As this 67th anniversary of the dropping of the first of only two atomic bombs ever used in combat is being remembered and, as is the case every year, an occasion for protest of both the weapons themselves and the United States and our decision to employ them, some oft-ignored perspective is in order.
The pending invasion of Japan, Operation DOWNFALL, was well along in the planning stages, with the first of these landings, on Kyushu (Operation OLYMPIC) scheduled for 1 November, 1945. Shipping, troops, ammunition, landing craft, ammunition, fuel, trucks, tanks, howitzers, amtracs, every last item of modern war was being identified and gathered for what was sure to be a massive and bloody campaign that augured no end in sight.
The oft-repeated but strictly hindsight perspective that Japan was “near collapse” patently ignores the great common theme of the entire of the war in the Pacific. The Japanese, as individuals, as small formations, major combat units, and indeed, as civilians, resisted fiercely well past the time when Western perspective and mindset would have dictated capitulation. Time and again, “Jap must be finished” was so much wishful thinking, as the starving and desperate defenders made Americans pay for every inch of ground on every island on the path to Japan.
The casualty estimates for Operation OLYMPIC, the landing of two Army and one Marine Amphibious Corps on the Kanto Plain on the island of Kyushu, were grim by any standards. Half a million US casualties were predicted, including more than 100,000 killed. Sobering as they were, those estimates were predicated upon several calculations which proved, to both the horror and relief of the eventual occupation force, to be wildly optimistic.
First, Allied intelligence projections were that around 80,000 defenders were on Kyushu in April, which was projected to grow to around 400,000 by November. In reality, more than 600,000 Japanese were to have awaited the invaders. Joint estimates identified about 5,000 aircraft of all types available to the Japanese defenders. The actual number of aircraft was more than twice that, nearly 11,000, most designated as “special attack” formations (Kamikaze). In addition, Japan was prepared to employ several hundred midget submarines, more than a thousand human torpedoes and suicide boats, and nearly 900 rocket-powered suicide bombs which would be sent to destroy the ships and craft of the US invasion fleet. Of the numbers of these last weapons, US intelligence knew almost nothing.
Second, the casualty ratio was based on the previous autumn’s combat operations on the island of Saipan, giving the name “Saipan Ratio” to the calculation that the killing of seven Japanese soldiers cost US forces 1.0 KIA and 1.7 WIA. Recent combat on the island of Okinawa, despite the fact that the Japanese chose not to oppose the landings themselves, showed a figure almost twice the “Saipan Ratio”; the savage fighting for Iwo Jima produced US casualties at a rate of more than three times the planning figure.
Secretary of War Stimson commissioned the renowned scientist William B. Shockley to study the likely casualties from invading the Japanese Home Islands. His conclusion is considered a major influence on President Truman to employ the Atomic Bombs on Japan:
“If the study shows that the behavior of nations in all historical cases comparable to Japan’s has in fact been invariably consistent with the behavior of the troops in battle, then it means that the Japanese dead and ineffectives at the time of the defeat will exceed the corresponding number for the Germans. In other words, we shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 to 800,000 killed…”
As we lose our World War II Veterans and their first-hand perspective on the terrible cost of the War in the Pacific, it is important to remember the context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Shockley Report has been called a “gross exaggeration” and dismissed as being overly pessimistic. However, one has but to apply an “Iwo Jima-Okinawa Ratio” to the actual numbers of Japanese defenders to see casualty estimates not radically different from Shockley’s.
Succeeding generations, able to debate the questions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki academically, often fail to understand what the invasion of Japan would have meant. Kyushu and Honshu, and other landings would have replicated the horror of Tarawa’s Red Beach 2 and 3 on a massive scale. A dozen more Suribachis, a hundred more Umurbrogols, thousands of Sugar Loafs, and Half Moons, and Amphitheaters. The worst of urban combat, against an army and a population whose duty was glorious death for the Emperor while killing Americans. The agony of the fleet off Okinawa, writ far larger and bloodier than the original experience. And the utter and total destruction of Japan, as a nation and as a society.
After four years of bloody war which had been thrust upon us, Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a visiting of war upon the makers of war. America in 1945 understood that sentiment at a visceral level, something we have never had to embrace. Because of our great good fortune, we sometimes think ourselves more civilized than our parents and grandparents for our untested perspective.
To those who question the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I ask this question:
How do you explain to the mother, father, wife, son, of those who would have died on Kyushu or Honshu, that, in your calculation of relative worth, the lives of enemy civilians counted more than the life their loved one?