Battle for Japan, 1944-1945,
By Max Hastings
In Tokyo, in February 1944, Prime Minister Tojo of Japan
splashed complacently in his bath. A
hapless colonel sent to brief him stood at attention. The briefer had been sent
by Gen. Mutaguchi of 15th Army to get Tojo’s approval for a major
offensive against the British in India. Mutaguchi’s idea was, apparently, to
forestall an expected offensive into conquered Burma by the shrewd and capable
Gen. William (“Bill”) Slim. It was also
to terrorize the Raj by introducing renegade Indian troops, captured by Japan,
into battle against Slim’s 14th Army, and hopefully provoke mass
desertions in the hastily raised Indian Army.
The Indian cities of Imphal and Kohima were the objectives.
Japan’s military culture at this time was notoriously
unconcerned with obstacles. Any
commander who dared voice skepticism about the feasibility of any operation was
invariably sacked. Personal
belligerency alone qualified an officer for promotion. For his part, Gen. Mutaguchi fired his own
chief of staff for merely mentioning the difficulties inherent in moving
thousands of soldiers and supplies, with no air cover, into the steamy jungles
of Assam, Burma, the wettest place on the planet, for no pressing purpose.
Prime Minister Tojo sighed and roused himself. Rising from his bath, he got out to stand
stark naked and dripping before the briefer.
“Imphal, yes,” he said, feigning interest. Then he burst forth with a little cannonade of questions designed
to demonstrate his superior intellect and throw the colonel off-balance.
communications? Have they been properly
thought out? Huh? Huh? It’s difficult country towards India, you
know. What about air cover? We can’t
help him much. Does he realize
that? Are you sure it will make things better?”
The colonel had no answers for the naked prime minister
dripping on the charts. Tojo looked
back toward his rapidly cooling bathtub.
“Tell him not to be too ambitious,” said the ostensible leader of Japan,
who then lost interest and signed the authorization order.
The ensuing slaughter was the turning point in the Burma
theater of WWII, a smashing victory for the British Indian Army and one of the
long-neglected spheres of ferocious combat excellently recounted by British
journalist and historian Max Hastings in his lengthy-but-readable new volume, Retribution:
The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945.
Recently acclaimed for his magisterial companion book, Armageddon,
which described the annihilation of the Third Reich, Hastings here turns his
considerable talents for lucid writing to the other great subject of the time.
many lessons for the present dilemmas of the West, now locked in an apparently
millennial struggle with an equally savage, fanatical enemy as Imperial
Japan. In keeping with the best
post-war historians, Hastings seamlessly combines the grand strategic
deliberations of the warlords with the often appalling realities on the ground
that ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen faced on both sides. Every war is fretted with savage ironies:
the final destruction of Imperial Japan contained more than most.
Perhaps chief among these involves the misperception that
the unprecedented atomic warfare waged by the US Army Air Corps on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki would, and indeed did, induce the surrender of the six fanatically
militarist chieftains holding court in Tokyo.
Hastings notes, as other historians, that in terms of pure
destructive power, the nuclear devastation of two Japanese cities with their
women and children paled in comparison to the regular plan of fire-bombing
adopted by 21st Bomber Command of the cigar-chomping Gen. Curtis M.
When LeMay inherited the new B-29 bombers of 21st
Bomber Command, the air crews mostly operated out of China by necessity: there
were no available closer bases in the Pacific as yet. The Chinese bases had to be supplied by air from India and Burma
as it became liberated by Slim’s under-appreciated and long-suffering 14th
In terms of actual effectiveness against the enemy, the new
and expensive B-29s were late bloomers.
Their China-based raids on Japan, made possible by Gen. Slim, were
extraordinarily ineffectual given the vast expense lavished upon them. When he arrived, LeMay faced innumerable and
often horrific technical challenges, most notably the frequent tendency of the
pressurized bombers’ engines to explode in midair.
The air crews knew of LeMay’s record from Germany using
incendiaries and low-level raids (to carry more bombs). One squadron commander wrote home that LeMay
had arrived and “will get us all killed.”
