On June 9, 1945, I was 19 years of age and a radio operator aboard a Navy ship that someone in Washington had given the improbable name of USS Romulus. On that day, sitting in the ship’s radio shack, I composed a letter to my mother and father.
“I have no fear of the Romulus,” I wrote in an attempt to ease parental worry at a time when the American Navy was suffering the greatest loss of men and ships in its history off the coast of Okinawa. “It was named after one of the builders of Rome, and Rome has lasted for centuries, and I have no doubt that my ship will last out the war.” I added, in a burst of youthful pride and bravado, “It is really quite thrilling to think that I shall have a part to play, although small, in the invasion of Japan and victory,” a remark that surely did not thrill my parents.
But luck was on the side of the Romulus crew and to countless other people—a million, perhaps two million, perhaps three million, perhaps 20 million, God knows exactly how many, who faced the specter of death and mutilation.
On June 18, nine days after I sent my letter, President Harry S. Truman met at the White House with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries of War and the Navy. He was told that they had agreed unanimously that the invasion of Japan should proceed on November 1. But Truman, an expert in the game of poker, had an ace to play. He decided to drop two atomic bombs—one fell on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki—in order to prevent “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
Like the Marine Corps and Army grunts on land and the Navy sailors at sea, Okinawa had scared the hell out of Truman, an old Army hand from the trenches of World War I. In the three-month period since becoming president following the death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, the Commander in Chief’s land and sea forces in the Pacific had suffered almost half of all casualties inflicted on them by the Japanese in three years of warfare. Most of the casualties had occurred on atrocious, uncivilized islands during those jubilant months when war-weary Americans back home in the States were still enjoying the liberation of lovely, civilized Paris, thoughts of peace with Nazi Germany’s collapse, and a return to the good life.
A substantial percentage of the Pacific casualties took place on the island of Iwo Jima, an odious volcanic nothing in the middle of nowhere. The battle there had cost the slaughter of three Marine Corps divisions, an engagement that some historians later dubbed an unnecessary waste of gallant young men and a U.S. military blunder. When the Japanese were eliminated, the shooting brought to a halt, and the American dead and wounded carried away, it was questionable whether the island served any useful purpose, even as a refueling station for B-29’s returning to their bases in the Marianas after massive and decimating firebombings of Japan’s cities.
Okinawa, in total casualties, was even worse. When the battle was over, more than 260,000 people would be dead.
Four months before I wrote my letter to my parents, a young Okinawan student nurse named Miyagi Kikuko also related to her parents her pride and her bravado as she anticipated facing the enemy. Just before her mobilization in February 1945, she went home to say farewell. “I assured father and mother that I would win the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, eighth class,” she related to Haruko Taya and Theodore F. Cook for their book Japan at War: An Oral History (The New Press, 1992). “Father was a country schoolmaster. He said, ‘I didn’t bring you up to the age of 16 to die.’ I thought he was a traitor to say such a thing. I went to the battlefield feeling proud of myself.”
The invasion of Okinawa, a 60-mile long island 350 miles south of Japan, began on an Easter Sunday or on an April Fool’s Day, take your pick. In either case, it started with a rare placidity for most of the invaders on April 1, 1945, as the U.S. Navy deposited the first wave of 180,000 Army soldiers and Marines on a “sweet and quiet beach,” recalled Marine Corps Lieutenant David Brown, who would soon be dead, in a letter to a friend. “All around were furrowed fields of patches of ripe winter barley, and tiny field flowers were scattered over the light earth.”
Also going ashore from one of 1,200 Navy ships assembled for the invasion was 23-year-old Marine Corps Sergeant William Manchester, now writer-in-residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was as surprised and as delighted as Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and other military bigwigs that the landings throughout the day were proceeding with only minimal opposition. There were “no roars of Jap coastal guns,” Manchester wrote later in his book Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (Little, Brown, 1979).
