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Book Review

Killing the Rising Sun:
How America Vanquished World War II Japan
Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
The team of O’Reilly and Dugard has done it again. Another carefully crafted work in the “Killing” series that is—at this writing—rated as the best-selling non-fiction book in the world. It presents an account of the closing days of the war in the Pacific Theatre that is both fascinating and crucially important in understanding why President Harry Truman ordered the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a move that brought the war to a swift end and saved countless lives.

killing rising sun o'reilly
The story opens with the battle for the island of Peleliu, a tiny island of only 5 square miles a few hundred miles east of the Philippines and about 2,000 miles south of Tokyo. Some 11,000 Japanese troops defended Peleliu—soldiers who followed the samurai code of Bushido, in which surrender is a form of dishonor. The Allies wanted the airfield on this little island, from which they could launch air strikes against the Japanese in the Philippines. It was a stopping place in the “island hopping” strategy of the American military.

The Japanese defended Peleliu with unbelievable ferocity. When the fighting was finally over, almost every Japanese soldier had been killed. The Americans suffered more than 15,000 casualties. Eight marines were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in this battle, five of them posthumously. The authors write: “Back in Washington, war strategists begin to ask one vital question: If the Japanese will fight with such determination over a small, remote island of little tactical significance, how many Americans will die when the time comes to invade the Japanese homeland?”

This question will continue to haunt the U.S. military high command, and its ramifications ultimately will lead to the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan.

A significant omission by the authors concerns the country of Korea. Although they mention that Japan renamed Manchuria Manchukuo and that the Japanese “colonized” Korea in 1910 and annexed it in 1933, nowhere in the book do they mention that the Japanese renamed Korea as Chosen. That they did so is incontrovertible. Even during the Korean War (1949–1953), American troops were known to refer to the place as “Frozen Chosen.” Yet even on a map showing the Japanese expansion during the 1931–1939 period, the authors do not show the name Chosen for occupied Korea.

I believe they did this purposely: when the war ended, the Allies, declaring that the renaming of a country by an aggressor was illegitimate, restored the name of Korea to the nation. True, and mentioning this could be seen, say, as a way to strip legitimacy from the name of Palestine, a name that was applied by an aggressor nation—Rome. This could be construed to deny the claim of the Palestinians to the land. I believe the authors wanted to avoid this possibility and so chose to omit any mention of the renaming of Korea as Chosen.

Meanwhile, the island-hopping campaign continued with the invasion of Iwo Jima, another tiny island with only about 8 square miles of mostly flat land—and an air field. Its capture would put the Allied forces within 750 miles of Tokyo, less than half the distance from Peleliu to Tokyo. But this was one of the Japanese homeland islands, and the 21,000 Japanese troops who held the island before the invasion by the Americans fought with even greater tenacity than those in the battle for Peleliu. The losses on both sides were appalling: 6,820 Americans lost their lives and another 19,000 were casualties of battle. The authors write: “Almost twenty-one thousand Japanese soldiers also die or go missing in action. This is virtually their entire garrison, yet Japan is no closer to surrender.”

On March 10, 1945, even as the battle for Iwo Jima still raged, a more ominous event took place in the skies over Tokyo. Three hundred and thirty-four B-29s of the Twenty-First Bomber Command under General Curtis LeMay flew over Tokyo at the unusually low altitude of some 5,000 feet. At 1:00 a.m., the B-29s began dropping two thousand tons of M-69 napalm firebombs on the city. The bombing continued for two hours and twenty minutes. The destruction was incredible.

O’Reilly and Dugard write: “The fire-bombing of Tokyo, known as Operation Meetinghouse, is the most horrific bombing in history, far deadlier than the recent Dresden [Germany] attacks—or any other bombing of the Second World War. . . . As dawn rises over Tokyo, one-fourth of the city has been destroyed. One hundred thousand people are dead; forty thousand are badly burned but alive. One million Japanese are homeless.”

Yet, “the Japanese still will not surrender. Not even when General LeMay repeats the same firebombing in Nagoya, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Kawasaki. Instead, schools in Japan close. As a sign that the nation will fight to the bitter end, all children are put to work producing food or munitions; some are even taught how to operate antiaircraft guns.”

