Surrender can refer either to the surrender of individual soldiers or small groups of soldiers, the surrender of a larger military formation by its commander, or the capitulation of a national government.

The Allied and Japanese attitudes towards surrender were very different. The Allied attitude was based on the Roman doctrine of just war that was inherited and modified by the Christian West. Under this doctrine, the purpose of a just war was not to physically annihilate the enemy, but to impose one's will on him. Unnecessary killing and destruction was to be avoided. Thus, surrender was generally regarded as honorable when further resistance was pointless. Mass Allied surrenders were common in the first six months of the war, when the Japanese Centrifugal Offensive swept aside all opposition. Thereafter Allied troops became very reluctant to surrender, both because of the fear of atrocities and because the strategic setting had become such that Allied troops were less likely to find themselves in hopeless tactical situations.

To the Japanese Army of the Pacific War, operating under a twisted version of the ancient Bushido code, surrender was unthinkable. The most honorable fate for a warrior was to die while taking many enemies with him (as with the kamikazes.) Ordinary death in battle was the next most honorable fate, while suicide was the preferred alternative to surrender.  Very few Japanese officers were captured alive until the final months of the war, and not many then. Surrenders by enlisted men were more common but still infrequent. Japanese troops who found themselves in a hopeless tactical situation would usually adopt gyokusai (玉砕) or "shattered jewel" tactics. These took the form of a suicidal charge (the so-called banzai charge) or of simply taking up defensive positions and defending them to the death. The latter became the preferred option in the last months of the war. However, by late 1944, the Army had abandoned the term gyokusai in favor of "all achieved a heroic death in battle" because gyokusai had become associated in the public mind with the defeats at Tarawa and Makin.

Under traditional bushido, captives were to be treated with mercy. This was reflected in Japanese conduct during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the First World War, where Japanese treatment of prisoners of war was notable correct. However, the hardening of attitudes in the Japanese military after 1920 was evident in its treatment of prisoners during the Pacific War. Allied prisoners of war were regarded by the Japanese as completely dishonorable and were subject to appalling treatment. It did not help that discipline within the Japanese Army itself was brutal, and many of the prison camp guards were Korean conscripts who were at the bottom of the military pecking order. The Korean guards were mistreated by their Japanese non-commissioned officers and mistreated Allied prisoners in turn.

Japanese prisoners of war were usually treated humanely by the Allies, at least in part because Allied intelligence officers considered prisoners to be valuable intelligence assets. The Japanese did nothing to prepare their men for the possibility of capture, since that possibility was unthinkable, and Japanese prisoners tended to talk freely with their captors. Many Japanese prisoners begged their captors to allow them to remain in Allied countries and to not inform their government of their capture rather than face the dishonor of returning alive to their families. These requests were refused, since such notification was required under the laws of war.

Individual or Small Group Surrender

Photograph of Japanese soldiers surrendering

Army Signal Corps #SC 204800

Surrender by individuals or small groups was not nearly as common in the Pacific as in the European theater. However, Japanese enlisted men would occasionally surrender in small numbers once they were cut off and their officers killed. This became increasingly common as the war progressed. Individual Allied troops surrendered in some numbers early in the war, but this became less common as fear of mistreatment became widespread. In either case, surrender was signaled by waving a white flag or raising one's empty hands above one's head. 

The Japanese occasionally tried to induce individual surrender by Allied troops by dropping "surrender cards" promising proper treatment if the soldier followed the surrender instructions printed on the card. These cards sometimes featured a photograph of a nude Western woman on the reverse side to entice the Allied soldiers. The cards proved ineffective for their intended purpose.

There were numerous reports that Japanese troops feigned surrender in order to kill the Allied troops attempting to receive their surrender, often with a concealed grenade. Following the battle of the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal, wounded Japanese shot a number of Marines who had come to their assistance, and the Marines responded by firing additional rounds into all the Japanese bodies on the battlefield. Vandegrift was shocked by the incident, and wrote to the Marine Corps commandant, Thomas Holcomb (Frank 1990):

General, I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting. These people refuse to surrender. The wounded wait until men come up to examine them ... and blow themselves and the other fellow to pieces with a hand grenade.

Japanese sailors rescued at sea sometimes turned on their rescuers, as when a survivor from sunken destroyer Yugumo killed the American sailor from PT-163 who offered him a cup of coffee. As a result, many Allied soldiers and units became averse to giving Japanese the opportunity to surrender (Sloan 2005):

As Hunt made his way along the line, other men talked of their personal experiences. Platoon Sergeant Paul Slovik told about a Japanese who approached his lines just after the Point had been seized, claiming he wanted to surrender.

