Hello! Karl Zingheim, Midway’s Ship Historian, here!
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Back to Karl’s Korner – this month, I will continue to illustrate the hallmark moments and significant anniversaries that we are honoring this year. We will look back to Summer of 1945 to break down critical moments in the eventual end of World War II. Grab a snack, buckle up, and let’s dive in…
The Dawn of a New Era
As the summer solstice approached 75 years ago, the fight against Nazi Germany in Europe was over, but war still raged in Asia and the Pacific. Though Burma and many holdings in the Pacific were recaptured, or intentionally bypassed by Allied forces, Japan still controlled large tracts of China. However, the last island bastion before the home islands, Okinawa, was about to fall. With no navy remaining, and the air arms reduced to suicide squadrons, Japan’s leaders assayed their options. The Imperial Army, with political support from naval leadership, still held sway in Japanese governance. While there could be no thought of agreeing to Allied demands for an unconditional surrender, outright Japanese victory was no longer possible.
For months, the Army had developed a draconian plan to mobilize the entire Japanese population into a colossal last-stand resistance effort, called Ketsu-go. The plan’s essence was to employ every remaining ounce of military strength to fight an amphibious landing on the most likely island, Kyushu, to a complete standstill. The Ketsu-go defense called for mass kamikaze strikes on the landing forces that would have expended thousands of aircraft in just a couple of days. Veteran, and newly raised, divisions would use Kyushu’s formidable terrain to make any American advance costly. Civilians, armed with explosive charges and bamboo spears, would harass the enemy perimeter. It was believed that before long, the American effort would stall, and having sustained severe casualties, a negotiated settlement ending the war would follow. Japan could then avoid foreign occupation and preserve the favored status of the military in Japan’s polity.
Though Emperor Hirohito raised no objections when formally briefed on Ketsu-go, privately, he harbored doubts. The military chiefs, who theoretically answered only to him, had, for ten years, made rosy predictions and steered the nation into conflict against powerful adversaries. When the war in the Pacific turned in favor of the Allies, pledges to halt their advance turned sour as the conflict edged closer to the home islands. With devastating bombing raids, and the fall of Okinawa imminent, Hirohito had finally lost confidence in the promises of his military chieftains. Furthermore, even if their last-ditch plan succeeded and Japan negotiated the best possible peace terms, that left the Army dominant in Japan’s political affairs. Worse, frank assessments of Japan’s capacity to continue waging war undercut the promises made by the General Staff. Was there another way to negotiate a favorable end to the war without the trauma of Ketsu-go?
As Okinawa’s defense collapsed in late June, a notion began to circulate, carefully, among the civilian advisors, and even with retired Admiral Suzuki Kantaro, Japan’s prime minister: why not approach the neutral Soviet Union to inquire about having Stalin act as a mediator? Setting aside the fact that Russia and Japan had been bitter rivals for decades, and that Moscow gave a year’s notice on the non-renewal of their Non-Aggression Pact the previous April, surely there could be something to offer Stalin that would entice him to approach the Allies and broker a favorable peace? While military and civilian policymakers cast about on what could be offered, pleas to Soviet diplomats brought only evasiveness. With Stalin and his top advisors due to depart for an Allied conference at Potsdam in Berlin in mid-July, former prime minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, was alerted to prepare for a journey to Moscow as a Japanese special envoy on short notice. The trouble was no one in Moscow had granted any permission.
While Tokyo fumbled about in the young summer, the Americans were busy in Washington, D.C., and in the New Mexico desert. Newly-installed President Harry Truman was still coming to grips with the byzantine diplomacy his predecessor had conducted with Stalin over postwar Europe, and in finding a way to win against Japan quickly. Just as the conversation began to turn in Tokyo, Truman confronted his military chiefs with a new objective: how to defeat Japan with the minimum of casualties. A naval plan to blockade and starve Japan into submission would take longer than U.S. public patience would permit. The Army Air Force had attained complete control over Japan’s skies, and were actually running out of targets. The Army’s plan to land on and conquer Japan promised steep casualties. It was also believed that to help bring Japan down would likely require the active participation of the Soviets and paying whatever price Stalin asked.
