When the war finally ended on Aug. 15, 1945, I felt I had received a reprieve after having, in effect, been on a death row since mid-July when we got orders that our landing ship would be in the first assault wave in the first landing on a Japanese mainland island. We were to land on the east coast of Kyushu, just south of the city of Miyazaki, on Nov. 1, 1945. After reading the intelligence annex of the operation plan, I was stunned. I had to conclude that, after having just turned 23, I most probably, had only three and a half months to live. The most frightening intelligence was that the Japanese had 5,000 kamikaze aircraft (it turned out that they actually had 12,700). This most got my attention, since earlier our landing ship came within 30 seconds of being destroyed by one. In fact, I could see the pilot’s face before he was shot down. Our group had lost two of its six ships to kamikazes on a single morning. During the 83 day Okinawa campaign, kamikazes killed nearly 5,000 Navy personal.
President Truman had decided on an invasion of the Japanese mainland islands code named Operation Downfall. The landing on Kyushu was Operation Olympic and the one on Honshu (where Tokyo is located) in March 1946 was Operation Coronet. At that point, Truman was by no means certain he could end the war with atom bombs, so planning for the invasion went full speed ahead. Before long, we made contact with the Army unit we would land. When asked for his assessment of the beach where we were to land, Army Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Casey pointed at a contour map and noted that this beach abutted sheer cliffs and stated, “Anyone sending landing craft ashore there was a murderer.”
It was also not encouraging that the second echelon duplicated that of our first echelon on the assumption that our echelon would be wiped out. We would have had our usual load of six medium tanks, several vehicles and a number of tankers and infantry. In fact, we would have been lucky to have even reached the beach after being attacked by kamikazes and some of the 8,000 fast suicide boats awaiting us. When U.S. personnel examined our beach after the war, they found the cliff we faced to be replete with artillery emplacements, including battleship guns. It would have far worse than we imagined. When the war ended, the Japanese already had 917,000 troops on Kyushu, while we had planned on having 452,198 on this island by X-Day plus two weeks. It had long been axiomatic that the attackers needed a decided numerical advantage in order to succeed. Also we learned after the war that the Japanese knew exactly where we would land and approximately when.
We discovered in the Okinawa campaign, April 1 to June 22 1945, just how tenacious the Japanese forces could be in the defense of their homeland. Japanese forces were outnumbered by U.S. forces five to one, yet it took us 83 days to defeat them, but then only when most of the 130,000 defenders had been killed. (U.S. killed was 12,613). This was clearly a foretaste of what we could expect in carrying out Operation Downfall. Okinawa was part of Japan. Estimates of possible U.S. casualties by the War Department and by Army Intelligence working with ex-president Herbert Hoover varied from 400,000 to a million killed in action. (We had 291,557 KIA in World War II).
Estimates of Japanese war deaths ran from 5 to 10 million. Actually official Japanese estimates of total Japanese deaths that would result from our invasion ran up to 20 million. In the last months of the war, Asians, military and civilian, from Indonesia through Manchuria were dying at the rate of some 400,000 a month. The total number of Japanese who died from the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was about 118,000. (178,000 had earlier that year died from firebombings). It was probably necessary to bomb two cities to give Emperor Hirohito his main argument for surrendering on August 15, 1945. “The enemy had begun to employ a most cruel bomb . Should we continue to fight [it] would result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of Japan.”
Some maintain that the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan played a greater role in inducing Japan’s surrender that did the atomic bombs. Soviet armed forces posed little threat to Japan, only to its troops in China. This was clearly not enough to warrant surrender. The Soviet declaration came two days after Hiroshima. Before this bombing, the Soviets were well informed about our atomic program and no doubt saw Hiroshima as the beginning of the end and so sought to get in on the kill before it was too late. This move was no doubt entirely politically motivated, as there was no clear military advantage. After the vast devastation and 26 million deaths the Soviet Union had already suffered, it surely did not want to start fighting the Japanese.
Other critics of our atomic bombing believed that the war could have been ended with neither atomic bombs nor an invasion, but by continuing our conventional bombing and imposing a total naval blockade of Japan. This would have been a very lengthy and costly operation and would have resulted in the slow death by starvation of millions of Japanese. The two atomic bombs dropped were clearly a far more humane solution.
• William Lloyd Stearman, a senior U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.), was a Navy officer with the 7th Amphibious Force, Pacific 1944-45. He is the author of “An American Adventure: From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House” (Naval Institute Press, 2012).