On the morning of September 1, 1939, a German battleship named Schleswig-Holstein standing 600 meters off the Polish coastal fort of Westerplatte, opened fire on the fort and began the Second World War. 2,193 days later, on September 2, 1945, the Second World War ended off the coast of Japan, as that nation surrendered on the deck of an American battleship named Missouri.
The Schleswig-Holstein was built in 1884 and was powered by coal when built. She had been converted to fuel oil in 1926, but was outdated by 1939, called up from training duties to hurl 11-inch shells at an equally outdated Polish fort. Schleswig-Holstein's antique guns were loaded by hand and aimed by optical sights, in a style used at Jutland or Tsushima, even recognizable to someone who had fought at Trafalgar.
The Schleswig-Holstein fired her shells at the Polish defenders and scored a number of hits, temporarily putting the fort out of commission. As German shells rained down on Westerplatte, neither side realized that both battleships and coastal forts would soon become obsolete, if not already.
The Missouri was launched in 1943, could steam at 27 knots, and bristled with 16-inch, 5-inch, and 40mm guns. They were sighted and aimed by radar, computers, and electronics, in a style that would be recognizable to men who fought - on the same ship - in the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
On what became known as Missouri's "Surrender Deck," nine Japanese diplomats and generals stood before the representatives of nine nations - not including Poland - and yielded their sacred homeland to a conqueror for the first time in Japan's thousand years of existence.
The space and time between those two battleships' actions marked the largest and most destructive event and conflict in human history. World War II began with biplanes, cavalry, and coal-fired warships. It ended with jet aircraft, napalm, and cruise missiles.
It opened with a horrifying lie - a faked attack on a Nazi radio station, complete with phony murdered "victims." It ended in a horrifying truth - the use of atomic bombs. It began as a dispute over German and Polish access to the Baltic Sea and ended in a struggle for control of the world's surface and the lives of millions of people. It started with a German attack on Poland and ended with crushing Anglo-American and Soviet attacks on Japan. There was no portion of or people in the world who went untouched by the war and its horrors. It was fought in every continent and every conceivable climate.
Gunfire was heard off the coasts of India, Italy, California, Japan, and Uruguay. Ships were sunk off the Philippines, Ireland, Nauru, the Galapagos, Cape Town, Murmansk, New Zealand, and South Carolina. Cities the size of London and Tokyo were ravaged by bombs. Bombs fell on Helsinki, Kunming, Mannheim, Genoa, Ploesti, Oregon, and Theydon Bois. Ancient cities like Rotterdam, Valletta, Coventry, Osaka, Hamburg, and Chungking were flattened by bombing and fire. Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dresden, Coventry, and Nagoya were all leveled. Warsaw alone was torn apart by four battles.
Obscure towns with unpronounceable names like Myitkyina, Bobruisk, Inkhangatawng, Nijmegen, Velikye Luki, Szekesfehervar, Habbaniyah, Suomussalmi, Aandelsenes, La Haye de Puits, and Msus Sceleicima became the epicenters of war. Unknown islands like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima emerged from obscurity to become legends. Battles were fought on Attu, Peleliu, Vaagso, Los Negros, Madagascar, Cebu, and Crete. The turning points of the war included such places as the Tennis Court, the Tennis Racket, Bomb Alley, Purple Heart Corner, the Admin Box, the Sea Horse, Marble Arch, Galloping Horse Ridge, the Pimple, and the Factory.
The war was fought on Golden Hill, Hangman's Hill, Scraggy Hill, Conical Hill, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Hill 209. At Bir Hakim and Minqar Qaim. At Red Beach, Apples Beach, X-Ray Beach, Peter Beach, and Sword Beach. On New Guinea, New Britain, and New Georgia. At Frankfurt-am-Main and Frankfurt-am-Oder. At Bastogne, Buna, Bande, and Brunei.
There was fighting at the Bzura, the Lofotens, and Oostkappelle. At St. Malo, St. Nazaire, Santa Cruz, and Cape St. George. There were battles to hold the Moerdijk Bridge, the Maungdaw Tunnels, the Adolf Hitler Bridge, the Schwammenauel Dam, the Catania Bridge, the Arnhem Bridge, and the Remagen Bridge. It was a war of epic siege in Leningrad and pinprick raids in Burma.
Obscure islands like Ascension, Ulithi, New Caledonia, and Iceland became massive air and naval bases. Mass murder took place at Belzec, Belsen, and Birkenau.. And some of the places were incarnated by war into unforgettable names that spoke of valor and suffering, like Stalingrad, Alamein, Oradour-sur-Glane, Lidice, and Bataan.
