The Price of Victory

REVIEW: ‘To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945’

May 29, 2023

To The End of the Earth is Professor John C. McManus’s final volume of a trilogy about the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, and it is a masterpiece.

The conventional wisdom about the war in the Pacific is that the Marine Corps was the instrument of victory. Yet while the Marines fielded six divisions of troops, the Army contributed 18 divisions to the battles and fought alongside the Marines in both rapid amphibious landings, for which the Marines are so famous, as well as the brutal and bloody jungle fighting. McManus, who teaches U.S. military history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, tells the story of the Army in the 44 months of Pacific war through the eyes of the troops fighting in the ghastly conditions of mud, disease, grisly injury, and fanatic Japanese resistance. He also presents the broad sweep of strategy and logistics that carried the day. In this volume he focuses on two campaigns—Luzon and Okinawa—out of the dozens of battles for the control of the Pacific theater.

By January 1945, the famous sea battles of Leyte Gulf had crippled the Japanese Navy, and the Marianas "Turkey Shoot" had decimated the Japanese Air Force. Conquest of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines archipelago, was the next target of the massive military force led by General Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific and Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Central Pacific. An amphibious invasion approximating Normandy was in the works.

The goal was twofold: secure more landing strips for the planned massive bombing of Japan and eliminate any barriers to an eventual amphibious invasion of the Japanese homeland. The other less concrete goal was to satisfy MacArthur’s desire to liberate Manila, the Bataan Peninsula, and the island fortress of Corregidor to compensate for his previous escape, at President Roosevelt’s order, in 1942. MacArthur had envisioned that the conquest of Luzon would be a lightning operation to capture the massive Clark Field, the American-built complex near Manila. It turned out to be anything but lightning.

Lt. General Walter Krueger, who immigrated to the United States from Germany as a boy, commanded the Sixth Army invasion landing on the Western shore of Luzon. Major General Oscar Griswold led the attack from the east. Unfortunately, they faced the forces of Lt. General Tomoyuki Yamashita, a man who understood the hopelessness of the Japanese position but was determined to bleed the Americans dry and to delay the inevitable conquest of Luzon. McManus comes into his own by clearly describing the challenges faced by the soldiers asked to root out the fanatical Japanese troops placed in a massive network of tunnels and caves created by Yamashita to accomplish his defensive goals.

McManus is not unique in portraying the war through the eyes of the troops, but he writes evocatively of the trauma and fury experienced by the soldiers. He also describes the incredible courage of the American Army. The brutality of the fighting is not just portrayed as a glimpse into the darkness that takes over men’s souls in war but also is profoundly moving as he describes the commitment and valor of the Americans.

"Moving" is a perception the reader will experience in McManus’s descriptions of the liberation of the many prisoner of war camps by the Americans. Here McManus’s careful research into the personal stories of the troops and prisoners pays off. He tells us that the Army Heritage and Education Center is one of his "favorite places on earth," and I believe him. We get to vividly relive the joy and relief of the newly liberated men and women who survived the Bataan death march.

It is also incredibly moving to read of the harrowing assaults with fire and bullets that the U.S. Army carried out on the Japanese who refused to surrender. The rare Japanese prisoner taken alive was malnourished, dirty, and petrified that the Americans were about to slaughter them as the propaganda of their commanders predicted. Despite their pitiful situation, they virtually all fought to the death.

The capture of Clark Field and Manila was both the result of the plodding approach that Krueger chose to protect his flank from Japanese attacks (that never materialized) as well as through daring innovations like Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger’s rapid advance with the 11th Airborne Division to accomplish a pincer movement. The fighting in the city was destructive and brutal. The Filipino population and the prisoners of war were under the command of Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, a man who apparently had no limits to the bestial treatment of other human beings. McManus never fails to point out MacArthur’s need to take credit for any success or to cast blame on his generals when battles go poorly. Eichelberger and other division commanders like Lt. General Joseph Swing come off as the real heroes of Luzon.

In turning to the battle for Okinawa, the other focus of the book, the awful reality of an invasion of the home islands of Japan comes into sharp focus. The battle for Iwo Jima concluded in late March after the Marines suffered over 21,000 casualties with 5,931 dead at the hands of 21,000 dug-in Japanese troops. Kamikaze attacks were in full swing with 881 Navy personnel killed. This was the first time there were more American than Japanese casualties in a single battle.

Okinawa, 400 miles from mainland Japan, was the perfect base for operations Coronet and Olympic, the planned invasions of the Japanese home islands. It too was the scene of the most awful death and destruction. Here McManus presents a nuanced and interesting portrayal of the Japanese commander, General Mitsuru Ushijima, and his adjutants. They realized the inevitability of their defeat and death, yet they fought on contesting every inch of the island until June 1945. Ultimately, Ushijima outlived the American commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a risk-averse but pugnacious leader who was killed by an artillery shell when visiting the front lines. Buckner’s unwillingness to pursue a daring amphibious landing behind Japanese lines once again contributed to a battle prolonged by caution.

As McManus concludes his masterful trilogy, he beautifully portrays the end of the war aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay with fabulous details like MacArthur’s episode of nervous emesis prior to signing the surrender or General Joseph Stillwell’s recounting of the minutes before the famous ceremony: "I took a crap & then went on deck."

The descriptions of the last battles of the Pacific in World War II inevitably raise the specter of the toll of an invasion of Japan. To prepare for Olympic, the Middle Pacific command stockpiled 331,000 pounds of dynamite, 50,530 metric tons of ammunition, as well as myriad other items. Waiting for the invasion, on Kyushu, the southern-most island of Japan, were over 600,000 men also prepared to die to defend their country along with hundreds of "suicide" boats and 5,000 kamikaze aircraft. Since 10 to 20 percent of kamikaze attacks were successful, the American fleet would have suffered massive losses. The lessons of Luzon, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima showed that air and naval bombardments did not effectively diminish the need for ground troops killing Japanese embedded in defensive positions.

Even after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, midlevel officers of the 1st Imperial Guards Division killed their unsupportive commanding officer and isolated the Emperor as they sought to destroy any copies of his surrender message to the Japanese people. All this points to McManus’s conclusion about the need to use the atomic bomb:

Though all these plotters ultimately failed, the mere fact of their efforts demonstrated that some Japanese who were uncomfortably close to levers of power were determined to choose the route of mutual destruction, a stark truth usually ignored by latter day moralizers against the use of the atomic bomb.

One must wonder how the commanders in the Pacific theater might have conducted the last phases of the war had they known of the coming atomic bomb. As it turned out, the fanatical Japanese soldiers surrendered meekly all over the Pacific once the Emperor issued his decree to end hostilities. Based on the island battles in the Pacific, such a surrender seemed unimaginable. Did the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project prevent a calculated delay to assess Japanese response to the bomb and to the destruction of other cities conducted by Curtis Lemay’s B-29s? McManus’s magisterial trilogy raises such questions as we have come to understand the enormity of the Pacific campaign in World War II.


To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945
by John C. McManus
Dutton Caliber, 448 pp., $35

Stanley Goldfarb is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and father of Washington Free Beacon chairman Michael Goldfarb.

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