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Old Guy

Battle of the Bismark Sea

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After repeated air strikes by B-17s, A-20s and B-25s, all of the Japanese transports were sunk or sinking. Most of the destroyer escorts were sunk or damaged.

Many, if not most of the attack bombers were gunned-up versions of the A-20 and B-25 sporting eight or more .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and fuselage blister mounts.

The battle had been made possible by Allied intercepts and code-breaking extending over a period of months -- something that historians writing just after the war did not take into account. All elements of the attack force had conducted practice raids and had had extensive briefings on the Japanese force.

At the time of the battle, the 5th Air Force had been locked in bloody combat with enemy forces in and around New Guinea since shortly after the beginning of the war. No Allied flyer was under any illusions about the caliber of Japanese fighting men or about the savage resistance such men almost always put up before being killed. Though Allied ground forces took prisoners when the opportunity arose, many ground troops routinely gave no quarter in combat with Imperial forces.

It's easy to understand the infantryman's attitude. Japanese officers routinely drove their soldiers to fanatical actions. The Bushido code of 'no surrender' and an attitude of no mercy toward their enemies soon convinced Allied soldiers that they could expect nothing from Japanese defenders but bullets and bayonets.

They responded in kind.

But what about the airmen? As Allied forces moved across New Guinea, they discovered the remains of downed Allied flyers the Japanese had summarily executed -- often by beheading. Such evidence of atrocities along with heavy Allied casualties suffered at the hands of Japanese troops, made Allied fliers acutely aware of the need to stop the flow of reinforcements to enemy positions.

So -- put yourself in their place. Allied airmen, mostly American, though if I recall correctly, some Dutch and Australian pilots were on the scene. Aussies in Beaufighters, I think and the Dutch in B-25s. There were also covering fighters -- Australian and American P-40s and Ami P-38s.)

The transports are sunk or sinking and the protecting destroyers have been sunk or driven off. Thousands of Japanese troops and sailors are in the water. Several islands are close at hand. Most of the men will make it to land -- unless somebody kills them.

Do you strafe the men in the water? Or not?

Jim

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Jim,

To answer your question, one could write a hundred thousand words of philosophical musings about the ethics and ramifications of strafing helpless soldiers. There's a multitude of layers to consider: how does a nation conduct itself in war? how does an individual soldier who may have had a buddy summarily executed conduct himself? how do we treat enemy soldiers who are mere pawns in the greater struggle? How do we treat soldiers who have basically been brainwashed by a megalomanic? Should we waste ammo on someone who'll probably drown?

I think the answer is that it's up to the individual soldier as to whether he strafes or not. If his commanding officer says, "Strafe 'em boys!" that soldier can do as he's told and shoot to kill, or he can do as many soldiers do in war and shoot, but purposely miss (this was proven true in Europe where many allied soldiers simply missed on purpose...bizarre, but true).

The decision to kill mano e mano has always been a personal decision. That's why countries like to make giant bombs that kill the multitudes wholesale thereby making such troubling ethical considerations moot.

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Doug, you're right about the infantry in Europe intentionally missing, well either intentionally missing or never never pulling the trigger, the book "Closing With the Enemy" has a whole chapter devoted to that. US and British soldier fighting Germans and Italians that is, no bets on the Germans and Soviets, or the Poles when they got into Italy and France.

The psychology of it is pretty interesting, mostly the Western Allies and the Germans and Italians didn't really hate one another for most of the war, at least not in a blind rage sort of hate way. Sure guys hated "ze Germans" if they saw their best friend shot and killed by them and vice versa but there wasn't the viceral hatred on a mass scale between the combatants in the ETO for most of the war the way there was on the Eastern Front or the Pacific. And on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific that hate made soldiers on both sides go further than they normally would.

The attack on Pearl Harbor and then the stories of how the Japanese fought and acted in places like Wake and Bataan made the US soldiers really hate the enemy, the Japanese had a hatred for all things non-Japanese through their nationalistic indoctrination. That made the war in the PTO very bloody and very merciless. So I understand if troops there went to excess, they had a predispsition to hate the enemy more than in some wars and places, and that added to what they'd seen firsthand of what the enemy was capable of just increased the killing urge. So if pilots strafed Japanese surviviors of sinkings (and some of our subs did the same) it's open to debate on how wrong it was but what the circumstances were that lead to it have to be factored in, and that's really something that can't be done with any degree of certainty. Using modern moral and ethical considerations to guage actions in history is a slippery slope, yes there is a "right" and "wrong" but there's a whole host of circumstances that one has to have experienced to say how right or how wrong something was. If that makes sense.

