Read about our forum participants.

Day 1

Question: How close did America come to using poison gas in their attacks on places like Pelilieu and Iwo Jima? -R. Chyka, West Seneca, New York

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

Early in the war, President Franklin Roosevelt officially announced that the U.S. would only use poison gas in retaliation for first use by the Axis powers. I am not aware of any serious consideration by senior American officials of initiating use of poison gas prior to Iwo Jima. Due to the severity of losses in the assault landings from the fall of 1943 to the end of 1944, as well as the relatively small size, isolated location and lack of civilian population on Iwo Jima, senior officers up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a proposal for preemptive use of poison gas against the Japanese garrison. This proposal reached President Roosevelt as the Commander in Chief; he vetoed it.

In May 1945 General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the Army, revived the idea of using poison gas against bypassed Japanese defenses during the invasion of Japan. He intended to use poison gas on a relatively limited scale against individual bunkers, caves and the like housing detachments of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. Marshall apparently did not envision spraying over a wide area. This proposal reached President Harry Truman in June. He vetoed it on the basis that it violated the policy of "no first use" set by President Roosevelt. What might have happened if the U.S. became embroiled in a lengthy and very costly struggle in the Japanese Home Islands is hard to say.

In 1945 there was serious and detailed examination of the use of chemical warfare against the Japanese rice crop. The intention was to force a Japanese capitulation by starvation. The Judge Advocate General of the Army ruled that the applicable treaties then binding the U.S. forbade the use of chemical weapons against human beings, but not against plants and therefore using chemical weapons against Japanese rice fields was legal. This proposal remained under consideration for use in 1946 when the war ended.

Answered by Edward Drea:

Edward Drea

Official U.S. policy was that the United States would not be the first to use poison gas but would use it in retaliation if the enemy (Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan) resorted to gas warfare.

The United States considered using poison gas shortly after the battle for Tarawa in November 1943. The chief of the Army's chemical-warfare service believed that the United States had an overwhelming advantage over Japan in this field and that gas could shorten the war.

The United States also stockpiled poison gas munitions -- chemical artillery shells, chemical bombs, and spray tanks -- in the Pacific by mid-1945. Plans were being prepared to use these weapons in retaliation if the Japanese resorted to chemical or gas warfare.

The heavy U.S. losses on Iwo Jima in February 1945 and Okinawa in April and May 1945, however, made some more receptive the use of gas against Japanese troops. On May 29, 1945 General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, talked to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson about the use of the atomic bomb. After that he discussed the possibility of using gas against outlying islands. He mentioned saturating with mustard gas last pockets of resistance that had no other military significance. In mid-June 1945 Marshall sent Fleet Admiral Ernest King an Army study that claimed the use of gas could shorten the war and decrease American casualties.

The question was seriously debated by senior military commanders in the summer of 1945, but it centered on tactical use of gas, that is using gas against last-ditch suicidal pockets of Japanese defenders. The strategic use of gas on a massive scale was not seriously studied nor proposed by any senior American leader.


Question: Why was the U.S. strategy to island hop rather than invade directly? Why the South Pacific and not north? Toward the end of the war, why didn't the U.S. lay siege to many of these islands including Japan itself? What islands were left with Japanese troops, that the US never invaded, and how many troops were there? Why didn't Japan move these troops to where the action was instead of wait to defend? Why didn't Japanese troops ever retreat and regroup? Rather than commit suicide bonzai charges in so many battles? -T.B., Matawan, New Jersey

Answered by Edward Drea:

The U.S. island hopping strategy was one imposed by enormous distances across the Pacific Ocean and the technological restrictions of the mid-1940s. The Japanese had strong carrier and land based air units protecting the approaches to Japan. The United States had to reduce this defensive perimeter by seizing key bases and bypassing (or hopping over others). The strategy depended on isolating the Japanese defenders from reinforcements and controlling the skies about the contested island. Because the range of fighter aircraft was limited in the mid-1940s, operations were planned around this factor. Once U.S. forces captured an island, they built forward logistics bases to support the next invasion.

The South Pacific and Central Pacific were the main approach routes to Japan. In 1942 and 1943 the United States did launch a counteroffensive in the Aleutian Islands. The harsh North Pacific weather made large-scale air, naval, or ground operations almost impossible to conduct with any degree of coordination. The U.S. Navy had studied the Central Pacific route since the 1920s, and their World War II campaigns generally followed the outline of the prewar studies.

In 1945 the Navy did propose to blockade Japan to force the Japanese military to surrender. Senior officials were anxious to end the war quickly and decided that this protracted strategy would draw out the conflict.

There were more than 140,000 Imperial soldiers and sailors isolated in the Netherlands East Indies, 120,000 cut off in New Guinea, 88,000 stranded in the Bismarcks, and another 180,000 marooned throughout islands of the central and northern the Pacific. Another 1,000,000 Japanese troops occupied China and there were large Japanese forces in Manchuria (700,000) and Korea (250,000) as well. There were also about 1.5 million Japanese troops in the four main islands.

