Because the U.S. military planners assumed “that operations in this area will be opposed not only by the available organized military forces of the Empire, but also by a fanatically hostile population”, high casualties were thought to be inevitable, but nobody knew with certainty how high. Several people made estimates, but they varied widely in numbers, assumptions and purposes, which included advocating for and against the invasion. The estimated casualty figures later became a crucial point in postwar debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In preparation for Operation Olympic, the invasion of southern Kyushu, various figures and organizations made casualty estimates based on the terrain, strength, and disposition of known Japanese forces. However, as reported Japanese strength in the Home Islands continued to climb and Japanese military performance increased, so too did the casualty estimates. In April 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally adopted a planning paper giving a range of possible casualties based on experience in both Europe and the Pacific. Given a troop list of 766,700 men and a 90-day campaign, the US Sixth Army could be expected to suffer between 514,072 casualties (including 134,556 dead and missing) under the “Pacific Experience” (1.95 dead and missing and 7.45 total casualties/1,000 men/day) and 149,046 casualties (including 28,981 dead and missing) under the “European Experience” (0.42 dead and missing and 2.16 total casualties/1,000 men/day). This assessment included neither casualties suffered after the 90-day mark (US planners envisioned switching to the tactical defensive by D+120), nor personnel losses at sea from Japanese air attacks. In order to sustain the campaign on Kyushu, planners estimated a replacement stream of 100,000 men per month would be necessary, a figure achievable even after the partial demobilization following the defeat of Germany. As time went on, other US leaders made estimates of their own:
In a letter sent to General Curtis LeMay from General Lauris Norstad, when LeMay assumed command of the B-29 force on Guam, Norstad told LeMay that if an invasion took place, it would cost the US "half a million" dead.
In May, Admiral Nimitz's staff estimated 49,000 U.S casualties in the first 30 days, including 5,000 at sea.
A study done by General MacArthur's staff in June estimated 23,000 US casualties in the first 30 days and 125,000 after 120 days. When these figures were questioned by General Marshall, MacArthur submitted a revised estimate of 105,000, in part by deducting wounded men able to return to duty.
In a conference with President Truman on June 18, Marshall, taking the Battle of Luzon as the best model for Olympic, thought the Americans would suffer 31,000 casualties in the first 30 days (and ultimately 20% of Japanese casualties, which implied a total of 70,000 casualties). Admiral Leahy, more impressed by the Battle of Okinawa, thought the American forces would suffer a 35% casualty rate (implying an ultimate toll of 268,000). Admiral King thought that casualties in the first 30 days would fall between Luzon and Okinawa, i.e., between 31,000 and 41,000. Of these estimates, only Nimitz's included losses of the forces at sea, though kamikazes had inflicted 1.78 fatalities per kamikaze pilot in the Battle of Okinawa, and troop transports off Kyūshū would have been much more exposed.
In July MacArthur's Intelligence Chief, Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, warned of between 210,000 and 280,000 battle casualties in the push to the "stop line" one-third of the way up Kyushu. Even when rounded down to a conservative 200,000, this figure implied a total of nearly 500,000 all-causes losses, of whom perhaps 50,000 might return to duty after light to moderate care.
The US Sixth Army, the formation tasked with carrying out the major land fighting on Kyushu, estimated a figure of 394,859 casualties serious enough to be permanently removed from unit roll calls during the first 120 days on Kyushu, barely enough to avoid outstripping the planned replacement stream.
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson stated "We shall in my opinion have to go through an even more bitter finish fight than in Germany. We shall incur the losses incident to such a war and we shall leave the Japanese islands even more thoroughly destroyed than was the case with Germany." From D-Day to V-E day, the Western Allies alone suffered some 766,294 casualties
In the spring of 1945, the Army Service Forces under Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell was working under a figure of "approximately" 720,000 for the projected replacements needed for "dead and evacuated wounded" through December 31, 1946. These figures are for Army and Army Air force personnel only, and do not include replacements needed for the Navy and Marine Corps.
A study done for Secretary of War Henry Stimson's staff by William Shockley estimated that conquering Japan would cost 1.7–4 million American casualties, including 400,000–800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese fatalities. The key assumption was large-scale participation by civilians in the defense of Japan.
Outside the government, well-informed civilians were also making guesses. Kyle Palmer, war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, said half a million to a million Americans would die by the end of the war. Herbert Hoover, in memorandums submitted to Truman and Stimson, also estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 fatalities, and those were believed to be conservative estimates; but it is not known if Hoover discussed these specific figures in his meetings with Truman. The chief of the Army Operations division thought them “entirely too high” under “our present plan of campaign.”
The Battle of Okinawa resulted in 72,000 US casualties in 82 days, of whom 12,510 were killed or missing (this is conservative, because it excludes several thousand US soldiers who died after the battle indirectly, from their wounds). The entire island of Okinawa is 464 sq mi (1,200 km2). If the US casualty rate during the invasion of Japan had been only 5% as high per unit area as it was at Okinawa, the US would still have lost 297,000 soldiers (killed or missing).
In evaluating these estimates, especially those based on projected Japanese troop strength (such as General MacArthur’s), it is important to consider what was known about the state of Japanese defenses at the time, as well as the actual condition of those defenses (MacArthur’s staff believed Japanese manpower on Kyushu to be roughly 300,000, more than 300 percent below the actual total). Nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals (awarded for combat casualties) were manufactured in anticipation of the casualties resulting from the invasion of Japan; the number exceeded that of all American military casualties of the 65 years following the end of World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 2003, there were still 120,000 of these Purple Heart medals in stock. There were so many left that combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to keep Purple Hearts on hand for immediate award to soldiers wounded in the field.