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MYTH VERSUS REALITY IN THE WAR

Published Aug. 28, 2005|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

It's known as the good war, or the greatest war ever. Without argument, it was a necessary war. Still, many aspects of combat and life on the homefront have taken on mythic qualities. Understanding a war in all of its dimensions gives us a much clearer picture of it. Here, then, is a look at some of the myths of World War II.

THE MYTH

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, millions of men rushed to join the military making up a mostly volunteer force.

THE REALITY

From 1941 through 1945, 17.9-million men and women served in the military. Of those, 11.5-million, or just over 60 percent, had been drafted. The peacetime draft introduced in 1940 was deeply resented. After Pearl Harbor, the attitude did change, but the rush to volunteer soon ebbed. Of 18-million men examined for induction, 6.4-million, or 35 percent, were rejected as physically or mentally unfit. About 5 percent of those called evaded the draft.

THE MYTH

Millions of American women rushed into jobs in military-related industries left vacant by the men at war.

THE REALITY

Most American women remained as homemakers during the war years. Of 33-million women at home in December 1941, seven out of 10 were still there in 1944 at the peak of wartime employment. Nine out of 10 young mothers didn't work. By 1944, 19-million women had paid jobs, but still two-thirds of adult females were full-time homemakers. Of those with jobs, 11.5-million were already working in 1940. Of women who did work, only 16 percent were in war industries. About 350,000 women served in the military.

THE MYTH

Every soldier was an infantry grunt, killing the enemy with his trusty rifle.

THE REALITY

Most Americans never saw a battle zone and most of the deaths of enemy soldiers were caused by artillery. One estimate says statistically 1,589 artillery rounds were fired to kill each Japanese soldier. Only 27 percent of the U. S. military in the war endured combat, according to Michael C. C. Adams in The Best War Ever. In 1944, a little more than 40 percent of overall strength in the U. S. Army was in combat troops. Of the 17.9-million American military personnel, 27 percent didn't leave the United States and less than 50 percent of those overseas were in a battle zone, according to Adams. The Defense Department says 38.8 percent of enlisted personnel had rear echelon assignments, such as administrative, technical, support or manual labor.

THE MYTH

Allied forces never targeted civilians and "collateral damage" was unheard of until much later wars.

THE REALITY

Despite the best efforts to prevent damage in civilian districts by using much riskier daylight bombing raids, only about 50 percent of American bombs fell within a quarter mile of their target, according to Adams. Allied planners also knew that civilians would die in the firebombing raids on Dresden, Germany, and on Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe in Japan. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in those raids top 300,000. Finally, another 190,000 to 230,000 Japanese died when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

THE MYTH

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to force Japan to surrender and prevent the deaths of 500,000 American troops expected in an invasion of Japan.

THE REALITY

Intelligence from as early as May 1945 shows the Japanese wished to surrender if there were guarantees that the emperor would be spared. The Joint War Plans Committee on June 18, 1945, stated an invasion of the mainland would claim 40,000 Americans, still a great loss of life. The consensus among U.S. historians is that the bombs were dropped to keep the Soviet Union out of the Pacific and to establish U. S. dominance in the postwar world. Recent Japanese research argues otherwise. Historian Sadao Asada of Kyoto says the Japanese military steadfastly refused to surrender even if, in the words of a navy official, it meant "sacrificing 20-million Japanese lives." Koichi Kido, one of Emperor Hirohito's closest aides, said, "We of the peace party were assisted by the atomic bomb in our endeavour to end the war."

Sources: The Best War Ever, America and World War II, by Michael C. C. Adams; New York Times; Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center; AP photos. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.