That was okay with LeMay, who half-expected to die himself. He led his crews in person in his own bomber
on low-level raids that exposed the bombers to terrifying ground fire, but
which guaranteed hitting the targets.
When the opening of the Marianas Islands by the US Marines
permitted Saipan and nearby islands to serve as supportive air bases, LeMay’s
operational tempo was increased dramatically.
Japan was now exposed to bombing raids around the clock, and
increasingly by a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs that began to
immolate Japan’s urban centers with their inhabitants. Japan’s cities were grotesquely unprepared for
a war with the United States; the houses and many buildings were largely paper
LeMay learned that with the right mix of bombs, he could
actually create a firestorm like that which had burned
out Dresden in Germany. These
murderous fire-raids of hundreds of bombers would soon create ground
temperatures of several thousand degrees, and would suck out all the air from
the pitiful shelters the Japanese people were forced to dig. On March 9th, 1945, LeMay
meticulously planned and executed a particularly ferocious bombing raid on
Tokyo using 1,665 tons of incendiaries.
His bombers bore in on the capital in criss-cross formations, while
flying at only between 5,000 and 10,000 feet to maximize the bomb loads. The fires burned out days later, after at
least 80,000 civilians had been burnt alive, 250,000 buildings destroyed, and
22 major industrial centers erased.
There was little discussion amongst the brass in Washington
about the morality of firebombing civilians.
If Japan had about 70 medium to large cities in its entire home island
chain, LeMay had reason to be confident that he could personally oversee the
destruction of all of them in a
matter of months, beginning in February 1945.
Hastings recounts in dreadful detail stories of some of the lucky
survivors of the firebombings. Only
Kyoto was spared due to its world-historical and cultural importance. Unfairly lambasted after the war as a
peculiar monster of depravity by liberal critics, Gen. LeMay was at all times
praised, encouraged and ordered to carry out this national destruction by his
superiors in Washington, who were all for it.
By the war’s end, the 21st Bomber Command’s
fire-raising campaign had lost 500 B-29’s to all causes, and almost 3,000
American lives. It had burned to death
about 300,000 Japanese civilians, 2.5 million homes, and the entire catalogue
of 70 major Japanese cities. The
campaign had also crushed the Japanese aviation industry and helpfully had
filled the Inland Sea with mines in secondary operations.
Yet Mr. Hastings points out that this wholesale erasure of
Japanese urban civilization did not persuade the six gangsters atop the ruling
structure to give up. His great
insights in this respect run counter to the received wisdom of both liberal and
conservative historians since the War.
Liberal pangs of conscience after the war decided that the burning of
old men, women and children in their homes was useless in inducing Japanese surrender,
because the Japanese were already beaten by 1945 and were simply looking for a
way to peace. Destroying the urban
centers merely strengthened the position of the “hard-liners” in the Japanese
War Cabinet and prolonged the war.
Hastings shows the futility of this speculation by letting
us listen in on the inner deliberations of the Cabinet, which indeed did have
elements desirous of a negotiated peace with the Allies. This peace faction was not the salvation
post-war American hand-wringers dreamed of, however. At no time did any member of the ruling military-dominated junta,
however vocal in his desire for negotiations with the Americans, seriously
propose anything resembling something the Allies could accept. After four years of appalling Allied combat
casualties and national mobilization, the Allies could hardly be expected to
sign off on a cessation of hostilities that allowed the ruling gangsters to
remain in power, immune from war crimes prosecution, and still holding on to
its dreadfully denuded and ill-gotten Manchuria.
In any event, the “peace” faction led by Prime Minister Suzuki
was never a working majority of the War Cabinet, which was always dominated in
large measure by fantastically bellicose men like Korechika Anami, the War
Minister, and also the Army and Navy chiefs of staff. These men were dark exemplars of what Pope John Paul II referred
to as a “culture of death,” who would rather sacrifice their entire nation on a
napalm-pyre than yield to the unbearable shame of surrender.
Yet Hastings makes it also clear that the outrageous
Japanese intransigence in the face of hopeless odds made even the steady reduction
of the 70 major cities to ashes irrelevant.
