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Tokyo, 1945

June 2024
16min read

The author entered the conquered capital days after the surrender to meet high officers of the Imperial Navy

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1945, I was a naval officer in Norfolk, Virginia, contemplating my inevitable return to the Western Pacific, when two bombs were dropped, the Soviets entered the war, and the Japanese emperor prevailed on his government to throw in the towel. On August 28 the first occupation forces arrived; on September 2 the formal surrender took place. A few days later Rear Adm. R. A. Ofstie, for whom I was working, called me down the hall and asked if I would like to go to Japan.

Admiral Ofstie had been appointed senior naval member of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which, after a big effort at assessing the virtues of this form of warfare in Germany, was now about to extend its attentions to Japan. But the Pacific war had been a dominantly naval affair, and while there had been plenty of dropping of bombs, it was not what was generally considered “strategic” bombing. No doubt this would be clarified in time. Although demobilization was beginning and I had plenty of points to get out, Japan sounded interesting, so I said I would go.

Admiral Ofstie was a gifted and experienced officer who had served on Admiral Nimitz’s staff and commanded first the Essex and then a division of six escort carriers. Before the war he had been an assistant naval attaché in Tokyo, and his familiarity with those he was about to visit was perhaps a governing reason he had been selected for the job. The other six interrogating officers divided up the war largely on the basis of experience. I, having been through the recapture of the Philippines, drew that campaign.

My unexpected tour of postwar duty began agreeably. I had priority-one air passage, and the luck of the draw got me aboard a Clipper flying boat, under charter from Pan Am, which provided a rare experience of agreeable air travel: takeoff out through the Golden Gate in a fine sunset, a big table set up in the cabin with a cooked meal, and then a comfortable six-and-a-half-foot berth. We settled down in Honolulu Harbor at eight-thirty, and that afternoon it was on to the west—from this time on by Navy transport plane with utilitarian seating. The next morning we reached Guam.

We might have expected some hostility, but all our contacts with Japanese were orderly, correct, and even friendly.

There, while our group was assembling, we worked on planning problems. Late on the night of October 2, in very bumpy weather, I flew up to Japan, pausing for a midnight breakfast of baked beans on Iwo Jima, where a large airstrip had been installed, and then heading on to Tokyo Bay to see the damage. It was impressive. From the airport at Kisarazu we went across the bay by B-25 bomber to the big naval base at Yokosuka and then by jeep down to Yokohama, largely destroyed except for steel and concrete buildings. Yokosuka seemed strangely deserted; since the Japanese armed forces had been abolished by General MacArthur, everybody had gone home, leaving only a handful of laborers and a few aircraft, largely experimental types but including, interestingly, a Navy F6F fighter in apparently good condition. We never did learn how it got there.

On October 5 a couple of were ordered into Tokyo, some twenty miles away, to check out the possible office accommodations. So at 8:00 A.M. Commander Thomas Moorer (who would later be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and I strapped on our sidearms and headed into town in a jeep. The destruction along the way was extensive, with very large areas burned flat but dotted with rusting steel safes—everybody seemed to have had one—and intermittent chimneys. There did remain fairly considerable islands of built-up areas, and there, whenever our jeep slowed, dear little children would appear waving and shouting, “Hurro, hurro,” and then when we sped up, “Kootebai, kootebai.” We were later told that a fair number of those who could afford it had sent their women to the hills to avoid the horrors of occupation. But they had little understood the American GI, homesick and far from home, happy that the shooting was over, lover of small children, and well armed with chocolate and chewing gum. In due course the exiles somewhat sheepishly returned. And this was the last time we carried sidearms.

In Tokyo we managed to find the landmark Meiji Building, where we were assigned the seventh floor, with windows overlooking the palace grounds; a short distance away was the Dai Ichi Building, where General MacArthur held sway. The Meiji Building was a conventional modern office building with nothing exotic except for the men’s rooms, where half the stalls required squatting rather than sitting. The B-29s had been told to stay away from the palace grounds, so these major buildings around it had escaped serious damage. On the grounds all we could see were trees, plus some very large carp in some pretty dirty water in the moat. The substitute emperor, General MacArthur, arrived every morning at a dignified hour from the American Embassy, where he had taken up his quarters.

