Was the atom bomb the only so­lu­tion?

Si­mon Heffer ad­mires a su­perb sol­dier’s-eye his­tory of Ok­i­nawa, the Sec­ond World War’s ghastli­est bat­tle

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

SCRUCIBLE OF HELL by Saul David 448pp, Wil­liam Collins, £25, ebook £9.99

aul David, who is peer­less now among our mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans, ex­plains at the end of this su­perb book on the Bat­tle of Ok­i­nawa that its ti­tle comes from a US Navy vet­eran’s mem­oir of the bat­tle: “While on Ok­i­nawa the marines and sol­diers were go­ing through their cru­cible of hell brought on by rain, heat, poi­son, snakes, mos­qui­toes… the stench of hu­man fae­ces and rot­ting hu­man flesh filled with mag­gots.”

The ev­i­dence that un­der­pins David’s ac­count of the bat­tle, which raged from April 1, 1945 when the Amer­i­cans in­vaded the is­land to late June when the Ja­panese were fi­nally driven into sub­mis­sion, more than sup­ports this idea of its ghast­li­ness.

Ok­i­nawa was the last great bat­tle of the Sec­ond World War; it was also the most costly in the Pa­cific the­atre in terms of lives and ca­su­al­ties for the Amer­i­cans. The Bri­tish Pa­cific Fleet played a small but im­por­tant sup­port­ing role in the cam­paign, but al­most all of the Al­lied blood spilt was Amer­i­can. By the end of the bat­tle 12,500 Amer­i­cans had died and an­other 63,500 had been wounded.

The Ja­panese came off far worse: 110,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and 125,000 civil­ians – a third of the is­land’s pre-war pop­u­la­tion – were killed. Many of those, be­liev­ing the pro­pa­ganda of the Ja­panese lead­er­ship, com­mit­ted sui­cide (killing their chil­dren first) to prevent the Amer­i­cans from rap­ing or mur­der­ing them.

Since the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion of much of the west­ern Pa­cific in 1942, the Amer­i­cans had driven the en­emy back to­wards their home­land. In early 1945 plans were be­ing made to at­tack the Ja­panese main­land it­self, but that re­quired a nearby land­fall from which to launch air­borne at­tacks: that was why Ok­i­nawa was so strate­gi­cally use­ful. There was also a morale is­sue. Al­though the Ja­panese had a rigid code of mil­i­tary hon­our that ruled out sur­ren­der, there was just a chance that the seizure of Ja­pan’s south­ern­most pre­fec­ture would make the en­emy, in Pres­i­dent Tru­man’s words, “see rea­son”.

How­ever, mo­men­tous events took place dur­ing the bat­tle. Twelve days into it Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt died, putting into the White House a man who had been vice-pres­i­dent for less than 90 days and had pre­cious lit­tle ex­ec­u­tive ex­pe­ri­ence out­side that. Tru­man was shocked to dis­cover that he would soon be called upon to make a more mo­men­tous de­ci­sion than per­haps any man in his­tory: he was alerted to the ex­is­tence of the Man­hat­tan Project, to de­velop the first atom bomb, and to its im­mi­nent avail­abil­ity for use against the en­emy. As the bat­tle en­tered its sixth week, Ger­many sur­ren­dered. Tru­man’s de­ci­sion, there­fore, would be whether to make Amer­ica’s bomb avail­able to the Al­lies to use against Ja­pan.

David clev­erly weaves in the story of that de­ci­sion with an ac­count of the fight­ing on the is­land. It is in the lat­ter that the metic­u­lous­ness of his re­search re­ally starts to dis­play it­self. His

‘It was a cru­cible of hell brought on by rain, heat, poi­son, snakes, mos­qui­toes...’

Gen­eral “Vine­gar Joe” Stil­well

– it is ironic that the man who was ap­pointed to lead the land op­er­a­tion, Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Si­mon Bo­li­var Buck­ner Jr should be so lit­tle known. Buck­ner was the son of a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral from the Civil War; he had been dis­ap­pointed not to see ac­tion in the Great War. MacArthur dis­ap­proved of his ap­point­ment for two rea­sons: he had ceded over­all com­mand of the whole op­er­a­tion to the navy, which MacArthur re­garded as an in­sult to the army; and he en­tirely lacked field ex­pe­ri­ence.

This last weak­ness came through in the ex­tended na­ture of the bat­tle, which oth­ers thought re­flected un­due cau­tion and which over­ex­posed the navy. This was at the height of the kamikaze op­er­a­tions, where sui­cide pi­lots would fly their planes into the sides of ships to dis­able them and kill those aboard.

Buck­ner made a point of go­ing out among his troops, but he also in­sisted on wear­ing a hel­met with the three stars of his rank em­bla­zoned on it, mak­ing him eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able to the en­emy. At the very end of the bat­tle, go­ing to a com­mand post at the front to see the ac­tion, he was killed by a Ja­panese mis­sile.

With­out the bomb, mil­lions could have died if Ja­pan kept fight­ing inch-by-inch

In his de­scrip­tions of the lives of Ja­panese pi­lots, sol­diers and civil­ians David cre­ates a vivid pic­ture of a cul­ture that seems on a dif­fer­ent planet; a medieval idea of dis­hon­our that led to the mil­i­tary lead­ers on the is­land com­mit­ting rit­ual sui­cide by plung­ing dag­gers into their stom­achs (the cue for a con­ve­niently placed sol­dier to slice off their heads to avoid a lin­ger­ing death).

It was the car­nage of Ok­i­nawa that left Tru­man with no choice but to or­der the atom bomb; hun­dreds of thou­sands, pos­si­bly mil­lions, of young Amer­i­cans and Ja­panese would oth­er­wise have died as Ja­pan fought inch-by-inch on the main­land.

Even Hiroshima was not enough to bring about sur­ren­der; it took a sec­ond bomb on Na­gasaki to make the high com­mand see the US meant busi­ness.

David dis­cusses the pros and cons of us­ing the atom bomb, and he rightly comes down in favour of its use, given the al­ter­na­tive. It is an ap­pro­pri­ately sober­ing end to a highly read­able and in­for­ma­tive book that of­ten reads like a screen­play, but de­picts suf­fer­ing that was all too real.

BAT­TLE STA­TIONS A US ma­rine aims his gun at a Ja­panese sniper, Ok­i­nawa, 1945

SUI­CIDE MIS­SION USS Bunker Hill is hit by two kamikaze pi­lots in Ok­i­nawa, 1945

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