The battles to determine control of major portions of the world were fought hundreds and thousands of miles from the site in question. Australia's fate was decided at Guadalcanal and in New Guinea. The Persian Gulf's ownership was fought for in Libya and Stalingrad. Control of the Philippines was decided by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The Allied decision to invade France in 1944 was made in Iran in 1943. Japan's fate - and perhaps humanity's - was decided in a New Mexico desert. Decisions on battles fought in the Central Pacific Ocean were made from radio messages intercepted in England. Intercepted messages from Japanese diplomats determined the course of the war in Europe. And the battle for supplies was won in American factories.
Armies and navies launched immensely and increasingly complicated operations, whose codenames came from familiar words and became legends. Names like Torch, Iceberg, Mincemeat, Avalanche, Husky, Cobra, Market-Garden, Plunder, Olympic, and Overlord. Others remained obscure, even to the men who fought in them, like Hardgate, Ratweek, Tooth, Savannah, Hydra, Frantic Joe, Mars, Tungsten, Ambassador, Marita-Merkur, Totalize, and Tractable.
New names emerged to replace existing ones on maps, like Omaha Beach, Auschwitz, Liberty Highway, Ironbottom Sound, Massacre Valley, Hellfire Pass, the Golden Stairs, Henderson Field, Place Anthony McCauliffe, and the Atomic Dome.
On the anniversary of the largest surrender in its history, the United States set another surrender record in Bataan. Then it did so again, two years later, in the Ardennes. In that same year of 1944, the United States Army also fought and won the largest battles in its history in both of those places.
Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan all went to war to save or expand their empires. At the war's end, all four nations had lost their empires. In 1939 the United States was 15th on the list of armed forces in the world. In 1945, it was the most powerful nation on earth.
The war destroyed Nazism, Fascism, colonialism, and imperialism. It took racism out from obscurity and acceptance and made it an issue and then an abomination. It strengthened Communism and laid the seeds for Communism's destruction. It empowered women, Africans, Asians, Jews, and even Pacific Islanders, making them political forces in their home or adopted nations. When the British, French, and Dutch colonial powers reclaimed their lost colonies, they found the native populations ready to expel them.
The war ended the Great Depression and began the Cold War. It took men and women out of their homes and sent them around the world to enslave or liberate peoples whose existences had been unknown to them. It sent Canadians to fight in Hong Kong, Koreans to Normandy, Mexicans to the Philippines, Texans to Iran, Gurkhas to Ethiopia, and New Zealanders and Brazilians to Italy. German submarines sank Polish freighters carrying American supplies in the Indian Ocean. Rhodesian bomber pilots based in Russia flew attacks on German warships in Norway. West Africans fought Japanese in Burma, alongside Japanese-Americans, Britons, and Australians.
At times, the war became internal and civil. Poles fought each other in France and Italy. Frenchmen fought each other in Syria, Madagascar, and Chad. Chinese Communists fought Chinese Nationalists. Croatians hunted Serbs in Yugoslavia. Italian Partisans fought Italian Fascists in the Po Valley. The Germans fielded a "British Free Corps" of 50 renegades, while the Soviets came up with a "German Liberation Army" of three divisions, headed by a POW German field marshal. Greece fought a separate civil war of its own, which went on for years after V-E Day.
The war made allies out of enemies, and enemies out of friends. The Soviet Union started the war as an ally of Germany, then became an ally of America and Britain, and at war's end, confronted the Americans and British again, with the same real estate at stake the whole time.
American airmen in the Marianas were grateful for accurate weather forecasts from Communist guerrilla Mao Tse-Tung. Bulgaria found itself at war with both the Axis and the Allies for three days. Germany's last defenders included Danes, Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen, and even Britons.
The war divided and re-shaped nations. Poland moved its borders miles to the west. The flags of an independent Slovakia, Serbia, and Croatia briefly flew over their capitals. 60 years later, they would do so again. The monarchies of Hungary, Bulgaria, Manchuria, Rumania, and Yugoslavia all collapsed. There were three governments claiming to be the Republic of China, itself already torn by a civil war.
The war destroyed whole nations and man's great creations. Warsaw's largest skyscraper was blown apart in the city's third battle. Most of London's historic Inns of Court were destroyed, along with 50 Wren churches. The Monte Cassino Abbey, the Nagasaki Roman Catholic Cathedral, Hamburg's churches, all but one of Florence's historic bridges, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Tokyo hotel all fell to the war.
World War II lasted for six years. Some of its most decisive campaigns began the day the war started and only ended with the surrenders of Germany and Japan. London heard its first air raid alarm on September 3, 1939, and its last in April, 1945. The first U-Boat sinking took place hours after Britain's declaration of war and the last on May 7, 1945, hours before Germany's surrender.
The siege of Leningrad lasted for 900 days, the air battle of Berlin for an entire winter, the war in the North African desert for three years. They involved millions of men across vast tracts of land from many nations. Yet some of the greatest battles and campaigns of the war came down to short spaces and numbers. The Battle of Britain was fought by a few thousand airmen and lasted three months. The offensive that broke the German back at Stalingrad took two weeks. France's fate was sealed in one week, Poland's in days, The Netherlands' in hours. Two cities the size of Denver and Newark were erased in seconds. And the titanic naval battle off Midway Island, which settled the fate of the 1,000-year-old Japanese Empire, was decided in five minutes, by the actions of a few determined American naval aviators.
