Ending a Nightmare

14 August marks quite a few ironies.  It was the day in 1791 that the slave revolt in Santo Domingo began, and the date in 1852 when the Second Seminole War ended in Florida.  And, in 1281, it was the day that the second divine wind–kamikaze–in the Straits of Korea wrecked much of a Mongol fleet that was headed for Japan.  And, in 1941, it was the day that the Atlantic Charter was announced after reporters found FDR and Churchill hugger-muggering in Newfoundland while the US was still neutral.  But much of the world would remember the 15 August 1945 radio broadcast that was recorded the day before: the Showa Emperor Hirohito of Japan recorded the Jewel Voice Broadcast of his Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War on 14 August 1945.

The actual date of the recording is in some dispute, but the timing and the seal imprint is dated the 14th.  The Rescript ended not just World War Two in the Pacific and East Asia, but it also ended the power of the latter-day bakufu–military government–that had dominated Japan since 1941.

The quotes in the rest of this missive are from the Rescript as it appears on WIkipedia in the entry for the Jewel Voice Broadcast.  The blather in between is from the research that Lee Rochwerger and I are doing on Why the Samurai Lost, a retooling of our original What Were They Thinking?

TO OUR GOOD AND LOYAL SUBJECTS:

After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

This was the first time that 99.9 percent of Japan, and 99.999% of the entire world would hear the voice of Hirohito, the Showa Emperor of Japan.  The reasons for creating a recording and not doing it live were several, but the most important was that the powers behind the throne–collectively, the jushin–felt it important that a recording of his actual intent be made available just in case the Americans struck again.

We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.

He refers here to the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July 1945 that, only at the end of the Declaration, is the phrase “unconditional surrender” used. The Potsdam Declaration was an official rejection of the unofficial “peace” feelers–actually offering nothing more than an armistice in place with no authority from Tokyo–that had been floating around Europe since the summer of 1944. The Potsdam Declaration did not assure the imperial polity, but that was agreed to during negotiations that started 10 August, when the Japanese embassy in Switzerland informed the Americans and British that Potsdam would be accepted if the Imperial polity would be maintained.  The Rescript, therefore, isn’t a formal surrender, but the announcement to the world that Japan would stop fighting.

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart.

In this passage, the Showa is calling upon his duty–as he saw it–to keep Japan from becoming extinct, which he finally realized was a possibility after the Soviets declared war on 9 August. In the all-out fight in the Home Islands that the Army and Navy were planning  against the Soviet and American invasions that would come that fall, it was planned to turn every square inch of Japan and the surrounding waters into an abattoir.

Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

He’s speaking from a victim’s standpoint, but Japan was in serious economic straits, and had been since 1920.  Not to excuse the war and Japan’s aggression, but Japan went to war in 1931, 1937 and 1941 because they desperately needed raw materials and fuel just to keep the entire economy, not just the military, going.  Japan had been a feudal, agrarian country that had an industrial impetus with a parliamentary democracy thrust on it less than a century before, and they could barely afford to feed their burgeoning population, let alone continue to build a modern industrial state.

But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the state, and the devoted service of our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Japan had lost something like 2.7 million people in the wars between 1931 and 1945. Over forty countries eventually declared war on Japan: the last, Mongolia, on 9 August.

The phrase “…not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” was as close as he could come to “Japan has been beaten like a red-headed step-child and will not rise again.”

“Our hundred million” was a common theme in Japan starting in the 1930’s, but by 1941 there were only about 72 million Japanese in the archipelago and its possessions from the Ryukyus and the Bonins to the Marianas and Manchuria.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Yes, he is acknowledging that the A-bomb had an influence on his decision, but again, he had decided that the war had to end as early as March 1945, but for reasons outlined below he couldn’t have done this that early.

What he wanted to do was save his country from annihilation from all causes–bloody great bombs, starvation, useless sacrifice and direct combat.  The Japanese Army believed that wearing light-colored clothing would save many from the effects of the flash and heat of nuclear weapons.  But, it may have been this very idea, announced in the last Imperial Conference on 9 August, that pushed the Showa over the edge, that made him instruct the government to accept the Potsdam terms, and to endorse the Marquis Kido’s idea of a Rescript and make this recording.  It was clear that Japan’s military leadership did not want to end the war, so he knew that he had to.

Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.

