Hell to Pay

Hell to Pay

Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945–1947

D. M. Giangreco

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 584 pages

Book Review published on: September 22, 2017

The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unleashed an ongoing seven-decade debate about whether Japan would have surrendered absent dropping the bomb. Revisionists have challenged Allied casualty projections, believing an encircled and starving Japan was about to collapse. They attribute America’s decision to use nuclear weapons as revenge for Pearl Harbor, as a warning to the Soviet Union, or to end the war quickly to prevent a Soviet Union occupation of Japan. Military historian and author D. M. Giangreco expands on his 2009 work Hell to Pay with three new topics: U.S.–Soviet cooperation in the war against Japan; U.S.–Soviet–Japanese plans for the invasion and defense of Hokkaido; and Operation Backlist, the three-phase insertion of American occupation forces into Japan.

In a remarkably well-researched volume, Giangreco draws on a range of primary source materials; postwar interrogations and personal accounts, Japanese and American operational planning documents, government records, and military correspondence provide an unprecedented view of the war in the Pacific in its last year from both sides. Giangreco concludes that lives in untold numbers were spared by Japan’s capitulation. The war’s sudden and unexpected end in August 1945 has hidden the fact that both sides were rushing headlong toward a disastrous confrontation in the Japanese homeland.

Three of the many significant observations and reflections in Hell to Pay stand out. First, Japanese military planners, operating with minimal intelligence resources, accurately predicted where and when Allied forces would invade the Japanese homeland. This enabled Japanese forces to redeploy twenty-four army divisions from China and Korea back to Japan while American forces were fully engaged on Okinawa. Japanese forces also used the time to prepare extensive fortifications in depth. Allied planners would not realize until after the war that combat ratios were one-to-one, with Japanese forces defending favorable terrain.

Second, Japanese military leaders, impressed with the success of kamikaze attacks during the fight on Okinawa, decide to utilize coordinated round-the-clock kamikaze attacks involving aircraft, midget submarines, and manned torpedoes to attack the American fleet. Hidden airfields and terrain would mask attacking Japanese aircraft till the last minutes. Japanese planners projected that kamikaze attacks might succeed in sinking as much as 50 percent of assault shipping, or five combat divisions. This would have further reduced Allied combat force ratios.

Third, Giangreco states that there is a difference between defeat and surrender. Japan’s military was essentially defeated in 1945. However, Americans hoped that the Japanese would conclude their defeat with surrender. Instead, decrypted intercepts of Japanese message traffic indicate that the Japanese viewed Okinawa as a victory in terms of losses inflicted and delay of American timelines. Japanese leaders following America media reports of the bloody fighting Okinawa and Iwo Jima concluded that a war-weary American public would not support a prolong war in the Pacific. Japanese leaders were prepared to suffer casualties at a rate Americans were not. Leaders expected pressure from a war-weary public would force the U.S government to end the war on terms more favorable to the Japanese government than unconditional surrender.

Giangreco challenges revisionist history claims that the nuclear bombing was revenge for Pearl Harbor with research findings that President Harry Truman, cabinet members, and military planners went through great lengths to reduce civilian casualties and hardship on the Japanese populace. Military planners included planning for relief efforts to address starving and homeless Japanese civilians during and after the invasion of the Japanese main islands. Contrary to revisionist claims, Giangreco’s research shows extensive efforts, including providing amphibious assault vessels and training to Soviet forces, by the Truman administration to get Soviet military cooperation in invading the Japanese homeland. His research indicates Soviet forces lacked the capability to land and maintain an occupation force without U.S. cooperation. Soviet concerns for the vulnerability of their single supply line to forces in the east, its neutrality agreement with Japan, its desire for Manchuria, and Joseph Stalin’s suspicions of the West made Soviet cooperation problematic.

The strength of Hell to Pay is Giangreco’s extensive use of maps and exhaustive research that give the reader an insightful view from both American and Japanese perspectives. Giangreco’s work counters the revisionist interpretations that question the use of the atomic bomb and shows that Truman’s decision was based on very real estimates of the truly horrific cost of a conventional invasion of Japan. This book is for military professionals and historians, and it would be a great addition to any professional leadership reading list. It would make a great addition to Waldo Heinrichs’s and Marc Gallicchio’s, Implacable Foes.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas