The Valley of the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

I see that the 70th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki this last weekend brought the usual hand-wringing and heart-string twanging on the part of the news media, and another round of the endless discussion over whether it was justified or not, with the same old patient answering of what the alternative would have been. I’ve really nothing more to add to that particular discussion, save noting that the stocks of Purple Heart medals struck and stockpiled in anticipation of American casualties in a full-frontal invasion of Japan have only in the last fifteen years been diminished to the point where a new order for them had to be initiated – this, after Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kosovo, Gulf War 1, and Iraq.

The expected fate of American and Allied soldiers in an invasion of the Japanese mainland was only part of it, an aspect which tends to be forgotten in the afterglow of the mushroom cloud. There were Allied civilians involved as well, and their fates were also tied up in use of the atom bomb. With the passage of time, memory of the realities of WWII in the Pacific for people who were actually present have dimmed in memory as that generation passes. There is a kind of partial amnesia in certain quarters, a tendency to forget that conflict between the Allies and the Japanese was knock-down and drag out brutal, completely unscathed by any pretense of observing the so-called rules of war; that white flags would be honored, that prisoners and internees would be treated humanely, according to the Geneva Convention, the Red Cross would be respected – all these and a number of other war-making conventions were flung down and danced upon, beginning with on Day One – as far as Americans were concerned – with a sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.

Germany may very well have been run by a murderous Nazi gang headed by a demented paper-hanger and failed artist, Germans may have been referred to disparagingly as Krauts, and lampooned in the movies and pop music by cut-ups like Charlie Chaplain and Spike Jones, but as far as Americans were concerned, they at least made an effort to honor the rules of war when it came to all the Allies save the Russians. They had a certain amount of grudging respect as an enemy but a mostly honorable one – until the concentration camps and indisputable evidence of the Final Solution were uncovered at the end of the war. With the Japanese, there was no such mutual courtesy extended, no quarter offered and none given or expected from the very first. Poisonously racist attitudes and assumptions were openly demonstrated by all parties concerned, and the Japanese were more than equal in demonstrated bigotry towards all non-Japanese. Initially welcomed as liberators from the colonial powers all over south-east Asia, they had made themselves so detested for their brutality that by 1945 returning Westerners had local allies who hated the Japanese more than their one-time colonial masters.

I had read that initially those horrifying reports of the treatment of American and Filipino POWs on the Bataan Death March which leaked out through a handful of fortunate escapees were suppressed as a matter of national security, to avoid damaging morale on the home front. It was easier, in those days of written letters, telegrams and a few radio broadcasts, to keep a lid on everything but rumors. Of rumors and fears there were plenty all across the United States, Australia and Great Britain; those countries and a handful of others saw thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilian and military citizens – nurses, missionaries, soldiers, businessmen, colonial authorities, expatriates, and their wives and children – simply vanish into the black hole of the Japan administered Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere after the fall of Singapore, Malaya, Borneo, the Philippines, Hong Kong and those European enclaves in China. Few if any letters or contact, no reassurance from the Red Cross that their people were alive, safe and well for more than three and a half years; fears and rumors abounded. If those military and civilian internees were still alive, they were not safe and – increasingly as the war ground on to a bitter end – not well, either.

In a museum in Britain sometime in our wandering summer of 1976 – was it Carlisle? Salisbury? York, maybe? One of those little local museums, with a case of artifacts given over to the relics of the local regiment, with dusty embroidered colors, and little Victoria sweet-tins, and souvenir hardtack crackers adorned with poems in careful copperplate handwriting. This museum had a long picture of an entire company of soldiers; one of those formal things with four rows of men and officers standing on risers. Everyone who has ever served has been in at least one picture of that sort, but this one had a sad distinction; the entire company, fifty or so, were captured in the fall of Singapore… and none survived to the war’s end. They were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway, and among the museum’s relics was a metal measure about the size of a 12-ounce can. It was used, so said the card underneath, to measure out the daily ration of water and rice for the slave labor set by the Japanese to work on the railway. And that was what they got, day in, day out, doing hard physical labor in the tropics … just that little rice and water. The saying about the Burma-Siam railway after the war was there was a man dead for every sleeper laid, the whole length of it: POW, internee, or native civilian pressed-ganged into the service of the Japanese.

