The end

It was the end. It was the beginning. It was hope. At home and around the world, Americans celebrated like never before.

By Eric Ethier

Unbelievably, peace was finally coming to Europe. The world listened with joy at 3:00 p.m. on May 8, 1945, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill confirmed that the German high command had met with Allied officials the previous morning and signed surrender papers. Churchill's familiar, grandfatherly voice crackled out across radio airwaves, "The German war therefore is at an end."

Celebrations broke out across Europe, but the fall of Axis powers Italy and now Germany meant little in the Far East, where American forces were still grappling with Japan. Japanese General Jiro Minami declared that Japan was fighting for the "defense of the national polity of Imperial Japan and the security of the right for existence of the Asiatics." Japan, he asserted, never had "the slightest intention of relying on the power of Germany in prosecuting this sacred war." Persuading Japan's leaders to give up was not going to be easy.

For nearly three years, while Allied armies dueled with their German counterparts in Europe, America's Pacific forces had been slowly driving Japanese forces out of territories Japan had captured early in the war. It was a brutal task. In the months following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan had rampaged through the Pacific, swallowing up a huge area ranging northward from the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia to the tail of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Before a direct retaliatory strike could be made on Japan, American servicemen would have to fight over every imaginable type of terrain across 2,000 miles of islands.

Two months after the destruction of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's fleet at Midway (between Hawaii and Japan) in June 1942, American naval and marine forces began a two-pronged counterattack against Japan. One prong jutted into the South Pacific, landing US forces on the jungle-covered island of Guadalcanal. After six months of bitter fighting, Guadalcanal fell in February 1943. Allied forces led by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey subsequently continued on through the rest of the Solomons, Papua, and New Guinea, isolating and killing off Japan's major base at Rabaul, New Britain, by the spring of 1944. Meanwhile, the second prong thrust into the Central Pacific, where US naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz began the advance with an assault on the Gilbert Islands in November 1943. Next up were the Marshall Islands, which fell in February 1944, and the Marianas, secured by August.

Each island taken tightened up American supply lines and provided ground for new airfields that allowed America's air forces to extend their range. Possession of the Marianas brought new American bombers far enough west to make possible the strategic bombing of Japan--the systematic destruction of the island nation's infrastructure and means of production. Meanwhile, Japan's defensive perimeter in the Pacific continued to collapse. By the spring of 1945, MacArthur had liberated the Philippines, and American marines had endured unbelievable conditions to capture Iwo Jima, a pitiless rock some 750 miles southeast of Japan. Now, as Allied soldiers and sailors and free people every where celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany, American military planners prepared to take Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands that lay just 380 miles south west of Japan's home islands.

However defiant Japanese leaders might have remained, their country was being squeezed to death--by US forces in the Pacific, British and Chinese forces to the west, and Soviet forces that seemed likely to descend soon from the north. The Japanese realized that, once Okinawa fell, an American invasion of the home islands would come next. But for Japan, surrender was not an option. Her soldiers had undergone harsh, abusive training to eliminate thought of anything but doing their duty. "Fear not to die for the cause of everlasting justice," they had been told. "Do not stay alive in dishonor. Do not die in a way that will leave a bad name behind you." Japanese soldiers would fight until the end.

This was the mindset of the soldiers American troops would have to meet on Okinawa, a sliver of land 60 miles long and 18 miles across at its widest point. Veteran marines had found the fighting more difficult with each Pacific island they assaulted. Increasingly desperate and fanatical Japanese defenders fought like tigers, especially on Iwo Jima, which tested the stomachs of even battle-hardened leathernecks. Aside from having value as an air base, that island was a worthless, hideous apparition of rock, volcanic sand, and--worst of all--reinforced caves, tunnels, and bomb-proof shelters that shielded its Japanese defenders from everything American ships and planes could fire at them. Bitter marines had to go in and root the Japanese out, paying the price for the captured ground in casualties and terrible memories. Taking the much larger Okinawa, which the Japanese had been fortifying for months, promised to be a worse nightmare. But that island offered the United States two excellent harbors, room for plenty of new airstrips, and an ideal launching point for the invasion of Japan, already scheduled to begin in the fall.