Officials in Washington, anticipating what they saw as the inevitable invasion of the Japanese homeland, grew even more nervous.

On April 1, 1945, American forces invaded the island of Okinawa in the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The invasion was code-named Operation Iceberg. An island much larger than earlier targets of the island-hopping strategy, Okinawa’s 460-odd square miles held a native population of about 300,000, plus about 150,000 troops of the Imperial Japanese Army. O’Reilly and Dugard write: “Okinawa is seventy miles long and averages seven miles wide. The island is part of the Ryukyu archipelago, which Japan annexed in 1879. The island population at the time of the American invasion was approximately 450,000; an estimated 150,000 either committed suicide or were killed in the battle.”

The authors describe the end of this battle: “The date is June 23, 1945. Due to its proximity to Japan, the island now becomes the staging point for the invasion. The battle for Okinawa has raged for eighty-two days. More than twenty thousand Americans are dead. Of the half-million Americans who came ashore, one-third have either been killed or wounded . . . The world will not be safe until Japan is defeated. Yet Japan has not capitulated to another nation in more than two thousand years.” They add that Emperor Hirohito had the power to change that, but he refused to do so.

O’Reilly and Dugard describe the state of the Japanese people at this point: “The psychological toll on the Japanese people is also a liability, yet they represent the nation’s last chance for a proper defense of the homeland. Hungry, homeless, and increasingly humiliated, the populace is now being ordered to adopt the suicidal Ketsu-Go strategy—that is, that all Japanese men women and children will fight to the death.” And they add in a footnote:

Ketsu-Go—Operation Decision—was the official policy of defending Japan to the death. As historian Will Manchester points out in American Caesar, “Manning the nation’s ground defenses were 2,350,000 regular soldiers, 250,000 garrison troops, and 32,000,000 civilian militiamen—a total of 34,600,000, more than the combined armies of the United States, Great Britain, and Nazi Germany . . . Their weapons included ancient bronze cannon, muzzle loading muskets, bamboo spears, and bows and arrows. Even little children had been trained to strap explosives around their waists, roll under tank treads, and blow themselves up. They were called ‘Sherman carpets.’”

The high command in Washington was now convinced that the Japanese were prepared to fight to the last person to defend their ancestral homeland.

On July 16, 1945, two things of signal importance occurred. One, of course, was the explosion of the first nuclear weapon ever made—physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s “gadget.” The Trinity site in the desert of southern New Mexico—which I visited with my wife and grandson in 1987 when it was still slightly radioactive—was the location of this test explosion. Stunned by the enormity of what he and his fellow scientists had created, Oppenheimer quoted lines from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. . . . Now I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”

O’Reilly and Dugard describe the second event that day: “Harry Truman looks out over a most amazing sight: the entire American Second Armored Division standing in formation, awaiting his review. Soldiers, half-tracks, and battle-tested Sherman tanks line the German autobahn just outside Berlin, the olive-drab uniforms of the American soldiers stretching as far as the eye can see.

“Yet as President Harry Truman looks down into the faces of these brave men—many of them just a year out of high school—he knows that the Second Armored’s war may not be over. Already, one million men comprising thirty divisions are making their way around the world to fight the Japanese. It might be only a matter of weeks until the men of the Second board troopships heading for the Pacific.

“That is, unless Harry Truman can find another way to convince the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender.”

Near the end of July 1945, General MacArthur receives shocking news: Japanese troops are pouring onto the island of Kyushu—the southernmost island of the Japanese homeland. Instead of the 80,000 troops that MacArthur believed would be defending the invasion beaches, nine Japanese divisions totaling more than 500,000 men are digging in on the coastline. O’Reilly and Dugard write: “Now it is clear to MacArthur that [the Japanese] will defend the beaches [of Kyushu] with even more fury than the Germans guarded the D-Day landing zones in France. The sands of Kyushu could very well become an American graveyard.”

Even as two nuclear weapons, code named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” are being delivered to the islands from which bombers would take off to drop them, MacArthur is up to no good.

