Deaths continue – is the war really over?

Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.
Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.

The war was over but not everyone knew it or was prepared to acknowledge it. American airmen were killed in the skies over Japan by renegade Japanese fighter pilots. Across the Japanese occupied territories people detained in PoW camps and civilian detention centres guessed that things had changed – but their guards often would not admit it openly. A strange, dangerous, limbo like existence continued for many until Allied troops arrived.

In China James Ballard and his family had been detained along with many other European civilians in 1942. They knew thew war was over and had begun to receive parachute drops of food from American planes. Fortified by Spam and chocolate fourteen year old Ballard felt strong enough to explore further afield:

The camp fell behind me more quickly than I expected. Around me was a silent terrain of abandoned paddy fields and burial mounds, derelict canals and bridges, ghost villages that had been deserted for years.

I skirted the perimeter of the airfield, where I could see Japanese soldiers patrolling the burnt-out planes and hangars, and decided not to test whether they agreed that the war was over.

I passed the wrecks of canal boats and trucks caught in the air attacks, and the bodies of Chinese puppet soldiers. After an hour I reached the Hangchow—Shanghai railway line, which circled the western perimeter of Shanghai. No trains were running, and I decided to walk along the embankment.

Half a mile in front of me was a small wayside station, no more than a concrete platform and a pair of telegraph poles. As I approached I could hear an odd sing- song sound, and saw that a group of Japanese soldiers was waiting on the platform. They were fully armed, and sat on their ammunition boxes, picking their teeth while one of them tormented a young Chinese man in black trousers and a white shirt.

The Japanese soldier had cut down lengths of telephone wire and had tied the Chinese to a telegraph pole, and was now slowly strangling him as the Chinese sang out in a sing-song voice. I thought of leaving the embankment and walking across the nearby field, but then decided it would be best to walk straight up to the soldiers and treat the grim event taking place as if it were a private matter that did not involve me.

I drew level with the platform and was about to walk past it when the soldier with the telephone wire raised a hand and beckoned me towards him. He had seen the transparent celluloid belt that held up my frayed cotton shorts. It had been given to me by one of the American sailors, and was a prized novelty that no Japanese was likely to have seen. I unbuckled the belt and handed it to him, then waited as he flexed the colourless plastic and stared at me through it, laughing admiringly. Behind him the young Chinese was slowly suffocating to death, his urine spreading across the platform.

I waited in the sun, listening to the sing-song voice as it grew weaker. The Chinese was not the first person I had seen the Japanese kill. But a state of war had existed since 1937, and now peace was supposed to have come to the mouth of the Yangtze.

At the same time I was old enough to know that this lost Japanese platoon was beyond the point where life and death meant anything at all. They were aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted, and inflict any pain.

Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended. The empty paddy fields and derelict villages confirmed that nothing mattered.

Ten minutes later, the Chinese was silent and I was able to walk away. The Japanese soldier never told me to go, but I knew when he had lost interest in me. Whistling to himself, the plastic belt around his neck, he stepped over the trussed body of the Chinese and rejoined his companions, waiting for the train that would never come.

I was badly shaken, but managed to steady myself by the time I reached the western suburbs of Shanghai. Perhaps the war had not really ended, or we had entered an in-between world where on one level it would continue for months or even years, merging into the next war and the war beyond that.

I like to think that my teenage self kept his nerve, but I realise now that I was probably aware of nothing other than the brute fact that I was alive and this unknown Chinese was dead. In most respects, sadly, my experiences of the war were no different from those of millions of other teenage boys in enemy-occupied Europe and the Far East. A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

See J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton : an Autobiography

Discovered after the liberation. Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.
Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.

“War … not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”

"American servicemen and women gather in front of "Rainbow Corner" Red Cross club in Paris to celebrate the unconditional surrender of the Japanese."
“American servicemen and women gather in front of “Rainbow Corner” Red Cross club in Paris to celebrate the unconditional surrender of the Japanese.”
The Emperor as head of the Imperial General Headquarters in 1943. Hirohito was not just Emperor but believed to be a living god, his relationship with the senior military leaders was difficult for the west to understand.
The Emperor as head of the Imperial General Headquarters in 1943. Emperor Hirohito was not just sovereign leader of the nation but believed by most Japanese to be a living God, his relationship with his senior military commanders was difficult for the west to understand.

