By Thomas Goodrich
One of the greatest lies to emerge from WWII, and one of its longest-lasting myths, is not the one about bars of soap or lamp shades nor the gassed 6 million shakedown charade. No, it is the one we have been told over and over again ever since December 7, 1941. It is the tale that the Japanese soldier was a mindless, murderous automaton, that he would never surrender, that he would always fight to the death, that he was a sadistic killing machine that had to be killed, that he “lived to die” for the emperor, that suicide was his second nature and so on. There is absolutely no truth whatsoever to any of these 75-year-old fairytales.
Actually, such a revelation as the above should come as no surprise to anyone with a brain to think. After all, each Japanese soldier had two legs, two arms, two eyes, two ears, one head, one heart, and all the other items that compose a human being, just like the rest of us. He breathed air, he laughed, he smiled, he cried, he dreamed dreams like everyone else in the world. This is not meant to suggest in the least that all men are created equal, since clearly they are not. But I must admit that it did come as a great shock to me when I finally figured out the myth above for myself. After all, I grew up in the shadow of WWII. I grew up hating and fearing the “dirty Japs.” All the movies and TV programs during my childhood reinforced my hatred and fear. Generally, when a lurking Japanese soldier was shown in any film back then it was almost always accompanied by that terrifying “music” reserved only for the sudden appearance on screen of a deadly snake. With no variation, the Japanese were always portrayed as a sneaky, sadistic sub-species of humanity, more monkey than man, deserving only a quick death, which, of course, John Wayne and his fellow U.S. Marines were only too happy to administer in propaganda films.
When one has been told a “truth” such as the above, a truth told for so many years from so many differing sources, one simply believes it totally, completely and mindlessly. After reading a few pages of my book Summer 1945 (available from TBR), however, it should become very clear to everyone that never were there greater or more self-serving falsehoods anywhere than the above.
During my research for Summer 1945, while reading in their own words what the opposing sides were thinking during the fighting on the Pacific islands of WWII, it quickly became obvious to this historian that emotionally there was no appreciable difference between what a typical Japanese 18-year-old wanted and what a typical American 18-year-old wanted. First and foremost, both wanted to live. Both wanted simply to escape a war that they did not start. Who won or lost that war came in a distant second on their wish list to survival. Both wanted to escape the terrible war so that each might return home and marry that girl they loved, to have kids, to get a good job, to buy a car, to tend a small garden, to play in the back yard with children and pets. In short, they wanted to enjoy life. The problem for the Japanese soldier in this dream was that the American soldier was actually the one who was taking no prisoners due to the incessant brainwashing received about his enemy.
From the very first island battle, a battle in which outnumbered and frightened Japanese began walking forward with their hands held high repeating the only English word they knew, “Mercy! Mercy,” U.S. Marines began mowing them down—all of them, not just an isolated few here and there. In countless testimonies, it is readily apparent that Japanese soldiers in hopeless situations would have gladly surrendered, by the thousands, if only they could. The hatred was so great, however, and the propaganda so virulent following President Franklin Roosevelt’s orchestrated attack at Pearl Harbor, that American soldiers, sailors and airmen were simply taking no prisoners, nor did their commanders or the folks back home want them to.
Thus, the manufactured belief after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese always fought to the death and never surrendered worked perfectly into the deep desire among Americans to kill the “sneaky Japs.” And so, with no option now but to fight fanatically to the death, the Japanese did. And thus, it was a case where propaganda became a self-fulfilling reality.
After Pearl Harbor, and during the ensuing government roundup of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans and their imprisonment in concentration camps scattered about the nation, the U.S. Constitution became a virtual dead letter. The brutal lock-up of American citizens was grim, merciless and sweeping, but necessary, explained the Los Angeles Times, because “a viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese not an American.” The officer in charge of the operation, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, agreed wholeheartedly: “A Jap is a Jap. … Japs we will be worried about all the time until they are wiped off the face of the map.” A mere three days after Pearl Harbor, the Chicago Tribune would suggest to its readers that the U.S. should wage a war “without mercy” on a treacherous, sub-human foe.
If possible, the degree of American rage actually increased four months later when lurid details of the “Bataan Death March” reached the public. Bad enough in its own right, the chaotic 60-mile forced march of over 70,000 U.S. and Filipino troops captured after the “Siege of Corregidor” was made infinitely worse by the fact that many of the prisoners were already “walking skeletons” from lack of food and medicine consequent to the long siege itself. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of prisoners, unable to provide transportation even for its own men, the Japanese army could do little else but watch as hundreds of prisoners dropped dead along the road during the long march. Conveniently missing from the accounts of murder and abuse from Bataan was the fact that over 50 U.S. nurses were also captured by the Japanese, and none was raped, molested or harmed.