His Operation Olympic—the invasion of Kyushu—is in jeopardy. But “MacArthur is so determined to command Operation Olympic that he has lied about projected casualties to [General George] Marshall. In a June cable to the general, meant for the eyes of President Harry Truman, he assured them that losses would be less than a hundred thousand men.” Although not pointed out by the authors, this bald-faced lie was used later by some critics to claim that the nuclear bombing of Japan was not justified. MacArthur’s figure was too low by at least an order of magnitude—a red herring.

The facts are overwhelmingly against such critics. The sheer number of defenders of the Japanese homeland, their tenacity and allegiance to their emperor, and the ferocity with which the Japanese had defended small, unimportant islands—which would have paled into insignificance compared with the savagery they would have displayed defending their homeland—tell a much different story.

The truth is that our losses likely would have run into the hundreds of thousands, possibly doubling or even tripling our total death toll in the war, and Japanese would have died by the millions. These deaths were avoided by the loss of some 360,000 Japanese lives in the two nuclear bombings.

bombing of nagasaki
The rest is literally history. On August 6, 1945, Little Boy destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Despite the utter destruction rained down by this new weapon, the Japanese still refused to surrender. On August 9, 1945, Fat Man destroyed the city of Nagasaki. This time, the Japanese caved in. Emperor Hirohito said, “It is now necessary to bear the unbearable.” And the war was over.

From my own experience I can say that, at the time, many Americans thought we only had two nuclear weapons ready to use in August of 1945 and that Harry Truman’s threat to continue a reign of terror on the Japanese homeland was a bluff. They were wrong. We had several more nuclear weapons ready to use, and we were making more all the time. The Manhattan Project used large factories—at Hanford, Washington, making weapons grade plutonium, and at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, making enriched uranium-235—to produce nuclear bomb components steadily, assembling them at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

(Note that the term “atomic bomb” is a misnomer: it is the nucleus that is fissioned, not the atom itself. Also, the spelling “Enora Gay” on the hypocenter plaque in Hiroshima may have been deliberate, not accidental. The Japanese have no L sound in their language and are essentially incapable of making a sound like that, so they substitute an R for any Ls in an English word. They call baseball “Beisu Baru” for this reason. The plaque is intended to be read by Japanese, not Americans.)

I believe that the use of these nuclear weapons to end the war accomplished two things:

  1. It demonstrated to the world the true destructive power of nuclear weapons better than any tests ever could have; and
  2. It took world wars between superpowers off the table. In 1962, the threat of MAD (mutually assured destruction) caused Nikita Khrushchev to order Soviet ships carrying armed missiles headed for Cuba to turn around after John Kennedy warned him of the potentially catastrophic results of not doing so.

In a section titled “Postscript” at the end of the book, O’Reilly and Dugard display photocopies of letters from three former presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. All three supported Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan.

Equations balancing lives against each other are always agonizing—but, to paraphrase an old saying, it is better that a third of a million lose their lives than that an entire nation be destroyed.

Regardless of how you may view these facts, what remains indisputable is that Killing the Rising Sun is an excellent read by anyone’s standards.

The authors include graphic descriptions of the fighting on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, some of it in bone-chilling, gory detail. These are similar in many ways to the descriptions of the fighting in their earlier book, Killing Patton. However interesting these details may be—and they will draw the reader’s rapt attention, believe me—they are not the main thrust of the story, which is the inexorable vice of circumstances that ultimately forced America to use nuclear weapons to end a war that seemed to offer no other way out. For this reason, I have chosen not to describe any of these scenes in this review. To find out about them, you will have to read the book yourself.

I highly recommend that you do so.


O’Reilly, Bill, and Martin Dugard. Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. New York: Henry Holt and Company LLC, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62779-062-8 (hardback); ASIN B01CNTUGF4 (Kindle).

Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880–1964. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1967. ISBN 978-0-316-54498-1 (hardback); Back Bay Books, 2008 (paperback reprint). ISBN 978-0-316-02474-7; ASIN B000SEP9OK (Kindle).
About David Thayer

Desktop Publishing for the Twenty-First Century

G. David Thayer