Long Ago: A Total War in the Pacific Came to an Unimaginable End

tags: Hiroshima, WWII

The author, CDR (USNR, ret), has a book manuscript seeking publication entitled: For Love of America: Patriotic Speeches Remembering Those Who Served in Our Nation’s Wars. His book of evaluation, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Kansas Press), has been in print for over a quarter of a century. Author of many other books and publications, he lives quietly in Ashland, Oregon. Four of his long essays have appeared in History News Network, on race relations, the year 1960, political parties, and "An Elderly Historian Ponders “What’s Next?”"

In 1941 to 1945 America’s fighting forces fought a desperate war with a dedicated and ruthless adversary, the Empire of Japan, which the enemy began with a surprise attack and which for nearly four years they did everything—fair and foul alike—to try to win.

The manner in which the war came forcefully to an end has invited emotional attention ever since, and especially during the month of August, when in a few moments, twice, back in 1945 new weapons were used by the United States to bring the enemy to a decision to surrender.

It is by no means an exaggeration to assert that based solely on Japanese methods of making war in Asia and the Pacific Theater in the 1930s and 1940s, many warriors of that nation appeared to observers to have descended into conduct bordering on subhuman. Little remorse was displayed by Americans after the two atomic bombs exploded with such drama over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with men in uniform chiefly displaying enormous relief that an invasion of Japan would not be necessary.

American bodies are buried from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa, and in the bottom of the vast Pacific Ocean, because the Japanese of that era took their war-making very seriously, virtually religiously. To defeat such warriors it became necessary for a country at peace on December 7, 1941 to wage something approaching total war—effective war calculated to win--as soon as possible, as long as necessary, and by means both traditional and innovative.

I and my many friends and classmates who left civilian life behind in the summer of 1941 and later, came at once to recognize that half measures would not do. We were part of the American public, and that public was all too familiar with an adversary for whom victory in war seemed to justify gross misconduct.

The enemy who planned maximum death and destruction at Pearl, who expanded into nearly all of South Asia, who engaged in the Nanking Massacre in 1937, who marched prisoners to death in the Philippines, who were so dedicated and effective an opponent in Guadalcanal, who fought to the last man on island after island for literally dozens of months; that enemy in grand climax in 1945 made Okinawa (only 340 miles from Japan) a graveyard for 12,500 Americans. Heroic or fanatic (choose one), here was a capable opponent in the long history of warfare.

It had become common for Japan to have their young men crash aircraft into ships in suicide Kamikaze missions, so that the Franklin, the Bunker Hill, the Indianapolis, and many other ships sank with massive losses as the war approached the Japanese islands. As I say, our opponents--the Japanese warriors and the home front that showed every sign of supporting every bit of it—cherished a long held goal to prevail over us.

All that is nearly sixty-five years in the past. Friendship with today’s visitors from Japan, happy tourist visits to Nara, business relations both warm and enduring, and admiration for Japanese culture are irrelevant to the subject at hand, sad to say. We are considering the way it was long, long ago. (Sometimes Orientals suggest tactfully that it would be helpful if the United States offered something by way of apology for using the atom bombs in 1945. Maybe it’s an idea worth long and penetrating discussion; I wouldn’t rule it out without thinking it through.)

Our year 2009 seems as good a time to look back at what we did, clear-eyed and aware. All who choose to try to do this owe the past a seriousness of purpose and respect for those of us alive in the time when Japan invaded China and Southeast Asia and attacked Pearl Harbor--while allegedly negotiating peaceful relations. How World War II came to America is now heavily on the record. We need to keep fresh before us the sacrifices that generation of Americans made to guarantee we would not lose the prolonged conflict against Japan. The whole picture of those bloody, terrible years (and the shifting fears and hopes we had) must not be shoved to one side in simplistic revisionist frenzy.

I taught, at least once, a graduate seminar on Hiroshima, in which we looked at many of the matters that are relevant to those who hope to rewrite History “to feel better about things.” It was entirely natural for students to look everywhere to minimize natural feelings of guilt and, hopefully, to put the blame for our atomic warfare on somebody else. Look where one will, however, it remains basic that we were then engaged in a long and Total War not of our making. In that war our Japanese opposition was dedicated at the very early outset to victory (but had to shift at the very end toward settling for survival as the best that could be gotten).

