The Decision that Launched the Enola Gay

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Excerpts from: The Decision that Launched the Enola Gay

By John T. Correll, Editor in Chief: Air Force Magazine – April, 1994

Strategic Bombing

The capture of the Mariana Islands by the United States in the summer of 1944 had given the American Air Force bases 1,300 miles from Tokyo, close enough that B-29 bombers could reach all the major cities in Japan, including the big industrial cities on Honshu. B-29s operated at altitudes too high for Japanese fighters to stop them.

Ismartinkannotation6n January 1945, General LeMay took over XXI Bomber Command. On the night of March 9-10, he launched a massive mission -- 334 B-29s -- to drop incendiary bombs on Tokyo. It was the most destructive raid in history. The official casualty report listed 83,793 dead and 40,918 wounded. Sixteen square miles of Tokyo were destroyed that night.

Bushido and Kamikaze

As Japan's desperation to win the war worsened, the ferocity of the fighting intensified. The code of bushido -- "the way of the warrior" -- was deeply ingrained. Surrender was dishonorable. Defeated Japanese leaders preferred to take their own lives in the painful samurai ritual of seppuku. Warriors who surrendered were not deemed worthy of regard or respect. This explains, in part, the Japanese mistreatment, torture, and summary execution of POWs. There was no shortage of volunteers for kamikaze missions or of troops willing to serve as human torpedoes or to ride to honorable death on piloted buzz bombs.

Japan was dead on its feet in every way but one: The Japanese still had the means -- and the determination -- to make the invading Allied forces pay a terrible price for the final victory. Since the summer of 1944, the armed forces had been drawing units back to Japan in anticipation of a final stand there.

The Japanese were prepared to absorb massive casualties. According to Gen. Korechika Anami, the War Minister, the military could commit 2.3 million troops. The Japanese Cabinet extended the draft to cover most civilians (men from ages fifteen to sixty and women from seventeen to forty-five).

Tsmartinkannotation80he defending force would have upwards of 10,000 aircraft, most of them kamikaze. Suicide boats and human torpedoes would defend the beaches. The Japanese Army planned to attack the Allied landing force with a 3-to-1 advantage in manpower. If that failed, the militia and the people of Japan were expected to carry on the fight. Civilians were being taught to strap explosives to their bodies and throw themselves under advancing tanks. Construction battalions had fortified the shorelines of Kyushu and Honshu with tunnels, bunkers, and barbed wire.

As late as August 1945, the Japanese Army thought it could destroy most of the invading force and that there was a fair chance the invasion could be defeated.

The Emperor Takes a Hand

By the summer of 1945, the Japanese government had split into a peace faction (including Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki) and a war faction (General Anami and the military). The war faction was powerful, but the peace faction was gaining an extraordinary ally: the Emperor, Hirohito. Regarded as divine and the embodiment of the Japanese state, the Emporer supposedly "lived beyond the clouds," above politics and government. In fact, he was interested and well informed. While he did not interfere, he was often present at important meetings.

The B-29 missions strengthened Hirohito's growing belief that Japan should not be devastated further in a losing cause. On March 18, he toured areas of Tokyo that had been firebombed March 9-10. The experience persuaded him that the war must end as quickly as possible.

Hirohito shattered precedent at a meeting of the Supreme War Council June 22, openly stating his criticism of the military: "We have heard enough of this determination of yours to fight to the last soldiers. We wish that you, leaders of Japan, will now strive to study the ways and means to conclude the war. In so doing, try not to be bound by the decisions you have made in the past."

But, the war faction refused to accept defeat, especially if it meant that they would have to surrender to the Allies unconditionally. 

U.S. Invasion Plans and Casualty Estimates

As Vice President, Harry Truman had not known about the development of the atomic bomb. On the day he assumed the presidency at the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had spoken to him briefly and told him that the United States was working on a weapon of extraordinary power. Twelve days later, on April 25, 1945, Stimson and Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, briefed President Truman in detail on the secret of the atomic bomb.

The question before Truman was how to end the war and save lives. US military opinion was divided on what it would require to induce Japan's surrender and finally bring the war to an end. Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding US forces in the western Pacific, believed an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be necessary.

Gen. H. H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, and Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, believed that B-29 conventional bombing could do the job.

The plan called for an invasion in two stages. Operation Olympic, a land invasion of Kyushu, southernmost of the Japanese main islands, was to begin November 1, 1945. Operation Coronet, planned for March 1, 1946, would be an invasion of Honshu, the largest island. The Joint Chiefs expected the two-stage invasion to involve some five million troops, most of them American. The invasion was to be preceded by a massive aerial bombardment, reaching maximum intensity before troops went ashore on Honshu.

