JAPAN TARGETED FOR STARVATION

Tinian, Mariana Islands · March 27, 1945

An island nation, Japan was vul­ner­able to a block­ade of essen­tial food and stra­tegic mate­rials. On this date in 1945 the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy, hoping to put the final nail in the enemy’s cof­fin, kicked off Oper­a­tion Star­va­tion, the aerial mining of Japa­nese waters. Three nights later 85 more “miners” followed suit. By begin­ning the night­time aerial dropping of mines (even­tually 12,000 mines) in rivers and coastal waters, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s Mari­anas-based B‑29 Super­for­tresses accessed Jap­anese waters too shallow or close to land for Allied sub­ma­rines to en­force a sea block­ade. The five-month-long aerial cam­paign saw the near destruc­tion of Japa­nese coastal shipping and shipping lanes, halting Japan’s im­por­ta­tion of criti­cal raw mate­rials and food and forcing the aban­don­ment of 35 of 47 vital con­voy routes. Adding LeMay’s in­cen­di­ary raids on ur­ban and mili­tary-in­dus­trial areas to the destruc­tive mix reduced Japan’s over­all pro­duc­tion in 1945 by two-thirds com­pared with the year before. Already in 1940 rice—the chief item in the Japa­nese diet—had been sub­ject to rationing due to bad har­vests in the Japa­nese colony of Korea and the demands of the Japa­nese mili­tary in China (since 1937) and South­east Asia (since 1941). Fish, the other dietary staple, had all but ceased to be dis­trib­uted in some areas in 1944. Food supplies were so mea­ger that the aver­age Japa­nese citi­zen was living at or near star­va­tion level. Ave­rage civil­ian caloric in­take in 1945 was 78 per­cent of the mini­mum needed for health and phys­i­cal per­for­mance. By the end of June the civil­ian popu­la­tion began to show signs of panic. Experts pre­dicted deaths by star­va­tion would exceed seven mil­lion were Japan to some­how mus­ter the will and resources to wage war through 1946. With the bene­fit of hind­sight, Japan’s for­mal sur­ren­der on Septem­ber 2, 1945, was in­ev­i­table even with­out Hiro­shima and Naga­saki, with­out Soviet en­try into the war on August 8, 1945, and with­out the ghastly num­ber of cas­u­alties pro­jected by in­vading the Japa­nese island of Kyū­shū in late 1945 and the main island of Hon­shū in April 1946 (Operation Downfall). But the hor­rors of the Paci­fic Is­lands cam­paign were so fixed in the minds of Allied leaders that the fire-and-sword stra­te­gy of using atomic wea­pons appeared to be the least costly way to bring World War II to an end.





Operation Starvation, March—August 1945

Twentieth Air Force B-29s over Japan, 1945 Navy Seabee waves to B-29s landing at Tinian

Left: B‑29 Superfortresses from Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s Twentieth Air Force fly near Mount Fuji, Japan, 1945. The name “Superfortress” was derived from that of the B‑29’s well-known predecessor, the B‑17 Flying Fortress.

Right: A U.S. Navy Seabee waves to B‑29 Superfortresses arriving at Tinian’s unfinished North Field in the Mariana Islands, 1944. The Marianas were about 1,500 miles from Tokyo, a range that the B‑29s could just about manage.

Tinian’s North Field, 1945 313th Bombardment Wing HQ, Tinian, 1945

Left: Tinian after airfield con­struc­tion, looking north to south, 1945. The mas­sive North Field was home to the 313th Bom­bard­ment Wing, which con­sisted of four B‑29 Super­for­tress Bom­bard­ment Groups. Only one group was tasked with aerial mining Japa­nese harbors and water­ways. The 313th Bom­bard­ment Wing later added the 509th Com­pos­ite Group, which con­ducted the atomic bombing of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki in August 1945.

Right: 313th Bombardment Wing Headquarters, Tinian, 1945. About 160 aircraft of the 313th BW carried out Opera­tion Star­va­tion, flying 1,529 sorties on 46 separate mis­sions. Opera­tion Star­va­tion sank or damaged more ship ton­nage in the last six months of the war than the efforts of all other sources com­bined—670 ships totaling more than 1,250,000 tons.

“The Last Bomb,” a 1945 U.S. Army Air Forces Documentary on Bombing Japan