World War II

On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan conducted a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.  The total number of deaths came to 2403 and 1,143 were wounded.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the attack was “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan December 8th, 1941. Italy’s leader Benito Mussolin, and Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler, declared war on the United States December 11th, 1941.

Germany conquered most of Europe by 1940 and threatened Great Britain.  Jews and others deemed undesirable were imprisoned or put to death.  By 1941, killing centers, concentration camps at Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz in Poland and other Nazi extermination camps replaced firing squads as the primary method of mass killing.  The total number of Jews murdered during the war is estimated at five and a half to six million, including over a million children.  Twelve million were put into forced labor.

Japan lost the Battle of Midway in 1942 and Germany was defeated in North Africa and Stalingrad by the Soviet Union.  In 1943, with multiple German defeats on the Eastern Front, the Allied invasions of Italy and Sicily, Italy surrender.  During 1944 and 1945 the Japanese suffered major losses in Asia, South Central China and Burma, and the Allies crippled the Japanese Navy and captured key Western Pacific islands.

Aerial bombings of Germany escalated in 1944.  The Normandy Invasion (D-Day) June 6th, 1944, was the largest seaborne invasion in history.  The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, September 19th, to December 16th, 1944 was the longest single battle fought by the U.S. Army.  The Battle of the Bulge, December 16th, 1944 to January 25th, 1945, was the largest and bloodiest battle of the war.  The Battle of Remagen, March 7th, to March 25th, 1945, resulted in the capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine.  The Soviet Union and other Allied powers conquered Germany during the Battle of Berlin April 16th, to May 2nd, 1945.  Adolf Hitler and girlfriend Eva Braun committed suicide April 30th.  German Chancellor Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda committed suicide the next day, after murdering their six children.  From May 4th to 8th, 1945, most of the remaining German forces surrendered.  The German Instrument of Surrender was signed May 7th.  Many of the surviving Nazi leadership were put on trial for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.

The Potsdam Declaration for the Japanese Surrender called for the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces during World War II.  On July 26th, 1945, and following the refusal of Japan to surrender under its terms, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th respectively. With an invasion imminent and the possibility of additional atomic bombings, Japan surrendered on August 15th, 1945 and documents were signed aboard the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945, ending the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces and were intricate to the success of the European campaign.  Their training began in June 1941 with the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee University consisting of 47 officers and 429 enlisted men.  After training at Moton Field, they were moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field, Tuskegee, AL.

On 15 May 1942, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron and joined the 33rd Fighter Group in North Africa in April 1943.  Their first combat mission was to attack the small strategic volcanic island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea to clear the sea lanes for the Allied invasion of Sicily slated for July, 1943.  The 99th was then moved to Sicily and received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its performance in combat.  The 99th was then sent to mainland Italy and on 1 May 1944, were assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group where they conducted heavy strategic bombing raids into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany. The Allies called these airmen “Red Tails” or “Red-Tail Angels,” because of the distinctive crimson unit identification marking predominantly applied on the tail section of the unit’s aircraft.

The 99th Fighter Squadron, previously known as the 99th Pursuit Squadron, earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC) during World War II. The DUCs were for operations over Sicily from 30 May–11 June 1943 and for successfully fighting off German jet aircraft on 24 March 1945.  The mission was the longest bomber escort mission of the Fifteenth Air Force throughout the war. The 332nd Fighter Group flew missions in Sicily, Anzio, Normandy, the Rhineland, the Po Valley and Rome-Arno and others. Pilots of the 99th once set a record for destroying five enemy aircraft in under four minutes.

The Tuskegee Airmen shot down three German jets in a single day. On 24 March 1945, led by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis escorted B-17 bombers over 1,600 miles into Germany and back. The bombers’ target, a massive Daimler-Benz tank factory in Berlin, was heavily defended by Luftwaffe aircraft.  Pilots Charles Brantley, Earl Lane and Roscoe Brown all shot down German jets over Berlin that day. For the mission, the 332nd Fighter Group earned a Distinguished Unit Citation and pilots earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

On 29 March 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.  The medal is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution.  The airfield where the airmen trained is now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Three Tuskegee airmen went on to become generals.  Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. was appointed a Brigadier General by President Nixon.  Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was the original commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the first black general in the U.S. Air Force.  Tuskegee aviator, Lucius Theus, retired a major general after dedicating most of his 36-year career in the Air Force to improving the military’s bureaucracy, helping to implement a direct deposit system for service members.

