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While the Japanese military could not match the enormous firepower of the United States, victory did not come easily or cheaply for the American forces. Japanese soldiers refused to surrender, even against overwhelming odds and certain death. The Warrior Code the Japanese followed did not allow surrender; instead, it glorified death in battle. In death, the spirit of the fallen soldiers would find its place among those of fellow warriors in the patriots’ memorial, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Any Japanese soldier who surrendered or fell prisoner was a disgrace to his Divine Emperor and to his family. Japanese leaders ordered and expected every soldier to embrace death instead of surrender. As the soldier’s manual, The Field Service Code, stated, “If alive, do not suffer the disgrace of becoming a prisoner; in death, do not leave behind a name soiled by misdeeds.”2 American soldiers and marines faced this fanatical, fight-to-the-death attitude on every island they conquered. The bloody suicidal fighting got only worse once the Japanese lost freedom of maneuver on the sea and in the air, and island garrisons could no longer receive adequate reinforcements. During the battle for the Marianas Islands in 1944, U.S forces gained complete control of the sea and air by destroying the Japanese Combined Fleet, leaving the isolated Japanese at the mercy of the Americans.
Saburo Hayashi, Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War, pp. 107-108.
advance to attack the American forces and will all die an honorable death. Each man will kill ten Americans.”4 The results were catastrophic. Japanese troops on Saipan forced local civilians to share the same fate of death before dishonor, shooting woman and children as they ran towards American lines attending to flee. Japanese soldiers killed an estimated 10,000 Saipan civilian with grenades, bayonets, shootings, or by forcing them off cliffs into the ocean. Tokyo responded by referring to the murders and suicides as great sacrifices for Japan before its final victory.5 With the fall of the Marianas Islands, the United States built airfields that could support the large B-29 Superfortress bombers that now could bring the war directly to Japan and other Japanese-held islands. In response, the IGHQ began issuing directives to reinforce the defenses of the Japanese homeland. The “Plan for the Conduct of Future Operations” issued on July 24, 1944, focused on four major points. The first part called for shoreline defense of the Philippine Islands, Formosa, Ryukyu Islands, the Japanese homeland, and the Kurile Islands. The second element of the plan called for massive counter attacks by sea, land, and air forces as the Americans attempted to advance through those crucial areas, which were termed “Sho-Go” Operations. The last two points dealt with stopping the B-29 attacks on Japan from American aircraft operating from China and rerouting shipping closer to shore in order to provide better protection.6 The first decisive battle occurred in the Philippine Islands starting in October 1944, with the American invasion of Leyte. The Japanese battle plan focused on using the Fourteenth Area Army, commanded by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, to attack the invasion force on Leyte. At the same time, the Japanese planned to send the Combined Fleet into Leyte Gulf to engage the Ibid., p. 108.
Allen, Codename Downfall, p. 167.
Hayashi, Kogun, pp. 114 – 115.
invasion fleet in a deadly crossfire. The Americans intercepted and destroyed the Japanese fleet before reaching its objective, leaving the American invasion force unmolested by sea to concentrate on the ground campaign and gaining air supremacy. The Japanese started the battle with rough parity in air power, but, without replacement planes and pilots, they quickly lost control of the skies over Leyte and the rest of the Philippines.7 During the battle for the Philippines, the Japanese fought with the same ferocity they had used on previous islands, except for one condition: General Yamashita’s forces did not conduct final suicidal charges to end the campaigns. On Leyte, he ordered his division commander to conserve his forces and use guerrilla tactics to resist the Americans. On Luzon, the Fourteenth Area Army also did not use the fight-to-the-death tactics. Japanese forces tied down a large number of American troops for the remainder of the war by following a “resistance to the last, killing ten soldiers to one” tactic.8 For the Japanese, Iwo Jima provided a base for early warning radar and airfields for their fighter aircraft attacking B-29s en route to bomb Japan. In preparation for an anticipated American invasion, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi, commander of Iwo Jima, evacuated all civilians and transformed the volcanic island into a massive fortress of prepared defenses. This was a new Japanese tactic for island defenses. From concrete bunkers, reinforced caves, and miles of tunnels, Japanese defenders engaged the U.S. Marines. Kuribayashi’s forces had “no do-or-die stands on the beaches, no reckless banzai charges, not even a large scale counterattack – simply a stubborn, sustained defense designed to inflict maximum casualties and wear down the invaders.”9 Even after a sustained bombardment of several days, the marine invasion force encountered a Japanese defense that was virtually unscratched by the naval and air assaults. In addition to the change in ground defenses, the Japanese made liberal use of Ibid., pp. 122 – 127.
