Blog 08/15/2021 - VJ Day Almost Wasn't

15 August VJ Day That Almost Wasn’t!

In 1945 the Allies prepared for a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. This undertaking was preceded by a USAAF, RAF & USN conventional and firebombing campaign that devastated 67 Japanese cities. After Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945 the Allies turned their full attention to the Pacific War. By July, the Manhattan Project had produced two types of atomic bombs: "Fat Man", a plutonium implosion-type nuclear weapon and "Little Boy", an enriched uranium gun-type fission weapon. The USAAF 509th Composite Group was trained and equipped with the specialized Silverplate version of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and deployed both bombs to Tinian in the Mariana Islands. The Allies called for the unconditional surrender of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces in the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July 1945, the alternative being "prompt and utter destruction" but Japan ignored the ultimatum.

On 6 August, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Government was still reeling from this event when at 0400 on August 9 word reached Tokyo that the Soviet Union had broken the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and declared war on Japan by subscribing to the Potsdam Declaration and launched a surprise invasion of Manchuria.

When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite Japanese Army before its elite units had been moved to the Pacific. On three fronts 90 Russian divisions smashed through the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) only stopping when they ran out of gas. The Soviet declaration of war and success in Manchuria quickly changed the calculation of how much time was left for political and military maneuvering by Tokyo. The Soviet invasion made a decision on ending the war extremely time sensitive.

These "twin disasters"—the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Soviet invasion convinced Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki and Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō, that the government must end the war at once. However, the senior leadership of the IJA and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) took the news in stride, grossly underestimating the scale of the Soviet attack. With the support of Minister of War General Korechika Anami, the High Command started preparing to impose martial law on the nation, to stop anyone attempting to make peace.

The Supreme Council met at 1030 on the 9th. Suzuki, who had just come from a meeting with the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, said it was impossible to continue the war. Tōgō said that they could accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, but with a guarantee of the Emperor remaining in power. In the middle of the meeting, shortly after 1100, news arrived that Nagasaki, on the west coast of Kyūshū, had been hit by a second atomic bomb ("Fat Man.") The Big Six ended the meeting in a deadlock, Suzuki, Tōgō, and Admiral Yonai favored Tōgō's one additional condition to the Potsdam Declaration, while General Anami, General Umezu (IJA), and Admiral Toyoda (IJN) insisted on three unrealistic demands: that Japan handle their own disarmament, that Japan deal with any Japanese war criminals, and that there be no occupation of Japan.

President Harry Truman stated: “We won the race of discovery against the Germans. Having found the bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.”

The full cabinet met on 1430 on August 9, and spent most of the day debating surrender. The cabinet also split, with neither Tōgō's position nor Anami's attracting a majority. While being tortured by the Kempeitai (the Japanese Military Police), a captured American P-51 Mustang fighter pilot, Lt Marcus McDilda, had told his interrogators that the US possessed a stockpile of 100 atom bombs and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be destroyed "in the next few days." In reality the Manhattan Project and the 509th would not have had a third bomb ready until August 19, and a fourth in September. Luckily, the Japanese leadership had no way to know the size of the US stockpile and feared the USAAF might have the capacity not just to devastate individual cities, but to wipe out the Japanese people as a race and nation. Anami and his twisted Bushido Code had already expressed a desire for this outcome rather than surrender, stating "Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?"

Two more cabinet meeting ended with no consensus. The third meeting was an impromptu Imperial conference which started just before midnight on the night of August 9–10. At around 02:00 (August 10), Suzuki finally addressed Emperor Hirohito, asking him to decide between the two positions. The participants later recollected that the Emperor stated: I have given serious thought to the situation prevailing at home and abroad and have concluded that continuing the war can only mean destruction for the nation and prolongation of bloodshed and cruelty in the world. I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer. I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation on the basis outlined by the Foreign Minister.” Once the Emperor departed, Suzuki pushed the cabinet into accept the emperor’s will. Early that morning (August 10), the Foreign Ministry sent telegrams to the Allies via the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs announcing that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, but would not accept any peace conditions that would "prejudice the prerogatives" of the Emperor. That effectively meant no change in Japan's form of government.

The Allied response to Japan's qualified acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration was President Truman allowed military operations (including the B-29 firebombing) to continue until official word of Japanese surrender was received but then changed his mind. The Japanese cabinet considered the Allied response, and Suzuki argued that they must insist on an explicit guarantee for the imperial system. Anami returned to his position that there be no occupation of Japan. Afterward, Tōgō told Suzuki that there was no hope of getting better terms.

