The Ground War
Finally, in late 1943, the American bomber barons suspended raids beyond
fighter-escort range. The European war would be won on the ground.
After knocking the Germans out of North Africa and pushing them back to
Northern Italy, the Allies, under supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower, launched
an amphibious invasion of the European continent on June 6, 1944. D-Day. It
was the most spectacular display of military might in the history of the world.
When my Uncle John fought his way off Omaha Beach and looked back at the
awesome armada delivering men and machines he thought to himself: "I may get
shot but sure as hell, we're not going to lose this war."
When the invaders gained a beachhead, they began slugging through German
defenses, suffering a near calamitous setback near the German border at the
Battle of the Bulge. After turning back that furious German counter-offensive,
the Allied armies stormed into Germany, while the Russians moved relentlessly
on Berlin from the East.
In the ground war on the western front, American air power did finally make a
difference. Before D-Day, Americans developed a fast, long-range fighter, the
P-51 Mustang. With P-51 escorts, American bombers could fly deep into German
air space and knock out vital oil refineries, depriving both the German army
and air force of fuel they desperately needed to stop the Allied ground
offensive. In a sense, Hitler lost the war because he ran out of gas.
As American bombers hit targets like Berlin that German fighters had to defend,
P-51 escorts decimated the Luftwaffe. This gave the invading Allied armies
complete air superiority. As Eisenhower assured his D-Day troops, "If you see
fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours."
When the American army reached the Elbe River and the Russians closed in on
Berlin, Hitler, cowering in a Berlin bunker, ended the Thousand Year Reich by
putting a bullet through his skull. Germany surrendered on May 8th,
1945. V-E Day. The last words were Eisenhower's, written even before America
entered the war. "Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy."
There is a myth that has grown up around the citizen soldiers who knocked out
the fascists -- that they fought not for flag and country, not for a high
purpose; but for their buddies. As one GI put it, "The reason you storm the
beaches is not patriotism or bravery. It's that sense of not wanting to fail
your buddies. There's a special sense of kinship."
That's true. But these guys also knew what they were in this for. As one GI
said: "I think it would have been a catastrophe if Hitler would've won."
"That bastard had to be stopped," said another; "that's why I joined up."
And GIs had a strong sense that their sacrifice meant something when they
liberated town after delirious town in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few GIs even
thought they were liberating the Germans.
"Why are you making war against us?" a German soldier asked an American
prisoner, who happened to speak German. His unforgettable reply was, "We are
fighting to free you from the fantastic idea that you are a master race."
Then there was the liberation of the prisoners of the Nazi death camps.
America's complete focus on the war, and its climate of anti-Semitism, which
infiltrated the highest levels of government, stopped it from doing what it
should have done: publicize Hitler's genocidal policies, turn America into a
refuge for persecuted Jews, and mount rescue missions. Yet when our army
entered Germany and began encountering concentration camp victims, these
walking skeletons tearfully greeted the soldiers as their liberators. Did Nazi
evil such as these men saw justify the terror bombing of German civilians? I
don't think we'll ever have agreement on that. Perhaps the most senseless
Allied act of the war was the firebombing of Dresden, a German cultural capital
of no great military value.
Dresden might have been hit in early 1945 because the Allies had simply run out
of fresh targets to bomb. The British Royal Air Force did most of the damage,
but the Americans participated in the destruction of over 30,000 people by fire
and suffocation. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut was there and he said that the fire
bombing of Dresden didn't shorten the war by one minute. Now that's true, but
many of those who bombed it had no regret.
Here's Lieutenant John Morris: "I don't rejoice at the 30,000 Germans killed.
I doubt that there were many Jews in that number. The good burghers of Dresden
had shipped them all off to Auschwitz." And, as Morris says, Dresden was not
unique. Berlin and Leipzig were hit ever harder by the Americans and the
The targets of Berlin and Leipzig were industrial, but since the weather was
bad, it amounted to terror bombing. The Eighth Airforce had crossed a moral
threshold. Both Eisenhower and Roosevelt went along with this. Ike preferred
precision bombing but wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. And
Roosevelt believed that the German people must be compelled, this time, as
opposed to the last war, to recognize their defeat and accept responsibility
for the horrors their country had inflicted on the world.
What kind of behavior is morally justifiable to win a war against a ruthless
enemy? This question would surface again, with even greater urgency, in the
final months of the war against Japan. There in the Northern Pacific, total war
would merge with racial hatred to produce fighting of unimaginable ferocity and
destruction such as the world had never seen before.