But if the ground forces were escaping the usual beach destruction, the Navy was getting a foretaste of the future. A tank landing ship that had participated in the assault of Iwo Jima, LST 884, with 300 Marines on board, was hit by a suicide plane on her port quarter. She immediately burst into flames and her ammunition exploded, resulting in the deaths of 24 sailors and Marines with 21 wounded. Other ships also were hit, including the minesweeper Alpine (16 dead, 27 wounded), the transport Hinsdale (16 dead, 19 wounded) and the battleship West Virginia (four dead, 23 wounded).
These aerial attacks had not been unexpected by the Navy. Although the formal date of invasion was April 1, the Battle of Okinawa really began for the sailors on March 18 when a carrier task force arrived 90 miles southwest of the southern coast of Japan. The objective was to destroy on various airfields as many Japanese aircraft as possible, including the suicide planes known as kamikazes, before the actual invasion took place. The Japanese waged a stiff counterassault. On the 18th the carriers Enterprise, Intrepid, and Yorktown were attacked with minimal casualties. But the following day heavy losses were sustained by the Wasp (101 killed, 269 wounded) and the Franklin (724 killed, 265 wounded).
The British Navy had also joined the fight. A task force that included the carriers Indefatigable, Illustrious, Victorious, and Formidable, with steel decks superior to those of the U.S. carriers and thereby better able to withstand the kamikazes, was given the job of blasting Japanese airfields in the Sak-ishima Islands east of Formosa as well as on Formosa itself. Thus the two task forces were able to crush a part of the Japanese air assault before the critical opening days of the invasion.
Unlike previous invasions, the Japanese plan on Okinawa was to allow the Americans to land their troops largely unopposed, then seal off any chance of escape by attacking and sinking the U.S. fleet with massive air attacks. In addition, an attack force of ships, led by the world’s largest battleship, the Yamato, would sail down from Japan and fire away with its big guns at the Americans. While the sea destruction was underway, the plan envisioned, a force of 110,000 Japanese soldiers, snugly entrenched in hundreds of caves bristling with deadly firepower, would destroy the trapped Marines and soldiers on land.
It didn’t work. In one appalling action after another—is appalling too soft a word for thousands of men slaughtering each other at close range?—the Americans gradually annihilated more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers—an entire Japanese army.
At times the distance between the armies was less than 600 yards. During one engagement Sergeant Manchester was able to view from a hillock a complete battlefield. It reminded him of photographs of World War I battle scenes. Beyond, said Manchester, were two great armies, squatting in the mud and smoke, locked in unimaginable agony. Gone were Lieutenant Brown’s peaceful fields of ripe winter barley with tiny bright field flowers. Artillery had denuded and scared everything in sight.
As casualties mounted, Manchester felt responsibility and guilt over his dead comrades, because he was alive, and frustrated, “because I was unable to purge my shock by loathing the enemy. I was ever a lover; that was what Christianity meant to me.” But with “satanic madness” all about him, he and his fellow Marines who were still alive kept pushing ahead because “staying on the line was a matter of pride.”
Years later Manchester remembered fallen comrades, “how they were hit and how they died.” Lefty, Harvard ‘43. Swifty, Ohio State ‘44. Chet, Colgate ‘45. Wally, MIT ‘43. Knocko, Holy Cross ‘45. Shiloh, Williams ‘44; back in the States his mother had heard on the radio that his unit was fighting on Sugar Loaf Hill; she had spent the night on her knees praying for her son’s life. And then there was Bubba, Ole ‘Bama ‘45, a divinity student, crying “Vicksburg, Vicks-burg” as he was carried from the battlefield bleeding from gunshot wounds. “I heard he was going to be written up for a Silver Star, but I doubt that he got it; witnesses of valor were being gunned down before they could report.”
Early in June Sergeant Manchester was severely wounded. For hours his body was undisturbed, considered dead until a corpsman discovered a thread of life. He was evacuated to a tank landing ship that was serving as a clearing house for the wounded; the three hospital ships had departed; they couldn’t handle any more casualties.