The Tuskegee Airmen Memorial was erected at Walterboro Army Airfield, South Carolina, in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, their instructors, and ground support personnel who trained at the Walterboro Army Airfield during World War II.

World War II produced two highly decorated hero’s, Mitchell Paige of the U.S. Marine Corps and Audie Murphy of the U.S. Army.

Colonel Mitchell Paige of the United States Marine was a recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II. He received this, the highest military honor awarded by the United States of America, for his actions at the Battle of Guadalcanal, October 26, 1942, where, after all of the other Marines in his platoon were killed or wounded, he operated four (4) machine guns, single-handedly stopping an entire Japanese regiment. Paige died Nov. 15th, 2008 at the age of 85 and is buried in Riverside National Cemetery in Ca.

Audie Leon Murphy was the most decorated American combat soldiers of WWII.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor he tried to enlist but the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all turned him down for being underweight and underage. After his sister provided an affidavit falsifying his birth date by a year, he was accepted by the U.S. Army on June 30th, 1942, 10 days after his 17th birthday.  Murphy ultimately received every U.S. military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. He received the Medal of Honor for valor demonstrated at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.  France recognized his service with the French Legion of HonorGrade of Chevalier, the French Croix de guerre with Silver Star, the French Croix de guerre with Palm, the French Liberation Medal and the French Fourragère in Colors of the Croix de guerre.  Belgium awarded Murphy the Belgian Croix de guerre with 1940 Palm.  Murphy began an acting career in 1948 and portrayed himself in a 1955 autobiographical movie titled “To Hell and Back”.  Murphy died in a plane crash May 28th, 1971 at the age of 46 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Code talking was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw Indians during World War I, however, the name “code talkers  is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater.  Soldiers of Basque ancestry (north-central Spain and south-western France) were also deployed by the U.S. Marines and the Army deployed the Lakota, Meskwaki and Comanche soldiers as code talkers.

Philip Johnston, a civil engineer, proposed the use of Navajo to the United States Marine Corps at the beginning of World War II.  Johnston, a World War I veteran, was raised on the Navajo reservation as the son of a missionary to the Navajo. He was one of the few non-Navajo who spoke the language fluently.  Still an unwritten language, Johnston thought Navajo could satisfy the military requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo was spoken only on the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.  One estimate indicates that at the outbreak of World War II, fewer than 30 non-Navajo’s could understand the language.

The Navajo Code Talkers were mainly Marines. Determined that spelling out military terms during combat was too time-consuming, some terms, concepts, tactics and instruments of modern warfare were given uniquely formal descriptive Navajo names.  The word for “shark” referred to a destroyer, and a “silver oak leaf” the rank of lieutenant colonel.  Several of these terms, such as gofasters referring to running shoes or ink sticks for pens, entered Marine Corps vocabulary and are commonly used today.

The code talkers memorized all these variations and practiced their rapid use under stressful conditions during training. Untrained Navajo speakers would have no idea what the code talkers’ messages meant; they would hear only disjointed strings of individual, unrelated nouns, and verbs.

The Navajo Code Talkers were commended for their skill, speed, and accuracy throughout the war. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Conner the 5th Marine Division’s Signal Officer had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

As the war progressed representative code talkers of each of the U.S. Marine divisions met in Hawaii to discuss shortcomings in the code, incorporate new terms, and update their codebooks. These representatives trained other code talkers who could not attend the meeting.  The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014.

The deployment of the Navajo code talkers continued through the Korean War and after, until it was ended early in the Vietnam War. The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered.

World War II also brought forth the development of the WAVES, the WACS, and the WASPS.

The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve, established on July 21st, 1942 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the president on July 30th, 1942.

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the women’s branch of the United States Army, was created as an auxiliary unit, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on May 15th, 1942 by Public Law 554, and converted to full status as the WAC on July 1st, 1943.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), called “Women’s Army Service Pilots” and their predecessors, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) organized separately in September 1942. They were the pioneering organizations of civilian female pilots. The WFTD and WAFS were merged on August 5, 1943, to create the paramilitary WASP organization. They flew over 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft. The WASP was granted Veteran status in 1977, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.