The war also created new ideas and materials to significantly help mankind, like penicillin, antibiotics, radar, electronics, blood plasma, multi-stage rockets, prefabricated ports, joint service operations, helicopters, synthetic fibers, submarine snorkels, air freight, modular construction, the GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, ballpoint pens, and the United Nations.
The world learned new words, like Blitzkrieg, Stuka, D-Day, Liberty Ship, Flying Fortress, escort carrier, Spitfire, Quisling, C-Ration, Lend-Lease, Displaced Person, "Blockbuster" bomb, DUKW, Kamikaze, and the Final Solution.
During World War II, technology took new strides, sometimes in useful directions, as in the development of anti-biotics. The world's first electronic computer was built secretly in England, used to break German codes. Atomic power, guided missiles, and jet aircraft all debuted in World War II.
Some directions were bizarre. Japan launched the largest aircraft carrier ever built. Seventeen hours into her maiden voyage, she became the largest warship ever to be sunk by a submarine. Birdwatchers learned of avian nocturnal habits from radar station logs. British scientists created a bomb that bounced across lakes, to destroy German dams. Other British scientists created tanks with flying drums that destroyed minefields.
A midget torpedo, manned by brave Italian officers, sank two British battleships. The British turned that technology into a midget submarine that crippled a German battleship and a Japanese cruiser. Germany developed miniature robot tanks. Japanese scientists created balloons that flew across the Pacific to drop bombs on America and Canada, killing an American family. Letters from American troops overseas were microfilmed to save space, revolutionizing the world of archivists and librarians.
The war divided people, homes, and families. Germans formed conspiracies to assassinate their Fuhrer. Even Hitler's favorite architect, who had bossed the Reich economy and probably kept Germany in the war, plotted his master's assassination. Mussolini had his son-in-law shot for treason. Hitler shot the chief of his storm troopers before the war, and arrested the head of his SS near the end of the war. Americans rounded up citizens of Japanese descent and imprisoned them without trial or warrant for three years. An American soldier invading Germany found his mother and brother still living in the family's home town, and the brother wearing a German army uniform.
British Member of Parliament Leo Amery's fiery rhetoric helped Winston Churchill take power, but Amery's son Julian led a group of British traitors in Berlin, ultimately facing the hangman's noose. Another American citizen, Iva Toguri, was forced to make propaganda broadcasts for the Japanese, and unwittingly became the symbol of a nonexistent person: "Tokyo Rose." American poet Ezra Pound, however, did broadcast for Mussolini, while Italian Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi built America's atomic bomb.
The British jailed leading anti-Nazi refugees. Stalin purged his generals before and after their great victories. Marshal Konstanin Rokossovsky won his greatest victories while under a temporarily suspended sentence of death. Germany's greatest fighting soldier was forced to commit suicide by his Fuhrer. An Englishman gained an Iron Cross as an SS fighter in the defense of Berlin. Japanese-Americans served as radio propagandists for one side, and as heroic infantrymen for the other.
The war also created unparalleled unities. America and Britain ended centuries of sparring and rivalry to form the closest alliance in history, which would continue down to the present day. American commanders led British troops into battle in North Africa, Anzio, and Okinawa. British commanders led Americans in Burma, the Rhineland, and Egypt, without rancor or bitterness. They supported each other's advances, stopped each other's retreats, sang each other's songs, tended each other's wounds, and buried each other's dead. In POW camps, American and British prisoners endured beatings and torture, and helped each other dig escape tunnels.
Not only did Britons and Americans find unity. Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians also forged powerful alliances with British and American forces in the heat of battle, fighting shoulder to shoulder in the Solomon Islands, North Africa, New Guinea, Italy, and across oceans and skies.
Regardless of their nation, total strangers, assigned to bombers, ships, infantry platoons, and tank battalions, formed brotherhoods in battle that were tighter and more important to them than their relationships with their wives, parents, and children. Together they shared fear, horror, danger, wounds, and death. They saw the realities and horrors of war together, scenes they could neither forget nor describe when they encountered concentration camps, starving civilians, and tortured POWs. Those who survived returned home, determined to make sure they and their descendants enjoyed happier and safer lives.
Men and women who had nothing in common but nationality and language formed into legendary units like the 506th Parachute Regiment, HMS Warspite, the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, USS Washington, Jagdgeschwader 26, Merrill's Marauders, KM Atlantis, the 92nd Infantry Division, IJN Amatsukaze, Panzer Lehr Division, the Tuskegee Airmen, the 6th Australian Division, KM Scharnhorst, the 7th Armoured Division, 617 Squadron, the Doolittle Raiders, the 100th Guards Division, or VT-8.
