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What 'might have been' in 1945 years ago

The following article was "swiped" from the October 2005 issue of The Flash which is the official publication of the 78th "Lightning" Division.

Editor Bill Parsons is a friend of the 99th. They fought in the Huertgen Forest just north of where the 99th fought in Belgium. The two divisions crossed the Rhine together at Remagen.

The story, "What might have been," was sent to The Flash by Paul Englund, a Lightning Division veteran. The author is James Martin Davis of the Omaha World Herald.

An invasion not found in history books

This is the story of the plans for the invasion of Japan code named "Operation Downfall"

Deep in the recesses of the National Archives in Washington, hidden for nearly four decades, lie thousands of pages stamped "Top Secret." These documents, declassified, are the plans for Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan during WWII. Only a few Americans in 1945 were aware of the elaborate plans prepared for the Allied invasion of the Japanese homelands. Even fewer today are aware of the defenses the Japanese had prepared to counter the invasion. Operation Downfall was finalized during the spring and summer of 1945.

It called for two massive military undertakings to be carried out in succession and aimed at the heart of the Japanese empire. In the first invasion — code named Operation Olympic — American combat troops would land on Japan during the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 1945. Fourteen combat divisions of soldiers and Marines would land on heavily fortified and defended Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese homelands, after an unprecedented naval and aerial bombardment. The second invasion on March 1, 1946 — code named Operation Coronet — would send at least 22 combat divisions against one million Japanese defenders on the main island of Honshu and the Tokyo plain. It's goal: the unconditional surrender of Japan.

With the exception of part of the British Pacific Fleet, Operation Downfall was to be an American operation. It called for the entire Marine Corps, the entire Pacific Navy, elements of the 7th Army Air Force, the 8th Air Force (recently deployed from Europe), the 10th Air Force, and the American Far Eastern Air Force. More than 1.5 million combat soldiers, with three million more in support (more than 40 percent of all servicemen still in uniform in 1945) would be involved in the amphibious assaults. Casualties were expected to be extremely heavy.

Adm. Leahy estimated there would be more than 250,000 Americans killed or wounded on Kyushu alone. Gen. Willoughby, G/2 for Gen. MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific, estimated American casualties from the operation would be one million men by the fall of 1946. Willoughby's own staff considered this a conservative estimate.

During the summer of 1945, America had little time to prepare, but top military leaders agreed an invasion was necessary.

While a blockade and strategic bombing was considered useful, MacArthur did not believe a blockade would bring about unconditional surrender. The advocates for invasion agreed while a blockade chokes, it does not kill; and though strategic bombing destroys cities, it leaves armies intact.

On May 25, 1945, the Joint Chiefs, after deliberation, issued to MacArthur, Adm. Nimitz, and Air Force Gen. Arnold, the directive for the invasion. The target date was set for after the typhoon season.

President Truman approved the plans on July 24. Two days later, the United Nations issued the Potsdam Proclamation, calling upon Japan to surrender unconditionally or face total destruction. Three days later, the Japanese governmental news agency broadcast that Japan would ignore the proclamation and refuse to surrender. During this period it was learned — monitoring radio broadcasts — Japan had closed all schools and mobilized its schoolchildren, was arming its civilian population, and fortifying caves and building underground defenses.

Operation Olympic called for a four-pronged assault on Kyushu. Its purpose was to seize and control the southern one-third of the island and establish naval and air bases; tighten the blockade of the home islands; destroy units of the Japanese army and support the invasion of the Tokyo Plain.

The primary invasion would begin Oct. 27 when the 40th Inf. Div. would land on a series of small islands west and southwest of Kyushu. At the same time, the 158th RCT would invade and occupy a small island 28 miles south of Kyushu. On these islands, seaplane bases would be established to provide an emergency anchorage for the invasion fleet, should things not go well on D-Day. As the invasion grew imminent, the massive firepower of the Third and Fifth Fleets would approach Japan. The Third Fleet, under Adm. Halsey, with its big guns and naval aircraft, would provide strategic support for the operation against Honshu and Hokkaido. Halsey's fleet would be composed of battleships, heavy cruisers, destroyers, dozens of support ships, and three fast carrier task groups. From these carriers, hundreds of Navy fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes would hit targets on Honshu. The 3,000-ship Fifth Fleet, under Adm. Spruance, would carry the invasion troops.

Several days before the invasion, the battleships, heavy cruisers, and destroyers would pour thousands of tons of high explosives into the target areas. They would not cease the bombardment until after the landing forces had been launched. During the early morning hours of Nov. 1 the invasion would begin. Thousands of soldiers and Marines would pour ashore on beaches all along the eastern, southeastern, southern, and western coasts of Kyushu.

The Eastern Assault Force, consisting of the 25th, 33rd, and 41st Infantry Divisions would land near Miyaski, at beaches Austin, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, and Ford and move inland to capture the city and its nearby airfield. The Southern Force consisted of the 1st Cav. Div., the 43rd and American Inf. Divs. Would land inside Ariake Bay at beaches DeSoto, Dusenberg, Essex, Ford, and Franklin to capture Shibushi and the city of Kanoya and its airfield.

