While air and naval power saw leaps in advancement throughout World War II, the most important battles were fought where people live, work, and play: on the ground.
In the online Hillsdale College course, “The Second World Wars,” Professor Victor David Hanson instructs how ground operations relied on a variety of means and tactics, based on geography, history, military command, and politics. Here are some of the most common misconceptions students of history make about the U.S. ground forces in World War II.
1. The U.S. Army Was Weak Before WWII
When the war starts, the U.S. military is smaller than Portugal’s. It was only used in places of tension like the Caribbean or South America, but was incapable of larger campaigns, like an invasion of Mexico or Canada. Americans were hesitant of military engagement. Most Americans did not want to get into World War II because their efforts in World War I never saw a true resolution.
After Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States had to go to war very quickly. Our relatively small American forces found themselves against Japan, which had been fighting in China since 1931, and Germany, which had been fighting in Europe since 1939. Yet, in less than 2.5 years, the United States was winning battles in North Africa, Italy, and Guadalcanal. Despite their weak start, the American Army did not lose vast the number of soldiers (compared to other countries) due to their reliance on air power, artillery, and commanders that didn’t take unnecessary risks.
2. The First U.S. Ground Invasion Was Not Normandy
A common misconception about U.S involvement in World War II is that the first time Americans landed in the European theater was on D-Day. The United States officially entered the war in December 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and began directly assisting Britain in North Africa on May 11, 1942.
Allied powers reasoned that they could wait on going into Europe because the Soviet army at the time was already killing about 1.2 million German soldiers each year. They strategized for attacking the perimeter while the Soviets fought in the middle, which would allow the United States more time to build up their manpower. Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower originally planned to squeeze Adolf Hitler through the south, coming up through North Africa and Italy.
Unfortunately, thanks to Italy’s complicated geography, the strategy failed. Italy is divided by a number of rivers and mountain ranges that prove difficult to cross. The Americans and the British started in Sicily, but quickly realized it was not the underbelly to Europe, as they had hoped. It did, however, prove to be successful at chipping away at the German army’s resources.
3. U.S. Forces Were Split Across Two Fronts In The Pacific Theater
A common understanding about the war fought in the Pacific Theater is that it was won by island hopping, or “leap frogging.” While this is true, an important distinction is that the fight against Japan was bifurcated into two fronts, one led by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the other by Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz. This bifurcation was never quite resolved and both leaders got a bit of their own way.
The outspoken MacArthur was convinced he could defeat Japan if Japan invaded the Philippines. MacArthur was in the Philippines in 1941 when they were surprise-attacked by the Japanese. He fled to Australia but promised he would return to liberate the Philippine people and U.S prisoners.
By 1944, MacArthur and Nimitz had both achieved their own victories, in New Guinea and the Marianas, respectively. As the United States considered their next plan of attack against the inner defenses of Japan’s empire, the two leaders had different visions of invasion.
MacArthur insisted on a full invasion of the Philippines, as he had promised. Nimitz, on the other hand, thought that some Philippine islands should just be stepping stones, and wanted to focus on seizing control of Japan’s surrounding islands.