The last significant naval action of the war took place in the Malacca Straits on 15 May 1945, where five Royal Navy destroyers sank the Japanese cruiser Haguro by torpedoes. Yet, despite no longer having a fleet capable of defending the mainland, the Japanese Government decided to fight on.
The Strategic Air Offensive against Japan had been as pitiless as that against Germany, particularly the firestorm created by the great Tokyo Raid of 10 March 1945, in which 334 B-29s flattened 16 square miles of the capital, killed 83,000 people, injured 100,000 and rendered 1.5 million more homeless. It is regarded as the most destructive conventional bombing raid in history, and even bears some comparison with the nuclear bombs that were to come, although it has excited nothing like the amount of moralizing. With Mustang P-51s escorting the B-29s from Iwo Jima, the USAAF was able to establish almost complete air superiority in the skies over Japan for the last three months of the war; indeed major raids were undertaken from there even while there were still Japanese holding out in different parts of the island. Yet, although the bombing left ordinary Japanese – especially of course the city-dwellers – terrified and demoralized, there was no appreciable pressure put on the Government to end the war which all rational Japanese (including, it is alleged, Emperor Hirohito) could see was suicidal and unwinnable. The military clique that ran the Japanese Government felt no inclination to surrender, a course of action which they considered dishonourable.
Almost half of the residential area of Tokyo was destroyed by the end of the war, aided by the flammability of much of the paper and wooden housing. No fewer than 750,000 incendiary bombs were dropped at very low altitudes by 500 US bombers on the single night of 23 May, and a similar number the next night too. Yet Japan’s reaction, or at least that of her Government, was to fight on, and a resigned but obedient population, which had little practical alternative, went along with the decision. It was not until 22 June 1945 that resistance on Okinawa ended, nearly three months after the US forces had landed on an island that was 60 miles long but rarely more than 8 wide. On the very eve of victory, Buckner was fatally wounded by an artillery shell at an observation post on the front line, the most senior Allied officer to be killed by the enemy in the whole war. Four days later, Lieutenant-General Ushijima committed hara-kiri just as his command post was finally overrun. In all, 107,500 Japanese were known to have died in the battle, an additional 20,000 were buried underground in their caves during the fighting, and only 7,400 surrendered. To set against these numbers, the US Tenth Army lost 7,373 killed and 32,056 wounded, with a further 5,000 sailors killed and 4,600 wounded, a total of nearly 50,000 American casualties for one Pacific island.16 In the skies the ratios were much the same: some 8,000 Japanese planes had been lost in combat and destroyed on the ground, against 783 US naval aircraft. Japan’s Navy and Air Force were now in no position to oppose an American landing on the mainland, but, as her Army had shown, this was expected to be a bloodbath, for both sides.
The collapse of the Imperial Japanese Navy, as well as the mining of Japanese ports by B-29s, meant that the American naval blockade that had been in effect since 1943 would eventually starve the over-crowded island into surrender, though not for many months or possibly longer. No fewer than 4.8 million tons of Japanese merchant shipping were sent to the bottom by US submarines in the course of the war, 56 per cent of the total, and that did not include 201 warships, comprising a further 540,000 tons.18 It came at the grievous cost of fifty-two US submarines, however, and thus the worst death rate of any branch of the US armed forces, even higher than the bomber crews of the Eighth Air Force.
The situation that beckoned General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and General Marshall’s operations planning Staff at the Pentagon in the summer of 1945 was an unenviable one. They had to consider a Japan that by any rational criteria was defeated, but which was not only refusing to surrender but seemed to be preparing to defend the sacred soil of her mainland with the same kind of fanaticism seen on Saipan, Luzon, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and many other places. Few doubted that Operation Olympic – a strike against Kyushu slated for November 1945 – and Operation Coronet, an amphibious assault in March 1946 against the Tokyo plain on Honshu, would lead to horrific loss of Allied life on the ground, however well the B-29s of the Twentieth Air Force and carrier-based task forces managed to soften up the mainland first. Estimates of expected casualty rates differed from planning Staff to planning Staff, but over the coming months – perhaps years – of fighting anything in the region of 250,000 American casualties were thought to be possible. ‘If the conflict had continued for even a few weeks longer,’ believes Max Hastings, ‘more people of all nations – especially Japan – would have lost their lives than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’
It was against that background of looming dread that on 30 December 1944 General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, reported that the first two atomic bombs would be ready by 1 August 1945. At last an end to the war was in sight, and one that did not involve having to subdue the Japanese mainland. The means to be employed had not existed before, and were scientific, but it was hoped that the very newness of the technology might give the peace party in Tokyo – assuming there was one – an argument for why Japan could not fight on. ‘Wars begin when you will,’ wrote Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince, ‘but they do not end when you please.’
