Pacific War 1 – Preliminary Moves

Pacific War 1 – Preliminary Moves

Road to the Pacific War

Beginning of the war in the Pacific came unexpectedly, at least for some people. Attention was on Europe, where war had been raging for two years. Poland had been invaded by Germany and USSR in September 1939., and USSR invaded Finland in November of the same year. After that, Germany conquered country after country – with Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece all falling in short order. In Asia, the war between Japan and China was already old news.

The war continued on. Air campaign over Britain captured and kept attention of the public. Even more so did the war in the North Atlantic, employing significant resources on both sides, as both knew the naval campaign was a key to either maintaining or neutralizing Britain. Stakes were increased even further when Axis powers invaded the Soviet Union. Massive expansion of war saw millions more troops thrown into combat, and millions of people were displaced or saw their homes destroyed. Soon, Leningrad was surrounded and Moscow was expecting an attack.

It is thus not surprising that nobody had cared what was happening in Asia. Eastern Asia and Pacific Ocean seemed calm: Japan had taken some areas of China, but they soon stopped with no plans for new advances evident. All of this, however, was soon to change.

Japan had a massive need for resources. Quick development of capitalism in Japan caused its internal market to be too small to its corporations as early as late 19th century. Thus Japan sought economic and political dominance of the Far East, which then led to conflict and imperialistic conquest. First target was Korea, which led to war with China of 1894. – 1895. Japan handily won this war, including its naval element. As Japanese industry continued to grow, so did pressure towards expansion into other Asiatic countries. This in turn led to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. – 1905., in which Japan defeated the Russian navy in multiple battles, with the final battle being one at Tsushima. Japan, having won the war on land as well as on the sea, received new territories as well as being recognized as a significant power.

Japan also received major benefits from the First World War. It entered a war on side of the Entente, which was an entirely risk-free proposition as German and Austro-Hungarian navies had been largely bottled up in the North and Adriatic seas, respectively, and the only forces they had in the Pacific were relatively weak outposts and few minor colonies. In return for this easy lifting, Japan received large territories in the Pacific, and also strengthened its economy and the navy. Its economic and military power increased to the point of becoming the third naval power in the world, as well as the most powerful and industrially developed nation of Asia. Japan’s imperial ambitions rose proportionally. Its trade and capital started entering nearly all countries bordering the Pacific and Indian oceans, and Japan started desiring sole control over entirety of Asia.

Kanto Earthquake of 1923. also had a major impact. It was widely interpreted as an act of divine punishment for leading self-centered, immoral and extravagant lifestyle. Earthquake thus provided an extraordinary opportunity to rebuild the nation and its values, but this rebuilding took the form of militarism and chauvinism – an overblown pushback against liberalism.

Therefore, Japan started carefully preparing for the conquest of new areas. It created a powerful armaments industry, army and the navy. Population was brought up in the bushido system, but a far more extreme and inhumane version of the traditional one. This, combined with Japan’s high level of development, made its expansion extremely dangerous and often utterly inhumane. Emperor was considered a God, yet he was merely a figurehead: real power was in the hands of the industrial and financial magnates and the military clique. People, on the other hand, served as nothing more than slaves in the mines and factories, working for 14 hours for low wage, or as cannon fodder. All of this was to an extent true in other countries – including the democratic West – but the Japan was extreme. At the same time, political influence of Japanese military was greater than in any other modern country. Almost all positions were held by generals and admirals, and the military determined the course of the internal and foreign policy of Japan.

This was a fundamental problem with Japanese decision-making structure, which has to do with nature of decision-making. Decision-making has three levels (which then can be further divided): strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Strategy sets goals: when related strictly to war, it determines the why of fighting, and thus also why war might not be fought. Operations determine campaigns: how to use individual battles to achieve the end goal of fighting. Tactics look at how to win the battles in question. (Note: Clausewitz terms these three elements Policy, Strategy and Tactics – his strategy is thus what I have here called operations). In modern parlance, policy is the art of determining overall objectives and behaviour of the state. Strategy is the art of using military power (or power in general) to achieve policy objectives, while operations and tactics are the technical employment of strategy. Thus, operations are subordinate to strategy, and tactics to operations. Tactical considerations should not determine operations, much less the strategy.