Finally the war against Japan came to an end. Those who accepted the reality of Japan’s military position finally prevailed against strong elements in the senior command who wanted a more ‘honourable’ end, even if it meant their annihilation and that of millions of their people. More junior officers had also unsuccessfully attempted a coup d’etat, in the days since peace negotiations began on the 9th, in order to continue the war.

President Truman was able to announce the surrender on the 14th August. It was not until the 15th when the Emperor broadcast to the nation, that the Japanese people learned of their country’s surrender. It was a weak transmission of a voice never before heard by the public, speaking in an archaic version of Japanese – many Japanese struggled to comprehend what it actually meant:

After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.

To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.

Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone — the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people — the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers….

The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

Crowd of people, many waving, in Times Square on V-J Day at time of announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945
Crowd of people, many waving, in Times Square on V-J Day at time of announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945
In London's Piccadilly Circus,a group of servicemen and women, and a civilian woman, link arms as they walk towards the camera, singing as they dance in celebration around Eros (not pictured), on the news that the war in Japan is over. Behind them, crowds of people are gathered in the sunshine. Several buses can also be seen. This photograph was taken from beside Eros, looking towards Piccadilly (left) and Regent Street (right).
In London’s Piccadilly Circus,a group of servicemen and women, and a civilian woman, link arms as they walk towards the camera, singing as they dance in celebration around Eros (not pictured), on the news that the war in Japan is over. Behind them, crowds of people are gathered in the sunshine. Several buses can also be seen. This photograph was taken from beside Eros, looking towards Piccadilly (left) and Regent Street (right).

Last, and largest, bombing mission to Japan

Leaflet delivered to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other Japanese cities on 1 August 1945.”
Leaflet delivered to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other Japanese cities on 1 August 1945. The Japanese text on the reverse side of the leaflet carried the following warning: “Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives. America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.”
B-29 Superfortress bombers near Mount Fuji, Japan, circa Jul 1945
B-29 Superfortress bombers near Mount Fuji, Japan, circa Jul 1945

Following the bombing of Nagasaki on the 9th August the Japanese government had met several times to discuss surrender. There were sharp divisions within their ranks whether they should accept the allied ultimatum or fight on. Since the U.S. was reading all of the Japanese secret diplomatic messages they had an almost real time understanding of the complexity of the Japanese position.

A Japanese telegram on the 10th August appeared to offer surrender – but not the full unconditional surrender that Allies sought. The Japanese wanted to preserve the Imperial system, and maintain the Emperor. The Allies’ Potsdam Declaration had been silent on the exact way that the Emperor would be treated – although it was clear that they wanted a change to the system of government.

There was much scope for interpretation in what the two sides wanted. It would take five days to resolve the issues at stake.

Allied bombing of Japan was halted on 11th August because of bad weather – and then this situation was confirmed to allow negotiations to continue. By the 14th the situation was no clearer and US bombing missions were resumed.

On the 14th 1,014 bombers hit the Japanese mainland, the largest raid in the Pacific theatre. Part of the raid involved the 315 Bombardment Wing flying 3,800 miles to destroy the Nippon Oil Company refinery, the longest bombing raid of the war.

Robert F. Griffin of the 331st Bomb Group, part of the 315 Bombardment Wing, was the bombardier on a B-29 flying from Guam:

On the night of August 14, 1945, we took off to make what we thought might be the last raid of the war. A little over a week before, on August 6, an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. When this did not cause an immediate surrender, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Rumors had spread like wildfire, but most of us could not comprehend the concept of an atomic bomb nor of the extent of damage it might do.

As we headed to Iwo Jima, we listened for a call on the radio to abort the mission. Several hundred miles past Iwo we decided that we had gone too far to abort and would no longer listen for an abort message. Apparently a recall was never made or everyone else also elected to proceed with the mission. This was to be the longest bombing mission that we ever made.

Our course from Iwo Jima was to go north along the east side of Honshu to a point near Hitachi, a town about 75 to 100 miles north of Tokyo. Here we were to turn westerly and proceed over the middle of Honshu to the little island of Sado in the sea of Japan. Near Sado we were to turn north again and fly up the west coast of Honshu to our target, the Nippon Oil Refinery at Tsuchizakiminato. The name was shortened by our intelligence group to Tsuchizaki, and to those who still couldn’t pronounce it, it was referred to as Akita, a larger town about five miles away.

