As this 67th anniversary of the dropping of the first of only two atomic bombs ever used in combat is being remembered and, as is the case every year, an occasion for protest of both the weapons themselves and the United States and our decision to employ them, some oft-ignored perspective is in order.

The pending invasion of Japan, Operation DOWNFALL, was well along in the planning stages, with the first of these landings, on Kyushu (Operation OLYMPIC) scheduled for 1 November, 1945.  Shipping, troops, ammunition, landing craft, ammunition, fuel, trucks, tanks, howitzers, amtracs, every last item of modern war was being identified and gathered for what was sure to be a massive and bloody campaign that augured no end in sight.

The oft-repeated but strictly hindsight perspective that Japan was “near collapse” patently ignores the great common theme of the entire of the war in the Pacific.   The Japanese, as individuals, as small formations, major combat units, and indeed, as civilians, resisted fiercely well past the time when Western perspective and mindset would have dictated capitulation.  Time and again, “Jap must be finished” was so much wishful thinking, as the starving and desperate defenders made Americans pay for every inch of ground on every island on the path to Japan.

The casualty estimates for Operation OLYMPIC, the landing of two Army and one Marine Amphibious Corps on the Kanto Plain on the island of Kyushu, were grim by any standards.  Half a million US casualties were predicted, including more than 100,000 killed.  Sobering as they were, those estimates were predicated upon several calculations which proved, to both the horror and relief of the eventual occupation force, to be wildly optimistic.

First, Allied intelligence projections were that around 80,000 defenders were on Kyushu in April, which was projected to grow to around 400,000 by November.  In reality, more than 600,000 Japanese were to have awaited the invaders.  Joint estimates identified about 5,000 aircraft of all types available to the Japanese defenders.  The actual number of aircraft was more than twice that, nearly 11,000, most designated as “special attack” formations (Kamikaze).  In addition, Japan was prepared to employ several hundred midget submarines, more than a thousand human torpedoes and suicide boats, and nearly 900 rocket-powered suicide bombs which would be sent to destroy the ships and craft of the US invasion fleet.  Of the numbers of these last weapons, US intelligence knew almost nothing.

Second, the casualty ratio was based on the previous autumn’s combat operations on the island of Saipan, giving the name “Saipan Ratio” to the calculation that the killing of seven Japanese soldiers cost US forces 1.0 KIA and 1.7 WIA.   Recent combat on the island of Okinawa, despite the fact that the Japanese chose not to oppose the landings themselves, showed a figure almost twice the “Saipan Ratio”; the savage fighting for Iwo Jima produced US casualties at a rate of more than three times the planning figure.

Secretary of War Stimson commissioned the renowned scientist William B. Shockley to study the likely casualties from invading the Japanese Home Islands.   His conclusion is considered a major influence on President Truman to employ the Atomic Bombs on Japan:

 “If the study shows that the behavior of nations in all historical cases comparable to Japan’s has in fact been invariably consistent with the behavior of the troops in battle, then it means that the Japanese dead and ineffectives at the time of the defeat will exceed the corresponding number for the Germans. In other words, we shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 to 800,000 killed…”

As we lose our World War II Veterans and their first-hand perspective on the terrible cost of the War in the Pacific, it is important to remember the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   The Shockley Report has been called a “gross exaggeration” and dismissed as being overly pessimistic.  However, one has but to apply an “Iwo Jima-Okinawa Ratio” to the actual numbers of Japanese defenders to see casualty estimates not radically different from Shockley’s.

Succeeding generations, able to debate the questions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki academically, often fail to understand what the invasion of Japan would have meant.  Kyushu and Honshu, and other landings would have replicated the horror of Tarawa’s Red Beach 2 and 3 on a massive scale.  A dozen more Suribachis, a hundred more Umurbrogols, thousands of Sugar Loafs, and Half Moons, and Amphitheaters.  The worst of urban combat, against an army and a population whose duty was glorious death for the Emperor while killing Americans.  The agony of the fleet off Okinawa, writ far larger and bloodier than the original experience.   And the utter and total destruction of Japan, as a nation and as a society.

After four years of bloody war which had been thrust upon us, Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a visiting of war upon the makers of war.  America in 1945 understood that sentiment at a visceral level, something we have never had to embrace.   Because of our great good fortune, we sometimes think ourselves more civilized than our parents and grandparents for our untested perspective.

To those who question the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I ask this question:

How do you explain to the mother, father, wife, son, of those who would have died on Kyushu or Honshu, that, in your calculation of relative worth, the lives of enemy civilians counted more than the life their loved one?

7 thoughts on “Ketsu-Go”

  1. What is often ignored is the perspective of the senior officers who commanded the war effort in the Pacific. LeMay was of the opinion that nukes had little effect and were not necessary to end the war. MacArthur was of the same opinion. NImitz was not told of it until almost the last minute and I can not recall his opinion of the matter.

    The Japs had put out peace feelers in May of 1945 and only asked for the recognition of the Emperor and that he not be tried as a war criminal. In the end, that’s exactly what we gave them and they almost immediately surrendered. Alas, that was after the nukes had been dropped.

