The U.S. Army should muster en masse and render the snappiest of salutes to military historian John McManus of Ballwin.
With “To the End of the Earth” (subtitled “The U.S. Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945”), McManus delivers the final volume of a trilogy focused on the key but little-heralded role of the Army’s ground forces in the Pacific in World War II.
Thanks to people like movie star John Wayne and novelist Leon Uris, Americans tend to think of the Navy and Marines fighting the war against Japan, while the Army and its Air Forces concentrated on Germany.
But as McManus notes about the Pacific war, “The greatest plurality of American deaths, 41,592, occurred among Army ground soldiers, a 2.3 percent death rate for the 1.8 million who served in the war against Japan.”
He writes: "Army soldiers were doing the lion's share of the fighting and dying in the Pacific, particularly in the Philippines, the true nexus of the American war against Japan. And yet, contemporary and subsequent popular memory tended to focus on the more publicity savvy, and extraordinarily valorous Marines, who had carved out a distinguished combat record but were far fewer in number than the soldiers."
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McManus — he teaches in Rolla at the Missouri University of Science and Technology — started his trilogy with “Fire and Fortitude,” which took the action through 1943. He followed up with “Island Infernos,” the combat of 1944.
His finale focuses first on Luzon in the Philippines, then wades ashore with the GIs storming Okinawa — the doorstep to an invasion of Japan itself.
The author’s accounts of combat against the never-surrender Japanese army make an invasion of the Japanese home islands seem like the fiery depths of hell. Although he all but ignores the debate ever since over the use of atomic bombs, his prose leaves little doubt that any home island invasion would have had more fatalities for both sides than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
Unlike many military historians, McManus refuses to tell his tale from either the generals’ headquarters or the GIs’ foxholes. Instead, he goes back and forth, giving readers the perspective from both the command post and the front line.
He looks at the Army’s generals as a mixed bag, even on an individual basis. He says that Douglas MacArthur “carved out a record as a thoughtful military strategist, an innovator with a strong grasp of the potency of air and sea power, and an inspirational figure whose keen understanding of image approached the savant level.
“But far too often, he had also revealed himself to be a petty, paranoid, insecure, vainglorious, egomaniacal schemer who seemingly viewed Washington policy makers as adversaries on par with the Japanese.”
Similarly, while describing his GIs as valiant, he criticizes their tendency to hunker down at nighttime. Sometimes, though, he quotes them with a humorous edge on the details of combat. A sample:
“Japanese troops became attuned to the unique pinging sound when an empty clip ejected from the breech of an M1 Garand rifle. They took to waiting for the ping and then charging. ‘We would put a full clip in the rifle, hold an empty clip in our mouths or free hand, fire one or two rounds, then bang the empty clip on a metallic part of the rifle,’ Sergeant James Augustin of the 187th Glider Infantry commented. ‘This made a sound similar to an empty clip being ejected. Of course, the result was disastrous to the Japanese.’”
To get such quotes, the author combed the stacks of letters and documents at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. His exhaustive research even led him to a long chapter on the long-forgotten China-Burma India Theater. (It includes anecdotes about safety billboards on the Burma Road. One showed a sexy woman saying, “Listen, cats, I ain’t jivin’, take it easy while you’re drivin’.)
The grade on Professor McManus’ work: A-plus, of course.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.
JOHN C. McMANUS
When • 7 p.m. May 3
Where • Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road
How much • Free
More info • slcl.org; left-bank.com