Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

3.9 24
by Max Hastings

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By the summer of 1944 it was clear that Japan's defeat was inevitable, but how the drive to victory would be achieved remained unclear. The ensuing drama—that ended in Japan's utter devastation—was acted out across the vast theater of Asia in massive clashes between army, air, and naval forces.

In recounting these extraordinary events, Max Hastings draws

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By the summer of 1944 it was clear that Japan's defeat was inevitable, but how the drive to victory would be achieved remained unclear. The ensuing drama—that ended in Japan's utter devastation—was acted out across the vast theater of Asia in massive clashes between army, air, and naval forces.

In recounting these extraordinary events, Max Hastings draws incisive portraits of MacArthur, Mao, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and other key figures of the war in the East. But he is equally adept in his portrayals of the ordinary soldiers and sailors caught in the bloodiest of campaigns.

With its piercing and convincing analysis, Retribution is a brilliant telling of an epic conflict from a master military historian at the height of his powers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] masterly account of the climax of the conflict against Japan. . . . Hastings is a military historian in the grand tradition.” —The New York Times Book Review“Compelling. . . . To the broad sweep of military events Hastings adds myriad human stories . . . and he does not hesitate to offer his own keen analysis along the way.” —The Wall Street Journal“Through the imaginative power of his writing, we get an inkling . . . of what it must have been like to slog one's way up a cliff at Iwo Jima, or be firebombed in Tokyo.” —The New York Review of Books“A triumph. . . . The key to the book's success lies not in its accessibility, nor in its vivid portraits of the key figures in the drama—although it has both—but in something else entirely: the author's supremely confident ambition.” —The Sunday Times (London)"Hastings has another winner . . . This book is first-rate popular history, stiffened with a strongly stated point of view . . . A close-up and personal look at war as it affected real people, and how it felt to them at the time."—Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch"Explosive, argumentative, intensely researched . . . Demands to be read. A book of stunning disclosures."—Tom Mackin, Sunday Star-Ledger"[A] masterful interpretive narrative . . . Hastings is both comprehensive and finely acute."—Booklist"Spectacular . . . Searingly powerful. Hastings makes important points about the war in the East that have been all too rarely heard." —Andrew Roberts, The Sunday Telegraph"Extraordinary . . . Anyone who believes that we're all living through a uniquely troubled time should read this . . . book." —Georgie Rose, The Sunday Herald"This is a book not only for military history buffs but for anyone who wants to understand what happened in half the world during one of the bloodiest periods of the blood-soaked 20th century."—The Spectator"Highly readable . . . An admirably balanced re-examination of the last phases of a conflict that it is not fashionable to remember."—Dan van der Vat, The Guardian"Engrossing . . . Its originality lies in the meticulousness of the author's research and the amazing witnesses he has found."—Murray Sayle, The Evening Standard"Hastings is . . . a master of the sort of detail that illuminates the human cost. It is the way he leaps so adeptly to and fro between the vast panorama and the tiny snapshot pictures that makes him such a readable historian."—Mail on Sunday
Kai Bird
In Retribution, Hastings does not leave out the big actors, but what is new and original are the personal stories he has extracted from oral histories and his own interviews with veterans of the American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and even Chinese armies. A fine writer, Hastings conveys many heartrending testimonies.
—The Washington Post
Evan Thomas
…[a] masterly account of the climax of the conflict against Japan…Hastings is a military historian in the grand tradition, belonging on the shelf alongside John Keegan, Alistair Horne and Rick Atkinson. He is equally adept at analyzing the broad sweep of strategy and creating thrilling set pieces that put the reader in the cockpit of a fighter plane or the conning tower of a submarine. But he is best on the human cost of war.
—The New York Times
School Library Journal

