World War II: The Defeat of Japan

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

The war in the Pacific, which saw the United States face off against Japan, began on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Events in the Pacific until mid-1944 and the American strategy for the war are discussed in Chapter 13.

The Return to the Philippines

By the summer of 1944, the United States had bases in the Mariana Islands and in northwest New Guinea, both within range of the Philippines. Control of the Philippines was now the great prize of the Pacific war. If Japan lost those islands, it would be almost impossible for resource-poor Japan to import oil, tin, and other valuable products from the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia.

But the Philippines had great symbolic importance for the United States as well. America had controlled the islands since 1898 and had promised to make the Philippines an independent country in 1946. Many Filipinos admired and were loyal to the United States. The army that fought the Japanese invasion of the islands in December 1941 included many Filipino as well as American soldiers. The Philippines was the only area outside China conquered by Japan where a significant guerrilla movement developed. (Guerrillas are people who fight behind enemy lines, usually employing hit-and-run tactics against a more powerful enemy. Guerrilla, or partisan, movements in Europe during World War II are described in Chapter 6.)

The Americans chose as a goal Leyte (pronounced lay-tee), a major island in the center of the Philippines. The plan was to retake Leyte and use it as a base for an attack on Luzon, the most important of the Philippine Islands. The overall commander of the operation was General Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded the defense of the Philippines at the beginning of the war. In early 1942, he had made a famous promise to the Filipino people when, on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders, he had left the Philippines to avoid capture by the Japanese. “I shall return,” he had promised.

As the invasion force landed on the shores of Leyte Gulf on October 20, 1944, several large sections of the Japanese fleet steamed toward them. The Japanese admirals had developed a highly complicated plan involving large groups of ships coming from different directions and meeting near the American invasion beaches. The result was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

Most of the other major naval battles of the Pacific war, such as Midway, were fought mainly between carrier-based planes. Although planes did play a major role at Leyte Gulf, they were not the deciding factor. In fact, the Japanese used their few remaining aircraft carriers as bait to lure away the primary American carrier force. The rest of the Japanese and American fleets fought it out the way navies had fought battles since the invention of the cannon. Warships fired their guns and torpedoes at one another, sometimes at close range. Among the ships involved were five American battleships that the Japanese had bombed at Pearl Harbor, including two, the California and West Virginia, that had been sunk and raised from the bottom of the harbor.

The Japanese intent was to destroy the transport ships that had brought the American forces to Leyte, effectively cutting off the American troops onshore from reinforcements and supplies. The Japanese troops on the island could then defeat them. The Japanese almost succeeded in catching the transports unprotected because the most powerful part of the American fleet had sailed north, chasing the Japanese carriers. But the Japanese did not account for the rest of the American ships fighting so desperately. The battle involved a series of often confused fights, with groups of ships racing from one engagement to another, sudden changes of direction, surprise confrontations between enemy forces, and leaders badly misinformed about what was happening. When it was all over, the Americans had smashed the Japanese navy.

During the battle, the Americans saw a new Japanese threat for the first time. Japanese pilots intentionally crashed their planes, loaded with bombs, into American ships. The pilots were all volunteers, although the Americans refused to believe this at the time. These suicide pilots were called kamikaze (komma-kozzy), or divine wind, a name for the sudden storm that had destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet heading for Japan hundreds of years earlier. This name implied that they were the last hope to save Japan from invasion, that only a miracle could now protect the country from defeat.

Leyte, Luzon, Manila

Onshore, the Japanese reinforced their troops with forces brought from other parts of the Philippines, and even with one division from China. (A division is usually around 15,000 soldiers.) Although it was also reinforced, the American army made slow progress in fighting that sometimes resembled battles in World War I: bloody attacks against strong defensive positions to gain only a few hundred yards. In December, the Americans beat back a major Japanese counteroffensive aimed at the American airfields. Although some Japanese units continued fighting until April 1945, the Americans controlled most of Leyte by Christmas 1944. At least 50,000 Japanese troops had been killed.

On January 8, 1945, the American army landed on Luzon, the main Philippine island. The Philippine capital of Manila is located on Luzon. Near Manila is the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor, where the Americans held off the Japanese for several months before surrendering in the spring of 1942. Ninety-five thousand American and Filipino troops had become Japanese prisoners on Bataan and Corregidor. The Japanese had badly mistreated them in their years in captivity. Now, after almost three years, the Americans were returning, as MacArthur had promised.

