29. Japan Slides toward Destruction

By the autumn of 1944, even the feeble Japanese hopes for a stalemate had collapsed. The first American B-29 bomber arrived on Saipan on October 12 and the massive buildup commenced on the Marianas.1

In October the Americans invaded the Philippines and immediately thereafter confronted the last elements of the Japanese fleet. General Douglas MacArthur's forces landed on the eastern side of Leyte, one of the smaller central islands, thus splitting the Japanese defense.2

The Japanese navy had girded itself for one last, desperate battle to prevent capture of the Philippines. If Americans won the islands, they could cut the shipping lanes to the Indies oil and the Japanese fleet would have too little fuel to fight. However, the Japanese had to rely upon their surface ships, especially their battleships, because losses of aircraft and experienced pilots had virtually shattered their naval air weapon. Although the Japanese made a major effort to close with the American fleet east of the Philippines and to attack the transports off Leyte, the U.S. Navy everywhere was overwhelming, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers sent out as decoys, the 64,000-ton "unsinkable" battleship Musashi and a number of other warships, while losing one carrier, one escort carrier and three destroyers.

The Japanese no longer had trained pilots or the fuel for exercises to create a new carrier air force. Their oil supply declined drastically as MacArthur's forces proceeded with the conquest of Leyte and, in January, 1945, landed on Luzon and began the final conquest of the Philippines.3

The Japanese navy thus was neutralized. The battle of Leyte gulf was the culminating event which made Japanese defeat a certainty. Two factors stopped Tokyo from suing for peace: President Roosevelt's insistence upon "unconditional surrender," which left the status and fate of Japan's emperor in doubt and the irrational belligerence of the Japanese army, which dominated the government.4

Instead of peace, the battle ushered in a desperate and last-ditch Japanese threat: "kamikaze" attacks by novice pilots who volunteered for suicidal missions to crash-dive onto American ships.5 The first kamikazes sank one escort carrier and damaged two more. From now on, the issue of the war no longer was in doubt. The only thing that remained was killing and maiming.

* * * * * * * * * *

In China the Japanese continued with an illusion of victory. On November 10, 1944, Japanese forces occupied Guilin and Liuzhou and soon went on to capture all American airbases in southern China and open a road connection with French Indochina. The Japanese thereupon drove northwest toward Guiyang in Guizhou province. This frightened the Nationalists and the senior American officer, Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, who believed the Japanese would move on Chongqing or the indispensable American air base at Kunming.6

Wedemeyer overcame Marshall's objections on the use of B-29s for nonstrategic bombing and got approval for a raid of seventy-seven Superfortresses on Hankow (Wuhan), where a large quantity of Japanese supplies was piled up. The United States had developed a highly effective small incendiary bomb, the M-69, which ejected jellied-gasoline napalm. General Curtis LeMay used these M-69s on December 18, 1944, setting great fires that burned for three days and killed many Chinese civilians. Thus the first great fire-bombing was against Hankow, not the Japanese enemy.7

The Hankow raid was one of the last major strikes by B-29s in China. With Superfortress bases now operational in the Marianas, the Joint Chiefs on January 16, 1945, ordered all B-29s to move back to India and soon withdrew them from the theater.8

Despite Wedemeyer's and the Nationalists' fears, the Japanese imperial command had no further offensive plans, ordering the 820,000-man China expeditionary army to assume wholly defensive objectives.9 The Japanese prepared for a Soviet attack after Joseph Stalin unexpectedly denounced Japan as an aggressor on November 7, 1944.10

* * * * * * * * * *

In Burma the war turned decidedly against the Japanese.11 Although the Japanese army had rebuilt to 160,000 men after the disaster of the Imphal offensive, its strength was only a fraction of the troops the British and Chinese could place in the field. In the air, the Allies held complete supremacy.