POWs and internees were routinely starved, forced into hard labor, denied any kind of effective medical treatment save what internee doctors and nurses could provide, spitefully prevented from communicating with the outside world, or keeping any kind of diary or record at all, subject to the most vicious punishments – up to and including murder in a revoltingly gruesome variety of ways – for the most trivial offenses or often none at all. Transported to Japan itself, to labor in mines and factories, POWs were loaded like cattle, into the holds of transport ships; men went insane, and tragically, died when the ships were bombed and torpedoed by the Allies. There are also stomach-churning accounts of POWs used as guinea-pigs in Japanese medical experiments, and vivisected while alive and un-anesthetized. The estimate is that 27% of the Allied POWs held by the Japanese perished in captivity, as opposed to 2-3% held by the Germans.

Civilian internees fared hardly better; this account of women and children interned in Sumatra – most of them shipwrecked in the Java Sea while escaping Singapore by sea in the last days before the surrender – reckon that about half perished in captivity. American internees in the Philippines fared a little better, although most survivors of Santo Tomas and Los Banos estimate they were about two weeks from dying of starvation when they were liberated. “Thou shalt not kill,” runs the bitter couplet, “But need not strive, officiously, to keep alive.” Most military and civilian survivor accounts concur on the time frame of survival; that is, if the Japanese didn’t massacre them all first, as they did at Palawan. At best, writer-historian Gavin Daws estimates that the subsequent life-expectancy of the survivors was reduced by ten or fifteen years, so severe were long-term health problems resulting after three years of near-starvation, exposure to every tropical and deficiency disease known to medical science, and the psychotic brutality of the Japanese camp guards.

During the war, this was not something much talked about, except in the vaguest sort of way – no spreading despair on the home front. Immediately afterwards, the most popular accounts of captivity, such as Agnes Newton Keith’s Three Came Home (1947) give the impression that it all was quite dreadful, but skimmed over the specifics. Many survivors wanted more than anything to just forget, to put it out of mind, and have a normal life again, and many more just could not talk about it at all, save to those few comrades who had been there with them. It is only in the last few years that I have really noticed the horrific accounts being published, and historical memory uneasily jousting with political correctness. But it is clear – that the total surrender of the Japanese after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved civilian internees and POWs alike.




24 thoughts on “The Valley of the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud”

  1. “…the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved civilian internees and POWs alike.” Not to mention Japanese civilians and soldiers.

    The less-than nuclear allied air war, especially, that would have been unleashed by the allies would have, I imagine, killed many more Japanese over the weeks and months to come than the A bombs did.

  2. Yep, Tyouth – probably saved a great many Japanese civilian and military lives as well. One swift decapitating stroke.
    But trying to explain it to the historical SJW as the least-bad of the available options is hard going, still.
    Thank you, Michael and Michael – I do have my moments. I think I have Empire of the Sun on DVD somewhere. It’s visually so compelling. There is also The Great Raid – about the raid to save the last survivors at Cabanatuan … it’s the accounts of woman and their children in captivity which really wring my sympathy, though.

  3. I know about Book’s mother … and a scattering of other former prisoners. One of them was my parents’ next door neighbor, when they originally moved out to Valley Center. He was a survivor of a Japanese POW camp.
    Yes, Japanese-Americans (nominally citizens) were interned in somewhat uncomfortable circumstances during the war. But Allied civilians were interned in conditions which pretty much proved to be deadly all the way around.

