The defeat of Japan


On 7 August 1945, before the full extent of the destruction at Hiroshima had become known, American officers met on Luzon to prepare for the first stage of the invasion of Japan, set for November 1. On the following day, in London, agreement was signed between Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and France, establishing an International Military Tribunal for the trial and sentencing of those who had committed ‘crimes against humanity’. That same day, August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, hurling its armies into Japanese occupied Manchuria, pitting more than a million Soviet soldiers against the 700,000 men of the Japanese Kwantung Army.

The Americans had planned to drop a second atomic bomb on Japan on August 11, if, after the Hiroshima bomb, the Japanese did not surrender unconditionally. Because of predicted bad weather, however, that date was brought forward by two days. Thus it was, that at four minutes before two o’clock on the morning of August 9, as several hundred American bombers set off on a massive air raid over military targets on Honshu Island, a second specially adapted B-29 bomber, ‘Bock’s Car’, took off from Tinian Island with a second atomic bomb. Bock was the name of the bomber’s usual commander, Frederick Bock. But on this flight its pilot was Major Charles W. Sweeney. His target was to be the city of Kokura, but, if Kokura was obscured by cloud, an alternative target, Nagasaki, had been set. Reaching Kokura, ‘Bock’s Car’ found the city covered in industrial haze. As Sweeney’s orders were that he could drop the bomb only on a visual target, he flew on to Nagasaki. At two minutes after eleven o’clock, nine hours after the bomb had left Tinian, it was released, exploding 1,650 feet above the city.

In a few moments, more than 40,000 people had been killed. Five thousand were to die before the end of the year; thirty years later, the full death toll at Nagasaki was calculated at 48,857.

Among those who looked down on Nagasaki as the bomb exploded was the British pilot, Leonard Cheshire, present as an observer. He was later to recall the writhing cloud, ‘obscene in its greedy clawing at the earth, swelling as if with its regurgitation of all the life that it had consumed’.

At the very moment when the Nagasaki bomb exploded, the Japanese Supreme War Direction Council was meeting in Tokyo. News of the bomb led to a renewed discussion as to whether Japan should accept unconditional surrender. The Council was evenly divided; three generals were for surrender, three for continuing the war. The Foreign Minister, Shigenori Togo, cast his vote for surrender, as did the Prime Minister, Admiral Suzuki. But the Minister of War, General Anami, was emphatic that there should be no surrender. ‘It is far too early to say that the war is lost,’ he told his colleagues, and he added: ‘That we will inflict severe losses on the enemy when he invades Japan is certain, and it is by no means impossible that we may be able to reverse the situation in our favour, pulling victory out of defeat. Furthermore, our Army will not submit to demobilization. And since they know they are not permitted to surrender, since they know that a fighting man who surrenders is liable to extremely heavy punishment, there is really no alternative for us but to continue the war.’

The impasse was complete; but Togo and Suzuki were determined to end the war at once, and, in a secret meeting with Hirohito, prevailed upon him to summon a further meeting of the Supreme War Direction Council, and to preside over it himself.

The meeting took place shortly after midnight, in the Emperor’s underground bomb shelter. First, Suzuki read out the Potsdam Declaration. Then, Togo urged its acceptance, provided that the position of the Emperor and the throne could be respected. Suzuki supported Togo, General Anami opposed him. For nearly two hours, the discussion continued. Then Hirohito spoke. ‘Continuing the war’, he said, ‘can only result in the annihilation of the Japanese people and a prolongation of the suffering of all humanity. It seems obvious that the nation is no longer able to wage war, and its ability to defend its own shores is doubtful.’

The time had come, Hirohito told the council, ‘to bear the unbearable’. He therefore gave his sanction to Togo’s proposal that Japan should accept unconditional surrender. The message to that effect, a formal acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, was sent out from Tokyo, early on August 10, to the Japanese ambassadors in Switzerland and Sweden, for transmission to the Allies. ‘The Japanese Government’, read the message, ‘are ready to accept the terms enumerated in the Joint Declaration which was issued at Potsdam on 26 July, 1945, by the heads of government of the United States, Great Britain, and China, and later subscribed to by the Soviet Government, with the understanding that the said Declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler’.


On the morning of August 10, President Truman and his advisers discussed whether the proviso about the Emperor negated the acceptance of ‘unconditional’ surrender. A formula was devised, drafted by Secretary of State Byrnes, whereby Japan would have to agree that, from the moment of surrender, ‘the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the State shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers’. That morning, as the diplomatic exchanges began, Truman gave orders for the atomic bombing to stop. ‘He said’, noted Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace in his diary, that ‘the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, “all those kids”.’

In Manchuria, the Red Army continued its advance against the Japanese; in heavy fighting at Pingyanchen on August 10, of 850 Japanese engaged, 650 were killed or wounded. On August 11, Soviet naval forces began the bombardment of the southern part of Sakhalin Island.

The diplomatic exchanges between Tokyo and Washington, still conducted through neutral powers, continued throughout August 11 and August 12. On the evening of August 12, east of Okinawa, a Japanese submarine sank the American landing ship Oak Hilland the destroyer Thomas F. Nickel. That day, in Manchuria, Soviet forces, after a fierce and prolonged struggle, overran the Japanese defenders of the fortress of Hutou, in the final phase of the battle pouring petrol into the exhaust vents of the fortress and setting the fuel alight, thereby asphyxiating all the fortress defenders who were sheltered underground.

