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Letters From Readers - February 2008 - World War II

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: December 10, 2007 
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How the War Was Won

During World War II, Soviet forces suffered a staggering death rate of nearly 50 percent ("Who Really Won the War?" October 2007). This was not a heroic sacrifice, but one of the greatest acts of mass murder in the history of warfare. The Japanese army "human wave" losses in the Pacific theater, as well as those of the Red Chinese in the Korean War, have been rightly defined as suicidal. Soviet losses can be similarly described. Why is the fanaticism of the Red Army seen as patriotism? Stalin issued numerous orders to "stand and fight to the last man" when strategic withdrawal would have been more sensible and certainly more humane. This do-or-die trait he shared with Hitler. Stalin's Order Number 270, issued August 16, 1941, stated that in case of surrender, all officers involved were to be shot on the spot and all enlisted men threatened with total annihilation as well as possible reprisals against their families. Retreating soldiers, or even those who hesitated, were to be shot by rear guard units of the NKVD.

No objective student of battle would ever underestimate the huge sacrifices, in both human and material terms, that the USSR made during the war. But the inescapable conclusion one must draw is that a high percentage of these sacrifices were both needless and avoidable.

Gabriel Benzur
via e-mail

I was a child survivor of the war in Shanghai, China, when the Japanese occupied the city on December 8, 1941, and which the U.S. Army subsequently liberated in the latter part of August 1945, so I have a different take on the war.

With the possible exception of the relatively minor British involvement in the China-Burma-India theater, the United States was the only Allied power simultaneously fighting two separate and mighty conflicts: the European theater and the Pacific theater.

The tremendous distances in the Pacific required the kind of massive effort that only the United States could muster. Imagine for a moment if the United States did not have to fight in the Pacific. All those ships and men would have been brought to Europe that much sooner, and the Normandy invasion could conceivably have occurred a year earlier. And speaking of which, and without in any manner diminishing the Red Army's heroic efforts, it never had to face as difficult an operation as Overlord.

I was privy to see a small slice of the gigantic American war effort in Shanghai, and much of the Red Army's material success was due to the thousands upon thousands of jeeps, trucks, and other war materiel furnished to the Red Army through Lend-Lease.

Leon Jedeikin
Montreal, Canada

Disregarding Davies's frivolous and irrelevant example of British greatcoats, it is true that Lend-Lease tanks and aircraft occupied only a small place in the Soviet force structure, but that was not the most important part of Lend-Lease. Lend-Lease delivered hundreds of thousands of radios and trucks, without which the Soviet army could not have fought a modern, mobile war, and Lend-Lease deliveries of raw materials were vital to the Soviet war effort. To take a few examples from Mark Harrison's excellent book, Accounting for War, in terms of 1944 Soviet domestic output, Lend-Lease supplied 100 percent of rubber output, 40–81 percent of various nonferrous metals, 32–50 percent of various chemicals used for explosives, 50 percent of paper, 33 percent of meat products, and 37 percent of aviation fuel. Both sides of the alliance were critical. Without either side, victory over Germany would have taken longer and been much more costly.

Gary Dickson
Bucharest, Romania

The article by Norman Davies is totally accurate. The only thing I would add is that the United States had the tremendous advantage of not entering into combat until after the other nations had already taken a severe toll on the Axis military. If the U.S. military, even the one of 1944, had gone head-to-head with the German army of 1940, and the USSR sat out the war for three more years, it would have been a different story. I do not diminish at all the sacrifice and determination of the American servicemen, but they were fighting an enemy that was already suffering and was more concerned with the enemy to the East than the one to the West.

Robert C. Tugwell
Belton, S.C.

Certainly, Stalin's record stains the Allies. Yet when one considers the entire war, including the war in Asia, it remains clear that in an overall sense the Allies did represent "good" and the Axis certainly stood for "evil." American veterans can justifiably take pride in having fought for a just cause. In addition, when one again considers the entire war, the contribution of the United States to the defeat of the Axis looms very large. The liberation of the Asian continent from the brutal Japanese occupation improved the lives of far more people than any contribution made by other nations in the war.

