8-3 The difficult decision to bomb Japan
NOTE: Recent talk of the Manhattan Project prompts me to rerun this column, written from Nagasaki shortly before the 60th anniversary of Fat Man being dropped there, Aug. 9, 1945.
NAGASAKI -- Decision time had come. Do we invade the main islands of Japan or do we drop atomic bombs? There were strong feelings on both sides.
But most of our political and military leaders came down on the side of the bomb. America was heavily committed to the Manhattan Project. It had cost $2 billion and had been run on a breakneck, two- year schedule to be ready prior to the Japanese invasion.
We'd done it. The bombs were ready. As Robert Oppenheimer, the project's scientific director, put it "The decision (to use the bombs) was implicit in the project."
Japan also helped make our decision by assuring that an invasion would be overwhelmingly costly in terms of American casualties. Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been nightmares. Based on projections from those two battles, it was estimated that we would suffer a million casualties in the two years it would take to finish the job.
It didn't matter that Japan was already beaten. We had cut off her fuel and food supplies. We had wiped out her Navy. All that was left of her once-proud air power were the kamikaze planes.
The kamikazes, however, couldn't win the war, but they could inflict heavy enemy losses. Estimates put kamikaze planes and pilots at 10,000. In addition, Japan had developed a manned bomb, with a rocket engine and a pilot. And thousands of kamikaze motor boats had been armed with explosives to further harass the enemy.
The Japanese again would fight from tunnels, as they had so successfully at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. And civilians would be used. Japan lived by the samurai code that would not allow surrender. They believed that their bushido fighting spirit could triumph over any odds.
The odds were staggering. U.S. and Allied incendiary bombs flattened cities, killing 100,000 in a night and leaving a million homeless. We'd already obliterated 65 Japanese cities.
Part of our million casualties from an invasion were an estimated 100,000 U.S. prisoners of war we knew the Japanese would kill before we could get to them. They had done it elsewhere and they'd already begun forcing American POW's in Japan to prepare the means for their mass exterminations.
Some 900 surviving members of the New Mexico National Guard would have been among the 100,000 killed.
The invasion was scheduled for October. By August, U.S. troops already were headed for Japan. Among them was a young recruit named Bruce King, who later would become New Mexico's longest-serving governor. King admits to the relief he felt when he learned he would be on our occupational force instead.
Something else was needed to jolt Japan's military leaders to their senses. Even though the atomic bombs would kill fewer than our nightly saturation bombings, the realization that we had perfected a super-weapon might work. One bomb still didn't produce an unconditional surrender, so three days after Hiroshima, a second bomb was dropped.
The United States had a list of possible targets for the two atomic bombs. Those target cities were spared the incendiary bombing that other major Japanese cities received. Hiroshima made its way to the top of the list. Kyoto was removed because it was Japan's major religious and cultural center.
Nagasaki wasn't the primary target for the second bomb, but weather and other factors made it the alternate target. My feeling, upon sailing into Nagasaki harbor was that maybe it should have been removed from the list too.
I've never seen a more beautiful city. San Francisco comes the closest. Nagasaki is even more hilly. For 200 years, it also was the only port that the Japanese would allow visitors to enter, making it Japan's most European city.
But Nagasaki also was Japan's major shipbuilding center and was home to the Mitsubishi munitions complex, which was the epicenter of the bomb. Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was the type bomb that was first tested at Trinity site in New Mexico.
JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org