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Eagles of the Ocean Sea By: Christopher S. Carson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 03, 2008

Retribution: The 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.

“How about 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.

Retribution has 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. LeMay. 

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 Army.

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 and wood.

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 public. 

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 Operation 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 1944 alone.   

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.

Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, is an attorney in private practice in Milwaukee. He holds a masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

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