27. The Collapse of Japan

IN 1281 THE MONGOL EMPEROR Kublai Khan sent a great invasion fleet to conquer Japan. Instead of reaching the islands, the fleet was destroyed by a providential typhoon. The Japanese thought this was sent by the Sun Goddess to protect the Son of Heaven and the Land of the Rising Sun. Now the sons of the Son of Heaven were left to their own devices and, anxious to avoid the humiliation of living through defeat, a disgrace unthinkable, they flocked to form the suicide corps that became the twentieth-century version of the Divine Wind, the kamikaze. The young Japanese, sufficiently trained to get their planes airborne and guide them to a target, attended their own funerals, wrote letters home filled with touching passages of poetry, and climbed into their planes. Locked into the cockpits, loaded with bombs, carrying enough fuel to get to the American fleet but not back again, they took off to seek death for their Emperor.

Nearly all found what they sought, for the Americans were moving steadily closer. In the air long-range bombers from the Marianas and from bases in China were pounding the cities to ash and rubble; the island-hopping campaign was now reaching native Japanese territory, with the landings on Okinawa and Iwo Jima in the Bonins; and all the time, the submarines of the U. S. Fleet were strangling the Japanese.

At the start of the war the Allies and the Japanese both had about the same number of submarines in the Pacific: sixty-three Japanese, sixty-nine Allied, of which thirteen were Dutch, and the rest American. The Dutch were soon removed from the board, and the American submarine fleet was left to fight it out with the Japanese. Each had advantages and disadvantages, but as the war went on, the Americans, with a greatly increasing number of boats and with their more-sophisticated equipment (radar as it became available), and better sound gear than the Japanese, gradually gained the upper hand.

It was not that way in the beginning. The Japanese were the equals of the Americans and in one important way their superiors. They possessed an infinitely better torpedo, the famous “Long Lance”—bigger, faster, farther ranging than anything the Americans had. For the first two years of the war the Americans were plagued by faulty torpedoes that more often than not failed to detonate when they hit a target. Submarine captains would sail thousands of dangerous miles, fire their torpedoes at sure targets, and watch in frustration as the torpedoes either exploded prematurely or did not explode at all. It was late in 1943 before the faults were finally remedied and after that the American score mounted rapidly.

One of the ironies of the submarine war in the Pacific was that while the Japanese concentrated their submarines as adjuncts to their surface fleet and made relatively few attacks against the great support train or the amphibious fleets, the Americans almost immediately went after Japanese merchant shipping. The United States had entered World War I largely in protest over German unrestricted submarine warfare and she had approached war in the Atlantic over the same problem; but after Pearl Harbor, Americans immediately discovered the vital nature—and the vulnerability—of the Japanese merchant fleet.

At that time the Japanese possessed about eight million tons of merchant shipping. They had not organized their navy for a convoy system or provided escort vessels as the British had; they anticipated no need for them in east Asian waters. The result was a sinking rate that grew slowly but steadily until late 1943, and then dramatically after that. American submarines sank more than a thousand vessels—nearly five million tons of shipping. Air and surface action disposed of more than another thousand vessels—usually smaller coasters and trawlers—for another three million tons. New construction could not hope to replace the losses. By 1944 the Japanese Empire was starving for imports. The most significant losses were in oil tankers; ships could not put to sea for lack of fuel, planes could not fly, pilots could not be trained. The Americans, and the British submarines that operated out of Ceylon around the East Indies, were doing to Japan what the Germans had failed to do to Britain: they were strangling her. By the start of 1945 there were less than two million tons of merchant shipping left, far less than Japan required for the most minimal peacetime uses. Her distant garrisons in China and the north withered, and could not even be transported home. Paralysis gripped the empire.

Death came from the air as well as the water. By late 1944 the Americans were able to begin bombing the home islands. Their new long-range bomber, the B-29 Superfortress, son of the B-17, was designed specifically for the distances of the Pacific. Based on Saipan and Guam and in southern China, the Army Air Force reached out to hit Japan itself. This led to considerable strategic argument among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The U. S. Navy had all but destroyed the Japanese fleet, and its job was virtually done. The navy ranged at will in the waters off Japan, searching vainly for further targets. The army believed that to defeat Japan it would be necessary to mount an invasion and overrun the entire country. The air force leaders, however—though officially they were still part of the army, they were acknowledged as all but independent—maintained that Japan could be defeated by bombing alone.