It was customary in the Group to use our navigational lights until we were near the islands of Japan. Too many groups of bombers from the Marianas used similar flight paths and altitudes going to and from the island that prudence called for running lights. Occasionally our own aircraft were close enough to each other to be able to see one another by these lights. Orbiting and flashing lights as you see on today’s aircraft were not in use during the war. Planes of this era were all equipped with stationary red and green lights on the wing tips and some had a white light on the top or on the tail. Many had only the wing lights.

On this night as our plane approached the east coast of Honshu, we could see the green light of the starboard wing top of one of our planes cruising off to our left. As we both turned westward to cross Honshu, we turned off our navigational lights; he did not.

The distance we had to fly over Honshu was about 150 miles which would take about 35 to 40 minutes. We were not to break radio silence, but wished we could alert the other plane to turn off his lights. He could attract attention to the entire mission, he had turned slightly short of us and was flying a parallel path about two to three miles to our south side. After much wishful thinking on our part, we finally forgot him and became engrossed in our own activities.

When we reached the little butterfly shaped island of Sado, we turned to the right to fly our northward path to the target The night was clear with just enough starlight to be able to identify the shoreline of the island. As we turned, we gave one last look for the plane that had been on our left. He had either turned off his lights or changed course considerable. We could not see him anywhere.

The distance from Sado to Tsuchizaki is also about 150 miles so that we now had about 35 to 40 minutes before reaching the target. Final calculations and settings were made to the bombsight. Again our APQ-7 radar had malfunctioned and we were going to have to make a visual bomb run. Occasionally, something could be seen in the water to allow an attempt at setting wind drift. This being done, there was little to do except sit and look ahead.

Abruptly, two lights appeared at “ten o’clock” slightly higher than we were. They appeared to be somewhat red and green as you might see from a fighter plane approaching from a distance of several miles. All of us in the cockpit watched these lights as they slowly came a little closer. They didn’t change position, however, and we could not understand how a fighter could maintain the same position, “ten o’clock,” as he approached.

All of a sudden it became shockingly clear that these were not wing top lights! I was looking right up the exhaust stacks of another plane’s engines! This must have been the plane that crossed Honshu with us. We were less than ten minutes from the target and he was only a few hundred yards to our side, about 50 to 75 feet above us and about 50 feet in front of us! He was apparently oblivious to the fact that we were there.

The target could be seen ahead by this time. Earlier flights had already set a number of ground fires. It was time to lock onto the target for our bomb run. It was too late to swing to the side and try to set another course. The two of us were flying on converging paths, closing in on one point. While I flew the plane from the bombsight, the airplane commander carefully watched the other bomber with the intent of pulling away if a collision seemed imminent.

About a minute for the target we could see what appeared to be a huge cloud, a thunderhead, ahead of us. There had been some questionable reports of potential thunderstorms around the target. We were at 11,000 feet and this cloud towered over us reaching up to 15,000 or 16,000 feet.

A few seconds from bomb release and we were almost touching the plane next to us. The Captain advised that as soon as the bombs are released he will swing to the right and climb about a thousand feet.

“Bombs Away!” The Captain took the plane off the bombsight, turned to the right and began to pull up. I stood up, somewhat straddling the bombsight, and leaned far forward so that I might see the bomb impacts. The large black cloud was just ahead.

We touched the cloud and “Whoosh!”, the plane jerked violently upward. I was thrown up into the air and then dropped unceremoniously with my feet pointed upward, my backside where my feet should be and my head leaning back upon my seat. As I lay there looking upward at the plexiglas and the edges of the aluminum ribs of the plane’s nose, it seemed that they were alive with fire. Sparks jumped all over. I thought, “This is it, the end of the line.”

Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. We were out of the cloud. Ahead, slightly above us and to our right, was the plane that had gone down the bomb run with us. In spite of our turn and climb, he had crossed over and climbed higher while we were in the cloud. At this point, he was so close that I could see the tail gunner’s face.