On the western shore of Kyushu, at beaches Pontiac, Reo, Rolls Royce, Saxon, Star, Stubaker, Stutz, Winton, and Zephyr, the V Amphibious Corps would land the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Marine Divisions, sending half of its force inland to Sendai and the other half to the port of Kagoshima.

On Nov. 4, the reserve force (81st and 98th Inf. Divs. And the 11th Airborne Div.), after feigning an attack off the island of Shikoku, would be landed — if not needed elsewhere — near Kaimondake, near the southern tip of Kagoshima Bay, at beaches Locomobile, Lincoln, LaSalle, Hupmobile, Moon, Mercedes, Maxwell, Overland, Oldsmobile, Packard, and Plymouth. It was expected to take four months to achieve its objective, with three fresh American divisions per month to be landed in support of that operation if needed.

If Olympic went well, Coronet would be launched March 1, 1946. Coronet would be twice the size of Olympic, with as many as 28 American divisions landing on Honshu.

All along the coast east of Tokyo, the American 1st Army would land the 5th, 7th, 27th, 44th, 86th, and 96th Inf. Divs. Along with the 4th and 6th Marine Divs.

At Sagami Bay, just south of Tokyo, the entire 8th and 10th Armies would strike north and east to clear the long western shore of Tokyo Bay, and attempt to go as far as Yokohama. The assault troops landing south of Tokyo would be the 4th, 6th, 8th, 24th, 31st, 37th, 38th, and 87th Inf. Divs. Along with the 13th and 20th Armored Divs.

Following the initial assault, eight more divisions — 2nd, 28th, 35th, 91st, 97th, and 104th Inf. Divs. And the 11th Airborne Division — would be landed. If more troops were needed, as expected, other divisions re-deployed from Europe and undergoing training in the U.S. would be shipped to Japan in what was hoped to be the final push.

Captured Japanese documents and post war interrogation of Japanese military leaders disclose that information concerning the number of planes available for defense of the home islands was dangerously in error.

During the sea battle of Okinawa alone, Japanese kamikaze aircraft sank 32 Allied ships and damaged more than 400 others. But during the summer of 1945, American top brass concluded the Japanese had spent their air force since American bombers and fighters flew unmolested over Japan.

What the military leaders did not know was that by the end of July the Japanese had been saving all aircraft, fuel, and pilots in reserve . . . and feverishly building planes for the decisive battle for the homeland.

As part of Ketsu-Go — the plan to defend Japan — the Japanese were building 20 suicide takeoff strips in southern Kyushu with underground hangars. They also had 35 camouflaged airfields and nine seaplane bases.

On the night before the expected invasion, 50 Japanese seaplane bombers, 100 former carrier aircraft, and 50 land-based army planes were to be launched in a suicide attack on the fleet.

The Japanese had 58 more airfields on Korea, western Honshu, and Shikoku, which were to be used for massive suicide attacks.

In August 1945, however, unknown to Allied intelligence, the Japanese still had 5,651 army and 7,074 navy aircraft, for a total of 12, 725 planes of all types. Every village had some type of aircraft manufacturing activity. Hidden in mines, railway tunnels, under viaducts, and in basements of department stores, work was being done to construct new planes.

Additionally, the Japanese were building newer and more effective models of the Okka — a rocket-propelled bomb like the German V-1, but flown by a suicide pilot.

When the invasion became imminent, Ketsu-Go called for a four-fold aerial plan of attack to destroy up to 800 Allied ships.

While Allied ships were approaching Japan, but still in the open seas, an initial force of 2,000 army and navy fighters were to fight to the death to control the skies over Kyushu. A second force of 330 navy combat pilots were to attack the main body of the task force to keep it from using its fire support and air cover to protect the troop-carrying transports. While these two forces were engaged, a third force of 825 suicide planes were to hit the American transports.

As the invasion convoys approached their anchorages, another 2,000 suicide planes were to be launched in waves of 200 to 300 to be used in hour-by-hour attacks.

By mid-morning of D-Day, most of the American land-based aircraft would be forced to return to their bases, leaving the defense against the suicide planes to the carrier pilots and the shipboard gunners.

Carrier pilots crippled by fatigue would have to land time and time again to rearm and refuel. Guns would malfunction from the heat of continuous firing and ammunition would become scarce. Gun crews would be exhausted by nightfall, but still the waves of kamikazes would continue. With the fleet hovering off the beaches, all remaining Japanese aircraft would be committed to nonstop suicide attacks, which the Japanese hoped could be sustained for 10 days. The Japanese planned to coordinate their air strikes with attacks from the 40 remaining submarines from the Imperial Navy — some armed with Long Lance torpedoes with a range of 20 miles — when the invasion fleet was 180 miles of Kyushu.

The Imperial Navy had 23 destroyers and two cruisers that were operational. These ships were to be used to counterattack the American invasion. A number of destroyers were to be beached at the last minute to be used as anti-aircraft gun platforms.

