So would go the war with Japan. With the decision to attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese embarked on a military campaign designed to conquer East Asia and consolidate their new empire, called the Greater East Asian CoProsperity Sphere, before the Americans could recover from the blow and while the Soviet Union was under siege by the Germans. (The Japanese military command was at least publicly contemptuous of the American will to fight in the wake of a serious setback.) The Japanese followed Pearl Harbor with coordinated assaults on Guam and Wake Island, attacks in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines, and continued aggression against China. Better planning and technological superiority on the sea and in the air contributed to Japan’s early victories. Having underestimated the Japanese even more completely than the Japanese had underestimated them, the Americans were shocked to discover that they were outgunned. ‘It was a terrific blow to us, all our pilots particularly, to find that the Japanese Zero was a better airplane than anything we had,’ said a rueful US Admiral Arleigh Burke. By spring 1942 the Japanese held virtually all Southeast Asia, had taken the American surrender of the Philippines, were ensconced in South Pacific island redoubts including the Solomons, Guam, and Wake Island, and seemed to threaten British Ceylon and India, New Guinea, and even Australia and New Zealand.13
By mid-year, however, fortunes started to turn. American naval units managed a stalemate with the Japanese in the Coral Sea in May. The following month, the Americans defeated the Japanese fleet attempting to capture Midway Island, dispatching four Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser and killing scores of Japan’s best pilots. While not fully recognized at the time, Midway proved the turning point in the war. Thereafter the Japanese largely assumed a defensive posture, hoping to wear down the Americans in a war of attrition in the Pacific. But, as American war production increased manyfold and Soviet success at Stalingrad set the Germans on their heels, a war of attrition did not favor the Japanese. The US Army General Douglas MacArthur, despite having been forced out of the Philippines, took charge of the Southwest Pacific theater and engaged the Japanese in New Guinea. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded US forces elsewhere in the Pacific, opened a campaign that summer to liberate Pacific islands with an attack on Guadalcanal in the Solomon chain. The Americans seized an airfield there, survived a devastating attack on their ships in nearby Savo Bay (four sunk, three damaged), and undertook a bloody ground campaign against Japanese troops whose ranks were intermittently reinforced. The Americans and Japanese fought each other on Guadalcanal through the summer and fall, past Christmas and into the new year. ‘It is almost beyond belief that we are still here, still alive, still waiting and still ready,’ wrote an American correspondent. ‘The worst experience I’ve ever been through in my life.’ A Japanese NCO named Kashichi Yoshida jotted a poem of despair:
Covered with mud from our falls
Blood oozes from our wounds
No cloth to bind our cuts
Flies swarm to the scabs
No strength to brush them away
Fall down and cannot move
How many times I’ve thought of suicide.
It ended in early February when the remaining Japanese withdrew. Thousands had died on both sides.14
Like their German allies, the Japanese fought on, with growing desperation as the circle closed around their home islands. In January, as the
Japanese gave up the struggle for Guadalcanal, Roosevelt at Casablanca announced Allied resolve to win ‘unconditional surrender’ from the Axis belligerents. The Americans, with Australians and New Zealanders, fought their way west through the Japanese-held islands: Tarawa that November, Kwajalein and Truk in early 1944, Bougainville in March, Tinian that summer. The Philippines campaign began in October, while British and Indian troops pushed the Japanese hard in Burma and reopened the Burma Road in January 1945; they would liberate Mandalay in March. US marines assaulted Iwo Jima, less than 700 miles south of Tokyo, beginning in mid-February. The Japanese, dug into caves, tunnels, and pillboxes, fought back fiercely. The Americans blasted them with grenades and artillery and burned them out using tanks equipped with flamethrowers. Iwo was declared secure on 26 March. The Japanese lost nearly 22.000 dead, virtually all the island’s defenders. Iwo cost the Americans 7.000 dead and almost 20,000 wounded. ‘I hope to God’, groaned a wounded marine, ‘that we don’t have to go on anymore of those screwy islands.’15
Nimitz had another in mind. Okinawa was at the center of the Ryukyu chain, about midway between Taiwan and Kyushu. It was 60 miles long and between 2 and 18 miles wide, and a possible base for American ships and planes. The Okinawans had been ruled by the Japanese since 1879. The commander of the Japanese garrison on the island, General Mitsuru Ushijima, had 70,000 troops, but knew he faced an American force far larger than his (180,000), and thus decided to abandon defense of Okinawa’s beaches and retreat mostly to the southern end of the island, where limestone ridges, caves, and a network of bunkers offered hope of concealment, protection, and positional advantage. When the Americans disembarked warily on 1 April, they met little resistance. For a week, as they advanced, things remained quiet. Then, on the 8th, the 24th Marine Corps ran up against the outermost picket of Ushijima’s defenses, Kakazu Ridge. It was the beginning of a nightmarish period of assault, withering machine gun and artillery fire, retreat, counterattack, and—if all went well—survival to fight another day. Meanwhile, the US fleet that had delivered the troops and shelled Japanese positions came under attack from the air. On 6 April the Japanese mustered 700 planes, half of them kamikaze fighters on suicide missions, and struck the US vessels. ‘The strain of waiting, the anticipated terror, made vivid from past experience, sent some men into hysteria, insanity, breakdown,’ wrote a correspondent. The Americans lost three destroyers, a mammoth cargo carrier, and two ammunition supply ships, and ten other ships suffered damage.
American commanders elsewhere in the theater chafed at the slow progress made by the assault force. But there was precious little the marines could do. The Japanese were well armed, and they fought intelligently and remorselessly. And they were almost impregnably dug in. ‘We poured a tremendous amount of metal in on those positions,’ recounted a marine commander. ‘Not only from artillery but from ships at sea. It seemed nothing could possibly be living in that churning mass where the shells were falling and roaring but when we next advanced, Japs would still be there, even madder than they had been before.’ It took two months and three weeks to take Okinawa. Some 110,000 Japanese combatants, including pilots and sailors, were killed—almost without precedent, 7,400 surrendered—and between 45,000 and 80,000 Okinawans died, victims of the shelling, the crossfire, and by suicide, the result of their own fears, stoked by the Japanese, that the Americans had come to rape and torture them. Combined US Army, Navy, and marine deaths in the campaign came to 12,500; total US casualties approached 50,000. Three days before the end on Okinawa—that is, on 18 June—President Truman met the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss strategy for defeating Japan. Many at the meeting argued that the United States would have to invade Japan, beginning with the southern island of Kyushu. Truman approved an invasion plan, but added his hope that ‘there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another’.16
Truman’s strategists hoped so too. They knew that American ships and planes had made it nearly impossible for the Japanese to move soldiers and supplies between Japan and the Asian mainland. The seas surrounding the home islands had been seeded with mines, complicating transport between the islands and thus overtaxing the Japanese rail system, already strained by bottlenecks and maintenance problems. The American blockade could be tightened over time, starving Japan and finally bringing its surrender. Another possibility was the threat or fact of Soviet entry into the war against Japan. At the Big Three conference at Yalta, held the previous February, Stalin had agreed, after securing from Roosevelt a handful of significant territorial concessions in East Asia, that the Russians would enter the war against Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany. That meant the Soviets would move by early August. Given the pace of Soviet force build-ups in the areas just north of Manchuria, Soviet intervention was a formidable threat to the Japanese, one that, combined with the dissolution of the Pacific empire at the hands of the Americans, offered a possible endgame without the need for a US invasion.17