After the problems encountered over Germany, such a view might have seemed illusory. There were, however, significant differences in the Japanese situation: Japan’s cities were much more vulnerable than Germany’s, being largely built of highly flammable materials; her industry was more concentrated than the German and therefore made a better target; and equally important, the Japanese economy was far weaker than Germany’s had been, so that the effects of a heavy bombing campaign would make themselves felt much earlier. Telling against these points were the meager successes to date. The early bombing results were not all that impressive. The bombers had a sixteen-hour round-trip from the Marianas; no fighters could fly that far as escorts, and the B-29s therefore had either to take heavy punishment from the Japanese home defense squadrons, or they had to bomb from prohibitively high levels with corresponding loss of accuracy. The real answer to these problems was to move in closer, to get nearer islands for the bomber bases and nearer ones still for fighter escorts. The Joint Chiefs of Staff therefore decided to take the island of Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyu chain and the first island that would be ancient Japanese territory, and Iwo Jima, a small island in the Bonin or Volcanic Islands due south of Japan, which could be used as an emergency field for the B-29s, and a base for fighter escort to Japan.

The Japanese too were revising their plans and ideas. General Tojo and his entire cabinet had resigned after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, to be replaced by another general, Kuinaki Koiso, but they were still far from ready to concede defeat. They had decided to create an inner, last-ditch defense line running from Iwo Jima to Okinawa, to Formosa, Shanghai, and southern Korea. Here they would hold on to the end. They would use suicide pilots as much as possible to destroy the American fleet. Then, if necessary, they would fight the last battle in the home islands. The Japanese believed that this would give the enemy only two alternatives: either negotiate peace, or pay a prohibitively high price to achieve unconditional surrender. In the event, the Americans found a third alternative.

Iwo Jima is an eight square-mile island of sulfuric sand and volcanic ash. It lies about 700 miles south of Tokyo. The Japanese had put radar stations on it to warn of the approach of the American Superfortresses, which regularly flew right over it on their way to and from Japan. They had also stationed fighters on its two airstrips, and these were a thorn in the side of the 20th Air Force as it sought to destroy Japanese cities. Knowing it was a desirable target, they also garrisoned it with 21,000 troops under General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and these troops built some of the strongest defense works of the entire war—1,500 pillboxes and blockhouses, miles of trenches, hundreds of connecting tunnels. The highest point of the island, Mount Suribachi at its southern end, was thoroughly honeycombed. From this inner defense line there could be no turning back; no soldier could hope any longer for rescue from the Imperial Fleet. For its entire garrison, Iwo Jima was the end of the line.

The task of taking it was given to the U. S. Marine Vth Amphibious Corps, consisting of the 4th and 5th Marine divisions under General Harry Schmidt. The air force and the navy provided weeks of aerial bombardment, then heavy naval units closed in for three days of unrelenting pounding by battleships, cruisers, and carrier aircraft. On February 19 the Marines landed on a long black-sand beach, the southeastern side of the island. Under full observation from Mount Suribachi the 5th Marines fought their way across to the other shore, isolating the mountain from the rest of the island. To their right the 4th Marines reached the edge of Airfield No. 1, slowly began a right wheel, and stuck. The whole area was swept by small-arms and medium artillery fire. By night the Marines were firmly ashore, but at heavy cost; they had already suffered 2,400 casualties, including 600 killed.

It took four more days to secure Mount Suribachi. The Japanese stayed in their holes and caves, and the Marines went after them with grenades, large satchel charges that blew in the mouths of the caves, and flame-throwers. The mountain—it was little more than a bare hill—had to be taken yard by yard, and then, with the Japanese popping back up out of holes or shamming dead, retaken yard by yard again. On the 23rd the Americans finally reached the summit; the photo of a squad raising the American flag on the mountaintop became a symbol of the entire war for the United States.

