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Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45

by Max Hastings, Knopf, New York, 2008, $35.

Max Hastings was a premier 20th century war correspondent. As a military historian he adds to those writing skills and nose for a story a penetrating grasp of the essential. Three years ago Hastings published his account of the last year of World War II in Europe. He has matched that volume with a history of the last year of the war against Japan.

Part of his story is well known. By January 1945 the American military had shattered the power of Imperial Japan. Yet the Japanese had not the slightest intention of surrendering. Nor did they display any sympathy for the horrors being visited on the civilian population of the Home Islands by B-29 incendiary raids.

Instead, the Japanese generals and admirals assumed Americans could not accept the casualties an invasion of the Home Islands would entail. Correctly assuming the Americans would land on Kyushu, they deployed vast numbers of troops to that southern island. In late May 1945 barely 100,000 soldiers were stationed on Kyushu; by late July there were nearly half a million. Only the dropping of the atomic bombs and consequent threat of absolute destruction ended Japanese militarists’ pretensions that they could preserve their honor by refusing to accept the inevitable defeat.

Hastings combines research and multinational interviews with the work of American military historians like Richard Frank and Edward Drea. He then adds a dimension on which few historians of the Pacific Theater, with their American biases, have focused. In addition to the great island-hopping drives of Nimitz and MacArthur, there were other crucial struggles. Field Marshal 1st Viscount Slim’s 14th Army waged a fierce battle against the Japanese in Burma. The Australians grappled with Japanese garrisons in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), while the Japanese conducted their own version of the Eastern Front in China, murdering and abusing the populations of the territories they occupied.

A continuation of the Pacific War would have meant millions of additional casualties—not just American and Japanese but Chinese, Burmese, Malay, Indonesian and others. The fate of Allied POWs would also have been fixed: death by starvation, execution and brutality. Hastings has done a great service with his reminder that the War in the Pacific was not just an American affair with American lives on the line.


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