Many of them would never return from their shared odyssey, and many of those who did would return crippled in body, mind, or spirit. Some would spend decades dining out on their achievements, like Audie Murphy, Airey Neave, and Pappy Boyington. Some would use their achievements to vault to higher levels, like John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. And others would bottle them up for decades, only reliving their ordeal and releasing their pain in the evening of their lives, like Richard Winters and Hans Von Luck.
Of the major political leaders who began the war in power, only three would remain in 1945: Russia's Josef Stalin, China's Chiang Kai-Shek - living on borrowed time - and Japan's Emperor Hirohito, with the latter no longer a living god.
The war enhanced and created the reputations of many people: politicians, strategists, economists, and humanitarians. Harold MacMillan, Allen Dulles, Dean Acheson, Adlai E. Stevenson, Alger Hiss, George C. Marshall, Kim Philby, Charles De Gaulle, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all rose to prominence through the war.
Millions of people fought in or were caught up in the war, in every nation, even those who tried to stay out of it. Women became codebreakers, transport pilots, riveters, welders, guerrillas, spies, and even fighter pilots. 15-year-old boys dug coal in England, manned anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank rocket launchers in Germany, fought as partisans in Poland and Yugoslavia, became major league baseball players in the United States, and trained on suicide tactics in Japan.
Survival turned upon luck. The American destroyers Monssen and O'Bannon both fought their first battles at Guadalcanal, in the same engagement. The Monssen's combat career lasted seven minutes. The O'Bannon sailed through three years of bloody war without suffering so much as a scratch of paint. The light cruiser Phoenix survived the hegira of Pearl Harbor only to be sunk in 1982 under Argentine colors, by a British nuclear-powered submarine …using a torpedo designed in 1936.
A British general walked around the side of an American battleship to get a better view of a bombardment, and was fatally hit by a kamikaze plane. Another British soldier owed his survival as a POW to the fact that he was on the left-hand side of a road in France, not the right when he was captured. At Auschwitz, the casual flip of a German doctor's hand would determine whether an incoming prisoner would go to a work detail…or straight to the gas chambers.
Vast cities and facilities were built where thousands labored for years in absolute secrecy on projects considered vital to their governments…Oak Ridge in Tennessee; Bletchley Park in England; and Nordhausen in Germany. The first built the atomic bomb. The second broke the German codes. The third built Hitler's V-2 rockets.
The war took the lives of some of the world's most talented people, ignoring national boundaries and class distinctions. It killed American musician Glenn Miller, British actor Leslie Howard, American actress Carole Lombard, Polish educator Janusz Korczak, American journalist Ernie Pyle, and Japanese pitching ace Seiji Yazamura. It killed the Duke of Kent, Albert Speer's brother, and the eldest sons of Benito Mussolini, Joseph Kennedy, Josef Stalin, and Theodore Roosevelt. New York Governor Herbert Lehman and Massachusetts Senator Leverett Saltonstall mourned the deaths of their sons in action, as did Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's advisor. Hopkins himself would not last much beyond V-J Day.
400 years of Jewish history came to an end in Poland, but not before a Jewish army, for the first time in 1,000 years, took to the field of battle, fighting in Poland's capital.
The famous and the infamous made up the ranks of the warriors. Actor Jackie Coogan flew gliders in Burma. All four of Franklin D. Roosevelt's sons fought in battles in three different services. So did Stalin's son. And both of Mussolini's. Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart led bomber raids in Europe. Actor Jimmy Doohan lost a finger on D-Day. Charles Durning and Art Carney were wounded in Normandy. David Niven was an intelligence officer. Yogi Berra manned a landing craft off of Normandy, Bob Feller an anti-aircraft gun on a battleship. Warren Spahn and Ralph Houk both fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Kenneth More manned an AA gun on a heavy cruiser. Henry Fonda, Robert Montgomery, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. all served in the Navy, with much ballyhoo. So did Paul Newman and Jason Robards, with far less attention. Richard Todd fought in the assault on Pegasus Bridge in Normandy and then played the man who led the assault in a movie on the exact same subject. A future the Grand Dragon of Alabama's Ku Klux Klan fought on Guadalcanal. So did George Lincoln Rockwell, who would lead America's Nazi Party in the 1960s.
The war shaped the leaders of the next 50 years. John F. Kennedy's PT boat was sunk in the Solomons. Gerald Ford served on an American aircraft carrier. Nicholas de Katzenbach, a future US Attorney General, was a POW for two years. Naval aviator George Bush was shot down by Japanese planes. The Duke of Edinburgh served on a British destroyer, finishing up in Tokyo Bay for Japan's surrender. Creighton Abrams led the relief of Bastogne and, 30 years later, the retreat from Vietnam. Joe McCarthy staged photos of himself manning an aircraft's tail gun to jump-start his political career. Bob Dole and Daniel Inouye were both disabled by enemy gunfire in Italy. Ho Chi Minh led his Viet Minh against the French and the Japanese, and then the French again.
