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An Atomic End: The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


The closer American forces advanced toward the Japanese mainland, the more determined Japanese troops were to fight to the last man. It took thirty-six days of bloody fighting for the Marines to capture the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima, which sat roughly 660 miles south of Tokyo. By the end of the fight on March 26, 1945, only 212 Japanese of the original 21,000-man-strong garrison were still alive to surrender. Approximately 6,891 Americans died on the black sands of Iwo Jima and another 18,070 were wounded.

One week after Iwo Jima was declared secure, American forces assaulted the island of Okinawa, located only 350 miles south of the Japanese mainland. As on Iwo Jima, the Japanese troops on Okinawa fought with a fanatical, and at times suicidal, determination to inflict maximum damage to the Americans. They waged a relentless 82-day battle before their final resistance was broken on June 22. The fight for Okinawa resulted in around 50,000 American casualties and Japanese kamikaze pilots managed to sink nearly 26 ships and damaged another 164 vessels. More than 250,000 Okinawans and Japanese troops were also killed during the struggle.

The USS Bunker Hill burning with heavy smoke after being struck by two kamikaze planes in 30 seconds on May 11, 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the bloody brutality of the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the worst was still expected to come. After facing “the ultimate horror of war” on Okinawa, Marine Eugene B. “Sledgehammer” Sledge reflected, “Ugly rumors circulated that we would hit Japan next, with an expected casualty figure of one million Americans. No one wanted to talk about that.”

Those “ugly rumors” that Sledge had been hearing about were indeed true. During the summer of 1945, American planners were steeling themselves in preparation for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Although the war in Europe had ended earlier that May and Japan’s position in the Pacific ultimately seemed unwinnable, the Japanese government had pledged on June 8 that “the nation would fight to the bitter end.” There was a firm belief among many Japanese commanders “that it would be far better to die fighting in battle than to seek an ignominious survival by surrendering the nation and acknowledging defeat,” as one of them later explained. And so, it seemed that the killing would have to continue as America and her Allies prepared for the daunting task of launching an invasion of Japan.

As historian Victor Davis Hanson writes, “By August 1945, six years after the start of World War II in Europe, some 70 million had died, including some 10 million killed by the Japanese military.” With the furious level of fighting that would come with an invasion of Japan, the war’s total body count was expected to soar even higher. As a study by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff projected, the battle for Japan would “cost half a million American lives and many more that number in wounded.” In his memoirs, U.S. President Harry Truman wrote that he also expected half a million American lives to be lost during this massive undertaking. Staggering as those projections were, men like American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of State James Byrnes thought that the overall numbers would be even higher. As Stimson wrote, “I was informed that such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone.” The great scholar Thomas Sowell adds, “British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also expected more than a million American casualties, together with half a million casualties among the British troops who were scheduled to hit the beaches with the Americans.”

Based on the staggering ferocity and fanaticism that Japanese troops had fought with across battlefield after battlefield throughout the war, it is no wonder why so many American lives were expected to be lost in the invasion of Japan. As the bloody struggles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa had demonstrated, the closer U.S. forces got to the Japanese mainland, the more determined Japanese troops were to fight to the last man. History.com even calculates that “between mid-April 1945 . . . and mid-July, Japanese forces inflicted Allied casualties totaling nearly half those suffered in three full years of war in the Pacific, proving that Japan had become even more deadly when faced with defeat."

The cost of war. An American serviceman visiting a cemetery for those who gave the last full measure of devotion in the Battle for Okinawa.(Photo Credit: Okinawa: The Last Battle - U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Operation Downfall, the Allied strategic plan to invade the Japanese homeland, was split into two phases. The first, Operation Olympic, targeted Kyushu, the third largest of Japan’s five main islands, and was scheduled to begin on November 1, 1945. Once that vital foothold was taken, Operation Coronet, an amphibious assault against the Tokyo plain on Honshu was slated to begin in March 1946. With the level of Japanese resistance that was expected, the Pentagon estimated that the war might very well rage on until 1947.

The Japanese showed great precision in their counter-planning, determining that the Allied invasion would begin no later than November 1, 1945, and also that the initial assault would target Kyushu. As Hanson writes, "Japan had millions of soldiers at home with fortifications, planes and artillery, waiting for the assault." As Historian Andrew Roberts adds, “Along with kamikaze pilots, the Japanese counted on flying bombs, human torpedoes, suicide attack boats, midget suicide submarines and navy swimmers to be used as human mines.” Additionally, “Japan’s civilian population, including children, were also being mobilized and trained in suicide attacks on enemy troops and tanks,” according to Sowell. With tactics like these, historian William Craig explained, “The reasoning was simple: Kill as many men as possible and shatter American morale. Any hope of a negotiated peace rested on the infliction of enormous casualties.”