In the peroration of his ‘finest hour’ speech of 18 June 1940, Winston Churchill conjured up the vision of a nightmare world in which a Nazi victory produced ‘a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science’. The Nazis did indeed pervert science for their ideological ends, but then of course both sides tried to harness scientific developments for victory. Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Jacob, the military secretary to Churchill’s War Cabinet, once quipped to the author that the Allies won the war largely ‘because our German scientists were better than their German scientists’, and in the field of atomic research and development he was undoubtedly right. Werner Heisenberg’s atomic programme for Hitler thankfully lagged far behind the Allies’, codenamed the Manhattan Project and based at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Because Hitler was a Nazi, he was unable to call upon the best scientific brains to create a nuclear bomb. Between 1901 and 1932 Germany had twenty-five Nobel laureates in Physics and Chemistry, the United States only five. Then came Nazism. In the fifty years after the war, Germany won only thirteen Nobel Prizes to America’s sixty-seven. The list of those émigrés from Fascism – not all of them Jewish – who went on to contribute to the creation of the nuclear bomb, either at Los Alamos or in some other significant capacity, is a very long one, including Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and Hans Bethe (who all left Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933), Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner (who left Hungary in 1935 and 1937 respectively), Emilio Segré and Enrico Fermi (who both left Italy in 1938), Stanisław Ulam (who left Poland in 1939) and Niels Bohr (who escaped from Denmark in 1943). By denying himself the scientific brains necessary to create a Bomb of his own, Hitler’s Nazism meant that he had persecuted the very people who could have prevented his own downfall.
Nonetheless, Hitler’s scientists did come up with an impressive array of non-atomic scientific discoveries during the war, including proximity fuses, synthetic fuels, ballistic missiles, hydrogen-peroxide-assisted submarines and ersatz rubber. Rabelais wrote that ‘Science without conscience is the ruin of the world,’ and all too often Hitler’s scientists – such as the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun – ignored the suffering that their work created, including, as in Braun’s case, tens of thousands of people working under slave-labour conditions to build the installations for his weaponry. (After the war, Braun headed President Kennedy’s space programme, his career in rocketry saved by the fact that he had once briefly been arrested by the SS when Himmler had wanted to take over one of his projects.)
When in August 1939 Albert Einstein had written to President Roosevelt to inform him of the incredible potential of uranium, FDR’s instinctive response was ‘This requires action.’ Sure enough, with huge investment in people and resources, and close collaboration between the American, British, Canadian and European anti-Nazi scientists, the Allies built two atomic bombs, codenamed Little Boy and Fat Man (supposedly references to Roosevelt and Churchill, though why FDR was little or a boy is anyone’s guess). These scientists had discovered the secret to the vast force that held together the constituent particles of the atom, and how to harness it for military purposes. President Truman had few qualms in deploying a bomb that would undoubtedly kill tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, but would also, it was hoped, bring to a sudden halt the war.
At 08.15 on Sunday, 6 August 1945 (local time), the 9-foot 9-inch-long, 8,000-pound Little Boy was dropped from 31,600 feet over the city of Hiroshima, some 500 miles from Tokyo. It had been flown from the island of Tinian in the Mariana Islands in the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, named after the mother of its pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr, commander of the USAAF 509th Composite Group. The gigantic bomb detonated forty-seven seconds later 1,885 feet above the centre of the city which was home to a quarter of a million people, generating a blast of 300,000 Celsius for 1/10,000th of a second. Every building within a 2,000-yard radius of the hypocentre was vaporized, and every wooden building within 1.2 miles. Altogether 5 square miles of the city were destroyed, or 63 per cent of the city’s 76,000 buildings. A huge, mushroom-shaped cloud then rose 50,000 feet over the city. In all, including the civilian deaths of 118,661 and perhaps another 20,000 military deaths, and many who died of radiation sickness afterwards, around 140,000 people were killed.