Most of the work by acclaimed British historian and former newspaper editor Hastings has focused on World War II in Europe (e.g., Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy), but here he tackles the Pacific theater. Using American, Soviet, Chinese, Japanese, and Australian sources, he offers a succinct and well-written account of the final stage of the war against Japan. Hastings glosses over some of the more familiar parts of the conflict, e.g., Iwo Jima, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa, relying only on secondary sources. But he makes up for it with a thorough assessment of the Soviet campaign in Manchuria and the "lagging" Australian role in the Pacific. Some readers will question his modifying Japanese accounts to fit them into Western vernacular. Overall, this book works best not as a standalone but as an excellent addition to the existing historiography of the Pacific War. It should be added to academic and public libraries as both the serious scholar and casual World War II history enthusiast will be interested. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/07.]
—Antonio Thompson Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
A fine-grained study of the last year of World War II in the Pacific. Bracketing Armageddon, his 2004 study of the closing moments of the war in Europe, British journalist and editor Hastings (Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield, 2006, etc.) recounts the desperate struggle to wrest the last of its overseas holdings from Japan's rule and force the home islands to surrender. He draws on the living memories of participants on all sides, but cautions that this is a problematic strategy for a couple reasons: Anyone now alive who fought in the war is very old and likely possesses faulty memory, and any such person was likely in a junior position, far from the decision-making centers of power. Written testimonies from those higher up, he warns, is therefore essential, especially since contemporary historians have their own ideas of what was what. In Japan today, he observes, scarcely anyone knows who Douglas MacArthur was. Germany was the greater threat to world peace, Hastings writes, but Japan "was the focus of greater American animus," for reasons both racist and military. Japan, of course, behaved poorly-and with designs that, Hastings notes, had lasting implications, assuring, for instance, that Indochina could never again be ruled by a colonial power. After ranging across the theater, calling at various small islands and at much larger operations such as the Battle of Leyte-which launched the Philippines campaign, and where American forces battled whole Japanese armies rather than the comparatively smaller units they were used to-Hastings paints a comprehensive portrait of bloodletting and chaos. He turns up many hitherto unsung heroes, such as the rough-and-ready British generalWilliam Slim, and he reports on lesser-known episodes, such as Joseph Stilwell's bitter feud with Chiang Kai-shek over the conduct of the war in China. He also looks at the calculus of battle-one American naval planner, for instance, argued "that since the war cost his country $200 million a day, building ships saved money by hastening victory."A solid complement to existing histories of the Pacific theater. First printing of 100,000. Agent: Michael Sissons/PFD
Library Journal
With prose that's a joy to read, the redoubtable and much-published Hastings turns his pen to what Churchill remains most famous for. Despite other works examining this subject, libraries and readers of many persuasions will want this massive and detailed examination of the prime minister and his personal war.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Dilemmas and Decisions

1. War in the East

Our understanding of the events of 1939–45 might be improved by adding a plural and calling them the Second World Wars. The only common strand in the struggles which Germany and Japan unleashed was that they chose most of the same adversaries. The only important people who sought to conduct the eastern and western conflicts as a unified enterprise were Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and their respective chiefs of staff. After the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused the United States to become a belligerent, Allied warlords addressed the vexed issue of allocating resources to rival theatres. Germany was by far the Allies’ more dangerous enemy, while Japan was the focus of greater American animus. In 1942, at the battles of the Coral Sea in May and Midway a month later, the U.S. Navy won victories which halted the Japanese advance across the Pacific, and removed the danger that Australia might be invaded.

Through the two years which followed, America’s navy grew in strength, while her Marines and soldiers slowly and painfully expelled the Japanese from the island strongholds which they had seized. But President Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, resisted the demands of Admiral Ernest King, the U.S. Navy’s C-in-C, and of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander in the south-west Pacific, for the eastern theatre to become the principal focus of America’s war effort. In 1943 and 1944, America’s vast industrial mobilisation made it possible to send large forces of warships and planes east as well as west. Most U.S. ground troops, however, were dispatched across the Atlantic, to fight the Germans. Once Japan’s onslaught was checked, the Allies’ eastern commanders were given enough forces progressively to push back the enemy, but insufficient to pursue a swift victory. The second-class status of the Japanese war was a source of resentment to those who had to fight it, but represented strategic wisdom.

