Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945–47

By D. M. Giangreco. 363 pp. Naval Institute Press, 2009. $36.95.

Readers of military history who seek tales of heroism in battle and the excitement of decisive maneuver on land, sea, and air tend to shun books that examine logistics, staff planning, and manpower estimates. That is even truer when the work, like this one, deals with an operation that was never actually launched. Don’t make that mistake—or you will miss out on a story every bit as gripping and illuminating as any account of combat operations.

D. M. Giangreco has tackled some of the toughest and most enduring questions of World War II history: What were the casualty estimates for operations Olympic and Coronet, the planned amphibious landings on Kyushu and Honshu in late 1945 and 1946? On what information were these estimates based, and when did senior decision makers have them at their disposal? A whole subfield of Pacific war studies has grown up around such questions. Critics of president Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs emphasize the lower casualty estimates, arguing that any talk of hundreds of thousands of dead was a postwar invention intended to justify the atomic strikes. Defenders of the decision maintain that figures of at least 500,000 battle deaths were widely discussed, disseminated, and believed. Giangreco is firmly in the latter camp, and his thorough analyses of Allied planning and Japanese defensive measures provide powerful ammunition for his position.

Hell to Pay takes us through the nuts-and-bolts planning for the invasion: the transfer of units and personnel from Europe, the selection of landing sites, the plans to construct an artificial harbor, and the information gleaned from the fanatical Japanese defense of the Marianas, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. No stone is left unturned: Giangreco examines the need to secure an adequate supply of highly perishable blood for transfusions, as well as sufficient Purple Heart medals. Though he does not engage in counterfactual analysis, he does note shrewdly that several post–V-J Day typhoons would have made a difficult operation even harder.

Japanese defenses, already formidable by August 1945, likely would have been stronger by late fall, despite the effects of the American blockade. Giangreco convincingly portrays the steep learning curve of the defenders, who sought to inflict bloody casualties on the American invaders, thereby seeking to salvage “some form of victory” in the shape of a “new deal.” Conventional troop and artillery deployments took full advantage of the terrain, augmented by suicide submarines and speedboats, and thousands of wooden kamikaze aircraft, difficult to detect on radar and less vulnerable to proximity-fuzed antiaircraft fire. Fuel and ammunition for this defense had already been stockpiled for the day the Americans finally came ashore. In short, Kyushu and Honshu were designed to be maximum killing fields of the type that had already staggered American planners and perforated home-front support for a continuing war of attrition against Imperial Japan.

All of this material is very effectively presented in a series of short, focused, hard-hitting chapters. Valuable appendices, which include the American intelligence assessments of the enemy situation on, and defense plans for, Kyushu, provide additional detail and punch. Especially poignant is a letter from novelist James Michener, written decades after the war, which relates his conversations with army doctors and soldiers who were preparing for the invasion of Japan about their fears of the bloodbath to come, and their exultation when news of Japan’s surrender came so suddenly that August.

Hell to Pay, a worthy complement to Richard B. Frank’s classic Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, will not end the decades-long debate about the endgame in the Pacific, but its presentation of hard facts and thorough analysis is undeniably compelling.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.