27 May 1942 Doris Miller is awarded the Navy Cross.

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Photo courtesy of Naval Historical Center

World War II Overview

World War II was a global military conflict that, in terms of lives lost and material destruction, was the most devastating war in history. It began in 1939 as a European conflict between Germany and an Anglo-French coalition but eventually widened to include most of the nations of the world with fighting focused in two theaters: Europe and the Pacific. It ended in 1945, leaving a new world order dominated by the United States and the USSR. The war would include 61 countries with a combined total population of 1.7 billion people, three-fourths of the world's population. The combined cost was estimated at over $1 trillion, more expensive than all over wars combined.

The Cause
A prime cause of the war was the rise of fascism, a form of nationalistic, militaristic totalitarianism. Benito Mussolini established the first Fascist dictatorship in Italy in 1922. Adolf Hitler, as leader of the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party, preached a racist brand of fascism. Japan did not formally adopt fascism, but the armed forces' powerful position in the government enabled them to impose a similar type of totalitarianism. Treaties between Germany, Italy, and Japan in the period from 1936 to 1940 brought into being the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. Hitler, with support from Mussolini, launched an expansionist drive with the annexation of Austria in March 1938 and, a year later seized Czechoslovakia. Alarmed by this new aggression and by Hitler's threats against Poland, the British government pledged to aid that country if Germany threatened its independence. France already had a mutual defense treaty with Poland. On September 1, 1939, the German armies marched into Poland. On September 3 the British and French declared war on Germany.

United States Involvement
In March 1941 the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act and appropriated an initial $7 billion to lend or lease weapons and other aid to any countries the president might designate. By this means the U.S. hoped to ensure victory over the Axis without involving its own troops. By late summer of 1941, however, the U.S. was in a state of undeclared war with Germany. In July, U.S. Marines were stationed in Iceland, which had been occupied by the British in May 1940, and thereafter the U.S. Navy took over the task of escorting convoys in the waters west of Iceland. In September President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized ships on convoy duty to attack Axis war vessels.

The Japanese army and navy had devised a war plan in which they proposed to make fast sweeps into Burma, Malaya, the East Indies, and the Philippines and, at the same time, set up a defensive perimeter in the central and southwest Pacific. Their greatest concern was the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As insurance, the Japanese navy undertook to cripple the Pacific Fleet by a surprise air attack which was undertaken on Sunday, December 7, in a raid lasting less than two hours. The Japanese attack brought the U.S. into the war on December 8. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11.

The German Surrender
On the afternoon of April 30, 1945, with U.S. troops occupying half of Germany and Nzai forces thwarted on other fronts, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. As his last significant official act, he named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz to succeed him as chief of state. Doenitz, who had been loyal to Hitler, had no course open to him other than surrender. His representative, General Alfred Jodl, signed an unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims early on May 7. By then the German forces in Italy had already surrendered (on May 2), as had those in Holland, north Germany, and Denmark (May 4). The U.S. and British governments declared May 8 V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. The full unconditional surrender took effect at one minute past midnight after a second signing in Berlin with Soviet participation.

The Japanese Surrender
Throughout the war, the U.S. government and the British, believing Germany was doing the same, had maintained a massive scientific and industrial project to develop an atomic bomb. The chief ingredients, fissionable uranium and plutonium, had not been available in sufficient quantity before the war in Europe ended. President Harry S. Truman decided to allow the bombs to be dropped. For maximum psychological impact, they were used in quick succession, one over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the other over Nagasaki three days later (August 9). Estimates by U.S. officials put the number killed or missing as a result of the bomb in Hiroshima at 60,000 to 70,000 and in Nagasaki at 40,000. Japanese estimates gave a combined total of 240,000. The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8 and invaded Manchuria the next day. On August 14 Japan announced its surrender. The formal signing took place on September 2 in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship Missouri.

Cost of the War
10 million persons were mobilized for military service, with more than half of those from three countries: the USSR (22-30 million), Germany (17 million), and the United States (16 million). For the major participants the largest numbers on duty at any one time were as follows: USSR (12,500,000); U.S. (12,245,000); Germany (10,938,000); British Empire and Commonwealth (8,720,000); Japan (7,193,000); and China (5,000,000). (Note: Most statistics on the war are only estimates. The war's vast and chaotic sweep made uniform record keeping impossible. Some governments lost control of the data, and some resorted to manipulating it for political reasons.)

Not including more than 5 million Jews killed in the Holocaust who were indirect victims of the war, the warıs toll is estimated to have been 55 million dead - 25 million of those military and 30 million civilian. The human cost of the war fell heaviest on the USSR, for which the official total, military and civilian, is given as more than 20 million killed. The Allied military and civilian losses were 44 million; those of the Axis, 11 million. The military deaths on both sides in Europe numbered 19 million and in the war against Japan, 6 million. The U.S., which had no significant civilian losses, sustained 292,131 battle deaths and 115,187 deaths from other causes.

The highest numbers of deaths, military and civilian, were as follows:
USSR more than 13 million military and 7 million civilian
China more than 3 million military and more than 10 million civilian
Germany 3.5 million and 3.8 million
Poland 120,000 and 5.3 million
Japan 1.7 million and 380,000
Yugoslavia 300,000 and 1.3 million
Romania 200,000 and 465,000
France 250,000 and 360,000
British Empire and Commonwealth 452,000 and 60,000
Italy 330,000 and 80,000
Hungary 120,000 and 280,000
Czechoslovakia 10,000 and 330,000.

The U.S. spent the most money on the war, an estimated $341 billion, including $50 billion for lend-lease supplies, of which $31 billion went to Britain, $11 billion to the Soviet Union, $5 billion to China, and $3 billion to 35 other countries. Germany was next, with $272 billion; followed by the Soviet Union, $192 billion; and then Britain, $120 billion; Italy, $94 billion; and Japan, $56 billion. Except for the U.S., however, and some of the less militarily active Allies, the money spent does not come close to being the war's true cost. The Soviet government has calculated that the USSR lost 30 percent of its national wealth, while Nazi exactions and looting were of incalculable amounts in the occupied countries. The full cost to Japan has been estimated at $562 billion. In Germany, bombing and shelling had produced 4 billion cubic meters (5 billion cubic yards) of rubble.

Perhaps the most significant casualty over the long term was the world balance of power. Britain, France, Germany, and Japan ceased to be great powers in the traditional military sense, leaving only two, the United States and the Soviet Union.

"World War II," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001

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