Conscription ("the draft") refers to compulsory induction into the armed forces or into labor pools supporting the armed forces. It was practiced by every major power that was involved in the Pacific War, though some of these powers restricted the deployment of drafted soldiers to the immediate homeland or areas close to the homeland.

Most armies preferred volunteers for combat formations, since they were thought to have superior esprit de corps. However, most faced shortages of volunteers to replace losses in these formations, and turned to conscription. It is unclear whether the superior performance of all-volunteer formations, such as the U.S. Marines up to 1945, was due to their volunteer makeup or their superior training and personnel policies. In his memoirs, E.B. Sledge opined that draftee Marines who joined his unit (1 Marine Division) prior to the battle of Okinawa, and had the opportunity to train alongside experienced volunteers, performed well in combat; but draftee replacements sent directly into the line appeared to be poorly trained and did not perform well. It seems likely that, when a soldier first faced the awful realities of combat, his fighting power depended more on how well he had been trained and how much cohesion his unit enjoyed than on whether he had volunteered for the experience or had been conscripted.

It has been argued that an all-volunteer army is wasteful of manpower. The qualities that make volunteers desirable to armies -- high motivation, education, and leadership skills -- are precisely the qualities desirable in the industrial sector that supports the armies. A man may make a greater contribution by working in an arms factory or shipyard than by carrying a rifle on the front line. Likewise, small-boat operators in the United States were drafted into the Army when they would likely have given better service as small craft crewmen in the Navy, had the Navy been willing to accept draftees. On the other hand, volunteers tended to be young. The average age in the largely drafted U.S. Army was 27, while the average age of sailors was 22.5 and of Marines was 20.5.

Japan. Conscription was first introduced in Japan as early as 10 January 1873, though it was resisted at first by the samurai who dominated the Army leadership.  There were a number of exemptions, particularly for firstborn sons, students, and teachers, and the middle and upper classes could buy their way out of conscription. The effect was to ensure that most conscripts were second and third sons of poor farmers. This did much to shape the character of the modern Japanese army. Students remained exempt until Japan became desperate for manpower in the final months of the war.

By 1941, all Japanese men were required to report for examination at age 20, and those selected for military duty had an obligation to serve for two years. After this initial service they remained eligible to be called to active duty until age 40. Draftees were classified according to height and general physical condition. Those in good physical condition and over 5' (152 cm) in height were classified as Class A. Those slightly shorter or with imperfect hearing, eyesight, or physical condition  were classified B-1, B-2, or B-3. Those between 4'9" and 4'11" (145 cm to 150 cm) or in poor physical condition, but not actually disabled, were classified as Class C. Those who could not even meet the standards for Class C were classified as Class D, while those suffering from temporary ailments and deferred for future reexamination were classified Class F. Classes A and B-1 were subject to two years' active duty followed by 15 years 4 months in the First Reserve. Class B-2 and B-3 were subject to 17 years 4 months in the First and Second Conscript Reserves. All were subject to service in the First National Army until age 40. Class C were subject to service in the Second National Army until age 40. There were exemptions from service only for criminals and the permanently disabled (Class D) but students could postpone their active service up to age 26.

The Japanese military prided itself on its thorough records on the status of reservists and its efficient system for calling them to the colors. One military affairs clerk boasted that (Cook and Cook 1998)

I ask you -- which was superior, the German military system, renowned throughout the world, or the Japanese system? Our system, which could raise large-scale units in less than twenty-four hours, was world-class! No one had a more thorough or efficient system for mobilizing soldiers to the colors than Japan.

Local military affairs clerks visited regularly with families in their assigned areas to check the status of their sons. Parents could be charged under military law for failing to pass along a conscription notice to their son, whether or not he was still living at home. The local clerks collected information on the family background of each draftee and reservist that included information on family history and economic assets.

Induction notices were typically delivered in the middle of the night, since information on numbers inducted was a military secret, and they were opened by the military affairs clerk in the presence of the local mayor. However, when time permitted, the draftees were often sent off with much ceremony and congratulations.

The practice of calling up reservists as old as 40 was sometimes a source of trouble. These reservists often found themselves serving as privates under officers and NCOs half their age. This was a reversal of the rigid civilian social order in Japan, where older men demanded respect from their juniors, and it often rankled. In one incident at Bandung, a private in his 40s murdered his company commander, who earlier had refused to let the private board a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by Allied aircraft. The private was rescued by another lifeboat and thereafter bore a fatal grudge against the officer. Another difficulty with older reservists is illustrated by the case of Matsumae Shigeyoshi, who at 44 was the chief of the civilian Telecommunications Engineering Bureau. He was conscripted by the military without regard to the vital role he played in the civilian economy, allegedly after offending Tojo in some manner, and he was allowed to return to his civilian post only through the intervention of several senior Army officers. Many other Japanese men with vital technical skills were not so lucky.

