Okinawa, the Bomb and the ‘Real’ End of World War Two

Why did the Americans take the decision to drop the bomb?
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Last summer was the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-J Day – Victory over Japan, 14 August 1945 – the official end of World War Two. Most Britons prefer to celebrate V-E Day –Victory in Europe, 8 May 1945 – the defeat of Nazi Germany, a point underlined by the blanket coverage that was given by UK news outlets to the earlier anniversary, when the later one passed almost unnoticed. Why so? It’s partly because Britons, then and now, saw Hitler as their main existential threat, as indeed he was; and partly because the fighting with the Japanese in the spring and summer of 1945 is seen as little more than a series of mopping-up operations. We have fallen victim, it seems, to one of the classic pitfalls of historical perspective: the benefit of hindsight. Because the war ended on 14 August, we assume that a finish date in the summer of 1945 was more or less inevitable. It wasn’t. At the same time that American ground troops landed on the island of Okinawa, the most southerly of Japan’s prefectures, on April 1, 1945 – the last staging post before an invasion of the Japanese home islands – British and Commonwealth troops were planning Operation Dracula, an air and sea attack on Rangoon, the capital of Burma. In the event, Dracula was a bloodless victory because, shortly before it was launched on 2 May, 1945, the Japanese withdrew their defending forces.

With Rangoon and most of Burma in Allied hands, British commanders turned their thoughts to Malaya and the naval base of Singapore, the loss of which in February 1942, after a lightning Japanese advance down the Malay peninsula, had been the most humiliating British defeat of the war. The invasion of Malaya was planned in two stages: first a limited operation (codenamed Roger) to capture Phuket off the west coast of Siam; followed by a much larger invasion of Malay proper, Operation Zipper. This would enable Singapore to be recovered by the end of 1945.

Roger was cancelled after members of a beach reconnaissance party – the forerunners to the modern SBS (Britain’s equivalent of US Navy SEALs) – were captured by the Japanese, thus compromising the whole operation. But that still left Zipper, the landing in the centre of the Malay peninsula, which, if successful, would ‘draw a string round the middle of the bag; cut off the Japanese retreating southward from Burma and prevent northern advances and reinforcements from Singapore.’

Meanwhile, at Winston Churchill’s insistence, sizeable British and Commonwealth forces had been earmarked to support the United States’ campaign in the Pacific. During the invasion of Okinawa, for example, a small but significant part of the US Fifth Fleet’s sea and air assets were provided by the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). Comprised of four fleet carriers, two battleships, five cruisers (one each from New Zealand and Canada), 11 destroyers (two from Australia) and 220 aircraft, the BPF was the Royal Navy’s most formidable strike force of the war.

In mid-June 1945, with the brutally-tough fight for Okinawa all but over – a three-month campaign that would eventually cost the lives of 250,000 servicemen and non-combatants – Churchill wrote to General George C. Marshall, the US Army chief of staff, offering to place 10 squadrons of planes on the island to ‘take part in the air bombardment of Japan’. The prime minister wrote later:

‘The Americans intended to seize Kyushu, the most westerly island of Japan, early in November 1945, and from there to invade the main island of Honshu. Here stood an army of more than a million men, well trained, well equipped, and fanatically determined to fight to the last. What remained of the Japanese Navy and Air Force was just as resolute. These two great operations would have entailed bitter fighting and great loss of life.’

Less than a week after Churchill’s offer of the planes, President Harry Truman met with his senior political and military advisors in Washington DC to discuss Japan’s unconditional surrender. The only way to achieve this, said General Marshall, was to invade Japan’s home islands: Kyushu on 1 November 1945, and Honshu the following spring (two operations that were known collectively as Downfall). Casualties were impossible to estimate, said Marshall, but given the huge number of men lost on Okinawa, and the fact that the enemy would fight even more fanatically in defence of Japan proper, it would be a ‘terrifying, bloody ordeal’ for the US servicemen involved. (Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who was at the meeting, expected casualties of ‘over a million’.)

Was there any alternative to a ground invasion? asked Truman. Yes, said Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. To threaten to use the newly developed atomic bomb; and if the threat was ignored, to drop it on a Japanese city. ‘I think,’ he added, ‘our moral position would be better if we gave them a specific warning of the bomb.’

When challenged by others that the bomb might not work, thus tarnishing America’s prestige, McCloy responded: ‘All the scientists have told us that the thing will go. It’s just a matter of testing it out now, but they’re quite certain from reports I’ve seen that this bomb is a success.’

Truman was encouraged by this, but said no decision could be taken until they knew the bomb would work. In the meantime, planning would continue for the invasion on 1 November. But everything changed on 16 July when Truman received word in Berlin, where he was attending the inter-Allied Potsdam Conference with Stalin and other leaders, that the ‘first full-scale test’ of ‘the atomic fission bomb’ in the New Mexico desert had been ‘successful beyond the most optimistic expectations’. The memo added: ‘We now had the means to insure [the war’s] speedy conclusion and save thousands of American lives.’  On hearing of the successful test in New Mexico, Winston Churchill felt only relief. He wrote later:

‘Up to this moment we had shaped our ideas towards an assault upon the homeland of Japan… I had in my mind the spectacle of Okinawa island, where many thousands of Japanese, rather than surrender, had drawn up in line and destroyed themselves with hand-grenades after their leaders had solemnly performed the rite of hara-kiri. To quell the Japanese resistance might well require the loss of a million American lives and half that number of British… Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision – fair and bright it seemed – of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks’.

Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki

Soon after, Truman signed the final ultimatum to Japan known as the Potsdam Declaration. It called upon Japan to agree to immediate unconditional surrender or face ‘prompt and utter destruction’. When Tokyo ignored the ultimatum, Truman gave the order to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima, ‘an Army city’ and ‘major quartermaster depot’ with warehouses full of military supplies.

Truman’s decision to authorize the use of the atomic bomb was directly influenced by the bloodbath on Okinawa. He feared that an invasion of Japan would look like ‘Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other’, and that it would cost the US military more than a million dead and wounded. It would also kill countless Japanese soldiers and civilians. ‘My object,’ wrote Truman, ‘is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.’

The first atomic bomb – ‘Little Boy’ – was dropped by the US B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay on Hiroshima on August 6. A second bomb – ‘Fat Man’ – exploded in Nagasaki three days later. The combined dead from the bombs were 200,000 Japanese, mostly civilians; an appalling total, but less than the number killed on Okinawa, and a fraction of those who would have died if the US had invaded mainland Japan. Such a desperate course of action was no longer necessary.

On 10 August, the Japanese government opened peace negotiations. Even then there were hard-line elements in the military who tried to scupper a deal, but they failed to win the support of Emperor Hirohito and the coup failed. Japan agreed to surrender unconditionally on 14 August, much to the delight of the Allied troops who were due to take part in Operations Zipper and Downfall. ‘Our hopes had been dashed so often,’ recalled Lieutenant Bruce Watkins, ‘that it took several days to absorb the impact of this event. Relief flooded slowly into our veins and we began to dare to think of going home.’

The decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan still divides opinion today. Was it necessary to kill so many non-combatants, some people ask, when Japan was going to surrender anyway? Was it done as a warning to Stalin, the first blow struck in the Cold War? Would the bombs have been dropped on a European foe like Germany, or did a racist attitude towards the Japanese play into the decision?

Admiral Leahy, who voiced no opposition prior to Hiroshima, wrote later that the ‘use of this barbarous weapon’ made no difference because the Japanese were ‘already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons’. Being the first to use atomic bombs, wrote Leahy, ‘we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.’ This is nonsense. The US Army’s Air Force had already inflicted far greater civilian casualties by firebombing Japanese cities, a strategy that Leahy raised no objection to. Nor was there any guarantee that, prior to the dropping of the bombs, Japan was ready to make peace on Allied terms. Even Shigenori Togo, Japan’s Foreign Minister and a man keen to end the war, acknowledged later that there was no appetite for ‘unconditional surrender’ in the summer of 1945. ‘We were concerned,’ he said, ‘with the steps to be taken to obtain suitable conditions; in other words, with how we could obtain a negotiated peace.’ As that was unacceptable to the Allies, the war was bound to continue if the bombs had not been used. Even when they were, the senior military men – War Minister Anami, Army Chief of Staff Umezu, and Chief of Naval Staff Toyoda – argued against peace. Later, Togo recalled that:

‘I was unable to keep the military men from insisting to the very end that they were not beaten, that they could fight another battle, and that they did not want to end the war until they had staged one last campaign. I could understand how they felt, they were sure they could deal a punishing blow to the American invaders in one last battle, and they were reluctant to drop all their preparations and sue for peace when they knew they could do so – or perhaps even repulse them completely.’

The peace party won out because Togo had the support of a majority of the cabinet and, crucially, the emperor, who realized after the dropping of the bombs, that further resistance was hopeless. But even then it was a close-run thing. Togo noted that:

‘From the 12th [August] on, the young officers in the Army grew increasingly restive, and there was talk of a coup d’état to protect the Emperor… There were signs of activity among the military from the 12th until the evening of the 13th – the situation was threatening until around the 14th – but fortunately nothing serious happened… If there had actually been a coup d’état, the peace negotiations would have been blown sky-high.’

Togo’s testimony, given in 1949, leaves little doubt that, but for the use of atomic weapons, Japan would have fought on. If the bombs had not been used, the war might have dragged on for another year and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen. Winston Churchill, for one, was convinced that Truman had done the right thing. He wrote:

‘The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise.’

If Truman’s advisors and allies were united in their belief that dropping the atomic bombs was the correct thing to do, so too were the men who dropped them and the many soldiers whose lives might have been lost if the invasion of Japan had gone ahead. The Enola Gay’s pilot Colonel Tibbets, who died aged 92 in 2007, always insisted that he had no regrets. In a radio interview in 2000, he said: ‘I thought to myself, ‘Gee, if we can be successful, we’re going to prove to the Japanese the futility in continuing to fight because we can use the weapons on them. They’re not going to stand up to this thing.’ After I saw what I saw I was more convinced that they’re gonna quit.’

His crew felt the same. Asked in 1985 if he would do it again, Lieutenant Jacob Beser, a radar specialist and the only man to serve on both missions (in the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car), replied: ‘Given the same circumstances in the same kind of context, the answer is yes… Three million men were gonna be thrown against Japan. There were about three million Japanese digging in for the defense of their homeland, and there was a casualty potential of over a million people. That’s what was avoided. If you take the highest figures of casualties of both cities, say, 300,000 combined casualties…versus a million, I’m sorry to say, it’s a good tradeoff.’

Truman himself never doubted he had done the right thing. ‘I knew what I was doing,’ he wrote in 1963, ‘when I stopped the war that would have killed a half-million youngsters on both sides if those bombs had not been dropped. I have had no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again.’

Saul David is an award-winning historian and the author of Crucible of Hell: Okinawa – The Last Great Battle of the Second World War, which is now out in paperback.

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