The war shaped the writing and creativity of James Jones, Norman Mailer, Ernie Pyle, Arthur Heller, Herman Wouk, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Lothar-Gunther Bechheim, Hermann Hesse, David Kenyon Webster, Andy Rooney, Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, Irwin Shaw, Leon Uris, Elie Wiesel, and Herman Kahn. Its terrors drove Virginia Woolf to her suicide, and years later, Primo Levi, to his.
The war changed the lives of millions of people. It made some men rich and others poor. Villains found redemption, while the well-meaning were crushed by events beyond their control. It created new families and destroyed old ones. Above all, World War II was not about technology, nations, politics, or even morality. It was about people, millions of them thrust onto a stage where their performances would shape the future of humanity. From the highest leader to the lowest private, civilian, or resistance fighter, all who lived through World War II would shape the war destiny and in turn be shaped by the war.
For a stamp-collecting German infantry major named Erwin Rommel, the war meant swift elevation from commanding Adolf Hitler's headquarters guard to leading a German army in Africa. He would gain a field marshal's baton and status as an enduring legend on both sides of the battlefield, before becoming a martyr, a traitor, and a forced suicide - all in the space of two years.
A short, unassuming, poker addict named Isoroku Yamamoto became the greatest naval strategist since Nelson, the unwilling and reluctant architect of the greatest naval victories in history - and the greatest defeats, ultimately being assassinated for a comment he never made.
A ruthless and squeamish chicken farmer and file clerk named Heinrich Himmler became the supreme head of the most powerful and sadistic police organization ever created, overseeing the cold-blooded murder of millions. And late in the war, he would try to use the lives of his helpless and brutalized prisoners as bargaining chips to save his life.
A quiet, taciturn New Zealand farmer would leave his home in Christchurch to lead his friends and neighbors in some of the most desperate battles of the war. On the Mediterranean island of Crete, Charles Hazlitt Upham earned a Victoria Cross. Then, a year later in Egypt, he would earn another one…and live to tell the tale.
An American automobile builder named Henry J. Kaiser, who knew nothing of ships and boats, would become the world's greatest shipbuilder, turning out one of the most decisive weapons of the war, the legendary Liberty Ship, sometimes in as little as seven days.
For a British solicitor named Airey Neave, World War II brought the shame of captivity, the exhilaration of escape from Germany's toughest POW camp, the struggle to free many of his countrymen from enemy captivity, and the reward of serving criminal indictments on Germany's highest-ranking leaders.
A German cavalry colonel and baron named Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the descendant of a famous German military family, grievously wounded in battle, became so appalled and horrified by Adolf Hitler's reign of terror, that he carried a bomb into a conference, intending to kill the Fuhrer, overthrow the government, and bring peace. He would fail in all three categories, losing his life…but saving Germany's honor.
A marble-playing little girl from The Netherlands named Anne Frank would spend the last years of her short life hiding from the Nazis in an attic, writing a diary that would become required reading for generations and a testament of unconquerable hope in the face of unimaginable terror.
An Australian doctor named Weary Dunlop would also keep a diary, recording the suffering and survival of himself and his fellow Prisoners of War as they labored to build the Railway of Death for the Japanese in Thailand.
No one knew the names of Bernard Montgomery, George S. Patton, or Omar N. Bradley in 1939, outside of their limited military profession. But by 1945 all three of these men would be recognized around the world as the leaders and symbols of their nations and causes. Their strategy and operational abilities would define the Allied victory, and their antipathies toward each other would color their postwar reputations and obscure their excellence as commanders.
Two American aviators, both record-holders and national legends, would face the war by taking absolutely opposite directions. One, Charles Lindbergh, became an outspoken supporter of the Nazis, denouncing the British and the Jews, and lost his reputation among the American people. The other, Jimmy Doolittle, led 16 Army Air Force crews on an air raid on Japan that would inflict virtually no damage - yet turn the tide of the war, and cemented his status as an American icon.
A South African fighter pilot named Roger Bushell, a top skiier who could spit an incredible distance, was shot down over France. In captivity, he became a greater threat to the Nazis than as a pilot, orchestrating the greatest mass POW escape in history, and paying for it with his life.
A walking and thundering paradox, General Douglas MacArthur presided over the cruelest retreat and greatest defeat in American military history. But through sheer determination, he would avenge that defeat in melodramatic fashion, becoming the symbol of Allied drive for victory in the Pacific and ultimately Japan's unlikely Mikado, leading that nation from feudalism to democracy.
German admiral Gunther Lutjens concealed his Jewish ancestry to lead Germany's greatest battleship on a nine-day chase across the Atlantic Ocean, which caused his own death and that of 2,500 other British and German sailors.
An obscure French general named Charles De Gaulle, who had penned a little-read book on armored warfare, took upon himself the mantle of France's shame to lead French resistance to Hitler. De Gaulle became the symbol of that resistance, and a massive thorn in the sides of his British and American allies and patrons.