What’s important here is that the Showa Emperor, like his grandfather the Meiji Emperor had in 1867, had taken direct charge of the country.  That it was necessary for him to do this is a real long story…just buy our new book when it comes out.

We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.

The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains our heart night and day.

The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of our profound solicitude.

The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

The Showa is being absolutely sincere .  After viewing the damage done by the B-29 fire raids in Tokyo in March and April of 1945, he had become convinced that the war had to end or his people would suffer even more.  But there were young men who stalked the halls of government and the barracks who would kill anyone who would wish to get some common sense and stop the fighting.  These officers believed in the tradition of Gekokujo, roughly meaning “the lower shall rule the higher,” among other translations.  This was a centuries-old tradition in Japan that refused to die, that inspired the assassinations that exhausted and frightened the civil government in the 1930s, and that triggered the incidents that led up to the China War.  The “unendurable” and the “unsufferable” here are to stop these Shishi–young men of purpose–from fighting and acquiesce to whatever comes next.

Having been able to safeguard and maintain the Kokutai, We are always with you, our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.

Kokutai can mean a lot of different things (click the link), but for his purposes it means “national polity.”  It was an 18th century term/concept that caused a great deal of trouble in prewar Japan because of its different interpretations.

Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strife which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.

Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.

Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the imperial state and keep pace with the progress of the world.

Here the Showa is sincerely begging his people–Shishi included–to have courage in the days and years to come: occupation was certain, as humiliating as that would be.  The record is clear that by the time he made this recording the Showa no longer cared what happened to him personally, but he cared deeply about what happened to everyone else.  There were at least four attempts on his life by Japanese officers between 9 August and the time the recording was made in the wee hours of 14 August, and one attempt to destroy the recordings.

In all the above, I urge the reader to find the word “surrender” in any of the quotations.  This is the complete text: look it up for yourself.

The next day, when the cease-fire actually started, would be VJ Day in most of the world.  But today, we need to celebrate the fact that this frail, timid man realized that the only way to save his people was to take charge, to tell his subordinates that they were, indeed, subordinates, and tell the entire world that, like Chief Joseph, Japan would fight no more, forever.

So, to honor this auspicious day, do like Edith Shaine and Glenn McDuffie above at Times Square when they heard the news, and kiss someone with genuine relief, or joy failing that.  Just make that sure that, whoever your participant happens to be, unlike Glenn before he grabbed Edith, you know who they are before you do the smooching so that you don’t get bit, slapped or accused of sexual assault decades later.

 

Operation WATCHTOWER and National Lighthouse Day

Yeah, I know…running late.  Sue me.

So, 7 August marks a number of auspicious events, among them being the creation of the Order of the Purple Heart in 1782 (making 7 August Purple Heart Day), the US War Department in 1789,  the patenting of the revolving door in 1888, the beginning of the Battle of the French Frontiers in 1914, and the passing of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.  But today, we talk about Guadalcanal, and lighthouses.

The exgenesis of what would become the Guadalcanal campaign of WWII is shrouded less in mystery than in myth.  Yes, the big island at the far eastern end of the Solomons Islands chain had a central plain large enough to support an airstrip, but that’s not why the Japanese went there: that’s why the Americans went there.  The Japanese were more interested in Tulagi, the smaller island to the north of Guadalcanal that had a longer, deeper beach that could support a seaplane base: the strip they started on Guadalcanal that so alarmed the Australians was to be for fighters to protect the seaplane base.  Japan wanted a seaplane base from which they could control the waters on the northern side of the Coral Sea and around New Zealand and New Caledonia, further isolating Australia; the Americans wanted to prevent both from happening, to build an airfield from which they could control those same waters, and as a starting point in the isolation of not only Rabaul but the Marshall Islands.

So was born Operation WATCHTOWER (colloquially, as Operation “Shoestring” for the meager support it got in the early months), the naval/ground/air operation in the eastern Solomons Islands that ran from the Marine landings on 7 August 1942  to 9 February 1943 when the Americans declared the island secure. Guadalcanal, in Navy/Marine parlance, was Task One for the South Pacific, and in many respects it was the most important single operation for both the Americans and their allies and for Japan.  Control  of the Eastern Solomons by either side meant control of the waters around eastern Australia, the springboard for the southern Pacific offensive. against Japan.  But too, it was the first test of Japanese resilience in the face of an Allied counter-offensive, of their ability to control events far from Japanese waters, and without strategic initiative.  As the end of the Guadalcanal offensive showed, Japan’s ability to outlast the Allies was wanting.  It was the first major chink in Japan’s island cordon.