The quandary intensified in early July, when radio intercepts confirmed that the island of Kyushu contained far more defenders than U.S. planners originally considered. Furthermore, decryption of both of Japan’s diplomatic and military codes indicated that the Japanese Army was still controlling the conversation about how to end the war, and that an initiative to sound out Stalin and the Soviets on mediating a peace accord with the Allies was in the offing. There was, however, an apparently unshakable resolve in Tokyo about preventing foreign occupation or removing the emperor. This helped further a conversation about modifying the longstanding objective of unconditional surrender, but with the imminent summit at Potsdam, softening on this issue may not put Truman on a favorable plane in dealing with Stalin on other weighty issues. There, was however, the potential for a breakthrough in a new weapon the president was recently briefed on.
Just as war erupted in 1939, physicists in the United States, many of them refugees from Europe, were organized to develop a weapon based on the energy released from the splitting of an atom. Immense strides were made, and sums expended, during the war years to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb. With Nazi Germany in ruins now, the scientists at least had one crude bomb type based on uranium fission. There remained, however, a more refined design employing the manmade element plutonium, but the challenge remained in finding a way to rig a spherical conventional detonation that could implode the plutonium uniformly. As spring shifted into summer, the scientists had it worked out, but needed to test the “gadget.”
In the waning months of 1944, a remote and arid expanse of New Mexico desert, called Alamogordo, just 200 miles from the development center of Los Alamos, witnessed hectic construction of roads, test towers, and observation bunkers. Since the test detonation of the plutonium bomb promised to produce unheralded amounts of energy, a scaled-down exercise to calibrate test equipment and to find weaknesses in the procedure was required. On the very day German forces were formally surrendering in Europe in May 1945, a late-night detonation of 100 tons of high explosives, stacked in wooden crates atop a 20-foot tower at the test site, codenamed Trinity, lit up the desert for 60 miles. A flimsy cover story about an accidental magazine explosion did not fool all, but the data were secured for a much larger explosion.
The First Atomic Detonation
The trial complete, work proceeded quickly to build a new steel tower to suspend the test bomb and develop facilities and procedures to handle the fissionable material. Detailed checklists were compiled, and final calculations made. A pool was taken among the scientists about the expected yield, and project leader Robert Oppenheimer even held a side bet on the bomb not working at all. By the beginning of July, enough plutonium arrived at Trinity to assemble the bomb. On Friday, July 13, the final installation of the nuclear and detonation assemblies was completed inside a canvas cover at the base of the test tower. Over the weekend, high-ranking observers arrived, and no-flight precautions were implemented for the region’s air bases. Finally, on Sunday, the armed bomb was hoisted to top of the 100-foot tower. At 5:29:45 a.m. Monday, July 16, 1945, the first atomic detonation in history erupted.
Coded news of the success of the test electrified the morale of Truman and the rest of the American delegation as they prepared to start the conference with Stalin. If Tokyo could capitulate without Soviet intervention, the Western negotiation position would be stronger on European matters, and there would be no Soviet presence in postwar Japan. However, when Truman hinted to Stalin about the atomic bomb project on July 25, Stalin was unmoved. The Soviets stood by their pledge to invade Japanese-controlled Manchuria in early August, and, it was discovered later, Stalin was fully aware of the U.S. atomic program.
With Soviet intervention inevitable, and grim prospects for invading Kyushu, Truman decided to issue a joint proclamation with Britain and Nationalist China to spell out surrender demands to Japan on July 26. Specifically, the ultimatum called for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces, the military occupation of Japan, and the limitation of Japanese sovereignty to the home islands. While Japanese servicemen would be permitted to return to peaceful lives, the government leadership would be removed, with war criminals being tried in court. Eventually, Japan would be permitted to have an industrial economy committed to peaceful purposes, and a new government based on the freely expressed will of the Japanese people would be established. The status of the emperor was deliberately left unstated. Failing rapid acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, “prompt and utter destruction” would be Japan’s alternative.
