Marines on Guam

Marines plant the American flag on Guam, July 21, 1944. The U.S. island-hopping campaign was a successful but bloody affair, and presaged the likelihood of staggering casualties with the impending U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands.

By Jim Buchanan


August is coming up, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. There will be remembrances, commemorations, solemn ceremonies and a renewed debate over the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities.

Looking back, we think of that month as the final chapter in a conflict that devastated much of the globe and claimed countless millions of lives. But a closer look shows that, due to the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project, which produced the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, virtually no American, or anyone on the planet, for that matter, had an inkling the conflict was about to end.

The general mood was that WWII had only hit halftime. The county was filled with men on furlough rotating from Europe toward the Pacific front. The Sylva Herald encapsulated the mood of joyful reunions, and the dark days that lay ahead, in an Aug. 1, 1945 editorial:




These are the months of the big furlough. These are months in which every single day finds new returning boatloads of American soldiers docking at our ports from Europe. A few of these young veterans are back on these shores to stay, some because of wounds received in action, and others because their point ratings entitle them to discharge. Yet most of these men who are back from foxholes and ruins in Europe are here on 30-day furloughs, merely stopping off on their way to the final phase of the war … the war against Japan. These are momentous days. These are days of happy reunions … but they are days of sad parting too. There can be no true rejoicing when heartfelt “hellos” must be followed with “goodbye” again. In a few weeks the tempo of the war in the Pacific will step up. Our sons, daughters and husbands will be there, fighting to end the second phase of World War II. More of us will again be having anxious hours of hoping and praying for the safe return of loved ones from the terror of battle. Now, while we are reunited with these soldier veterans who will so soon be on their way to the Pacific, we must resolve to keep their faith in us. We must keep our courage high. And we must buy bonds, give blood, cut pulpwood or do any others of those important jobs that will help our fighting men … hastening the day of permanent furloughs.



There was little doubt about the eventual outcome, but the outlook was grim.

Back in 2010 D.M. Giangreco released “Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947.” The former editor for Military Review plowed through previously classified materials from the U.S. and Japan regarding their views of an invasion of the Japanese home islands.

In essence, the Japanese thought they could bleed U.S. forces until they would tire and give up. U.S. leaders knew it would be a horrible grind but were set on unconditional surrender.

It was a combination guaranteed to devastate both nations in a manner unlike the prior portion of the war, as it would be much more of a head-to-head affair. Great Britain, France, Canada and the Soviet Union had been engaged in war longer than the U.S. and were expected to play relatively minor roles in a Japanese invasion.

Giangreco told National Public Radio that U.S. planners concluded the low end of the casualty range would be 250,000 American casualties, and in the range of a million on the high end.

“While we were looking at some of our own casualty estimates,” he told NPR, “the Japanese military was doing much the same thing, and the figure of 20 million appears again and again.”

The appendix to Giangreco’s book included a letter written by author James Michener that summed up the reaction of many Americans to the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“…I stood there on the lip of the pulsating volcano, and I know that I was terrified at what might happen and damned relieved when the invasion became unnecessary. I accept the military estimates that at least 1 million lives were saved, and mine could have been one of them.”