It is in that context that one needs to think about the means by which the war of 1941 to 1945 was finally waged and won in the vast Pacific. To immerse oneself in that time, it would be well to remember the influence the European Theater had on our thinking. The American soldiers who until May, 1945 had labored in the mud to defeat Mussolini and Hitler abruptly found themselves facing the unwelcome task of helping to win the Pacific War. They were not to become mere bystanders! Their survival could not be taken for granted! They were to wage war side by side with distant comrades west of Hawaii in what to them was a new war, strange and vast, two oceans away. (Here is a mislaid fact of history, indeed.)

Many of us, maybe most, cannot possibly make the leap between living safely in today’s America and how our soldiers and sailors lived--dangerously and even (some came to think) temporarily. Join me a moment in August, 1945. What was the mood of uniformed men like me? The war had hardly started before I lost three of my closest fraternity brothers (our college editor; my catcher in baseball; our faculty adviser’s only son).

The war against the dictators was a fact of life. We came in some areas to have blackout curtains. There was rationing. (A decade later I wrote for posterity the article Rationing, U.S. for the Britannica.) Builders faced priorities on vital materials. One could see ships sink in the Gulf Stream. We invaded Africa, Southern Europe, and France. Ultimately the Allies won that major war 3,000 miles and more to the East, yet war continued in the Pacific, showing little sign it would stop threatening those in uniform. We hoped for the release of still surviving prisoners. There was censorship of overseas mail and cables. Women labored on the home front. Any number of products were no longer in production. We longed for a peace in the Pacific to match that in Europe, but it seemed far away.

By summer, 1945, I had been on active duty four full years and had been stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda for thirty months. I was absolutely certain I would sooner or later be on one of those heavily armed ships outward bound from San Francisco Bay for the invasion of Japan. Would my luck finally run out? My elderly parents, far off in Florida, hoped for the best. (So did my wife as she cared for our tiny baby.)

The spirit then alive on the home front, half fear, half determination to survive, part apprehension, full of determination that Victory would be ours, must be taken into account by all who would try to reassess the use of atomic weapons. I hate to put it so bluntly, but I have to say that I don’t think that many who write those emotionally crafted essays on “Hiroshima” each August have the faintest idea of what I have just written about the American Home Front in World War II. Empathy in those circles is reserved for Japanese civilians.

Vast numbers of Americans went through Hell fighting the Empire of Japan. There was absolutely no appetite for invading the large Japanese islands, considering the terrible cost of every small island invasion of 1942 through 1945. Iwo Jima had taught lessons about our uncompromising opponent. And Okinawa had been a blunt hint of what could be in store for those massing on the vast oceans. The Western Pacific was filled with our ships; but it was a place where memories of costly victories won in spite of Kamikaze zealotry blended with apprehension over unimaginable tragedy ahead. Few knew the invasion was scheduled for November. (A good read, footnoted, is “Kamikaze” in Wikipedia; it is long, with intimate details. The article “Iwo Jima” is very long and by a Marine participant.)

Getting down to cases: Every year some thoughtful and moralistic writers insist on going through the familiar exercise of trying to remake History. They seek to induce vicarious guilt among any who will listen. No problem with that. It’s perfectly natural. But enroute, and before it is too late, if August is your time to rethink, to engage in recrimination, to put the blame on yesterday’s fighting men and the public that stood with them, try something different. Do ask somebody who was in uniform during the Pacific War, somebody who remembers the agonizing development of the battles in the Pacific, 1941 to 1945. Look again—or maybe it will be for the first time--at the way that awful war was waged. Try to empathize with the hope we all had to live just a few years longer, that is, to survive. Do try to imagine what we thought then about the idea of invading Japan, neighborhood by neighborhood.

World War II, and the Pacific War that was such a frustrating part of it, is not to be reduced to a word game; much less an exercise in the abstract weighing of options and alternatives. I spent several years then as Barracks Officer at Naval Air Station, Alameda. Many thousands of men were housed temporarily enroute to or from a conflict that was deadly serious from beginning to end. In August I was half way through organizing and writing a book called Barracks Administration, for the war we were in seemed likely to continue indefinitely. (Copies of this probably unique but dull material are in major Navy libraries.)