A monarch, such as an Emperor, was typically trained from youth to make decisions on a strategic and grand strategic levels. Thus he could be expected to make strategically sound decisions. But magnates were only trained in acquisition of wealth, and thus had no idea how to lead a country, except as a tool to make themselves richer. Neither could the generals perform the job, as their training had been focused on the operational level. And this is precisely what happened in Japan once the military clique took power. Instead of setting policy objectives and working out strategy, generals subordinated strategy to operational concerns. This led directly to war.

Don’t mind me. I am here just for decoration.

In fact, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is a case study of the above issues. Japanese leadership was concerned with operational (potential threat of Philippines to ther expansion) and tactical concerns, but ignored the strategic concerns completely. Strategic question here was “Should Japan, while bogged down in an unwinnable war against a third-rate power (China), also go to war against a first-rate power (USA), in order to free up resources for the first war?”. To anyone even remotely sane – even Hitler – the answer was an obvious “Fuck, NO!“. But Japan was led by generals, who are trained for tactics and operations (and it should be noted that the admirals – who, due to nature of naval warfare, have closer connection to strategic decision-making – were opposed to war). Result of the Japanese generals’ nature as military leaders was that they focused on operational planning, while taking the operational assumptions as operational, and even strategic, constants. Thus, the question “Should we go to war with the United States” became “How do we win the war with the United States”, thus eliminating the option not to go to war entirely.

Now, it is true that Japan had to go to war in the Pacific – US oil embargo made that unavoidable as it forced Japan to look for other sources of oil. But the war with the United States was not unavoidable. Conquest of Dutch and potentially British colonies in the Pacific will have ensured adequate supplies of all the raw resources Japan required, and neither country was in a position to do much more than send an angry note of protest. Yet Japanese military leadership was aware that a war was a possibility, and over time this assumption turned into one of inevitability. And this mistake was followed by another one, namely the assumption that the best way to win the war is by a surprise attack: a lethal strategic miscalculation based on misunderstanding of the US psychology. In essence, Japan had put operations above strategy, and thus ensured its own defeat.

But this was still in the future. In the near term, Japan focused on China. War in China began as early as 18th September 1931., when Japanese army invaded Manchuria. China, torn apart by a Communist revolution and resultant civil war, was incapable of any resistance. By 18th December 1932., Japan had conquered entire Manchuria and established a puppet state of Manchukuo. This enabled Japan to exploit significant natural resources of Manchuria – primarily food and raw materials for industry – while Manchuria provided it with a major market.

Next year, Japanese troops entered China, annexing Juehol. General attack began on 7th July 1937., starting with a staged incident near the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing. Beijing was taken within three weeks, while Tienjin fell the next day. Using another incident – happening in Shanghai – as an excuse, Japanese attack the city on 11th August 1937., capturing that important city as well. Nanking was taken on 13th December 1937., and Tsingtao fell on 10th January 1938. On 6th March 1938., Japanese troops reached the coast of Hoang Ho river, and on 6th of June, captured Kaifeng.

Marco Polo bridge

These were massive successes. Japan now had rich areas with natural resources and workforce several times more numerous than that of Japan itself. The only problem was a need for a massive occupation army to keep Chinese partisans in check. Conquest continued, with the Japanese navy blockading the entire Chinese coast and thus preventing import of weapons. During this, Japanese airplanes bombed British and US ships near Nanking. Chinese, led by Chang Kai Shek, retreated deep into the country, to a new capital of Chungking.

In mid-1938., Japan came into conflict with the Soviet Union. There are clashes against the Soviet Far Eastern army under marshal Blyukher, which expand in scope and area until the battle of Chang Ku Feng. This rather sobered up the hitherto victory-drunk Japanese generals, and so they signed a peace treaty with USSR, which in April 1941. was formalized into a five-year nonagression pact.