The thunderhead wasn’t a rain cloud. It was a violent thermal cloud of smoke and debris that was drawn thousands of feet into the air by the heat of the huge fires and explosions from the bombing on the refinery. The sparking that I had seen on the plexiglas was akin to St. Elmo’s fire that sailors see in the rigging of ships in a storm, it was electrical discharges from all the charged particles thrown up into the cloud from the explosions on the ground.

The return trip to Guam was rather uneventful. We left the target area about 3:00 AM and, therefore, as we flew by the Bonin Islands it was early morning. This gave us a chance to see how formidable they were and to visualize the hardships that Japanese fishermen must have who live on those rocks. We landed on Guam about noon after more than seventeen hours in the air.

Many more of these stories are available in ‘In their own Words’, published by the 315th Bomb Wing Association.

B-29s of the 462d Bomb Group West Field Tinian Mariana Islands 1945
B-29s of the 462d Bomb Group West Field Tinian Mariana Islands 1945
A Portion Of The Network Of Taxiways And Dispersal Areas To Accommodate B-29 Superfortresses On Guam.
A Portion Of The Network Of Taxiways And Dispersal Areas To Accommodate B-29 Superfortresses On Guam.

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from battle, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,
Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from the battlefield, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,

On the Okinawa the U.S. forces were blasting their way across the island from one concealed bunker to another as they struggled to contain horrendous casualties. Investigating who occupied each bunker was rarely practicable and never safe – it was assumed that each one needed to be dealt with. The consequences for the native Okinawans, many of whom had been forced to occupy the caves and bunkers alongside the Japanese Army were grim.

Some Okinawans got the chance to escape their confinement – but conditions above ground were almost equally lethal. Miyagi Kikuko had been a schoolgirl until she was forced to join the Lily Student Corps and serve as a nursing auxiliary. After enduring appalling conditions they were ordered out of the bunker to avoid the advancing Americans:

About May 25, we were ordered to withdraw to Ihara.

All the men we had nursed were simply lying there. One of us asked, “Soldier, what are you going to do with these people?” “Don’t worry,” he responded, “I’ll make it easy for them.” Later we heard that the medics offered them condensed milk mixed with water as their last nourishment, and then gave them cyanide and told them, “Achieve your glorious end like a japanese soldier.”

The American forces were nearby. Would it have been so terrible if they had been captured and revealed the japanese army’s situation? Instead they were all murdered to protect military strategy. Only one person crawled out and survived to testify.

The road to Ihara was truly horrible, muddy and full of artillery craters with corpses, swollen two or three times normal size, floating in them. We could only move at night. Sometimes the American forces sent up flares to seek out targets. Ironically, these provided us with enough light to see the way.

This light revealed people pulling themselves along on hands and knees, crawling desperately, wounded people calling to us, “Students! Students!” I had an injured friend using my shoulder as a crutch. Another friend had night blindness from malnutrition. She kept falling over corpses and crying out.

We’d become accustomed to the smell of excrement, pus, and the maggots in the cave, but the smell of death there on that road was unbearable. And it poured rain every day.

Tens of thousands of people moving like ants. Civilians. Grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers with children on their backs, scurrying along, covered in mud. When children were injured, they were left along the roadside. Just thrown away. Those children could tell we were students. They’d call out, “Nei, nei!” and try to cling to us. That’s Okinawan dialect for “Older Sister!” It was so pitiable. I still hear those cries today.

In daylight we were pinned down. In the wild fields, we clung to the grasses and cried out to our teachers, I’m afraid.” My group were all fifteen or sixteen-year-olds and the teachers took special care of us. “Bear up! You can take it!” they’d reassure us.

Finally, on the tenth of June we reached Ihara. Ten days for what takes thirty minutes by car today. There the first, second, and third surgeries were re-established. The second surgery was already completely full. There was only space to sit with your knees pulled up to your chest.

I don’t remember going to the toilet after we moved to Ihara, we were so dehydrated. If you put your hand into your hair it was full of lice. Our bodies were thick with fleas. Before we had been covered in mud, now we were covered with filth. Our nails grew longer and longer. Our faces were black. We were emaciated and itched all the time.

This account appears in Haruko Taya Cook(ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s - see more from his collection.
Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s – see more from his collection.