In the autumn of 1943 the growing manpower shortage led the Japanese to order the induction of all male students over the age of 20. These university students had previously been exempt from conscription, and they would form a disproportionate percentage of the kamikazes.

By 1944 the manpower shortage was severe enough that men under the age of 20 were pressured to volunteer. Some were boys as young as 15. Conscription reached a peak after a 26 February 1945 decree for a massive mobilization, in three stages, to meet the threat of an Allied invasion. The Japanese planned to add 1.5 million men to the home defense forces. The remaining adult population of Japan, consisting of all males between 15 and 60 and all women between ages 17 and 40, were to be enrolled in the National Resistance Program, a militia force armed with little more than bamboo spears.

Volunteers were accepted from Korea beginning in 1938 and from Formosa beginning in 1942. However, most went into labor units rather than the regular Japanese Army. Conscription of Koreans began in 1944 and of Formosans in 1945.

Conscription in Japan was under Army control, and the Navy had to work through the Army to obtain conscripts to fill out its ranks. (By 1942 conscripts and volunteers for Navy service were roughly equal in number.) This led to significant added friction between two services that were already famously disinclined to get along. The Navy tended to get inferior quality conscripts, and as the manpower shortage became more severe, the Army even began drafting civilian Navy employees.

Australia. Australian conscripts were assigned to the militia and initially could not be deployed outside Australian territory. This restriction was progressively relaxed, first by allowing militia to be employed in Imperial territories such as New Guinea, then throughout the Southwest Pacific. Australian troops used elsewhere, such as the Middle East or areas of the Pacific beyond the prescribed limits, were volunteers of the 2 Australian Imperial Force.

Canada. Conscription policies in Canada were similar to those of Australia. Only volunteers could be deployed abroad, and conscripts were referred to derisively as "Zombies."

China. In areas nominally controlled by the Kuomintang, conscription was a brutal and often fatal process. Men of military age were unceremoniously taken from their homes or even off the streets by local formations whenever manpower was needed, and they received very little training. Many were in terrible physical condition by the time they reached the front line.

There are few accounts of how conscription was carried out by the Chinese Communists, though it is clear it took place. However, even harsh critics of the Communists acknowledge that sizable numbers of volunteers flocked to Communist-controlled regions of China, though they may not have found conditions to be quite what they expected when they got there.

India. The Indian Army remained all-volunteer throughout the war. Because of India's large population and economic backwardness, the military was an attractive option to a sufficiently large number of men that the Indian Army could be quite selective. The result was that the percentage of white officers and men in Indian Army divisions dropped steadily during the war, and unprecedented numbers of native Indians received the King's Commission.

Philippines. Conscription was introduced in the Philippines by MacArthur in 1935 when he served as military advisor to the Commonwealth Government. The goal was to have a force of 10,000 regular troops and 400,000 reserves by 1946, but the term of enlistment for conscriptees was only 5-1/2 months.

New Zealand. Conscription policies in New Zealand were similar to those of Australia. Certain formations, such as the Fiji Defense Force, took volunteers only.

United States. The United States had first instituted a draft during the Civil War of 1861-1865, and the draft was employed again during the First World War. Conscription in wartime had been defended with the argument that it was the duty of every citizen of a democracy to come to the defense of his country, and the Supreme Court had declined to strike down the draft as unconstitutional.

The war in Europe came at a time when American military strength was all but nonexistent. The Regular Army consisted of just 187,893 men of indifferent quality and another 199,491 poorly trained National Guardsmen. The Allied debacle in Europe led Roosevelt and Congress to expand the Army, but it still stood at just 242,000 men in May 1940, when Roosevelt nationalized the National Guard. Roosevelt himself emphasized hardware over manpower and wanted a rapid buildup of the Army Air Forces and the Navy. Both Roosevelt and War Department planners assumed that a draft would not be instituted until there was an actual declaration of war.