My emotions have not been easy to keep under control all these years, even though I never carried a gun in combat. Frequently I was obligated to meet men in batches of several hundred at the Oakland railroad terminal, then escorting them through the Alameda tunnel. My barracks housed about five thousand at a time. They were with us before they left and sometimes after war’s end. I watched them depart on shipboard toward the Golden Gate Bridge enroute to the far Pacific where a noticeable proportion of ships were sunk in 1944-45. What, we on the Admiral’s staff wondered, would be their fate? Could nothing be done to shorten the war?

None of us, I am willing to guess, had any idea our Commander-in-Chief (President Harry Truman) secretly had the option to end the war without actually fighting it to a long and bitter end. If I and my family members had known he was weighing options, I am inclined to say categorically that we all would have expected our national leader to base his decision making on the well-being of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We would have categorically rejected any idea that his primary concern could be in any way the well-being of Japanese fighting men or even the relatives who stood behind them throughout the decade since the Manchurian invasion (1934).

Always, I had expected that those in charge of the American war effort would put first in their thinking the preservation of the lives of millions of our troops. The service personnel I saw daily and their loving relatives at home expected Americans and their allies to be placed first in matters of wartime concern. It was the most important obligation of leadership. To a man, all of us confidently expected the very first objective of Command to be the ending of our fighting in hand to hand combat, in the air, and on the high seas. It was obvious to lieutenants and should have been to all with gold braid!

Our Commander-in-Chief would always know his duty and do it. To sum up: Those of us serving our Country at the time would have considered any choice other than using the atomic bomb to bring the war to an end to be absolutely and completely unthinkable.

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vaughn davis bornet - 9/9/2010

Without needlessly taking up valuable space, may I recommend to serious readers the memoir of Norman A. Graebner, the diplomatic historian, chapter 5, "War Years," where he outlines succictly his thoughts on how the Pacific War came to an end and the aftermath in 1945-46.

Young Graebner was part of the democratization process in emerging Japan and close to the situation.

Citation: A Twentieth Century Odyssey: Memoir of a Life in Academe (Claremont, California: Regina Books, P. O. Box 280; 91711. 909 624 8466).

It is certainly moving to read how sensational it was for him to offer Japanese students the amazing chance to choose class officers--as one instance of what he and we were up against in that ancient land.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Arnold Shcherban - 8/23/2010

<because Turkey by allying with Germany was able to cause a revolution in Tsarist Russia>
Ah? I've never heard more ludicrous statement on history than that...

HNN - 1/29/2010

[Arthur Squires is professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, and worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War]

I much enjoyed your “Long Ago ... “ and “The United States in 1960.” I couldn’t access your Christmas 2009, because my iMac doesn’t have the software for its format.

I thoroughly agree with “Long Ago.” In the Summer of 1945, my brother Conrad was on Long Island, nearby me, living then in New York City; and he was waiting orders for his Division (where he fortunately served in Headquarters — he saw very little fighting himself) to move to the Japan theater. I was of course working on the atom bomb, but myself had no good idea how close or far we were from exploding the product of our efforts. I knew our production rate of U-235, but I didn’t know how much of it was needed for a bomb. And so I was overjoyed (and proud) at the news of Hiroshima; and my attitude toward the first bomb drop hasn’t changed over the decades since.

As we discussed on the phone, I was shocked by the Nagasaki bomb. At the time I didn’t know which bomb (if either) used U-235 or plutonium. We had a seminar talk here some years ago by a historian who made a strong case that the Nagasaki drop was a product of General Groves’ fear of a Congressional investigation — why did you have to spend all that money to make TWO kinds of bomb when you only needed one? — and, as well, a product of project politics: Hanford had to have its day as well as Oak Ridge. By the way, I am a huge admirer of General Groves. I saw him in action at meetings, making critical decisions, several times, and he was both intelligent, weighing the evidence, and fair. And, unlike today’s Washington, he ran a small shop — probably only about 100 people — and they maintained hands off the technical side of the Manhattan Project, serving primarily to deal with bottlenecks in supply of necessary goods (except for the few critical decisions, mentioned above, where two “competing” technical groups were unable to reach a decision without Groves’ intervention).

vaughn davis bornet - 9/10/2009

This will be the last notation for me; somebody else can do combat. I don't feel like one to one with this gentleman without any idea whatsoever of his persona. (He says, I think, the A-Bombs were OK in Nov. but not in August.)