The large Japanese force on Luzon did not try to prevent the American landings. Instead, it defended carefully prepared positions, trying to hold out as long as possible. The Japanese did not try to block the road to Manila either, and American troops entered the city’s suburbs by early February. To destroy Manila’s harbor, the Japanese set fires which spread through large sections of the city. In the southern part of Manila, Japanese troops went on a rampage of murder, looting, and rape against Filipino civilians, killing tens of thousands, much as the Japanese army had done in China during the 1930s. (The Japanese actions in China are described in Chapter 1.)

At the same time, the 20,000 Japanese defenders, mostly from the navy, fought the Americans for each street and building in Manila. House-to-house fighting in a major city with modern weapons is one of the bloodiest forms of war-fare, as had been shown in European cities like Stalingrad. (The Battle of Stalingrad is described in Chapter 10.) Sixteen thousand Japanese died fighting for Manila, as did 12,000 Americans. One hundred thousand civilians were killed, some in the battle and some in the Japanese massacres.

The Americans cleared Japanese troops out of the area around Manila, including Bataan, while the fighting in the capital continued. By March 1, the Americans raised their flag over Corregidor, and by the next day the fighting in Manila was over. Fighting continued in Luzon and other parts of the Philippines, some of it difficult. But the remaining Japanese forces, some of which were still fighting when Japan finally surrendered, presented no real danger to American control of the Philippines.

Iwo Jima: Death in a Small Place

The tiny island of Iwo Jima is a volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean. But it lies on the route that American B-29 long-range bombers flew from Saipan in the Marianas to bomb Japan. The B-29s had to avoid the island because it was under Japanese control, making their long trip to Japan even longer. In addition, the air force wanted to use Iwo Jima as an emergency landing field for damaged B-29s.

To gain these comparatively small advantages, however, the United States paid a very high price. On February 19, 1945, three marine divisions landed on Iwo Jima. The fighting continued almost a month, until March 16.

The Japanese had 21,000 soldiers on Iwo Jima, most of them dug into rocks, caves, and tunnels underground and determined to die rather than surrender. Almost all of them did. The marines lost 6,900 soldiers in the fighting and 20,000 were wounded.

The Last Pacific Island: Okinawa

The next target was Okinawa. At 80 miles long, Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyus, a group of islands that lies about 400 miles from the closest of the main home islands of Japan. Despite this distance, Okinawa and the Ryukyus are often considered part of Japan itself. For the first time, the Japanese troops would be defending a part of their own homeland, not territory they had taken from another country.

The fight for Okinawa became the largest ground battle of the Pacific war. On the first day of the landings, 50,000 Americans came ashore; by the time the battle ended, 200,000 American troops were fighting on the island.

American ships bombarded Okinawa for a full week before the troops landed on April 1, 1945. There was no Japanese opposition to the landings, which was very unusual. The Japanese troops usually attacked the Americans even before the invaders reached the beach. Instead, the Japanese had dug in and waited for the American troops to reach them. When they did, the Japanese resisted every yard of the American advance. There was no surrender. As on Saipan, the Japanese resistance was quite literally suicidal.

Offshore, Japanese planes attacked the American fleet. Many were kamikaze, suicide attackers trying to crash their planes into American ships. Sometimes the kamikaze came in waves—50, 100, even 300 planes at a time. It was almost impossible for the ships’ antiaircraft guns and the fighter planes to shoot them all down before they could reach the American ships.

The Japanese also sent the battleship Yamato, the largest and most powerful in the world, against the American fleet on a suicide mission. Partly because of Japan’s severe petroleum shortage, the Yamato was loaded with only enough fuel to reach the battle. It sailed directly toward the American fleet, hoping to use its huge guns. But American planes sank the Yamato with torpedoes before it could cause any damage. Almost all of its 2,300 sailors died when the ship went down.

The battle on Okinawa continued until the end of June. In the last days of fighting, 4,000 Japanese soldiers surrendered, which brought the total who had given up to about 7,400. This number included many who were so badly wounded that they could not commit suicide. But another 110,000 Japanese troops had died—in combat or by suicide. Not a single senior officer was taken prisoner. The Japanese lost nearly 8,000 of their remaining planes, including 1,000 on kamikaze missions.

Of the 450,000 civilians on the island, somewhere between one-sixth and one-third were also dead. Many had hidden in caves to avoid the fighting. They had been killed when Japanese troops used the caves as defensive positions and the American troops blew them up or fired flamethrowers into them.

Seven thousand U.S. soldiers and marines were killed on Okinawa, and more than 5,000 sailors died at sea, most of them as a result of kamikaze actions.

