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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Reading History - War in the Pacific Part 2

In the US we mostly think of WWII starting on December 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sometimes we realize that it officially started on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Some authors will say that WWII, or at least the Pacific War, started in 1937, with Japan's invasion of China. China was, after all, one of the allies during WWII, and I am sure the Chinese would say America joined WWII in 1941. One fact that I was unaware of, at the time of Pearl Harbor 80 percent of the Japanese army was committed to the war in China. At several key points during the war, the Japanese army refused to commit additional troops and aircraft to some critical island battles for fear that it would not only compromise their position in China but also tempt the USSR to invade. This is an incredible figure. While the US faced the brunt of the Japanese navy it would only face roughly 20 percent of the Japanese army.

At the start of the war, there were some serious misconceptions by each side about the other. I addressed the Japanese views of American weakness in my previous post. The allies, principally the US and UK, had equally egregious views about the Japanese, but they were able to recoup from those mistakes relatively quickly. The Allies viewed the Japanese as inferior, mostly based on racist views. Even in the training manuals, Japanese troops were viewed as bumbling, cowardly, and not able to stand up to Western troops. Japanese equipment was considered inferior, and their pilots were unable to fly well because of their eyes. Japanese success in the air in China was thought to be the result of German pilots actually flying Japanese planes.

In 1941, when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, the Japanese carrier pilots were arguably the best in the world. They had been flying combat missions in China for four years and the naval aviation school was the best carrier pilot training program in the world at the time. The course lasted two years plus another year in a combat assignment. This was an excellent training program in peacetime, but a weakness during wartime since no one had time for a three-year training program. The Japanese Zero aircraft was also the best carrier fighter in the world, highly maneuverable, fast, and long-range, and in the hands of experienced pilots, it had no equal. Though it had its weaknesses, principally a lack of armor.

Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi

The Japanese navy was highly trained in night fighting and their ships carried the best and most devastating torpedo of the war. Both these things proved crucial in the early naval battles around Guadalcanal. The Japanese soldier proved seriously superior to his British counterpart during the battles for Malaysia and Singapore. While these assumptions were serious mistakes on the part of the Allies, they quickly disabused themselves of these beliefs as they were beaten in battle after battle during the first six months of the war.

That said, the Japanese military had serious flaws. Because of its warrior culture, the Japanese military viewed everything through the lens of being a samurai. That meant that while their soldiers were courageous, fanatical, and fought to the bitter end, the military paid less attention to the sinews of war, logistics, and support services that allowed modern war to be waged. Many have heard the saying "amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics." That saying really applied to WWII. To start, there was less emphasis placed on logistics than in Western armies, Japanese forces were habitually short of food, ammunition, and other supplies. In numerous battles, the Japanese soldier was facing disease and starvation, as well as being short on ammunition and having insufficient artillery. The story of the Japanese army in the Pacific seems at times to be a story of starvation.

Complicating these problems was the lack of attention that the Japanese navy paid to the non-offensive elements of naval warfare. There was little effort placed on anti-submarine warfare (the hunting of submarines) until near the end of the war, never enough cargo ships to carry troops and supplies, no plans for convoys to protect supply ships, etc. This meant that all the raw materials that were the cause of the war and that Japan desperately needed were not reaching Japan because of the devastating US submarine campaign which sank a majority of Japanese shipping. This, in turn, meant Japanese industry could not reach its maximum potential, and combat losses in equipment could not be replaced, let alone increased, especially ships and aircraft, the two most important tools in the Pacific War. Supplies and reinforcement could not reach troops in the field, leading to hunger, lack of ammunition, and eventual defeat. A domino effect.

From what I have read, I am left with the impression that Japanese leadership performed poorly during the war. At the tactical level, both the army and navy performed well under restrictive circumstances, suffering from a lack of food, ammunition, and equipment. In the majority of battles, the Japanese army was normally outnumbered. They were outnumbered two to one by the British when they conquered Malaya and Singapore, they were outnumbered in their invasion of the Philippines, during the battle for Guadalcanal, in their invasion of India, etc. Granted, in some of the early battles they did not face the best of troops, but the Japanese Army demonstrated tactical skill, imagination, and daring.

The Japanese military suffered in their strategic thinking. While they acknowledged that America's industrial might was superior, they assumed they could win through will and spirit. They appear to have lacked a clear understanding of modern warfare. The US was able to grasp the changing nature of war and adapt to fast-changing technology. Modern war is decided by logistics, intelligence, planning, and technological innovation. Japan appeared to be fighting the Samurai wars of the 16th century. At the start of the war, the carrier forces were roughly equal, but Japan was innovative and massed their principal carriers into one striking force, while the US used individual carrier groups. This allowed the Japanese to dominate the air war in the Pacific during the first half of 1942, but, as one author pointed out, the Japanese carrier force was a raiding force. A rapid in-and-out strike against the enemy. The US eventually developed a carrier force able to operate in combat areas for a long period of time, thus developing air dominance. This is one of the things that won the war in the Pacific, and that was due to logistical ability.

One author I read pointed out that the US won the Pacific war because of three things: the aircraft carrier, the submarine, and the bulldozer. The carrier allowed the US to develop control of the air over the Pacific. It put an end to battleships and increased the distance of a navy's striking power. The submarine cut off Japan's lifeline. They starved its military of vital supplies and the nations of critical resources. These are obvious. Which is why I found the bulldozer comment extremely intriguing.

