On July 21, 1945, a senior US Army Air Force intelligence officer in the Pacific distributed a report declaring: “The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target . . . THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.” Those seeing this for the first time think it represents hyperbole at best, racist sanction for mass extermination at worst. It was neither. This document does provide a portal to see exactly how the summer of 1945 looked to Americans, particularly those directing or participating in final operations against Japan.
When 1945 began, Japanese leaders recognized their nation’s dark military situation, but they rejected any form of surrender. Instead, they devised a sequenced military and political strategy called Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive.) Its fundamental premise: Americans possessed enormous material power but their morale was brittle. The plan aimed to meet the initial invasion of Japan (which they correctly anticipated would be on southern Kyushu) with massive ground and air forces. These would either defeat the invasion attempt or at least inflict such horrific casualties—American and Japanese--that American will to continue the war would be broken. Then in the second phase of the plan, Japan would obtain a negotiated settlement of the war, far from the declared American aim of the unconditional surrender of Japan. That settlement would certainly preclude an occupation of Japan and guarantee that the old order would continue.
The Japanese armed forces burgeoned in 1945 under urgent mobilization from about 4.5 million men under arms to over 6 million by August. But in March, Japan mustered a vast additional body of combatants: every single male age 15 to 60 and every single female age 17 to 40. This inducted about a quarter or more of Japan’s total population, about 18 to 20 million people. Japan lacked uniforms or any other visible marker to distinguish this new sea of combatants from the remaining civilian population. Multiple millions of these nearly mobilized former male and female civilians now combatants, would be in the Kyushu invasion area.
This brings us to what prompted the assessment that there were “no civilians in Japan.” It represented a reaction to the Japanese government’s measure to obliterate any practical means for US servicemen to distinguish combatants from noncombatants in Japan. The dire implication of this was no surprise to Americans. From 1942 Americans learned that Japanese servicemen regarded surrender as unthinkable. Virtually every Japanese unit fought near to annihilation—a record unparalleled in modern history. Voluntary surrenders were rare. More often, prisoners were only those Japanese left by wounds or debilitation too helpless to take their own life. And there was ample evidence that Japanese soldiers and sailors would use the ruse of surrender to kill unwary enemies—a fate that befell, for instance, one of John F. Kennedy’s shipmates in the South Pacific.
All the who fought the Japanese learned that the Japanese did not take prisoners, or if they took a prisoner, that individual would likely be cruelly tortured before being dispatched. As an Indian officer serving with the British wrote in a poem capturing typical Allied views of the Japanese enemy:
No prisoners we took, no mercy we gave
Their crimes against comrades we never forgave
Historian Herbert Bix noted the nadir of Japanese savagery towards prisoners. In eight years of war in China from 1937 to 1945, the Japanese killed at least two to three million Chinese soldiers. When Japan was required to hand over the prisoners of war she held after surrender, she presented a total of 56 Chinese. Almost half of Australian battles deaths in the war (8,000 of 17,000) occurred among those captured by Japan. About 35 percent of American prisoners of war held by Japan perished compared to 0.9 percent of Americans captured by Germany.
Americans encountered for the first time a large population of Japanese civilians on Saipan in June 1944. The Japanese military indoctrinated their civilian countrymen that the Americans would inflict unlimited atrocities on captured civilians and then exterminate them. About 13,000 of about 20,000 Japanese civilians on Saipan perished. Several thousand took their own lives rather than be captured. Wrenching newsreels widely seen by Americans showed scenes of Japanese families committing suicide together, including death leaps from cliffs. After Saipan, top level American planning documents spoke routinely that an invasion of Japan would confront a “fanatically hostile population.”
Thus, the statement that there were “no civilians in Japan” projected that an invasion of Japan would be a hellscape of a vast “civilian” population indistinguishable from combatants and that both would fight and choose death over surrender. And this is exactly the intimidating prospect Japan’s rulers sought to project.
When radio intelligence uncovered the stunning realization that the Japanese had anticipated the exact site of invasion and had mustered a fearful mass of ground and air defenders, including millions of erstwhile civilians, American leaders turned to contemplate radical and ruthless alternatives to invasion.
Meet the Author
Richard B. Frank is an internationally renowned expert on the Pacific war. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he was commissioned in the US Army, in which he served for nearly four years, including a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam as an aero rifle platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division.
Frank completed studies at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Soon afterwards he began research on his first book, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, which was published in 1990 and won the US Marine Corps’ General Wallace M. Greene Award.
Tower of Skulls
Beginning with China’s long-neglected years of heroic, costly resistance, Tower of Skulls explodes outward to campaigns including Singapore, the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, India, and Burma, as well as across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.