Miyagi Kikuko also survived. She had looked forward to the opportunity to express warmth and sympathy for brave soldiers, wrapping their gallant wounds with bandages while speaking with “tender voice.” Instead, she had been petrified as young men were brought into the cave where she worked, some without limbs, some without faces, many mercifully dying quickly.
When the guns stopped firing, she and other nurses were rounded up by the Americans and taken to a camp. Japanese propagandists had told them that at the camp they would be stripped naked, raped, and run over by tanks. Rather, they were given food, something called “ra-shon.” Finally, she was reunited with her parents. Her mother, barefoot, ran out of a tent and put her arms around her daughter.
“You lived,” she said. “You lived.”
At sea the Navy death rate was greater than either the Marines or the Army on land. To understand why this is so one must grasp what it was like when ships were subjected to mass attacks by suicide planes.
The actual assaults occurred after days and weeks of tense, watchful waiting, sometimes to ships close to the shore providing fire power and logistical support to combat forces on land, frequently to vessels on patrol in what was known as picket duty along an outer ring around Okinawa called the ping line. The job of the pickets was to alert support vessels
inside the ring as well as carrier and land based aircraft that could respond to the approaching kamikazes.
More often than not the picket ships became the prime targets of the Japanese intruders, the encounters developing usually at dawn or at dusk. Especially most fearsome were the attacks on moonlit, cloudless nights when ships were revealed like love boats on Caribbean cruises.
The tension aboard a ship as a suicide pilot aimed his plane at a target of two or three hundred Americans was extreme, with sailors with little sleep or rest sometimes near the breaking point. It was a condition that could lead to advice from a captain that was not authorized by Navy regulations.
“We have Jap planes en route heading directly for us,” announced the skipper over one ship’s loudspeaker system after the crew was called to general quarters. “If you characters ever want to sleep with a blonde again, you had better shoot down these bastards as soon as they come up.”
And come up they did, sometimes two or three at a time, sometimes a dozen or so, sometimes more than 100 hitting at various points along the ping line and into the shelters of Okinawa.
An assault is like this: topside the sailors can see the enemy winging in from every different direction, first as small dots miles away, then within minutes as recognizable aircraft getting nearer and nearer. In an attempt to frustrate the kamikazes, the warship assumes flank speed and adopts evasive maneuverability as her gunners concentrate their efforts to kill the attackers. Many are shot down, but some are not, and when an aircraft smashes into a ship the impact is defiling. Death, fire, and destruction sweep over the vessel. The ship’s power is often lost, its radar and radio communications destroyed, its ability to move seriously impaired.
Below decks, the crew works in claustrophobic fear as the battle rages unseen but vaguely heard as sailors almost hypnotically pass ammunition to the gun positions above or struggle to keep its engines alive. Sealed off in hot, watertight compartments, unaware of how the battle is going, hearing only the muffled sounds of the ship’s guns, they are constantly mindful that death may strike them at any moment if the hull is penetrated by a suicide plane, allowing the sea to rush in to drown them all.
A ship attacked by only one kamikazi might consider itself lucky. Unlucky the ship that faces three or five or ten. Perhaps it can be likened to an attack by a swarm of wasps. One is coming in low over the water headed for the bridge, another high up but nose down aiming right for dead center, a third with its right wing torn to bits by the ship’s guns but still on target, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth, a ninth, a tenth. The first, second, third, fifth, seventh, and eighth are shot down, but not the fourth, sixth, ninth, and tenth.
The entire deck of the ship is smashed, fires rage from stem to stern, the engine room is flooded, the ship is not moving, but the guns are still firing. The dead, the wounded, the dismembered litter the wardroom, mess hall, sick bay, gun positions, fantail, passageways. Out in the water, around the ship, men blown over the side struggle to stay afloat and pray that nearby ships will pick them up before they’re eaten by sharks.