The idea behind the importance of the bulldozer was tied to logistics. Wherever US forces went, whatever islands they captured, the bulldozers arrived, and very rapidly a base was constructed. But not just any bases. These were huge facilities able to support entire naval fleets, army divisions, and air force groups. They built warehouses, barracks, baseball fields, shops, and everything needed to support the troops. They did this relatively quickly and efficiently. The Japanese did most of that type of work by manual labor. It took a long time, exhausted the troops, and many times they lacked the sheer size to support a large number of men, ships, and aircraft.

One thing I sort of knew but really didn't think much about was that the majority of places Japan invaded were colonies. They belonged to the UK, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. They were all yearning for independence from their colonial masters and some saw Japan's war against the West as a possible way toward freedom. The British behaved extremely badly when they began evacuating Singapore and left the locals behind, even the ones that had supported the empire and would suffer under the Japanese. Evacuation was only for the white members of the British Empire. This only increased native hatred of the British. FDR, an anticolonialist, understood that the war would change the face of Asia, though not how much it would change. Churchill was fighting to preserve the empire and reconstitute it after the war. As far as he was concerned, the war for freedom was only freedom for Europeans.

I was also struck by the enormity of US war production. There was a period during the war, late 44 or early 45, where the US was producing more carrier aircraft than the carriers could use. The Navy's Pacific command asked that new build aircraft stop being sent as the navy already had more aircraft than they could use. The request was rejected because the US did not want to halt production for fear that if the war lasted until an invasion of Japan was called for they would have to restart production all over again, delaying the end of the war. The navy was told to ditch the relatively new aircraft they had to make room for newer production aircraft. There were islands filled with new American aircraft that had been dumped there to make way for newer aircraft.

Accurate numbers are difficult to come by but here are some examples. The US produced 141 aircraft carriers of all types, large and light, while Japan built 17. US carriers normally carried more planes, 80-90, compared to Japanese carriers, 60-70. A major US Task Force could throw up over one thousand planes, yielding total air supremacy. In merchant shipping, the sinews of the Pacific War, the US produced almost 34 million tons compared to Japan's 4 million. This is staggering when you consider Japan is an island nation and is required to import, by sea, most of its raw materials.

What does this mean? Take the battle of Midway, which many consider the turning point of the war in the Pacific. The US sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and killed the experienced crews that had led the early victories in the Pacific. The US lost one aircraft carrier. Japan was not able to recover from that loss, even though they still produced naval victories. What would have happened if the tables were turned and the US suffered a total defeat? We would have reached aircraft carrier parity with Japan the following year, and total domination by the year after that. Japan was doomed from the very beginning.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the horrors and tribulations that the fighting men on both sides experienced during the war. All wars are horrible, but there seems to be a particular viciousness to this one. The Japanese atrocities committed against the civilian populations, their treatment of prisoners, and the suffering of their own troops beggars the imagination. The sacrifice and courage required to storm a defended beach are beyond imagination. One thing that left an impression on me was the brutality of naval warfare. Maybe naively I always had the image of guns and bombs going off, a ship damaged or sunk, but I seldom focused on what that meant. When a shell weighing more than a car comes slamming into a metal ship, tearing, and exploding, the results are devastating to humans.

What are the lessons we can take away from this history? I would argue that one should never underestimate your opponent, or make unsubstantiated assumptions. The United States' false assumptions about Japanese abilities cost us dearly in the early stages of the war. A nation needs the industry and logistics to back up a major war. If a war is going to last beyond months there needs to be sufficient industrial capability to produce the things necessary to sustain troops in combat, food, ammunition, equipment, plus the raw materials of war. Some of these materials might have changed today with more emphasis on technology, but the underpinnings are the same. War will consume large amounts of material and people. Strategy is key. Your military might be very proficient at tactical skills but a poor strategy will end in defeat. I think we saw that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, there are many lessons to learn from history.

I highly recommend the following books for those interested in the Pacific War. Most are well-known.

The Rising Sun, by John Toland. This book is over 50 years old, though with recent reprintings, but remains an excellent study of the Pacific War from the Japanese perspective. A thick book, but a great read. It covers the war from 1936 through 1945.

The Pacific War Trilogy, by Ian W. Toll. Pacific Crucible, The Conquering Tide, Twilight of the Gods. Mostly told from the US point of view, it deals with the Pacific from 1941 through 1945. This is a thrilling read with many interesting facts. He brings out the enormity of US logistics and production as well as the human cost of the war.

Tower of Skulls, Richard B. Frank. This is the first volume in a trilogy. I guess the war requires trilogies. It covers the war from 1937 to 1942 and focuses heavily on the war in China, which is very overlooked in the US. This volume deals with the Japanese and Chinese viewpoints given the theater of operations. This book is full of little-known history, at least in the US, about the Sino-Japanese conflict. I can't wait for volume two.

War in the Far East Trilogy, Peter Harmsen. Another trilogy composed of Storm Clouds Over the Pacific, Japan Runs Wild and Asian Armageddon. These are more manageable books, being shorter in length than the other books I recommended. They provide an excellent reading of the war starting from the war in China. Well worth the time.

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