Instead, Japan continued its conquest into southern areas of China. By 20th October 1938., Japan had conquered nearly the entire coast, all the way to Canton and French Indochina. With this, Japan has reached its limit, and there is no further expansion possible for a time. On 24th May 1939., an agreement Craige – Arita is signed, witch which Great Britain recognizes Japan’s conquests so far. On 30th March 1940., Japan propped up a puppet government of Wang Ching-wei. China served as a major source of massive quantities of raw materials, allowing Japan to increase the production of materials for the army and the navy. Exploiting the war in Europe, Japan seeks right to occupy the French Indochina, which is achieved on 26th September 1940.

In the first quarter of 1941., Japan achieved another significant success. Under Japanese pressure, an agreement happened between the Japanese puppet government in Thailand and France, under which France ceded to Thailand – meaning Japan – large areas of Laos and Cambodia. Thus Japan had come into a possession of a significant colonial empire, and approached Maylasia. Only deep in China did combat continue against nationalists of Chang Kai Shek and communists of Mao Tse Tung, who also fought each other. All of this however concerned the Allies, with a British-Dutch-American conference being held in Singapore in April 1941. As usual for Allies in this phase, everything was mild and indecisive.

Japan Decides on War

Decision to go to war was made on 1st December 1941., on a governmental meeting. But the decision itself was a result of sharp conflicts between various interest groups, primarily the Army and the Navy. Imperial Japanese Navy had spent the last year pushing for a territorial expansion, believing that now – that the world is preoccupied with a war in Europe – is ideal time to gain the so desperately needed resources. Admirals believed (and justifiably so) that such a gain could be made easily and without major military adventures. Their basic premise was that Netherlands had been occupied by Germany and thus essentially no longer exists as a state. While some of the Dutch navy had survived and was still active, this force was insufficient to pose any serious threat to the Japanese Navy. Yet the Dutch held territories – specifically, the Dutch Indonesia – that could solve the Japan’s resource crisis. Most important of these resources was Indonesian petroleum, which could then be used to fuel Japanese industry. But Indonesia also had sugar factories, cane and fruit plantations, and major production of cautchouc, coffee, and other valuable produce. All of this was supported by an extensive infrastructure, and its 80 million inhabitants meant a large source of cheap workforce as well as a market for Japanese products.

raw resource exports from Dutch Indonesia to 1940

Aside from Indonesia, there were other rich areas of the Southeast Asia. These were Indochina, Malaysia, Burma and Sarawak. Each of these held extraordinary riches in terms of natural resources. While these were the colonies of Britain and France, each of them far more powerful than Netherlands, neither country was in position to actually defend their colonies. Japanese naval chiefs held that these areas could be occupied by using already extant powerful fleet, third in the world by tonnage. Conquest could be done with little risk, yet it would reap extreme rewards. Using this resource base could, theoretically, allow Japan to become the most powerful world power by the end of the war. The only serious threat were the United States, but the admirals held the US would not enter the war merely to defend other powers’ colonial possessions. Even so, war against the UK was to be avoided because it did hold a risk of involving the United States, and admirals believed that the war against United States was hopeless.

But that was not the opinion of the Army party, Kodo. Its leading generals were warlike gloryhounds with no real understanding of the realities of naval warfare, warfare in Pacific in general, or the strength of the opposition. They wanted an all-out war. More importantly, they wanted to win their internal war against the Navy – at all costs. In 1936., a group of 1400 soldiers led by their officers assasinated Admiral Saito – a then-minister of finance – by cutting him with swords. Army wanted to conquer China as soon as possible and turn it into a protectorate. Army clique was led by general Tojo, former commander of gendarmerie in Manchuria, a large Chinese province that Japan had conquered a long time ago. Another important member was general Arita, a minister of foreign affairs. He, like the majority of Japanese generals, looked upon Germany as a role model, and advocated for an alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union. In this he succeeded, with the Tripartite Alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan being signed on 27th September 1940.