Late on the night of August 12, Major Kenji Hatanaka (pictured above), along with four other officers spoke to War Minister Anami (the most powerful figure in Japan behind the Emperor himself"), and asked him to do whatever he could to prevent acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. General Anami refused to say whether he would help the young officers in treason. As much as they needed his support, Hatanaka and the other rebels decided they had no choice but to continue planning and to attempt a coup d'état on their own. Hatanaka spent much of August 13 and the morning of August 14 gathering allies, seeking support from the higher-ups in the Ministry, and perfecting his takeover.

On August 13th at the suggestion of American psychological operations experts, B-29s flew missions dropping leaflets over Japanese cities, describing the Japanese offer of surrender to the Japanese people and the Allied response. The leaflets, some of which fell upon the Imperial Palace as the Emperor and his advisors met, had a profound effect on the Japanese decision-making process. It had become clear that a complete and total acceptance of Allied terms was the only possible way to secure peace. The Big Six and the cabinet debated their reply to the Allied response late into the night, but remained deadlocked. Meanwhile, the Allies grew doubtful, waiting for the Japanese to respond.

Via Ultra intercepts, the Allies also detected increased diplomatic and military traffic, which was taken as evidence that the Japanese were preparing a final "all-out banzai attack." President Truman ordered a resumption of attacks against Japan at maximum intensity "so as to impress Japanese officials that we mean business and are serious in getting them to accept our peace proposals without delay." In the largest and longest bombing raid of the Pacific War, more than 400 B-29s attacked Japan during daylight on August 14, and more than 300 that night. A total of 1,014 aircraft were used without a single loss. B-29s from the 315 Bombardment Wing flew 3,800 miles to destroy the Nippon Oil Company refinery the last operational one in the Japanese Home Islands on the northern tip of Honshū. By August 14, Truman remarked "sadly" to the British ambassador that due to the Japanese reluctance "he now had no alternative but to order an atomic bomb dropped on Tokyo," which would be ready by the 17th.

As August 14 dawned, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito realized the day would end with either an acceptance of the American terms or a military coup. The Emperor met with the most senior IJA and IJN officers. The Hirohito asked his military leaders to cooperate with him in ending the war despite those on the cabinet again making their case for continuing the fight. The Emperor said: “I have listened carefully to each of the arguments presented in opposition to the view that Japan should accept the Allied reply as it stands and without further clarification or modification, but my own thoughts have not undergone any change. In order that the people may know my decision, I request you to prepare at once an imperial rescript so that I may broadcast to the nation.” The cabinet immediately convened and unanimously ratified the Emperor's wishes. They also decided to destroy vast amounts of material pertaining to war crimes and records of the nation's highest leaders. Immediately after the conference, the Foreign Ministry transmitted orders to its embassies in Switzerland and Sweden to accept the Allied terms of surrender. These orders were picked up and received in Washington at 02:49, August 14.

Shortly after the conference at which the surrender finally was decided, a group of senior IJA officers including Anami (pictured above) gathered in a nearby room. All those present were concerned about the possibility of a coup d'état to prevent the surrender as some of those present may have even been considering launching one. After a silence, General Torashirō Kawabe proposed that all senior officers present sign an agreement to carry out the Emperor's order of surrender, "The Army will act in accordance with the Imperial Decision to the last." It was signed by all the high-ranking officers present, including Generals Anami, Kawabe, Hajime Sugiyama, Yoshijirō Umezu, Kenji Doihara, Masakazu Kawabe, and Tadaichi Wakamatsu. Signing this document by the most senior IJA officers was a formidable block against any military coup d'état in Tokyo. Difficulty with senior IJA and IJN Commanders on the widespread fronts and battlefields was expected so three princes of the Imperial Family who held military commissions were dispatched on August 14 to personally deliver the surrender edict. Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda went to Korea and Manchuria, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka to the China Expeditionary Army and China Fleet, and Prince Kan'in Haruhito to Shanghai, South China, Indochina and Singapore.

The text of the Imperial Decree on surrender was finalized by 19:00 PM, transcribed by the official court calligrapher, and brought to the cabinet for their signatures. Around 23:00 PM, the Emperor, with help from an NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp) recording crew, made a gramophone record of himself reading it. The record was given to court chamberlain Yoshihiro Tokugawa, who hid it in a locker in the Empress’s Office.

Meanwhile as the Hirohito was recording Major Hatanaka's rebels set their plan into motion. The 2nd Regiment of the 1st Imperial Guards had reached the palace grounds, doubling the strength of the guard, presumably to provide extra protection against a rebellion. But Hatanaka, along with LtCol Shiizaki (pictured above), convinced the commander of the 2nd Regiment, Col Toyojirō Haga, of their cause, by lying to him that Generals Anami and Umezu, and the commanders of the Eastern District Army (EDA) and Imperial Guards Divisions were all approved of the plan. Maj Hatanaka had originally hoped that simply occupying the palace and showing the coup had begun would instigate the rest of the Army to rise up against the plan to surrender. Having set all the pieces into position, Hatanaka and his co-conspirators were optimistic with the plan, despite having little support from his superiors. They planned for the Guard would take over the palace at 02:00 AM on the 15th. The hours until then were spent in continued attempts to convince their IJA superiors to join the coup. At about the same time, General Anami committed seppuku (ritual suicide), leaving a message that said, "I—with my death—humbly apologize to the Emperor for the great crime." It is unclear on whether his crime involved losing the war, or that he knew of the coup.

