By April 30, even Hitler's fanatical optimism had failed him. After a quiet lunch of spaghetti and salad, the fuhrer and Eva Braun (he had married Braun, his longtime mistress, only two days before) walked into his underground suite, closed the door, and proceeded to swallow lethal doses of cyanide. An aide, following Hitler's instructions, waited until the poison had taken effect and shot him once in the head (to be sure that he was dead), then helped carry the two bodies upstairs where they were laid side by side in a garden, soaked with gasoline, and set on fire. Shells from the guns of the invading Russian army were bursting around them while a small group of mourners stood and raised their arms in a final salute. Within days, the Germans had surrendered.
Crowds in Red Square, Times Square, Picadilly Circus, and along the Champs Elyses erupted in celebration. But the news from Berlin failed to slow the pace of warfare on the other side of the globe where the savagery of the Pacific war had been becoming increasingly surreal.
When the Marines landed on Saipan in 1944 (the tiny island was strategically important because its airfields would put American B-29s within striking distance of Tokyo), they battled fiercely against the Japanese banzai attacks, losing more than sixteen thousand men, then encountered a surprise: wave upon wave of Japanese civilians coming at them in a suicidal orgy. While the conquering Americans assured the people from loudspeakers that they would be treated well as captives, mothers threw their children from the edge of cliffs and then jumped after them; others pulled the triggers on grenades, then hugged them close to their bodies.
Reclaiming Guam the same year, Marines encountered desperate enemy soldiers armed only with pitchforks and baseball bats, bottles and rocks. Some took sticks, attached knives to the ends of them, then came hurling at the Americans in an unrelenting suicidal barrage. And even after the island was securely in American hands, thousands of Japanese refused to capitulate, taking to the hills instead, where they continued to attack guerrilla style for months.
But the stories of the fighting at Peleliu (pronounced Pell-ee-loo) are surely among the most bizarre, and tragic. The island was considered a stepping-stone to the recapture of the Philippines and an easy one at that. Admiral Chester Nimitz expected the Marines to work for three or four days and encounter minimal casualties. In fact, the fighting would last for two months and end the lives of 1,262 Marines and nearly 10,000 Japanese.
A preinvasion bombardment was thought to have weeded out most enemy troops at Peleliu. But when the Marines hit the beaches on September 15, 1944 they discovered thousands of Japanese hiding in a series of interlocking caves. Safe from attack, the enemy troops then undertook a deadly game of hide and seek, popping open the camouflaged steel doors of the caves, firing at the Marines, then disappearing again into the earth. The terrain, too, proved an obstacle. The Americans had brought shovels with them to dig out their protection, but the island's tough coral surface was impossible to penetrate, forcing them to lie exposed to deadly accurate mortar and artillery fire, or to crouch behind their own dead. In the end, the Marines would need almost two months to root out the enemy, and only much later would they learn that the island fight had probably been unnecessary: the Philippines were in easy grasp whether they had Peleliu or not.
The battle for Okinawa had already begun when news of the end of the European war arrived. The island was a critical target for the Americans -- just 350 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, it was a natural step before the invasion of Japan itself. But a wave of suicide bombers, numbering in the thousands, was making it hard for the Americans. Off the coast of the island, a Japanese Zero crashed onto the flight deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill. Thirty seconds later, another kamikaze fell from the sky ripping a forty-foot hole in the side of the Bunker Hill. The Americans won at Okinawa (at a price of fifty thousand casualties) but the Japanese resolve showed no signs of easing.
Excerpted from The Century by By Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprint.
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