- Historic Sites
The author entered the conquered capital days after the surrender to meet high officers of the Imperial Navy
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
Early on, before our interrogation schedule got into full swing, some of us toured the city. Although I am tall and my uniform made me even more conspicuous, so that I felt at the start a little like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I got no stares or double-takes anywhere. Except that pedestrian traffic seemed a little sparse and auto traffic sparser—understandable enough with half the urban area burned flat, 120,000 killed and wounded, and 1,000,000 homeless—the central city seemed in many respects to have returned to normal. Out walking one afternoon, I happened upon an outdoor symphony concert being given in the tidied-up shell of a bombed-out building. The orchestra members were all in black tie, the conductor was an Austrian, the music was Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Was there a message here? Only the environment seemed out of place, a reminder of the tragedies that had so recently transpired. Vita brevis est; ars longa .
What we had come for, of course, was to gain an assessment of the war, particularly of the naval war as seen from the other side of the horizon. Here the interrogations were of great value, and the officers who had been in positions of high command responsibility seemed to have the most to offer. Among these were three statesmen admirals: Kichisaburo Nomura, who had been the naval attaché in Washington during the First World War and the foreign minister in 1939 and 1940 before becoming Japan’s ambassador to Washington; Osami Nagano, who had served as chief of the Naval General Staff during most of the war; and Mitsumasa Yonai, the navy minister from 1937 to 1939, the prime minister in 1940, and the navy minister again in 1944-1945. Of those on wartime active duty, the most important were perhaps Admiral Nagano; Adm. Soemu Toyoda, the third and last commander in chief of the combined fleet following the deaths of Yamamoto and Koga; and three vice admirals and fleet commanders: Shigeru Fukudome, who had served two tours as chief of staff of the combined fleet; Takeo Kurita, who had commanded the battleships at Saipan and Leyte; and Jisaburo Ozawa, who had commanded the carriers.
The main impression we got from Japanese officers was of how pessimistic they had been about the war, and for how long.
Although we mainly retraced the courses of the campaigns and battles, inevitably there were surprises. We had known that very early in the war a Japanese submarine had surfaced and fired a few shells at some oil tanks near Santa Barbara, but not that a floatplane launched from a submarine off the coast of Washington had flown undetected over Puget Sound, the Bremerton Navy Yard, and Seattle. The fact that the Japanese had made an attempt, however abortive, to build a nuclear bomb was also news. Since the subject was rather beyond our purview and we had no Japanese expert available, the details of why the project was abandoned remained hazy, centering on either a destructive laboratory explosion or a lack of industrial resources, particularly electrical capacity. Oddly, nobody in America seems to have picked up on this until some of the next generation, having overlooked such trifles as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in favor of guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, found themselves rather undercut by the revelation.
We learned a good deal about the Japanese passion for internal security. The battleships Yamato and Musashi , at sixty-four thousand tons the largest ever built, had mounted the largest main batteries ever. But exactly how big were those guns? We asked Admiral Kurita their bore—they had belonged to his command, and the Yamato had been his flagship—and he replied, “I never knew. It was very secret. About forty-five centimeters, I think. Neither did I know the maximum speed of the Yamato . But in formation she was going twenty-six knots.”
Curiosities and tactical details apart, the main impression we all got was of how pessimistic many Japanese naval officers had been about the war, and for how long. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the combined fleet at the beginning, had opposed the conflict; before Pearl Harbor he had predicted that he could run wild for six months and carry on somehow for a year or so, “but after that I do not know.” Nagano had thought that two years would be about the limit Japan could sustain, and in retrospect he saw the failure to recapture Guadalcanal as the turning point, as did Kurita. Some thought the balance had turned at Midway. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had been the flight leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor, told us he had expected a three-year war and thought Japan could hold out for two. He had anticipated the loss of half the Japanese carriers in the attack on Pearl, but nobody laid a glove on them, and this and other early successes led to the delusion they called “victory disease.”