Describing them as “yellow vermin,” angry American artists created posters depicting the Japanese as everything and anything, save human—sneaking cockroaches, rampaging monkeys, large-fanged snakes, flapping vampire bats. One official U.S. Navy film described enemy soldiers as “living, snarling rats.”
Reinforcing this dehumanization of the enemy were American political and military leaders. William Halsey, the hard-nosed Navy admiral and U.S. commander of operations in the South Pacific, seemed determined that not a single Japanese in his sphere of operations would live long enough to even reach a concentration camp.
“Kill Japs! Kill Japs! Kill more Japs!” Halsey exhorted his men time and time again. “Before we’re through with them, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell.”
Thus, in what was perhaps the worst-kept secret throughout all branches of the U.S. military, it was this tacit directive to all American servicemen, high and low, that there was to be absolutely no mercy shown the enemy either during combat or after capture.
“You will take no prisoners, you will kill every yellow son-of-a-bitch, and that’s it,” yelled a Marine colonel to his men as their landing craft was about to touch shore on one Japanese-held island.
Following the first fight on the first island that the U.S. invaded, Guadalcanal, the merciless pattern was set in motion. “After an all-night, hand to hand struggle,” admitted one Marine, “the Japanese [wounded] were bayoneted on the beaches.”
And thus it was from the outset, from the initial island invasions of 1942, all the way down to 1945 and the nuclear holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “no quarter” was the unwritten, unofficial but understood policy toward Japan and the Japanese.
“We are taught,” explained one American soldier from Guadalcanal, “that the only safe Jap is a dead one—they are so tricky. I’ll never let one surrender. Nor will any of us. We have heard so much about their cruelty that they seem more like snakes than humans.”
Like the soldier above, although most had not actually seen any Japanese atrocities for themselves, all had heard of them and, more importantly, all U.S. soldiers believed in them. Likewise, although most Americans had no personal accounts of Japanese deception or “trickery” of their own, they were well aware of all the numerous tales passed up and down the line by others. And thus, such unfounded hearsay coupled with the already virulent propaganda being spread by the U.S. government and “entertainment” industry was all that was necessary for the average American to show no mercy.
“Japanese,” noted an American early in the war, “were known to come out of the jungle unarmed with their hands raised above their heads—only to be mowed down by machine-gun fire.”
Time and again, on every contested island and every spit of sand, Japanese soldiers and sailors were slaughtered the instant they raised their hands and walked forward to surrender. “If one gets to our rear area alive,” admitted one U.S. officer, “it’s only because we … can’t afford to shoot.”
Although they kept their thoughts largely to themselves, some U.S. soldiers were initially stunned, shocked and sickened by such grisly acts, disgusted by the cold-blooded murder of terrified men trying to surrender. According to one of the few Americans involved in the Pacific war who managed to maintain his reason, logic and humanity, such sadistic crimes not only were wrong, but they made no sense.
“It doesn’t encourage the rest to surrender,” reasoned world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, “when they hear of their buddies being marched out on the flying field and machine-guns turned loose on them.”
After scores of such encounters in which breathless comrades in hiding watched, waited, then witnessed the massacre of their unarmed friends, fewer and fewer Japanese soldiers entertained even the slightest notion of giving up. Paradoxically, though murdering a helpless enemy may have brought some sadistic satisfaction to Allied soldiers, the failure to take prisoners ensured that thousands of their own comrades would also be killed by an enemy now forced to dig deep and fight to the finish. It is also a fact that, as the war wore on and defeat became certain, more and more Japanese soldiers would have gladly surrendered if only they could. As the years of savage fighting continued, with each captured island, there were virtually no Japanese captives of the original thousands who fought the U.S. invasions.
Far from the popular image of being a mindless fighting machine who could live on weeds and water and was totally indifferent to normal emotions, the typical Japanese soldier was ultimately as human as his counterpart.
“Who cares about the enemy?” one starving Japanese soldier asked. “How can they be so foolish as to expect us to fight when we are not fed right? What do we care about the war? From today we’ll all sleep the afternoon through. Our main object will be rest and wait for the day when we are to be relieved.”
Heavily outnumbered, outgunned and outclassed in virtually every category, there was simply no way a relatively small island nation like Japan could compete for long against an industrial giant like America. And, as for U.S. air superiority, the utter failure of the Japanese air force to provide even a minimum of air cover proved a terrible blow to the average Japanese soldier’s fighting spirit. The constant bombing and strafing by American aircraft was not merely terrifying, it was utterly unbearable.
“There was complete loss of morale among troops,” acknowledged one Japanese soldier regarding the constant air attacks.