At some time after 01:00 AM, Hatanaka and his men surrounded the palace. Hatanaka and Captain Shigetarō Uehara (of the Air Force Academy) went to the office of LtGen Takeshi Mori to ask him to join the coup. Mori was in a meeting with his brother-in-law, Michinori Shiraishi. The cooperation of Mori, as Commander of the 1st Imperial Guards Division, was crucial but when he refused to join the coup Hatanaka killed him so he couldn’t order the Guards to stop the rebellion. Uehara also killed Shiraishi but these were the only two murders of the night. Hatanaka then used General Mori's official stamp to falsify Imperial Guards Division Strategic Order No. 584, a set of orders created by his co-conspirators, which would justify the strength of the forces occupying the Imperial Palace and protecting the Imperial Household Ministry and the Emperor. The palace police were disarmed and all the entrances blocked. Over the course of the night, Hatanaka's rebels captured and detained eighteen people, including Ministry staff and the NHK workers who recorded the surrender speech.

The rebels, led by Hatanaka, spent several hours fruitlessly searching for Imperial House Minister Sōtarō Ishiwata, Lord of the Privy Seal Kōichi Kido, and the Emperor’s recordings of the surrender speech. The two men were hiding in a large chamber underneath the Imperial Palace. The rebels did find the chamberlain Yoshihiro Tokugawa. Although Hatanaka threatened to disembowel him with his samurai sword, Tokugawa lied and told them he did not know where the recordings or ministers were. Around 03:00, Hatanaka was informed by LtCol Masataka Ida that EDA units were on the way to the palace to stop him, and that he should give up. Finally, seeing his plan collapsing around him, Hatanaka pleaded with MajGen Tatsuhiko Takashima, Chief of Staff of the EDA, to be given at least 10 minutes of airtime on NHK radio, to explain to the Japanese people what he was trying to accomplish and why. He was refused. Colonel Haga, Commander of the 2nd Regiment of the 1st Imperial Guards, discovered that the IJA Generals did not support this rebellion, and he ordered Hatanaka to leave the palace grounds.

At 05:00AM, as his rebels continued their search, Maj Hatanaka went to the NHK studios, brandishing his service pistol, trying desperately to get some airtime to explain his actions. A little over an hour later, after receiving a telephone call from the EDA, Hatanaka finally called off the coup. He gathered his officers and walked out of the NHK studios. At dawn, General Shizuichi Tanaka Commander of the EDA learned that the palace had been invaded. He went there and confronted the rebellious officers, berating them for acting contrary to the spirit of the IJA. He convinced them to return to their barracks. By 08:00, the rebellion was entirely dismantled, having succeeded in holding the palace grounds for much of the night but failing to find the recordings. Tanaka was lauded as the hero of the “15th August Incident” but 9 days later he shot a bullet into his heart taking responsibility for all his officers for the surrender. The rebellion’s catalysts were also extinguished as at 11:00 AM Hatanaka placed his pistol to his forehead and shot himself, while Shiizaki stabbed himself with a dagger before shooting himself. In Hatanaka's pocket was found his death poem: "I have nothing to regret now that the dark clouds have disappeared from the reign of the Emperor."

At 12:00 noon on August 15, the Emperor's recorded speech to the nation, reading the Imperial Surrender Decree was broadcast by NHK on the Termination of the War. Unfortunately, the low quality of the recording, the fact that most Japanese had never heard the Emperor speak plus the Classical Japanese language he used made the recording very difficult to understand for most listeners. In addition, the Emperor did not explicitly mention surrender in his speech. To prevent confusion the recording was immediately followed by a clarification that Japan was indeed unconditionally surrendering to the Allies.

The 15th was Victory Over Japan Day but IJA forces were still fighting against the Soviets as well as the Chinese, and managing their cease-fire and surrender proved difficult. The last air combat by Japanese fighters against a US reconnaissance bomber took place on August 18. The Soviet Union continued to fight until early September, to consolidate their land conquests in Manchuria plus taking the Kuril Islands. The rest of the world celebrated the ending of the WWII. None more than the hundreds of thousands of Marines & soldiers who would have been KIA, WIA or MIA that would have resulted during an invasion of mainland Japan. I will always love the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” that sent 1stLt W.L. McCulloch, USMC to Tientsin, China to repatriate the IJA units in China rather than the Kanto Plain!