On the flat the Marines ground forward, the 5th on the left, 4th on the right, and later the 3rd Division in the center. The Japanese resistance centered on a feature called the Motoyama Plateau, where their defense lines were particularly concentrated. Marine and naval air groups from the carriers flew close support missions: strafing, bombing, and dropping napalm—a jellied gasoline that clung to everything while it burned—within yards of the forward infantrymen. The second airfield was overrun and slowly the Japanese were confined to the northern end of the island. But just as the Americans had perfected their techniques of air and ground and naval coordination, so too the Japanese had worked on their defensive tactics. There were no more wasteful banzai charges that left the ground littered with Japanese dead and achieved little. Every soldier in every squad fought cannily and tried to take his enemy with him when he died. The Americans had estimated five days as necessary to secure the island; instead it took a month. During that time suicide planes hit the carrier Saratoga, putting her out of action for the rest of the war, and sank the escort carrier Bismarck Sea with a loss of 350 of her crew.

It was the end of March before the last opposition was finally hunted down. Of the 21,000 Japanese, about 200 were taken prisoner; the rest all died. The Marines and navy suffered 6,800 men killed and more than 18,000 wounded, the first island battle in which American casualties outnumbered those of the enemy. Twenty-six Medals of Honor were awarded, twelve of them posthumously. The island proved worth its cost. Even before the fighting stopped, crippled B-29s were sliding onto the landing strip, and by the end of the war more than 2,200 of them had landed there, carrying more than 24,000 crew members who had cause to bless the sailors and Marines who had taken Iwo. Yet in terms of the numbers involved, Iwo Jima was still the single bloodiest battle of the Pacific war; it was a grim portent of what lay ahead.

Some 850 miles west of the Bonins lies the beautiful island of Okinawa; the most important of the Ryukyus, it is almost exactly equidistant from Manila and Tokyo. It was the next American target, a narrow, irregularly shaped island about seventy miles long. Its position presented the Americans with considerable problems, but its taking was thought worth the effort. The chief difficulty lay in the fact that it was within reach of land-based aircraft from southern Japan, but beyond the range of similar American planes from the Philippines. Most of the air cover would have to be provided by carrier-borne planes, and that meant the carriers themselves must stay on station, especially vulnerable to suicide attacks. Intelligence reports estimated that there were about 75,000 Japanese troops on the island, so in that sense it was going to be a major fight; actually, counting impressed laborers and local defense forces, there were more than 100,000, so the Americans significantly underestimated what they were up against.

The advantages were that Okinawa was strategically located; it lay athwart all the lanes to the south. With its taking, Formosa would be isolated, and just as Japanese medium bombers could reach Okinawa from southern Japan, so American medium bombers could reach southern Japan from Okinawa. It was large enough to have several airfields and it had a number of good anchorages in its heavily indented coastline. Admiral Nimitz decided to sacrifice strategic surprise in favor of a campaign of isolating the island: the Japanese might know the Americans were coming; they would not be able to do anything about it.

The isolation of the components of the empire was already proceeding apace anyway. Late in 1944 and into 1945 units of the U. S. Fleet had scoured the waters north of the Philippines, striking at targets on Formosa and anyplace else that seemed worthwhile. As the spring of 1945 came on, the navy spread northward. Carrier aircraft hit islands throughout the Ryukyus, the B-29s struck increasingly at Japan itself, the submarines became bolder and bolder, ranging even in the Inland Sea between the home islands, searching for targets that became fewer and fewer as the war waned.

The landings on Okinawa went well; the fighting less so. At the end of March, the U. S. 10th Army, under General Simon Bolivar Buckner, seized several islands offshore to serve as close support bases. They then landed early in April on the southwest-central part of Okinawa. The landings were not heavily resisted by the Japanese, and the Americans had soon cut the island in half. Marine units then swung left, to the north, and moved up the island, while army units wheeled south and right. The Marines met little more than token opposition until they got as far north as the Motobu Peninsula, which they secured by mid-April after a hard fight.