“If men had been allowed to surrender honorably,” admitted another Japanese veteran late in the war, “everybody would have been doing it.”
In addition to the murder of prisoners, numerous other atrocities occurred. When one Marine battalion captured a Japanese field hospital containing over 400 unarmed men, including patients and medics, all were slaughtered on the spot. Other massacres occurred when hundreds, even thousands, of Japanese were driven onto beaches or small peninsulas where there was no hope of escape.
“Our method of fighting the Japanese was to close the back door before we began to fight, to cut off their lines of escape,” described one infantryman. “This made it a rat-killing program where we counted only those we exterminated.” Such wholesale “kill offs” reminded one Kansas Marine of nothing so much as the merciless massacre of jack rabbits driven into fenced enclosures back home.
Wrote the famous U.S. war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “In Europe we felt our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But, out here, I gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.”
“Nothing can describe the hate we feel for the Nips,” explained an American lieutenant to his mother. “[T]o us they are dogs and rats—we love to kill them. To me and all of us, killing Nips is the greatest sport known. It causes no sensation of killing a human being, but we really get a kick out of hearing [them] scream.”
Remembered another witness:
When a Japanese soldier was flushed from his hiding place the unit was resting and joking. But they seized their rifles and began using him as a live target while he dashed frantically around the clearing in search of safety. The soldiers found his movements uproariously funny and were prevented by their laughter from making an end to the unfortunate man. Finally, however, they succeeded in killing him, and the incident cheered the whole platoon, giving them something to talk and joke about for days afterward.
Surprisingly, the bulldozer was one of the Americans’ favorite weapons. Often landing on a beach even before most soldiers, the huge, almost indestructible machine could be used to not only destroy fixed enemy positions but bury alive Japanese in bunkers and caves. When the bulldozer had finished its murderous work, it could then be used to clear brush and trees for aircraft landing strips.
“The Japs can’t build like we can,” bragged one proud U.S. general. “They haven’t got anything that can touch the bulldozer.”
Flame throwers were another weapon favored by the Americans. Unlike bombs and bullets, which tended to kill quickly, the flame thrower was a slower and more sadistic way to “roast rats.” The horror of it all was not lost upon one Marine at Iwo Jima:
You’d come across dead Japanese, some hit by flame-throwers, eyes boiled out, lips burned away, white teeth grinning, uniforms burned off and sometimes the first layer of skin, too, so the muscles would show as in an anatomical sketch. … Napalm boiled the blood.
“We are drowning and burning them all over the Pacific, and it is just as much pleasure to burn them as to drown them,” boasted William Halsey. As the admiral well knew, his men were doing much more than just burning and drowning the enemy.
With discipline lax or nonexistent, those who wanted to torture, maim and mutilate did so. Desecration of bodies began with the first islands invaded. Along a wide stream dividing the two armies on Guadalcanal, fresh arriving troops noticed Japanese heads stuck on poles facing the enemy across the river. The collection of ears, noses, fingers and other body parts was a pastime many Marines proudly participated in. Some strung the trophies and wore them like necklaces. “Our boys cut them off to show their friends in fun, or to dry and take back to the States when they go,” said one man matter-of-factly.
Japanese skulls were another popular trophy. Some were sent home to friends, family, even sweethearts. Most heads, however, after being “cured” by ravenous ants or boiled in kettles to remove flesh, were then sold to eager naval personnel. Bones were also collected. Some were carved to form letter openers for folks back home. Even the White House received one such present. “This is the sort of gift I like to get,” laughed Roosevelt. “There’ll be plenty more such gifts.”
Understandably, when news reached Japan that the bodies of their sons and husbands were being wantonly abused and that the U.S. commander-in-chief himself countenanced such atrocities, there was outrage. Americans were portrayed in the furious Japanese press as “deranged, primitive, racist and inhuman.” “Destroy This American Barbarism,” headlined the largest-circulation newspaper in Japan. “Let us vow the destruction of American savagery from the face of the Earth.”
Explained one U.S. soldier, himself equally outraged: “The thought of a Japanese soldier’s skull becoming an American ashtray was as horrifying in Tokyo as the thought of an American prisoner used for bayonet practice was in New York.”
Of all trophies, however, none were more sought out than gold-capped teeth. After any battle or massacre, the mouths of the fallen were usually the first stop for many Americans. Like South Sea prospectors, fights broke out when “claim-jumpers” attempted to steal the bodies claimed by others. One excited Marine felt he had struck it rich after spotting a dead enemy. According to a witness:
[T]he Japanese wasn’t dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath. The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his [knife] on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and, with a slash, cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, “Put the man out of his misery.” All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.