We busied ourselves working out a protocol that would permit our Naval Analysis Division to fit peacefully into the Strategic Bombing Survey. It was difficult. Some Air Force extremists apparently wanted us to admit that the Navy had contributed nothing to the strategic bombing effort and hence nothing to victory. No doubt this was true in the strictest sense, but that overlooked the three-year campaign that had given the B-29s their bases within bombing range of Tokyo and the shipment of construction material for airstrips, barracks, machine shops, and other ancillary gear and of great quantities of fuel and ammunition. So the purpose was broadened to an assessment of air power in the naval war and of the naval war in general. With this in mind we got permission from General MacArthur to retain a nucleus of officers from the newly abolished Japanese military to provide information and research and to produce officers for interrogation.

As we began the search for documents, we met problems: the papers had been “burned in air raids” or “destroyed by ill-advised people” and so on. Interrogations were also hard going at the start. We thought it natural to begin at the beginning: “Where were you when the war began?” But this went slowly, perhaps because of fear of war crimes problems or just because of the unprecedented nature of the exercise. But we found that when we began at the middle or end of the war and got people engaged, it was easy to work backward. In the end we recorded 118 interrogations, an extremely valuable body of material on the entire course of the Pacific war.

Interrogations, of course, brought up the language barrier, and there the Japanese had it all over us. Just about all their naval officers could speak some English; some were fluent but preferred to use interpreters. One of our interpreters was absolutely first-class; others were making progress. Those of us doing the interrogating had in effect an immersion course in naval Japanese, but even with a focused vocabulary two months is a short time. Still, we got some encouragement from the extent of Japanese transliteration of foreign terms: rajio for “radio,” bata for “butter,” biru for “beer.”


Hastily recruited, we had come to Japan unknowing or unthinking about what would greet us there. To most it was just a new assignment, another change of duty, something to which naval officers are accustomed. To the few who had been in Japan before the war, there were no doubt familiar aspects, but this was a new and different country. In the years since Pearl Harbor, Japan had subjugated a very large oceanic vacuum, with unopposed or barely opposed carrier strikes, from the Hawaiian Islands to Southeast Asia to northern Australia to Ceylon. It had occupied the islands of the Central Pacific, the Philippines, and Dutch East Indies, Indochina, Malaysia, and Burma.

But things had changed. From the shattering blow to Japan’s carrier strength at Midway in June 1942 and the failure to retake Guadalcanal, it had all been downhill, slowly at first and then, as the new American Navy came into commission, by leaps and bounds. The loss of Saipan in 1944 had provided the Americans with bomber bases within range of the homeland, permitting increasingly dev astating air attacks; the loss of the Philippines had cut off access to the Southern Resources Area for which the country had gone to war. By the summer of 1944, if not earlier, Japan was in bad straits. The armed forces ran short of both fuel and pilots; the food supply began to pinch; the few automobiles that remained on the streets were running off charcoal. With surrender there had been some concern that the occupation forces would attempt to live off the land, but in a mixture of wise policy and impressive logistics all our food came with us.

So also did tobacco. This was the cigarette-smoking age, and a batch of naval officers, American and Japanese, could produce a sizable quantity of butts in a day. When the Meiji Building janitor appeared at the end of the afternoon to empty wastebaskets, he carefully separated out every single butt. Despite their shortage of strategic materials, the Japanese had managed to fabricate a supply of miniature brass pipes, with curved stems and bowls just the diameter of a cigarette; with these they could get half of the good out of a butt without burning their fingers. And get American tobacco! The janitor must have done a good business off us.

But not everyone in Tokyo could benefit from the soothing effects of American nicotine. Given the strains of a long and lost war and the destruction inflicted by the bombing campaign—deaths in the great March 9, 1945, fire raid on Tokyo had exceeded those of either of the atomic bombs—one might have expected some demonstrations of hostility. In fact none developed, and our contacts with individual Japanese, whether naval officers or waitresses, were orderly, correct, and even, as time went by, friendly.

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.”

One officer of whom we heard rumors but never interviewed was Rear Adm. Sokichi Takagi, a member of the Naval General Staff secretariat, who from at least the time of Midway had been much concerned about the future. Ordered to produce a study of the lessons of the war to date, Takagi in late 1943 and early 1944 had systematically analyzed the losses so far and concluded that success was impossible and a compromise peace necessary. But his conclusions never saw the light of day; the army was in control, and the fear of assassination was too strong.