    I am firmly of the opinion that the nukes were dropped on Japan not to end the war, but to impress Stalin. We could have given Japan what they asked for back in May and ended the war two months earlier. I can understand how vets of that war felt (a Uncle was a Corpsman with the 1st Marine Division and was wounded on Guadalcanal) but the troops rarely knew of what was going on behind the scenes in the political world. When my Uncle found out that we gave the Japs what they asked for in May he felt betrayed. And I see no reason why he shouldn’t have either.

    1. “Downfall” by Richard Franks shows that the Imperial Foreign Ministry (not the Army and Navy who were in charge) told their ambassador to the USSR to approach Stalin to act as an intermediary for a negotiated end to the war in the Pacific. The ambassador asked just what was he supposed to negotiate, and that the best possible deal he could get would be to leave the emperor in place. The foreign Ministry replied that wasn’t good enough and the approach to Stalin was never made. The peace feelers you describe were made by one Japanese official to other Japanese officials, not us, and they were firmly rejected. And we knew it at the time because our code breakers were reading their mail faster than they could read their mail.

  2. QM,

    You and I will disagree on that in the extreme. I doubt any Japanese government that made open peace overtures to the Allies in May 1945 would have survived the coup that was sure to follow. Even if it did, the Army and a large percentage of the population would likely not have gone along. Hirohito faced such a coup even in August, AFTER the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

    I am not sure impressing the Soviets was quite as on the table as has been advertised. US intelligence got incontrovertible evidence that Stalin knew of MANHATTAN, and likely some of the details (thank you Klaus Fuchs, Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg, and Harry Hopkins!) of the bomb, at Potsdam.

  3. Thank you URR. The Japanese had a few troops that did not surrender for over 15 years after the war was over. The troops were not quitters.

    The Japanese Army and Navy had figured out exactly where we planned to land from our previous battles. There was no strategic surprise, and little tactical surprise. The kamikazes were going to target the troop ships (APs and LSTs), not warships. Assume 8,000 aircraft, with 10% getting to the APs (Okinawa’s average). 800 hits does a lot of damage.
    SPI had the game Operation Olympic. The carnage from gaming out several strategies was large. Eastern Front USSR large.

    The nuclear bombs were a blessing in comparison. QM, the message to the USSR was not that we used atomic weapons. The real message was we dropped every one we had. The US planned to drop every one it had, and would have not have stopped until incontrovertible victory. We were prepared to make the rubble bounce to win. That was the real message we sent to the USSR. It worked.

  4. The astonishing thing is, had the atom bomb not worked, the US was fully prepared to pay that butcher’s bill.

    Can you imagine today’s society calmly contemplating not just the hundreds of thousands of enemy dead, but of our own, and deciding it was worth the price?

    I ache for our losses in our current campaigns, and seethe with rage at the losses of 9/11, but recognize that they are almost only a rounding error in the context of what our fathers and grandfathers faced.

  5. Paul Giangreco, in his book, Hell to Pay, Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, shows that the IJN, having lost islands to the USN/USMC for over 3 years by the late spring of 1945. They knew the type ob beaches and tide conditions we would need to invade Kyusu. They had, indeed, figured out the right beaches, and the date to within two weeks.

    The Imperial High Command went to the Emperor, and told him, ” You Majesty, they are coming, and we can’t stop them. They will take Kyushu, and eventually invade Honshu. We cannot stop them, but we can make it expensive to defeat Japan. We believe that by the end, we will inflict 1,000,000 casualties on the Americans. We expect to lose 20,000,000 of our people doing it. The Japanese Race may come to and end, but the World will remember that we stod up to the Americans.” By killing 200,000 of them at Nagasaski and Hiroshima we did not have to kill 20 Million.

    In Japan at War, an Oral History, Theodore and Haruko Cook interviewed dozens of Japanese survivors of the War. There was no evidence of the Japanese being ready to surrender, or do anythingthing but go down in flames.

    A few years ago, the Mayor of Nagasaki got into a lot of trouble for saying, ” I really don’t see what choice the Americans had at that point”. So even the Japanese, are starting to admit what needed to be done to bring the War to an end.

    But probably the best reason for dropping the bombs was that everyone saw just what even the primative weapons of the day could do. Since then, no one has used them. But I do not remain sanguine about that remaining the staus quo, after Iran gets a working weapon.

  6. of course the fight-back against japan was american-led, with allied forces mainly fighting against germany etc. but even before VE day the british, commonwealth and allied forces were moving more assets into the pacific areas, and planning their contribution to the eventual invasion of the main islands (remember at this point india was still british-ruled, singapore was to be avenged / freed and so on). from the little i’ve read of the allied plans casualty rates of 90%+ were expected in the initial landings, and up to 2 million in the final reckoning. one of my grandfather’s fought in normandy; i have no idea if he would have been shipped out, but possibly. as terrible as the atomic weapons were, i find it very hard to understand how this alternative of mass landings would have been better, and as posters above have mentioned, there really wasn’t any indication of plans to surrender, just to fight to the death to preserve the emperor etc. i do believe the point that it was also a demonstration to stalin, and i wouldn’t be surprised if churchill was all for that. i may be wrong, but it certainly wasn’t public knowledge for a while that there were only 2 bombs ready in 1946, correct? perhaps, we’ll never know, but perhaps their use helped prevent an soviet attack on the rest of germany etc. in the late 40s …

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