In 1939, the American Army was about the world’s 20th largest army, but it began to grow very rapidly after Hitler declared war on America. The draft was reintroduced, and as enormous number of men volunteered for service because of their own sense of outrage about Pearl Harbor. And this rearmament ended the Great Depression.
Rejection Rate in Army
Just as in the First World War, the army had found that many men were unfit to serve because of various health defects, so again it discovered that healthcare improvements in the intervening years had been so slight that many men who wanted to fight were simply incapable of doing so.
Here’s a little quotation from the historian Jeffrey Parrot, written in the 1980s, and looking back at the Second World War:
By setting its minimum requirements low, the army expected to keep the rejection rate at about 20 percent. During the defense crisis period of early 1942, they required only a minimum height of five feet, a minimum weight of a 105 pounds, correctable vision, half the natural teeth, no flat feet, no hernias, no venereal disease. Not a very exacting set of requirements for a rich modern nation, but rejections were running as high as 70 percent in some areas in 1941, and the overall rate was 50 percent. Bad teeth and bad eyes were the two chief causes for rejection, and they could all too often be traced to malnutrition.
Japan’s Attack on Clark Field in the Philippines
The American military encountered a series of bruising defeats in 1941 and early 1942. The Americans had been a military presence in the Philippines ever since the beginning of the century, and of course the news of the Pearl Harbor attack got to the Philippine bases, but even so, the commanders there didn’t take obvious precautions.
At Clark Field in the Philippines, the American military aircraft were lined up right next to one another, with the result that the next day a Japanese air attack destroyed most of them in the space of a few minutes.
An American serviceman named Anton Billack recalled:
We looked around and saw this devastation—airplanes burning, hangars burning, gas trucks on fire, men yelling and screaming, wounded and dead men all over the place. Japanese fighters followed in the bombers, about 80 of them, just strafed everything that stood. After it was over, we were kind of in shock. ‘This shouldn’t happen to us.’ We were Americans. They were Japanese. They weren’t supposed to bomb us. This is the way we were talking about it. We were always told that they wore glasses, that they didn’t have a decent bomb site, and that they didn’t have a navy to amount to anything—that they were using our scrap metal and oil. We always thought that way. Jesus Christ, how the hell did this happen?
Anton Billack gives a wonderful sense of the horrified amazement with which these American military personnel had survived the raids and looked at what was suddenly happening to them. They were completely unprepared for it.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Bataan Death March
The American forces in the Philippines were defeated by an invasion of Japanese troops, and then force-marched to prisoner of war camps after a bitter rear guard at Bataan. What became known as the ‘Bataan Death March’ was one of the first great events of the war whose memory lingered and embittered relations between the Americans and Japanese during the fighting.
There was no prospect of relief for the garrison at Bataan, because relief plans that had been made required a force to sail from Pearl Harbor, but Pearl Harbor itself had been severely damaged.
American Prisoners of War
The Bataan Death March had a galvanizing effect on American public opinion. The Japanese themselves regarded the warrior code of the Japanese army as disgraceful and shameful to be taken prisoner in war, and the Japanese were not signatories to the Geneva Convention, which specified the way in which prisoners of war were supposed to be treated.
This meant that the suffering of American prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese was much greater than that of Americans and other Allied servicemen who fell into the hands of the Germans, and became one of the sources of bitter national and racial antagonism between the two sides.
America’s ‘Total War’
General MacArthur, the commander in the Philippines, who was ordered off the island before it fell by President Roosevelt, swore, “I shall return,” and his promise to go back to the Philippines again was one of the great propaganda moments of the war, which eventually he was able to fulfill.
The Japanese had totally misread America’s resolve, which became steely hard after Pearl Harbor. Far from making terms, the United States resolved on ‘total war’, and the utter defeat of the enemy. For Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, it was a source of great relief, by the Christmas of 1941, that now the Americans were on his side.
Common Questions about the Attack on Pearl Harbor
During the defense crisis period of early 1942, the army required only a minimum height of five feet, a minimum weight of a 105 pounds, correctable vision, half the natural teeth, no flat feet, no hernias, and no venereal disease.
The American forces in the Philippines were defeated by an invasion of Japanese troops, and then force-marched to prisoner of war camps after a bitter rear guard at Bataan. It became known as the ‘Bataan Death March’.
The Japanese were not signatories to the Geneva Convention, which specified the way in which prisoners of war were supposed to be treated. This meant that the suffering of American prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese was much greater than that of Americans and other Allied servicemen who fell into the hands of the Germans