Two Americans, one a philosophical left-wing scientist with ties to pacifist groups and Communist organizations, the other a bullying, ambitious, and ruthlessly effective brigadier general, would form an unlikely team, succeeding in building the most devastating weapon in history. Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer formed an alliance that ultimately re-defined man's control of his own planet.
An American admiral named Husband E. Kimmel helplessly stood and watched as Japanese planes destroyed his entire fleet, suffered the indignity of relief and demotion, the pain of losing his son when the Japanese sank his submarine, and spent the rest of his life explaining what happened at Pearl Harbor.
A Soviet general under a sentence of death named Konstantin Rokossovsky would emerge from an NKVD prison and beatings to become one of the world's greatest combat leaders, hurling millions of men across Eastern Europe to conquer whole nations and cities, with a ruthlessness designed to impress his superiors.
British civil servant John Anderson became the name for a home air-raid shelter that saved the lives of millions of his countrymen during the Blitz. Another civil servant, Lord Beveridge, wrote a report that shook the British social structure to its foundation, creating more changes than the Blitz.
A German general with the unlikely name of Erich Lewinsky became Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and ultimately one of the greatest military leaders in history, becoming a model for future generals, while earning the wrath of his Fuhrer.
American general Jonathan Wainwright endured the cruellest duty of any field-grade officer, forced to defend and surrender the Philippines, and then spend three years in Japanese captivity, suffering beatings for failing to bow and salute to privates, and fearing he would return home to face court-martial for surrendering his men.
Tomoyuki Yamashita, a Japanese general who could not drive his own car, conquered Singapore in 90 days, becoming the "Tiger of Malaya," only to be humiliated by his own country. Then he was defeated in the Philippines, and hanged as a scapegoat for the criminal acts of troops he had neither seen nor commanded.
A British general named John Dill, acclaimed as the Empire's best general since Marlborough, was denied field command, but instead assigned to coordinate the armed forces of his Empire with the United States. He would do that so successfully that when he died of overwork, he would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Young American naval officer John D. Bulkeley became a legend by carrying in his PT boat a four-star Army General, also a legend, from Corregidor to freedom. Two years later, he would help lead American forces into the invasion of France.
Joseph Goebbels, a club-footed writer with an over-active sex drive and a fascination with destruction would become the greatest propagandist in history, inventing and becoming the master of the term "The Big Lie," giving respectability to the bloody credo of Nazism.
Japanese fighter pilot Saburo Sakai shot down 40 planes and survived the loss of one eye to shoot down 40 more.
Another airman, the aloof, stuffy, introverted Hugh Dowding, fascinated by spiritualism, would create and lead the defense of Great Britain and the free world during the high summer of 1940. For his heroic efforts, he would be removed from his post by a cabal of disaffected subordinates.
Dwight D. Eisenhower started the war an obscure colonel on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, headed for retirement. He ended the war as the Supreme Commander, the leader of the greatest amphibious invasion in history, his broad grin the symbol and definition of the United States' and free world's determination to destroy tyranny.
Squadron Leader Guy Gibson became one of Britain's greatest war heroes, leading an improbable raid against Germany's major dams, at age 24, winning the Victoria Cross. Sixteen months later he would be dead.
Lt. Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese lieutenant, defined devotion to duty, when the Americans invaded the Philippines in 1944. With his troops in defeat, Onoda refused to surrender…and waged a one-man guerrilla war for 30 years.
Luigi de la Penne, a captain in the Italian Navy, used a "human torpedo" to sink a British battleship, and then receive his medal for doing so from the captain of that same British battleship.
Two men sharing similar names, Rudolf Hess, and Rudolf Hoess, entered infamy and wound up facing each other in a war crimes court. The first was one of Hitler's chief aides, who flew to England on a bizarre "peace" mission. The second was commandant of the world's greatest murder machine, Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
Herbert Werner and Ned Beach were two submarine officers - the first German, the second American - who survived years of exhausting underwater battles to sink enemy ships, rise to command their own submarines, and tell their stories.
Private Donald "Stoker" Watt sailed from his native Australia to fight in Greece and Syria, only to be captured. The Germans would send Watt to Auschwitz, in defiance of international conventions. There Watt would become a personal witness to the Holocaust, sweeping out the gas chambers of human bodies.
Vassili Zaitsev became the Soviet Union's sniper hero, haunting the blasted ruins of Stalingrad, waging a war within a war.
An American general would leap over 120 of his seniors to take over the United States Army. Under George C. Marshall's leadership, the tiny US Army became one of the most powerful instruments of war ever seen, defeating its enemies across the world. Austere, cold, and formal, Marshall created the most powerful army the world had ever seen, a well-supplied and mobile monolith that would destroy two major powers on opposing continents. He would maintain its fundamental faith in democracy and enhance the dignity of its soldiers, ensuring its essential humanity and values. Marshall would go on to become the only professional soldier ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
A Canadian colonel named Cecil Merritt stood on a bridge outside Dieppe, under heavy German machine-gun fire, helmet in hand, inspiring his troops to advance, receive a Victoria Cross, and survive the war.
