With offensives mounted by the Japanese immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military quickly identified the sort of obstacles that it would face on the Pacific front. Japanese forces were considered the most courageous and daring of the Axis enemies. "The Japanese fought by a code they thought was right," American World War II veteran E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge explains, "bushido. The code of the warrior: no surrender. You don't really comprehend it until you get out there and fight people who are faced with an absolutely hopeless situation and will not give up."22
In the months of American involvement on the Pacific front, the U.S. military suffered tremendous losses, some of the worst defeats in all of the war. By 1942, Japan had conquered Burma, Siam, and the Dutch Indies, an oil-rich region vital to the United States. In Bataan, in the Philippines, tens of thousands of Americans and their Filipino allies were forced to surrender and were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese. Forced to march to prisoner camps, thousands died of disease, exhaustion, and starvation. And, perhaps the most direful method in which Japan inflicted great losses on the American navy, Japanese suicide pilots—kamikaze fliers—steered bomb-filled planes into American ships, terrorizing naval crews and causing many of the American casualties suffered in Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Bravery exhibited by Japanese forces, however, confirmed for Americans a racist notion that the Japanese were not quite human but, rather, primitive and animalistic. Rumors of "Japs" who could see in the dark, survive on a diet of insects, and who engaged in the most savage sort of warfare spread among American servicemen heightening hatred and fear. "Don't hesitate to fight the Japs dirty," a drill instructor informed his unit. "Most Americans, from the time they're kids, are taught not to hit below the belt. It's not sportsmanlike. Well, nobody has taught the Japs that, and war ain't sport. Kick him in the balls before he kicks you in yours."23
American military forces suffered terrible losses on the Pacific front, many confronting enemy gunners and guerilla soldiers face-to-face in the thick foliage of an unfamiliar landscape. Through traumatic experiences on the frontlines, soldiers discovered some truth to rumors of a brutal Japanese enemy. "I got so tired of seein' guys get hit and banged up," one veteran remembers, "the more I felt like takin' it out on the Japanese."24 But from seeds of truth about Japanese military prowess grew terrible exaggerations that ultimately helped U.S. soldiers justify the unthinkable. Captured Japanese soldiers were often shot dead rather than kept as prisoners of war, breaking the U.S. military code of conduct. From Japanese corpses U.S. servicemen plucked teeth, sliced off ears, removed skulls, and hacked through rib bones saving pieces of the victims' bodies as trophies of war, or simply as souvenirs. Some men snapped photographs with their treasures or sent small items—such as fingers, toes, or teeth—home to loved ones as gifts.
If the Japanese represented for Americans the most savage of all Axis enemies, Germans were perceived as only slightly more human. Germany was recognized as an industrialized and technologically advanced nation and so Americans considered German people civilized. But Adolf Hitler and his Nazi following seemed to prove that Germans—or, at least most Germans—were sinister, perverse, and sadistic. Popular stereotypes characterized Nazis as machines: efficient, rigid, thorough, and heartless. (The methodical murder of millions of people considered by the Nazis to be inferior would confirm these ideas.) Next to the Japanese, the German enemy appeared nearly as difficult to defeat.
Italian forces, on the other hand, were cast as cowards motivated only by fear and easily crushed. Popular stereotypes depicted Italian soldiers as dandies concerned far more with keeping their fancy uniforms clean than with deploying weapons and carrying out combat duties. The truth was, however, that the Italian army fought gallantly, but at a terrible disadvantage. The Italian military was far less equipped than other powers to fight such a war. Its industrial production was no where near that of its Axis allies or any of its Allied enemies; it was unable to produce guns, ammunition, and military vehicles at the pace and in the quantities necessary for success.
In addition, because the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had expelled all those who in some way threatened his authority, assertive and competent commanders were in short supply. Those who were appointed were largely inexperienced and awarded their ranking solely for proving their loyalty to Mussolini. When allegiance to the Il Duce mattered most, military officers drove their troops—often poorly armed, vulnerable, and with little faith in their commanders—into impossible battles. Consequently, the Italian military failed on nearly every front in which they fought—the Balkans, North Africa, and in Italy. Ill-equipped, poorly led, and disheartened, Italians were the ideal enemy confronting Allied troops—one defeated quickly.
Of his service in Okinawa, veteran E. B. Sledge remembers, "It was so savage. We were savages." He further explains, "We had all become hardened. We were out there, human beings, the most highly developed form of life on earth, fighting each other like wild animals."25 Much like the young men who fought in the first Great War, veterans of World War II experienced on the battlefield a strange sort of coming-of-age. The horrors of modern warfare, the mechanization of slaughter, and the sight, scent, sound, and sensation of carnage ripped young boys of their innocence and naiveté, and forced them to confront a reality unknown to family and friends back home. But in the Second World War, with the horrors on the Pacific front in particular, type-casting and racism ensured that combat, in the words of veteran Paul Fussell, "would be particularly cruel," and would make severe men out of ordinary boys.26