The American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki displayed for all the world the unprecedented destructive power of the atomic bomb. Faced with extinction, the Japanese surrendered, bringing World War II – the deadliest and most widespread conflict in human history – to an end. When the celebrations ended, information about the War transitioned from the pages of newspapers to those of history books. Among the pieces of information often overlooked by both the general public and those studying history were America’s plans to invade the islands of Japan beginning in the fall of 1945.
Conceived by the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in April 1945 were the plans for such an invasion, codenamed Operation Downfall. The plan was to have been implemented in two phases, Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet.
Operation Olympic was to have been the invasion of southern Japan, beginning with the southernmost island of Kyushu. Set for November 1945, it was to be an amphibious landing supported by an armada of ships that would have dwarfed the Normandy D-Day invasion with air support provided by the Far East Air Force. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur, it would have been the “heaviest neutralization bombardment by naval and air forces ever conducted in the Pacific.”
The Japanese had 14 divisions stationed on Kyushu plus homeland paramilitary that included elderly Japanese men, women, and children. Trained with hand grenades, swords, and bamboo spears, these stalwarts stood ready to strap on explosives in a kamikaze effort to thwart any potential invaders. I guess you could characterize it with the Patrick Henryesque slogan “give me victory or give me death.” For these reasons, the casualty estimates of such an invasion were astronomical in nature.
Operation Coronet, the second prong of the Operation Downfall plan, was to have taken place in March 1946, contingent upon the success of the invasion of Kyushu. Operation Coronet would have focused on the main island of Honshu, Japan – requiring 1,171,646 U.S. troops including a landing force of 575,000 soldiers and Marines. It would have been the largest invasion force ever assembled. Its order of battle would have been as follows.
With the fall of Okinawa and the B-29 raids over Japan, sunset was rapidly arriving in the land of the Rising Sun. Emperor Hirohito, the divine leader of Japan, was having second thoughts. His enthusiasm for the war was rapidly diminishing with each bombing of his homeland.
The Japanese Mindset
Since the 1930s, his government had been ruled by the military and committed to the code of the Bushido – the way of the warrior. “Victory or death” was instilled in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. To surrender was unconscionable, often leading to hari-kari (suicide) by disembowelment.
In June 1945, the Emperor and his military had determined to defend their homeland in a fight to the death in the hope that the American and Allied forces would consider an invasion so costly that they would sue for peace. Unconditional surrender was not a part of the Japanese mentality or agenda.
Japan’s Military Ambitions
Japan had aggressively sought to expand its sphere of influence since the early 1930s. Millions of people had died at the hands of the Japanese during its invasions of Manchuria and China. Seeking to stop the bloodshed via diplomacy, the United States requested the Japanese to stop their aggressive actions. As a result of the Japanese refusal and despite maintaining its neutral posture, the United States decided to cease the exportation of scrap metal to Japan as a way of slowing down the Japanese military machine.
In the throes of the Great Depression, America was preoccupied with solving its own economic problems and assumed a more isolated position in world affairs. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, however, caused many to question America’s isolationism and put the world’s powers on notice that a collective action, a second World War, would likely be required to stop Nazi aggression.
The Japanese, desirous of increasing their influence in the Pacific region similar to the German expansion in Europe, decided that it had one major obstacle to overcome – the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
America Enters the War
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided America with the resolve it had previously lacked. With Hitler’s conquest of most of Western Europe including France and Britain under heavy Nazi aerial assault, America and its Allies decided that ultimate victory lay in defeating Germany first. And, America’s entry into the War provided Allies with a huge shot in the arm.
American military strategists opened a second front in North Africa to occupy German troops in that area of the world. This was followed by the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and within a year victory, in Europe was achieved on May 8, 1945. With that, all eyes turned to the Pacific theater.
The American forces in the Pacific area had been slowly ousting Japanese forces from the Solomon, New Guinea, Mariana, Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa islands. With the defeat of Germany, the Japanese government, in June 1945, decided to concentrate their strength for a decisive defense of the homeland in a “fight to the finish” battle.
Truman and the Atomic Bomb
Prior to the Allied victory in Europe, President Franklin D Roosevelt died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President, Harry S Truman. Upon assuming the powers of President, Truman had to be briefed on all plans involved in winning the war, including the Manhattan Project that was, at that time, in the testing phase Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Armed with this new information, President Truman agonized over dropping the bomb on civilian targets. But, the final decision was his: use the new weapon or proceed with Operation Downfall. After a great deal of soul-searching, Truman ordered the use of the first atomic weapon in the history of mankind.
On August 6, 1945, three B-29 bombers rendezvoused over Tinian Island and armed the first atomic bomb in the air aboard the B-29 ”Enola Gay” which was destined to drop the bomb (Little Boy) on Hiroshima, Japan. The total destruction of the city was chronicled in photographs taken following the bomb’s detonation.
After delivering an ultimatum to the Japanese government, a second atomic bomb named Fat Boy was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Just 5 days later on August 14, 1945, the Empire of Japan issued their unconditional surrender.
On September 2, 1945 aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General Douglas MacArthur Supreme Commander of Allied Forces executed the documents of unconditional surrender with representatives of the Japanese government, marking the official end of World War II.
After War’s end, President Truman was highly criticized for dropping the atomic bomb on civilian targets. The controversy continues to this very day but, in all fairness to President Truman, Operation Downfall would likely have cost more civilian Japanese lives as well as those of American and Allied soldiers.
Following the end of World War I, America found many of her sons resting in cemeteries on foreign soil. These cemeteries had to be maintained and operated, for which purpose the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC) was established by Congress in 1923. Commemorating the service achievements and sacrifices of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, the ABMC manages 24 overseas military cemeteries and 25 memorials, monuments, and markers. Nearly all the cemeteries and memorials specifically honor those who served in World War I and World War II.
The sacrifices of more than 218,000 U.S. service men and women are memorialized at these locations. Nearly 125,000 American war dead are buried at ABMC cemeteries with an additional 94,000 individuals commemorated on Tablets of the Missing.
Unlike Europe, there are no ABMC cemeteries in the islands of Japan. For this, Harry Truman and the atomic bomb should be thanked.
In conclusion, I would like to add a portion of a poem written by Alan Seeger in 1916 and add some of my own verse to it, because it reminds me of Operation Downfall in which I would have been a participant.
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
But fate stepped in with atomic power
that changed the plans that set the hour
of an invasion that would never be
and postponed that rendezvous for me.
As I write the final chapter of Operation Downfall, I cannot help thinking about myself and the millions of American and Allied troops that would have had to experience that invasion. Had not the development of the Atomic Bomb been achieved, I and millions of others would have had to endure that rendezvous in some flaming town when spring tripped North again that year.