Farmer and solicitor Howard Kippenberger, of Rangiora, New Zealand, commanded a New Zealand brigade in combat in Crete, Libya, Egypt, and Cassino, losing his feet to enemy mines, but gaining a national reputation for leadership.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, a lightweight fixture of the upper-crust social world, became a movie-star icon when his destroyer was sunk in battle. Then as Chief of Combined Operations developed the techniques that enabled the Allies to invade Normandy, and ultimately led the re-conquest of Burma and triumph in Malaya.
Hulking, scar-faced, Vienna-born, Otto Skorzeny became the "Most Dangerous M an in Europe" with spectacular commando feats like the rescue of Mussolini, the overthrow of Admiral Horthy, and the use of Germans in American uniform in the Battle of the Bulge.
Mitsuo Fuchida led Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, survived the disaster at Midway, and flew one of the first planes into Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.
Dick O'Kane commanded an American submarine into battle against the Japanese Navy, sinking an average of one ship every 11 days, before his submarine itself was sunk. Yet O'Kane survived combat and captivity to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. So did another American in the Pacific, the legendary Greg Boyington, a Flying Tiger and Marine aviator, who suffered the same fate of surviving captivity to gain his own Medal of Honor.
There were obstinate men like Pierre Clostermann of France, Tom Derrick of Australia, Keith Elliott of New Zealand, Michael Wittmann of Germany, who defined heroism. There were obstinate women too, like Noor Inayat Khan of India, Vivian Bullwinkel of Australia, and Odette Samson of Belgium.
Baron Max von Aufsess was assigned to the most bizarre duty of the Wehrmacht in the entire war: Head of Civil Affairs for the occupied Channel Islands from 1944 until the end of the war. Cut off from Germany, dependent on Red Cross parcels, Von Aufsess struggled to maintain the German occupation up to the last hour of the war.
Pilots Johnnie Johnson, Alan Deere, Evan Mackie, came from diverse backgrounds to lead the British Empire's fighter aircraft in heroic battles over Europe.
A Swedish count and diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, dropped his studied neutrality to save the lives of thousands of Jews from Hitler's butchers, only to vanish into the prisons of another ruthless dictator.
A British officer named John Frost led his paratroopers into a raid on a German radar station, a town in North Africa, and the defense of two vital bridges against all odds, being wounded and captured after the second one.
America's Richard Winters won the loyalty of his company of paratroopers, to lead them into battle and victory, over and over again, becoming a legend 60 years later.
So would his men, ordinary Americans with names like Don Malarkey, George Luz, Bill Guarnere, Jake Powers, and Babe Heffron, who would emerge as celebrities six decades after performing the deeds that created their renown.
Friedrich Paulus commanded the largest army Germany ever fielded into the most vicious urban battle in history, before being surrounded. After seeing his army destroyed by starvation, cold, and Soviet troops, he led an anti-Nazi force of renegade Germans, and never saw his beloved wife again.
Two professional officers, Kurt Meyer and Harry Foster, the first a German Waffen SS general, the second a Canadian Army brigade commander, would face each other twice: the first time across a battlefield in Normandy, the second time at Canada's only war crimes trial, with Meyer charged with murdering Canadian POWs, and Foster as his judge.
Two other professional naval officers, Charles Butler McVay III of the United States and Mochitsura Hashimoto of Japan faced each other in mortal combat twice: first when Hashimoto's submarine sank McVay's heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, and later that same year when Hashimoto testified in the court-martial of McVay, which blamed McVay for the deaths of 600 men after that cruiser sank…and was not recorded as missing for five days.
Steelworker William Joseph Slim rose from the rank of private, defying Britain's class structure to become commander of Britain's "Forgotten Army" in Burma, leading it to a smashing victory over the Japanese, despite having two corps surrounded by the enemy.
Sefton "Tommy" Delmer, A British journalist who had gained a unique exclusive from Adolf Hitler in 1933 would lead and define the Allied black propaganda effort against Germany, infuriating the Nazi regime and breaking German morale.
An architect from Wurttemberg, Albert Speer, became Hitler's architect and designer, turning Hitler's vision of the Nazi state into imposing and intimidating physical realities and models. He then operated the German war economy, maintaining the Nazi war effort, ignoring the equally harsh reality his work created: the abuse and starvation of millions of slave laborers.
A stuttering professional naval officer, George VI, forced by his elder brother's self-centeredness to assume the throne of the British Empire, became the visible embodiment of that Empire's determination to defy and defeat its enemies.
Profane, argumentative, already suffering the stomach cancer that would kill him, Joseph Stilwell was assigned to the cruelest duty of any top commander of World War II, chief of staff to Chiang Kai-Shek. But Stilwell's intelligence and obstinacy would help keep China in the war and win the Burma campaign.