As March 1945 ended, a massive American fleet of 40 aircraft carriers (including one British fast carrier group), 18 battleships, 200 destroyers, and hundreds of smaller ships and support craft converged on Okinawa. After marine reconnaissance, elements of the US Army's 77th Division overran a series of small islands off Okinawa's southwest coast, clearing away the few Japanese defenders there, destroying 350 suicide-attack boats, and opening the door for invasion.

In the early hours of Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the dark skies above Okinawa lit up with the firing of nearly every big gun in the American fleet's massive offshore arsenal. The island had already absorbed a week of bombing and strafing. Now, before hundreds of landing craft and amphibious vehicles headed for shore, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of Admiral Raymond Spruance's Fifth Fleet unleashed all of their firepower on the ground above the eight-mile-wide landing zone, trying to ensure a safe landing for the Tenth Army of Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.

Under Buckner--whose father had surrendered Fort Donelson, Tennessee, to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant back in 1862--was the III Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine divisions) and the army's XXIV Corps (7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th divisions), a total of 183,000 men. To everyone's amazement, the Tenth Army went ashore virtually unopposed and quickly moved inland. Okinawa was lightly populated in the north, where low-slung mountains dominated the land. Buckner's army would face its challenge in the south, where sloping hills and east-to-west ridges formed natural lines of defense. Eschewing the old Japanese strategy of confronting the enemy on the beach, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima would ambush the invaders when they entered his lair--a fantastic, endless, interconnected maze of reinforced caves, catacombs, pillboxes, tunnels, redoubts, and other formidable shelters that combined to form a giant, solid sponge from which any of the 100,000 soldiers of his 32nd Army might emerge at any moment. The American navy's terrifying barrage had hardly scratched them. Only careful, cave-by-cave assaults with grenades, machine guns, satchel charges, and--where terrain permitted--flame-throwing tanks would drive out the dug-in Japanese. Knowing he could not win the battle, Ushijima's sole intent was to kill as many Americans as possible, depriving them of troops for the inevitable invasion of his homeland.

Day one of the invasion seemed--and was--too easy. Roughly 50,000 troops went ashore, with the 6th and 1st Marine divisions and the army's 7th and 96th divisions (in order from left to right) heading east to divide the island. The 2nd Marine Division made a diversionary feint 40 miles south of the main landings, which it would repeat the following morning and then go into reserve at Saipan. The 6th Marines turned north and within three weeks swept the upper island clear of the enemy.

Meanwhile, the infantry moved rapidly south towards Ushijima's outer perimeter and ran into a hornet's nest at Kakazu Ridge, a confusing and terrifying series of fortified heights crammed full of deadly surprises. In several days of brutal, nightmarish exchanges with the hidden enemy, the 7th and 96th divisions first took and then lost the heights, suffering about 3,000 casualties. The Americans managed to repulse several Japanese counterattacks April 12-14, killing nearly 1,600. On the 19th, Major General John Hodge sent the reformed XXIV Corps west to try to bypass deadly Kakazu Ridge and continue south. The maneuver failed, but following it up the next day, Hodge's legions gradually pierced the Japanese positions, finally forcing Ushijima to withdraw his dwindling forces to his next defensive ring.

On May 3, Ushijima ordered a second counteroffensive that ended as miserably for him as the first: marines wiped out a small Japanese amphibious force on the west coast, while 7th Division GIs stopped a similar move on the east. Meanwhile, Japanese infantry hurled themselves at the American center, only to be cut down amid a hail of bullets and artillery shells. Now, a reconstituted American force--the 1st and 6th Marine divisions and the army's 77th and 96th (later replaced by the 7th) divisions--aligned west to east, prepared to roll south. Beginning on May 11, Buckner--who inexplicably refused to attempt amphibious flanking maneuvers--drove his army slowly but steadily toward Ushijima's second perimeter, the Shuri Line, yet another east-west series of ridges that the hands of time seemed to have formed specifically for an army on the defensive.