  4. As a young man, I read an utterly horrendous account of the Bataan Death March, and have never forgotten some of the scenes of hunger, thirst, and brutality. I was watching a movie about Iwo Jima, probably the John Wayne one, and my mother walked into the room. She glanced at the screen and saw or heard something that identified the battle, and became very upset. She later told me her favorite cousin, George, who had shown her around the city when she moved from her little home town for college, and took her out dancing when she often felt lonely and homesick, had been killed there.

    For many years, I was mystified by the people who condemned us for the atomic bombs that so clearly prevented one of the most horrendous battles in human history, as an invasion of the home islands of a people as fanatically committed to dying for the Emperor/God of their theocracy would have been. After a while, as I realized that these same voices only ever condemned us and our allies, but never any of our adversaries except the Nazis, I finally realized that their criticism was entirely political, had no true moral base, and could be ignored completely.

    Haven’t paid any attention to any of that crap since. I have noticed, however, that whenever we don’t win the same kind of victories we won in WW2, which includes all our conflicts since then, the people in the places we surrender to an enemy suffer catastrophic consequences equal to any of the horrors committed by the Japanese or Nazis.

    And so, for any and all of the trolls who wander through here on occasion to celebrate some setback to our interests in the world, I fart in your general direction.

  5. It is a mystery why there are so many who feel compelled to condemn the Truman decision. When my oldest daughter was in 6th grade, her teacher had a class “war crimes trial” of Truman as a Civics project. He was “convicted” by the 6th graders, Sh is now 48 years old so that was in the late 70s.

    Truman, who had been an artillery officer in WWI, said “It was a larger piece of artillery,” and he was right.

    Think it very significant that the Japanese, who had been working on an atomic bomb project themselves, did not decide to surrender until the second bomb. They concluded that we could not have enough Uranium 235 for two bombs and they were correct. They did not expect the Plutonium bomb and feared that we could have others.

    The opponents were mostly hysterical and ignorant, a characteristic of the left since 1789.

  6. Ugh, Dr. K — apparently your daughter’s teacher never felt an impulse to do a classroom war crimes trial of Emperor Hirohito’s officers for … oh, I dunno – the Rape of Nanking?
    That would have been fun to track.

  7. One final incident has always struck me as relevant: After, let me repeat, after both bombs had been dropped and the emperor had commanded a surrender, there was an attempted military coup by officers who wanted to keep on fighting.

  8. >When my oldest daughter was in 6th grade, her teacher had a class “war crimes trial” of Truman as a Civics project.<

    vague memory from hs class 1977: showing a movie about Auschwitz and the bomb at Hiroshima. equal stuff dontcha know? eff the proggtards.

  9. Counter experience… My sixth grade social studies teacher was a 30ish history-geography kinda guy. He gave us several anticommunist lectures, focusing on the failure of state control economies, lack of freedom, and the politically centered society. He considered the entire idea a nightmare. My high school 20th century history teacher had been a tail gunner in B-17 in WWII. You can guess where that led. Those were in the early and mid-70’s. In community college, the social and humanities classes seemed to be divided between leftists and libertarian minded people. Everyone was cordial except the leftists.

  10. We worked so hard at not being racists after WWII that Bataan and, esp., Rape of Nanking are unknown by most American adults. My father’s cousin, an only child, died in a Japanese camp – another soldier after the war, told his aunt; apparently torture was involved. We don’t need to become like so many other nations – refighting centuries of tribal wars. But we forget these at our peril. What we are forgetting is the nature of the enemy, the nature of heroism, and human nature – what we have successfully restrained and what we must. Knowing more might have better prepared us for the barbarism of ISIS – and Iran.

  11. As we discuss the fate of soldiers and sailors captured by the Japanese, let’s not forget Japan’s behavior toward civilians in many neighboring countries during and before the war. Think dropping two atom bombs on them was brutal? Try to imagine what an army of Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Indonesians or Singaporeans would have done to Japan had they been militarily capable of invading the islands in 1945. Bring that broader context into this discussion and the arguments of the anti-bombers get even weaker than they already are.

