Defense Media Network

Expeditionary Warfare Comes of Age in World War II

While we were fighting for the Marianas, the supreme battle for Europe commenced with the greatest amphibious landing of them all at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Allies − particularly the British − had hoped that an invasion would be unnecessary, that the Allied air campaign against Germany would bring her to her knees, or that Hitler would be assassinated and a new, more flexible government formed. But nothing of the kind occurred, and the Normandy invasion went forward.

Although the American and British air forces had not forced the surrender of Germany, they did provide critical support by destroying a good deal of Germany’s widely dispersed industry, particularly many of her aircraft factories. They also crippled the German communications network in northern France, hit guided missile stockpiles, and contributed to blocking the English Channel to U-boats (58 of them).

D-Day Landing

U.S. Army 1st Division troops wade into the fight at Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6, 1944, from a Coast Guard-manned LCVP. National Archives photo

More than 6,400 vessels were committed to the Normandy battle, including more than 4,000 landing craft and hundreds of transports. One hundred and four destroyers, seven battleships, and 23 cruisers provided critical naval fire support, and 12,000 aircraft, including 5,000 fighters, were employed.

British and American strategic bombing was momentarily turned away from Germany to support the landing. In addition, hundreds of planes and gliders dropped or carried thousands of paratroopers behind the beaches.

In all, 130,000 troops were landed on five Normandy beaches on D-Day. The defenses were far more severe than any encountered in the Pacific. Nonetheless, within five days more than 325,000 Allied men were ashore, with more than 54,000 vehicles and 105,000 tons of supplies. Within a month, 1 million troops and their equipment had been landed. But the costs were severe. The Allies suffered 209,000 casualties during the battle for Normandy. Thirty-seven thousand Allied troops died, along with 16,714 airmen. The dearly bought victory at Normandy was the beginning of the end for Hitler.

In support of the thrust at Normandy, an amphibious landing − code-named Dragoon − was made in southern France on Aug. 15, 1944. By Aug. 28, Marseilles and Toulon, the two immediate objectives, had surrendered.

Philippines Landing

Two Coast Guard-manned LSTs open their great jaws in the surf that washes on Leyte Island beach, as soldiers strip down and build sandbag piers out to the ramps to speed up unloading operations. National Archives photo

Having obtained a firm foothold in France, the Allied drive from both the west and the east inexorably crushed the Nazis. After Hitler’s suicide, Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.
In the Pacific, the two-pronged assault on the Japanese empire continued to drive relentlessly toward Tokyo. MacArthur landed his troops on Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, beginning the liberation of the Philippines. The amphibious landing triggered the great naval Battle for Leyte Gulf – four separate engagements that established, along with the Battle of the Philippine Sea, American dominance on the water.

By the middle of December, Leyte was in American hands. On Jan. 9, 1945, MacArthur began the fight for Luzon, and Manila was finally cleared of Japanese defenders on March 4, 1945. In the meantime, beginning on Nov. 24, 1944, B-29 Superfortresses began the bombing of Japan from the Marianas. This led to the amphibious attack on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. A grueling, bloody fight ensued. By the time the island was captured on March 16, more than 22,000 Japanese had been killed − nearly their entire force − while the Americans suffered a heartrending 6,812 killed and 21,837 wounded.

Nimitz next attacked Okinawa in the Ryukus. Amphibious landings began on April 1, 1945. Kamikazes, which had been in use by the increasingly desperate Japanese since Leyte, were now fully employed. Almost 300 suicide attacks occurred, with devastating results for U.S. ships. The battle on the island was expected to be bloody, and it was. In the end, nearly 5,000 sailors were killed, and 4,800 wounded, while 7,613 American soldiers and Marines died and 31,800 were wounded.

Iwo Jima Landing

A group of Marines in the Iwo Jima beachhead get organized as preparations are made for movement inland. Behind them is one of the specialized LVT (A)-4s, with its turreted 75 mm howitzer for destroying pillboxes and strongpoints. Marine Corps Historical Center photo

The United States was, at that point, poised to invade Japan’s home islands. The largest expeditionary force ever contemplated was in the offing, and based on past experience, millions on both sides were sure to die. To avoid this slaughter, President Harry S Truman decided to drop two atom bombs – one on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki – forcing Japan to surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

The greatest catastrophe in human history thus ended. Fifty million had died, and tens of millions more endured unimaginable suffering. The disaster was made more awful by the knowledge that it was preventable. The resentments and ambitions of the Axis powers could have been contained had not the folly of disarmament obtained such a hold on the American mind after World War I. Since 1945, the United States, having learned the lessons of the war, remained, at great cost, prepared militarily, and although, tragically, there have been small conflicts, there has not been another all-embracing war. Instead, the world has enjoyed what might be called Pax Americana, under which there has been a general peace, making possible an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity for all people.

This article was first published in First Responder: USS New York.

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