Americans usually don't Hate (with a capital H) their enemies in wartime. The Pacific was one of those instances where they did, the closest prior thing to the level of hatred that the US troops in the PTO had towards their enemies would probably be the Civil War.

But to answer your question Jim, would I strafe them in the water if I was a pilot of that time with the attitudes of the time towards that enemy...Probably yes. But I couldn't say for sure becuase I'm not in that actual situation. Kinda a cop out, but just the way I see it.

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OK, the Jarhead in me is going to answer this one as a leader of young Marines that I once was.

A country goes to war to fight and win. The Japanese and Germans did not enter WWII to lose. So, you fight TO win. Will a majority of the troops reach land or are they shark bait? If that majority reaches shore, what kind of threat will they pose? Will they be armed? If not, will they still fight?

If what I learned about the Japanese through reading and being stationed there tells me anything, it is that if they reached shore, all other answers would be a resounding yes.

We're now back to "fight to win". Will my strafing troops in the water assist the grunts on the ground? Will this assist in the overall conduct of the current operation? I would have to answer yes. Could I or would I strafe troops in the water or order men to do the same? The cold-sided warrior in me says hell yes you do what ever you can to help win a fight. Or, as my ole pappy would have said, "you beat him down till he aint gettin back up."

This raises another issue. Paratroopers. Would you shoot a paratrooper still in the chute on the way down? The "convention" says you don't. Didn't stop the Germans on D-day nor during Market Garden or the drop into Germany to assist the northern push into Germany. Germans seemed to have no qualms to machinegunning troops hanging in parachutes. Is it different? Some would say yes, but I'll respectfully disagree. A fighting man is a fighting man period. Whether he faces you on an open field, sighting in on you with a scope, dropping in by chute, or even floundering around in the surf.

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Pretty much also have to agree with what Skipper said, if you're fighting a war you try to win the war. Pretty obvious most of the time but some people forget and need reminded now and then. ;)

That's one of the interesting things about history, sometimes the changes in attitudes as they shift over time towards historical events are more interesting than the actual events themselves. If you want to know about something like British values and mentality of the early 1900s for example, I've found that picking up a history book written at the time is far more effective than picking up something like a modern book called "British Mentality of the Early 1900s". You can learn more about people by what they say and write than you can by someone studying them from afar no matter how learned they appear on the subject it seems like, which is why I never knock the "hokey" WWII era movies made at the time, they're very insightful to me.

But I'm probably just weird like that.

:D

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It's not a question of "would" but "did" they. The answer is yes concerning the Japanese. Allied pilots would and did. Most Pacific pilots asked shot to kill against the Japanese. Every American pilot knew about the atrocities and beheadings by the Japanese had no problems strafing "helpless" enemies.

In Europe it was not at all the same perspective. The Japs were seen as inhuman where the Germans "seemed' more like us. Though I recall Bob Johnson talking about a combat with a German that was "an old hand" and when the guy put a leg out on the wing to bail, Johnson slammed him with fifties rationalizing "if he had returned to combat he would have downed more American planes."

Dunno.gif

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Twitch,

Yes, they did strafe men in the water. I took OG's post to mean for me to put myself in a pilot or commander there and what would I do then. I have to answer as a cold war-fighter and say yes, I do and call down anyone with ammo to do the same. I won't even attempt to rationalize or give some psycho-babble about why nor would I (I hope not at least) use past events and attrocities to condone my actions. War is a brutal undertaking and once a nation takes those steps down that path, it's warriors must do and face some horrible things.

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During one of the battles surrounding the Guadacanal campaign, US fighters, both Marine and Navy, repeatedly strafed troops in the water. Failing to do so, would have resulted in these troops getting ashore, and joining those in the struggle for Henderson field. I got this info from "The Big E". The pilots, while upset that they had to kill helpless troops in the water, by the hundreds, reasoned that in some ways it was a mercy, since they were being attacked by sharks at the same time. Either way, the troops had to die, whether outright on the transports and destroyers, or individually, in the water..but far better that, then trying to take a Marines life in the bloody jungles of Guadacanal.