Capital, the overland British thrust to recapture north-central Burma, got under way in mid-October, 1944. Lieutenant General William J. Slim sent a corps of his Fourteenth Army east toward Mandalay while British and Chinese forces drove from the north. Meanwhile two Chinese divisions advanced south from Myitkyina and on January 20, 1945, joined with the Y-force moving westward from the Salween river. Seven days later the trace of the Ledo road (soon to be renamed the Stilwell road upon recommendation of Chiang Kai-shek) was clear.12

Meanwhile, Japanese forces fell back toward Mandalay. After a British corps swept behind them, setting up a strategic block the Japanese could not crack, the Japanese withdrew, increasingly hungry and short of supplies, into the Shan hills of the southeast.

Rangoon now lay open. British troops rushed toward it from the north while the Southeast Asia commander, Lord Mountbatten, ordered Dracula, the sea and air assault against Rangoon, to be carried out on May 1. By D-Day, however, troops moving from the north were only seventy miles from Rangoon. When the long-delayed and much-debated air and amphibious invasion of Rangoon finally came off it was anticlimactic: the Japanese had withdrawn. The clearing of most of Burma had at last been accomplished, long after the time when it could have had some effect upon the war.

* * * * * * * * * *

Well before the conquest of the Philippines had been completed, the position of Japan had become hopeless. Although the silent work of American submarines and the more flamboyant strikes of Admiral William F. Halsey Jr.'s Third Fleet were slowly choking off the home islands from food and raw materials from abroad, the immediate instrument was the B-29 bomber.13 The thinking of American air commanders was turning firmly away from high-altitude precision bombing of discrete enemy targets toward a far more deadly pattern of area bombing to create fire storms and kill as many Japanese as possible.

American researchers had concluded that fires set by incendiaries would be extremely difficult to control in the intensely congested Japanese urban areas, built mostly of wood and paper.14 Commanders ordered raids to test the theory but results were not conclusive. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., chief of the 21st Bomber Command in the Marianas, wanted to smash the Japanese aircraft industry with precision bombing before turning to fire-bombing of the cities. However, almost constant cloud cover over Japan forced airmen to rely on unreliable radar devices to bomb. Jet stream winds at high 25,000-to-30,000-feet bombing altitudes sometimes blew at 200 knots, making accurate bombing impossible.15

Air Force Chief Henry H. Arnold lost patience and replaced Hansell with Curtis LeMay, brought over from the 20th Bomber Command in China-India, on January 20, 1945.16

Air force planners concluded the solution to setting uncontrollable fires was bombing on specific aiming points. LeMay tested the new plan on February 4, 1945, against a Kobe residential area, plus adjacent factory and commercial districts. This time the system worked: photographs showed severe damage. On February 25, LeMay tried out the aiming-point approach on Tokyo and burned out a square mile of the capital and destroyed 28,000 buildings.17

LeMay now adopted a radical new bombing procedure. He ordered the B-29s, designed for high-altitude precision daylight bombing, to be stripped of guns and ammunition and to fly over their targets at night at low levels, beneath the powerful jet stream winds, guided by radar. This procedure permitted the Superfortresses to carry much heavier bomb loads and the bombardiers to drop incendiaries with much less scatter. The new policy was fairly safe because the Japanese had inferior searchlights, few fast radar-directed antiaircraft cannon and poor night fighter aircraft.18

While LeMay was making these changes, American marines assaulted the tiny volcanic (and still steaming) island of Iwo Jima, about midway between Saipan and Japan to secure a base for American fighters to escort B-29s to Japan and back and for rescue units and emergency landings of B-29s.19 The assault was incredibly expensive: 6,800 dead and nearly 20,000 wounded, while nearly all of the 21,000 Japanese defenders died.

Iwo never became a major base for fighter escorts because Japanese air strength was declining rapidly and the Superfortresses were turning to night raids. It was questionable whether securing emergency landing fields and a better rescue base justified the astronomical cost of the battle.