While Ushijima played his deadly game of hide and seek with the wary American ground troops, Japan's air service flailed desperately at the ships around Okinawa. Japanese military planners had all but left the nation's defense in the hands of its Special Attack Corps--kamikazes, suicide boats, and divers trained to attack American ships as human bombs. Rear Admiral Toshiyuki Yokoi had at his disposal whatever planes and pilots could be spared from preparations for the defense of the home islands. Like Ushijima, Yokoi was determined to kill as many Americans and sink as many of their ships as possible, hoping to force more generous surrender terms and to deplete the resources available for the final invasion.

The pride of the Special Attack Corps was the kamikaze, a mechanical version of a natural element that had once saved Japan. "Eight hundred years ago the Mongols attempted to invade Japan with a gigantic armada," one Japanese official explained, "but the flotillas were either destroyed or dispersed at sea by a sudden storm. That storm has been referred to as the Kamikaze or Divine Wind. Hence the name has been given to the Special Attack Corps that hurl their planes against the enemy." More simply, the kamikaze was a flying bomb, a fighter loaded with bombs deliberately flown into enemy ships. It was a desperate, crude, but terrifying weapon. First used during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in October 1944, kamikazes had startled American seamen, but thus far had done little harm. But the idea for a huge, organized Special Attack Corps took root, and Japanese propagandists went to work. One broadcast stated that kamikaze attacks had "bagged four of the enemy carriers" off Yap Island. Actually, only a small percentage of kamikazes scored hits at all, and most were on smaller picket ships that lacked the guns of the larger vessels. But bloated Japanese reports of kamikaze success drew great numbers of young pilots to the corps, eager for the adoration of their fellow citizens and to be part of the Divine Wind that would sweep away the enemy and save Japan.

On April 6 and 7, more than 300 kamikazes struck the spread-out Allied fleet. The twisting and diving attackers managed to sink four destroyers, one transport, a minesweeper, and two ammunition ships, while damaging several other ships, including two carriers. But most of the attacking force did not return home, including the crew of the massive Battleship Yamato, which American planes sank on April 7. Waves of kamikazes would hurl themselves at the ubiquitous American and British ships 10 times before Okinawa fell in late June, braving virtual sheets of flying 5-inch, 40mm, and 20mm shells to sink 36 ships, damage 368, and terrorize thousands of mentally and physically spent seamen at a cost of 1,900 planes. American officials rejected the outrageous claims of Japan's navy minister, Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, who boasted that "about 50 per cent of the American aircraft carriers and cruisers and 30 per cent of auxiliary carriers and battleships off Okinawa had been sunk or heavily damaged." Still, the kamikazes were putting the US Navy through its most devastating stretch of the war--and possibly of its history.

On the Island, American columns slowed by torrential rain and mud continued to deal with pockets of hell. In the west, the marines had to pass Sugar Hill, a low height protected on each flank by higher hills filled with Japanese firing positions. A week of fighting brought the 6th Marines through a crack west of the hill, while the 1st Marines battled through a series of equally hideous ridges and defiles to surmount Shuri Heights. To the east, the 77th and 96th army divisions struggled past a series of bristling hills called Flattop, Dick, and Conical. Finally, on May 23, as marines flooded into the city of Naha and GIs tramped into Yonabaru, Ushijima retreated again. Marines planted their 1st Division flag atop Shuri castle. The campaign was all but over. As American troops enveloped the bottom of the island in June, they discovered cave after cave of bloated corpses, unattended wounded soldiers, and sickly Japanese and native Okinawans. Many had committed suicide, as Ushijima and his second-in-command did on June 21. Their nightmare over, members of the Tenth Army breathed easier--but not much easier. Just around the corner was the invasion of mainland Japan, in which many of them expected to die.