Unconditional Surrender, the professed Allied goal, was just not going
to be a consequence of the appalling human, moral and material cost of LeMay’s
Bomber Offensive. Perhaps LeMay’s
masters in Washington could be forgiven for thinking that such a “rain of ruin
from the air,” to use President Truman’s phrase, would convince even this
fanatical enemy to give in. Other
countries would surely have given in.
Indeed, any country a Western leader, rooted as he was in a
post-Christian ethos, could identify with would hardly have been immune to the
wholesale immolation of its children.
But of course the Japanese leaders had no such tradition of
respect for human life, and the suffering of their own public was irrelevant to
them. In 1945 an 8-man crew of a
crashed B-29 bailed out over Japan and were captured. They were taken to a Japanese city to be observed by a group of
medical students. The American crew,
strapped down on tables, were surprised to find themselves surrounded by
Japanese doctors in an open theater.
The doctors were not interested in demonstrating the proper care of
wounded airmen. It was instead an
anatomy lesson. The eager medical
students looked on while the doctors cut open each airman, one by one, for live
vivisection without anesthetic. The
ghoulish operations involved cutting out functioning livers, beating hearts,
and finally individual sections of the Americans’ brains while the poor souls
were still conscious. Not one single
Japanese medical personnel objected.
Further, as Hastings notes, there seems to be no single case
anywhere in which captured American or allied servicemen were treated with
anything resembling minimum care by their Japanese masters. It was not a question of a general Japanese
food shortage across the Empire; even in places where Japanese stocks of food
were adequate, the Americans starved to death.
Having dishonored themselves by surrendering, went the Japanese view, the
Americans were worse than animals, and were thus treated as such.
So if the full-bore razing of Japanese cities by 21st
Bomber Command was strategically ineffectual, what about the dream of invasion?
An enemy must have both a will to resist and the ability to
resist. In the spring of 1945 Japan had
both in spades. Mr. Hastings draws and
expands upon new work published by Richard B. Frank,
author of Downfall
in 1999. After the appalling American
casualties at Iwo Jima and at Okinawa, where every inch of reinforced
coral-concrete was paid for in the blood of US Marines, the Joint Chiefs still
presented a united front to President Truman in asking for a full-scale land
invasion of the Home Islands, dubbed Operation Downfall,
starting with Kyushu in November 1945 (Operation Olympic) and Honshu in March
1946 (Operation Coronet). Gen. George
S. Marshall, speaking for the Army, believed that the only way to crush Japan’s
will to resist was to invade the homeland.
He was supported by MacArthur, who was fanatically determined to command
the greatest land invasion in Earth’s history, come what may.
However, Navy partisans, like the hyper-competent and
universally detested Admiral in Chief Ernest King, questioned the
efficacy of Operation Downfall and consequently pushed the civilian leadership
in Washington for a total naval blockade of the home islands, together with
bombardment, which would effectively starve out the island Japan without a
fight. Naturally this would take
longer, it was thought, and risk the notorious impatience of the American
As lawyer-historian Richard B. Frank argued
in the Weekly Standard, the secret Magic radio
intelligence code-breaking triumphs by the United States would eventually
have provoked a reassessment by Washington of the desirability of the land
invasion, had the war not ended when it did in August 1945. Japan had anticipated that the all-out Wagnerian
beach-assault by Gen. MacArthur would land at Kyushu first. After Okinawa it began to reinforce the
island heavily. Indeed, Operation Olympic
had the perverse effect, as Hastings notes, of strengthening the hand of the
hard-liners in Japan’s War Cabinet. By
turning the whole of Kyushu into a giant Okinawa-like fortress, they believed,
Japan would exact such outrageously high American casualties that the soft and
luxury-loving American public would recoil and demand a negotiated peace. The hopes of the War Cabinet thus rested
upon their planned Armageddon.