Boats

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Interesting comments.

As a getting-long-in-the-tooth Old Guy, I look back at the events of that 1943 battle and am saddened by the viciousness shown by both sides, but - I hasten to point out - instigated by the Japanese.

If, however, I were in one of those A-20s, looking down at the mass of swimming enemy soldiers, I would not be operating from any perspective familiar to Old Guy. That me would strafe the bastards until my ammo ran out.

I wonder how the Pacific war would have gone if the Japanese had handled prisoners according to the Geneva Convention, repatriated all interned civilians, and allowed Red Cross contact with prisoners?

Jim

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The warrior in me says to light them up. Like has been said it is war and it isn’t right what they did, so stick it to them.

The humanitarian in me says no. If I do that, I am lowering myself to their level. How can a swimming soldier fight a Corsair? He can’t. No more than a POW with tied hands can fight against a sword cutting his head off.

I am sure given the time and the place I would as many did and fire on the men. In reflection would I see it as just or right? I don’t think so. I think back on some things in the past of my career and think some really pushed the lines of right and wrong.

I wonder how many WWII vets suffered from trauma due to such situations?

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I wonder how many WWII vets suffered from trauma due to such situations?

Harder times and harder men Shep. I'm sure they had their demons, I know my father did, but he didn't show it and didn't complain about it.

Right or wrong isn't the question. I look at it this way. If I were sitting in a jungle waiting for the next banzia attack and I know that more of the enemy is coming in on ships and even if the ships are sunk the men may survive and that their survival may mean the difference of me having a moments respite or being over-run and killed myself, I'd be praying that airmen would do everything in their power to keep as many of them from getting to the beach as possible.

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I agree 100% with it all. As a warrior you do as is needed to ensure victory. I wanted to just say there is always a small personal cost for such victories.

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Agreed Shep.

USMC....U Signed the Mother-lovin Contract. You have to expect personal costs.

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A bit late here but I have a little to add.

War is what we do when no other means of logic, discussion, or compromise work. At that point you do what you have to do to win because your way of life is threatened and nothing else can help save it. War is unfair and might makes right and there is no such thing as a fair fight. If you fight fair you put yourself at a disadvantage. Shooting a paratroper on the way down, shooting down a transport plane, strafing men in the water all mean less of your own are going to die. It is not fair in any way on an individual level and it is probably best to forget about the very concept of "fair" if you want to secure advantages. If you were to fight fair there would be no flanking manuvers, no sneak attacks, no code breaking. I think every opportunity to hurt the enemy should be taken if they are a threat or could easily become a threat again.

My Grandfather was a TBF gunner as some of you know. He shot a Japanese soldier running on a beach on a fly by. The round/s hit him so hard he was knocked off his feet in mid stride. Anyway Grandad felt pretty bad about it but never told me the story growing up. He told my dad who told me the story. He was really proud of his stories about making it home with battle damage or when low on fuel or when his squadron sank something but that is not one he talked about.

I think it must have to do with the "fairness" issue. I think it was "right" to do but not fair.

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What I find amusing in the blackest of ways is how we discuss many times situations like Jim describes or shooting someone dangling from a chute, yet rarely ask the same question of a bombardier about to carpet bomb a village or nuke a city. If one can blast naked citizens to smithereens, then shooting up soldiers should never be a problem.

If the enemy puts on a uniform, I'd kill him any time any where in any manner. Unless capturing him is possible.

Unarmed enemy citizens, is a different matter. I'd need a number of questions answered first before deciding.

When it comes to soldiers, there are few questions to ask.

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The people I really felt sorry for were the PT boat crews who had to go out and shoot the swimmers on an individual basis. Either way (strafing or combing), I would do it, but the nightmares would be a lot worse for those who had to do it up close and personal.

The term "post traumatic stress" was not invented until much later,but studies have shown that WW11 vets with combat experience have more health problems.

You do what you have to do but that does not mean you don't pay for it later.

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Kinda makes you wonder how soldiers did in the old sword and spear days when you had your enemies blood all over you, and hearing his death moans right in your ear.

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