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Japan and War to May 1945

Following its success in the Marshall Islands, the US military hit at Japan's naval base at Truk – Japan's "Gibraltar of the Pacific," destroying 12 Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships and 249 aircraft. In June 1944, the Japanese suffered the Battle of the Philippine Sea, near the Mariana Islands, which the US was preparing to invade. Japan's navy, sailing from the Philippines, lost 3 aircraft carriers, around 600 aircraft and an estimated 2,987 dead.

The Allies enjoyed air superiority, also over Burma, but, out of touch with reality, the Japanese were extending their supply line farther across the Asian continent in an attempt to expand from Burma into India. They were looking forward to joining forces with India's anti-British army (the Indian National Army) and liberate India from British rule.

And Japan had Guam and Saipan (in the Mariana Islands) to defend. From Saipan the US could launch its B-29 bombers. Japan had the choice of maneuvering for the best end of the war possible despite the unconditional surrender demanded by their enemies, but it was honor and the futility of battle that they chose. With three weeks of determined fighting, 24,000 of its 30,000 combatants on the island were killed in action. Only 921 of them surrendered. About 5,000 of them committed suicide, as did many of the 7,000 civilians who died, many of them by jumping off of the island's cliffs.

If the Japanese had simply given up the fight, the Americans would have dominated them politically as they were about to do anyway. The Americans would not have unleashed their firepower on a people who had surrendered. Suffering by the Japanese people would have been much less than it otherwise would be. And the Americans would have welcomed an end to their own losses in battle — 3,426 killed and missing in Saipan and 1,777 on Guam.

The fighting in Saipan shook up Japan politically. Japan's government could not hide Saipan's loss from the public, and people knew that their nation was in trouble. The public was being reminded more frequently of the Emperor's deep concerns. All cabinet meetings were now to be held at the Imperial Palace, and louder now was the slogan "revere the Emperor, expel the barbarian." When Tojo suggested reorganizing his cabinet to regain the Emperor's approval, the Emperor instead told him that the entire cabinet had to go. Tojo's lack of support from the emperor encouraged others to push Tojo out office. His successor was a toady who would not be allowed to participate in military decisions — a general not popular with government ministers who favored making peace or with those who favored war until the bitter end.

With contempt for authority growing, the former Prime Minister, Prince Konoe, tried to end the dithering. In mid-February, he expressed his opinion to his fellow royal, Hirohito, that Japan's defeat was inevitable and that the conflict should be ended as soon as possible it was time to end the conflict before the monarchical system collapsed and to prevent a communist revolution. Communism, he said, was a greater danger than capitulation to the United States.

Hirohito was another head of state who had inherited his office, without any demonstration of unusual abilities. His assertions against the rebels in 1936 had been easier than going against tradition and calling for Japan to surrender. He dismissed Kanoe concern with communist revolution in Japan, saying with some disconnection that the Soviet Union would need Japan in its future confrontations with the capitalist West, and he told Kanoe that ending the war was difficult and that he wanted to wait to see coming developments.

Bombing and the Road toward Surrender

On 24 November 1944, the B-29 bombing run from the Mariana Islands to Japan had begun. The first runs were considered failures. These were "precision" bombings directed against factories and military installations. Army Air Corps strategists noticed little success in destroying production, but they saw that production slowed most when civilian workers around the plant were killed in substantial numbers. The man in charge of the Army Air Corps in the Pacific was Curtis LeMay. He decided to try "area bombing" using incendiary bombs. LeMay believed that two-thirds of Japan's industry was dispersed in homes and small shops with no more than thirty employees. Blanket bombing in cities across Japan, he reasoned, would destroy Japanese industry. Civilians would be slaughtered in great numbers, but the war would be shortened. LeMay said that it made no difference how you slay the enemy. And, he said, "To worry about the morality of what we are doing – nuts."

Among Japan's civilians who survived the bombing a couple saw their two dead goldfish and concluded that the goldfish had died for them. They put the two goldfish in their family Buddhist shrine and began worshipping them. Word of the goldfish spread, and a run on goldfish began. In the place of real goldfish, porcelain goldfish were manufactured and, with intense demand, sold at high prices.

