Seventy five years ago this month, the world was anticipating the imminent end of the murderous Nazi regime as Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower and a number of aggressive Russian generals were pressing from all sides on the once-invincible German military. In the Pacific, the Japanese army and navy were being pushed back in brutal fighting as Admiral Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur closed in on the home islands of Emperor Hirohito and his subjects.
In a time when news-by-the-minute assaults the senses of those who yearn for perspective, analysis, and clarity, it can be instructive to look back to April 1945, a month that gave the world 30 days of remarkable, inch-high headlines about truly big news.
1 – US Forces Invade Okinawa: Some 60,000 American forces land on Okinawa, a large island situated just 300 miles from the Japanese homeland. Waiting on the Americans were more than 100,000 Japanese, virtually all committed to fight to death for their country and their god-man emperor. Some 80 days later, the battle was over, at a cost of 110,000 Japanese killed, and 10,000 taken prisoner. The US Army and the Marines lost 7,613 men, with an additional 31,000 wounded, while 4,320 Navy sailors and pilots died, many victims of a new form of sudden death, the suicidal dive of the kamikaze pilots.
Buchenwald Liberated: More than a year after Soviet forces first came upon concentration camps on the edge of eastern Europe, unsuspecting US Army troops advanced on Buchenwald and found bodies stacked 75 high in a desolate camp where, it was later determined, 50,000 had been murdered by Nazi criminals. Two weeks later, US forces liberated Dachau and its satellite camps. Most of the 30,000 prisoners there were too weak to react to being freed; another 30,000 had been killed.
12 – Roosevelt is Dead at 63; Truman Sworn In: – Less than three months into his fourth term as president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fatally stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage while sitting for a portrait in Warm Springs, Georgia. The dominant partner in the Allies’ World War II alliance and a domestic politician without peer, FDR (his headline name) was eulogized as a leader who “died a hero of the war, for he literally worked himself to death in the service of the American people.” Harry S Truman of Missouri, Roosevelt’s third vice president, took the oath of office as the nation’s 32d chief executive. A virtual nonentity to most American citizens, Truman would make his own history over the next seven years.
14 – Allies Cease Air operations in Europe: The strategic air war that began with Adolf Hitler’s bombing of England in 1940 was over; the sovereign nation of Germany was, for all purposes, a mass of rubble. U-boat operations came to a close with the sinking of four German vessels by Allied ships.
23 – Russians Enter Berlin: Stalin’s Red Army reached the outskirts of Berlin some 3 1/2 years after Hitler’s legions had come within a wintry day or two of capturing Moscow.
24 – Petain Charged with Treason: Marshal Philippe Petain, aged head of the submissive Vichy government and a national hero in France during World War I, was arrested and charged with treason for his government’s collaboration with the occupying Nazis.
25 – Allies, Russians Hook Up: Allies West (the US First Army under Gen. Courtney Hodges) and East (the Red Army under Marshal Ivan Konev) linked up with handshakes in the German heartland, at the Elbe River at Torgau.
United Nations Convenes for First Time: President Truman addressed by telephone the first organizing session of the United Nations in San Francisco, urging the representatives of 47 countries to “rise above personal interests” to create a world body that can enforce justice and keep the peace.
28 – Mussolini Shot, Hanged Upside Down: Il Duce was dead. Benito Mussolini, the theatrical Fascist who commanded Italians’ loyalty for more than two decades and was an Axis partner of Hitler and the Japanese warlord Hideki Tojo, was shot, then hanged upside down in Milan by Italian partisans. Next to him on the impromptu gallows were the bodies of his mistress, Clara Petacci, and two associates.
30 – Hitler Takes Own Life: The dictator committed suicide by cyanide in his Berlin hideaway, his “Thousand-year Reich” buried deep in the ashes left across Europe by the war he had started less than six years before. The Nazi leader had assumed power in Germany in 1933, seven weeks before Franklin Roosevelt took office. Hitler’s rabid lieutenant and the Nazis’ venomous propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, took his life the next day.
So ended the month of April 1945. Victory in Europe was a week away. A little over three months later, Hirohito would concede the Pacific War in an address to his subjects after the billowing clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave a dreadful punctuation to 72 months of worldwide conflict that, historians suggest, led, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of more than 60 million men, women, and children.
Tom Mulvoy is a native of Dorchester and a former managing editor editor at the Boston Globe.