The call for a draft originated instead with the Eastern elite, who had also supported the World War I draft. Led by Grenville Clark, a prominent Anglophile attorney, the pro-draft movement repeated the argument that it was the duty of all young men to serve with the armed forces. However, Clark's movement also sought to avoid the eugenic consequences of war being fought by a volunteer force of the best and brightest,and it saw an economic advantage in giving the government control over who fought abroad and who worked in the wartime industries. By July 1940, 87 percent of newspaper editors in the United States favored the draft. Opposition was centered in the churches, organized labor, and the less elite colleges.

The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was the first peacetime draft instituted in the United States, albeit in response to the fall of France and the fear that the European war would spread. All males between ages 21 and 35 were subject to the draft, but the Act called for local Selective Service Boards to select not more than 900,000 men from this pool of roughly 25 million men. Those inducted were to serve for not more than a year, although this restriction was dropped in August 1941 (by a single vote in the House of Representatives) as the world crisis deepened. The President could defer individuals from the draft, but there was no provision for exempt occupations. The act also included provisions to help ensure that those who were drafted could return to their jobs after completing their service. Draftees could initially be ordered to serve only in the Western Hemisphere, a restriction that explains the decision to garrison Iceland with the all-volunteer Marines. (The restriction was dropped soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

The Act was carefully set up so that its administration was purely civilian. The Selective Service Boards were responsible for draftees until they were formally inducted by the Army at a training center, and federal oversight was provided by a civilian agency rather than the War Department. The local boards had considerable discretion in classifying potential draftees, who were given classifications ranging from 1-A (available for military service) to 4-F (physically, mentally, or morally unfit for military service). Class 2 were men deferred from service, such as those holding an essential civilian job (2-B). Class 3 were men deferred because of dependency or some other hardship, while Class 4 were men unqualified for service because of age, health, or other reasons. Draft boards proved extremely reluctant to draft men with dependents, preferring to draft even single men in critical industrial occupations before drafting fathers. (This likely explains why the marriage rate in the United States jumped from 1,404,000 of all ages in 1939 to over 5 million in the 18 to 29 age cohort in 1940.) There was also a reluctance to draft farmers and students in STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and medicine), and ministers and divinity students were exempted by statute. Oddly, and contrary to the experience of the World War I draft, draft boards in the South proved reluctant to draft racial minorities such as African-Americans. Part of this was driven by the army itself, which wished to assign blacks only to racially segregated units but lacked the facilities for separately housing and training large numbers of black draftees.

Men classified 1-A were assigned a number and called up by lottery. The first such lottery was held on 29 October 1940 in a setting that "reeked with American heritage" (Flynn 1993). The numbers were placed in capsules to be drawn from the same fishbowl used for the World War I draft. Secretary of War Stimson was blindfolded with a swatch of cloth from a chair used during the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the wooden ladle used to stir the capsules was taken from one of the rafters of Independence Hall.

Public support for the draft was remarkably high.  A poll in December 1940 showed that 89 percent of the population favored the draft, and 92 percent felt it had been handled fairly. Support was high from both sexes and across ethnicities and age cohorts. Support for the draft would remain high for decades, collapsing only during the final years of the Vietnam War. Much of the support came from the perception that the draft was egalitarian: Baseball star Hank Greenberg was inducted in spite of being 30 years old and scheduled to earn $55,000. William McChesney Martin, president of the New York Stock Exchange, was likewise inducted, going from a salary of $4,000 a month to private's pay of $21 a month. A high school football star in Minnesota skipped town when his draft board discovered that he was actually 23 and playing under an assumed name.

The Army, which took all draftees until 1943, was initially highly selective of who was inducted. Over 40% of registrants were rejected as physically, mentally, or morally unfit, and for African-Americans the rejection rate was almost 80%. The Army complained that inductees over 26 years of age were practically useless. However, the massive increase in inductions following the outbreak of war was accompanied by a considerable relaxation of the standards. Men with poor eyesight were inducted and given eyeglasses and men lacking teeth were given dentures. Some of those in marginal health were marked for limited duty, but many men were accepted for full duty who would not have been accepted in the peacetime draft.

Mental fitness was extremely difficult to get right. Psychiatry was a young science split into factions, with much data, some insights, but little foundation of sound theory. Efforts to detect "psychopathic personalities" must be judged largely unsuccessful, yet they were the basis for a staggering 30% of all rejections. Studies performed later in the war by the National Research Council concluded that breakdowns in military service were almost impossible to predict. More than 80% of those rejected on neuropsychiatric grounds in peacetime, but accepted under the more relaxed standards of wartime, gave satisfactory service, yet psychiatric disability accounted for 45% of all discharges for disability among those initially accepted.