The scenes in Hiroshima in the aftermath were truly hellish. The Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, told a correspondent from the New Yorker magazine how he tried to ferry some survivors over the river to hospital:
He drove the boat on to the bank and urged them to get on board. They did not move and he realised that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly… He had to keep repeating to himself, ‘These are human beings.’
To those who argued that the enemy ought to have been warned about the destructive power of the atomic bombs, or even had one demonstrated in a desert or an atoll beforehand, General Marshall succinctly noted: ‘It’s no good warning him. If you warn them there’s no surprise. And the only way to produce shock is surprise.’ With only two bombs available, to risk wasting one to no effect was inconceivable. President Truman made a radio broadcast soon afterwards, explaining that the bomb had been atomic, and thus unlike anything that had ever been seen before. ‘That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.’ (that is, 20 kilotons), he told his listeners, which included the Japanese Government. ‘It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the [22,000-pound deep-penetration] British “Grand Slam”, which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.’ (It was long thought that Truman was accurate, and that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was roughly the same size in terms of TNT, but in 1970 the British nuclear pioneer Lord Penney proved that Hiroshima’s blast had in fact been about 12 kilotons, while the Nagasaki blast had been around 22 kilotons.)
George MacDonald Fraser’s views on the morality of what had happened at Hiroshima echoed those of the vast majority of Britons and Americans at the time, both civilian and military. He pointed out that:
We were of a generation to whom Coventry and the London Blitz and Clydebank and Liverpool and Plymouth were more than just names; our country had been hammered mercilessly from the sky, and so had Germany; we had seen the pictures of Belsen and of the frozen horror of the Russian Front; part of our higher education had been dedicated to techniques of killing and destruction; we were not going to lose sleep because the Japanese homeland had taken its turn. If anything, at the time, remembering the kind of war it had been, and the kind of people we, personally, had been up against, we probably felt that justice had been done. But it was of small importance when weighed against the glorious fact that the war was over at last.
Almost, but not quite. In fact the Japanese Government decided to fight on regardless, hoping that the Allies had only one such weapon and believing that the home islands could be successfully defended from invasion and the dishonour of occupation. So three days after Hiroshima, the city of Nagasaki was similarly devastated by Fat Man, with 73,884 people killed, 74,909 injured and similarly debilitating long-term mental and physical effects on the population as at Hiroshima, owing to the radiation released. (It almost didn’t happen; the B-29 pilot Major Charles ‘Chuck’ Sweeney nearly ran out of runway on Tinian with his 5-ton bomb on board, and a crash would have wiped out much of the island.)
Not knowing that the Americans had no more atomic bombs to drop, and shocked by Russia’s intervention in the Pacific War on 8 August, which they were unable effectively to counter, the Japanese did finally surrender on 14 August, with the Emperor Hirohito admitting to his people in a broadcast at noon the next day that the war had gone ‘not necessarily to Japan’s advantage’, especially in view of ‘a new most cruel bomb’. Even as he prepared to broadcast, a group of young officers invaded the palace grounds in an attempted coup intended to prevent him from doing so.
A fortnight later, on Sunday, 2 September, six years and one day after Germany had invaded Poland, General Douglas MacArthur and Admirals Chester Nimitz and Sir Bruce Fraser and representatives of the other Allied nations took the formal Japanese surrender, which was signed by the one-legged Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and the Army Chief of Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu, aboard the battleship USS Missouri, by then moored in Tokyo Bay. (She was chosen because she had served at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and was Nimitz’s flagship; it was mere coincidence that she was named after President Truman’s home state.) MacArthur concluded the ceremony by saying: ‘Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.’