The U.S. and Britain dispatched separate companies to Europe and Asia, to perform in different plays. Stalin, meanwhile, was interested in the conflict with Japan only insofar as it might offer opportunities to amass booty. “The Russians may be expected to move against the Japanese when it suits their pleasure,” suggested an American diplomat in an October 1943 memorandum to the State Department, “which may not be until the final phases of the war—and then only in order to be able to participate in dictating terms to the Japanese and to establish new strategic frontiers.” Until 8 August 1945, Soviet neutrality in the east was so scrupulously preserved that American B-29s which forced-landed on Russian territory had to stay there, not least to enable their hosts to copy the design.

To soldiers, sailors and airmen, any battlefield beyond their own compass seemed remote. “What was happening in Europe really didn’t matter to us,” said Lt. John Cameron-Hayes of 23rd Indian Mountain Artillery, fighting in Burma. More surprising was the failure of Germany and Japan to coordinate their war efforts, even to the limited extent that geographical separation might have permitted. These two nominal allies, whose fortunes became conjoined in December 1941, conducted operations in almost absolute isolation from each other. Hitler had no wish for Asians to meddle in his Aryan war. Indeed, despite Himmler’s best efforts to prove that Japanese possessed some Aryan blood, he remained embarrassed by the association of the Nazi cause with Untermenschen. He received the Japanese ambassador in Berlin twice after Pearl Harbor, then not for a year. When Tokyo in 1942 proposed an assault on Madagascar, the German navy opposed any infringement of the two allies’ agreed spheres of operations, divided at 70 degrees of longitude.

A Japanese assault on the Soviet Union in 1941–42, taking the Russians in the rear as they struggled to stem Hitler’s invasion, might have yielded important rewards for the Axis. Stalin was terrified of such an eventuality. The July 1941 oil embargo and asset freeze imposed by the U.S. on Japan—Roosevelt’s clumsiest diplomatic act in the months before Pearl Harbor—was partly designed to deter Tokyo from joining Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. Japan’s bellicose foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, resigned in the same month because his government rejected his urgings to do so.

Only in January 1943, towards the end of the disaster of Stalingrad, did Hitler made a belated and unsuccessful attempt to persuade Japan to join his Russian war. By then, the moment had passed at which such an intervention might have altered history. Germany’s Asian ally was far too heavily committed in the Pacific, South-East Asia and China, gratuitously to engage a new adversary. So perfunctory was Berlin’s relationship with Tokyo that when Hitler gifted to his ally two state- of-the-art U-boats for reproduction, German manufacturers complained about breaches of their patent rights. One of Japan’s most serious deficiencies in 1944–45 was lack of a portable anti-tank weapon, but no attempt was made to copy the cheap and excellent German Panzerfaust.

Japan and Germany were alike fascistic states. Michael Howard has written: “Both [nations’] programmes were fuelled by a militarist ideology that rejected the bourgeois liberalism of the capitalist West and glorified war as the inevitable and necessary destiny of mankind.” The common German and Japanese commitment to making war for its own sake provides the best reason for rejecting pleas in mitigation of either nation’s conduct. The two Axis partners, however, pursued unrelated ambitions. The only obvious manifestation of shared interest was that Japanese planning was rooted in an assumption of German victory. Like Italy in June 1940, Japan in December 1941 decided that the old colonial powers’ difficulties in Europe exposed their remoter properties to rapine. Japan sought to seize access to vital oil and raw materials, together with space for mass migration from the home islands.

