World War II in the Pacific
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
I just finished reading Ian W. Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in WWII in the Pacific, or in military history in general. It is an easy read, despite the length of each book. Extremely enjoyable and full of new insights and facts, at least for me. I believe some of these facts have a bearing on our discussion of national security issues.
I use the term purposely to grab the attention of the reader and because it is what it is. Prior to the start of the war in the Pacific both sides had racist views of their opponents that led to military and political mistakes.
Americans believed the Japanese were inferior based on their racial characteristics. Because of their eyes, Americans believed they were poor pilots, seamen, and soldiers. This was a view held at the most senior levels of the U.S. military, not just the population at large. The Japanese were incapable of producing superior weapons and produced second-rate copies of western weapons. These beliefs were even in U.S. military manuals. They were rapidly and painfully disproven starting in December of 1941.
In 1941 Japanese carrier pilots were the best in the world, bar none. They underwent a grueling, years-long training program followed by years of combat experience in the skies over China, creating a cadre of excellent pilots (more on this later). Their navy was superior to the navies of the United States and United Kingdom in several key areas. The Japanese navy had practiced night combat until it was a fine art. Their lookouts were superior in detecting enemy ships at night, their gunnery was excellent, and their ships carried the deadly Long Lance Torpedo, fast, long-ranged and deadly. Allied ships learned all this in combat around Guadalcanal. The Zero fighter was the best carrier aircraft in 1941. Highly maneuverable, long-ranged, and packing a hard punch, it dominated the skies over the Pacific.
The Japanese army also proved to be tactically and operationally skilled and daring in the early days of the Pacific war. Their capture of Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the Philippines and other islands were impressive feats of arms. Their ferocity and tenacity were commonplace, as were incredible brutality.
The Japanese were also guilty of racism, allowing that racism to enter into their strategic thinking and policymaking. While American racist views of the Japanese impacted early U.S. tactical and operational thinking which was relatively corrected, Japanese racist views of the U.S. had a greater negative impact on Japan and fundamentally led to Japan’s defeat.
Unlike what is portrayed in movies and common lore, the Japanese military and political leadership all knew they could not win a protracted war against the U.S. In this regard, they were realistic in their thinking. They knew that America’s large population and industrial capacity would swamp Japan over the long haul. However, the Japanese also viewed Americans as soft and weak, lacking the strength and fortitude of the Japanese people. The Japanese leadership believed they could inflict sufficient losses on U.S. military forces that the U.S. would sue for peace. They believed the American people would be unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices required to defeat Japan. They thought they could force the United States to the negotiating table where Japan would be allowed to keep most of its core military conquests. Remember, Japan’s intention was not to conquer the United States, they wanted to conquer and keep those nations and colonies that could provide her with the necessary raw materials to keep her economy and military functioning. Clearly this was a major miscalculation but one which permeated most of Japan’s strategic thinking.
The United States and the American people were galvanized by the Pearl Harbor attack and proved more than willing to do whatever it took to defeat Japan.
Linear and Cumulative
Toll points out the two, intertwined, thrusts of American strategy in the Pacific, linear and cumulative. I won’t dwell on these too long since they are well known, but to recap, linear was the military combat effort, seizing islands, moving ever westward with the intention of attacking the Japanese home islands. Cumulative is the various efforts, production, constructions, submarine warfare, training, etc. that built up the pressure on Japan, leading to the U.S. victory.
We are familiar with the exploits of U.S. combat arms, Guadalcanal, Midway, Iwo Jima, Saipan, to name a few. Equally important was the supporting effort that led to victory. Some say the three key items that led to victory were the aircraft carrier, the submarine and the bulldozer. Submarines destroyed the ability of Japan to bring home the very raw materials they need to survive and the very reason for the start of the war. The offensive, aggressive Japanese spirit that dominated Japan’s military thinking led it to ignore important but less glamorous in samurai eyes, endeavors such as escorting convoys and anti-submarine warfare.