In the south, however, the Japanese put up their battle. General Mitsuru Ushijima had been ordered to hold on until the kamikaze planes had driven off or sunk the American amphibious support ships; when that had been accomplished, he was to counterattack and drive the invaders back into the sea. To help himself hold out, he had built three successive fortified lines across the bottom of the island. The first of these was called the Machinato Line; then came the main Shuri Line, its high point around the old Shuri Castle which dominated the whole area; and finally there was a last-ditch position at the bottom of the island, across the Naha Plain, around the Yaeju Dake Escarpment.

The Americans were totally ignorant of these before they reached them, and they got a nasty surprise when they hit the Machinato Line on April 7. It took six days of very hard fighting, with heavy casualties on both sides, before Ushijima abandoned the first line and fell back to the second. His losses had been worse than he had anticipated, and the American fleet was still obviously offshore. But the Shuri Line was even stronger than its predecessor; once more the order was to hold on at all costs.

This the Japanese did. The Americans butted against the line, the strongest they had yet encountered in the Pacific war, time and time again, but could make little headway. Some of Buckner’s subordinates asked to be employed on an amphibious end-run, but any possible landing places were open to Japanese artillery fire, and in the end there was nothing to do but fight it out. Ushijima had trouble with his juniors, too, and early in May he succumbed to their desire for an offensive. It was a costly mistake, to the matter of about 5,000 casualties, and its result was to exhaust the last Japanese reserve. Both sides were left pounding each other, like two tired fighters, and it took another two weeks for the American to pound the harder. On the 21st, Ushijima gave up the Shuri Line and carefully pulled his troops back to their last position. He tried to hold the Okinawan capital city of Naha, and it took two Marine divisions fighting house by house to clear it.

Not until mid-June did the army units break the position on the escarpment, after which it was a matter of time. Split up into segments, the Japanese were overrun in another week. Buckner was killed by an artillery shell three days before the battle ended; the Japanese commander committed suicide, and so did thousands of his soldiers and the civilians of the island. A decade after the war ended, huge piles of bleached bones could still be seen at the bottom of the cliffs in the southern part of the island.

The main object of the Japanese defense, of course, had been less the destruction of the American soldiers than their ships. While Ushijima’s men bought time with their lives, the American fleet was tied to the island. They had expected this and had made precautions for it. The main combat element, Task Force 58—it was back to “Fifth” Fleet again—cruised eastward of the island. The amphibious forces were necessarily right offshore, with the carrier support groups beyond them. To seaward of everything was a screen of radar picket ships, destroyers, and escorts to give early warning of approaching kamikazes—and to be themselves targets for the suicide planes.

At the same time that the suicide attacks were launched, the Imperial Navy made its last challenge. Admiral Seiichi Ito gathered up what fuel he could find in the home islands—enough for a one-way trip—and sailed from the Inland Sea. He flew his flag in the great superbattleship Yamato—80,000 tons and armed with eighteen-inch guns—but all he could bring with him besides her was a cruiser and eight destroyers. There were no illusions about chances for survival as they put to sea. American submarines reported their presence before they were out of sight of land. At noon on April 7, carrier planes caught them halfway to Okinawa, hitting them so fiercely that the great Yamato soon went down. The cruiser and three destroyers went with her, and there was nothing left for the remainder to do but head back to Japan. They had just enough fuel to get there.

The kamikazes fared better. In the two months that the fleet stood off Okinawa they flew 1,900 missions, in addition to about 3,700 conventional aircraft sorties. They hit the radar pickets especially hard, and altogether they sank thirty-six American vessels, most of them smaller types. Four American carriers were damaged; so were three British, for with the tailing off of the naval war against Germany, a British Far Eastern Fleet had appeared under the command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Ten battleships were hit, as well as thirteen other smaller carriers, five cruisers, sixty-seven destroyers, and a large number of amphibious vessels. About 5,000 sailors were killed. Yet the Japanese did not dislodge “the fleet that came to stay,” and in the end, both Okinawa and the waters around it were secure.

