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With one foe vanquished, another remained

Once V-E Day was declared, attention turned to the Pacific conflict

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The last shots in Europe had just been fired and the victory hangovers in world capitals were still being nursed when sombre warnings were being sounded that the Second World War was not yet over.

King George stressed this, as did Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Mackenzie King. Germany was defeated but Japan remained to be dealt with.

"We have now emerged from one deadly struggle; a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy," the British prime minister said in his V-E Day speech on May 8, 1945. "But there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire, a foe stained with cruelty and greed -- the Japanese."

This note, discordant and apprehensive, underlay all the great celebrations that broke out in the wake of the unconditional surrender of German troops that marked the end of Nazi tyranny. The only nation that fought Germany and was at peace with Japan was the Soviet Union, and even it had promised to join the battle.

Chiefs of staff in Canada and other Allied countries began to work on the transfer of armies, air forces and fleets to the Pacific theatre of war. The conflict there had largely been overshadowed in the last days of the European conflict, but it was no less bloody.

Costly and stubborn fighting was under way in the Philippines, on the island of Okinawa and on Tarakan Island off Borneo. U.S. troops who had landed on Okinawa on April 1 were slowly reducing the size of the Japanese garrison but they were still counting their daily gains in metres. Forces from Australia and the Dutch East Indies had made crucial inroads on Tarakan and were poised to capture a key oil field. Already, bombers and fighter planes were using the island to attack Japanese troops in Borneo.

But the fear -- quite sensible given the fierce fighting on Okinawa -- was that the Allies would be engaged in a long series of bloody island battles before Japan could be defeated. There was some brave talk. Lieutenant-General James Doolittle, commander of the 8th U.S. Air Force, predicted that the same sort of teamwork between air and land forces that broke Germany would crush Japan. He announced that a large part of the U.S. force in Britain -- 2,400 heavy bombers and 200,000 personnel -- would be transferred to the Pacific region as soon as possible.

There was even some action. Allied planes had set up a successful blockade of shipping lanes south of Japan and sank more than a million tonnes of ships in the first four months of the year. Chinese troops, with U.S. air support, were beginning to oust the Japanese from their territory. And on May 14, a fleet of 500 U.S. B-29s dumped 3,500 tonnes of fire bombs on the industrial section of Nagoya, Japan's third-largest city.

On May 7, the Canadian government suspended the conscription that sent 16,000 men overseas and said arrangements were being made for the enrolment of volunteers for the war in the Pacific. Three days later, Ottawa unveiled a points-based plan to repatriate soldiers from Europe that gave the highest priority to troops who had volunteered and had been accepted for service in the Pacific.

Beyond that, priority was given to those soldiers with the longest service in the army, although a married man was given more points than a single man with the same service record.

The plan was to send home about 25,000 soldiers a month and the hope was that all troops, except the 40,000 designated to serve in the European occupation force, would be home for Christmas. The occupation troops were promised that their wives would be allowed to go to Germany to live when passage by ship could be found.

This repatriation plan and Canada's commitment to the war against Japan got caught up in the campaign for the June 11 federal election in which wartime prime minister Mackenzie King was seeking re-election. The prime minister had been badly burned by the conscription issue, particularly by the 13,000 "zombies," conscripts for home service who were sent overseas. To avoid a reprise of the divisive conscription debate (particularly when he was trailing in the polls), King was adamant that only volunteers would be used in the Pacific.

But the rate of re-enlistment fell off dramatically with the victory in Europe and King was slow to spell out the level of Canada's involvement in Asia.

Canada's role in the Pacific had been minimal, although a 1,975-member garrison in Hong Kong, drawn from the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers, battled Japanese invaders in December, 1941, before surrendering on Christmas Day after suffering 783 casualties. A further 260 died in grim Japanese prisoners' camps.

John Bracken, the Progressive Conservative leader, challenged King to commit Canada to take a prominent role in the fight in Asia. "We can't stand idly by in any conflict in which the security of this hemisphere is threatened," he told an election rally in Charlottetown on May 11.

Defence minister Andrew McNaughton, a former commander of the Canadian army overseas, responded to Bracken two days later by telling a campaign rally in Saskatchewan that Canada would not send huge numbers of men "to slug it out hand to hand with a foe perhaps better fitted than we to survive in the jungle war. We will assist to smash the Jap forever with a minimum of men and a maximum of machines and explosives."

The Canadian Legion, meanwhile, was calling for conscription for service in the Pacific rather than asking for volunteers.

In the end, nearly 80,000 soldiers volunteered to join the Pacific forces and began gathering (after 30 days of leave) at nine centres across Canada in July. The Royal Canadian Navy, which had only a minimal presence on the West Coast while fighting in Europe raged, was also slated for a major commitment in the Pacific.

The plan was to provide an army of 30,000 men and to provide advance training in Kentucky. The navy would send 60 ships and 13,500 men while the RCAF would offer 15,000 men and bomber and transport squadrons.

But the war ended before these men and the equipment were needed. On Aug. 6, the first atomic bomb was dropped by U.S. planes on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second and larger bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and a day later the Japanese government sued for peace.

In fact, only one ship, the cruiser HMCS Uganda (whose crew included a future Ontario premier, Lieutenant John Robarts) took an active part in the war in the Pacific. Operating as part of the British Pacific fleet, the ship was involved in attacks on Formosa and other islands in the spring of 1945. But its war service came to a curious end after two-thirds of its crew declined to volunteer for the Pacific war.

The British Admiralty was furious and said the Uganda couldn't be replaced until late July and so Canada offered up another, HMCS Prince Robert, even though it was in dry dock in Vancouver at the time.

Uganda was detached from the British fleet on July 27 and sailed for Pearl Harbor where it received a chilly welcome because it was perceived as a quitter. It finally arrived in Esquimalt on Aug. 10, the day the Japanese announced their terms of surrender. Had Uganda remained in the Pacific, its crew would likely have been in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2 to witness the official surrender that marked the end of a war that had engulfed the world for six exceedingly long years.

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