The Case For Hiroshima

Three years ago, I wrote a bit in response to President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

Probably nothing in American actions in WW2 have had more controversy than the use of the atomic bomb first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.

Locally we had a mayor years ago who decided to travel to Hiroshima and apologize for our use of that weapon.

Certainly nobody disputes the horrible effects upon the citizens of those cities.

It was 25 years – 1970 – before the Defense Dept. released a classified film on the devastating effects of the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But how would the war in the Pacific have ended if these bombs weren’t used?

In the above linked post of mine 3 years ago, I gave an outline for what would have been widely known as Operation Downfall.

I believe, but am not certain, that the plans were locked away until 2006 when they were declassified.


Map Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 

Operation Downfall was in 2 components: Operation Olympic, which was the invasion of the southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku  on November 1-4, 1945. This was to involve initially 650,000 soldiers and Marines. President Truman actually gave the go-ahead for this on July, 1945. It would have been carried out but for the successful test of the atomic bomb just days later at the Trinity Site, NM on July 16, 1945. Within days of that test the Navy was loading components onto the USS Indianapolis bound for Tinian.

Assuming that the objectives for Olympic were met, it would be followed up on March 1, 1946 by Operation Coronet, which was the invasion of the main island of Honshu and the Tokyo plain. This was to involve initially 1,000,000 soldiers and Marines.

These landings would involve only the Americans, and as you can see by the numbers would have dwarfed the efforts at D-Day in France.

In the first invasion … American combat troops would land on Japan by amphibious assault during the early morning hours of November 1, 1945 – 50 years ago. Fourteen combat divisions of soldiers and Marines would land on heavily fortified and defended Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese home islands, after an unprecedented naval and aerial bombardment.

The second invasion on March 1, 1946 … would send at least 22 divisions against 1 million Japanese defenders on the main island of Honshu and the Tokyo Plain. It’s goal: the unconditional surrender of Japan. With the exception of a part of the British Pacific Fleet, Operation Downfall was to be a strictly American operation. It called for using the entire Marine Corps, the entire Pacific Navy, elements of the 7th Army Air Force, the 8 Air Force (recently redeployed from Europe), 10th Air Force and the American Far Eastern Air Force. More than 1.5 million combat soldiers, with 3 million more in support or more than 40% of all servicemen still in uniform in 1945 – would be directly involved in the two amphibious assaults. Casualties were expected to be extremely heavy.

The beaches that everyone would have memorized were almost lost in history…names like Locomobile, Lincoln, LaSalle, Hupmobile, Moon, Mercedes, Overland, Oldsmobile, Packard and Plymouth.

Someone in the planning obviously was a gearhead.

It was predicted that this phase – the final conquering of Japan with unconditional surrender, might go until November 1948 with heavy causalities:

Admiral William Leahy estimated that there would be more than 250,000 Americans killed or wounded on Kyushu alone. General Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence for General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific, estimated American casualties would be one million men by the fall of 1946. Willoughby’s own intelligence staff considered this to be a conservative estimate.

Of course, this does not include Japanese causalities.

These numbers had some basis – particularly after Okinawa. The government began to make plans for the casualties expected, and that plan reverberates to this day with their initial order of Purple Heart Medals.

In 1945, the U.S. military expected up to 1 million casualties in the invasion of Japan, so the services stocked up on Purple Hearts. But Japan surrendered after the atomic bombings and Soviet invasion of Manchuria, leaving the services with hundreds of thousands of Purple Hearts that were no longer needed.

One reader asked The Rumor Doctor if Purple Hearts from 1945 are still being awarded to troops today. One historian says yes.

“Time and combat will continue to erode the WW II stock, but it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before the last Purple Heart for the invasion of Japan is pinned on a young soldier’s chest,” said D.M. Giangreco, said in an e-mail.

A defense official was less certain, but she acknowledged it is possible.

As late as 1985, the Defense Logistics Agency still had about 120,000 refurbished Purple Heart sets dating back to World War II, said DLA spokeswoman Mimi Schirmacher.

“There could be a small number of WWII-era medal sets still in the hands of military service customers and it is possible that recent and current issues of medals were made from stock produced in previous time periods,” Schirmacher said in an e-mail.

The DLA has ordered about 34,000 Purple Hearts since 1976, of which 21,000 were ordered in 2008, she said.

But Giangreco, who wrote a book about the planned invasion of Japan, maintains that the bulk of Purple Hearts in stock date back to World War II. His research found that most of the refurbished Purple Hearts were sent to military depots, units and hospitals between 1985 and 1999.