The cost was high: nearly 50,000 American and Allied casualties, more than 12,000 of them killed. Japanese casualties were even higher: 117,000, of whom 110,000 were killed. Nearly 8,000 aircraft were lost. If they still wanted to fight, the Japanese were going to be hard pressed to find much material with which to do it.

By summer of 1945 the entire ramshackle empire was coming apart at the seams. In the eastern part of the East Indies, Australian troops under General Sir Thomas Blarney were operating in Borneo, pushing the dispirited Japanese garrisons back into the middle of the island. In the western Indies, British units were striking at will against oil refineries and other enemy-held targets. Troops of the Netherlands East Indies Army were once more appearing on the scene. In Burma the British were pushing steadily south. Mandalay had fallen in March, and early in June an amphibious landing retook the capital of Rangoon. Those forces that were not isolated by the speed of the British advance were falling back toward the Thai border in disarray, and the long painful war in Burma was all but over.

In China too the tide had turned at last. The Japanese were still able to mount offensives early in 1945, and they also seized full control of Indochina from the residual French garrisons that had lived a shadow life for all these long years. But by early May their last offensives had petered out. Their troops were low on both morale and matériel—their best troops either used up or long ago drafted off to more-active theaters—before the submarines isolated them. By mid-May, they were pulling out of southern China and seeking to reinforce Manchuria, conscious that the Russians had won their war and were now hungrily eyeing territory in Mongolia and Manchuria. There were still hundreds of thousands—millions—of Japanese soldiers under arms, but with the heart of the empire being steadily gnawed away, the limbs were increasingly powerless to affect its fate.

The heart was indeed being gnawed—by fire. It was not only that the Americans were getting close enough to do real damage, they had also changed their ideas of how to do it. The man chiefly responsible for this was an irascible cigar-chewing flier named Curtis LeMay. Taking over the bombing effort against Japan early in 1945, he decided on major shifts of tactics. The B-29s would bomb at night, they would come down to 7,000 feet to do it, and they would use incendiary bombs in far greater proportions than had been done previously. The results were spectacular—and terrible. On the night of March 9 more than 200 Superfortresses dropped 1,600 tons of incendiaries and burned out the center of Tokyo; by the next dawn sixteen square miles of the city were gone. The bombers moved on to other cities: Yokohama, Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka. They bombed by night and by day. They brought their fighter escorts with them from Iwo Jima, and they took on the Japanese home defense squadrons and chased them out of their own sky. In two months they had virtually destroyed the five major cities of Japan; more than three million were homeless in Tokyo alone. Like the navy, the bombers now began to search for targets and they started hitting the smaller cities as well. Already suffering severe shortages, their sons and husbands gone to distant battles from which they never returned, the Japanese were slowly beginning to weaken. By late July and early August the Americans were sending over 800 bombers at a time, and army and navy planners were working up for the invasion of the home islands.

Initial planning called for an invasion of the southern islands in the fall, perhaps about the first of November. Then the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that in early 1946 they could invade the main island of Honshu, probably near Tokyo itself. There were major problems to all of this. Both the British and the Russians wanted to be involved. The Americans reluctantly conceded to British requests; the British had worked amicably with the U. S. Fleet in the Okinawa campaign, but there were occasional problems. The attitudes and usages were different, and the whole British Far Eastern Fleet was only large enough to serve as a task group in the 5th Fleet. To a certain extent the Americans did not want to be bothered with the British; to a rather larger extent than has generally been realized, they were hesitant about doing anything that would give the British a greater claim on the postwar settlement of affairs of east Asia. Few Americans were deeply aware of what the British had done in Burma but they were highly aware of what they, the Americans, had done in the western Pacific.

The Russians presented an even thornier problem. As early as 1943 the Joint Chiefs had insisted that a Russian declaration of war, and active participation in Manchuria at the very least, was a prerequisite for full victory against Japan. They still held this view in the early months of 1945, and it was largely American desire for Russian assistance against Japan that led them to make major concessions to Russian territorial ambitions in Europe as the war was ending there. By the beginning of the summer, however, things looked different; the bombing campaign was now achieving satisfactory results, and the earlier desire to base B-29s in Siberia was given up. Russian behavior in Germany had not made them appear unqualifiedly desirable as allies. Still, the general estimate was that it would cost the invaders one million casualties to overrun the home islands. It was obviously highly desirable that at least some of those casualties should be incurred by Russia rather than the United States. As August began, the matter of Russian intervention was still undecided.

