SEVENTY-five years ago today, our war against Japan finally came to an end. The immense sacrifices of our forces and of our allies should not be forgotten.
Those who fought and eventually beat Japan saved the world from a disaster. The cruelty and bloodiness of Japanese military conduct in the territories they seized showed that a Japanese final victory would have led to a new dark age for half the world. In China alone, Japanese actions led to the deaths of up to 17million civilians. Even if this figure is an exaggeration (as some believe likely), millions died needlessly. Who knows how many more might have been deliberately starved or murdered to create the lebensraum their conquerors felt they deserved?
Sadism and depravity accompanied the Japanese army wherever it went. Each of the different lands Japan occupied has its own examples: Cannibalism of captives, mass rape, the beheading and bayoneting of bound prisoners. In China the Japanese even launched germ warfare, infecting thousands with bubonic plague.
Japan’s claims that it was fighting to liberate Asia from white imperialism and create a ‘Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere’ were nonsense. It had no sympathy for the nationalist aspirations of the different Asian peoples. It was, however, jealous and resentful of what it saw as hypocrisy by western nations which had their own colonies yet denied similar opportunities for expansion to Japan.
But with the exception of France in Indo-China, Western dominance was already declining in Asia when Japan attacked. The end of British rule in India was already in sight. America’s semi-colonial rule of the Philippines was well on its way to being formally dismantled. The Dutch were slowly being forced, albeit reluctantly, into starting to accommodate Indonesian nationalism in their ‘East Indian’ possessions. Despite its propaganda, the Imperial Japanese Army emphatically did not liberate Asia. It was simply out to seize the resources and space that it felt it lacked in its home islands.
Despite this, there were certainly examples of active collaboration with the Japanese and hostility to the western allies in some of the Japanese occupied countries. Perhaps the best known was the Indian National Army which fought against Britain. It was a puny force recruited from prisoners-of-war; the Japanese considered it ineffective and barely reliable.
Broadly, though, people across Asia understood Japan’s real intentions and sided with the Anglo-American-led coalition. In India, 2.5million men enlisted in the British Indian army, making it the largest all-volunteer army ever raised. In many countries Japanese occupation provoked guerilla warfare, demonstrating just how unwelcome this ‘liberation’ was.
The war’s heaviest burden fell on China. Its economy was devastated and tens of millions of its people were displaced. It fought for the longest period, being at war with Japan from July 1937, and in military terms suffered the greatest losses with around three million soldiers killed. America and the British and Dutch empires were at war with Japan only from December 1941.
The Americans lost around 110,000 dead in fighting Japan. This comparatively low toll was to some extent an indication of the US’s ability to shield the lives of its servicemen behind overwhelming material and technical superiority. There are certainly no grounds to question the courage and sacrifices of America’s armed forces. There is a long list of battles, some barely remembered, such as Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa where Americans fought with tenacity and enormous heroism in the most challenging conditions.
America’s other great achievement was its turning of a peacetime economy into the most efficient and gigantic machine for the production of war material. By 1945, from almost a standing start, America could produce warplanes in tens of thousands and ships by the hundred. From boots to rifles, atom bombs, jeeps or 30,000-ton aircraft carriers, America could build them quickly, in quantity and to a high standard.
Britain’s role in defeating Japan was smaller. Understandably so, for so much of our strength and resources were used in the struggle against Hitler. But there was certainly no lack of commitment on Britain’s part.
The Japanese inflicted some dreadful defeats on Britain in the war’s early stages: the loss of Hong Kong, the ejection of British forces from Malaya and Burma and worst of all, the catastrophe of Singapore. Eighty thousand British, Indian and Australian troops surrendered and spent three and a half years in brutal captivity. Many died from starvation, disease, over-work and neglect. Others were murdered. Churchill described the fall of Singapore as ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’.
Despite those defeats, British and Empire forces fought on. The long campaign of General Bill Slim’s 14th Army to defend India’s frontiers and then liberate Burma is one of the great more-or-less unknown stories of the war. The 14th called itself ‘The forgotten army’ and not without some truth. Their struggles, which went on continuously from 1942 to 1945, received little public attention. The war against Hitler was a more pressing and exciting concern to Britain.
Yet the 14th Army performed prodigies. It fought and beat a fiercely determined enemy, which was defending some of the most impenetrable terrain on the planet. It had to ship every last bullet and ration pack across mountains and roadless malarial jungles in a climate that was often atrocious. Extreme heat and endless tropical rains created seas of mud and rotted every last perishable item the troops possessed.
It’s impossible to acknowledge all the sacrifices made and the feats achieved in the defeat of Japanese militarism. The undertaking was so huge and contains so many threads and stories. But we should remember our debts to earlier generations and be thankful to live in a world that in the main is safe, peaceful and free.