But when American planners presented estimates of more than
250,000 American casualties to President Truman for Kyushu alone, the President
did recoil. The summer months of Magic
radio intercepts only made the estimates worse. Originally it was thought that Gen. MacArthur would only meet
with three divisions (against the American nine to land), enabling him to claim
that the traditional necessity of a 3-1 ratio of attackers to defenders would
be preserved. But by August 7th,
1945, Magic revealed the disturbing fact that Japan had actually crammed Kyushu
with ten army divisions, plus additional brigades, and perhaps 8,000 aircraft
(instead of 3,000 planes). This meant
that nothing so “favorable” as the Okinawa casualty ratios could be expected
with an invasion. MacArthur’s
250,000-strong invasion force would now be expected to meet an army of at least
that number, plus a starving civilian population armed with bamboo spikes.
Gen. MacArthur, eager for more fighting, responded to the
new Magic revelations characteristically: by denying their veracity, as he was
again to do in 1950 when facing reports of Chinese divisions crossing into
North Korea. Had Japan not surrendered
when it did, the death toll of Operation Olympic on both sides would have been
the worst in the history of warfare.
Richard Frank believes that the President would have cancelled the
operation before it started, but Mr. Hastings is not so certain. We will never know.
Further, as historian Robert Newman discovered decades
later, the conquered civilian populations of Asia were dying prematurely at the
rate of several hundred thousand a month
due to the dreadful privations and mistreatment meted out to them by the
Japanese Empire. It was not a question
of time vs. lives; in the perverted “Co-Prosperity Sphere” of Imperial Japan,
time was lives.
But whatever the willingness of Japan’s leaders to fight on,
they could not have prevailed in the end for one reason: not the atomic
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor the entry of the Soviet Union into
the war between these two bombings, but the smallest, most elite and silent
service in the American war machine—the submariners.
Only 1.6 percent of the US wartime Navy, or 16,000 men,
served in its submarines. But this
small, brave and hyper-competent elite brought 55 percent of all Japan’s
shipping to the bottom of the Pacific.
This translated to 1,300 vessels, or 6.1 million tons of merchant and
naval shipping—a ravaging of unprecedented proportions and probably the true
death-knell of the Japanese Empire.
Japan was particularly ill-prepared for warfare in this
vulnerability. The Empire had few
submarines of its own, and even fewer and less capable specialized
anti-submarine warfare naval and air vessels.
More importantly, Japan’s large population was massively dependent on
imports from East Asia, most famously oil (in the Roosevelt Embargo of 1941
that some argue led to war with the United States), but also food, rubber, tin
and nearly everything else. Without its
merchant fleet, Japan—and its millions of soldiers gamely ensconced in China
and the Western Pacific--was a husk of corn waiting to wither on the vine.
Intoxicated by its self-imposed Victory Disease, the
Empire seems initially not to have planned for any naval defense of its Home
Islands, on the theory that the superior fighting virtue of the Combined Fleet
would always have the Americans on the defensive. But by the gargantuan battle of Leyte Gulf in
1944, it was too late. The Imperial
Navy was a broken force.
This meant that the small US submariner fleet was free to
attack anything Japanese that moved.
Hastings notes that “there were never more than fifty boats on
operational duty in the Pacific at any one moment, of which twenty-two were on
passage to or from their patrol areas.”
But one submariner crew could do an almost outrageous amount
of damage to the Japanese War effort.
An example of this was Flasher,
which sank twenty-one ships during its war tour. In December of 1944 alone, Flasher
sank four tankers and two destroyers between Indochina and the
Philippines. Each tanker carried over
100,000 barrels of oil. Since we know
now that Japan (which has no oil of its own) only imported 300,000 barrels in toto that month, Flasher effectively cut Japan’s oil imports by two-thirds.
At around this time, Air Force Gen. LeMay was ordered to
divert a small number of his fire-raising B-29’s to the Sea of Japan and the
Yellow Sea. In what was helpfully named
Starvation, their mission was to mine the waters around Japan with
thousands of magnetic anti-ship bombs and acoustic fuses. For a time, these also had an extreme impact
on the remainder of the enemy merchant marine.
In the end, the submariners were apparently reduced to sinking fishing
boats off the Japanese coast.