The Japanese did move some troops from Manchuria to the home islands in preparation for the decisive battle of Japan. They could not move troops who were cut off in the Pacific for several reasons. First, the units lacked the shipping necessary to transport such large numbers of troops. Second, U.S. and allied submarines had by mid-1945 sunk most of the Japanese merchant marine, so shipping was unavailable to move the units. Third, even if the Japanese had the ships, they would still have to fight their way through the Americans who had them surrounded. As the Japanese navy was by this point at the bottom of the ocean, they had no chance of success against the stronger U.S. naval and air forces.

The Japanese usually resorted to suicide charges (banzai attacks) when they were on the verge of defeat on small islands. On larger island like New Guinea they did retreat, regroup, and reorganize to fight again. They also withdrew troops from Guadalcanal when it became clear they could not longer defend that island. But the Japanese army regulations made surrender a court martial offense and the troops were indoctrinated with the concept that they had to fight to the death. Officers and non-commissioned officers enforced these army regulations, leaving the soldier no choice but to make a banzai attack when all hope was gone.


Question: My dad served aboard the USS San Francisco in the Pacific theater during WWII and was off the coast of Korea when the war ended. He refused to talk about his experiences before his untimely death at the age of 49, but I am firmly convinced that had the U.S. not dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki my brothers and I might never have been born.

I also know many vets of the ETO. To a man they applaud the dropping of the atomic bombs if not the destruction they caused. They had seen enough of war and death and brutality. The a-bombs were the only way to save them from the same fate they had seen many of their buddies suffer whether it be instant death, a wound that might get them home at last, or worst of all a mortal wound that caused intense pain before the soldier finally died. Not to mention the death and destruction that would have been visited upon the Japanese people had the invasion taken place. The losses would have been enormous on both sides.

With all of the above in mind, is there a historian who truly thinks that the a-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not justified thus bringing the war to a quick close, rather than invading Japan and extending the carnage for at least a year? -J. L., Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Answered by Austin Hoyt:

Austin Hoyt

Many historians feel the atomic bombs were unnecessary because they feel Japan was defeated and on the brink of surrender. They base their argument that Japan was about to surrender on the intercepted diplomatic cable traffic that indicated the Emperor wanted to send a special envoy to Moscow to get the Soviet Union to mediate an end to the war. While it is true the Emperor wanted Soviet mediation, his government had not decided what terms it would accept. As the program pointed out, we know from the July 22nd summary of cable traffic that simply allowing the Emperor to survive was not acceptable to the Japanese war cabinet. Also the Truman administration may have distrusted Japanese diplomatic efforts because Japan was still engaged in diplomacy when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

People who argue Japan was about to surrender also ignore the military intercepts which indicate an increase in the divisions defending the invasion beaches on the southern island of Kyushu from three in June to nine in July to 13 in early August and a fight to the death attitude on the part
of the Imperial Army.

The primary proponents of this school of thought are Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth and Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed.

Many thanks for your interest in "Victory in the Pacific."


Question: Were there any nuclear experiences in Japan and had they any chance to make an atomic bomb? -Luka Kalandarishvili, Tbilisi, Georgia

Answered by Richard Frank:

Richard Frank

Typical of the Japanese war effort, both the Imperial Army and the Imperial Navy mounted atomic bomb projects. The Japanese came to recognize, however, that they lacked the capital, resources and raw materials (particularly enough uranium) required for a program that offered any prospect of success in any time frame that would be useful in the war. There is at least one book length account that claims the Japanese had a successful program, mainly in what is now North Korea, and that this program was on the cusp of success in producing a nuclear device just as the war ended. I do not find this account convincing, nor do I know of any other serious scholar of this period who does.

The Japanese atomic bomb program, however, was very significant. While that effort did not produce a usable weapon, it did make key Japanese officials highly conversant with the stupendous scientific and engineering challenges in producing a weapon, especially the manufacture of sufficient fissionable material for a supply of bombs. Consequently, even after President Truman announced that Hiroshima had been hit with an atomic bomb, Japan's most senior military leaders immediately erected two lines of defense. The first was that whatever happened to Hiroshima, it was not an atomic bomb -- or at least they would not concede this until there was an official investigation with a nuclear physicist. Before this survey of Hiroshima was complete, however, the Chief of the Naval General Staff, Admiral Toyoda Soemu, articulated the second line of defense: even if the U.S has an atomic weapon, it can not have many of them, they can not be that powerful or the U.S. will be deterred from using them by international outrage.

What this illustrates is that a demonstration of an atomic bomb would not have worked, just as a team of U.S. scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer predicted. The Japanese would have demanded multiple detonations to prove the U.S. had a real stockpile of usable and powerful weapons, not merely enough fissionable material for a one time bluff. The U.S. did not, in fact, have a large stockpile. Records show just two were used in August; another seven would have been ready by November 1. The bombs were in important part a bluff. On the other hand, the close proximity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have appeared as a direct answer to Toyoda's doubts about the number and power of the bombs in the U.S. stockpile and the U.S. intention to use them.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.