The same was true with logistics and support. No Japanese warrior wanted to worry about transporting and stockpiling food and material. Throughout the war, or at least from 1942 on, Japanese military units normally lacked the support and infrastructure that U.S. military units were accustomed to. That is not to say that U.S. units did not suffer from shortages and, at times, terrible conditions, but U.S. units did not starve to death as many Japanese units did due to a lack of supplies. When Japanese troops captured an island they resorted to manual labor to construct airfields, bunkers and buildings. They lacked the mechanization that the U.S. had, especially with units such as the construction battalions (CB). When the U.S. captured and island bulldozers arrived, roads built, airfields constructed, buildings went up, all in a fraction of the time it took the Japanese. When U.S> troops captured a Japanese held island they found, many times, that the infrastructure had not been completed. Within weeks the U.S., however, had built a thriving military hub.
As everyone is familiar, U.S. home production was astronomical. One passage in the third Toll book particularly struck me. There came a point in the war, late 1944 early 1945, where the U.S. was producing so many carrier aircraft that they could not produce enough pilots to man them. They did not want to slow production down because if the invasion of the Japanese home islands required more aircraft, as was predicted, it would take too long to start production again. The solution was for the navy to dump existing, flyable, perfectly fine aircraft and replace them with the new ones coming off the productions lines. These planes were perfectly flyable, many did not require repairs, maybe just some maintenance, but they dumped them anyway. This, at a time when Japan could not produce sufficient anything to equip its forces.
The size of the various U.S. naval task forces dwarfed what was available to the Japanese. But it wasn’t just numbers. I got the impression that the U.S. was able to adapt much quicker than the Japanese to new technologies, tactics, and equipment. The Japanese appear to have stuck with their tried and true tactics, with some minor changes, while the U.S. was always learning and adapting.
One area that struck me was the training of naval aviators. Remember that at the start of the war the Japanese had the best carrier pilots in the world. The strength of the training program that produced these pilots was it’s length and actual combat training period before being qualified. Its weakness was its length and combat training period. The Japanese had opted for quality over quantity, producing excellent pilots but once war with the United States commenced, the program could not produce enough pilots to meet demand and replace losses. The Japanese sped up the training of pilots by shortening the training period but by that time U.S. submarines and aircraft were so negatively impact the importation of fuel that new pilots had very little actual flight time (remember the cumulative aspect mentioned above). Not to mentioned the difficulty of the Japanese support structure to get parts and support to the distant airfields and naval bases. Thus American pilots began encountering less and less capable Japanese pilots.
America opted for producing good pilots rather than excellent pilots, allowing pilots to become excellent by combat experience. The U.S. never faced the pilot problems the Japanese did, especially in the quality area.
I will end it here otherwise I will go on and on. What does this show us? How is this applicable to national security? A few lessons crop up. The combination of U.S. government and private sector was instrumental in the overall U.S. victory in WWII. Too often I hear that government is the problem, it messes up everything it touches. That is just not true. Here we see the government harnessing the power of the U.S. The government t directed and coordinated production to meet the strategy and military needs of the United States. If left to market forces U.S. industry would have produced whatever made thee best profit at the least cost. We would have had 10,000 tanks one week with no means to transport them to the combat area. The government dictated logic and requirements then allowed industry the freedom to get the job done.
Another point is to know your enemy. Yes, this has been covered many times, but yet we allow our own biases and views to creep in and influence our decisions. I have seen this all too often throughout my career. Put yourself in the other side’s shoes.
Cooperation is key. One area I did not touch on was the incredible lack of cooperation between the Japanese military services, army and navy. There was no civilian control over the military, therefore no one to force a degree of cooperation. Army and navy even worked at odds, having different strategies that were far from complimentary. The U.S. also experienced service rivalries, as well as personality clashes, but in the end they pursued a unified strategy, forced upon them by leadership.
Anyway, this is a great three-volume history of the war in the Pacific. I highly recommend it for what it is worth.