The scale and number of twists and turns World War 2 had over a span of a few years has been fodder for multiple generations of historians and conspiracy theorists alike. Not the ones to be left out, many writers too have successfully utilized the ‘What if?’ trope of writing (popularly known as Alternate History or althist) to create situations that make for very interesting reading. It also serves as a sort of a ‘through the looking glass’ experience, where the slightest turn of chance might have seen us living out a different version of history altogether.
1945: A Novel explores the possibility of Japan refusing to surrender even after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The American armed forces had a contingency plan in place for this occurrence, titled Operation Downfall. It called for an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and anticipated the conflict stretching for another four to five years with bloody, vicious armed combat from the beaches to the cities until the last Japanese soldier had been subdued. Although predicting an American victory at the end of those years of fighting, the plan took into account the fanatical adherence of the Japanese to the code of Bushido which made death an option preferable to surrender and estimated heavy losses for the Americans in terms of manpower and materiel.
Historically, the decision taken by Emperor Hirohito to surrender unconditionally was not as universally accepted as we are led to believe. A faction of the more traditionally militant leaders in the Japanese armed forces saw the surrender as an affront to the code of Bushido and were convinced that it would lead to a complete destruction of the Japanese culture and way of life. These leaders attempted a coup d’état against the Emperor, trying to capture him and the recorded message created by him which ordered all Japanese to “endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable”. They wanted to continue fighting and force the Allies into sustaining heavy losses. This would help them either negotiate a surrender on their own terms or have almost the entire population of Japan kill themselves ‘like shattered jewels’ in a series of head-on, suicidal attacks.
The coup ultimately failed because of the loyalty of the Imperial Guards to the Emperor and the refusal of War Minister Korechika Anami (known as the most powerful figure in Japan besides the Emperor himself) to side with the rebels. The rebels were forced to surrender and either committed Sepukku rather than get captured or were executed. What Conroy does is give us the flip side of this pivotal event – what if Anami had not only sided with but commanded the rebels in the coup? What if the coup had been successful, with the Emperor a prisoner of the pro-war faction? What if the USA had to prepare for a long drawn out campaign in the Pacific Theatre with little or no help from the other Allies?
The Emperor is captured alive by the rebel forces, along with the only two copies made of his surrender speech, both of which are destroyed. The message that goes out to the Allies the next day, rather than the anticipated one of surrender, is that of a Japan led by War Minister Anami ‘speaking for the Emperor’ and calling for continued war. An astonished and enraged President Truman is informed of the existence of Operation Downfall (which among other aspects, also has US troops from the European Theatre being transferred to the Pacific Theatre) and gives his approval to put it into motion. In addition, the plan calls for more atomic bombs to be dropped on Japanese cities as a way of breaking the morale of the civilian population.
The other Allies cannot provide a lot of help. Britain’s economy is badly affected by the war, and their focus is more towards retaining whichever colonies of theirs they can, while France is just beginning to put its broken country together. The only ally with enough strength to help, Russia, has its own agenda for the territories overrun by Japan on the Asian mainland. They take the opportunity to invade the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, all the way up to Seoul. At the same time, they are aiding Mao’s communist forces in China against Chiang Kai-Shek.
The Japanese, meanwhile, are making plans of their own. They know of the possibility of more atomic bombs being dropped, and to counter that – in a direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions – they bring in Allied POWs from as far as China and the Philippines and stockade them in Japanese cities. They also begin clandestine talks with the Russians to salvage their remaining army in Manchukuo and bring them to the Home Islands. As a result, after dropping just one more atomic bomb on another city after Nagasaki, the Americans revert to conventional bombing runs. They simultaneously start building up Okinawa as the base from which they will launch the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and the overall command of the invasion is given to General Douglas MacArthur.
Conroy’s MacArthur is a far cry from the real General. He is an overly confident, glory-seeking egomaniac with his eye on the 1948 Presidential elections, and all his decisions are made keeping that final goal in mind. He has a small, tight circle of yes men beyond whom he does not confer with, and any interaction with the Press is only through him. Though an excellent soldier and tactician, all the aforementioned qualities cloud his judgement, leading him to underestimate Japanese resistance and have an unduly optimistic opinion on the length and severity of the upcoming invasion. Regardless of Kamikaze attacks by the desperate Japanese, his brash nature also has him travel with the invasion flotilla right up to the shores of Kyushu, the first island that will be invaded. Though his initial over confidence gets knocked out in the face of the stiff Japanese resistance, he obstinately refuses to change tactics, choosing instead to blame his political opponents for setting him up for failure.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor to the CIA) gets into the fray too. Charged with collecting intelligence on Japanese troop movements and civilian morale, they are faced with the unique problem of having any European or American stand out like a sore thumb in Japan. As a recourse, they turn to Japanese-Americans who, despite the indignity of having either their families or themselves interred in camps as potential Japanese sympathizers, volunteered for serving in the armed forces. Jochi Nomura, of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, is one such recruit. Having lost a hand in the war, he has the perfect cover story of a disabled war veteran trying to survive in the bombed ruins of Japan.
