'Hell To Pay' Sheds New Light On A-Bomb Decision The atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 killed — by some estimates — more than 200,000 people. In Hell To Pay, military historian D.M. Giangreco argues that the alternative, a land invasion of Japan, would have been many times more deadly. Japanese estimates, Giangreco says, set the figure at 20 million.

'Hell To Pay' Sheds New Light On A-Bomb Decision

'Hell To Pay' Sheds New Light On A-Bomb Decision

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'Hell To Pay' Book Cover
Hell to Pay
By D.M. Giangreco
Hardcover, 416 pages
Naval Institute Press
List price $36.95
Read an excerpt.

The atomic bombs that ended World War II killed — by some estimates — more than 200,000 people. In the decades since 1945, there has been a revisionist debate over the decision to drop the bombs.

Did the U.S. decide to bomb in order to avoid a land invasion that might have killed millions of Americans and Japanese? Or did it drop the bomb to avoid the Soviet army coming in and sharing the spoils of conquering Japan? Were the prospects of a land invasion even more destructive than the opening of the nuclear age?

D.M. Giangreco, formerly an editor for Military Review, has taken advantage of declassified materials in both the U.S. and Japan to try to answer those questions. He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about his new book, Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947.

Estimating Casualties

As U.S. military planners contemplated a land invasion of Japan in 1943, military units were being held back from possible action in Berlin because it was understood that they would have to be sent to the Pacific.

"There was a very, very tight timetable," Giangreco says. There were "clearly not enough forces in the Pacific."

The participation of other Allied forces in a Pacific invasion would have been limited — Great Britain, France, Canada and the Soviet Union had been fighting the war longer than the United States. They had just won, and they were ready to get back to normal life.

American military planners estimated that the invasion of Japan would "functionally be a duplication of the casualty surge in Europe," Giangreco explains. And that was "not a pleasant prospect."

Former Military Review editor D.M. Giangreco is the author of nine books. Couresty of the author. hide caption

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Couresty of the author.

American war planners projected that a land invasion of Japan could cost the lives of up to a million U.S. soldiers and many more Japanese. These figures, Giangreco explains, were estimated based on terrain, the number of units fielded, and the number of enemy units they would have to fight.

"Around 1944," Giangreco says, "they ultimately came to the conclusion that the casualties on the low end would be somewhere around the neighborhood of a quarter-million, and on the upper end, in through the million range."

The Difference Between Defeat And Surrender

The invasions and battles at Okinawa and Iwo Jima were ruinous for the Japanese, but Giangreco describes how the Americans and the Japanese derived completely different conclusions from the same conflicts. The Americans extrapolated that the battles were bloody and costly — but in the end it was worth it because they thought the Japanese understood that the U.S. would prevail. The Japanese looked at those same casualties and felt the loss of life was worth it because it sent a message to the Americans that the Japanese were prepared to suffer casualties at a rate the Americans were not.

Some historians argue that Japan was already essentially defeated in 1945, even if it didn't know that. Giangreco says there is a lot to that argument but that "defeat and surrender are two very different things."

Giangreco suspects it would have been much harder to convince the Japanese to surrender than it was to convince the Germans.

"The Germans at least surrendered in very large numbers when they saw a hopeless situation," he says. The only time large numbers of Japanese troops laid down their arms was in Manchuria, when Emperor Hirohito ordered them to surrender.

A mushroom cloud rises into the air after the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. Keystone, MPI/Getty Images hide caption

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Keystone, MPI/Getty Images

A mushroom cloud rises into the air after the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.

Keystone, MPI/Getty Images

'I Was Terrified At What Might Happen.'

The appendix of Hell To Pay includes a 1995 letter written by Tales of the South Pacific author James Michener. He refused to allow the letter to be released until after his death. Originally from a Quaker background, Michener was a man of peace, but he stated that he could see no other alternative to the end of World War II.

"I know that if I went public with my views, I would be condemned and ridiculed," Michener wrote. "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."

Giangreco says that many Americans and Japanese lives were saved by avoiding a land invasion of Japan.

"It's astounding," he says. "While we were looking at some of our own casualty estimates, the Japanese military was doing much the same thing, and the figure of 20 million appears again and again."

Giangreco says just the number "20 million" is horrific — but he is most stunned by the casualness with which it was used by Japanese military leaders who felt that the loss of life was worth it.