There were six registrations between October 1940 and January 1943, and nearly 36 million men registered. The age limits were changed to between 21 and 27 in August 1941, at the same time that the one-year limit on service was lifted, but the age range was expanded to 20 to 44 after war broke out. In November 1942 the lower age limit was lowered to 18, and in December 1942 the maximum age limit was lowered to 37. The term of service following the attack on Pearl Harbor was "duration and six," that is, draftees were to be released from duty within six months of the termination of hostilities.

Initially all inductees were assigned to service with the Army. The Navy, Marines, and specialist branches such as the paratroops and the Army Air Forces took only volunteers. However, Roosevelt ordered the services to cease recruitment in December 1942. By late 1944, a serious manpower shortage had developed and the Marines were compelled to begin accepting draftees. Deferments for fathers and others with dependents were perforce scaled back, and the draft age was lowered to 18.

The Act allowed conscientious objection on religious grounds. Those objecting only to the bearing of arms were assigned to noncombatant duty, such as serving as medical corpsmen, and one such conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, received the Medal of Honor for courage under fire while performing his duties as a corpsman on Okinawa. Conscientious objectors who objected to any service in support of war were required to perform nonmilitary service, such as farm work, under civilian direction. The definition of a conscientious object was deliberately broad, with no requirement that a conscientious objector be a member of an historical peace church, or even of any church at all. These generous allowances for conscientious objectors meant that there was very little evasion of the draft as a form of civil disobedience: There were just 116 convictions for draft evasion by June 1941, many involving attempts to bribe draft board members. The draft was sustained less by force of law than by social coercion.

Organized labor had offered much of the initial opposition to the draft, and this remained strong, particularly among coal miners. However, a November 1941 poll found that 86 percent of the public felt that men who went on strike from vital war industries deserved to be drafted, and many draft boards acted accordingly. Some 70 percent of the public favored a law prohibiting strikes in defense plants, and the Smith-Connally Act prohibiting strikes in defense plants was passed on 25 June 1943 over Roosevelt's veto. Efforts to enact a national service law to direct civilian labor were unsuccessful. The War Manpower Commission created by executive order in April 1942 never had any real power.

The Selective Service Act was not restricted to conscripting men for military service. The Act also authorized the government to require corporations to accept military production orders and even to seize and operate plants if necessary. This could be regarded as an indirect form of conscription of civilian labor, though in practice the national mood ensured that few companies refused cooperation with wartime production requirements.

Of those registered for the draft, about 18 million were actually drafted during the war. Of these, about 6.5 million were rejected by the induction centers for physical, mental, or moral unfitness. The 11.5 million draftees, the bulk of whom were single white men under the age of 26, were joined by 300,000 National Guardsmen and nearly six million volunteers. Had Japan not surrendered in August 1945, there were proposals to alleviate the manpower shortage by drafting up to 1.5 million women for noncombat duty.

United Kingdom.The United Kingdom had a long tradition of relying on a small, highly professional army. This policy had to be abandoned during the First World War, when mass conscription was adopted to field a large army in France. However, conscription ended in 1920 and the army largely reverted to a small professional force.

The deepening world crisis led to the adoption of the Military Training Act in April 1939, which required men between the ages of 20 and 21 to register for six months' military training. Certain critical occupations were exempt. The Military Training Act proved inadequate even after war broke out and brought in a wave of volunteers, with the Army numbering less than a million men in October 1939. That month, the British government announced that all men between 18 and 41 not in critical occupations were subject to being called up by age, and those between ages 20 and 23 were required to register immediately for military service in the armed service of their choice. Eventually nearly every fit man between ages 18 and 40 not in a critical occupation was drafted. Beginning in 1941, single women between ages 20 and 30 were drafted into the labor pool to replace men needed for the military.

As with the United States, the United Kingdom permitted conscientious objection, and some 42,000 out of 60,000 who applied were granted some measure of exemption. 


Cook and Cook (1992)

Cowdrey (1994)
Drea (2009)

Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Evans and Peattie (1997)

Flynn (1993)

"Handbook on Japanese Military Forces"  (1944-10-1) (accessed 2014-2-27)

Hoyt (1993)
Huie (1944)

Huston (1966)

Marston (2005)
Medal of Honor: Desmond Doss (accessed 2008-4-26)

Parrish (1978)

Prange (1981)

Shimer and Hobbs (1986)
Sledge (1981)

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