A startling statistic I can remember from this book – that 17% of all Pacific causalities occurred at Okinawa. The Japanese knew that Okinawa would be used in the expected invasion of the home islands. It was a vicious and brutal fight with few prisoners.

The battle was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, with approximately 160,000 casualties on both sides: at least 75,000 Allied and 84,166–117,000 Japanese, including drafted Okinawans wearing Japanese uniforms. 149,425 Okinawans were killed, committed suicide or went missing, a significant proportion of the estimated pre-war 300,000 local population.

Kadena Air Base on Okinawa was to be used in Operation Olympic. It is 350 miles to Kyushu.

The fighting ashore – described in Time magazine as “one foot at a time against the kind of savage, rat-in-a-hole defense that only the Japanese can offer” – appeared protracted and seemingly pointless to many, rousing a storm of criticism in the American press and across the nation. Meanwhile, the Japanese unleashed massive attacks with kamikazes on the U.S. fleet. *

While the use of the kamikaze – Japanese suicide pilots, was first seen at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, at Okinawa they were used widely against the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

These attacks cost the Navy 36 sunken ships, 368 damaged ships, 4,900 men killed or drowned, 4,800 wounded, and 763 lost aircraft.

As a sidebar, my late uncle as a Marine served on a cruiser during this battle. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor, referring to himself as a “sea-going bellhop” , but I think he was an adjutant to the Captain.

He told me of a time when on the bridge, the Captain told him to get something off the bridge, and a minute/2 later, a Kamikaze slammed into the bridge.

Just a family story…

It was a result of this battle that resulted in such pessimistic causality predictions for Downfall. Not only would Americans be fighting the Japanese Army, but many civilians.


The Beginning of the End

When the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian were secured, it meant that the B-29s could now strike at Japan without refueling. It took them 14 hours to make the round trip.

It was General Curtis LeMay who decided on low-altitude firebombing, which was so devastating to both the cities and the population. He was sent in to head the 21st Bomber Command, replacing a general who wasn’t getting the necessary results with the Superfortresses. They were a revolutionary aircraft, and more money was spent on the development and production of them (over 4,000) than the Manhattan Project. They were pressurized – a first for a military plane –  and initially bombed from high altitudes.

And they were regularly missing the targets.

The jet-stream was an unknown factor at that time.

With LeMay’s developed new tactics, the planes flew as low as 1,000 feet to drop their ordnance. Some say it was even lower.

Loaded with more than 6 tons of incendiary devices each, some of the Superfortress bombers in group formations attacked from as low as 150 meters, while others dropped their loads from 2,000 meters.

I never will forget a passage from the book Flyboys, by James Bradley. The author, who also wrote Flags of Our Fathers, wrote of that time and the fate of 8 captured US flyers on the island of Chi Chi Jima (150 miles north of Iwo). Their fate was pretty gruesome and it, too, was classified for some years.

But he wrote of these raids with the bombers so low that people could see the fires reflected off the bottoms of the aluminum fuselages.

At 8 minutes after midnight on the evening of March 10 Operation Meetinghouse commenced. Over Tokyo 279 B-29s from Guam, Tinian and Saipan attacked with incendiary bombs.

It is estimated that 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed, with a million homeless. 16 square miles were leveled.

The firebombing “scorched and boiled and baked to death,” was how Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the mastermind of the indiscriminate aerial attack, later phrased it.

Masses of panicked and terrified civilians scrambled to escape the inferno, most unsuccessfully, because what happened that night was not just an awful, huge conflagration — but a firestorm in which superhot air rose upward so fast that it sucked in air from all sides in ferocious winds that blew countless thousands into the flames.

The human carnage was so great that the blood-red mist and stench of burning flesh carried high into the sky sickened the bomber crews, forcing them to use oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.

“In the black Sumida River, countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all black as charcoal. It was unreal,” was how one doctor at the scene described it.

The civilians who jumped into the river in an attempt to escape the heat were boiled alive.

Children were actually ripped from the arms of their parents and sucked into the conflagration, due to the winds generated by the fires.

Because so much of Tokyo was wooden structures, it was the most devastating raid of WW2.

These attacks went on to devastate 67 other Japanese cities.

With all of this, there was still no talk of surrender from the Japanese.


The Japanese knew that there was no chance of victory by this time, but they wanted to make it so costly and bloody for the Americans that they would settle for peace on favorable terms. By 1945, Americans at home were growing weary from the war.

