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The Ground War

[picture of a U.S. Soldier in Europe]

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.

[picture of landing craft at the Normandy invasion]

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.

[picture of P-51 Mustangs in formation]

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."

[picture of Eisenhower]

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."

Our Mission

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.

[picture of a destroyed city]

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 British.

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.

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