A U.S. historian has written of Japan’s Daitoa Senso, Greater East Asian War: “Japan did not invade independent countries in southern Asia. It invaded colonial outposts which Westerners had dominated for generations, taking absolutely for granted their racial and cultural superiority over their Asian subjects.” This is true as far as it goes. Yet Japan’s seizures of British, Dutch, French and American possessions must surely be seen in the context of its earlier aggression in China, where for a decade its armies had flaunted their ruthlessness towards fellow Asians. After seizing Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese in 1937 began their piecemeal pillage of China, which continued until 1945.

Inaugurating its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Japan perceived itself merely as a latecomer to the contests for empire in which other great nations had engaged for centuries. It saw only hypocrisy and racism in the objections of Western imperial powers to its bid to match their own generous interpretations of what constituted legitimate overseas interests. Such a view was not completely baseless. Japan’s pre-war economic difficulties and pretensions to a policy of “Asia for Asians” inspired some sympathy among subject peoples of the European empires. This vanished, however, in the face of the occupiers’ behaviour in China and elsewhere. Japanese pogroms of Chinese in South-East Asia were designed partly to win favour with indigenous peoples, but these in turn soon found themselves suffering appallingly. The new rulers were inhibited from treating their conquests humanely, even had they wished to do so, by the fact that the purpose of seizure was to strip them of food and raw materials for the benefit of Japan’s people. Western audiences have been told much since 1945 about Japanese wartime inhumanity to British, Americans and Australians who fell into their hands. This pales into absolute insignificance beside the scale of their mistreatment of Asians.

It is a fascinating speculation, how events might have evolved if the U.S. and its Philippines dependency had been excluded from Japanese war plans in December 1941; had Tokyo confined itself to occupying British Malaya and Burma, along with the Dutch East Indies. Roosevelt would certainly have wished to confront Japanese aggression and enter the war—the oil embargo imposed by the U.S. following Japan’s advance into Indochina was the tipping factor in deciding Tokyo to fight the Western powers. It remains a moot point, however, whether Congress and public sentiment would have allowed the president to declare war in the absence of a direct assault on American national interests or the subsequent German declaration of war on the U.S.

There was once a popular delusion that Japan’s attack smashed the American Pacific Fleet. In truth, however, the six old battleships disabled at Pearl Harbor—all but one was subsequently restored for war service by brilliantly ingenious repair techniques—mattered much less to the balance of forces than the four American aircraft carriers, oil stocks and dockyard facilities which escaped. Japan paid a wholly disproportionate moral price for a modest, if spectacular, tactical success. The “Day of Infamy” roused the American people as no lesser provocation could have done. The operation must thus be judged a failure, rendering hollow the exultation of the Imperial Navy’s fliers as they landed back on their carriers on 7 December 1941. Thereafter, Americans were united in determination to avenge themselves on the treacherous Asians who had assaulted a peace-loving people.

The only important strategic judgement which the Japanese got right was that their fate hinged upon that of Hitler. German victory was the sole eventuality which might have saved Japan from the consequences of assaulting powers vastly superior to itself in military and industrial potential. Col. Masanobu Tsuji, architect of the Japanese army’s capture of Singapore and a fanatical advocate of national expansion, said: “We honestly believed that America, a nation of storekeepers, would not persist with a loss-making war, whereas Japan could sustain a protracted campaign against the Anglo-Saxons.” Tokyo’s greatest misjudgement of all was to perceive its assault as an act of policy which might be reviewed in the light of events. In December 1941 Japan gambled on a short war, swift victory, and acceptance of terms by the vanquished. Even in August 1945, many Japanese leaders refused to acknowledge that the terms of reference for the struggle ceased to be theirs to determine on the day of Pearl Harbor. It was wildly fanciful to suppose that the consequences of military failure might be mitigated through diplomatic parley. By choosing to participate in a total war, the nation exposed itself to total defeat.