Some books for the interested: Richard B. Frank, Downfall; and those of Bill Gordon, and of Dennis and Peggy Warner. Goodwin's on postwar Japan (Syracuse Press). George Feifer.

I note that citations in this area are often to articles in military journals, CIA, and Japanese journals (available?). See "End of WWII in the Pacific" and "Japan's War Crimes" and "Pacific War" in Wikipedia. (Normally I wouldn't rely on W. but it is really Loaded on this!

Japan did have a viable fleet at the end, but it was maybe a third as big. Many Kamikize planes were left. Yes, fuel was short. Various submarines were plentiful. Civilians were preparing. There was still a Japanese army available to resist. (A 2,000,000 person "homeland army" I have read.)

Massive casualties were predicted if versions of Operation Downfall and/or Operation Olympic took place after internal command disputes.

A perspective: The American fighting men were only a few years away from their civilian origins. They should not be dehumanized. They didn't owe us their deaths, surely, as "the role of the soldier"--whatever that means. Probably a slip.

I guess Mr. E. will have the last word. So, OK. Don't misquote me, please. And thanks for the stimulation all along! I have learned much, enroute....

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Ashland, Oregon

Donald E. Staringer - 9/7/2009

Please let me know what "protests" I make are not authenticed. If you can't understand that a pause in the use of the bomb did not mean the bomb would not became an option at the time of any invasion, you miss the point. American boys were not going to invade Japan under the situation in August and no one could fault America for using it in Nov. It is a canard to argue that those who oppose the way the bomb was used did not care for the well-being of those boys. But, to reiterate, MacArthur believed that the highest role of any soldier was to protect the innocent. If a pause meant a number of boys would be killed during the interium, that is the role of the soldier. Check Korea and Vietnam where the atomic bombing of innocents was not an option to thoughtful men.
There were options and they are conjecture but that doesn't mean men in leadership with "ample" time might have made a less bloody outcome. To argue there were no innocents in Hiroshima is ludricous.

vaughn davis bornet - 9/7/2009

While all this is not among my major areas of competence (see my name, VAUGHN DAVIS BORNET, in Google, for examples), it does occur to me that some of the protests used by S. are not fully authentic. One can check.

I cannot seem to get S. interested in concern for the wellbeing of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen, not even a little bit. That common emotion is essential to my case.

There is so much conjecture in this matter anyway. If DELAY is to be our savior,what if knowledge of the Bombs finally became common and open in American discussion during the delay?

And/or what effect would delay have had on Japanese home attitudes toward offering major resistence to invasion? (In England, time brought all a stiff upper lip and determination.) I don't know. Guessing about how far civilian Japanese of that day would ever defy those awful leaders is fruitless, perhaps....

I wonder what knowledge of an Alternative to invasion would have done to willingness to participate in invasion in waiting fighters' minds? Knowing there was an Option, would they have, in a sense, quit? "We don't HAVE to do this! Home again!"

Just wondering: did the Soviets have the equipment to invade Japan? Were they a credible threat, that is? Oh. "They had aircraft; maybe THEY would have bombed the Japanese instead!" Far afield, indeed....

We know the kind of Occupation we had after atomic bombing; what kind would have followed a conventional military invasion? Would it have been capable of bringing democracy to the Japanese people? "Democracy" was followed on faith, when preached by occupiers.

I deplore the atomic bombing. But I, at least, cry over the idea of VAST American casualties, at the very end, in a Pacific War we didn't start. Join me, anyone?