Excerpt: 'Hell To Pay'

'Hell To Pay' Book Cover
Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947
By D.M. Giangreco
Hardcover, 416 pages
Naval Institute Press
List price: $36.95

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. — Maj. Gen. Graves B. Erskine, commanding general, 3d Marine Division

The United States . . . is confronted with numerous problems; such as, mounting casualties, the death of Roosevelt, and a growing war weariness among the people. . . . Should Japan resolutely continue the war and force heavy enemy attrition until the latter part of this year, it may be possible to diminish considerably the enemy's will to continue the war. — Basic General Outline on Future War Direction Policy, adopted at the June 6, 1945, Imperial Conference

The old artilleryman thoroughly enjoyed the fireworks. In rapid succession, the USS Augusta's eight 5-inch guns blasted out round after round of antiaircraft shells as dual 40-mm "pom-poms" let loose streams of fire at nonexistent targets. The racket raised by the "test firing," performed for his benefit, was not new to the Augusta's guest. Nearly three decades earlier he had captained a battery of four French-made 75-mm guns that hurled some 2,009 rounds at a series of German positions in the space of three hours and twenty-one minutes during the opening of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. At specific points during the captain's dawn fire mission in 1918, his sweating gunners were firing so fast that they had to place water-soaked gunny sacks on their guns' long barrels to cool them down.

The artilleryman, now President of the United States Harry S. Truman, was returning from the Potsdam Conference, where he had been happy to report, "I've gotten what I came for — Stalin goes to war August 15." The Soviet Union's imminent entry into the war meant that the struggle with Imperial Japan would certainly be brought to a conclusion with far fewer dead and maimed Americans than if the United States would have had to fight on almost alone or even with assistance from Britain's empire. The icing on the cake had come just the previous day, when on August 6, 1945, Truman was brought word that the secretly developed atomic bomb had been successfully detonated at the port city of Hiroshima.

It seemed certain that the Japanese must finally admit defeat, but there had been little thought that the giant war machine channeling men and material toward Imperial Japan in staggering numbers might suddenly shut down. Even the USS Augusta, in expectation of facing kamikaze attacks, was slated to augment the impressive antiaircraft defenses witnessed by Truman and receive an updated radar suite. Now, however, there was a very real chance that the whole blessed thing would soon be over and the millions of young men converging on Japan could go home.

On Monday, the sixth of August, roughly 5,400 of those men, soldiers of the 20th Armored Division aboard the USS John Ericsson, were nearing New York while the Augusta, almost six hundred nautical miles due east, was making its own approach to Chesapeake Bay and the naval base at Norfolk. After carefully navigating through the minefields protecting the harbor, the Ericsson continued west then turned northwest toward the narrows and its Hudson River pier when the ship was greeted by a yacht with a Women's Army Corps (WAC) band and a bevy of beautiful babes who waved and threw kisses. This was not a time for any fears of what the future might hold, and the soldiers eagerly looked forward to thirty-day furloughs before they had to report in at their Camp Cook, California, staging area for the Japan invasion. They knew nothing yet of the strange new weapon that was saving many of their lives or, for that matter, that they had been sharing a piece of ocean with the president.

In fact, nearly 100,000 westbound soldiers earmarked for the invasion — in addition to the first few thousand heading home permanently because they were lucky enough to be "out on points" — had passed Truman on the high seas in July as the Augusta raced east at an average speed of twenty-six-plus knots to deliver him to the Potsdam Conference. Little more than a day after Truman's departure, he crossed paths with both the 4th Infantry Division heading for New York and the 8th Infantry Division, which would retrace his route through Chesapeake Bay while heading for Hampton Roads. Troops from both divi¬sions disembarked on July 10 and were immediately hustled into trains that brought them to camps, where they received new uniforms, huge dinners with all the trimmings, and entertainment from USO troupes before leaving on furlough.

The process repeated itself near the mid-Atlantic with the 87th Infantry Division, sailing for a New York arrival of July 11, and again with the 2d Infantry Division, which, moving in a convoy of three slow transports, would not dock in New York until the twentieth. Numerous ships with mixed passenger complements of smaller units and individual soldiers were passed during the Augusta's approach to the English Channel and as it and its escorts picked their way through the Channel minefield and scores of wreck buoys marking the graves of Allied and Axis vessels. By the time the Augusta prepared to sail up the Wester Schelde Estuary for the final run to Antwerp, the Queen Elizabeth had already pulled into the Clyde with the 44th Infantry Division and, to the south at Le Havre, advance elements of the 5th Infantry Division had begun boarding for their voyage to Boston. The objective of this vast movement of men and material was nothing less than Tokyo itself.