The Battle of Okinawa cost the US Army 4,675 men (including Buckner, who was killed on June 18); the marines 2,398; and the navy 4,907. Thousands more were wounded. Nearly all of Japan's 32nd Army was dead. But now the wound-up American war machine was parked just outside Japan, ready to crush it once and for all. By mid-1944, American factories had begun churning out massive B-29 Superfortresses, airborne marvels capable of delivering 4,000 tons of bombs each from bases in the Marianas and Iwo Jima. From Okinawa, the B-29s would be able to deliver five times that amount, a terrifying rate that air force planners hoped might knock Japan out of the war without a ground invasion.

Planning for such a ground invasion was nonetheless well under way. Code-named Downfall, the two-part assault would dwarf even the massive Okinawa effort, the sheer size of which had eclipsed the 1944 invasion of France. The first step, called Operation Olympic, was set for November 1 and would be taken on Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu. If necessary, the second step, Operation Coronet, would land on Japan's main island of Honshu in the spring of 1946. Rear Admiral DeWitt C. Ramsey promised the assault on Japan would "be made by the most overwhelming forces ever concentrated in military history." One estimate put the total invasion force at an astounding seven million men. But even such a gargantuan force as that would suffer going against a nation of potential suicide attackers. Japan's hard-line leaders planned to employ all able-bodied Japanese, male and female, in defensive combat. Further, they mandated that every man and woman must be ready to give his or her life in suicide attacks. Already, millions of civilians--including young schoolchildren--were learning to kill with homemade spears, knives, and household tools, as well as with handguns and grenades. American casualty estimates for the attack ran as high as one million, a frightful amount that prompted a search for a better solution.

One possibility was the atomic bomb, which had been in secret development at US sites for several years. Final testing and planning for delivery of this secret weapon that reportedly would wipe out an entire city were almost complete. For the time being, however, American planners stepped up air attacks on the island nation, still hoping to coax Emperor Hirohito to surrender.

During the summer of 1945, dozens of Japanese cities crumbled. Unchallenged by Japanese fighters, which were being hoarded for the expected invasion, American carrier-based P-51 Mustangs bombed and strafed grounded planes, trains, and any buildings still standing in Japan, while the big B-29s mined Japanese waters and dropped thousands of tons of incendiary bombs, fragmentary bombs, and the new napalm bombs on a dwindling number of island targets. The size of the attacking B-29 formations increased, eventually reaching a staggering 700 planes or more on some raids. Pilots were told to leave four selected cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, intact, although no one explained why. The island nation was quickly disintegrating into ash and dust. "Japan will eventually be a nation without cities--a nomadic people," warned Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle.

On July 26, an American-drafted letter representing the United States, Great Britain, and China, called on Japan to surrender. Known as the Potsdam Declaration, the document implied that Japan might retain its emperor, but insisted upon the unconditional capitulation of its armed forces at the risk of "complete and utter destruction." Officially, Japan ignored the letter. On August 1, while American air force planners waited for perfect weather conditions for the bomb (which had recently been successfully tested in New Mexico), 784 B-29s ranged over Japan, dropping incendiaries on the lightly constructed homes that filled the nation's suburbs. Still, Japan remained silent. By then, after having considered all alternatives, President Harry Truman had authorized use of the atomic bomb.

The skies over Japan were quiet on the beautiful morning of August 6, 1945. Only the rumbling of two lumbering B-29s cruising 31,600 feet over the city of Hiroshima disturbed the morning air until 8:15 a.m., when one of the planes, the Enola Gay, opened her bomb bay doors. The big bomber released one massive bomb--nicknamed Little Boy--and headed south at high speed. Moments later, a huge cloud shot 10,000 feet into the sky, and invisible waves of vibrations gave the escaping B-29 crew members the shaking of their lives. Previously spared the heavy bombing dealt to most other Japanese cities, Hiroshima had, in seconds, suffered more than 100,000 casualties, including 78,000 dead.