Ketsu-Go was the plans of the Japanese military for the defense of the home islands and repel the Americans, with not only the military but most civilians – even children – involved. Since the 1930s it was thought to be an honor to die for the Emperor. Although the Japanese were suffering – one historian said that hungry children being evacuated from the cities would suck the pus from their sores, as it was sweet- the Japanese were resigned to dying for their Emperor.

The sooner the Americans come, the better…One hundred million die proudly.

– Japanese slogan in the summer of 1945.

Japan was finished as a warmaking nation, in spite of its four million men still under arms. But…Japan was not going to quit. Despite the fact that she was militarily finished, Japan’s leaders were going to fight right on. To not lose “face” was more important than hundreds and hundreds of thousands of lives. And the people concurred, in silence, without protest. To continue was no longer a question of Japanese military thinking, it was an aspect of Japanese culture and psychology.

– James Jones, WWII

The intent of Ketsu-Go was to inflict tremendous casualties on the American forces, thereby undermining the American people’s will to continue the fight for Japan’s unconditional surrender. This intent is clear in a boastful comment made by an IGHQ army staff officer in July 1945: [my own highlighting of July, one month before Hiroshima and 4 months after the Tokyo bombing]

We will prepare 10,000 planes to meet the landing of the enemy. We will mobilize every aircraft possible, both training and “special attack” planes. We will smash one third of the enemy’s war potential with this air force at sea. Another third will also be smashed at sea by our warships, human torpedoes and other special weapons. Furthermore, when the enemy actually lands, if we are ready to sacrifice a million men we will be able to inflict an equal number of casualties upon them. If the enemy loses a million men, then the public opinion in America will become inclined towards peace, and Japan will be able to gain peace with comparatively advantageous conditions.

It is evident by this statement that in the summer of 1945 Japanese strategists identified the will of the American people as the U.S. strategic center of gravity and a critical vulnerability as the infliction of high casualties.

After the war with interviews it was learned that the Japanese force on Kyushu was far higher than Downfall planners had anticipated. They even predicted the landing beaches. The Japanese predicted the landings on Okinawa with the landings on Kyushu to follow.

Immediately after U.S. troops occupied Japan, U.S. intelligence officers began interrogations of Japanese officials. The U.S. Sixth Army G-2 section, including the Marine V Amphibious Force, interrogated the officers of the Japanese Second General Army, the organization responsible for the defense of Kyushu, and its subordinate units, which Sixth Army forces would have fought had the invasion taken place. The report of those interrogations was published on December 31, 1945, but was immediately classified Top Secret and hidden from public view. It remained so for more than a half century. Since 2006 the document has been publicly available through the U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Library at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The information contained in that document provides a much more accurate assessment of what the U.S. Sixth Army would have faced if it had invaded southern Kyushu as planned.

Japanese Society During the War

Just as the Nazis had the Blockleiter – local neighborhood Nazis assigned to ensure Party discipline and report any deviancy to the Gestapo, the Japanese had the Tonarigumi, who would report any signs of neighborhood rebellion to their secret police, the Kenpeitai. They controlled every aspect of civilian life.

Between 1930 and 1945, there were 63 separate incidents of political violence in Japan, followed by political assassinations of opponents. People knew that if you spoke up against the government your next meeting could be with an assassin.

Since the 1930s, it had been taught that the greatest honor for any Japanese would be to die for the Emperor, who was also considered to be as a God. Japanese were taught to avert their eyes downward when the Emperor drove by.

The military effectively ran Japan with the emperor as the figurehead.

During the 1930s, the militarists both corrupted this concept of the Emperor, and the samurai concept of Bushido.

When Bushido first entered the world’s consciousness in 1900, with the publication of Nitobe Inazo’s “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” it was viewed as an admirable code of chivalry. Its focus on a dedication to duty inspired people around the world, including Robert Baden-Powell’s Scout Movement. But by the 1940s, “Bushido” had become a byword for Japan’s suicidal tendencies and military cruelty…Perverse theories of Bushido dominated Japanese intellectual life from 1930-45 — eventually inspiring Kamikaze pilots to compose samurai-style death poems and take swords into the cockpit with them…

By 1945, because of the US Naval blockade and the loss of so many Japanese ships, the Japanese civilians were on the verge of starvation, but they were still willing to fight the invaders and die for the Emperor. Americans were so worried about this blind devotion and suicide mentality they thought the home islands would turn into a Pacific version of Stalingrad.