Ibid., p. 132.
Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun, pp. 494 – 495.
organized kamikaze units. The bloody battle for Iwo Jima ended with the largest casualty numbers in the history for the U.S. Marine Corps from a single campaign and was “the only battle of the war where American casualties exceeded the Japanese dead, 27,499 to 23,300.”10 Okinawa was not simply another island occupied by Japanese soldiers. It was part of Japan, only 350 miles southwest of the main islands and well within range of kamikaze airfields on the Japanese southern island of Kyushu. As his counterpart had done on Iwo Jima, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, the 32d Army Commander, pulled his troops from the beaches and established a system of “strong concentric defensive perimeters.”11 The battle on Okinawa was like no other campaign in the war. The Japanese defenders fought from prepared positions and conducted massive counter attacks, which usually ended with tremendous lose of life of both sides. Kamikazes stationed on Kyushu attacked the American invasion fleet in waves, destroying vital ammunition ships and keeping the carrier-based planes occupied with defending the fleet. The U.S. fleet suffered more losses during the battle of Okinawa from kamikazes than from conventional forces; in all, the Japanese sank twenty-nine ships, damaged 120 others, and killed 3,048 enemy sailors while wounding another 6,035.12 In defense of Okinawa, the Imperial Navy deployed the battleship Yamato, along with several smaller warships, on a suicide mission into the American fleet. Lacking vital air support, American carrier planes quickly sunk the Yamato and the rest of her fleet. The Japanese garrison on Okinawa fought almost to the last man. In the end, 110,000 Japanese soldiers died and leaving 10,755 prisoners. In addition to Paul D. Walker, Truman’s Dilemma, pp. 130 – 131.
Spector, Eagle, p. 533.
Walker, Dilemma, p. 144.
military casualties, an estimated 160,000 civilians died, either at the hands of the brutal Japanese military or as a member of the Patriotic Defense Units.13 The strict no surrender belief, combined with a sense of racial superiority, influenced Japanese treatment of enemy prisoners of war and the civilian populations of conquered countries. Japanese brutality towards captured enemy soldiers and in occupied territories began before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines. In 1937, China received the brunt of the Japanese hatred for foreigners. Japan deployed a large number of soldiers to that country to deal with an incident involving Chinese troops near Peking. With troops in place, the Japanese began combat operation to bring China under complete Japanese control. The Chinese capital of Nanking fell in December 1937 to an unrelenting Japanese army.
For over thirty days, Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered over 350,000 Chinese men,
women, and children.14 The Japanese military had a “three-all” policy in handling the Chinese:
“kill all, burn all, and destroy all.” By August 1945, this barbaric policy had resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese and reduced the population in the occupied territory from 44 million to an estimated 25 million inhabitants.15 To the Japanese, the Chinese were not human and using them as guinea pigs, test dummies, and as live targets was common practice. The murder of Chinese prisoners was not the sole practice of the Japanese field armies. Extensive medical research and experiments used Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, and later Americans as test subjects. The majority of these experiments occurred in the “notorious” Unit 731, where doctors conducted bacterial warfare research on living subjects. Other medical atrocities included surgeons’ shooting prisoners just Ienaga, Pacific War, pp. 198 - 199.
