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Narratives: 1941-1945

A Japanese task force sailed undetected across the North Pacific to launch a surprise attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Two waves of air attacks caused heavy damage and destruction to the United States Fleet. The USS Arizona was destroyed and today lies undisturbed as a memorial where it sank. 7 December 1941 is known as the day that will live in infamy.

On 8 December 1941, the United States declared war on the Axis Powers, simplicity of life vanished and everyone made sacrifices. Women replaced men in factories and businesses, symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter,” Victory gardens were planted. Gasoline and food were rationed. Clothes were made from recycled material. Scrap metals were collected and recycled. War bonds were purchased. World War II altered the lives of the American people permanently and the sacrifices helped Allied Forces win the war.

Besieged and blockaded on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, 75,000 men, including 12,000 Americans, were taken prisoner by the Japanese on 9 April 1942. The Japanese promised fair treatment but the number of sick and starving proved overwhelming. Too few trucks were allotted to haul the captives to prisoner-of-war camps 60 miles away. Some POWs were treated humanely on the forced march, but many were denied food and water, beaten, shot, bayoneted, and buried alive. The atrocities and deprivation during which 7,000 to 10,000 perished, shocked and enraged America and earned it the name “Bataan Death March.”

On 18 April 1942, a force of sixteen B-25 bombers attacked Tokyo, Japan. They took off from an aircraft carrier to raid Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The raid revived American morale and stunned the Japanese because they realized their heartland was no longer safe from attack. Eleven of our eighty airmen were killed or captured.

Five brothers, abiding by the motto: “We stick together,” enlisted in the U.S. Navy in January 1942. In November all five lost their lives after a Japanese torpedo sank their ship. One year later the Navy commissioned a warship in their honor. Other brothers have served together. This is the only time since the Civil War that five military personnel from the same immediate family perished in battle.

In August 1942, United States Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in the first American offensive in the Pacific. The landings were initially unopposed while across the channel at Tulagi the Japanese offered fierce resistance. Tulagi was secured in a few days but bitter fighting continued on Guadalcanal for six months. The battle left 24,000 Japanese and 1,750 Americans dead before the Japanese withdrew in February 1943. It was the first time the Japanese were defeated on land and they never again took the offensive in the Pacific War.

On 3 February 1943, the transport ship USS Dorchester was torpedoed and sunk in twenty minutes. There were not enough life jackets for all on deck so the four chaplains gave their life jackets to others. The chaplains, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, and Reform, locked arms, prayed and comforted others as the ship sank into the frigid Atlantic. For their heroism, Congress awarded them a Special Medal of Valor never given before and never to be given again.

The flag raising on Iwo Jima, in February 1945, is the best known photograph of World War II. The photo was a re-enactment of the first flag raising four hours earlier.

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was a large-scale naval action fought in June 1944 in response to American landings on Saipan. Over 300 enemy planes were reported destroyed by U.S. planes and anti-aircraft fire before the Japanese withdrew. American sailors, who witnessed the action, dubbed the battle: “The Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

The Mariners, known as the Merchant Marines, began 12 June 1775. Presidents and military leaders have acknowledged that the role of transporting troops and supplies is essential to the welfare of the nation. During World War II the Merchant Marines had a higher percentage of war related deaths than all other United States Armed Forces. It was not until 1998 that all World War II Mariners who served in hazardous waters received Veteran status.

During World War I Choctaw Indians were used to communicate in their language. During World War II Comanche Indians were used in Europe for the same reason. The Marine Corps, in search of an unbreakable code, recruited Navajo Indians during World War II. A code was developed based on the Navajo language, which was unwritten and understood only by the trained Navajo, making it impossible for the enemy to understand battlefield communications. The code continued in use through the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was never broken. In December 1971, the President of the United States awarded the Navajo Code Talkers a Certificate of Appreciation.

The first formal United States code breakers were established before World War I. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 they had a staff of 19, by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 a staff of 331, and in a few years a staff of thousands. The success of the code breakers was vital to the outcome of World War II. They were critical to the outcome at the Battle of Midway, a turning point of the war in the Pacific.

The atomic bombs that ended World War II were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on 6 and 9 August 1945. The United States estimates deaths of up to 110,000 while Japan estimates a total of 240,000. The two bombs each had an explosive force of nearly 20,000 tons of TNT.

On 14 August 1945, the Emperor announced Japan’s intent to surrender. On 2 September 1945, aboard the USS Missouri, Japan signed Documents of Surrender with the Allied Powers. World War II ended with the remarks, “That from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”

On 22 January 1944, Allied Troops landed near Anzio, Italy to achieve one of the most complete military surprises in history. Little resistance was met during the landing, however, the next four months saw some of the most savage fighting of World War II. During the campaign the Allies suffered over 29,200 combat casualties, including 4,400 killed.

