by Cllr Rod Williams, chairman of the Somerset Armed Forces Covenant Partnership.

Although smaller than the war against Germany in terms of people and military divisions involved, the war against Japan covered a far greater area and had a brutal savagery. And it ended in, and was ended by, the use of two atomic bombs.

Most post-war British interest has been on the experience of British and Commonwealth Prisoners Of War (POW) at the hands of the Japanese and the morality of the dropping of the two atomic bombs.

Some 140,000 Allied military personnel became Japanese POWs. Over 30,000 of them died in captivity from starvation, disease, overwork or brutal mistreatment. This death rate was seven times the death rate of Allied POWs held by the Germans and Italians. Had the war not been ended by the atomic bombs, many more Allied POWs must have died, given the lack of food in Japan.

In the Far East in World War Two, there were two distinct wars. One was Japan against China and the Allies in mainland China, Burma, Thailand and India; this was a continuation of Japan’s invasion of China in 1931. By the time of Pearl Harbour, Japan controlled almost the entire Chinese coast to a depth of about 200 miles inland. For ten years, Japan had taken whatever it wanted from China.

The other war was Japan against the US in the huge expanse of the Pacific and among its islands. 70% of the Japanese Army was on the mainland but the 30% in the Pacific was the more mobile part.

The British and Commonwealth troops in General Bill Slim’s Fourteenth Army called themselves ‘The Forgotten Army’. There is no better encapsulation of General Slim’s extraordinary achievement than the title of his autobiography ‘Defeat into Victory’. In March 1944, having captured Burma, the Japanese 15th Army invaded India. The Japanese invasion was slowed, stopped and turned round by General Slim’s Army in epic battles at Kohima and Imphal, in north east India.

By mid-1944, Japan controlled an area one and a half times larger than that controlled by Hitler at the ‘high tide’ of German success in 1942. Japan did so with an army a sixth as big as the German.

But the map concealed Japanese weakness. Its army on mainland China was largely wasted in an occupation role rather than combat. Its strategy across the two theatres was uncoordinated. It could not possibly match its main enemy in producing and transporting the ships, aircraft, vehicles, fuel and ammunition of war.

Most critically, Japan was totally dependent on importing its food and oil by sea and, by mid-1944, US submarines were throttling Japan’s lifeline in a way that German U-boats had threatened but failed to do in the Atlantic. By the end of 1944, the flow of Japan’s oil had almost stopped and food and other imports had fallen by 40%.

The Japanese position in Burma and southern China became overshadowed by the rapid American success in the ‘Central Area’ of the Pacific as the Americans, with Australian help, cleared the Japanese from New Guinea and prepared to clear the Philippines chain of islands. Once achieved, by early 1945, the Americans looked for airbases from which to bomb the Japanese mainland.

Fanatical Japanese resistance and the savagery of the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were awful warnings to the Americans of their likely casualties in an invasion of the three main Japanese islands.

Iwo Jima (February-March 1945) was the US Marines’ worst amphibious landing experience of the war. Despite three days of heavy naval bombardment, Japanese defenders close to the water’s edge survived to resist hard and fight to the last. An American war correspondent who had been in other amphibious landings said that on Iwo Jima ‘men died with the greatest possible violence’. In recapturing the island, over a third of the Americans who had landed were wounded, and just under 7,000 killed. The 21,000 Japanese defenders died, almost to a man.

Shortage of fuel led the Japanese to adopt kamikaze attacks, by air and sea. In the two months that the US fleet had to stand off Okinawa supporting the fighting ashore, 1,900 kamikaze attacks were made by Japanese aircraft in ten mass attacks of 50-300 aircraft. They were often targeted against US aircraft carriers that were poorly protected by their wooden flight decks, unlike the British carriers’ steel flight decks. Many US carriers were burnt and either sunk or made non-operational.

The Japanese high command launched its last surviving surface force (the giant battleship Yamato, a cruiser and eight destroyers) on a kamikaze mission against the US fleet off Okinawa, with fuel enough to reach it, but not to get home. Long before she got within range, Yamato was detected, attacked by 280 US aircraft, hit by 19 torpedoes, and sunk with the loss of all its 2,300 crew.

From April to June 1945, the Japanese defenders of Okinawa fought on, knowing they had no hope of winning. As the Americans ground forward, 160,000 Okinawan civilians, a quarter of the whole civilian population, died in mass suicides organised by the Japanese Army. In retaking the island, the US lost 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded. All the Japanese senior officers committed ritual suicide. The Americans took only 7,400 Japanese prisoners, almost all too badly wounded to be able to commit suicide. Their 110,000 comrades died, refusing to surrender.

