The Atomic Age


*After the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway the Japanese were on the defensive, but they seemed well-prepared to defend themselves.  They had heavily fortified and well-supplied bases on their Pacific islands, particularly at Rabaul on New Guinea, and were still trying to capture Port Moresby by land (although they never succeeded).

*The Japanese even managed to capture two of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska in the summer of 1942, the only part of America invaded by foreign troops during World War II.  They were not dislodged for over a year.  This was a minor victory, though, and one of Japan’s last.

*One great advantage the Allies had over the Japanese was that while the Allies managed to decrypt many coded Japanese messages, the Japanese did not have similar success.  This was partly due to the use of American Indian ‘codetalkers,’ most famously a Navajo unit in the US Marine Corps.  They used very simple codes, but the encoded messages were in Navajo (or other American Indian languages, as well as in Basque and Welsh, native speakers of which were used to a small extent).

*Allied codebreakers not only predicted several major battles, allowing successful plans against them to be made, but even informed the military of Admiral Yamamoto’s travel plans, so that his plane was shot down over the East Indies in 1943.

*Between 7 August, 1942 and 9 February, 1943, the Allies fought the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, especially around the island of Guadalcanal.  So many ships on both sides were sunk that one area near Guadalcanal came to be known as Ironbottom Sound.  The Japanese fought so fiercely that of about 36,000 soldiers, 31,000 died (including many of Japan’s most experienced veterans) and only 1,000 were captured.  Of about 60,000 Allied soldiers only about 7,000 were killed (and almost none captured, although partly because the Japanese would rather kill than take prisoners).

*The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first major successful attack by Allied forces against Japan, and showed how ground, naval, and air forces could work together in a strategy of island hopping.  From Guadalcanal, the Allies were able to attack other Japanese bases in the Solomons and then on other islands.  This allowed the Allies in many cases to completely bypass major bases such as Rabaul (and later Formosa), and allow them to slowly wither on the vine as their supply lines were cut.

*The Allies also began to cut off supplies to Japan itself.  Although the Allied fleets and air forces could not yet reach the home islands, Allied submarines could begin sinking Japanese supply ships and merchant vessels (just as the German U-boats had done to Allied shipping in the Atlantic).  Many mines were also laid around Japanese shipping lanes.

*There were few major naval battles in 1943, as Nimitz avoided direct conflict with the Imperial Japanese Navy, knowing that it could not do much to seek out his fleet due to fuel shortages in Japan.

*In China and Burma the Allies fought the Japanese to a standstill, and even began to push back against them, although not with much success in 1943.  By late 1944, though, the Allies had begun to push to Japanese out of Burma, and retook it all by July 1945.

*China was largely neglected by the Allies, except as a base for air attacks on Japanese forces, because Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed on a Germany First strategy.  In 1944, the Japanese (while facing reverses everywhere else) made a major offensive against American air bases in China and captured several Chinese cities.  In the Spring of 1945, the Chinese retook several of these cities, but the Japanese still occupied large parts of China when the Second World War ended.

*By 1944 the Allies were ready for a major campaign against the Japanese.

*On 15 June, 1944, 535 ships began landing 128,000 U.S. Army and Marine personnel on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. The Allied objective was the creation of airfields within B-29 range of Tokyo.  This, and subsequent battles in the island hopping campaign, which took islands to use as bases from which to push further against Japan, were horrible for both sides.

*The Japanese would not surrender.  Of 31,629 Japanese on Saipan, approximately 29,500 died. Only 2,100 prisoners survived, many of these only because they were too wounded to take their own lives or they ran out of the means with which to kill themselves before being over-run. 

*Even civilians gave their lives for the Emperor, refusing to surrender, in part because they assumed Americans would treat them as badly as they would have treated Americans.  In the case of Japanese soldiers that might be true—Americans often shot them rather than take them prisoner.  Civilians, though, were treated fairly, but most did not know this.  On Saipan, civilians killed themselves by holding on to hand grenades or by jumping off cliffs to their deaths, even mothers holding infant children.  Supposedly there were so many bodies off the coast of Saipan after its capture that the Navy had a hard time navigating the waters.

*After capturing the Mariana Islands, the US was close enough to Japan to begin bombing her.  The US bombed every major city and industrial area flat, both to destroy Japan’s industry and to terrify her people.  Whereas the US did not use firebombs in Europe, they did in Japan, creating terrible firestorms, killing 100,000 people in one night in Tokyo, on just one of many occasions.