Donald E. Staringer - 9/7/2009

Mr. Burnet argues that what was happening in the Pacific in August would have continued until October and the war would have continued unabated with our men sitting ducks for kamikaze attacks since the Japanese were refining kamikaze techniques. The argument does not take into account that the Japanese air force was grounded for lack of gasoline and that American attacks of kamikaze bases would increase since we had gained complete air superiority over Japan. Curtis LeMay argued there were no major military targets left in Japan. Admiral Leahy felt a blockade of Japan would have been sufficient to bring about surrender.
Mr.Bornet makes the point that the war at that time was “not a static war” and perforce we were in extreme danger if we allowed time to consider the use of the bomb. But, of course, any war can become a static war in the sense of not attacking and holding positions while negotiations ensued, ie. Korea and Vietnam.
We controlled the sea and air around Japan and they were unable to attack use in any way that could change the final outcome. Manila had fallen in March and our island hopping-strategy did not require we invade any islands at that time. Eisenhower, MacArthur and Nimitz decried the use of the bomb on a defeated enemy.
Euphemistically, one can argue that the Japanese civilians killed in the napalm raids over Tokyo were “collateral damage” but those killed in the atomic bombings were direct targets. We dropped 2000 tons of TNT over Tokyo but 20,000 tons over Hiroshima. The three American soldiers mentioned above all felt direct war on civilians was not acceptable.

vaughn davis bornet - 9/6/2009

It is argued here that "we had ample time to consider not using the bombs."

We can't give that point to those who say the bombs didn't need to be used then and there. (Or at least one of them, as is often effectively argued.)

Exactly what was happening in the far Pacific in early August and would have continued in September and some part of October?

It's not up to me, off the top of my head, to recapitulate, but let's mention sinking of major ships, refinement of Kamikaze techniques, increased massing of ships (only now with 200 or more soldiers sitting aboard, waiting), our submarines all over the place, submerged--one hopes,fighting taking place (mopping up is an evasive term) where we had been, MAJOR fighting taking place in the entire South Pacific, with massing casualties (so I'm told), Japanese mastery of captive nations with all that entails (BUT, with "only" other nationalities being slaughtered)--must I continue?

This was hardly a static war that could PAUSE whilst debating further what had been debated already several months or more among qualified insiders. Maybe I'm not making my Case. But on as Sunday afternoon, I'm trying.

I have been contacted by several WHO WERE VERY MUCH THERE. They think and say forthrightly that I am "right on." One from MacArthur's staff says he didn't think there was anybody left who could, what did he say, "get it right" the way I did in my little essay.

A relative in Pennsylvania agrees with every word, he says, for he had left on a return voyage to the Western Pacific from Alameda, only this time with another 200 soldiers. They were to float around off Japan for invasion; only they ended up occupying in the middle Japanese island. Hooray! A neighbor, Navy, Korea, says every word I wrote is endorsed by him. Period.

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/6/2009

Try looking up the wikipedia under the "algerian war". I quote "The FLN estimated in 1962 that nearly eight years of revolution had cost 1.5 million dead from war-related causes. Some other Algerian sources later put the figure at approximately 1 million dead, while French officials estimated it at 350,000. " The issue a subject of a fight between France, which states they had done what was necessary and moslem countries which talk of genocide.

What is now the Balkans, Caucasus and Crimea were at the beginning of the 19th century areas with clear moslem majorities. Christian europeans felt Moslems had no business living in Europe and killed 5 millions, forcing out so many that 30 millions of Turkey's population of 75 are descended from those who survived. This was clearly a living space policy a la Hitler. This was happening in Europe and was not "colonialism", which lets the exploited survive. What is left of Turkey only survived because Turkey by allying with Germany was able to cause a revolution in Tsarist Russia, knocking out her worst enemy. Winston Churchill writes that this was intended by the Turkish government.

One side effect is that the Holocaust is not doubted in Turkey, wheres neighbors like Iran and Arabs do doubt whether it happened. It is quite obvious to Turks that the people who murdered 5 million Moslems would also murder 6 million Jews.

Lewis Bernstein - 9/6/2009

Fascinating--I had no idea that 12.5 percent of the Algerian population was murdered ca. 1954-1962. The hostilities were exhaustively covered in much of the Western media. Do you have a source?
As for the conflation of Western colonialism/imperialism with the goal of economic exploitation and "civilization" with the Nazi imperialism with the goal of extermination in order to create "living space" is too ludicrous to comment upon.
As for Russian expansion into Central Asia, it was bloody but aimed for dominion not extermination.