The Guadalcanal campaign is well-covered by several authors, but for my money the best is The Guadalcanal Campaign by Richard Frank.  His dynamic, nearly day-by-day account of the three-month long campaign best covers both American and Japanese problems, but the one Japanese issue that Frank does not cover is the increasing desperation not of the senior commanders or even the common soldiers, but of the ever-increasing weariness of the overworked aircrews and their mechanics, which is best described in Okumiya Masatake’s Zero!. 

As some of you know, my co-author. Lee Rochwerger, and I have been working on a…retooling…of our What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War (Merriam Press 2009) book.  The new version, Why the Samurai Lost, will be bigger and better, with maps and tables that the first version lacked, and more information on the infighting between the Japanese Army and Navy.  Expect to see Why the Samurai Lost at the end of 2018.  Of which, more later.

On 7 August 1789 the US Congress approved an act for the support of “Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys and Publik Piers” that marked the beginning of what would become the Lighthouse Service, which would be eventually be rolled into the Coast Guard. Two hundred years later, Congress passed a commemorative bill designating 7 August as National Lighthouse Day.

Sometime in the 1960s, the Coast Guard determined that the older the lighthouse, the more costly it would be to knock down because of their stout construction. As of the 1980s, all of these innocuous structures that dot the coastlines of every major body of water in the US  have been automated, many shut down and abandoned. The Lighthouse Preservation Society is dedicated to keeping at least some of these landmarks as monuments, museums, or other repurposed function. For those of you who live on or near the Great Lakes or one of the three major coastlines of the US, have a look at those old brick piles with the big light domes and remember: it’s likely at least one of you had some friend or relative that counted on that light to keep from being wrecked on some rock or shoal.

Drake, French Indochina, and Tokyo Rose

As September ends and the richness of fall is upon us, we should reflect on events on 26 September that have nearly nothing to do with the season–or not.  But the completion of Drake’s circumnavigation, the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, and the death of Francis Aquino all happened on 26 September, with a half millennia or so separation.

On 26 September 1580, Frances Drake, a career navigator, scoundrel, pirate, politician and seaman sailed his 300 ton galleon Golden Hind into Plymouth harbor in southern England, completing the first circumnavigation of the world as captain, and the second ever (Magellan died on his voyage).  Elizabeth I knighted him soon thereafter.  What was most extraordinary about the voyage wasn’t the three years it took to complete, or the six tons of Spanish gold she captured, but that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with. Drake’s circumnavigation, though mostly a military expedition, was also the first time a English ship had crossed the Pacific Ocean, and may have been the first time that an Englishman saw Indonesia.

What was most extraordinary about the voyage … that it was completed with a crew that was half of what he started out with.

Since the beginning of the “China Incident” in 1937, the Vietnamese port of Haiphong in French Indochina (northern Vietnam) had been one of several ports used by China to receive arms shipments (until 1939, China’s was Germany’s best arms customer), and was an important source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped Vichy French government in Hanoi. After several months of dithering, the Japanese finally got around to moving into French Indochina and, later, what was then Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) on 26 September 1940, after weeks of unsuccessfully negotiating with the Vichy into allowing some sort of “guest” occupation.  The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration, which moved to embargo oil, scrap metals, and Japanese funds in American banks.  This embargo was one of the driving forces behind Japan’s attacks on American, British and Dutch holdings in East Asia beginning in December, 1941.

The Japanese occupation of French Indochina was the last straw for the Roosevelt administration

“Tokyo Rose” was the nickname for several female English-language, American-vernacular Japanese propaganda broadcasters during World War II.  The best known announcer was Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a native American caught in Japan at the outset of the war.  Broadcasting her ten to fifteen minute harangue (sometimes accurately naming units, commanders and even enlisted men and their stations) during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and for the most part useless as an anti-morale weapon.  Though cleared of war crimes in Japan, she was tried and found guilty of treason in 1949 when she returned to the United States.  Released in 1956, she was eventually pardoned in 1977 by Gerald Ford. D’aquino died in Chicago on 26 September, 2006.

