By mid-1944, the Japanese war machine was crumbling at a frightening rate, and a growing number of Japanese officials were in favor of ending hostilities. However, it would ultimately take the devastation of two atomic bombs to force Japan to capitulate.
Figure 14-1 A Navy chaplain holds Mass for marines in Saipan, June 1944.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (127-N-82262)
Japan, which had enjoyed a number of impressive military victories early in the war, was a dying giant by 1944. Its navy devastated by Allied forces and its exhausted army growing weaker by the day, Japan stood by in relative helplessness as American forces took Saipan in June 1944 and escalated the firebombing of the Japanese mainland using B-29 Superfortresses. Unable to defend against this brutal onslaught, many more Japanese officials began to seriously consider the need to bring the war to a close.
In the spring of 1945, Japanese government officials began a covert effort to initiate peace talks by contacting Sweden, the Soviet Union, and associates of Allen Dulles at the Office of Strategic Services in Sweden. U.S. intelligence, having broken the Japanese codes, knew all of this and fed the news to Washington.
The small but growing peace bloc within the Japanese government then turned to the Potsdam Declaration, which it felt offered some insight into the issue of Japanese surrender. According to these officials' interpretation of the document, the unconditional surrender decree applied only to the military — not to the nation itself. This was good news.
Every member of the Japanese cabinet except for two hard-line generals favored a quick surrender, primarily to save their nation from U.S. bombers, which were slowly destroying Japan. While trying to persuade the dissenting generals that surrender was Japan's only option, and to prepare the nation for the news, the government issued a statement saying that an offer of peace had been made but that the cabinet had decided to withhold comment. When the radio announcement was received by U.S. intelligence officials, they interpreted it to mean that the Japanese cabinet was ignoring a peace offer and intended to go on fighting. In early August, a frustrated Harry Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb in an effort to force Japan to surrender.
The Atom Bomb
The atomic bomb is the most devastating weapon ever used in warfare. It was used twice against Japan near the end of World War II, but the threat of further use drove the Cold War and continues to threaten peace in the world today.
The bomb was the product of an American group of scientists under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who worked on a top-secret mission known as the Manhattan Project. Working in the isolation of the American Southwest, the scientists, lead by J. Robert Oppenheimer, built on the knowledge of and suggestions by famed physicist Albert Einstein and succeeded in splitting the atom.
Previous to the start of the Manhattan Project, a group of American scientists gathered at two historic conferences, one in Chicago and one in Berkeley, California. The top practical and theoretical physics minds in the land were at these conferences, and their discussions focused almost entirely on creating a superweapon. Among those speaking at the Berkeley conference was Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, who would play a major role in the discoveries that begat the bomb.
During 1942, when Japanese occupations were at their highest, the Manhattan Project achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Subsequent developments built on that success, and by 1944, the atom-splitting operations were in full force. The first nuclear explosion took place on July 16, 1945, in the famed “Trinity” test near Alamogordo, New Mexico. That success led to the two bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Earlier that night, the residents of the Japanese port city of Hiroshima had gone through an air raid drill — something they had been notified of several days earlier. The first alarm went off shortly after midnight, and the all-clear sounded at 2:10
The devastation wreaked by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was unequaled in its time. Never before in human history had a weapon of such destructive force been unleashed on a population. The bomb was dropped from a height of 31,600 feet and exploded at about 1,900 feet — directly above Shima Hospital, near the heart of the city. Almost everything within a one-mile radius of the explosion's center spontaneously combusted. Buildings disintegrated. The surface of granite stones melted under the intense heat. People vaporized, often leaving ghostly images imprinted on stone walls and sidewalks.
Figure 14-2 Colonel Paul Tibbets in the Enola Gay.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-LU-13H-5)
Those just outside the center of the blast also experienced atomic hell. Many people had their clothes blasted from their bodies. Hair was singed off, limbs ripped and seared, eyeballs melted. Those who survived the initial blast suffered a slow death from radiation poisoning.
The exact number of people killed in the Hiroshima blast remains unknown. The official Japanese estimate is 71,379 killed in the initial explosion and another 70,000 dead from radiation poisoning. A total of 70,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Medical help was slow to reach those who so desperately needed it because more than 90 percent of Hiroshima's doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel had been killed. Survivors overwhelmed hospitals in nearby cities.
News of the Hiroshima blast stunned the world — none more so than the Japanese, many of whom were joyously looking forward to a permanent peace. As the nation and its government reeled from what had occurred, the United States, fearing that Japan was still considering the continuation of hostilities, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later.
The Second A-Bomb
The second bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, was different from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in that it used plutonium instead of uranium as its fissionable material. The bomb's incredibly complex design had been tested in an explosion near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
The many components of Fat Man were flown from the atomic laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Tinian, where it was assembled and loaded on a B-29 nicknamed Bockscar, after its commander, Frederick Bock. On that particular mission, however, the plane was piloted by Major Charles Sweeney.
The second atomic bomb mission was extremely hazardous for the flight crew. Fat Man had to be assembled before being placed in the plane and was fully armed when the crew took off. Should the plane crash, a conventional explosion would disperse radioactive material over a frighteningly large area or, in the worst case, there would be a full nuclear explosion.
The Bockscar's primary target was Kokura, the site of a major Japanese munitions dump. However, cloud cover blocked visibility, and after three passes the plane flew on to its secondary target, the port city of Nagasaki, a large shipbuilding center that also manufactured naval ordnance. It was a risky target because the Bockscar had only enough fuel for one pass, then a hasty return to Okinawa. Should the plane have to make more than one pass, the crew would have to ditch in the Pacific and hope to be rescued.
Nagasaki, like Kokura, was covered with clouds when the plane approached, forcing bombardier F. L. Ashworth to approve a radar run rather than visual bombing, as originally ordered. However, the clouds broke just as the plane reached the heart of the city, and Ashworth was able to see his target. The bomb was released and exploded at 1,650 feet with a force equivalent to 22,000 tons of dynamite.
As with Hiroshima, the resulting devastation was tremendous. Nearly 44 percent of the city was instantly annihilated in the blast, and more than 25,600 people were killed, with another 45,000 dead from radiation poisoning by the end of the year.
Japan was finished. Emperor Hirohito, fearing a coup by stalwart militarists, immediately ordered that an official answer be sent accepting surrender. On August 10, Japan notified the United States through diplomatic channels in Switzerland that it accepted an unconditional surrender, asking only that the emperor be retained as sovereign ruler. U.S. officials responded that the rule of the emperor and the Japanese government were subject to the supreme commander of the Allied powers.
As the Japanese cabinet furiously debated the situation, the military struggled to keep the war going. To prevent such a move, Emperor Hirohito secretly recorded an announcement of surrender, which was broadcast over Radio Tokyo on the morning of August 15. In the address, the emperor said:
“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.”
President Truman announced Japan's official surrender at 7:00
On September 2, 1945, Allied representatives including MacArthur, as supreme commander of the Allied powers, and Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainright, who had been a POW since the fall of Bataan, met with representatives of the Japanese government aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay to sign the official surrender document. Over the following weeks, entrenched Japanese forces surrendered on a number of fronts, including the Philippines, China, and Korea.
World War II was over. All that remained was to put the world back together.