Jochi is infiltrated by submarine close to Nagasaki, tasked with the dual objectives of tracking troop movements and sharing reports on the after effects of the radiation caused by the atomic bomb. Both tasks turn out to be ridiculously simple for him; as someone who looks unmistakably Japanese, with the missing hand lending credibility to his war veteran story, all he has to do is talk to civilians and soldiers alike and get the information he needs. During his radio broadcasts from the hillsides surrounding Nagasaki, he also comes across an escaped POW (who unfortunately, does not share Jochi’s Japanese advantage) and together they guard and carry the radio around for protection. His broadcasts however, come to the notice of the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police. Their efforts to locate and capture the spy in their midst take on an urgent note due to the presence of another person in the region.
The rebel forces, having determined that the Americans would have no interest in Nagasaki any more, transport the captured Emperor there under the guard of a rebel Colonel. His being in Nagasaki is a secret known only to the guards and the Kempeitai, but Jochi’s presence threatens that secrecy. Unaware of this, Jochi is going along with his tasks, when in a stroke of literary luck, he comes across a recently deceased Kempeitai Officer. He appropriates the dead man’s uniform, acquires a forged Kempeitai identity card and bluffs his way into learning this most explosive secret which, if handled correctly, could result in the war ending sooner than anyone expects.
In Kyushu, a lone Kamikaze pilot manages to evade the ring of anti-aircraft guns around the flotilla, and unknowingly kills General MacArthur by crashing his plane into his ship’s foredeck right when he is walking by. He is replaced by General Omar Bradley, who does much to change the rigid organizational nature of the invasion and gives greater operational freedom to the field commanders. This replacement turns out to be a blessing in disguise to the invasion force, who are facing extreme opposition from the entrenched Japanese forces and facing heavy losses (as predicted) for every step they move inland. They are saved from additional casualties when a maverick colonel, despite Truman having expressly forbidden it, uses an atomic bomb against a division of thirty thousand fresh Japanese troops which have been allowed to pass through Russian lines in Korea as part of the secret maneuverings between the Japanese and Russians.
Jochi, meanwhile, has been so successful in impersonating a Kempeitai officer that he is charged by the rebel Colonel to keep the Emperor company while also guarding him. This allows Jochi to explore the possibility of rescuing the Emperor, while the Emperor too, recognizes Jochi for the non-native Japanese that he is and expresses his willingness to an extradition attempt which will allow him to broadcast his message of surrender to all Japanese. Jochi conveys this to his OSS handlers, and the mission gets a go ahead from Truman himself, who is facing immense flak at home from the citizens tired of war and of seeing their children die thousands of miles away.
As the mission to rescue the Emperor is being planned, another plot is brewing among the non-vocal minority in the Japanese armed forces. They are convinced that Anami’s decision to overthrow the Emperor and fight till the last man is disloyal and will result in the annihilation of the Japanese race, and decide to launch a counter coup of their own. Both plots run their course almost simultaneously, with the American commando team successfully exfiltrating the Emperor at almost the same time as Anami gets assassinated and the loyalists regain control of the country. These events coincide with a third, bloody one, where the last-ditch attempt by the Japanese army to dislodge the American soldiers is fought off in gory close quarter combat. The story ends with the Emperor’s declaration of surrender, dropped as leaflets upon the Japanese army, stopping further carnage.
Even as a work of speculative fiction, Conroy’s research into the real-life events leading up to and beyond the divergent timeline is extremely accurate. The motivations of the perpetrators of the coup d’état are historic fact. So are the details of Operation Downfall, obtained from files now declassified by the American government, including the proposed use of additional atomic bombs to subdue the Japanese into submission. Of course, as a writer of fiction, Conroy does use narrative serendipity – the presence of the Emperor at Nagasaki, his subsequent discovery and rescue – to bring the war to a much faster conclusion than Operation Downfall allowed for; but that is his prerogative. After all, 1945: A Novel is a ‘What if?’ scenario, and even though he has to ultimately bring it around to actual historical facts, Conroy answers the question quite satisfactorily.