While the capture of Iwo proceeded, LeMay ordered the first climactic incendiary strike against Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945.20 The B-29s brought about that night the greatest holocaust ever visited upon mankind up to that point. The great fire raid wiped out nearly sixteen square miles of Tokyo and consumed 250,000 buildings. The United States Strategic Bombing survey estimated nearly 88,000 people died, 41,000 suffered injuries and a million lost their housing. But these were the most rough of estimates. The loss may have been much higher.21

There were many more fire-bombings. B-29s finally burned fifty-six square miles of Tokyo, more than half the total area of the city. They also destroyed 40 per cent of other large cities before LeMay turned on smaller cities and created the same havoc in them. Also important was a campaign to mine the Inland sea and coastal waters where most Japanese shipping had been forced because of danger from American submarines. The campaign brought about a devastating drop in shipping, reducing industrial production drastically and beginning to starve the people.22

But the Tokyo raid of March, 1945, was the turning point, the moment when Japanese authorities realized they had no defense against the Superfortress and when they sensed fully the American lust for vengeance which was now focusing increasingly upon killing people. It was at this time that the Japanese began to fear that the United States might be bent upon their literal destruction. By August, 1945, 2.8 million people had evacuated Tokyo, well over half the remaining population. The same sort of massive flight occurred in other cities.23

In his brilliant study of American bombing in World War II, Ronald Schaffer remarks it was unlikely that most American air force generals "gave much thought to sparing Japanese civilians. Just the opposite: they wanted revenge against the Japanese nation for atrocities committed by its armed services."24 Although the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor aroused intense anger and crystallized anti-Japanese feeling, the Bataan death march probably did more than anything to seal American hatred for the Japanese. Japanese soldiers committed at least as gross atrocities against civilians and military personnel elsewhere. But details of how Japanese soldiers bayoneted sick, thirsty, hungry and exhausted American and Filipino prisoners while marching them to camps on Luzon in 1942 and how many of the prisoners later died from starvation and disease aroused an intense loathing which made many Americans feel the Japanese had forfeited the right to be treated as human beings. The Japanese had sown the wind and were now reaping the whirlwind. Probably there is no greater example in history of how violence begets violence than the American retribution leveled at the Japanese people in the spring and summer of 1945.25

* * * * * * * * * *

On April 1, 1945, the Americans launched an invasion of the final stepping stone to Japan, the large (450 square miles) island of Okinawa in the Ryukyus, 340 miles southwest of Kyushu.26 It became the single most costly and ghastly battle of the Pacific war, both on the ground and on the sea. The 77,000 Japanese combat and 20,000 service troops made no attempt to contest the enormous naval gunfire and bombing attacks on the landing beaches but withdrew to the limestone-ridged southern part of the sixty-mile-long island, where they dug in and fought for every inch. It took the eight American army and marine divisions of Tenth Army until June 21 to dig the enemy forces out of their caves and emplacements. The total Japanese loss was about 110,000 (including Okinawans pressed into service), though 7,400 Japanese surrendered, a significant change from previous operations. American losses were 49,000 men (12,500 killed), the heaviest campaign toll in the Pacific.

The campaign was equally grueling off Okinawa for the huge American fleet and the just-arrived British Pacific fleet of four carriers and twenty-three supporting warships. The Japanese sent in more than 1,500 individual kamikaze attacks, plus almost as many suicidal attacks by other aircraft. The attacks sank thirty-four naval craft, severely damaged three American carriers and damaged 365 other craft. The assaults killed nearly 5,000 American sailors and wounded 5,000 more (British losses were much less27).

The Okinawa campaign also brought about the suicide of the last Japanese superbattleship, the Yamato. Accompanied by a new cruiser and eight destroyers, the Yamato was to break through to the American fleet, do as much damage as possible, then beach on Okinawa and support the defenders. The Japanese squadron got nowhere close to the American fleet. Submarines spotted the ships and on April 7 U.S. aircraft sank the Yamato, the cruiser and four destroyers. Most of the crews, totaling 3,600 men, died. Nothing remained but a handful of carriers, battleships and lesser craft holed up in harbors and unable to move because they had no fuel.