Despite the unearthly horror the bomb had brought to earth, Japan's leaders still did not give in. So, three days later, a second B-29, named Bock's Car, unloaded a second bomb, over Nagasaki, killing 45,000 instantly and wounding and terrifying thousands of others. But as Truman anxiously awaited a Japanese surrender, rumors of plots against Hirohito swirled around Tokyo. Even as Soviet armies steamrolled Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea, the hard-liners of Japan's war cabinet still refused to give in, preferring to fight the Americans in one last decisive battle on their homeland. Finally, however, the emperor overruled them.

At noon on August 15, millions of Japanese stood by their radios, listening in reverence as a recorded message from Hirohito was broadcast across the nation. Stunned by the mere sound of his voice, millions wept as he spoke of defeat, the enemy's "new and most cruel bomb," and the necessity for the Japanese people to preserve peace for future generations by "enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable." Some soldiers vowed to fight on or kill themselves; some fainted; others simply could not believe their efforts had gone for naught. Most citizens felt at once stunned, angry, worried, and relieved.

Back in America, it was 7:00 p.m. on August 14 when Truman stepped before eager reporters in his White House office and announced the surrender. In New York City's Times Square, half a million people who had gathered in eager anticipation of such an announcement went into a tizzy when the board on the New York Times Tower flashed the news: "Official--Truman announces Japanese surrender." Within three hours, another one and a half million frenzied New Yorkers had joined their fellow citizens in Times Square. Clubs, bars, and restaurants filled to overflowing with excited patrons who drank, sang, and toasted the fall of Japan. Almost lost in the din were those reflecting somberly on lost brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and sons and daughters.

In Washington, DC, 10,000 delirious city residents gathered across from the White House in Lafayette Park, where they celebrated wildly. Music blared, people sang, and soldiers, sailors, and civilians meandered happily across the park in a long conga line. At 8:00 p.m., the president answered cries of "We want Truman!" by walking out onto the White House's north lawn. He took in the scene with a smile, then spoke:

Ladies and gentlemen: This is a great day. This is the day we have all been looking for since December 7, 1941. This is the day when fascism and police government ceases in the world.

This is the day for democracies. This is the day when we can start on our real task of implementation of free government in the world where we are faced with the greatest task we've ever been faced with.

The emergency is as great as it was on December 7, 1941. It is going to take the help of all of us to do it. I know we are going to do it.

Half a hemisphere away, thousands of inspired Argentines took to the streets of Buenos Aires, celebrating the Allied triumph over fascism and calling for democracy and freedom in their own country. Government-backed Nationalists answered their calls with clubs, guns, and brass knuckles.

Most people around the world were too relieved to protest or even discuss politics. Dancing and singing broke out in cities and towns from England and France to New Zealand and Australia. Parades rolled through the streets of Havana, Ottawa, even remote Tegucigalpa in Honduras. The long horror was over. It was time to celebrate. American soldiers scattered across the globe let loose. "No sleep tonight," one American soldier exclaimed. Scores of his fellow GIs stationed in England went wild in London's West End, tramping gleefully through streets with the Stars and Stripes and bellowing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other tunes at the top of their lungs. In Moscow, where General Dwight D. Eisenhower was quietly celebrating with Soviet officials, an army band played and American whiskey flowed.

Japan's surrender was made official on September 2, 1945, in a solemn ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri. General Douglas MacArthur spoke and called for a new era of peace in the Pacific. He then saluted the millions of Americans who had fought to win the peace, praised American families that had persevered and worried for years while their loved ones fought overseas. He told them finally what they had longed to hear about their girls and boys: "They are homeward bound--Take care of them."

Eric Ethier has worked as a research associate at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and as an editor for American History and Civil War Times magazines. This article was originally published in the August 2005 issue of America in WWII. Order a copy of this issue now.

Top photos: The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and the USS Missouri covered with Americans for the Japanese surrender ceremony on September 2.

Middle photos:  In action during early and mid 1945, a US Army sniper takes aim at a Japanese gun nest on the Ryuku Islands, and Americans escort 25 Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa.

Bottom photo: GIs wave the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes as they celebrate the end of the war at the Rainbow Corner Red Cross in Paris on August 15.

 

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