In an hour or two the battle is over and the ship resembles “a floating junk pile.” In time, if her luck holds out, she’ll be towed to a safe Okinawan harbor. By then her dead will have been given their burial at sea and her wounded taken to somebody else’s sick bay.
Now the scene of battle reverts to Homer’s wine-dark sea. It will be unvisited by veterans from either side 50 years later because there will be no monuments, no crosses, nothing to view but an ocean forever anonymous.
The Battle of Okinawa came to its official end on June 21. Almost 5,000 sailors were killed and 5,000 wounded. More than 7,800 Japanese aircraft, kamikazi as well as conventional, were shot down and 36 U.S. warships were sunk and 368 damaged. On land, the Marines and the Army suffered a total of 7,000 killed while the wounded count soared to a devastating 32,000.
As for the Japanese army, the battle was a descent into oblivion. Its force of 110,000 men was almost totally annihilated. In addition, the Okinawan people—a peace-loving race before they were absorbed by the Japanese in 1879—became victims of violence. Close to 150,000 Okinawans died in the crossfire between the two armies.
Okinawa had shocked the American civilian and military leadership. The casualties over a three-month period in a confined land and sea area had been hideous and indicated what the armed forces and their families back home could anticipate in a massive invasion of the rugged, mountainous Japanese mainland. Against this background Harry Truman asked his advisers what they recommended as the next step. As a State Department paper put it, “He had hoped that there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
An alternative to an invasion was a naval blockade and a conventional aerial bombardment even greater than that which had already ravaged Tokyo and other cities. This proposal was favored by the Navy hierarchy in Washington but opposed by Army leaders, including General Douglas MacArthur, who argued that a blockade could go on for years and that heavy bombardment had failed to bring down Germany.
So an invasion was recommended to the President, which he accepted, even though Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, projected the Okinawan casualty rate of 35 percent to 268,000 Americans killed or wounded out of the 767,000 needed for the first invasion thrust against the southern Japanese land mass, Kyushu. The armed forces medical services were even more pessimistic. Almost certainly unknown to Truman, the medics estimated
that there would be more than 390,000 casualties after four months of fighting.
And after the war, writing in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson wrote that he had been informed—he did not say who did the informing—that the Kyushu invasion plus a second Honshu invasion striking in the heavily populated Tokyo area “might be expected to cost over a million casualties to American forces alone. Additional large losses might be expected among our allies, and, of course, if our campaigns were successful and if we could judge by previous experience, enemy casualties would be much larger than our own.”
While Washington pondered, the Japanese were readying their forces for an all-out, death to the last man, woman, and child fight. The military was confident that its 10,000 planes, half of them kamikazes, would destroy upwards of 50 percent of the invasion fleet, and that those Americans who succeeded in getting onto the beaches would be met by two million defending soldiers and a civilian population that had been told to defend the motherland with any weapons they could devise, from hand-held explosives to wooden spikes.
But as the two military forces prepared for the ultimate battle, Truman and his associates were aware in June and July that some Japanese civilian leaders had decided that the war could not be won and were seeking a way to bring this about. Rut the conditions they proposed were absurd. They had the illogical idea that the Soviet Union could arrange a peace with the United States that would not require Tokyo to unconditionally surrender or accept an occupation of the Japanese mainland. Japan’s envoy to Moscow, Ambassador Sato, rightly called his government’s overtures ridiculous, and he urged Tokyo to accept the Allied demand to give up the fight without restrictions.
These exchanges between Tokyo and Moscow indicating that the government of Japan rejected unconditional surrender even if the house of the emperor was preserved “told the Americans two very important things,” says Gerhard L.
Weinberg, author of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge 1994) and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “In the first place, these exchanges showed that the subject of surrender was actually under discussion in Tokyo, an entirely new feature. Secondly, they demonstrated that so far the advocates of continuing the war were winning out over those who were prepared to surrender, but they might not always be able to do so. Perhaps the blows of atomic bombs and of Soviet entrance into the war could swing the balance to the faction which urged surrender.”