Defeating Japan

With Okinawa as a base, the next major campaign would be against Japan itself. A limited invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of the main Japanese islands, was scheduled for November 1, 1945. Its purpose was to provide a base for the next operation: the invasion of Honshu, the main Japanese island. Honshu was scheduled for March 1, 1946. The American planners believed the invasion would require at least 25 divisions—a third of a million men.

Germany had surrendered in May 1945, and large forces could come from Europe. The American First Army, which had landed in Normandy in June 1944 and fought its way across France and Germany, would not be sent home. Instead, its soldiers would go to the Pacific and prepare for an invasion of Japan. One-and-a-half million American troops and another half-million British were scheduled to be sent to various parts of Asia when the European war ended. Neither the soldiers nor their families at home would be happy about that.

Worse, the planners believed that American deaths in the invasion would be very high. They were afraid that the Japanese would fight for every inch of Japan, as they had fought on Okinawa. Several thousand kamikaze were waiting to attack American ships. If Allied forces took casualties at the same rate as on Okinawa, then hundreds of thousands would be killed or wounded. Sometimes they used the figure of 1 million casualties, although apparently no Allied planner ever considered this a serious possibility.

Another part of the Allied plan was for the Soviet Union, which was still not at war with Japan, to enter the fighting. The Soviets had promised they would attack Japan after Germany surrendered. It was planned that several months before the scheduled American invasion of Japan the Soviet army would invade Manchuria in northern China and fight the 750,000 Japanese troops stationed there. The Japanese would then not be able to use these troops to defend Japan. The destruction of their army in China might also make the Japanese leaders see that continuing the war was hopeless, even before the Americans invaded.

But most American military planners did not believe it was possible to defeat Japan without invading it. Some navy and air force leaders, however, thought that the combination of the American submarine campaign and the bombing campaign might force Japan to surrender. The submarine campaign amounted to a blockade of Japan. Food was in short supply, as were the raw materials for war industries, including oil. Many Japanese factories had shut down even before American bombers destroyed them.

Japanese Shipping and American Submarines

American submarine warfare against Japan was extremely effective. As an island country with few natural resources, Japan depended on shipping more than any other industrial nation. In fact, because Japanese roads and railroads were poor, and because it is made up of several large islands with most major cities on the coasts, Japan even depended on ships for moving large quantities of goods inside the country.

Japan began the war with about 6 million tons of merchant ships (civilian ships that carry freight). It built around 3.3 million tons during the war. It also seized a substantial number of British, Dutch, and other enemy merchant ships in early 1942 soon after it went to war.

By the end of the war, the Allies (Britain, the United States, and the other countries fighting on their side) had sunk 9 million tons of Japanese shipping; submarines, almost all of them American, sank more than half of this total. Even worse for Japan, the rate was speeding up. American submarine captains and crews were becoming more skillful, and they were operating from bases much closer to Japan. In 1944 alone, they sank 600 ships totaling 2.7 million tons. American planes, both carrier and land-based, sank many more Japanese ships, including those used to carry or supply Japanese troops. Finally, large numbers of merchant ships were hitting mines (explosive devices floating in the water) that American planes had dropped in large quantities along the Japanese coast.

By the end of 1944, two-thirds of Japan’s available oil tankers had been destroyed, and it was almost impossible to get fuel to Japan from the Dutch East Indies. In the spring of 1945, Japan had less than 1 million tons of shipping left—not even enough to transport goods within Japan.

The Bombing of Japan

While the submarines were threatening to starve Japan’s cities, the B-29 bombers were burning them down. This was part of the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign. Strategic bombing is intended to have a long-term effect on the enemy’s ability to wage war—for example, by destroying its steel industry. In contrast, tactical bombing involves battlefield support—attacking trains bringing reinforcements to a battle, for instance. (The role of strategic bombing in World War II is described in Chapter 8.) For months, the bombers had dropped high explosives onto Japanese factories and other targets in high-altitude daylight raids. This was the same method the United States had used to bomb Germany. But the raids were not accurate, rarely hitting their targets. At first they did not seem to have much effect on Japan’s ability to fight. Then the United States changed the way it conducted the strategic bombing campaign. From now on, it would do in Japan what the British bombers had done in Germany.

On the night of March 9, 1945, 325 B-29s dropped many tons of incendiary (fire-starting) bombs from a low altitude on Tokyo. The wood-and-paper buildings of the Japanese capital were perfect material for a fire. By morning, more than 250,000 buildings had been destroyed, and 1 million people had lost their homes. Nearly 90,000 people—almost all of them civilians—had died in the flames and smoke.