On August 6, 1945, the United States had been at war for almost exactly three years and eight months. Entering World War II "late," and with no invading armies rampaging across its soil, it had not even begun to suffer the huge day-in, day-out losses common to the other antagonists until just the previous summer. Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, and Operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariana Islands, marked the beginning of what the U.S. Army termed "the casualty surge" in postwar analyses, a year-long bloodletting that saw an average of 65,000 battle casualties among young American soldiers and Army airmen each and every month from June 1944 to May 1945. And these figures did not include the considerable Army losses due to sickness and disease or the appalling Marine and Navy casualties in the Pacific.

The number of dead, wounded, injured, and missing reached its peak during the months of November, December, and January at 72,000, 88,000, and 79,000 respectively, even as the War Department, in conjunction with the Office of War Mobilization, hammered out both the details of how to handle the nation's manpower shortage and what needed to be done to ensure that the public's support for the war with Japan did not waver during 1945 and 1946. The result was a partial demobilization in what was then believed to be the middle of the conflict. Through use of a "points system," the longest-serving troops were allowed to return home for good, even as Selective Service inductions were nearly doubled in March 1945 to 100,000 men per month in preparation for the grim losses expected from the upcoming series of operations on the Japanese Home Islands.

Official figures for American casualties during the war, repeated in countless books and articles, vary only slightly depending on such things as whether or not the early phases of the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan are included, or the loss of the U.S. Army's Philippine Scouts are factored in, and usually stand at 291,577 dead and 671,846 wounded. Occasionally, when "other deaths" from accidents and disease are added, the mortality figure is presented as 405,399, and totals are often rounded. These figures are perfectly sufficient for most uses, such as general comparisons with the losses suffered by other nations or of America's previous wars, but it is important to understand that they represent only a fraction of what the nation's military and civilian leaders at that time recog¬nized as the war's true cost.

Excluding the Merchant Marine, a civilian body whose 243,000 sailors actually suffered the highest American combat mortality rate of the war, some 16,425,000 men and 150,000 women (including 17,000 who served in combat theaters) put on uniforms between 1941 and 1946. The U.S. Army saw 12,435,500 soldiers and airmen pass through its ranks as it struggled to maintain an authorized strength of 7,700,000. And maintaining that troop level often seemed an impossible task. While the frequently quoted number of Army and Army Air Force casualties stands at 936,259, this figure does not include a wide array of administrative separations as well as 9,256 nonbattle deaths or other categories that continually drained the Army of manpower and were closely monitored by senior leaders. These included 50,520 disability discharges due to nonbattle injuries in combat zones (such as loading accidents), combat-related psychiatric breakdowns accounting for 312,354 discharges, and medical discharges totaling a stunning 862,356 from illnesses contracted in disease-ridden overseas theaters — and none of these figures account for soldiers who were hospitalized and then returned to their units after recovery.

Navy and Marine Corps battle casualties at first appear small by comparison, only 159,495 to 162,668 men (depending on how one constructs the totals), but these figures were more than eight times the number of killed and wounded among our seaborne forces in all the other wars of the United States combined. They also do not include stateside administrative and medical attrition of military personnel; the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard's 10,095 dead and 12,000 other battle casualties, primarily from German subma¬rines; nor the Navy and Marines' 30,442 nonbattle deaths. There were also 111,426 Army and Army Air Force prisoners of war in Europe and missing in action in the Pacific who survived their captivities and were counted as casualties during the war. In all the United States' armed services had to contend with losses amounting to no fewer than 2,580,000 men in overseas theaters, with the monthly totals running generally in tandem with the rapid growth of forces overseas and leaping upward when the tempo of operations intensi¬fied during the last year of fighting. And this was before a single soldier or Marine set foot on a Japanese beach.

Although the precise details of Selective Service conscription statistics remained a closely guarded secret until after the war, Truman, his military and civilian advisors, and senior members of Congress were painfully aware that there was a yawning gap between the draft "calls" — essentially targets — and the number of men actually inducted. Subsequent to a spate of successful months in early 1943, when the number inducted exceeded the calls, the rest of the year and 1944 saw few occasions when quotas were met. The armed services absorbed 4,915,912 draftees during that period, an impressive figure by any standards. However, the calls, in order to fulfill the insatiable demands of global war, had actually totaled 5,815,275.