Once offshore, the invasion fleet would be forced to defend not only against the attacks from the air, but also would be confronted with suicide attacks from sea. Japan had established a suicide naval attack unit of midget submarines, human torpedoes, and exploding motorboats.

The goal of the Japanese was to shatter the invasion before the landing. The Japanese were convinced the Americans would back off or become so demoralized that they would then accept a less-than-unconditional surrender and a more honorable and face-saving end for the Japanese.

But as horrible as the battle of Japan would be off the beaches, it would be on Japanese soil that the American forces would face the most rugged and fanatical defense encountered during the war.

Throughout the island-hopping Pacific campaign, Allied troops always had out-numbered the Japanese by 2 to 1 and sometimes 3 to 1. In Japan it would be different. By virtue of a combination of cunning, guesswork, and brilliant military reasoning, a number of Japan's top military leaders were able to deduce, not only when, but where, the United States would land its first invasion forces.

Facing the 14 American divisions landing at Kyushu would be 14 Japanese divisions, seven independent mixed brigades, three tank brigades, and thousands of naval troops. On Kyushu the odds would be 3 to 2 in favor of the Japanese, with 790,000 enemy defenders against 500,000 Americans. The bulk of the Japanese defenders would not be poorly trained and ill-equipped labor battalions that the Americans had faced in the earlier campaigns.

The defenders would be the hard core of the home army. These troops were well-fed and well-equipped. They were familiar with the terrain, had stockpiles of arms and ammunition and had developed an effective system of transportation and supply almost invisible from the air. Many of these troops were from the army elite, and they were swollen with a fanatical fighting spirit.

Japan's network of beach defenses consisted of offshore mines, thousands of suicide scuba divers attacking landing craft, and mines planted on the beaches.

Coming ashore, the American Eastern amphibious assault forces at Miyazaki would face three Japanese divisions, and two others poised for counterattack.

Awaiting the Southeastern attack force at Ariake Bay was an entire division and at least one mixed infantry brigade.

On the western shores of Kyushu, the Marines would face the most brutal opposition. Along the invasion beaches would be the three Japanese divisions, a tank brigade, a mixed infantry brigade, and an artillery command. Components of two divisions would be poised to launch counterattacks.

If not needed to reinforce the primary landing beaches, the American Reserve Force would be landed at the base of Kagoshima Bay Nov. 4, where they would be confronted by two mixed infantry brigades, parts of two infantry divisions, and thousands of the naval troops.

All along the invasion beaches, American troops would face coastal batteries, anti-landing obstacles, and a network of heavily fortified pillboxes, bunkers, and underground fortresses.

As Americans waded ashore, they would face intense artillery and mortar fire as they worked their way through concrete rubble and barbed wire entanglements arranged to funnel them into the muzzles of these guns.

On the beaches and beyond would be hundreds of Japanese machine gun positions, beach mines, booby traps, trip-wire mines, and sniper units. Suicide units concealed in "spider holes" would engage the troops as they passed nearby.

In the heat of battle, infiltration units would be sent to reap havoc in the American lines by cutting phone and communication lines. Some of the troops would be in American uniforms. English-speaking Japanese officers were assigned to break in on American radio traffic to call off artillery fire, order retreats, and confuse the troops.

Infiltrators with demolition charges strapped on their chests or backs would attempt to blow up tanks, artillery pieces, and ammunition stores as they were unloaded.

Beyond the beaches were large artillery pieces situated to bring down a curtain of fire on the beach. Some of these large guns were mounted on tracks running in and out of caves protected by concrete and steel.

The battle for Japan would be won by what Simon Bolivar Buckner, a lieutenant general in the Confederate army during the Civil War, had called "prairie dog warfare."

This type of fighting was almost unknown to the ground troops in Europe and the Mediterranean. It was peculiar only to the soldiers and Marines who fought the Japanese on islands all over the Pacific. Prairie dog warfare was a battle for yards, feet, and sometimes inches.

It was brutal, deadly, and dangerous combat. In mountains behind the Japanese beaches were underground networks of caves, bunkers, command posts, and hospitals connected by miles of tunnels with dozens of entrances and exits. Some of these complexes could hold up to 1,000 troops.

In addition to the use of poison gas and bacteriological warfare (which the Japanese had experimented with), Japan mobilized its citizenry. Had Olympic come about, the civilian population, inflamed by a national slogan — One Hundred Million Will Die for the Emperor and Nation — was prepared to fight to the death.

Twenty-eight million Japanese had become a part of the National Volunteer Combat Force. They were armed with ancient rifles, lunge mines, satchel charges, Molotov cocktails, and one-shot black powder mortars. Others were armed with swords, long bows, axes, and bamboo spears.

The civilian units were to be used in nighttime attacks, hit-and-run maneuvers, delaying actions, and massive suicide charges at the weaker American positions.

At the early stages of the invasion, 1,000 Japanese and American soldiers would be dying every hour.

Intelligence studies and military estimates made 50 years ago, and not latter day speculation, clearly indicate the battle for Japan might have resulted in the biggest blood bath in the history of modern warfare.