Understandably, Japanese soldiers had no more desire to surrender and be tortured to death than did U.S. soldiers fighting the Indians on the plains of America a century earlier. Each fought to the finish, but each also saved the “last bullet” for himself. If a Japanese soldier found himself surrounded with no way to escape and no ability to kill himself, he committed suicide by walking calmly back and forth along enemy lines until a bullet found its mark. Sometimes 10, even 20, Japanese would thus kill themselves simultaneously.
Once the Americans reached Saipan and other Japanese islands with civilian populations, mass rape was added to the menu of war crimes. Small wonder that a Japanese soldier, or civilian, for that matter, would do whatever it took to keep from falling into Allied hands. As one American reported:
The northern tip of Saipan is a cliff with a sheer drop into the sea. At high tide the sharp coral rocks are almost covered with swirling surf. The Japanese civilians and the surviving soldiers were all crowded into this area. Now one of the worst horrors of the war occurred. In spite of loudspeaker messages asking them to surrender, and assurances that they would be well-treated, they began killing themselves. Soldiers clutched hand grenades to their bellies and pulled the pins. Through our spotting scopes from our observation post I witnessed this sickening spectacle, one of the worst experiences of my life.
Not only were there virtually no survivors among the 30,000 men of the Japanese garrison on Saipan, but two out of every three civilians—some 22,000 in all—were either murdered or committed suicide.
“We just blew it all up,” admitted one Marine. “We don’t know if there were women and children or whatever, we just blew them up.” “Japanese are still being shot all over the place,” a witness late in the war recorded. “Nippo soldiers are just so much machine-gun practice.”
A handful of Japanese prisoners did manage to get captured, of course, by accident if nothing else. Most were spared solely for the information they might provide. When the interrogation was through, the subjects were of no further use. Wrote a witness: “When they flew Japanese prisoners back for questioning on a C-47, they kept the freight door at the side of the plane open and, when the questioning of each man was concluded, he’d be kicked overboard before they reached their destination.”
Other Japanese were captured alive, not for what they might know, but merely to provide hellish entertainment. “They took 49 Japanese prisoners, tied them up in a tight ring, doused them with airplane fuel, and burned them all,” according to one account from New Guinea.
Another American recounted watching as a terrified Japanese captive was simply beheaded by a U.S. soldier with a sharp machete. “War is war, and the Geneva Red Cross Convention … is a long, long way from the front line,” scratched the viewer in his diary. “There is but one law here: KILL, KILL, KILL!”
Of course, it was not just island-hopping Marines who committed countless atrocities. Virtually all American servicemen partook. A Japanese sailor whose ship or submarine was sunk stood no better chance of survival than his comrade on shore. U.S. naval vessels and aircraft routinely sank all hospital ships, shelled all life boats, then machine-gunned any survivors still struggling in the water. Cursed a Japanese survivor after one such watery massacre: “Seeing no one on board, they strafed those in the water. The swine! Not satisfied with sinking the ship, they must kill those swimming in the sea! Was this being done by human beings? We were utterly helpless.”
Overhead, Japanese pilots who escaped from burning aircraft were themselves murdered by Allied airmen as they struggled in their parachute harnesses. “The Japanese made the perfect enemy,” explained one candid Marine speaking for all. “They had many characteristics that an American Marine could hate. Physically they were small, a strange color and, by some standards, unattractive. … Marines did not consider that they were killing men. They were wiping out dirty animals.”
And thus, from beginning to end, the war in the Pacific was not so much a “war” in American minds as it was a hunt—a hunt to run down “dirty animals” and murder as many as possible. With propagandists actively encouraging the slaughter of the “Asian sub-humans,” with political and military leaders, as well as the American people, demanding a massacre without mercy, it is not surprising then that the young men comprising the bulk of U.S. fighting forces reacted accordingly, for they only knew what they had been taught by their superiors and the rabidly pro-war media.
“American Mutilation of Japanese War Dead,” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org.
“American Troops Murdered Japanese POWs,” www.telegraph.co.uk.
Fulks, Tom, ed., Under Wraps: One Soldier’s Hidden Diary of World War II (Oviedo, FL: Day to Day Enterprises, 2004).
Garrett, J.R., “A Marine Diary: My Experiences on Guadalcanal,” www.nettally.com.
Hastings, Max, Retribution—The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (New York: Knopf, 2008).
“New Documentary Exposes American Pacific WWII Atrocities.” Article to be found at www.Rense.com.
Peter Schrijvers, The GI War Against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II (New York: New York University Press, 2002).
James J. Weingartner, “Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941-1945,” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (February 1992), 53.
“William Bull Halsey: Legendary World War II Admiral,” www.historynet.com. Search: “William Bull Halsey.”
This article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of The Barnes Review. Click here for more information.