After the United States military located at Pearl Harbor, HI was devastated on 7 December 1941 the United States undertook its war in the Pacific against the nation of Japan. Much of this story is well known to anyone who has studied World War II at all, a series of amphibious assaults stretching across the Pacific Ocean, a series of initial defeats to the United States and its Allies in the Pacific (the successful Japanese offensives into Southeast Asia), a series of coin-toss key naval victories, and then a slow series of US military offensives that wrestled control of the Pacific back from the Japanese. An overlooked theater of operations was the China, Burma, India theater in which the United States ran a sort-of “second hand” offensive campaign to keep China in the war and smack the Japanese around on a new front. But there are two offensives undertaken by the United States that were never fully officially sanctioned, nor really talked about, that were key to winning World War II in the Pacific but pain the United States in a somewhat darker light.
The first was the United States Navy’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign against Japanese shipping – a type of naval operation the United States had formally condemned in World War I and condemned again in World War II when it came to Germany. (Specifically the leader of the German Navy, Karl Donitz was found guilty of this policy in violation of the London Naval Treaty of 1936 but was not punished – because the US Navy had done the same.) From 7 December 1941 till the end of the war in 1945 the United States Navy followed a broad policy to sink any Japanese merchant shipping it found at sea, without warning, and without regard to what type of ship it was. The tally of sunk ships includes merchant ships, naval vessels, fishing boats, and even a couple of Japanese hospital ships, although the last the United States Navy formally considers to have been sunk in error. It was a brutal response by the United States and although officially the US government claims that it did not violate the 1936 London Naval Treaty banning this type of warfare that claims rests on a greatly stretched technical point. (The US government claims that since these Japanese merchant vessels were possibly armed ships to protect against submarines they negated the protection from unrestricted attack. However no effort was made by any US submarine to determine if that was the case, it was “sink on sight” for the duration of the war.) The US Navy was so good at this policy that by 1945 tonnage sunk figures for the US submarine fleets began to fall, because there simply wasn’t much of any Japanese merchant shipping still at sea.
So you might ask yourself why this was such a particularly dark thing for the United States government to undertake, the Japanese attacked the United States, therefore wasn’t any sort of conduct excusable to win the war? One can argue that, I myself personally think attempting to mesh “war” with “morality” is a foolish exercise, but for the United States in World War II it can be argued we didn’t need to wage that aggressive a submarine war and the US had pledged not to do so. As a nation the US also condemned other nations for using the same “desperate” tactics – so to then turn around and so so in a situation where it was not absolutely vital is, at best, disingenuous of the US government. Officially the US Navy did this on its own, there is no recorded authorization from the US government for these tactics and, privately, some admirals understood that had the US lost the war in the Pacific they would have faced war crimes charges.
The other “revenge” campaign launched by the United States government was the heavy firebombing of key cities in Japan, the image above is from Operation Meetinghouse that ran from 9-10 March 1945 in which an unknown number of Japanese civilians were killed when the US Strategic Air Command dropped 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs upon Tokyo. The raid destroyed around sixteen square miles of the city, killed around 100,000 civilians, and left around 1,000,000 civilians homeless. For those who might think this was a valuable strategic attack I must disagree – in World War II the ideal strategic attack was focused upon limiting civilian casualties and only destroying targets of military or industrial value that were key to the opposing nations war efforts. In the European theater the Allied leadership had great concerns about bombing raids that killed civilians and, with only one key exception, actually tried to avoid unleashing this sort of indiscriminate destruction. (For those wondering the one exception was the firebombing raid on the German city of Dresden.) But in Japan – the US government pretty much didn’t care about avoiding civilian casualties and unleashed raids like the above not only on Tokyo but also upon other major Japanese cities – Kobe, Osaka, and Nagoya – as well as pounding Tokyo again multiple times. By the time of the atomic bombings the US Air Force had to carefully dig around for undamaged “virgin” Japanese cities so they could see what their new toy could actually do.
For those who might feel that the United States was justified in waging such attacks in their effort to win the war in the Pacific – please look at the image above – please look closely. Those are the charred remains of human beings from the 9-10 March 1945 raid upon Tokyo. You see when that many incendiaries are dumped into a small area it creates what is called a “firestorm” – an incredibly powerful fire built from multiple small fires merging together that rises to a towering inferno that is a column of superheated flame. In a firestorm buildings can explode into flame, literally, streets melt, glass melts, and human beings burst instantly into flame. By 1945 the United States was solidly winning the war in the Pacific and the United States government was aware of that fact, attacks like the raid above were at best an attempt to break Japan’s fighting spirit and, at worst, simply revenge. Most likely it was a blend of revenge and deliberate savagery to force Japan to unconditionally surrender.
I’ll allow the quote from the commander at the time, Curtis Lemay, speak for itself: “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”
One can argue that war justifies any tactics if it brings you closer to victory – but I personally feel one also has to accept the price inflicted on others to achieve those ends. One has to accept it and remember – often what is done to others justifies what is done to you in turn.