On January 20,1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in for an unprecedented 4th term. He was in failing health, and his doctor told him that his remaining time was very short, about 3 months.  He died April 12, 1945 at Warm Springs..

His health was such that he would be absent from his duties for weeks at a time. One time he was gone for a month. Most of those leaves were probably at Warm Springs, GA.

Blockade, Invasion or Atomic Bomb?

By 1945, the debate in Washington was how to end the Pacific War. The debate in the Army’s view – led by Gen George Marshall – was that a home island invasion invasion would be necessary. In the Navy’s view – led by Adm William Leahy –  a blockade should be used to simply starve the Japanese into submission. By 1945, the U.S. Navy had an effective blockade around Japan.

Marshall believed that to force the Japanese to unconditional surrender, it would take more than a blockade.

Roosevelt  had a friend and confidante in Leahy. He served as Roosevelt’s personal chief of staff from 1942. As Roosevelt’s health waned, he made many day-to-day decisions. He had Roosevelt’s confidence because he did this quietly, out of the limelight.

Leahy was also vehemently against the use of an atomic weapon, considering it to be immoral. He told Roosevelt of his opposition, but Roosevelt said nothing.

With Roosevelt gone, Leahy’s influence waned.

I just discovered in this CIA document that there was a 4th view:

As World War II progressed in the Pacific, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) confronted the prospect that getting an unconditional surrender from Japan might require invading the Japanese homeland. A number of key Navy and Army Air Force officers led by Fleet Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, and General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Force, argued that a combination of sea blockade and aerial bombardment could produce a Japanese surrender without the need for a ground invasion. 

And, in the same document, reflecting Marshall’s view:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and his Army planners, however, believed that Japan’s surrender on the terms being demanded by the Allies could be assured only by invasion of its home territory. Both sides made legitimate arguments, but the debate also appears to have reflected organizational competition.

Roosevelt would only serve a few months into his 4th term, and Vice President Harry Truman would be sworn in. To say that Harry Truman was “in the dark” about the current situation of WW2 would not be an understatement. Roosevelt was determined to see the end of WW2. He did not even brief Truman on the Manhattan Project.

He had only been Vice President for 82 days, knew virtually nothing about current situation, and suddenly as the new President had to direct a global conflict.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Truman spoke to reporters: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

The first thing Truman did was to surround himself with men he could trust for advice, such as  James F. Byrnes .

Upon his succession to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, Truman relied heavily on Byrnes’ counsel, Byrnes having been a mentor to Truman from Truman’s earliest days in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, Jimmy Byrnes was one of the first people whom Truman saw on the first day of his presidency. It was Byrnes who shared information with the new president on the atomic bomb project (Truman had known nothing about the Manhattan Project beforehand). When Truman met Roosevelt’s coffin in Washington, he asked Byrnes and former Vice President Wallace, the two other men who might well have succeeded Roosevelt, to join him at the train station.[33] Truman originally intended that both men would play leading roles in his administration, signaling continuity with Roosevelt’s policies. While Truman quickly fell out with Wallace, he retained a good working relationship with Byrnes and increasingly turned to him for support.

Byrnes had a tougher line on foreign policy than Adm. Leahy, and distrusted Stalin.

With Roosevelt gone, Leahy lost his influence.

The Potsdam Declaration

9 weeks after Germany’s surrender on July 17, 1945, the heads of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States gathered in a suburb of Berlin to decide how they would administer Germany. I believe this was the first time the new President Harry Truman met Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.

On July 16th in the New Mexico desert, the first detonation of a nuclear device, code named Trinity,  occurred. This was exactly a day before the opening of the Potsdam Conferance.

At Potsdam, on July 26, Truman gave the Japanese an ultimatum. He demanded unconditional surrender, but made no mention of the fate of the Emperor as a means for the Japanese to save face.

Here is a 5 minute video showing (from Japanese witnesses) the mass preparation for Ketsu-Go, and the events leading up to the Potsdam Declaration.

Once Prime Minister Suzuki rejected the terms of the declaration, Hiroshima was inevitable. Actually, the term rejected is too soft in the translation.

Mokusatsu (黙殺) is a Japanese word meaning “ignore”, “take no notice of” or “treat with silent contempt”.

A day after the Trinity test, 70 Manhattan Project scientists, let by Leo Szilard, sent this petition to Byrnes.  The text, transcribed from the letter and easier to read, is here.

The petition was also a prophesy for the future:

If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States — singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power.

Byrnes never forwarded this petition to Truman.