Even at the highest levels this was true. Admiral Toyoda told of a meeting of the Supreme War Guidance Council on June 6, 1945, when ending the war had been under active consideration for more than a month. The group concluded that “the nation’s war power was bound to decline very rapidly. [But] that is not to say that anyone there expressed the opinion that we should ask for peace; for when a large number of people are present like that, it is difficult for any one member to say that we should so entreat. So the decision was that something must be done to continue this war.”

Both Germany and Japan kept fighting for more than a year in causes that were doomed; only the logical Italians took the rational way out. Admiral Fukudome had all along thought the outcome was doubtful; with the loss of the Marianas, “I felt that the last chance had slipped from us definitely; [the] fact that I realized that, however, does not mean that it had any effect upon our determination or will to fight.” Similarly, when Admiral Kurita turned back briefly under a heavy air attack while en route to oppose the Philippine landings, Admiral Toyoda ordered him on: “There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines.”

In any event both fleet and Philippines were lost. Still, with its empire divided and its resources cut off, Japan fought on, necessitating very hard campaigns for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Despite further changes of government in Tokyo and the underlying pessimism (or realism) of numerous senior civilians and naval officers, every setback produced merely statements of defiance and continued resistance, until the atomic bombs fell and the Soviets came in.


But even then the will to fight endured. “I do not think it would be accurate to look upon use of the Atomic Bomb and the entry and participation of Soviet Russia into the war,” said Admiral Toyoda, “as direct cause of termination of the war, but I think that those two factors did enable us to bring the war to a termination without creating too great chaos in Japan.”

Some chaos there was. attempts were made to seize and destroy the recording of the emperor’s surrender statement before it could be broadcast, to suborn parts of the Tokyo garrison, and to kill cabinet ministers. The lord privy seal spent the night cowering in the palace basement; the prime minister got over his garden fence just before the troops came in the front door. There was talk of suicide attacks on the American fleet, and the authorities had a hard time guarding supplies of fuel and ammunition. Also, there were a number of suicides among the military, including the war minister; the commander of the Tokyo military district; Adm. Takajiro Onishi, the founder of the kamikaze corps; and Adm. Matome Ugaki, chief of staff to Admiral Yamamato in the early months of the war, who took off in an airplane and killed himself by crashing into the sea. Both because of his interest as a subject for interrogation and because he had fired on me from the Yamato one morning off the Philippines, I regretted his passing.

These ructions turned out to be mercifully brief, although some Japanese thought it fortunate that bad weather had delayed General MacArthur’s arrival by a couple of days. Had we known about them before our arrival, which we had not, we would have found the general peace and good order that prevailed a bare month later even more remarkable than we did. As it was, our interrogations and search for documents started up promptly, as if they were the most normal thing in the world, and ran in a steady stream, morning and afternoon.

We victors were too busy to think much about spoils, but I did accept a fine samurai sword from a former staff officer of the 2d Air Fleet who about a year earlier had been doing his best to sink me. Another gift I didn’t know how to cope with came from Capt. Toshikaza Ohmae of the Naval War College, an officer who had become a major source of information and facilitation of our interviews. I went out to see him when weather was getting cool and heat was short. The tables at which we worked were covered with blankets that extended to the floor, enclosing electric heaters so that at least our feet would stay warm. On the wall of the room we were using there hung a sizable oil painting, perhaps five feet by eight feet, of a tempestuous marine scene. When I admired it, I was told that it represented the original kamikaze, or “divine wind,” which in 1281 demolished an invading Mongol fleet. Totally unexpectedly Ohmae asked me, “Would you like it?’ Uncertain at first of what he had said and puzzled about the etiquette of the situation, I asked him to repeat. Then I thanked him but said I thought it belonged where it was. What did not occur to me, under the pressure of the moment, was that where it was was about to be abolished as soon as we left Tokyo.

On one occasion I did acquire a little loot. One afternoon, with some rare spare time, I took my only excursion outside Tokyo, driving out to the west in pretty country with a fine view of Mount Fuji. Happening upon a naval air station, I drove in to investigate. It was deserted, without even a watchman that I could find. But I did find a warehouse with all sorts of good things made to military specifications sitting purposelessly on open shelves. There is, of course, only so much a man can carry, so I had to restrain myself, but I did get a parachute to provide my wife with some silken yard goods and a bomber navigator’s compass that I found useful for my sailboat.