"He had his pack on, and he was carrying his weapon," Slovik said, "so we shot him, just to be on the safe side, and damned if he didn't blow up. He must've been loaded with dynamite and grenades."

"Yeah, they're tricky little bastards," said another Marine, "and you've got to watch 'em. There's a lot of 'em running around out there with our helmets on."

The Japanese came to refer to the U.S 41 Division as "the butchers" because of their refusal to give quarter as required by international convention. However, feigning surrender constituted perfidy, which was itself a violation of the laws and customs of war.

Morison gives an example of the extremes to which Japanese sailors would go to avoid capture:

On their way north, the bluejackets topside in destroyer Spence were goggle-eyed at an exhibition of Japanese bushido. Ordered to investigate a life raft, they observed what appeared to be seven bodies in it. The seven bodies suddenly sat up and started talking. One of them, apparently the officer, broke out a 7.7mm machine gun, which each man in succession placed in his mouth, while the officer fired a round which shot the back of the man's head off. After six had been bumped off, the officer stood up, addressed a short speech in Japanese to Spence's commanding officer on the bridge, and then shot himself.

The extraordinary reluctance of Japanese soldiers to surrender was regarded by the Allies at the time as an indication of fanatical devotion to the Emperor. While that was doubtless a factor, particularly among the officer corps, other elements may have been at play. Inoue Hayashi, a junior Japanese Army officer, claimed that the iron rule against surrender was necessary to  prevent a total collapse of morale (Hastings 2007):

If we were told to defend this position or that one, we did it. To fall back without orders was a crime. It was as simple as that. We were trained to fight to the end, and nobody ever discussed doing anything else. Looking back later, we could see that the military code was unreasonable. But at that time, we regarded dying for our country as our duty. If men had been allowed to surrender honorably, everybody would have been doing it.

In fact, the roots of the Japanese reluctance to surrender went deep. Japan was involved in only two recorded examples of foreign military conflict prior to 1868, the invasion by the Mongols in the 13th century and a Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, and slaughter of captives was routine in both conflicts. Killing of prisoners was likewise commonplace during the clan wars of medieval Japan. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Western attitudes towards prisoners of war were adopted, and Russian prisoners were treated correctly during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. So were German prisoners of war captured at Tsingtao during the First World War. However, attitudes hardened after the war, and in 1929 Japan failed to ratify the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war on the grounds that it would be a unilateral treaty: It was unthinkable that any Japanese serviceman would permit himself to be taken prisoner, so the treaty would impose burdensome obligations only on Japan. Straus (2003) has also suggested that Japan anticipated a Doolittle-type raid in a future war, in which enemy airmen would be in danger of being captured, and believed that refusal to ratify the 1929 Convention might deter such attack.

During the 1937 incident at Shanghai, the Japanese press began glorifying suicidal actions by Japanese soldiers in the fighting. A Major Kuga, who was severely wounded and unconscious when captured by the Chinese, committed suicide to cleanse his honor two weeks after being exchanged. Japanese soldiers who blew themselves and a barbed wire barrier apart with explosives were honored as the "human bombs." Although suicide rates in prewar Japan were not particular high relative to those in Europe and the United States, honorable suicide became increasingly common in the Japanese armed services.

Following the border clash at Nomonhan in the summer of 1939, the Japanese Army required every Japanese officer who had been taken captive to commit suicide, while enlisted men who had been taken captive were discharged from the Army, sentenced to a term of community service, then resettled outside of Japan (usually in Manchuria or Korea.) There is evidence that as many as a thousand Japanese prisoners of war chose to remain in Russia rather than return to dishonor in Japan. Undeterred by this unintended consequence of the no-surrender policy, War Minister Tojo Hideki issued a new Field Service Code ( Senjinkun) on 7 January 1941 that formalized the prohibition of surrendering under any circumstances (Straus 2003):

Regard for Reputation

Those who know shame are weak. Always think of [preserving] the honor of your community and be a credit to yourself and your family. Redouble your efforts and respond to their expectations. Never live to experience shame as a prisoner. By dying you will avoid leaving behind the crime of a stain on your honor.

The release of the Senjinkun was accompanied by a heavy propaganda campaign that featured a pop music recital and the release of a phonograph of the "Song of the Senjinkun" ("Senjinkun no Uta"). From this time on, it was unofficially understood both in the Japanese Army and in the wider Japanese culture that surrender was a crime deserving of death. Japanese men in uniform came to fear that their families would be ostracized if their capture became known. The Army disciplinary code of 1942, prescribing a minimum of six months' imprisonment for being taken prisoner, regardless of circumstances, "had only insignificant consequences that paled next to the Senjunkun" (Straus 2003).