 Broadcasting … during the Zero Hour program of popular American music, most regarded her broadcasts as harmless, and … useless as an anti-morale weapon.

From Drake’s epic 16th century expedition to the death of Tokyo Rose in the early 21st, East Asia, Europe and the Pacific have been tied to 26 September, and to many other dates.  Though D’aquino was largely a victim of circumstance, so too was French Indochina, caught as she was in between quarreling giants in a conflict not of her making.  Drake’s ship, one of the first ever to be put on public display, gradually rotted into destruction, and two replicas have also been lost over the years.  Tokyo Rose, too, had copies, like Pyongyang Sally during the 1950-53 war in Korea, and Hanoi Hanna during the American involvement in Vietnam.  The threads of human events are often interwoven in common calendar dates.  We’ll continue to explore this line of thought next week.

 

 

 

20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

The Madness of March for Japan

The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad.  And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.

On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties.  While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan.  Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists.  For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.

But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet.  More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan.  Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands.  The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.

But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism.  These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.

In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers.  The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top.  Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace.  In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600.  Beneath the samurai there was everyone else.  Social mobility was practically unheard of.

The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power.  Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous.  Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%.  Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood.  When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life.  Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor  and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.

Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago.  There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not.  Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery.  By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure.  While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself.  The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed.  On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China.  When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.

But Japan’s March Madness continued.  in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers  and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific.  After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done.  What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation.  It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.

Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end.  On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.

When the Roof of Hell Opened Up and Tokyo Fell In

When they first heard of it, the men who had flown over St Nazaire and Brest, Schweinfurt and Munich, Ploesti and Wiener-Neustadt, Shanghai and Bangkok and lost a thousand friends in the high altitude combat boxes knew that it was a mistake.  The briefers misread it, they thought.  But no.  The B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command would bomb Tokyo at night, individually, in a continual stream of aircraft at altitudes from 6,000 to 12,000 feet.  There was no mistake.  Curtis Lemay, commanding the B-29s in the Marianas islands in early 1945, was in deadly earnest.

But there was a reason for it: many.  The air campaign against Japan had been disappointing.  The B-29 Superfortresses, the most advanced bombers in the world, the largest and the most powerful aircraft in the world, suffered from teething pains that included engine fires and electrical problems.  Some missions lost as many as 5% of their aircraft to these causes alone.  Added to this, weather over Japan was unexpectedly bad much of the time, even more unpredictable than northern Europe.  The discovery of the jet stream during the bombing missions of 1944 was a boon to the weathermen, but it wreaked havoc on bombing accuracy and on airplanes.

So the planners and the Boeing engineers added it all up and determined that the problem with the engines was uneven engine cooling; with the electrical system was instrument freezing; that with the weather was high-altitude flying.  The answer was to fly lower, which meant abandoning the box.  To accommodate that radical change, the missions would be flown at night, in part because the intelligence boys were saying that Japanese night fighter strength was negligible.

Then the issue became the nature of the target.  Japanese industry wasn’t concentrated in plants or even in small shops; while final assembly was centralized, the components were made in shops based in homes.  One in four Japanese homes had a machine tool or finishing station within the structure.  Many more had made piece-parts in outbuildings or in communal sheds.  Most Japanese cities were primarily made of paper and wood, especially the residential areas.  The insurance industry, performing studies of German and Japanese cities for the Army Air Force, reminded their audiences that massive fires were common in Japan.  In 1922 a fire had destroyed more than five square miles of Tokyo.

So the orders went out to the bases on Guam, Saipan and Tinian: the bombers would carry incendiary bombs only, would leave most of their defensive guns on the ground, and would attack individually from low altitude.  The bombers would launch at dusk on 9 March 1945: target, Tokyo.

Just after midnight the first pathfinders arrived over Tokyo, marking Incendiary Zone Number One, enclosing an area four by three miles with thermite and magnesium flares.  Then came the other bombers with their napalm and white phosphorus.  After fifteen minutes the water mains started to burst and after thirty minutes the electrical power went out. Two-thirds of the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department was destroyed in the first hour.

And still the bombers came.  George Seaton, flying a Superfort called Snatch Blatch, wrote “I could read a newspaper from the fires of Tokyo when we were still twenty minutes away.”  Jim Cornwell, who had flown over Hamburg in 1943 during an operation RAF Bomber Command called Gomorrah, recalled, “it looked like the roof of hell opened up, and Tokyo fell in.”