The Declaration was not sent to Japan via diplomatic channels, but instead was openly broadcast on radio, and printed on millions of leaflets dropped over Japan to permit wide dissemination among the Japanese people. Government councils in Tokyo were split: civilian leaders were inclined to accept the terms, but the military thought them dishonorable, and perhaps, a sign of hidden weakness among the Allies. Besides, there was still the possibility of Soviet mediation, if Moscow could only grant access to former prime minister Konoe. It was in this atmosphere of internal conflict and misguided hope that Konoe addressed the Japanese press about the Declaration, and conveyed a sense that the terms would be ignored. Interpreting this remark as a formal rejection, Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb.
Components of the uranium bomb – nicknamed “Little Boy” – arrived at the island of Tinian in the Marianas aboard the cruiser USS Indianapolis on July 26, the day the Potsdam Declaration was announced. The fissionable material arrived four days later. By Aug. 2, components of the plutonium design nicknamed “Fat Man” were on hand as well. A specially-trained flight crew of a B-29 Superfortress bomber from the 509th Composite Group prepared to drop Little Boy on Aug. 6. The B-29 named Enola Gay carried Little Boy on a six-hour flight to Hiroshima. Six other B-29s flew supporting roles for the mission. As a safety precaution, the bomb was armed in mid-flight. With favorable weather over the city, Little Boy was dropped at 8:15 a.m. local time and fell for 44 seconds before detonating at 1,900 feet above the city center. Everything within a radius of one mile was instantly destroyed, while what remained of the sprawling city suffered major damage and raging fires. It was estimated that 80,000 people died in the devastating explosion that day, with another 70,000 sustaining serious injuries.
It took hours for Japanese officials to understand that something terrible had happened suddenly to the entirety of Hiroshima. Sixteen hours after the blast, President Truman announced it was an atomic bomb, and reiterated a demand for Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam terms. Fierce debate ensued among Japan’s leaders, with the military finally asserting that the Americans were unlikely to have many more of these weapons, and that such few bombings could be endured, and then the military could repulse an invasion. This judgment of the military’s was intercepted and decoded in Washington, which lead to an order to deploy another bomb.
In the predawn hours of Aug. 9, a massive Soviet armored onslaught erupted on the Manchurian frontier, devastating the Japanese defenses. Hours later, the formal Soviet declaration of war arrived in Tokyo, extinguishing aspirations to secure Soviet mediation to end the war on favorable terms. The military leaders vowed to fight on, both in Manchuria, and ultimately, in Japan. At 11:01 that morning, a B-29 named Bockscar dropped Fat Man over Nagasaki. Although the bomb detonated over a portion of the city isolated by hills, up to 40,000 were killed outright by the blast, and an additional 60,000 seriously injured. Word of this second atomic bombing arrived in Tokyo while the government debate raged. The military leaders were left speechless. The meetings adjourned that afternoon to await a special audience with the emperor later that evening.
The War Ends
With the emperor in attendance, the cabinet resumed the debate, and remained at an impasse. In a breach of protocol, Prime Minister Suzuki turned and asked Hirohito for his majesty’s opinion. The emperor concluded that so long as the Allies pledged to preserve the throne, the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration would be accepted. The next day, the Japanese foreign ministry sent the emperor’s qualified reply to the Allies. Over the next two days, Truman and his cabinet weighed the alternatives. Deciding that so long as the emperor acceded to the directives of the Supreme Allied Commander during the occupation, the modified term was acceptable. The other Allied governments swiftly assented as well. To ensure complete compliance from his government and military in the capitulation, the emperor recorded a speech to be broadcast throughout Japan, accepting the Allied conditions. Despite a last-minute coup attempt by junior officers, the emperor’s recording was broadcast on Aug. 14. For the Japanese people, it was the first time their ruler’s voice had been heard, and for many as well, the defeat came as a surprise, but was accepted with a sense of relief. World War II was over.
Over the course of this year, I will continue to examine aspects from seventy-five years ago that set the stage for the USS Midway to enter.
Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of this month’s Karl’s Korner and any questions you may have about the Midway or any other naval history topics!
Launch em’… until next time,