To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945

Image of To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945
Release Date: 
May 2, 2023
Dutton Caliber
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“McManus provides an infantryman’s view of warfare at its dirtiest and bleakest.”

To the End of the Earth is military historian John McManus’ third and final volume of his history of the U.S. Army’s part in the Pacific War in World War II. From the battles on Luzon in the Philippines, including the brutal struggle in Manila, to the savage fighting on Okinawa, and the action in the China-Burma-India theater, McManus provides an infantryman’s view of warfare at its dirtiest and bleakest. 

When Americans think about the war in the Pacific they tend to think about the Marines and their courageous and successful fighting on central Pacific islands. McManus notes, however, that it was U.S. Army soldiers that did “the lion’s share of the fighting and dying in the Pacific.” He is quick to point out the extraordinary valor of the Marines and their “distinguished combat record” in the Pacific campaign, but sheer numbers tell the tale.

The army deployed a total of 25 infantry and airborne divisions, including combat teams and tank battalions, in theater, while the Marines mobilized six infantry divisions. The Army suffered almost twice as many casualties as their Marine and Navy colleagues in the Asia-Pacific. Together, the Army (including the Army Air Corps), Marines, and Navy won the Pacific war against Japan at a terrible cost.

General Douglas MacArthur commanded about 60 percent of U.S. Army combat personnel in the theater, and it was MacArthur who convinced President Franklin Roosevelt and the American military chiefs to liberate the Philippines. As McManus notes, for MacArthur retaking the Philippines was personal—he had lived there with his family (wife Jean and son Arthur) before the war and had been ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the islands as Japanese forces closed in on Corregidor. When he arrived in Australia he famously promised, “I shall return.”

In October 1944, MacArthur famously waded ashore at Leyte Gulf, but it was retaking Bataan, Corregidor, and especially Manila that informed and propelled his tactics, it was liberating American and Filipino POWs that would clear his conscience, and it was capturing airfields and coastal regions that would allow him to lead the anticipated invasion of Japan’s main islands.

McManus, like many historians, praises MacArthur for his greatness as a military strategist, innovator, and inspirational commander, but also describes him as “a petty, paranoid, insecure, vainglorious, egomaniacal schemer.” Of MacArthur’s key subordinates, McManus is most critical of intelligence chief Charles Willoughby, provides a mixed assessment of General Walter Krueger, and saves his most generous praise for Generals Robert Eichelberger and George Kenney.

But to his credit McManus focuses on the war from the perspective of the infantry soldier—on both sides—and civilians caught in the crossfire. In Manila, the Japanese, McManus notes, “carried out their orgy of destruction against people and property with such mercilessness, enthusiasm, callousness, and intensive brutality as to compare even with the infamous Rape of Nanking.” Japanese soldiers gang-raped women, impaled babies on bayonets, tortured men, women and children, and set fire to buildings. More than 100,000 Filipino civilians lost their lives. Meanwhile, MacArthur’s forces and their Japanese opponents engaged in brutal urban warfare. The stench of death hung over the city.

American paratroopers attacked Japanese forces on Corregidor after the island fortress suffered bombing from American air forces and destructive shelling from American warships. The fighting on Corregidor lasted two weeks “from crater to crater, cave to cave, tunnel to tunnel” in a grueling, nightmarish struggle. Most of the 5000 Japanese defenders were killed. One U.S. soldier recalled seeing “hundreds of bodies” being eaten by maggots and feasted upon by a plague of flies. McManus described Corregidor as having a “suffocating stench of death and decay.”

Elsewhere on Luzon, American forces engaged in what McManus calls “a bloody, manpower-intensive struggle” north and east of Manila that consisted of “jungle-covered ridges, mountains, caves, hairpin passes, and raging rivers”—terrain that Japanese forces used as strong defensive positions. At night while the Americans hunkered down, the Japanese attacked. Soldiers also had to deal with “cat-sized rats,” insects, ants and leeches, and diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and beriberi. Exhaustion set in which “eroded morale and initiative” and led to mistakes “and mistakes led to death.”

MacArthur ordered forces to liberate the southern Philippine islands, including Palawan, Mindanao, Panay, Bohol, Negros, and Cebu, which McManus claims were of little strategic value. Here and elsewhere, Filipino guerrillas provided invaluable assistance to U.S. troops. McManus questions whether these operations were worth the loss of more than 10,000 American lives.

American forces also liberated American and Filipino POWs—who had received harsh treatment from their Japanese captors—in daring raids conducted by special forces that McManus describes in detail.

McManus also describes the fighting on Okinawa, the last island objective before Japan proper. Okinawa, one American soldier recalled, was “hell’s own cesspool.” A combined Army-Marine-Navy force suffered huge casualties in fighting that involved massed kamikaze attacks, cave-to-cave slug fests, suicidal Japanese attacks, and “deadly close combat.” McManus compares the fighting on Okinawa to the Western Front in World War I. “The battle,” he writes, “featured some of the most ferocious naval and ground combat in human history.” The struggle on Okinawa made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan easier to understand.

In China, America backed Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek whose forces did the bulk of the fighting against the Japanese. Chiang’s forces, McManus notes, tied down Japan’s forces in China, helping to disperse an already overburdened military—effectively forcing Japan to fight a two-front war. Mao Zedong’s communist army, however, did little “besides observing mutual back-scratching truces with the Japanese,” always with an eye on taking power in a postwar struggle.

And McManus provocatively calls Mao’s victory in China’s civil war “the most important event in the history of the Cold War” and “the most important event of modern post-World War II history.” Without the communist victory in China, he writes, there would have been no Korean War and no Vietnam War, the Chinese people would not have suffered from “Maoist persecution, starvation, disease and exposure,” and we would not now be engaged in a new and dangerous Cold War in the western Pacific. This, too, is a legacy of the Pacific War.