For myself, I have always felt that the question posed by Davies in the title of his article can be answered by recognizing that the British Empire defeated Italy, the Soviet Union defeated Germany, and the United States defeated Japan. While the Allied effort certainly failed to banish evil from the world, the efforts of the American people are an accomplishment that future generations will admire and appreciate.

Paul Buxbaum
Charlottesville, Va.

A Familiar Face

I have been enjoying World War II magazine for several years, but the October issue was a very big surprise when I looked at page 23 at the workers coming out of the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond and saw my grandfather, Joseph Leo Riley. I was six years old then, and I remember him talking about working in the shipyard. He passed away in 1966. I am sure he would have enjoyed seeing the picture—I know I did. Thank you very much.

Larry Riley
Enid, Okla.

The Good German

Your report on Stalag Luft III ("Portfolio," October 2007) reminded me of the following story: I went through my internship at the Tacoma General Hospital, together with several other interns from various countries. Fritz H., from Germany, was an extremely jovial person who openly discussed his past.

One time when the interns were at lunch with the residents in anesthesia, Fritz told us about how he had been drafted in 1945, at the age of seventeen, into a German antiaircraft gun emplacement, just outside Berlin. When we asked whom they were shooting at, he replied, "During the day, mostly American B-17s."

One resident across the table asked him, "Do you remember which month in 1945?" The answer was, "Yes, February through April, and by then a Russian grenade hit our gun emplacement circled by sandbags. I was blown out of the circle and was unharmed but quite deaf."

The resident turned pale and said, "My God, I flew a B-17 over Berlin during that period and you were shooting at me!"

Deep silence followed, and everybody held his breath. Only the noises of the surrounding tables could be heard. After some minutes, Fritz said, "Thank God I did not hit you. I was just following orders and I did not belong to the Hitler-Jugend. My dad was a music professor and kept me out of it."

The resident stood up and reached his hand over the table, saying, "Fritz, those were bad times. We both are alive and I hope we can work together." Fritz grabbed the outstretched hand with both of his, and with tears in his eyes, said, "Yes, I want to be friends." Again several minutes of utter silence surrounded our table and we interns were speechless.

This unforgettable scene stayed with me for the rest of my life. Fritz was a real nice person, very well liked, who wanted to stay here but returned to Germany to get married. He brought his wife to Tacoma, but she insisted they go back, as she was unable to get used to this country.

J. K. Stutterheim
Lakebay, Wash.

Generosity, Grace in Iwo Jima Letter Exchange

It was refreshing to read the exchange of letters between Eileen Judd and Bert Rutan (Mail, November 2007) regarding the identity of a GI in a famous photograph of Iwo Jima. In an age when ego and possessiveness often rule, this sets the standard on how we should resolve such questions: with grace, honesty, humility, and generosity.

Even if we never know the true identity of that wounded soldier, we do know that the spirit and values that motivated millions of Americans to rise to our defense still live on in the survivors of that war and their families. Both Ms. Judd and Mr. Rutan are class acts.

In the end, those two soldiers represent all the sacrifices that were made by all the men and women who served to protect our freedom. As an aging boomer whose father served in the war, I look at that photograph and see a legacy that we all can commemorate and take pride in.

John Mazor
Ashburn, Va.

The 88's Italian Twin

James Corum's otherwise excellent article on the German 88, while making reference to analogous French, British, and U.S. weapons, failed to mention the equally deadly Italian Model 39/41 dual-purpose 90/53 gun. It was used to good effect by the Italians in North Africa and Sicily, and it is highly probable that at least some accounts of Allied tanks being destroyed by the German 88 have confused it with the Italian 90/53, as its overall configuration was quite similar to that of the 88. Although the Italians fielded only modest numbers of this superb weapon, they did go the Germans one better, at least in theory, by mounting the system on either Lancia or Breda trucks. Mobility, however, was poor, and the high silhouette of the truck-mounted guns made them inviting targets. One officer I spoke to many years ago who served in Sicily put it very succinctly, stating, "Once a tank was in our sights, it was dead." Ultimately, all thirty systems were destroyed or captured. The sole surviving example, captured in Sicily, is located at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen, Maryland.

Ralph Riccio
Elverson, Pa.

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