The experience of Iwo Jima and Okinawa gave the Americans the problem of how to bring their victorious Pacific campaign to an end. Okinawa and Japan were similar terrain that favoured the defender. The scale of US losses likely in an invasion of Japan appalled US decision-makers.

Conventional strategic bombing was one answer. The US bomber chiefs had had to concede that bombing was a blunt instrument, an area weapon that needed large numbers to be effective. However, lots of the new B-29 bomber and new incendiary bombs filled with jellified petrol led to new, devastating bombing tactics. Japanese cities with buildings largely of wood and paper lent themselves to US bombers creating a firestorm, in which countless fires joined up and sucked gale-force winds into the centre of the fire, which then intensified and expanded.

The first firestorm was created on 9th March. Sixteen square miles of central Tokyo were consumed by temperatures that boiled the water in the city’s canals. 89,000 were killed and 45,000 lay burned in Tokyo’s hospitals. By mid-June, 250 B-29s had firebombed Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama and Kawasaki. 260,000 people had been killed and between nine and 13 million people made homeless. By July, 60% of Japan’s biggest cities and towns had been ‘burnt out’.

US President Harry Truman said ‘The saturation bombing of Japan took much fiercer tolls and wrought far and away more havoc than the atomic bomb. The firebombing of Tokyo was one of the most terrible things that ever happened, and they didn’t surrender after that although Tokyo was almost completely destroyed.’

Still the Japanese Government fought on. While people’s daily food ration was reduced below the 1,500 calories needed to support life, a million people were told to grub up pine roots from which an improvised aviation fuel could be distilled.

The US Manhattan Project had started in 1939 as a ‘Uranium Committee’. In 1941, it said that an atomic bomb was feasible and, if so, would be ‘determining’. In 1942, the British joined their atomic research with the Americans. By early 1945, employing 120,000 people, the Project had produced three atomic bombs. The first was successfully tested on 16th July in the New Mexico desert.

On 21st July, Truman and Churchill agreed in principle that the atomic bomb should be used on Japan. On 26th July, in the Potsdam Declaration, the Allies threatened ‘the utter destruction of the Japanese homeland’ if the Government did not surrender. The same day, General Carl Spaatz, the commander of the US Strategic Air Force, was ordered to prepare to ‘deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3rd August on one of Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata or Nagasaki.’

On 29th July, Japan rejected the Potsdam Declaration.

On 6th August, the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima at 30,000 feet. The bomb fell for 45 seconds while the B-29 turned, dived and raced to get away from the explosion. At 1,100 feet above ground level, the 15 kiloton bomb detonated. The nuclear weapon effects of flash, heat and blast killed about 78,000 people, most of them in the first ten seconds by heat and blast. Throughout Hiroshima, a firestorm raged.

Sixteen hours later, President Truman warned Japan, again, to surrender or ‘expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.’ Japan fought on. On 9th August, the ‘Fat Man’ atomic bomb, of 21 kilotons, was dropped over Nagasaki, killing about 25,000 people.

On 10th August, the Japanese Government communicated its intention to surrender. On 15th August, Emperor Hirohito made the first ever address by a Japanese Emperor to Japan’s 70 million people. He accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration in several strange and obscure phrases without ever using the word ‘surrender’ and said that the war ‘had turned out not necessarily to Japan’s advantage’. He asked the Japanese people to accept the coming of peace.

On 28th August, General Douglas Macarthur arrived at Yokohama to begin the occupation and reconstitution of Japan. On 2nd September, the Japanese Foreign Minister, the Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations signed the instrument of surrender and ended the Second World War.

The Second World War had been a catastrophe for Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Poland, the Jews, and many eastern European countries whose casualty rates among their adult population of 1939 were extraordinarily high. Germany and Japan lay in such ruins that 1945 was ‘Year Zero’.

The war ushered in the atomic and then the nuclear age. Perhaps we can reflect on the need for adequate nuclear and conventional forces. In 1945, overwhelming conventional force was not enough to bring peace and in 2020, we want to deter all war, whether nuclear or conventional.

We might reflect too on the responsibility and burden of high command. President Truman never shirked personal responsibility for his decision to use the bomb, and he did not apologise. He said that he would not use the bomb in later conflicts, such as Korea. But given the same circumstances and choices that confronted him in Japan in 1945, he said he would do exactly the same thing.

Seventy five years on from VJ Day, in 2020, let us remember the debt we owe to our parents and grandparents generation who lived through, fought and won the Second World War.