Casualty estimates varied. Military planners figured the invasion of Kyushu alone would take between 31,000 and 50,000 US casualties in the first thirty days and that the combined US losses from Operations Coronet and Olympic would exceed 500,000. President Truman believed that, unless he used the atomic bomb, an invasion was necessary and that the casualties would be enormous.


Basically, President Truman and the armed forces had three strategic options for inducing the Japanese surrender:

Continue the firebombing and blockade. After the war, the Strategic Bombing Survey would conclude that without the atomic bomb or invasion, Japan would have accepted unconditional surrender, probably by November and definitely by the end of the year. In 1945, however, the AAF was not able to persuade General Marshall that this strategy would work.

Invasion. Neither Marshall nor Truman was convinced that LeMay's B-29 bombing campaign could bring a prompt end to the war. In their view, the only conventional alternative was invasion.

Use the atomic bomb. Doubts about use of the atomic bomb were mostly of a strategic nature, reflecting the belief that an invasion might not be necessary or that bombing and blockade would be sufficient. (Use of the bomb to end the war eventually saved Japanese casualties, too. The incendiary bombs from B-29s were taking a terrible toll. The attack on Tokyo in March killed more people than either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.)

Truman was acutely aware that hesitation would be paid for in blood. When Truman became President in April 1945, US casualties were averaging more than 900 a day. The Japanese refusal to surrender led to 48,000 American casualties in the battle for Okinawa between April and June. Kamikaze attacks in that battle sank twenty-eight US ships and did severe damage to hundreds more. The Japanese force on Okinawa was only a fraction the size of the one waiting in the home islands.

The Decision 

Truman decided to use the atomic bomb.

The Potsdam Proclamation, issued July 26 by the heads of governments of the US, UK, and China, warned of "utter devastation of the Japanese homeland" unless Japan surrendered unconditionally."

On July 28, Prime Minister Suzuki declared the Potsdam Proclamation a "thing of no great value" and said "We will simply mokusatsu it." Literally, mokusatsu means "kill with silence." Suzuki said later the meaning he intended was "no comment." The Allies took the statement as rejection of the Potsdam Proclamation.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In the early morning hours of August 6, the Enola Gay took off from Tinian. The primary target was Hiroshima, the seventh largest city in Japan, an industrial and military shipping center on the Inland seacoast of Honshu. At precisely 8:16 a.m., the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. More than half of the city was destroyed in a flash, and about 80,000 people were killed.

Reaction by the Japanese Cabinet was split between the war faction and the peace faction. With the cabinet at a standoff, Hirohito took a more assertive position. On August 8, the Emperor instructed Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to tell Prime Minister Suzuki that Japan must accept the inevitable and terminate the war with the least possible delay and that the tragedy of Hiroshima must not be repeated. Anami could not bring himself to flatly defy the Emperor, but he continued to argue his position passionately. Hard-liners in the military were plotting to kill Suzuki and others of the peace faction and continue fighting the war.

The primary target for the second atomic bomb mission on August 9 was Kokura, but the aim point was obscured by smoke drifting from a nearby city that had been bombed two days earlier. Bockscar diverted to Nagasaki on the western coast of Kyushu. Nagasaki was heavily industrialized. The Mitsubishi conglomerate operated a shipyard, electric equipment production facilities, steel factories, and an arms plant there. The aim point for Bockscar was the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works. The bomb exploded on Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m., killing 40,000.

In his radio address August 9, President Truman said the United States had used the atomic bomb "against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us."  

 V-J Day

Japanese deliberation on August 9 lasted all day and into the night. At a cabinet meeting that began at 2:30 p.m. -- hours after the second atomic bomb had fallen -- Anami said, "We cannot pretend to claim that victory is certain, but it is far too early to say the war is lost. That we will inflict severe losses on the enemy when he invades Japan is certain, and it is by no means impossible that we may be able to reverse the situation in our favor, pulling victory out of defeat." Finally, at 2:00 a.m. on August 10, the Emperor told the Supreme War Council that "the time has come to bear the unbearable" and that "I give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied Proclamation on the basis outlined by the Foreign Minister."

The Anami faction continued to haggle, but at noon on August 14, the Emperor asked the cabinet to prepare an Imperial Rescript of Surrender. He said that "a peaceful end to the war is preferable to seeing Japan annihilated." General Anami, preferring to die rather than see Japan surrender, committed seppuku at 5:00 a.m., August 15.

In the Imperial Rescript of Surrender, broadcast at noon on August 15, Emperor Hirohito said, "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.”

Victory in Japan (V-J Day) was celebrated August 15. General MacArthur accepted Japan's formal surrender September 2 on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The atomic bomb did not win the war. Japan had been defeated already by the land, sea, and air campaign that went before. It is reasonable to conclude, however, that the bomb did force the Japanese surrender -- and considerably sooner than it would have occurred otherwise.

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