What does it mean to fight to the end? In April 1942, it meant fighting until my tank battalion and I were forced to surrender at the Battle of Bataan. For everything else that followed I only fought to survive: the Bataan Death March, brutal transport aboard a “hell ship” to Japan and slave labor in a Mitsui coal mine.
For my imperial Japanese enemy, in contrast, to fight to the end meant to give his life in a presumably noble and glorious fashion. He would die for the emperor—who ruled by divine right—confident that he would be enshrined with his ancestors for his efforts in defense of a mythic civilization. There could be no surrender and no negotiated peace. Death itself was beautiful, and death alone was honorable.
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Like its erstwhile ally Nazi Germany, Japan was fighting an ideological war. A superior race was destined to guide those less graced. Death for the empire earned a blessed afterlife in their emperor-god’s eternal favor. For a loyal subject, surrender was a betrayal of everything that sustained the empire’s system of patriotic values. The only option in the face of certain battlefield defeat was to fight to the death.
Japan tried to keep fighting long after any chance of victory was gone. On the mainland, women, children and the elderly were armed with sharpened bamboo sticks. Beginning in May 1945, schools for disabled children were ordered to organize military units and women ordered to serve in volunteer combat units. Young men were recruited by the hundreds for kamikaze missions aboard wooden gliders or small boats.
The country’s infamous biological-weapons research program was hard at work concocting flea-borne plague agents to float by submarine and balloon towards populated American shores. By late-spring 1945, some incendiary explosives called fugo had already landed on the West Coast.
On Okinawa during the 82-day battle from early April to mid-June 1945, the Japanese military instructed civilians to fight and die rather than surrender to the advancing U.S. forces. Civilian households, comprised almost entirely of women and children, were given grenades and encouraged to destroy themselves along with any Americans they might encounter. Many did.
In late spring 1945, I saw that the cruelty with which we prisoners of war were treated was only increasing. Our guards told us that Japanese units facing attack had received orders to kill all military and civilian POWs in their custody. They were to unburden themselves to focus on the fight. The executions were to begin Aug. 17*.
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Early** on the morning of Aug. 9, from the POW camp where I was held some 30 miles across a bay, I saw the sky over Nagasaki change. It glowed red and the air turned warm against my skin.
Until then, red was the color of my subjugation. My Japanese guards were certain that red had a uniquely Japanese meaning. It wasn’t just the central color of their flag, it was viewed as emotionally representative of their pure spirit and sincerity. The red sky over Nagasaki ended those illusions.
At that moment, I made a bet with a friend that soon we would all be set free. I was right.
Japan’s surrender saved us. The dropping of the bombs, as Emperor Hirohito himself acknowledged, was the only thing that made that surrender possible. As he explained to his subjects, “Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation.” The bombs’ indiscriminate, total devastation, as no battle or bombing before it, showed the consequences of trying to fight to the end. The bombings destroyed hope and glory, past and future.
It’s also true that the bombings were acts of tragic and unprecedented violence. The bomb—this “cruel weapon,” as the stunned emperor recorded in his surrender message on Aug. 15—ruined two cities, brought suffering and death to many tens of thousands of people and drastically altered landscapes and ecologies. Its use also transformed the nature of modern warfare and erased the last faint lines separating civilian and military, illegitimate and legitimate targets.
We POWs—men who were starved and tortured, who suffocated in the holds of hell ships, who were beaten at will, who died for lack of medical care and who saw friends worked to death—have no doubt that the atomic bombs ended the war. The bombs took away all the justifications for Japan to continue to fight.
The visual obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that Japan could soon cease to exist. Or as the emperor concluded, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.” There would be no glorious end.
Mr. Tenney served in the 192nd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Army.