This shortfall of nearly a million men fell heaviest on the draft's biggest customer, the Army, and had an immediate impact on the ground force element that engages in the heaviest, most prolonged fighting — the infantry. And although the effort to generate a large pool of potential inductees to choose from resulted in the calls exceeding the armed services' actual needs, the dearth of young men being sent forward was painfully real and contributed to a deficit of up to 400,000 soldiers during the countdown to the invasion of France. Without either an upswing in the number of new men wearing khaki, or a serious revamping of its force structure, the Army would not be able to conduct a two-front war without risking serious reverses and possibly even local defeats that would prolong the fighting and ramp up the nation's cost in "blood and treasure."

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Army embarked on myriad initiatives to minimize losses, such as imposing the highest practical hygiene standards on units in the field, while simultaneously fine tuning and downsizing the composition of combat divisions themselves. For example, the table of organization strength of the Army's eighty-nine active divisions in April 1945 was only 70,000 men higher than the seventy-three and a half largely paper divi¬sions in December 1942. Still, the huge shortfalls made the formulation of a stable replace¬ment pool virtually impossible, and stateside divisions were gutted, sometimes repeatedly, to supply new men for the ones already deployed. It was not unusual to find a formation in the midst of training losing nearly the equivalent of its stated strength in a series of "division drafts." One standard-sized, 14,253-man division, the 69th, was forced to give up 22,235 enlisted personnel and 1,336 officers before it was finally shipped to France.

Administrative manipulations and gyrations of this sort were largely, but not completely, beyond the eyes and ears of both Japanese intelligence and diplomatic corps, and the struc¬ture of the U.S. division cut off in the Philippines in 1941, and eventually lost, was only generally representative of what such formations looked like by 1943. Fighting against complete U.S. combat divisions in New Guinea generated some idea of their weight and structure through use of signals (radio) intelligence, but the fact that Japanese units took few American prisoners and were, in any event, either cut off or functionally annihilated meant that the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo operated largely in the dark and had to depend on the Germans for detailed intelligence on the U.S. Army's force structure. What the Japanese could and did get, however, was a look at the overall U.S. war effort and public opinion from the American press. And it was quite an eyeful.

Foreign agents, often working in the embassies and consulates of neutral or nominally allied nations, harvested newspapers and magazines of all kinds, including official publica¬tions such as Yank and Air Force, which could be obtained for the price of a subscription. Despite military censorship and the great care taken by domestic newspapers to follow the Office of Censorship's "voluntary" guidelines, articles designed to buck up home-front morale or run-of-the-mill news stories often carried nuggets of hard information that could be combined to form at least some understanding of what the Arsenal of Democracy was capable of producing in terms of the war's basic hardware, such as ships and planes, as well as the manpower available to prosecute the war. Yet it was the robust criticism of the lengthening war and growing casualty lists — all gleaned from editorials, letters, and opinion pieces — that supplied much of the rationale behind the strategic decisions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany alike when it came to deciding how to handle the United States.

The leaders of both nations had entered the war convinced that there was little to fear from America, and Adolf Hitler voiced the prevailing wisdom one month after Pearl Harbor when he said, "It's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities. . . . Everything about the behavior of American society reveals that it is half Judaized and the other half Negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold together — a country where everything is built on the dollar?" The Japanese were confident that their devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, quick string of Asian and Pacific conquests, and the decision by an ascendant Germany to honor its alliance by immediately declaring war on the United States would cow the feckless Americans into accepting the reality that they simply could not win. One of their number, however, was less certain.

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku had conceived and planned the strike on Pearl Harbor, yet he warned that Japan would likely lose the war if it could not be wrapped up quickly. As a young man, he had studied at Harvard and later served as Japan's naval attaché in Washington. Yamamoto's nearly six years in the United States gave him insights into an America that was incomprehensible to his warrior colleagues raised in a homogeneous, and in many ways still closed, society. As with the Nazis, they had little real understanding of how the American press worked, let alone how it fit into a society that somehow managed to be both skeptical and optimistic at the same time. What they beheld was a chaotic, mongrel nation suffering under the weight of a weak, inefficient democratic process; what Yamamoto saw was vitality and inner strength.

In the space of just a few years, Yamamoto was dead, the victim of broken Japanese codes and long-range American fighter aircraft. Hitler and his regime were clearly reaching their end, too, as massive armies pummeled their way toward the German borders from east and west. Articles in the American press of victories and armies moving ever forward were familiar to the totalitarians in Tokyo and what was left of the Third Reich, which exercised an iron control over their own newspapers and state-controlled radio. But to the Japanese in particular, much hope was derived from what must have appeared to them to be a shocking amount of publicly allowed and reported negativity.