When Harry S Truman became President of the United States, he inherited something of which he had so far been totally ignorant: one of the first things he was told was that the United States possessed a new weapon that was almost ready for action. It was a new type of bomb, whose power was created by the splitting of the atom. American and British scientists had been working for years on the problem of nuclear fission, engaged in a quiet but deadly laboratory race with the Germans. The race really began in August of 1939 when Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt a letter in which he announced the possibility of creating a controlled nuclear reaction. He pointed out that such a reaction might be used to create a powerful bomb. Almost six years and two and a half billion dollars later, the first atomic bomb in history, a test bomb, was detonated at Los Alamos, New Mexico. That was on July 16, 1945. Ten days later, at the Potsdam Conference in the ruins of Berlin, Truman and the other Allied leaders issued an ultimatum to Japan, calling on her to surrender immediately or suffer the consequences of new and terrible weapons. The ultimatum did not clearly spell out what the Americans possessed, and the Japanese, thinking they were already being hit with as terrible weapons as could be devised, announced that they would fight on. Truman authorized the dropping of the new bomb anytime after August 3.

This decision was not the result of agonizing thought. There had been discussion among military and political leaders and a committee made up of the scientists who had developed the bomb. There were a few half-hearted suggestions that the Japanese might be invited to a demonstration of the bomb, but these received little support. Bombs are made to be used, and the scientific committee concluded by recommending that a Japanese city be struck in such a way that it would provide a clear idea of the power now possessed by Japan’s enemies. There were only four cities left in Japan that had not already suffered major damage. At first the Americans thought to bomb Kyoto, but it was a religious and cultural shrine, the traditional home of the Emperors in the time of the Shogunate. They decided instead to go for Hiroshima, a manufacturing city of about seven square miles and 350,000 population.

The great bomb was dropped from a B-29, jauntily named Enola Gay, an aerial bomb, it exploded above the center of the town at nine-fifteen on the morning of August 6. There was a blinding flash and a great boiling gust of flame, smoke, and dust rising to a mushroom-shaped cloud that towered over the city. Within a second, four square miles of the city vanished, nearly 80,000 people died, and Hiroshima was destroyed. In the midst of terror and devastation, the atomic era was born.

There was great rejoicing in the Allied world. The enemy had been smitten. It was not known at the time that the enemy was already trying to surrender. A new government, under Premier Suzuki, had approached Soviet Russia as early as May with a request that Russia mediate the conflict. However, the Japanese insisted upon surrendering on terms, and the Russians had their own designs for eastern Asia, which did not include a premature end to the war before the Russians got what they wanted, so the hesitant attempts came to nothing. Now, on August 8, the Russians declared war on Japan and Red Army troops poured over the Manchurian border and began a rapid occupation of territory. The next day the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb, on the city of Nagasaki. Again the giant fireball and the mushroom cloud appeared in the sky, and again thousands disappeared in a sudden flash, leaving other thousands behind to suffer the maiming and radiation poisons.

That was enough. The Japanese government, at the urging of the Emperor—the army was determined to fight on—offered on the 10th to surrender, its only condition being that the person of the Emperor and the imperial throne remain inviolate; the Allies responded positively, and on August 14 the Japanese accepted the terms and surrendered. The Russians raced troops into the Korean Peninsula and southern part of the island of Sakhalin, and the first American units arrived in Japan on August 26. At the end of the month the U. S. Fleet anchored at last in Tokyo Bay, under that most magnificent of mountains, Fujiyama, whose white peak hung like a cloud in the western sky. General MacArthur and representatives of all the Allied nations were aboard the flagship, the new battleship Missouri, and on Sunday, September 2, the Japanese delegation, a small, rather innocuous-looking group whose leaders wore formal morning dress, signed the official surrender documents. The war was over. Its legacy and its suffering remained.

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