Over the next three months, similar raids devastated almost every large city in Japan. A quarter of a million Japanese were killed and millions were homeless. Combined with the sea blockade, the Japanese economy was barely functioning. Malnutrition and even mass starvation were real possibilities.

The Future of the Emperor

Still, the Japanese government did not surrender. In July 1945, the Allies issued a declaration at Potsdam, a city near the German capital of Berlin, where they were holding a conference to plan the postwar world. The declaration repeated the call for the unconditional surrender of Japan, the same demand that Germany had finally been forced to accept. Among other things, the Potsdam Declaration made it clear that Japan would be placed under military occupation (that is, Allied troops would be stationed in the country and the Allies would run the government). But it also assured the Japanese people that they would eventually be allowed to choose their own government. This seemed to indicate—as it was intended to—that Japan could keep its emperor.

Retaining an emperor was an issue of great importance to the Japanese. Although in reality Japanese emperors did not have much power, they were a symbol of the country and were considered godlike. While some Japanese leaders, especially military officers, wanted to continue the war regardless of the consequences, others wanted to end the slaughter. But very few were willing to agree to have Emperor Hirohito removed.

Some leaders in the United States strongly opposed leaving the emperor on his throne. They believed he was a symbol of the system that had started the war and committed terrible crimes—for example, against the people of China and Allied prisoners. They blamed the empire system for creating blind obedience to authority and for glorifying war. Allowing the emperor to keep his title, they thought, was the same as allowing a Nazi leader to remain the official head of Germany.

But most Allied leaders took this issue less seriously. They thought that at some point the defeated Japanese people should be allowed to choose whatever government they wanted—even if they wanted an emperor. More immediately, there would be a great advantage in having the emperor call for surrender. Japanese military and naval officers, with large forces still undefeated in Japan, China, and elsewhere, might not obey anyone else’s order to end the war. The military occupation of Japan would also be much easier if the emperor cooperated with it.

Officially, the Allies stuck to the demand that Japan surrender without any conditions. But they hinted very strongly, in several different ways, that the Potsdam Declaration meant that surrender did not require removing the emperor. But the Japanese political leaders who favored surrendering were still afraid to try to end the war without Allied guarantees that the emperor could stay.

The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

While the two sides were passing hints and suggestions to each other through various go-betweens (especially the Soviet Union, which was still at peace with Japan), American planners continued to prepare for the invasion of Japan. But there would be no invasion. On August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a single bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It was an atomic bomb, a weapon developed in the United States in great secrecy. (The development of the atomic bomb is described in Chapter 15.) The Americans had chosen Hiroshima partly because it was one of the few Japanese cities with little bombing damage. As such, it would be possible to evaluate the effects of the atomic attack. The impact was greater than ever imagined.

In a few moments, a four-square-mile area at the center of Hiroshima was obliterated. The air in that area reached 3,000 degrees Celsius. Not one building in central Hiroshima escaped destruction. Almost all of them simply disappeared; only the skeletons of a few buildings made from reinforced concrete survived. Overall, 80 percent of the buildings in the city were destroyed. Thousands of people were killed immediately, and thousands more died in the next few hours. This one explosion killed approximately 78,000 people and injured about the same number. Some of the survivors were blinded by the flash of the explosion. Almost all had horrible burns that caused their skin to fall off. Many became ill from radiation sickness and died slowly and in great pain for years after the bomb was dropped.

On August 9, 1945, the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb, of a different and even more powerful type, on Nagasaki. Because of a combination of factors—including geographical features and the fact that the bomb missed the city center—the effects were not as devastating as at Hiroshima. But at least 35,000 more people died, and another Japanese city was effectively wiped out in a moment.

The United States had no more atomic bombs immediately available. But the Japanese did not know this. It looked as if the United States could wipe out another Japanese city every few days, or even more often. There was no possible defense against this weapon. Air raid shelters would make little difference. Yet even now, the top Japanese military and naval leaders did not want to surrender. Arguments in the government continued, as did the normal American air raids.

Japan Surrenders

Finally, the emperor himself ended the argument. On August 15, the people of Japan heard something they had never heard before: the voice of their emperor. A recording he had made the day before was broadcast over the radio. Although he never mentioned surrender, he told the Japanese people that they must prepare to “endure the unendurable.”