Peace certainly seemed elusive in the summer of 1945. Although America and her most trusted Allies were eager to bring the war to an ultimate conclusion, those who actually held the reins of power in Japan were equally determined to fight on. As Roberts puts it, “Any peace feelers that the Japanese diplomats were trying to put out via the Soviet Union ran up against the granitic fact that the Japanese military, not civilians, had ultimate control, and they had no intention of surrendering.” Even as their homeland was being devastated by air raids from American bombers-one firebombing attack alone on March 9 flattened 16 square miles of the Japanese capital of Tokyo, killed 83,000 people, and wounded around 100,000 more-Japan’s military men had no desire to quit. In President Truman’s words, “The firebombing of Tokyo was one of the most terrible things that ever happened, and they didn’t surrender after that although Tokyo was almost completely destroyed.” It was going to take a new weapon of unimaginable destructive power to bring the war against the Japanese to a close, once and for all.

Through the tireless work of some of the greatest scientific minds in the world, including German scientists who had fled Nazi Germany, the American-led Manhattan Project succeeded in developing and building two types of atomic bombs, one of which was uranium-based and the other plutonium-based. Using nuclear reactions as their source of explosive energy, these new weapons had the power to kill tens of thousands in the blink of an eye. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated at the Trinity test site in the New Mexican desert. In addition to a massive burst of heat, the explosion also created a massive mushroom cloud that rose approximately 40,000 feet high.

An aerial view of the aftermath of the first atomic explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. (Photo Credit: The New York Times/Associated Press)

On July 26, 1945, the United States, Great Britain, and China issued the Potsdam Declaration, which outlined the terms of Japan’s surrender. These terms included the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, disarmament of Japan’s military, and occupation of Japanese territory by Allied forces. If Japanese leaders did not promptly accept the terms of surrender, the Allies warned, “The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese offered no response to the Allies. After waiting several days without receiving any reply, President Truman ultimately decided that in order to crush the enemy’s will to resist and bring the bloody war to an end, what he called “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world” had to be used. “It is an awful responsibility that has come to us,” wrote Truman.

At 8:16 a.m. on Sunday, August 6, the Japanese learned what the threat of “prompt and utter destruction” truly meant when the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped a uranium-fueled atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which served as an important Japanese army base and functioned as a vital manufacturing center and port. Codenamed “Little Boy,” the 8,000-pound “bomb exploded with a yield equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT,” according to Roberts, and “raised the temperature on the ground to 5,000 degrees Celsius….” The bomb destroyed approximately five square miles of the city, which Roberts calculates as “63 percent of the city’s 76,000 buildings.” Between the initial explosion and those who later died from the radiation that was released, it is estimated that around 140,000 people were killed as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

The atomic explosion over Hiroshima produced a mushroom shaped cloud that ultimately rose 50,000 feet over the city. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after the strike on Hiroshima, President Truman delivered a radio broadcast, explaining what had taken place and providing details on the revolutionary weapon that had been used. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” he said. “They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet.” Truman also added, “It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam.” Japan’s leaders had ignored that ultimatum. Now, the president issued another dire warning: if the Japanese did not presently “accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

Incredibly, even after the catastrophe at Hiroshima, the Japanese still refused to surrender. As Roberts writes, Japan’s government resolved to fight on, “hoping that the Allies had only one [atomic] weapon and believing that the home islands could be successfully defended from invasion and the dishonor of occupation.” Despite the determination many felt to stand firm, the odds against the Japanese quickly became even more daunting. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan and more than one million Russian troops stormed into Japanese-occupied Manchuria in northeastern China. Seismic as that event was, the real endgame for Japan would come from the air one day later.

At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, the American B-29 Superfortress Bockscar dropped a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, the site of a key Mitsubishi munitions plant. The primary target that day had actually been the city of Kokura, but cloud cover and smoke prevented the crew of Bockscar from clearly identifying their aiming point on the ground. After moving to the secondary target at Nagasaki, the 21-kiloton “Fat Man,” which was even more powerful than the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier, was unleashed and exploded with devastating force. The blast destroyed a third of the city, killing an estimated 73,884 people and wounding around 74,909. As at Hiroshima, the radiation released by the bomb also had “debilitating long-term mental and physical effects on the population,” as noted by Roberts.