The no-surrender policy was further reinforced in early 1942, when almost fifty Japanese soldiers were captured at the Battle of the Points during the Bataan campaign. All were later liberated when the Allies surrendered. The officers were all forced to commit suicide, while the enlisted men were transferred to widely scattered units and given the most demeaning or hazardous assignments.

Japanese soldiers were best induced to surrender by Allied broadcasts pointing out the hopelessness of their situation and the pointlessness of further resistance, and which promised good treatment if they "accepted U.S. protection", "came to an honorable understanding with the Americans", or "ceased resistance." The dreaded word "surrender" was avoided.

Large Unit Surrender

Photograph of the surrender of Singapore

Wikimedia Commons

A military officer may surrender his command to the enemy when his situation becomes hopeless. In theory, such surrenders can be conditional or unconditional, though few large unit surrenders during the Second World War were received on any conditions beyond basic adherence to the laws and customs of war. Subordinates of a commander who surrenders may attempt escape (like any prisoner of war) but, if they engage in military activities after their commander surrenders, and before they are able to rejoin their chain of command, they are considered unlawful combatants and do not enjoy the legal protections due prisoners of war. The Japanese routinely executed American soldiers who became guerrillas in the Philippines following Wainright's surrender, and the Allies threatened to execute Japanese troops who refused to turn themselves in after the general surrender in August 1945.

There was only one surrender of an organized Japanese military unit prior to the general surrender of August 1945. This was a single starving platoon surrendered by its lieutenant in New Guinea (Newman 1995). Another mass surrender, at Noemfoor in September 1944, was by 265 Japanese enlisted men angry at their officers for confiscating the food supply for their own use (Straus 2003). Surrender of large Allied units was common during the first months of the war, with units of brigade size or larger surrendered by their commanders in Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, and Java. In every case, the surrender was unconditional, which the Japanese chose to interpret as meaning that even the laws and customs of war did not apply.

At the time Wainright surrendered Corregidor, there was some ambiguity regarding the American chain of command. MacArthur believed himself to still be the commander of all American troops in the Philippines, in spite of the fact that he was then in Australia. If MacArthur was correct, then Wainright had authority only over the troops on Corregidor. However, the Japanese insisted that radio instructions from Washington to Corregidor proved that Wainright was the commander of all American troops in the Philippines. Thus Homma had some legal basis for his threat to execute any Americans in the Philippines who did not turn themselves in after Wainright surrendered. On the other hand, the reluctance of other Philippines commanders to surrender suggests that they did not understand themselves to be under Wainright's command. They did not surrender until Homma threatened to massacre the Corregidor garrison, an action that would have violated the laws and customs of war regardless of the command situation.

Japan's Final Surrender

Photograph of Japanese surrender delegation

National Archives

Japan announced its surrender as a nation on 15 August 1945, and a cease-fire went into effect shortly thereafter, although the surrender ceremony that formally ended hostilities did not take place until 2 September 1945. The remaining Japanese armed forces in the field surrendered as soon thereafter as arrangements could be made.

Responsible leaders in Japan recognized that their country's bid for Asian hegemony had failed following the loss of Saipan in July 1944. The Tojo cabinet fell and was replaced by a new cabinet under retired general Koiso Kuniaki. The Emperor's chamberlain, Kido, indicated to Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru that the Emperor wished to find a diplomatic settlement of the war. However, the intransigent Army leadership made it very dangerous for anyone to propose peace, and the war continued to drag on. Japanese leaders were not ready at this point to surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies in any case. Even the "doves" were prepared to hold out for a negotiated surrender under which Japan would remain unoccupied; would retain control of Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa; and would try its own military leaders for war crimes. These terms amounted to a return to the status quo ante bellum, were very similar to those given Germany under the Versailles Treaty, and would have been rejected out of hand by the Americans. The fear of another Versailles is summarized by Frank (1990), who concludes that "these terms would permit, at some later and better moment, Japan's warriors to inculcate a myth that they were never really defeated and only of their own volition laid down arms to spare the world more ravages of war."

On 11 May 1945 the top Japanese leaders agreed to seek peace on these terms through the Russians, but the Soviet ambassador was not approached until 3 June. By then it was far too late for a Russian-mediated settlement, as the Russians were preparing to intervene in northeast Asia.

An important if unplanned step towards surrender was the creation by Koiso of the  Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. This consisted of the Prime Minister, foreign and service ministers, and service chiefs of staff. Koiso created it out of frustration at being left out of the deliberations of the Imperial General Headquarters, but the effect was to force the service chiefs to keep the civilian government informed of the progress of the war. It would ultimately be this council that would deadlock on the decision to surrender and create an opening for the Emperor to intervene.

