were serviceable.

By 1000 the first day, enemy action had knocked out all but one of the mortars and killed or wounded nearly all the crewmen.

The 2nd Platoon had gone over the center of the ridge and dropped into a long Jap communication trench which was about six feet deep. Small dug-outs in this trench contained about 10 or 12 sleeping enemy who were quickly disposed of by bayonet or rifle fire. However, tunnels from inside the ridge led into either end of the trench and the enemy soon attempted to force their way upward. At first, surprise was so complete that a japanese officer and his aide, laughing and talking, came toward us in the trench, walked completely past one of our men and were killed without realizing what hit them.

By making use of the tunnels the Nips were soon able to set up knee mortars about 100 yards to either flank and fire systematically from one end of the trench to the other. Each position had two mortars which were firing simultaneously, doing great damage to the earthworks of our line as well as producing heavy casualties in our ranks. Riflemen were blown to bits by these mortars and many were struck in the head by machine gun fire. The blood from the wounded was everywhere; on the weapons, on the living, and splattered all around. The dead lay where they fell, in pools of their own blood. Though the platoon medic was wounded early in the morning, he took care of the injured as fast as possible, but was unable to keep up and soon his supplies were exhausted.

By 0700 both of our light machine guns had been knocked out, one being completely buried. The few remaining crewmen became riflemen and stayed right there throughout the day. During the morning a few Japanese had managed to crawl up from the deep ravine to a line just slightly beneath our position and began hurling grenades upwards at us. Grenades were tossed back and soon the infiltrators were killed or driven backward, but we had suffered too.

The battle continued furiously all morning and by noon the 2nd Platoon had suffered heavily, about 50 percent being killed or wounded. The number of Japs killed had mounted steadily, but they were still able to reinforce almost at will and attempted numerous frontal and flanking counterattacks.

Meanwhile the 3rd Platoon [on the left] had had a steady grenade battle and had repulsed three fixed bayonet attacks by the enemy coming from their left flank. However, the men of this platoon had very little cover and were being whittled down man by man until more than half of them were out of action, including their platoon leader. Dead men were pushed hurriedly from the all too small holes in order to make more room for the living. In some cases the firing was so heavy as to even prevent this, and the living and bloody, mangled dead were as one in their foxholes. By 1800 the first day there were only a handful of men left alive in this platoon and they were clinging tenaciously to the few remaining positions of their own right flank.

See Wayne C. MacGregor: Through These Portals: A Pacific War Saga

A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.
A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.