Within a few days of the Trinity Test, the components for the Bomb destined for Hiroshima, called “Little Boy“, were loaded onto the USS Indianapolis bound for the island of Tinian.

Truman, faced with the decision to invade the Japanese home islands or use this bomb, gave the authorization to the Air Force to use these weapons when and where they desired. In making this decision, he was also faced with the prospect of the horrible causality counts from Operation Downfall. If the American people found out about the existence of these terrible weapons that were not used, with the projected over a million causalities from Downfall, there would have been a horrible price to pay.

He never regretted his decision.

“It was a terrible decision. But I made it,” Truman wrote to his sister, Mary. “And I made it to save 250,000 boys from the United States, and I’d make it again under similar circumstances.”

The total killed from these 2 bombings, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was 129,000-226,000. This doesn’t include those affected by the gamma radiation for years to come.

With the bombing of Hiroshima and 3 days later, Nagasaki, after 13 hours of debate by the Supreme War Council, Japan still was not in agreement to surrender. Of those 6 members , 3 hardliners insisted on continuing the fight. 3 wanted surrender.

Prime Minister Suzuki then appealed to Emperor Hirohito to apply pressure on the War Council.

A week after Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito spoke directly to his subjects saying continuation of the war was fruitless and would simply cause more suffering. For the Japanese hearing this it was a profound shock. The Emperor was considered, since the 1930s, to be God-like. Many felt that they had led the Emperor down.

When the emperor’s voice beamed across the country (audio here) [ed – dead link – here is the full text elsewhere] , and out beyond it on shortwave signals for the troops stationed throughout East Asia, it was the first time that the vast majority of his subjects heard him. High-pitched, stilted, and in a classical Japanese more difficult to understand than what most people spoke in conversation. Still, the message was clear: surrender. The unthinkable.

On August 14, 1945, 5 days after the Nagasaki bomb,  Japan formally accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The formal surrender was on September 2, 1945 on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.


I do not intend to trivialize the effect of these explosions. It wasn’t until 1970 that the US government declassified the horrific effects these bombs had on people.

Of course the same could be said for the victims of the firebombing previously mentioned in 67 Japanese cities.

But what would have been the result if the Navy simply blockaded Japan? Or if the Navy blockaded Japan with the Air Force continuing the bombing?

The consensus was that this would not be enough to bring them to an unconditional surrender. Although if enough Japanese starved with a disintegration of their society, the surrender would have eventually been achieved. But at what cost to the Japanese?

Certainly far more than the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What if Operation Downfall had proceeded? Could we have continued with such horrendous causalities? If not, Ketsu-Go would have succeeded, leaving the militarists in charge of Japan. What would have been the cost in more Japanese dead with the invasion?

After Okinawa (and Iwo Jima) 250,000 American deaths and a million causalities overall does not seem unrealistic. When WW2 ended, there were 405,000 American dead and 671,000 wounded. Now imagine added to that, the terrible cost of Operation Downfall.

There were a lot of American servicemen in the Pacific – and Europe, who were relieved when the Bomb was dropped.

And one factor not mentioned: The Soviet Union. All through WW2, the Soviet Union and Japan were not at war. Shortly before he died, Franklin Roosevelt asked Stalin for help in the Pacific beating the Japanese. Stalin balked as long as he was fighting the Nazis.

However, once Hiroshima was bombed, Stalin, seeing his influence in the Pacific rapidly waning, declared war the next day on Japan and attacked the Japanese at Manchuria.

It is easy to imagine a Japan partitioned as Germany, with a Soviet and American Sector.

Japan certainly wouldn’t have continued to exist as we know it today. Nor would it have had the prosperity.

Dropping the bomb saved not only many more American and Japanese lives, but kept the Soviets out of Japan.


*Downfall – The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, Richard B. Frank , page 71 


Filed under History, Naval History, Politics

8 responses to “The Case For Hiroshima

  1. JefftheBobcat

    Wow, great post!

    Thank you for it.

  2. And the surrender was not unconditional. We accepted the request and allowed the Emperor to stay.

    • What I found interesting in this is that when the Potsdam declaration was issued, they wanted to give Japan a face saving means of surrender.

      Thus no mention of the emperor’s fate was in the declaration.

      Prime Minister Suzuki interpreted that as a weakening American resolve and chose to fight on.

      I remember reading somewhere that when MacArthur came in he had the Emperor visit him which was unheard of.

      The Japanese considered the emperor godlike and he’s not supposed to come calling on whoever beckons.

      But that set the atmosphere for postwar Japan.

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