  12. I don’t know how many Neville Shute fans there are here but one of my favorite novels is A Town Like Alice, which describes the treatment of women in Malaya by the Japanese. It is fiction but the story of the women is true, as Shute points out in an afterward note. It happened in Java where the Japanese did not want to have to feed and house a group of women and children so they were forced to march around with no home or food. Most of them died.

    I have encouraged my daughters to read that novel, not because of the behavior of the Japanese but because it tells the story of young woman who overcomes her experience and who goes to Australia and starts a business.

    Shute is one of the best conservative novelists I have ever read. Many of his books have engineers or businessmen as heroes.

  13. Mike, I recall reading two of Shute’s books when I was 7th or 8th grade, On the Beach and Trustee in The Toolroom. Several recollections stand out thru the haze of decades. I knew even at the time that at least some of what I read was over my head. I also knew that some of his story involved a plot that could not happen, that he wrote it nonetheless so that he could make a point. But I enjoyed both books. Both encouraged my already intense desire to study natural science and engineering.

    Sgt Mom, Veryretired, Ginny, Gene: you folks remind me of how, thru my not anywhere near humble enough opinion, I think of myself as at least somewhat broadly aware yet did not know of WWII Japanese atrocities until I was past middle aged. (Too much focus on science and technology?) As Ginny said, we ought not nurse grudges to refight wars. Especially true when the unconditional surrenders achieved allowed at least some reshaping of the cultures of those conquered. But, piggybacking on and going on a bit from what Ginny also said, we must remember enough to reinforce what we already ought to know by looking at ourselves regarding human nature. Not at all persuaded our younger generations have even remote clues. And, while on that topic of needing to restrain meanness, I’m more and more impressed with the balanced wisdom of the fellows who wrote the U.S. founding documents.

  14. To expand on Gene’s post: the best work I’ve read on the decision to drop the Bomb(s)is Rev. Wilson Miscamble’s “The Most Controversial Decision.”

    A couple of the things that Miscamble points out:

    -as noted earlier, in July-August 1945, atomic weapons had none of the psycho-political significance they would acquire later. They were just really big bombs, city busters, in a war where we were already razing Japanese cities with massive B-29 firebombing raids, and had made the rubble bounce from one end of Germany to the other.

    -in addition to saving the lives of thousands upon thousands of G.I.s and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Japanese (and even a few Russians) by forestalling an invasion, the Bombs also saved untold numbers of lives in Japanese-occupied Asia. Miscamble cites that 250,000 were dieing in Japanese occupied territory every month. So, even if we assume that the Japanese would have surrendered when the first G.I. landed on Honshu (scheduled for October, 1945), the bombs can be credited with saving 750,000 innocent lives, with another quarter million for every month past that.

    As for the accusations of killing Japanese to save American lives, well, that’s kind of how war works.

  15. I’m living in Seoul, Korea these days and the Koreans harbor a deep grudge against the Japanese, although they do good business with them. The Korean governments, on both sides of the 39th parallel, encourage it and reinforce it through regular propaganda to their populations.

    One would think the South Korean government would cool it a bit and make alliance with the Japanese against Communist China but it is working just the opposite.

  16. Dave L. August 11th, 2015 at 12:10 pm Says:

    even if … the Japanese would have surrendered when the first G.I. landed on Honshu (scheduled for October, 1945),

    October 1945 was the date for the landings on Kyushu (Operation OLYMPIC).

    the bombs can be credited with saving 750,000 innocent lives, with another quarter million for every month past that.

    The date for the invasion of Honshu (Operation CORONET) was March 1946. So another 1.25 million.

  17. This was the official planned timeline for Operation Downfall, the Olympic (Kyushu) and Coronet (Honshu) invasions of the Japanese main islands.