*By the end of the war, the Japanese economy was so badly damaged that Japanese school children made huge balloons out of paper and glue, which the military then tied to bombs, and cast into the air, hoping they might fly across the ocean and all on the US, making them the first intercontinental weapons used in warfare.  These may have started forest fires near the Pacific coast and did kill one woman and five children on a Sunday School picnic in Oregon.

*Japanese soldiers, as they began to run low on supplies, turned, in some places, to cannibalism.  POWs were killed and parts of their bodies eaten.  In most cases this was out of desperation, but in some cases it was a deliberate act to terrorise other prisoners and build morale among the Japanese soldiers.  After the War, Tachibana Yosio, a Lieutenant General in the Japanese army became the highest-ranking officer accused of cannibalism and of ordering others to do it (beheading two Allied POWs, cutting out their livers, and frying them), but because it was such a horrible crime, no-one had ever bothered listing it among the things against the rules of warfare, so, although Tachibana was hanged, it was for (among other things) 'prevention of honourable burial.”

*On 20 October, 1944, Americans invaded the Philippines.  MacArthur landed on the beach and announced for the benefit of the news cameras, ‘People of the Philippines, I have returned.’

*During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the major naval battle of the reconquest of the Philippines, the Americans faced a new weapon, the kamikaze.  More than any other Japanese soldier, these suicide pilots were ready to die for the Emperor by diving bomb-laden planes (and driving human-piloted torpedoes) into American ships.  Despite this, the Allies won the battle, but continued fighting in the Philippines for almost a year.  

*The last POWs from the Bataan Death March were freed in January 1945.  Of 80,000 Japanese in the Philippines, 1,000 were captured, and the rest died bravely fighting until the end of the war in August, 1945. 

*As Americans got closer to the Home Islands, the Japanese resistance grew stronger.  In the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, Americans won 27 Medals of Honor, the most in any campaign.  Of 25,000 Japanese on the island, 216 were take prisoner, and it took 110,000 men to beat them.  When the island was taken, the Marines raised the flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi.


*The last island before hitting Japan itself was Okinawa.  It was defended by 100,000 troops who swore to defend it to the death.  The US gathered 1,300 warships and 180,000 combat troops, making the invasion even larger than that at Normandy.  2,000 kamikaze attacks were made on American ships.  The battle lasted from April to June 1945, and 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded and only 7,200 of 100,000 Japanese surrendered.

*The home islands were next.  The problem was that the Japanese fought so hard, and were willing to die to the last man.  Military experts said it would probably take at least three million men just to start the invasion and that perhaps one third of them would be killed and wounded.  The Army made up 500,000 Purple Hearts in advance of the planned invasion—every Purple Heart awarded since has come from that stockpile, and about 120,000 remain.

*Fortunately, America had an alternative.  Starting in 1939, under top secret security, scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, trying to make an atomic bomb.  The first research and tests were done at the University of Chicago.  Once they knew a bomb could be made, they needed fuel.  Plutonium was refined at Hanford, Washington, and uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The bombs were assembled in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and tested nearby at Alamogordo.  This was the most powerful bomb ever built.  The question was:  should it be used on Japan?

*In April, 1945, just six months after winning his fourth presidential election, FDR had died of a brain hæmorrhage while on vacation at Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry Truman became president.  The atom bomb was a surprise to him, and he only knew it as a powerful weapon.  Under the advice of experts, he chose to use it for three main reasons:

 1. To end the war with as few American casualties as possible.  The invasion of Japan was expected to cost anywhere between 125,000 and one million killed and wounded in the first three months.
 2. To end the war quickly before the USSR could get involved (which they did, invading Manchuria on 8 August 1945) and end up sharing Japan with the US.
 3. To test the bomb on a real target.

*On 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb (code-named Little Boy) on Hiroshima, killing about 80,000 Japanese and later infecting many with radiation sickness.

*On 9 August, another plane dropped the plutonium bomb (code-named Fat Man) on Nagasaki, killing 39,000.

*On 14 August, Japan surrendered on the one condition that they could keep their emperor, and on 2 September 1945 the Japanese formally signed the surrender agreement, ending WWII on V-J Day.

This page last updated 15 November, 2018.
Powered by Hot Air