Japan's military had been doing what it could with its meager airpower to strike at the B-29 bases in the Mariana Islands, and warplanes were taking off from Iwo Jima. On February 19th, US forces invaded that two-by-five mile island. The battle there lasted to March 16 and took the lives of 4,554 Marines, 363 US Navy men and about 18,000 Japanese. And the US hoped to use the island as an airbase for fighter planes to escort the B-29s into Japan.

On March 9, the US firebombed Tokyo. Many of its buildings were of wood and paper. And Tokyo was one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Japanese had evacuated 1.7 million people from the city, but about six million remained. There were few shelters for people because of a scarcity of materials. The firestorm consumed oxygen and suffocated thousands. Water in the city's canals boiled, and the firestorm sent liquid glass rolling down streets. The city was lit with an orange glow. The B-29s had attacked at a low altitude (5,000 to 8,000 feet) and American tail gunners were sickened by the sight of hundreds of people burning to death. Ten US aircraft were destroyed by the updraft of heat. As many as 120,000 Japanese died. Maybe as many as 200,000. Tokyo became a ghost town, except for the emperor's palace, which had intentionally been spared.

On April 18, LeMay sent his bombers to Nagoya, Japan's third-largest city, and then to Osaka and Kobe. Time magazine expressed joy at the bombings, noting that Japanese cities can be burned "like autumn leaves." Many Americans were thinking about the cruelty remembered the Bataan Death March and other atrocities, and some were generalizing about the Japanese as a cruel race. A few prominent American educators and churchmen protested the bombing of Japan's cities, as did editors of the Jesuit weekly magazine America, which questioned whether the bombings were "with God's law or the nobility of our cause." In Japan, people viewed the American aircrews as guilty of murder and the bombings as proof of American moral depravity.

In Japan, some of the nation's leaders were still pursuing the fantasy that Japan could win the war. The chief fantasy was that God – Kami – would save Japan as He had in 1281 when a typhoon wrecked Kublai Khan's armada. With this, military leaders put hope in Kami-kaze (God-wind) pilots who would intentionally crash the bomb-laden planes into enemy craft. The idea arose when a pilot intentionally rammed a B-29 bomber. He was an instant hero for having sacrificed himself. Great numbers of young Japanese men wanted to emulate the hero. They were ordinary young men and volunteers – neither drugged nor chained to their cockpits as some Americans were to believe.

The invasion of Okinawa had begun — an island the Japanese considered homeland. It would be the bloodiest and longest campaigns of the Pacific war, lasting almost three months and ending on June 22. The United States lost 12,300 killed and 36,000 wounded. More than half of the US dead were killed by Kami-kaze pilots – whose deaths are counted at around 4,000. Kami-kaze attacks damaged 223 US warships and sank thirty. A total of about 130,000 Japanese died, including 40,000 civilians, many of them suicides.

Meanwhile, a study initiated by Japan's new prime minister since April, Baron Kantaro Suzuki (age 78), found that a lack of raw materials was restricting all aspects of civilian and military life. He found that steel production was extremely low, that aircraft production was a third of what had been planned and that the production of munitions was down fifty percent. He found transportation crippled by shortages in fuel and that the chemical industry was also about to collapse. Also, Japan's oil reserves were depleted. An attempt was being made to produce aviation fuel from pine roots. Rice production was at the lowest it had been since 1905. The Japanese nation was facing the possibility of starvation, with the government working on a plan to collect acorns. Admiral Suzuki's report on Japan's material deprivations was released to the Supreme Council for the Conduct of the War, a body consisting of the prime minister, the foreign minister and the top four military chiefs.

Japan still had a substantial number of soldiers, and they were still fighting in Okinawa. But the bulk of Japans soldiers was abroad, mostly in China and Manchuria, with no way to return to defend the homeland. And Japan no longer had an effective navy. With the war in Okinawa ending in June the US would be in a position to starve Japan into submission, but that wouldn't be as heroic or maybe as quick as forcing a surrender by direct military action. A US invasion of Japan's Kyushu Island was tentatively scheduled for November 1945, and the invasion of the main island of Honshu was set for March 1946 — invasions planners believed would be bloody.

CONTINUE READING: Japan's Surrender and the Bomb

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