    Oct 18. Honshu, Inland Sea targets attacked by aircraft from carriers of 3rd Fleet: TF-38 (US) , TF-37 (UK) ; strategic support

    Oct 21. Kyushu , Strategic Air Force ; North-South isolation and anti-buildup strikes

    Oct 24. Kyushu, 5th (invasion) Fleet ; preliminary bombardment, mine clearing, interdict highways.

    Oct 27. (X-Day minus 5) 40th Inf Div Outer Islands The division’s mission was to seize a number of offshore islands to the south and west of Kyushu to capture radar sites, emergency anchorages and seaplane bases. On X-Day-5, elements of the division (160th RCT) would assault Kuro Shima, Kuchinoyerabu Shima, Kusakaki Shima and Uji Gunto. Koshiki Retto in order to secure them for the construction of radar outposts, emergency anchorages and seaplane bases.. the landing beaches designated for the 40th Infantry Division on Koshiki Retto were named after automobile parts – Brakedrum, Windshield, Cylinder, Gearshift, Hubcap, Rumbleseat, Sparkplug etc.

    Oct 28. (X-Day minus 4) The remainder of the 40th division would land in the north and the south islands of Koshiki Retto, a large island group about thirty miles to the west of the Vth Marine Amphibious Corps beaches in order to secure them for the construction of radar outposts, emergency anchorages and seaplane bases.

    The 158th RCT was ordered to prepare to land, on or just after X-Day-4 on the north coast of Tanega Shima. This operation, however, would be contingent on the strength of Japanese air and naval defences in the Osumi Strait, the narrow channel between the Kyushu’s Osumi Peninsula and Tanega Shima through which the amphibious forces supporting and carrying both I Corps and XI Corps would have to pass.

    Oct 30. Shikoku , feint by IXth Corp : 77th , 81st , 98th Infantry Divisions

    Nov 1 . West , Vth Amphibious Corp : 2nd , 3rd , 5th Marine Divisions would land on the western shore of Kyushu, at beaches Pontiac, Reo, Rolls Royce, Saxon, Star, Studebaker, Stutz, Winton, and Sephyr, half of its force would move inland to Sendai and the other half to the port city of Kagoshima.

    Nov 1 . South , XIth Corp: 1st Cav , 43rd Inf , Americal Divisions would land inside Ariake Bay at beaches labeled DeSoto, Dusenburg, Essex, Ford, and Franklin and attempt to capture Shibushi and to capture, further inland, the city of Kanoya and its surrounding airfield.

    Nov 1 . East , Ist Corp : 25th , 33rd , 41st Infantry divisions would land near Miyaski at beaches called Austin, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, and Cord and move inland to attempt to capture this city and its nearby airfield.

    Nov 6/7th – South West, IXth Corp : 81st Division, 98th Infantry Division less detachments.

    Nov 6 . British South East Asian Command advance to Singapore — from the beachheads of the 9 Sept 1945 Operation Zipper Invasion of Malaya — was to be well underway.

    Nov 22. Where needed : 11th Airborne Division.

    Nov 23. As needed or SW : 77th Division as floating reserve.

    Dec 1945 – Build air fields: support troops and air crews from European theater.

    Jan 1946 – Attack all military and industrial areas of Japan by air and sea.

    March 1946 – Operation Coronet landing with US 1st and 8th Armies landing on Kanto Plan around Tokyo.

    There were several Typhoons in 1945-46 that ravaged Okinawa and the Philippines which would have screwed up that time table to no end, had the Japanese failed to surrender.

    Historically on 16 September 1945, Typhoon IDA struck Okinawa and sub chasers SC-632, SC-636, minesweepers YMS-98, YMS-341, YMS-421, YMS-472, Destroyer Transport APD-13, and floating dock AFD-13 were all sunk with Tank Landing Ship LST-823 heavily damaged. USS LST-675 which was grounded off Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, on 4 April 1945, was abandoned on 17 September 1945 as a constructive loss.

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