Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-47

Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-47. By D.M. Giangreco. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, revised edition, 2017.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

‘HELL TO PAY: OPERATION DOWNFALL’ presents in definitive detail, of the strategic, operational and tactical challenges faced by US forces in planning and carrying out Operations OLYMPIC – the invasion of the southernmost Japanese homeland island of Kyushu – and CORONET, the invasion of Honshu. It starkly depicts the awesome potential for disaster facing invading forces which, while likely prevailing in the longer term, would have strained US capability to, and perhaps beyond its limits, were the nuclear option not exercised in August 1945. This 2017 edition is an updated version of the 2009 original with additional chapters, research, new archival material, new maps and more photographs.

As a treatise on the planning and build-up of ‘conventional’ forces to mount an invasion of the Japanese homeland the book barely mentions the atomic weapon development and the decision to use it. The underlying message is that were the atomic attacks not carried out US forces would have suffered one million dead or wounded; Japanese deaths were conservatively estimated to be from three to five million.

D.M. Giangreco has published extensively on military studies topics and is a past editor of the US Army Command and Staff College Military Review and Director at the Foreign Military Studies Office. His depth of scholarship in analysing primary and secondary sources, including the G-2 (Intelligence) Estimates of the Enemy Situation on Kyushu and the Analysis of Japanese Planes for the Defense of Kyushu (provided as annexes in the book) underpin the value of this work.

Despite the almost total destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Japan’s mercantile marine, millions of men were available to contest the sacred soil of the homeland, supported by practically the entire Japanese civil society. US commanders were under no illusion; this from Major General Graves B. Erskine, commanding general, 3rd Marine Division:
‘Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was…What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate our cemetery at the end, or whether the last Marine would die knocking out the last Japanese gun and gunner’.
Setting the scene for the manning of the invasion forces Giangreco provides a chapter on casualty analysis up to the early months of 1945. US forces lost 65000 men per month during the ‘casualty surge’ which followed Operation OVERLORD for a total of 664 000 casualties. This chapter is very detailed but it shows that a continuous supply of men were required for ‘Selective Service’ –100 000 per month – for the build-up to Operation DOWNFALL. Exacerbating this, over and above the casualties, was the need to discharge veterans who had seen action in Europe. This requirement, plus the publication of casualty figures, began to affect home front morale. Given the US casualty count at Okinawa, where US troops had to fight hand to hand and this after days of naval and air bombardment prior to landing, the country was being steeled for much more of the same horrific combat.

Operation OLYMPIC was scheduled to start on the first of September 1945. After securing beachheads and moving inland US forces would establish airfields and bases in the southern half of Kyushu thence move north to take the whole island. Operation CORONET, the invasion of Honshu and the Kanto Plain, which included Tokyo, was planned for March 1946 and expectations were that the war would continue into 1947, or indeed longer.

In April 1945 Japan realised that invasion was imminent and reorganised its defence forces the basis of which were seven geographically-specific ‘Ketsu-Go’ operations. Ketsu-Go 6 was the defence of Kyushu by the Sixteenth Area Army. Kyushu was a certain target and its fortification was of the highest urgency and of equal priority to Ketsu-Go 3 which was defence of the Kanto Plain including Tokyo and the imperial palace. The Japanese had ample to time fortify their positions and stockpile ammunition and supplies not only for Ketsu-Go 6 but, as the Japanese correctly assessed that Operation Coronet would not launch until Kyushu had been subjugated, Ketsu-Go 3 would be even more prepared. The book provides detailed maps of Japanese dispositions for both Ketsu-Go operations and the Operations Olympic and Coronet assault plans with supporting analysis.

By this time the US Navy was well acquainted with kamikaze tactics and invading forces fully expected to be met off the beaches by suicide boats, human torpedoes and aircraft. US intelligence on the Japanese air order of battle underestimated the number of aircraft available for suicide attacks. The majority of the kamikazes met with had been regular military aircraft; however in July 1945 aviation training units were converted into combat formations adding 5400 wood-and-fabric trainers and other second-line aircraft into a formidable threat based on these aircraft invulnerability to radar and to the much vaunted US VT ‘proximity’ fuses. Two successful attacks against US destroyers by these aircraft which were undetected in July confirmed the effectiveness of this asymmetric weapon. Adding many hundreds of small suicide surface craft and midget submarines off Kyushu led US intelligence to assess a 50 percent loss rate of amphibious transports as they positioned to disembark troops into landing craft committed to a complex choreography of forming up before assaulting the beach. Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Tarawa had shown that despite naval and air bombardments over days, assaulting troops had to fight hand to hand against fanatical Japanese defenders.

The G-2 analysis starkly describes the extremely difficult terrain with which invading forces would have to contend The Kyushu beaches featured rows of serrated ground, almost small cliffs. Kyushu and Honshu interiors comprised highly defensible terraced rice fields which could not be bypassed; waterlogged so as to impede wheeled and armoured vehicles. Primitive roads, susceptible to collapse under vast numbers of heavy vehicles, added to the invaders’ movement problems.