The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

Why the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, and whether it was right to do so, is probably the single greatest controversy surrounding World War II. This argument has not been limited to historians or military experts. It is a subject that many ordinary people have felt very strongly about. All over the world, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is observed as a day of mourning and of reflection on the possibility of nuclear war.

Even at the time of the bombing, there were disagreements in the United States, though they were not known to the public. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, did not believe the bomb should be used. Apparently, neither did General Douglas MacArthur, who was to command the invasion of Japan and who only found out about the bomb shortly before it was dropped. A few of the scientists who had helped build the bomb opposed using it against Japan.

Avoiding an Invasion

The man who made the decision, President Harry S. Truman, claimed that it had been an easy one and that he never lost a single night’s sleep over it. To Truman, the choice was between using the bomb and invading Japan. The way he figured it, the bomb saved the lives of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of American soldiers. Most people in the United States certainly agreed with him at the time. In addition, some historians have pointed out that an invasion would almost surely have caused the deaths of even more Japanese—both soldiers and civilians—than did the atomic bomb.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister (head of the government), was one of the few leaders who knew about the bomb project. He remembered the decision to use the bomb as something that was hardly debated at all. It was assumed that atomic weapons, like any other powerful new weapon, would be used as soon as possible. Most political leaders did not fully understand the difference between the atomic bomb and previous weapons. They thought it was just a more powerful version of a regular bomb. This may be the way Truman understood it. He had no idea of the existence of the bomb project until he became president after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945.

Other Possible Motives

Other reasons have been suggested for why the bomb was dropped. Building it was probably the most expensive project that the United States government had ever attempted— as well as the most secret. It was natural that the people involved in this massive project would want to use the bomb, to show that the project had helped win the war and that the money had not been wasted.

Many historians have emphasized that by the time the bomb was dropped, serious conflicts were developing between the United States and the Soviet Union. (Some of the wartime conflicts are described in Chapter 9; events after the war are discussed in Chapter 17.) They argue that at least part of the reason for using the bomb was to demonstrate the power of this superweapon to the Soviet Union.

The deteriorating American-Soviet relations are one explanation for the timing of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. For years, the United States had wanted the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan and invade Manchuria. However, when they successfully tested the first atomic bomb in New Mexico in July 1945, top American officials felt that they no longer needed Soviet help against Japan. Instead, they now feared that a Soviet invasion would ensure Soviet control of Manchuria and great influence in the rest of China after the war.

Although it was too late to call off the Soviet invasion, as top American military officials wanted, the sooner Japan surrendered, the less influence the Soviets would have in eastern Asia after the war. This is one reason, according to these historians, why the United States did not wait a few more weeks or even months to see if Japan would surrender without an invasion.

Question of Timing, or a Warning Shot

In some ways, the question of timing is the most troubling aspect of the use of the atomic bomb. Some historians are convinced from the records of secret discussions in the Japanese government that Japan would soon have accepted the same terms even if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been bombed. American leaders knew the details of many of these discussions at the time because the United States had broken the secret codes used by the Japanese.

In addition, critics have argued that the United States could have informed the Japanese government of the existence of the bomb, or even demonstrated it on an uninhabited island in the Pacific in the presence of Japanese observers. This idea was apparently considered but rejected at the time. One reason was that American officials were afraid of what would happen if the bomb were a dud. Apart from that problem, such an approach was completely different from the way countries at war behaved. It probably just didn’t seem very realistic to American officials.

No one will ever know whether Japan would have surrendered without the atomic attack and without an invasion. When the emperor told his people on the radio that they must accept defeat, most of the Allies did not care why.

The End of the War

In every great city of the Allied countries, deliriously happy crowds cheered the news of victory. In America, soldiers and sailors home from Europe now knew they would not have to ship out again. The GIs (ordinary soldiers) celebrated because they would not have to die on the shores of Kyushu and Honshu, as their friends had died at Anzio in Italy and Omaha beach in France. They would not have to fight their way through Japan, as they had fought through Germany. They would not have to die in the streets of Tokyo, as GIs had died in Manila and as the Russians had died in Berlin.

Two weeks after the emperor’s broadcast, an immense Allied fleet gathered in Tokyo Bay. Aboard the American battleship Missouri, military representatives of the United States, Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and France waited. Representatives of the Japanese army and navy, and of the Japanese government, approached a small table on the Missouri ‘s deck, bent forward, and signed their names to the surrender. MacArthur signed for the Allies. It was September 2, 1945—six years and one day after Germany’s armies had invaded Poland and begun World War II. The war was over.