But Stilwell found his greatest nemesis not in the corruption of Chiang Kai-Shek's regime but in an equally stubborn, talented, and capable countryman: legendary aviator Claire Chennault, who led the Flying Tigers into legend.
British Army Chaplain J. Ellison Platt refused to leave his wounded men at Dunkirk, and wound up in the top German POW camp in Colditz, struggling to maintain the spirits and sanity of himself and his fellow POWs.
Two British officers, Peter Young and Lord Lovat, faced the outbreak of war with a desire to achieve something higher than ordinary soldiering. They would do so as British Commandos, storming ashore at Dieppe and Normandy.
Cold, self-serving and manipulative, Joseph Stroop of Lippe would change his first name to the more "Germanic" Jurgen, become a high-ranking SS officer, and a mass murderer of the first order, crushing the Warsaw Ghetto, liquidating partisans, and butchering American POWs. Unlike many of his colleagues, even in defeat and prison, he would remain proud of his misdeeds, bragging about them to his two cellmates, one of whom would record his savage life as a warning to posterity.
German fighter aces like Adolf Galland and Johannes Steinhoff battled the British and Americans in the air and their own high command as the war drew on, ultimately serving in the Luftwaffe's elite jet fighter unit.
Ten times wounded in World War I, a veteran of Pancho Villa's army, a former dentist, Victoria Cross recipient Bernard Freyberg became the phlegmatic and popular leader of New Zealand's expeditionary force, and commander of arguably the best division in the Allied armies.
Two American soldiers would meet exactly opposite fates and destinies a short distance and a short time from one another. On January 24, 1945, Audie Murphy, a young Texan, would leap on a burning tank destroyer and personally fend off a violent and heavy German attack near Colmar, saving his company, and earning himself the Medal of Honor, and becoming the most decorated soldier in American history. On January 31, 1945, at St. Marie Aux-Mines, Eddie Slovik, a young Michigander, would also face bullets, fired at him by fellow Americans, becoming the first American shot for desertion since the Civil War, the only one to suffer such a fate in World War II. America's unique soldiers were separated by only a few miles, but their fates were separated by light-years.
A Norwegian fishing boat captain named Leif Larsen sailed his boat into a Norwegian fjord, carrying two British midget submarines to attack a German battleship. Within sight of the goal, he lost the submarines, before they could go into action.
Porcine in appearance, flamboyant in manner, grasping in nature, Hermann Wilhelm Goering was Germany's Reichmarshal, head of the Luftwaffe, boss of the Three-Year Plan, and founder of the concentration camps. His mental capacity diminished by cocaine, he would lead the Luftwaffe to catastrophe. At the very end of the war, he faced arrest first by Hitler, then by the Allied powers. Freed from drugs, he mounted a lucid defense of his Reich, then cheated the hangman with the connivance of a Texas-born US Army captain.
A cunning, detail-oriented army general with a love for Byzantine plots and for clearing his desk became the Prime Minister of Japan and the driving force behind its conquest of Asia. His failure to hold Japan's gains would lead to Hideki Tojo's dismissal from power, botched suicide attempt, and hanging after a controversial war crimes trial.
Named for Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez, Benito Mussolini became the strutting dictator of an unwilling nation, forcing his people into needless and losing battles in the Balkans, North Africa, and Russia. He aspired to make the world tremble. Instead, his own people ousted him from power, shot him, and hanged his corpse upside down.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a patrician son of a domineering mother, now living in a loveless marriage, who overcame polio and his own wealth to become the idealistic spokesman for the world's leading democracy, leader of its war effort, and then the champion of a democratic and humane world.
A cobbler and bomb-making revolutionary from Georgia dominated his nation with unbelievable terror and murder. Yet Josef Stalin unified his people through four years of war and 20 million dead to defeat Germany and establish the Soviet Union as one of the world's two superpowers.
A poorly-educated Austrian artist and one-time police spy would become the absolute ruler of all Europe, the most feared and hated man in the world. But to his inner circle, Adolf Hitler would be a domestic autocrat and dilettante who kept his cronies bored and awake for hours on end with his flatulence, body odor, and endless know-it-all diatribes against Communists, Britons, and most of all, Jews.
Above all, a pug-shaped, indomitable Englishman, whose people had rejected his leadership and ignored his counsel for 20 years, would take command of Britain's fading Empire at its greatest hour of peril, inspire her far-flung peoples, invoke her traditions, mobilize its language, and send them into victorious battle. Winston Churchill would define the war as no other leader would, forge the greatest coalition in history, and lead that alliance to victory, only to be again rejected and removed from power by his own people.
These…and millions of others would take their hour upon the stage of World War II. 46 million of them would strut and fret for a very short time, before their candle went out.
It was the Second World War, and it was the greatest epic in the history of humanity.
This is how it was…