The decision to surrender followed three events that made it clear to all but the most hawkish Japanese militarists that the war was lost. The first was the destruction of the Japanese merchant marine, which made it impossible for Japan to import enough food to feed its civilian population, let alone maintain military production. This process was essentially complete by mid-1945. The second event was the dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. The third was the declaration of war by Russia on 9 August, followed by a swift and crushing invasion of Manchuria.

Historians have long debated the importance of these three elements in forcing the surrender, with those philosophically opposed to the nuclear bombings tending to discount their importance relative to the other two elements. However, there are indications that the nuclear attacks made a profound impression on the Emperor, who broke precedent by acting to resolve the deadlock in the Japanese Cabinet in favor of accepting the Allied surrender terms.

These terms were spelled out in the Potsdam Declaration, and amounted to something just short of an unconditional surrender. The Allies insisted on the occupation and complete demilitarization of Japan, but offered vague guarantees not to deindustrialize Japan and to restore Japanese sovereignty at an unspecified future date. The Japanese leadership were divided over whether to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration with the sole additional provision that the Imperial House be retained, or to insist that Japan not be occupied, her military not be disbanded, and any war crimes trials be conducted by Japanese courts.

The Russian declaration of war ended Japanese hopes (never realistic in any case) of an alliance with Russia. However, the Japanese Army still believed, not without reason, that they could inflict serious enough casualties when the Allies invaded Japan (Operation DOWNFALL) to force the Allies to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Suzuki even speculated that the Potsdam Declaration was a sign of weakness. However, on 9 August 1945, Suzuki stunned the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War by inviting the Emperor to express his will and resolve their deadlock. The Emperor promptly called on them to accept the Potsdam Declaration with the sole proviso to retain the Imperial House.

The Allies responded with the Byrnes Note:

From the moment of the surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms....

The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.

The armed forces of the Allied powers will remain in Japan until the purposes set forth in the Potsdam Declaration are achieved.

This was no guarantee of the Imperial institution, as the Americans would make clear early in the occupation. The decision to spare the Emperor was made later by MacArthur because of his usefulness to the Allies.

Continued anxiety over the postwar status of the Emperor contributed to continuing resistance to surrender, with the Army Minister, Anami Korechika, leading the hawks. However, on the night of 13 August, seven B-29s dropped over five million leaflets over Tokyo with the text of the Potsdam Declaration and the subsequent exchange of notes. One of the leaflets was brought to the Emperor by his close adviser, Marquis Kido, who feared the political consequences if the Emperor did not immediately move for peace. Whether the war could have been ended sooner by offering clearer guarantees regarding the Emperor, without the need for the nuclear attacks, remains a contentious issue among historians. It is the belief of this author that the decision to surrender was a very close thing even with the nuclear attacks.

On the evening of August 14, the Imperial Rescript accepting the Postdam Declaration was signed by the Cabinet and the Emperor recorded a broadcast to the Japanese people announcing the decision. A number of young Japanese officers got wind of the decision and attempted to organize a coup d'état, but this collapsed with the refusal of Tanaka Shizuichi, commander of Eastern District Army in Tokyo, to join the coup. The broadcast took place at noon the next day, and, while the Emperor spoke in a court dialect difficult for many of his listeners to understand, the gist of his message was clear. By then the Allies had received the formal acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration through diplomatic channels, and Allied forces were ordered to suspend offensive operations.

The surrender did not immediately end all hostilities. For example, isolated Japanese soldiers continued to fight British special forces in the Moulmein area (Operation CHARACTER) until 8 September 1945. There was some question whether the major overseas Japanese military commands would obey their own government; both Terauchi at Southern Army and Okamura at China Expeditionary Army considered ignoring the surrender order, though both eventually submitted. The Allies tried to soften the blow somewhat by classifying troops that submitted to the surrender order as "Japanese surrendered personnel" rather than prisoners of war, in an effort to spare their sense of honor.

Attempting to secure the surrender of isolated Japanese forces could be hazardous. A Major Turrall of Force 136 attempted on his own initiative to get the Japanese survivors of the Sittang breakout to surrender. Unfortunately, the troops he met were out of wireless communication and did not believe the Emperor had ordered a surrender, and he was taken prisoner and punched in the face by an interrogator. He was lucky to be eventually released.


Allen (1984)

Browne (1967)

Drea (2009)

Frank (1990)

Gilbert (1989)

Hastings (2007)

Marston (2005)
Morison (1950, 1953)
Newman (1995)

Prados (1995)

Sloan (2005)

Straus (2003)

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