The atomic bomb mushroom cloud over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even after suffering a second atomic bomb attack, some Japanese military men still refused to capitulate. At a meeting of the Imperial Council on the night of August 9, the Chief of the Army General Staff Yoshijiro Umezu argued that Japan still had the “ability to deal a smashing blow to the enemy,” making it “inexcusable to surrender unconditionally.” The chief of the naval staff was in agreement, stating, “we do not believe it possible that we will be defeated.” Dissenting from those views were Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki and other civilian leaders, who clearly saw that surrender was now inevitable. With the Imperial Council split on which course to follow, it was ultimately decided to ask Emperor Hirohito for a decision. At 2 a.m. on August 10, the 124th Emperor of the Japanese people made his decision and sided with the council’s peace faction. As he told those gathered at the meeting, “I cannot bear to see my innocent people struggle any longer. Ending the war is the only way to restore peace and to relieve the nation from the terrible distress with which it is burdened.”

“This second demonstration of the power of the atomic bomb apparently threw Tokyo into a panic, for the next morning brought the first indication that the Japanese Empire was ready to surrender,” as President Truman later wrote in his memoirs. At long last, Japan finally surrendered to the Allies on August 14, 1945. Emperor Hirohito proceeded to prepare a broadcast to announce the news to his people. Unwilling to accept defeat, however, some young Japanese officers invaded the Imperial palace in an attempted coup d’état intended to stop Japan’s surrender. Their coup ultimately failed and the Emperor’s message was transmitted across Japanese radio stations at noon the next day.

As William Craig writes, Emperor Hirohito’s message to the people of Japan on August 15 “was an unprecedented break with tradition. Never before had the Emperor talked personally to them. The people had never heard his voice.” Over the historic broadcast, the Emperor conceded that the war had “developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,” and he explained why the proud nation had to capitulate. “Moreover,” said Hirohito, “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.” Further resistance against an enemy that was equipped with atomic weapons “would not only result in an ultimate collapse of the Japanese nation, but would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” To save his people and their nation from ruin, Emperor Hirohito admitted, “we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”

The Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. On that long awaited day, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, American General Douglas MacArthur, announced to a live worldwide radio audience, “Let us pray now that peace be restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”

Japan formally surrenders aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over the years, some individuals have criticized the decision made by President Truman and the Allies to use the atomic bomb. Most of these criticisms tend to argue that since Japan was about to surrender, it was morally wrong to launch the attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the historical record reveals, however, the Japanese government had vowed that “the nation would fight to the bitter end.” Japanese resolve was so firm that her leaders boasted of their planned sacrifice as the “Glorious Death of One Hundred Million.” It took not one, but two atomic bomb attacks to finally compel Japan to surrender. Had the bombs not been dropped and had the Allies thus been forced to invade Japan, the Second World War could have raged on for years and countless more military and civilian lives would have been lost. In reality, the nuclear bombs actually saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese, American, and Allied lives by finally forcing Japan to capitulate. As a former president of the Japanese Medical Association, Dr. Taro Takemi put it, “When one considers the possibility that the Japanese military would have sacrificed the entire nation if it were not for the atomic bomb attack, then this bomb might be described as having saved Japan.” For his part, President Truman never doubted that the right choice had been made. “It was a terrible decision. But I made it,” he later wrote to his sister, Mary. “I made it to save 250,000 boys from the United States, and I’d make it again under similar circumstances.”

Sources

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by Andrew Roberts.

Atomic Heritage Foundation: Truman Statement on Hiroshima.

Fox News: 75 Years Ago US Used Atomic Bomb in Japan - Here are 5 Alternatives Truman Rejected (Article by Victor Davis Hanson)

History.com: Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

History.com: Hiroshima, Then Nagasaki - Why The U.S. Deployed the Second A-Bomb.

History.com: Soviets Declare War on Japan; Invade Manchuria.

History.com: The Trinity Test.

Investors Business Daily: The Atomic Bombs of August (Article by Victor Davis Hanson)

National Park Service: Harry S Truman's Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.

The Fall of Japan: The Final Weeks of World War II in the Pacific by William Craig.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.

The Thomas Sowell Reader by Thomas Sowell.

The Wall Street Journal: The Lives Saved by the Bomb (Article by Andrew Roberts)

The New York Times: Japanese Doctor Says Bomb Averted Famine.

This Is Why We Stand: The 75th Anniversary of the Battle for Iwo Jima.

This Is Why We Stand: The 75th Anniversary of the Battle for Okinawa.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge

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