Lewis Bernstein - 9/6/2009

The question is always "what were the realistic possibilities open to the decision makers at the time?" I would submit that a siege would have dragged out the war to a length unacceptable to a war weary US public. Given my own reading of the Japanese material I believe that their leadership would have resisted to the very end. Even though they could not defeat the allies, they would have been able to crush any internal uprising. The use of atomic weapons and the Soviet intervention was a double blow that finally convinced the civilian leaders, as opposed to the military leaders, that surrender was a viable alternative. The emperor's decision and the militarist code of obedience to the imperial will forced them to comply. Without an understanding of what was occurring inside the Japanese government one only gets part of the total picture. US decision makers did know a great deal because American code breakers had cracked the Japanese codes.

Donald E. Staringer - 9/5/2009

Vaughn Burnet’s essay regarding the ending of the Pacific War recapitulates the conventional arguments for using the bombs the way they were used. The fears of the doughboys who would have to lead the assaults, the dastardly Japanese fighting a “war without mercy”, the logic of “total war”, the deprivations at home which demanded a quick end to the war, etc.
He decries the arguments of those who fail to accept his interpretation of that ending. All other arguments are attempts to “remake history” and play at “exercises in the abstract weighing of options an alternatives. But, of course, writing history involves looking at other options and alternatives otherwise we fail to examine carefully the usual explanations cast down to us.
Those who have raised questions about the dropping of the bombs have not tried to put the “blame on fighting men”, as Burnet argues, but rather make arguments about the appropriateness of the decisions made at the highest levels. Nothing in his essay suggests there were alternatives to the use of the bomb.
One alternative little discussed in the conventional arguments is the fact that the invasion of Japan was not going to occur prior to November 1st. That was ample time to consider arguments against invasion and then use the bombs only as a last alternative. The effect of the Russian entrance, the position of the Emperor, the possibility of a demonstration bomb, the fact that by November we would have more than two bombs all come into effect prior to any invasion. If McArthur was right that the most important duty of a soldier was to protect the innocent we had ample time to consider not using the bombs. Only the men at the top, and very few of them, knew all of the possibilities. As we learned in Korea and Vietnam, “unconditional surrender” was not a wise alternative considering other options.

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/4/2009

It might help to remember that other countries like England, France, Holland and Russia had with similiarly ruthless methods divided the world among them and the only way open for new commers like Japan and Germany to become their equals were to be just as bad.

US historiography seems to place US allies on a different moral level. France which killedf 1 million of Algerias 8 million inhabitants in the 1950ies is never seen on the same moral level as Hitler's Germany, which killeda comparable proportion of Russias population. The planned extermination of the European Moslems, thanks to Tsarist Russia an allied war target in WW1 (5 million dead Moslems 1820 - 1918) is never compared to the planned extermination of European Jewry in WW2. It is simply denied and erased from history books.

The US is always good as her allies as well.

Dale R Streeter - 9/2/2009

Slight correction: Lincoln did serve (briefly) in the Black Hawk War and Roosevelt served as the assistant secretary of the Navy, a role that provided some familiarity with things military (or naval).
Otherwise, your point is well taken.

Lewis Bernstein - 9/2/2009

Neither of 2 of our greatest wartime presidents (FDR and Lincoln) ever served as soldiers or sailors in time of war. Service is not a qualification for the office. One hopes our presidents have good judgment and sand. In the end the object is not to understand the enemy but to know what the goals of the Republic are.

Vernon Clayson - 9/1/2009

That was when our leaders were made of sterner stuff, now they bicker over tactics and torture, both issues must be inoffensive to our enemies. None have the cojones of Harry Truman, while he was the last to know about our nuclear weaponry, FDR kept it from him, he didn't grow faint of heart when the need to use it was apparent. Now our military fights with half-hearted support of our leaders, no surprise considering that the Commander-in-Chief couldn't enlist into the least demanding military duty with what little he has divulged in the form of background information.