The Soviets imparted some of the Tokyo-Moscow exchanges to Washington, but the U.S. had independently confirmed the Japanese representations through radio interceptions and decoding. With this information, the United States leadership was eager to prod the Japanese to the peace table. But how should this be done? In May, while the Okinawa campaign was relentlessly underway, a peace feeler had been relayed to the Japanese, but there had been no response from Tokyo. So instead of sending a second feeler at this stage, Truman decided to await the critical new factor— the atomic bomb. A test was scheduled for July 16 in New Mexico, and the President wanted to see if this new weapon actually worked.
It did, and on July 26 a second call for unconditional surrender was issued to the Japanese from Potsdam, Germany, where Truman had been meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The document, proclaimed by the governments of the United States, Britain, and China (but not the Soviet Union, since it was not yet at war with Japan), also implied that the Japanese could retain their emperor, a sensitive and most critical point, and indeed Tokyo got that message. But again the Japanese did not respond.
In an effort to encourage capitulation U.S. planes dropped Japanese translations of the Potsdam Declaration on Tokyo and elsewhere in the country. But Japanese newspapers immediately reported that the Japanese cabinet viewed the declaration “with silent contempt.” When this news was received in Washington, Truman had no choice but to act. He ordered the first atomic bomb to be dropped. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 A.M. the order was carried out when the bomb was released over Hiroshima from a B-29 called the Enola Gay.
Three days later the Soviet Union, which the Japanese had hoped would save them from surrendering unconditionally to a country they had attacked nearly four years earlier at Pearl Harbor, opportunistically declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. That same evening a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In all, 210,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the two explosions, about 53,000 fewer than the number of people killed at Okinawa.
Now the fate of Japan was up to the emperor, whose continuance on the throne was assured by Truman’s wise decision to accept a recommendation by some of his advisers to allow Hirohito to keep his position. (Secretary of War Stimson and Under-Secretary of State Joseph Grew were for retention; Secretary of State James Byrnes and Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson were against.)
In June the emperor had been told by two top military officers after inspection tours of the home islands and Manchuria that the nation’s military situation was hopeless. With this information in mind plus the news of the two atomic bombs and the belated decision of the Soviets to enter the war, Hirohito had only one avenue available. He told his Imperial Council, which was evenly split between peace and continuing the war, that the terms of the Potsdam Declaration must be accepted.
Opponents of surrender were outraged and determined to stage a coup so that the war against the Americans could go on until the bitter end. But the plot failed when senior officers refused to join the uprising against the emperor. Among those declining to oppose the emperor was the Minister of War, Anami Korechika, an advocate of defending the motherland despite the atomic bombs, the Soviet declaration, and a succession of military defeats. He committed suicide rather than attempting to counter Hirohito. But the plot came near to success. “It was a close call,” says Professor Weinberg.
On September 2, 1945, General MacArthur accepted the formal surrender of the Japanese aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. As a result, millions of people lived.
Fifty years after the atomic bombs were dropped controversy continues in academic circles as to whether it was necessary for the United States to use these awesome weapons. History Professor William L. O’Neill of Rutgers University, author of A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (The Free Press, 1993), points out that after the bloody Okinawa campaign, the Army’s Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall “concluded that if the bomb was not used, nothing short of invading it would force Japan to surrender.” The shock value of the bomb, Marshall believed, “offered the hope of making a fundamental change in Japanese thought. With great reluctance, therefore, Marshall concluded that the atomic weapon had to be used.”
After the war, Marshall said: “I was aware of the peace offerings Japan was making to the Russians in the summer of ‘45. But the Japanese Prime Minister was unable to control the Army. The Army was dominant in these matters, and they could only apparently be slugged into submission. And we slugged them … The bomb stopped the war. Therefore, it was justifiable. I think it was very wise to use it.”