During August 12, the Japanese used kamikaze infantrymen to try to halt the Soviet tanks. But at Hualin, on the following day, the tanks were able to fire at the infantry reinforcements while they were still on their train, killing nine hundred as they tried to leave their carriages.


During the morning of August 14, more than eight hundred American bombers struck at military installations throughout the island of Honshu. That afternoon, the official Japanese news agency sent out an overseas radio bulletin, stating that an Imperial Proclamation was soon to be made, ‘accepting the Potsdam Proclamation’. Unknown to the radio listeners, the Emperor had already recorded the Proclamation. That evening, more than a thousand Japanese soldiers attacked the Imperial Palace, hoping to find the proclamation, and to prevent it being transmitted. They were successful only in assassinating the commander of the Imperial Guards Division, as troops loyal to the Emperor drove the attackers away. That night, General Anami, who still opposed surrender, but who had nevertheless refused to join the revolt, committed suicide. He was killing himself, he explained, in order to be spared listening to the Emperor’s Proclamation, and to ‘atone’ for the Army’s defeats.

By midnight on August 14, Soviet forces had advanced up to 250 miles into Manchuria, occupying Mukden; at the same time, Soviet troops were already ashore on Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands.


At midday on August 15, a Japanese radio announcer asked all listeners to stand ‘respectfully’ in front of their radio sets. There followed the music of the Japanese national anthem, and then, heard over the radio for the first time ever, the voice of the Emperor. He was reading the message which he had recorded on the previous day. The enemy, he said, ‘has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives’. This was the reason ‘why we have ordered our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union, that our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration…’

In the United States there was, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison has written, a ‘sour note to the glad news’ when, that same August 15, the United States Navy Department made public for the first time news of the torpedoing of the Indianapolis, sunk more than two weeks earlier with the loss of 883 men.


The Second World War was over, although not everybody engaged in it was to learn the news that day. Lieutenant-Commander Hashimoto, who had sunk the Indianapolis just over two weeks earlier, reached his naval base on the Inland Sea in happy mood, expecting to receive an ovation. Instead, he was handed a despatch containing the Imperial order to cease fire. Over Tokyo, American bombers, part of a fast carrier-based force that had not heard the news, struck once more at military targets. That day, in Nakom Paton prisoner-of-war camp, near Bangkok, the Australian surgeon, Colonel Dunlop, noted in his diary: ‘There are now wild and persistent rumours that the war is over.’

Those rumours were not to be confirmed for a further forty-eight hours; until, just after six o’clock on the evening of August 17, Dunlop was among several hundred prisoners who were summoned to the Japanese Army compound in the camp, and told, through an interpreter: ‘An armistice is now being held between all nations. All fronts are at peace and we have received instructions that we are to cease to regard you as prisoners-of-war. Therefore we cease to guard you. The maintenance of discipline is your own responsibility. Your repatriation will be soon. I advise you to keep your health, and to cultivate the papaya trees!’

Dunlop commented: ‘So many had suffered and died; even now, some would never see home; but the momentous day had come.’


The ‘momentous day’ had come to hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners-of-war, scattered and confined throughout the unconquered Empire. Kenneth Harrison, an Australian soldier who had been captured at Singapore and had worked on the ‘Death Railway’ in Thailand, was, at the time of the Japanese surrender, in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan itself. Later he recalled how ‘the tremendous exultation of our first night as free men was followed by a most unsatisfactory and unsettled week that came somewhat as an anti-climax. The Japanese made no official admission that they had surrendered, and they still controlled the camp “to keep out angry civilians”. For this reason we were warned not to sing and dance, although this admonition came rather late and was completely ignored. It was a strange twilight period in which we were neither free men nor captives, and the balance of power between us and the Japanese was a delicate thing’. Only on August 22, Harrison noted, ‘just as the pessimists were lapsing back into gloom and doubt, we had the first official admission that the mightiest conflict the world had known had indeed ended. A haggard, white-faced Japanese Camp Commandant addressed the assembled prisoners-of-war and said that hostilities had ended on 18 August. He asked us to stay quietly in the camp until we could be taken home. Alas, we were to shatter these fond hopes, for Camp Nakamura became unique in that its occupants were to flow over half of Japan with all the happy zeal of tourists’.

Among the cities visited by Harrison and many of his fellow prisoners-of-war was Hiroshima. ‘The reality’, he wrote, ‘was the girl with scarred features who passed with averted face. And the listless people who went by so dully; the scarred people; the burnt people; the apathetic people. And the people who even now showed not the slightest sign of hostility or resentment. Saddened and depressed beyond words at the magnitude of the tragedy, and feeling like ghouls, we decided to leave Hiroshima that same day. There was little to keep us there; nothing to see; no place to rest; nothing to eat; nothing to drink’. Harrison added: ‘Fortunately for our peace of mind we knew nothing of such atomic age refinements as radiation sickness, and although we occasionally picked up a statue or kicked over a strangely fused piece of metal for a closer look, we were never tempted to take a souvenir. One does not rob a tomb.’

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