On the ground it seemed like the end of the world.  Fire destroyed neighborhoods in minutes, consumed blocks in seconds, houses in an eyeblink.  This was one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the third largest city on earth, and its residential heart was being consumed by fires that could not be stopped.  There were no firestorms like Hamburg; not enough concentrated heat.  Instead this was what firefighters called a sweep conflagration that grew and moved and fed on its own accord, fanned by southerly winds.  High above, as much as 20,000 feet above the maelstrom of fire, aircrews in the controller aircraft could smell burning pine…and hair, and flesh.

The last of the B-29s dropped its load sometime after 2:00 AM on 10 March, leaving a little over fifteen square miles of Tokyo burning or burned out, the flames having stopped only two miles from the Imperial Palace.  At least 80,000 were dead; possibly as many as 150,000–no one knows to this day for certain.  Downtown Tokyo was a charnel house; power and water systems destroyed; transportation networks completely knocked out.  Tokyo had become an abattoir of frightened refugees scrabbling amid the rubble and ashes to find enough food and water to survive.  By May, two more fire raids would only add another six square miles to the devastation.

With his new strategy Lemay laid waste to every Japanese industrial city that wasn’t on a special list from Washington: one that had on it Kure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When he drove through Tokyo after the surrender, he saw thousands of tool posts standing stark amid the blowing ashes.  Japan may have already lost the war by March 1945, but at that time they didn’t know it.  After the fire raids, and Lemay ran out of targets to burn, the Showa emperor Hirohito certainly did.  After the Imperial War Council meeting of 10 August, he withdrew his support from the war.  He, like Tokyo, was done.

Manila: Stalingrad of the Pacific War

There is a great deal of danger in comparing anything to Stalingrad, or in saying that “X is/was the Stalingrad of Y,” if for no other reason than because Stalingrad was unique in the annals of warfare in sheer scale of misery and desolation, and its place in the strategy of the Russo-German War.  But in the perspective of the Pacific War, it is perhaps instructive to view the month-long city-fight for control of one of the jewels of the Pacific Rim as an example of the extreme depths of desperation the forces of Japan had sunk, and how the Americans had been compelled to fight the last of the samurai in a month-long slog of slaughter and destruction, not unlike the Germans and Russians in their death struggle on the Volga.

If the strategic situations were entirely different, the tactical ones were at least similar. From almost any perspective and by any measure, Japan had already lost the war in 1945; the Germans, in contrast, could conceivably have fought the western allies to a standstill in 1942 and turned their full attentions to the Soviets.  Thus, Manila meant nearly nothing because Japan couldn’t support any force there long-term, while Stalingrad had value as a foothold on the Volga and the hinge for the German armies in the Caucasus.  But short-term, if the Japanese could bloody the American juggernaut enough they just might make peace.  Or, at least, the samurai leadership told themselves that, and had been since Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands.

When the US 1st Cavalry and the 11th Airborne Divisions approached Manila in February 1945, the 16,000 Japanese defenders under Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji had already written themselves off:

We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man.

The Soviets were exhorted (if rhetorically) to fight to win.  Since a new Soviet soldier’s life expectancy at Stalingrad was about a day (and officers about three), this was pretty pointless.

The urban fighting in Manila was new to the Pacific War; not so much to the Russians and Germans.  The casualty rate was high, the noise and dust appalling and omnipresent in both cases.  But the defenders at Stalingrad, Vasili Chuikov’s little 62nd Army, would get relieved by the Soviet counterattack; there would be no rescue for the Japanese force.  When on 3 March 1945 the city had been declared secured the Japanese had died to the last man and boy, taking along with them about 100,000 Filipino civilians and nearly every structure in the city.  The Americans suffered some thousand dead and another five thousand wounded.

It is said that Soviet combat methods made casualties, not veterans, and the same can be said for the Japanese.  The island campaigns of the Pacific were fought in conditions unlike any before, where strategic retreat was possible only months before contact, but impossible because of the policies in Tokyo.  At the rate of destruction seen in Manila, by the time the war ended Japanese would indeed have been a language spoken only by the dead.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese strategic position throughout the war, and the consequences of militarism.  Available in hardback, paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.