Before the parades

2 new books explore final days of World War II

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WAR IS HELL," according to both Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and my late father, a U.S. Army veteran of the North African and Italian campaigns.

Max Hastings and David Stafford reinforce that point in two very different but complementary histories dealing with the end of World War II.

   
"RETRIBUTION:THE BATTLE FOR JAPAN, 1944-45"

By Max Hastings
Knopf ($35)

   

Hastings, former newspaper reporter and editor, offers a wide-ranging view of the last year of the war in the Pacific in "Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45."

David Stafford, a Canadian academic, engraves on a much smaller piece of ivory. In "Endgame, 1945," he organizes his tale of the final weeks of conflict in Europe around stories of a dozen individuals. They include soldiers, a relief worker and an unlikely Nazi hostage.

"Retribution" is an apt title that describes the desire for revenge and increasing ferocity shown on all sides in the final months of World War II in the Pacific.

U.S. losses were mounting as Allied troops approached Japan's home islands. The three-month battle for Okinawa, which Hastings describes in heartbreaking detail, resulted in the deaths of 4,900 sailors and more than 7,600 soldiers and Marines.

Japanese military and civilian deaths rose even more precipitously: 70,000 soldiers and at least 30,000 noncombatants died on the island.

As awful as those statistics are, the numbers are much worse in lands occupied by the Japanese. Hastings writes that at least 20 million civilians died. The Chinese, who had been at war with Japan since 1937, were especially hard hit. Hastings estimates Chinese war deaths at a minimum of 15 million.

U.S. and Japanese leaders, however, took away very different lessons from the rising casualty numbers, Hastings writes.

The Japanese military leaders persuaded themselves that the Allies would not have the stomach for an assault on the home islands in the face of high casualties. They hoped for a negotiated settlement that would allow them to retain Korea and parts of China.

As they had so many times since Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese misread U.S. resolve and ruthlessness. Even as they made plans for an invasion, American strategists had great hopes that a sea blockade and carpet bombing of urban areas would force a surrender. Then when the opportunity came along to use atomic bombs, President Harry Truman did not hesitate.

   
"ENDGAME, 1945: THE MISSING FINAL CHAPTER OF WORLD WAR II"

By Davis Stafford
Little, Brown ($26.99)

   

Despite the horrific effects of the blockade, the bombs and a Soviet blitzkrieg attack on Japanese troops in China, the nation's military leaders still were not ready to give up. It took unprecedented action by Emperor Hirohito to break the deadlock and announce surrender himself.

Stafford's subtitle for "Endgame, 1945" is "The Missing Final Chapter of World War II." The "missing" part seems like overstatement, because many of the big stories he relates have been told before.

Where "Endgame, 1945" shines is in Stafford's telling, at length, of the stories of individuals who endured those dangerous last weeks.

British, Canadian and American soldiers all faced a common dilemma: the need to support their comrades in combat but avoid being the last man killed in the closing days of the war. Canadian Reg Roy, for example, had seen hard fighting in Italy, but he came closest to dying just days before the Germans surrendered in the battle for a small Dutch port called Delfzijl.

The story of Fey von Hassell is one of Stafford's best. The daughter of a German diplomat, she had married into a wealthy Italian family. After her husband joined the anti-German Italian resistance and her father was implicated in an assassination attempt against Hitler, she was arrested and her two young children were taken from her.

For the next six months she was interned in a series of concentration camps, moved whenever Allied forces approached.

How she and other high-value prisoners, who included former French Prime Minister Leon Blum, manage to escape death at the hands of the SS reads like a thriller by Alan Furst.

In a book about the chaos and random destruction of war, such happy endings are few. Some of Stafford's tales are stranger than fiction.

On May 13, 1945, five days after the official Nazi surrender, a German firing squad shot two deserters. The men had been in hiding for months and surrendered to the Dutch, but both were sent to a German-controlled prison camp. They were court-martialed and, at the urging of the camp's fanatic commandant, condemned to death.

A Canadian officer, following the rules of a temporary power-sharing agreement, provided eight rifles and ammunition for their execution.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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