Walker, Dilemma, pp. 38 – 39.
Allen, Codename Downfall, p. 157.
to practice removing the bullet and the amputation of healthy limbs. One Japanese doctor confessed at the end of the war that “it was all for the Emperor.”16 The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was America’s first experience with Japan’s trickery and brutality. As the Japanese expanded its empire in the Pacific, a large number of American, British, and Australian soldiers became prisoners of war and suffered years of torment and the constant fear of death at the hands of their captors. The fall of the Philippine in May 1942 forced some 20,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines into captivity-less then 60 percent survived. Thousands of these men died on the brutal Bataan Death March.
Japanese soldiers shot, bayoneted, beheaded, or clubbed to death, any prisoner who could not keep up or tried to run for water.17 Hino Ashihei, a Japanese war correspondent who witnessed the Bataan surrender, expressed his admiration for the conduct of Japanese soldiers. “Those soldiers went on to commit what Westerners viewed as atrocities and the Japanese saw as acceptable behavior, for their captives were enemies who had shamed themselves by being taken prisoner.”18 Following the daring Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in April 1942, the Japanese government was able to encourage even more hatred towards Americans. An “ex post facto law” made it legal to convict and execute three of the Doolittle raiders. As a result, when the Americans increased the bombing raids over Japan, downed B-29 crewmembers were “shot, bayoneted, decapitated, buried alive, or killed as boiling water was poured over them.” The inhuman treatment of captured airmen did not just come at the hand of the Imperial Army, Japanese citizens killed downed crewmembers by beatings, beheadings, or with bows and arrows, and Ibid., p. 157.
Spector, Eagle, pp. 396-397.
Allen, Codename Downfall, pp. 163-164.
medical personnel continued to subject American airmen to brutal experiments that guaranteed certain death. 19 The number of U.S. personnel killed in captivity was a matter of deep concern to American authorities. By the end of the war, the Japanese had captured 24,992 U.S. military personnel of whom 8,634 died in captivity, a staggering 35 percent. Nazi Germany, on the other hand captured 93,653 U.S. service members of whom only 833 died a dramatically different death rate of 0.9 percent.20 From the beginning of the war, the Allies knew of the atrocities the Japanese were committing. For the safety of the Allied prisoners of war still in captivity, however, the American and British governments kept the reports from the public out of fear that the Japanese would retaliate and execute more prisoners. In addition to Japanese reprisals, the Allies believed their own soldiers would conduct their own form of vengeance on captured Japanese soldiers. This would cause more reprisals and revenge killing on both sides. More importantly, revenge killings by Allied troops would deny their claim to “moral superiority.” What made it even more difficult for the U.S. soldiers and Marines to maintain the moral high ground was the Japanese routinely tricked advancing American units into accepting their surrender and then attacked them once within range.21 A veteran of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa wrote, “After taking a position we routinely shot both the dead and wounded enemy troops in the head, to make sure they were dead. Survival was hard enough without taking chances being humane to men who fought so savagely.”22 By the spring of 1945, the American public and the world knew about some of the Japanese atrocities. Washington released details of the Bataan Death March in 1944 and pictures Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The end of the Imperial Japanese Empire, pp. 161-162.
Ibid., p. 160.
Allen, Codename Downfall, pp. 158-161.
Ibid., p. 161.
of Japanese soldiers beheading captured American airmen in May 1945. After the war, investigators learned the Japanese Vice War Minister sent a massage to all prison camp commanders on March 17, 1945 which stated: “Prisoners of war must be prevented by all means available from falling into enemy hands…they should be kept alive to the last wherever their labor is needed.”23 Many of the American prisoners of war believed that once the United States invaded Japan, their fate would be sealed. Knowing the Japanese intentions for handling captured American military personnel and the lists of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, President Truman’s ultimate decision to use the atomic weapons instead of an invasion possibly spared the lives of thousands of American prisoners.