The book includes the two annexes mentioned above and Operation BLACKLIST, the Occupation of Japan, part of the Reports of General MacArthur dated 1950 and edited by Major-General Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief. The report describes the dramatic, almost surreal, sequences of the Japan’s surrender and its subsequent occupation. The transformation of the Japanese military and indeed the whole of society from a full expectation of national annihilation to meek and cooperative acquiescence, indeed welcoming of the occupation forces, which took place over a few days continues to amaze after 73 years. Again the almost unspoken theme of the atomic attacks does not feature but this book proves that the US and its allies which included Australia, would have suffered enormous casualties were that option not taken.

This is an important work. While it challenges the moralistic issue of the atomic bomb this emotive topic may be gradually fading from contemporary conversation. Of greater weight is the military implications of invasion which are as relevant now as they were 70 plus years ago. Japan was exceptional in that the nuclear weapon caused its surrender and the subsequent peaceful acquiescence. However, since then we have had Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The presence of foreign troops in benighted countries, for whatever ostensibly good reason, has been at the very least problematical and of great cost to ‘blood and treasure’. Current touting of a ‘ground invasion’ of a north-east Asian country may find the population as prepared to fight to the death as the Japanese despite the odiousness of the regime.

There is an epilogue to the book. It is a letter written by the noted author James A. Michener, dated 20 October 1995, to a friend to be opened and read after his death (which occurred in 1997). Michener was a US Navy officer in the South Pacific. The letter is worth quoting in full as it summarises the feelings of millions of men and women from the wartime generation and answers the revisionist armchair academics and moralists decrying the terrible use of the atomic option:

Dear Martin
In the summer of 1945 I was stationed on Espiritu Santo close to a big Army field hospital (combining the 31st General Hospital and 23rd Evacuation Hospital) manned by a complete stateside hospital staff from Nebraska and Colorado. I had close relations with the doctors, so I was privy to their thinking about the forthcoming invasion of Japan. They had been alerted to prepare for moving onto the beaches of Kyushu when we invaded there and they were prepared to expect vast numbers of casualties when the Japanese home front defense forces started their suicide attacks.
More important, I was on my own very close to an Army division (the 27th Infantry Division) that was stationed temporarily in a swampy wooded section on our island. They were a disheartened unit for the Japanese had knocked them around a bit in the action on Saipan. Now they were informed unofficially that they would be among the first units to hit the beach in our invasion of Kyushu, and they were terrified. In long talks with me, they said they expected 70 or 80 percent casualties, and they could think of no way to avoid the impending disaster.
So it was with knowledge of what the doctors anticipated and what the Army men felt was inescapable that I approached the days of early August, and I, too, became a bit shaky because the rumor was that I might be attached to the Army unit because of my expertise in keeping airplanes properly fitted out and in the sky. Then came the astounding news that a bomb of a new type and been dropped on Hiroshima, a second one on Nagasaki and that the Japanese emperor himself had called upon his people to surrender peacefully and await the Allied peace-keeping forces to land and establish the changes required by the recent turn of events.
How did we react? With a gigantic sigh of relief, not exultation because of our victory but a deep gut-wrenching sigh of deliverance. We had stared into the mouth of Armageddon and suddenly the confrontation was no longer necessary. We had escaped those deadly beaches of Kyushu.
I cannot recall who was the most relieved, the doctors who could foresee the wounded and the dying, or the GI grunts who would have done the dying, or men like me who had sensed the great tragedy that loomed. All I know is that we said prayers of deliverance and kept our mouths shut when argument began as to whether the bombs needed to be dropped or not. And I have maintained that silence to this moment, when I wanted to have the reactions of the men understood who had figured to be on the first waves in.
Let’s put it simply. Never once in those first few days nor in the long reconsiderations later could I possibly have criticized Truman for having dropped the first bomb. True, I see now that the second bomb on Nagasaki might have been redundant and I would have been just as happy if it had not been dropped. And I can understand how some historians can argue that Japan might have surrendered without the Hiroshima bomb, but the evidence from many nations involved at that moment testify to the contrary. From my experience on Saipan and Okinawa, when I saw how violently the Japanese soldiers defended their caves to the death, I am satisfied that they would have done the same on Kyushu. Also, because I was in aviation and could study battle reports about the effectiveness of airplane bombing, especially with those super-deadly fire bombs that ate up the oxygen supply of a great city, I was well aware that the deaths from the fire-bombing of Tokyo in early 1945 far exceeded the deaths of Hiroshima.
So I have been able to take refuge in the terrible, time-tested truism that war is war, and if you are unlucky enough to become engaged in one, you better not lose it. The doctrine, cruel and thoughtless as it may sound, governs my thought, my evaluations and my behaviour. I could never publicly turn my back on that belief, so I have refused opportunities to testify against the United States in the Hiroshima matter. I know that if I went public with my views I would be condemned and ridiculed, but I stood there on the lip of the pulsating volcano, and I know that I was terrified at what might happen and damned relieved when the invasion became unnecessary. I accept the military estimates that at least 1 million lives were saved, and mine could have been one of them.
Sincerely,
James Michener

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