No nation at war could long survive this strategic
“smart-bomb” into the heart of its capacity to make war and indeed, to feed
itself. While it is obvious that the
“big six” fanatics in the War Cabinet were non-plussed by their increasing
inability to support their land troops everywhere, this would have eventually rendered
MacArthur’s dreamed-of Armageddon on the Home Island of Kyushu
unnecessary. An army, Napoleon
observed, fights on its stomach. An
army also fights on its ammunition, its water, and its gasoline. With the submariners’
destruction of the enemy merchant fleet, the vast forces increasingly
arrayed behind Kyushu’s fortifications would surely have turned, in a matter of
months, into ghosts, driven mad by hunger, thirst and incessant aerial
bombings. Admiral Ernest King
understood this. His personal
unpopularity within the government and American public was liberating: he had
none of MacArthur’s bloody-minded glory to uphold.
The US submarine war’s real period of effectiveness was
relatively short in duration, perhaps only one year, but this was not by
design. While the 1,500 Tambor class sub was the best in the
world, with its priceless (to the crews) air-conditioning and its range of
10,000 miles, plus an ability to crash-dive in 35 seconds, it was hampered for
years by its Mark-18 torpedoes that had three dangerous mechanical
failings. The crews complained
endlessly, to no avail. Once again,
Admiral King, a former submariner himself, heard the complaints and ordered the
mechanical design-failures to be corrected (over the objections of the brass,
which refused to admit any problems).
Once this happened, the Tambor
became a war-winning weapon, driving Japan’s bulk imports down by 40 percent in
It would be wrong to draw from these savage intimations of
victory the conclusion that the lot of the submariner was easy. In addition to the appallingly cramped
conditions, the endless foul smells, and the soul-numbing monotony of the wide
Pacific spaces, the submariner had a very good chance of dying before his war
ended. The radioman of the boat Angelfish, Artie Akers, wrote that
during his ten war patrols, he was depth-charged an astounding 40 times.
Back in San Francisco, the proud father of a newly enlisted
submariner sagely observed to his son, “I’m convinced submarine duty would be a
good experience for a young man.” A few
weeks later, as chlorine gas was coursing through his son’s boat during a
ferocious depth-charge attack, and as the sub’s interior was a shambles of
falling cork, gear, sprung pipes and spurting hot oil, the young man wryly
repeated his father’s blissfully ignorant advice.
The hard fact is that a whopping 22 percent of all American
sailors who fought in Pacific submarines died from combat and accident, or 375
officers and 3,131 enlisted men. As
Hastings points out, this was the “highest loss rate of any branch of the
wartime US armed services.” We owe much
to this courageous few.
The obvious lesson of the Pacific War, implicitly proffered
by Mr. Hastings, is to find your enemy’s weak spot and crush it with everything
you have. Had the Pentagon’s war
planners thought like economists, they might have poured more resources into
the submariner fleet. Instead of 50
boats on Pacific war duty at one time, what if the planners had made room for
100, or 200, or 500? Perhaps this would
have meant forgoing the biblical-scale firestorming of the 70 major Japanese
cities by Gen. LeMay, or even the need for vaporizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the mind reels at the possibilities: the
war over a year earlier, with the great Imperial Army reduced to loincloths on
sun-drenched island hells, had no re-supply in sight.
For none of these things, however terrible, including even
the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, brought an end to Japan’s will to
fight—only the personal intervention of the divine Emperor, Hirohito, and even
he was nearly killed in the process of surrendering a palace coup. This last event can only be seen as a wildly
lucky contingency, which no planner could foresee. What if Hirohito had not agreed to surrender?
The point is not to expect the enemy’s will to be
broken, but to seek his fighting ability to be broken. This was done by the American
submariners to a superlative degree in the final year of the war. In our current fight against al-Qaeda and
Islamic extremism, our war planners would do well to keep this lesson in
mind. It is not that we can persuade
the terrorists to give up, or to like us, or any such naïve dream. We must erase what fuels them—their money
sources, and their sources of materiel, and their dependency on electronic
communications. Do all these, and you
keep Manhattan another day.