The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated military unit in United States history for its size and length of service. It was a World War II Japanese-American unit which earned 18,000 individual decorations, 9,486 Purple Hearts, seven Presidential Citations, and twenty-one Medals of Honor. The records show the unit never had a desertion. The majority served while their families were in detention units in the United States.

The Allied invasion of Europe was delayed on two occasions by inclement weather. A break in the weather prompted the launch of “Operation Overlord” on 6 June 1944. The invasion was the largest force ever assembled in military history. The landing location was a complete surprise to Germany. The Allied Forces landed simultaneously on French beaches named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Casualties were high but the beaches were secured within twenty-four hours. After three weeks of fighting, the Allies put ashore one million troops. Over three million combat and support personnel with more than 20,000 vehicles were involved in this invasion known as D-Day.

In December 1944, a few Allied, battle-weary, veterans and some of the greenest troops in Europe held the Ardennes Forest area on the German-Belgium border. At dawn on 16 December, the German army launched the largest land battle of World War II. More than one million men participated in this battle with staggering casualties on both sides. The battle lasted until the end of January during the coldest, snowiest weather in memory. The Battle of the Bulge was one of the worst battles of World War II and signaled the defeat of Germany just a few months away.

During World War II, over 400,000 German prisoners-of-war were interned in the United States. Six thousand were sent to Minnesota to work on farms, in canneries, logging camps or wherever help was needed. Minnesota had 21 camps including Faribault, Owatonna, Hollandale and St. Charles. After repatriation more than 5,000 former enemy prisoners returned to the United States and became citizens.

Mayo’s commitment to the military began with the Civil War when William W. Mayo was named examining surgeon for the enrollment board for the First Minnesota District. He served from April 1863 until February 1865.

Charles and Will Mayo served on the Medical Board For National Defense. In 1916 the board, working through the Red Cross, organized 50 base hospitals. One was organized through the University of Minnesota with financial support and staff from the Mayo Clinic.

In 1928, the Mayo Clinic Plummer Building was dedicated with the 23-bell carillon dedicated to the American soldier.

In 1934, the American Legion recognized W. J. and C. H. Mayo for "distinguished service to our sick and disabled comrades and to suffering humanity." President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented a plaque to the brothers at Soldiers Field Memorial Park on 8 August 1934.

Mayo research on oxygen requirements in humans, the development of the oxygen mask and an antigravity suit enabled high altitude flying. President Roosevelt recognized Mayo's efforts by presenting them with the highest U.S. aviation award in 1940.

In 1944, two Mayo Medical Units served in the Pacific Theater until the end of World War II.

In April 1945, Nazi Death Camps were liberated across Eastern Europe. American GIs saw horrors that would stay in their minds forever. They smelled nauseating death and discovered rooms piled with suitcases, shoes, clothing, teeth, hair, and glasses, reminders of the millions of prisoners who had passed through the gates of the death camps. Soldiers of all ranks were horrified when they discovered gas chambers and ovens used to exterminate human beings, mostly Jews. In the Nazis haste to flee, prisoners were left as walking skeletons confused by their sudden freedom. The GIs offered whatever they could to give hope to the survivors.

On 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. The surrender was reenacted the following day so 8 May is known as Victory in Europe (VE Day). The Allied Commander announced the surrender with the words, “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241 local time 7 May 1945.”

Black Americans were initially recruited to serve in the Revolutionary War. Post-war laws first denied Blacks access to military service, but they eventually fought and served valiantly in all of the wars since 1812. Initially denied freedoms, suffering rejection and segregation, they proved themselves capable and courageous in fulfilling escalating responsibilities in recognition of their abilities. Fully integrated at the start of the Korean conflict and since, Black Americans confirmed their ability to perform in battle and at high levels of responsibility.

Women have played important military roles since the Revolutionary War. Although unfairly treated in early wars, they distinguished themselves in teaching sanitation, nursing and spying. Disguised as men, they fought on battlefields. Although women were authorized to serve as nurses in 1861, they were not eligible for health care, salary and a uniform until 1899. During World War II, opposition to women in the military was strong. In May of 1942, the Women’s Auxiliary Corps was formed to serve with the Army but did not receive military status until August 1943. The Nurse Corps was denied rank until 1947 and veteran status until 1977. Women are now integrated into the military and serve in all capacities and levels of command.

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