O’Neill also notes that use of the second bomb on Nagasaki (together with the Soviet war declaration) was the goad that pushed the emperor to order surrender. He then adds:
“Terrible as they were, by forcing a quick and favorable outcome, the atomic weapons saved many more lives than they took . . , During the Okinawa campaign one-third of the civilian population died … their suffering was indescribable. On the home islands, so much more strongly defended and with a vastly larger population, the agony and the deaths would have been beyond imagining … Millions of Japanese civilians would have died, in addition to the fighting men on both sides. For this reason, the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not die in vain.”
Ronald H. Spector, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and author of Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (The Free Press, 1985), writes that none of the critics of the atomic bomb decision “has been able to demonstrate how the Japanese high command might have been induced to surrender without the combined shock of Russia’s entry into the war and the use of two atomic bombs.”
Finally, there is the commentary of Churchill in his memoirs (Triumph and Tragedy, Vol. 6 of The Second World War, Houghton Mifflin, 1953). He wrote that up to the moment of the successful detonation of the atomic bomb in New Mexico an assault on Japan had been planned and that the Japanese had been expected to put up “desperate resistance,” resulting in the deaths of a million Americans and 500,000 Britons.
“Now that nightmare picture had vanished,” said Churchill. “In its place was the vision—fair and bright it seemed—of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks. I thought immediately myself of how the Japanese people, whose courage I had always admired, might find in the apparition of this almost supernatural weapon an excuse which would save their honor and release them from their obligation of being killed to the last fighting man.”
One question that will forever remain unanswered is whether President Roosevelt would have authorized use of the atomic bomb. In her recent biography No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster, 1994), Doris Kearns Goodwin is equivocal, although she notes that Eleanor Roosevelt “did not question the decision to use the bomb, believing that it would bring the war to a speedier end.” But Professor Weinberg writes:
“The available evidence supports the conclusion that [Roosevelt] had expected any bombs built in time for use against Germany to be dropped on that country and any not ready in time to be dropped on Japan, in both cases in the hope of bringing the war to a quick end… . Nothing suggests that Roosevelt, had he lived, would have decided differently [than Truman].”
How many people would have died had the atomic bombs not been dropped and the Japanese had decided to continue the war for a year or two until the last garrison had been wiped out and the last female defender of the motherland had tossed her final homemade grenade?
On September 9, 1945, a month after the bomb fell on Nagasaki, the British had been scheduled to invade the Malay Peninsula and retake Singapore, an operation that would have cost the lives of tens of thousands. After the Okinawa campaign had concluded, an order went out from Japan to kill all 400,000 captives in Japanese prisoner of war camps when the British started their campaigns to regain lost possessions. In addition, the Japanese still had thousands of troops in China and Manchuria for the thrust from the Soviet Union, an invasion that would have caused countless deaths. Add these casualties to the total number of killings in Japan and the final figure is almost unimaginable. Author George Feifer, in his book Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), offers a minimum figure of 20 million people.
Years after he ordered the use of the atomic bomb to bring World War II to a close, Truman told an audience: “I could not worry about what history would say about my personal morality. I made the only decision I knew how to make. I did what I thought was right.”
But perhaps George M. Elsey, a young naval intelligence officer assigned to the Truman White House, provided the best reply to revisionist historians and others who question the decision to drop the atomic bombs. Asked by David McCullough for his biography of the President (Truman, Simon & Schuster, 1992) about the decision, Elsey replied: “Truman made no decision because there was no decision to be made. He could no more have stopped it than a train moving down a track. It’s all well and good to come along later and say the bomb was a horrible thing. The whole goddamn war was a horrible thing.”
Author’s note: Besides the nine books mentioned in the essay, I would like to cite four other exceptional works that were particularly helpful: Victory in the Pacific 1945, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Little, Brown, 1960); Brave Ship Brave Men, by Arnold S. Lott (Naval Institute Press, 1964); Tin Can Sailor, by C. Raymond Calhoun (Naval Institute Press, 1993); and Little Ship, Big War, by Edward P. Stafford (William Morrow, 1984).