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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II
PART II: INSIDE THE EMPIRE

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / April 15, 2001

Page 2 of 8

Continued from page 1

''Although the Japanese advertised for [coal] miners, they were unable to get any. The locomotives of the trains used roots and branches for fuel instead of coal,'' reported Dr. Hugh Robinson, a physician from Auburndale, Mass., repatriated in 1943 from the Philippines, where US forces were defeated after Pearl Harbor. ''Because of the lack of steel, the bridges were torn down, the steel used for other purposes and the bridges reconstructed of wood. Occasionally guerrillas burn up these wooden bridges.''

When the two sides began trading prisoners, Americans who had been pinned down by those other Pearl Harbors came ashore in New York with something that had been badly lacking from the new Pacific theater: a human perspective on the weak spots in Japan's attempt to occupy nearly half the world. This was essential in General William Donovan's effort to build the country's first intelligence agency from scratch.

''You have to keep in mind that the Japanese empire at the time was a closed box,'' says Gerhard Weinberg, chairman of the Historical Advisory Committee of the Inter-Agency Working Group, which is overseeing the declassification. ''Anything from people coming out of there would have been of great value.''

The repatriated Americans, many of them professionals who worked in critical parts of the economy, had data about ship traffic, troop positions, sabotage by resistance groups, names of collaborators and the squalid conditions of thousands of expatriates interned and often tortured after the invasions.

''If you're interested in mining information, what better person to talk to than a mining engineer?'' says Edward Drea, the US Defense Department historian and a member of the declassification group's Historical Advisory Committee.

The exhaustive interviews with hundreds of repatriated Americans contained ''vital information on practically all subjects that the different [US] Agencies are interested in,'' said a December 1942 summary to OSS officials.

At the top of the list of ''outstanding determinations'' that the interviews produced was that Japan was unable to ship cargo fast enough to keep its sprawling occupation effort alive, ''this being an immediate, most serious problem of the Japanese.'' Such information likely played a role in helping US commanders devise an attack strategy.

While the US hurried to build up its own war machine after Dec. 7, 1941, naval strategists were learning that radio transmissions claiming that Japan was building many new ships are ''a myth and practically all propaganda,'' according to an OSS summary of the interviews.

Richly detailed, first-person reports that had been classified for 60 years cover the arc of the war, from the shock of invasion to the days when the tide turned in favor of the Allies. They reflect with a rare immediacy the scene in places other than Pearl Harbor.

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