Only twice did I get inside Japanese houses, both times courtesy of a colleague who had worked in Tokyo before the war. The first time was when he found that some acquaintances of his were having a kind of tag sale of kimonos and silks, priced high in yen but low in cigarettes. What they really wanted was penicillin; this was surprising, for the stuff had come into production only during the war. The second time was when he took me along to lunch at the home of a minor-league captain of industry. The house was not particularly large but was certainly comfortable: a central court and pool with puddle ducks, a marble Caucasian nude in the middle and another one inside over the fireplace, much kneeling and scraping by the servants. The food was delicious: wild duck and salmon. Clearly not everyone was on short rations. The host and hostess were very pleasant; he appeared to have a considerable hangover.

I doubt we would have felt like going to a Nazi party just months after V-E Day, but this seemed the most natural thing in the world.

For our part we entertained little. We did have to dinner Captain Ohmae, who had been so helpful in arranging and scheduling. Additionally we (I mean, the admiral) had Ambassador Nomura for dinner one evening. Two other bigwigs had been asked but did not show up, but Nomura was all we needed. Dignified and affable, he was an impressive presence, and he endeared himself to us by bringing along two or three bottles of the imperial household’s Old Suntori five-chrysanthemum Japanese scotch. It was good.

By the time we were down to our last two or three scheduled interrogations we were under orders to make an early departure. On November 22 the staffs of the War College and Liaison Office gave us a farewell dinner. This may seem odd. After all, they had lost their navy, their careers were ended, and their country was in ruins. But in their relations with us they were always disciplined and professional: the nuclear bombs had been merely technically interesting; the much worse fire raids were a matter of course; they knew who had started the war; and they worked hard to make friends. I doubt very much that we would have felt like going to a Nazi party only months after V-E Day, but this seemed the most natural thing in the world.

In any case it was done up in fine style: sushi, a soup consisting of meatballs and spaghetti in water, broiled sparrow, baked eel, sukiyaki (beef provided by us), and sake and whiskey (the latter provided by us as well). Also a clutch of very attractive geisha, equipped with a windup gramophone and a stack of records of Japanese popular music. A fine time was had by all, so much so that the affair ran overtime, the sake ran out, and in the absence of either water or ice we were reduced to drinking whiskey neat, with predictable results. I remember a serious discussion of Buddhism and the emperor system with one of my neighbors at the table and that my other neighbor was unable to stand up when the party was over. Fortunately all of us conquerors made it.

That was the grand finale. The next afternoon I got a ride down to the airport at Kisarazu and headed out to Pearl, Oakland, and Washington. There we settled in for a few months of editorial work on our two volumes of Interrogations and one volume of Campaigns of the Pacific War . After that it was demobilization.

The endings of major wars are important punctuation marks in history, but history, being change, goes on, and in a way the story never ends. Two examples: First, having been through the affair and having talked to a fair number of Japanese participants, I published shortly after getting out of the Navy a small book on the Japanese side of the Battle for Leyte Gulf. It sold reasonably well in America, but it did really well in Japan, which had been starved for honest accounts of the war. Soon I found myself a millionaire in yen blocked from free exchange. That was about enough for a summer trip to Japan for my wife and me, to give her a look at the place, to give me a look at something outside Tokyo, and perhaps to call on some of my acquaintances. Unfortunately my Japanese publisher had used the proceeds to subsidize publication of an uncle’s poetry, and poetry didn’t sell like naval war. The publisher went bankrupt, his creditors descended and stripped his office bare, and not a yen did I receive. I still haven’t been back.

The second event, of rather more significance than my troubles with publishers, was the postwar career of Mitsuo Fuchida, the highly intelligent and attractive leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war Fuchida converted to Christianity, and in 1952 he became a Christian missionary. As a naval aviator he had never been farther east than the air over Pearl Harbor, but the banner of the cross took him farther than that of the Rising Sun. In 1959 he toured North America and reached as far as Brooklyn, as a member of the Worldwide Christian Missionary Army of Sky Pilots.

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