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Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945

Max Hastings, (Random House, 2008), 656 pages, $35.

Few contemporary historians are more qualified to write on World War II than Britain’s Max Hastings. Not that his conclusions make welcome reading. In Overlord, a book on D-Day and its aftermath, Hastings determined that the German, day in day out, was the most effective soldier on the battlefield. In Armageddon, the story of the last year of the war in Europe, the author demonstrated little respect for the senior commanders, German, British, or American.

Now, in Retribution, Hastings has turned his attention to the last year of the Pacific War, which was, of course, largely an American affair. In contrast to Europe, however, there was no supreme commander in the Pacific. Such was the mystique surrounding General Douglas MacArthur that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt obliged to give him an independent command in the South Pacific, leaving the rest of that vast ocean to Admiral Chester Nimitz and the U.S. Navy. Hastings quotes a senior British officer as recalling, “The violence of interservice rivalry…in those days had to be seen to be believed.”

Whereas in Europe the Allies were committed to a ground war to occupy Germany, strategic thinking regarding the Pacific was more equivocal. Only in Burma and the Philippines in 1945 did the United States and Great Britain encounter and eventually destroy Japanese armies in this period. Elsewhere, the U.S. Navy and the Army Air Forces sought to demonstrate that some combination of air bombardment and naval blockade could render an invasion of Japan unnecessary.

The author admires the courage of the Americans who assaulted Japanese strongholds like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but contends that numerous enemy islands could have been bypassed, and many lives saved, by a more selective choice of targets.

Although Hastings accepts the morality of area bombing, with its attendant civilian casualties, he believes that America’s naval blockade might have ended the war without an invasion. In 1944 U.S. submarines sank more than six hundred ships, causing Japan’s bulk imports—including vital oil—to fall by forty percent. He quotes from a U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 that concluded, “The war against shipping was the most decisive single factor in the collapse of the Japanese economy.”

Although Hastings devotes most of his attention to the clashes between Japan and the United States, his chapter on the Burma campaign draws attention to a largely forgotten theater. The author has few heroes, but General William Slim, commanding British forces in Burma, is one of them. Hastings also gives China the recognition it deserves, writing, “China’s people paid a vastly more terrible price than any other belligerent nation, at least fifteen million dead, for its part in the struggle against the Japanese.”

Even when their cause appeared lost, the men who fought for Japan displayed courage and a capacity for suffering that bewildered their opponents. The Japanese soldiers—and sailors—evidenced skill in night fighting that kept their enemies constantly on the alert. Not surprisingly, the consensus in Washington was that an invasion of Japan’s Home Islands was to be avoided if at all possible.

Hastings emphasizes the importance of “technological determination”—that the weapons available often determine how a country fights a war. With respect to the Boeing B-29 bomber that incinerated so many Japanese cities, he writes, “It was asking far too much of the [United States] to forgo the use of these aircraft, at a time when the enemy was still resisting fiercely and killing many Americans.” Noting that the contention that Japan was prepared to surrender before Hiroshima has been thoroughly discredited, Hastings concludes, “if the conflict had continued for even a few weeks longer, more people of all nations— and especially Japan—would have lost their lives than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Hastings relies extensively on interviews with veterans on all sides. Thus we learn that Japanese pilots, starved for rice but fed sweet potatoes, suffered stomach cramps at fifteen thousand feet. In northern China, Mao Tse-tung’s army initiated tactical truces with the Japanese to facilitate the opium trade. Russian troops who invaded Manchuria after service in Germany would cry “Hände hoch!” to surrendering Japanese, who didn’t comprehend “Hands high!” On Okinawa, American soldiers made Japanese flags out of silk from parachute flares, shot them full of holes, and sold them to credulous sailors for fifty dollars each.

Two themes dominate this provocative book. The first is the sheer magnitude of the U.S. air and naval buildup in the Pacific. By late 1943, for instance, the United States had seven battleships, twenty-eight carriers, seventy-two escort carriers, and seventy-two cruisers under construction. Warships were coming off the ways faster than crews could be mustered and trained.

By this time, of course, Japan had almost run out of trained pilots. According to Hastings, for every four tons of supplies that the United States shipped to its ground forces in the Pacific, Japan was able to provide its men with just two pounds.

The second theme is that of Japanese brutality. Hastings writes that in Europe, only four percent of British and American POWs died in German hands. Yet in the Pacific theaters twenty-seven percent of Western prisoners in Japanese hands died. Japanese soldiers sent their families photographs of beheadings and executions by bayonet. The author concludes, “The casual sadism of the Japanese towards their prisoners was so widespread, indeed almost universal, that it must be considered institutional.”

Retribution is a worthy sequel to Hastings’ earlier works.


Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here