Editorial after editorial forcefully complaining about America's allies, the conduct of generals, and even of specific pieces of military equipment; fathers and mothers bemoaning in letters that their sons were pulled from the colleges they attended under the once much-ballyhooed Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to fill the critical need for soldiers with engineering, language, mathematics, and other demanding skills; readers appalled at the rapidly escalating casualties and demanding that eighteen-year-old draftees be given more training before being shipped overseas; church groups and individual citizens expressing outrage that the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a bill authorizing the drafting of women nurses; wives demanding to know why husbands with small children who had been drafted a year before Pearl Harbor could not be sent home now that there were "so many men in uniform" — it could all be found on the pages of daily newspapers as well as in the periodic lists of local dead and wounded. Moreover, the rallies and marches by the gaggle of organizations making up the isolationist America First movement, some huge by standards of the day, were hardly a distant memory.

The "weakening will" that Japanese leaders perceived from the American press offered them a degree of hope at a time when they had lost battle after battle and finally the key Marianas chain in the summer of 1944, a calamitous event that put U.S. heavy bombers in range of the Home Islands. While this came as a shock to Japanese from all walks of life, including Emperor Hirohito himself, the country's military leaders firmly maintained that America's victories were built on her industrial might and that it was they, not their own people, purportedly infused with the "Yamato spirit," who were "suffering and desper¬ately trying to bring the war to a decisive end as early as possible." Optimism and firm assurances, however, don't win battles, and by the time the American juggernaut reached the Philippines in the fall, Japan's increasingly desperate military failed again, even though it authorized the first use of kamikaze planes and offered up a significant part of their remaining fleet for destruction as a decoy.

Yet in spite of America's successes, there seemed to be almost as much bad news as good for the U.S. press to report. Just weeks after optimistic stories of a collapsing German army, predictions that the war in Europe might be over by Christmas, and reports of the destruc¬tion of the Japanese navy in the Leyte Gulf battles, the papers were filled with demands for finding who was to blame for the Germans' early successes during their Ardennes coun¬teroffensive and why so many ships were falling prey to kamikazes in Philippine waters. There were also ominous warnings from Washington that monthly draft calls were going to have to be increased (they, in fact, were nearly doubled between December 1944 and March 1945) and that "the number of returned sick and wounded is now so large that the Medical Department can no longer make it a policy to send patients to hospitals nearest their hometowns."

Yes, battle after battle had been lost and the fleet was gone, but Japan still had millions of men under arms and it appeared that there was good reason to believe that they could still salvage a victory of sorts over a decadent United States less concerned with winning than with the lives of its sons. Victory was redefined as achieving a military stalemate that left, at minimum, the core empire intact (the Home Islands, Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa) and guaranteed the continuance of the imperial structure. A decision was made to stretch out the fighting through "vigorous, protracted operations" designed to inflict the maximum "bloodletting and delay" (shukketsu and jikyu senjutsu) on U.S. forces. The Japanese military confidently maintained that attrition warfare or "bloodletting operations" (shukketsu saku¬sens) would simply prove too much for Americans to bear.

Whether or not the country's military leaders actually believed this or were, as some Japanese officials and midlevel officers suspected, simply engaged in posturing to brazen their way through a deteriorating situation, it was the Japanese militarists that were in firm control of the government and their view was summed up in a 1945 Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) strategic assessment: "The fighting morale of the United States is being weakened by fear of large casualty tolls, there has been an increase in labor strife, criti¬cism of the military, and agitation from the ranks to engage in a precipitous demobilization. Should the USA be defeated in the battle for Japan itself, public confidence in the President and military leaders will decline abruptly, fighting spirit will deteriorate in the flurry of recriminations, and Japan will find herself in a much more favorable political position."

Yet behind the mysticism and "Yankees are crybabies" wishful thinking, were the simple mathematics of scale and distance that would surely come into play as the fighting drew nearer to Japan and eventually on the Home Islands themselves. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, held by the Japanese since the U.S. defeat in the Philippines, was told by a confident Japanese colonel that "there are a hundred million people in the Japanese empire. It will take ten times one hundred million to defeat Japan. To move such a force against Japan even if you had that many warriors, would be impossible." Said one field army staff officer to his interrogators after the war, "I thought that the war would continue three or four [more] years because, although Japanese national power was far below standard, it was considered that [the United States' power] would be insufficient ... It was thought that the battle for the homeland would be difficult, would require years and, with the help of Manchuria, would be fought to a draw."

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Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947
D.M. Giangreco

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