Although the loss of Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma in 1941–42 inflicted on Britain humiliations to match those suffered at Japanese hands by the U.S., its people cared relatively little about the Far Eastern war, a source of dismay to British soldiers obliged to fight in it. Winston Churchill was tormented by a desire to redeem the defeat in February 1942 of some 70,000 combat troops under British command by a force of 35,000 Japanese. “The shame of our disaster at Singapore could . . . only be wiped out by our recapture of that fortress,” he told the British chiefs of staff as late as 6 July 1944, in one of his many—fortunately frustrated—attempts to allow this objective to determine eastern strategy.

To the British public, however, the Asian war seemed remote. The Japanese character in the BBC’s legendary ITMA radio comedy show was Hari Kari, a gabbling clown. In June 1943 the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, proposed forming a committee to rouse the British public against its Asian enemies. The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, strongly dissented:

"It is all very well to say “We must educate the British public to regard the Japanese as if they were Germans, and war in the Pacific as if it were war in Europe.” But, while the Japanese remain many thousands of miles away, the Germans have for three years been only twenty miles distant from our shore and, too often, vertically overhead. Interest and feeling follow where friends and loved ones are fighting . . . Europe is very much a home concern, whereas knowledge of or interest in the Far East is sparsely distributed in this country . . . I do not think that any committee could do much to alter “the state of morale” . . . The people have been left under no misapprehension by the PM that it is their duty to turn and tackle Japan when the time comes . . ."

Those Britons who did think about the Japanese shared American revulsion towards them. When reports were broadcast in early 1944 of the maltreatment of prisoners, an editorial in the Daily Mail proclaimed: “The Japanese have proved a sub-human race . . . Let us resolve to outlaw them. When they are beaten back to their own savage land, let them live there in complete isolation from the rest of the world, as in a leper compound, unclean.” The American historian John Dower explains Western attitudes in racist terms. U.S. Admiral William Halsey set the tone after Pearl Harbor, asserting that when the war was over, “Japanese will be spoken only in hell.” A U.S. War Department film promoting bond sales employed the slogan: “Every War Bond Kills a Jap.” An American sub-machine gun manufacturer advertised its products as “blasting big red holes in little yellow men.” There was no counterpart on the European fronts to the commonplace Pacific practices of drying and preserving Japanese skulls as souvenirs, and sending home to loved ones polished bones of enemy dead. A British brigade commander in Burma once declined to accept a report from the 4/1st Gurkhas about the proximity of “Nips.” Their colonel, Derek Horsford, dispatched a patrol to gather evidence. Next day, Horsford left three Japanese heads, hung for convenience on a string, beside his commander’s desk. The brigadier said: “Never do that again. Next time, I’ll take your word for it.”

But those who argue that the alien appearance and culture of the Japanese generated unique hatred and savagery seem to give insufficient weight to the fact that the Japanese initiated and institutionalised barbarism towards both civilians and prisoners. True, the Allies later responded in kind. But in an imperfect world, it seems unrealistic to expect that any combatant in a war will grant adversaries conspicuously better treatment than his own people receive at their hands. Years ahead of Pearl Harbor Japanese massacres of Chinese civilians were receiving worldwide publicity. Tokyo’s forces committed systemic brutalities against Allied prisoners and civilians in the Philippines, East Indies, Hong Kong and Malaya—for instance, the slaughter of Chinese outside Singapore in February 1942—long before the first Allied atrocity against any Japanese is recorded.

The consequence of so-called Japanese fanaticism on the battlefield, of which much more later, was that Allied commanders favoured the use of extreme methods to defeat them. As an example, the Japanese rejected the convention customary in Western wars, whereby if a military position became untenable, its defenders gave up. In August 1944, when German prisoners were arriving in the United States at the rate of 50,000 a month, after three years of the war only 1,990 Japanese prisoners reposed in American hands. Why, demanded Allied commanders, should their men be obliged to risk their own lives in order to indulge the enemy’s inhuman doctrine of mutual immolation?

From the Hardcover edition.

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