The Okinawa invasion brought about the collapse on April 4, 1945, of the cabinet of General Koiso Kuniaki, a man under the thumb of the army. In his place the emperor's senior advisors agreed upon Admiral Baron Suzuki Kantaro, 80 years old. Suzuki hoped to continue the war as long as possible but did not possess the irrational unwillingness to make any concessions that obsessed many army leaders. As foreign minister, Suzuki selected Togo Shigenori, who now was convinced the war was lost. Suzuki reappointed Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa as navy minister and named General Anami Korechika as war minister. Yonai wanted peace, Anami war.28

On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia. Though controversial because of his domestic policies, he was a giant of his time and had become the world's most implacable enemy of fascism and Japanese aggression. More than any other person, Roosevelt made possible the destruction of those evils. It was sad that his death occurred just before the victory. The American people recognized his greatness and how much their future security rested upon what he had done. In one of the most touching spontaneous tributes ever accorded a leader, hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered alongside the cleared tracks of the Southern Railway and stood silently with bared heads as the darkened special train bearing his body sped without slackening through the towns and countryside of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to Washington on the night of April 12.

Chapter 30: The Emperor Preserves His Realm >>

1. Birdsall, pp. 102-4, 324-9.

2. Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 622-8; Spector, pp. 421-42; Kase, pp. 92-96.

3. Liddell Hart, World War, p. 629. Kase, p. 95, says Japan had ten aircraft carriers (or ships converted to carriers) at war's end with four more under construction. However, after the battle of Leyte gulf, Japanese carriers played no role in the war.

4. Kase, pp. 133, 135-41.

5. Kamikaze referred to the "divine wind" which blew away a Mongol fleet threatening Japan in 1281. At first the Japanese used ordinary aircraft, usually stripped down for speed and to carry maximum explosive loads, but later developed special suicide aircraft. The best known was the Okha, a manned missile, called "Baka" (Japanese for fool) by the Allies and dropped by a launch aircraft. See Britannica, Micropaedia, vol. V, p. 678.

6. Romanus & Sunderland, Time, pp. 47, 56, 143-50.

7. Birdsall, p. 82; Romanus & Sunderland, Time, p. 174; Schaffer, p. 108.

8. Birdsall, pp. 90-92, 324; Romanus & Sunderland, Time, pp. 161-2, 170. Twentieth Bomber Command moved to Sakugawa on Okinawa on July 7, 1945.

9. Romanus & Sunderland, Time, p. 51.

10. Kase, pp. 96-97.

11. Romanus & Sunderland, Time, pp. 77-141, 184-223; Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 631-4.

12. Romanus & Sunderland, Time, pp. 140-1, 223-30.

13. In the year ended March 31, 1945, Japan built 1,590,000 tons of new shipping, equal to only 45 per cent of the amount sunk. See Kase, p. 101.

14. Schaffer, p. 115.

15. Ibid., pp. 121, 124.

16. Ibid., p. 125; Birdsall, pp. 131-44.

17. Schaffer, p. 125; Birdsall, pp. 167-8.

18. Schaffer, p. 126; Birdsall, p. 179.

19. Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 630-1; Birdsall, pp. 162-7; Spector, pp. 494-503.

20. Schaffer, pp. 128-37; Birdsall, pp. 181-90; Spector, pp. 504-05.

21. By comparison, the highly controversial British and American raids on Dresden, Germany, February 13-14, 1945, probably took 35,000 lives. See Schaffer, p. 97.

22. Ibid., p. 137; Spector, p. 505.

23. Schaffer, pp. 136-7.

24. Ibid., pp. 152-3.

25. When Major General Leslie R. Groves, Manhattan Project director, told Generals Arnold and Marshall about the attack on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Marshall said it would be a mistake to rejoice too much, because the explosion undoubtedly had caused many Japanese casualties. Groves responded that he was not thinking so much about these casualties as about the men who had made the Bataan death march. Afterward in the hallway, Arnold slapped Groves on the back and said: "I am glad you said that—it's just the way I feel." Schaffer, p. 154, quotes Leslie R. Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project, New York: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 324.

26. Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 683-6; Spector, pp. 532-40.

27. British carrier design sacrificed aircraft-carrying capacity for armored hangars and flight decks. These proved better able to stand up to suicide crashes than the thin-decked American carriers. See Spector, p. 538.

28. Kase, pp. 108-123, 143-4.