World War II (detail from Pearl Harbor photo)

The Final Blows

In March 1945, U.S. Army Air Forces intensified their strategic bombing campaign over Japan. Instead of flying high-altitude daylight runs against industrial targets, they began low-flying nighttime attacks on cities, with incendiary bombs. Firestorms devastated property and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. On the night of March 9­–10, for example, U.S. bombers destroyed sixteen square miles of Tokyo and killed close to 100,000 men, women, and children. By mid-June, most of Japan’s major cities were gutted. Aerial mines were dropped in harbors while the U.S. Navy launched carrier air attacks against coastal targets. Still the Japanese fought on. An invasion of Japan appeared inevitable.

In July 1945, President Truman made his controversial decision to use atomic weapons that had been developed secretly during the war by Manhattan Project scientists. More than one million troops were moving to invade Japan when the first bomb destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. On August 9, a second atomic bomb leveled Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered.

As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, Allied troops liberated American and European civilians who had been interned by the Japanese in occupied Asian countries. Among the internees were nearly 14,000 U.S. businessmen, missionaries, and teachers and their families. Held captive from Manchuria to Indochina, they endured deplorable conditions, and often cruel treatment at the hands of guards. By the time they were rescued, starvation rations had reduced many of them to living skeletons who had to be carried to safety.

U.S. naval task group bound for the Philippines
General MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte, Philippine Islands, October 1944
Japanese prisoners of war
B-29s from the 468th Bomb Group over Rangoon, Burma, 1944
Bombing damage along the Sumida River, Tokyo
B-29s bombing Kobe, Japan, June 5, 1945
“Loss board” on the submarine tender USS Griffin. From 1943 on, American submarines were highly effective, eventually destroying 55 percent of Japanese ships and strangling the country’s major supply lines.
Kamikaze attack. Late in the war Japan began sending pilots on suicide missions, using their airplanes as guided weapons against U.S. ships.
Tokyo-bound U.S. troops
Atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima
Japanese survivor of atomic bomb
President Truman addressing the nation on August 9, 1945
A seven-man team from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services liberated the Weihsien internment camp, parachuting from a B-24 bomber emblazoned with the American flag. Among the rescuers were Sergeant Tadash T. Nagaki (second from left) and Major Stanley A. Staiger (third from left).
Newspaper accounts of the liberation of 2,122 civilians held captive at the Los Baños internment camp near Manila, Philippines.
Weihsien internment camp in Japanese-occupied northeast China.