General Hideki Tojo

In the meantime, internal conflict between the moderate and the militaristic group had reached a boiling point. When generals tried to bring Japan into a tight military alliance with Germany, and thus into the war, navy pushed back and the government of prime minister Jonojo fell on 22nd July 1940. New government was formed by prince Konoje. While he himself favoured moderate policy, he had two problems – Matsouka, a minister of foreign affairs, and (again) general Tojo, a minister of war. Both were avid supporters of Germany, and Tojo himself had a powerful clique of supporters in the Army. Army itself had support of the powerful clique of large capitalists who wanted new resources and trade areas. Thanks to influence of massive German successes in Europe, Navy gradually lost the influence and the ability to keep the bellicose generals on a leash. Eventually, prince Konoje resigned, and general Tojo became new head of the government.

Admiral Shimada, Minister of the Navy, futilely pointed out the impossible logistical situation. Generals sent him away with empty promises, and started planning campaigns, which were to begin on 8th December 1941. (that is, 7th December 1941. by Washington time). This was a victory of industrialists and bankers, who, as noted, wanted new markets, sources of resources, and plunder. Generals also wanted war, as victories in Manchuria and China gave them significant prestige and influence. This alliance quickly reaped benefits, and Japan was set on a course for war. Navy was far from happy: admirals were aware of the problems. Opponent was too powerful, distances made logistics and operational coordination difficult, and it was the navy that will carry the weight of the war. But the Army won out, and admiral Yamamoto was ordered to begin military operations on 8th December 1941.

The Plan of Conquest

As the conflict which started in Europe grew, Japan took it as a great opportunity to begin its own conquests. Successes already achieved rather went to Japanese leadership’s collective head, and there was more and more talk of the “greater Eastern Asian progress sphere”. This sphere would include Malaya, Burma, Siam, Indonesia and the Phillipines. Matsouka, the Japanese minister of foreign affairs, stated on 25th February 1941. that the white race has to surrender to Japan the entirety of Oceania as well. There was also intention to conquer Siberia as well, but, aware of the USSR’s strength, Japan signed a non-aggression pact on 13th April 1941., and in any case intended conquests in Asia and Pacific were far more lucrative.

Since plan as adopted would lead to conflict with the United States, Japan prepared a plan for war against the United States and the concurrent conquest of colonial areas. The expansion was planned in advance, with several iterations of the plan. First plan, made in 1938., was very modest, and involved only a war against Netherlands to conquer Indonesia.

General Wenecker, a German military atache to Japan, described the work of Japanese high command as confused. In his words, there was no unity in purpose or execution in the Japanese armed forces, with no single general staff. Rather, there are many chiefs with a lot of independence and insufficient coordination. Especially the army and the navy worked completely independently of each other, and in fact saw each other as primary enemies. There were two formal institutions intended to coordinate the activities of the Army and the Navy, however. These were the Supreme War Council (Gunji sangiin) and the Imperial General Headquarters (Daihon’ei). Supreme War Council consisted of the high-ranking commanders of the Army and the Navy, chiefs of staffs and high inspectors of the army and the navy. Supreme War Council was decisive in the questions of grand strategy, military plans, and formation and usage of armed forces. Imperial General Headquarters was intended to exist only in times of war, in order to make decisions with regards to management of military operations. As it was the Emperor’s personal organ, and also consisted of the ministers of navy and army, chiefs of staffs of army and navy, and some of their associates, it had a final word.

In 1940., a new plan was made. This plan too only envisioned conquests toward the south, with the fleet taking a defensive posture facing the US naval bases. But the plan undertook a review by the Supreme War Council in late 1940. This review was not merely a military matter, but an extensive military and economic study. Necessity of further conquests was explained by a need for raw resources which the Japanese economy needed to increase production. Current production was clearly insufficient for a protracted war: in fact, the entire economy was dependant on foreign supply. Japan did not have enough iron ore, copper, nor any other critical raw material. This also included food, but the most critical was oil – production of oil sufficed barely to cover 10% of domestic requirements. Overall annual requirements were 2 500 000 m3 for the navy, 600 000 m3 for the army, and 2 400 000 m3 for all other needs – thus 5 500 000 m3 total annual requirements, while annual production totalled 500 000 m3 and strategic reserves contained some 9 000 000 m3. These calculations included not only Japan itself, but also areas already under Japanese control – and they showed a massive strategic weakness of Japan – should foreign supply be interrupted, Japanese industry and military could be immobilized in less than two years without a shot being fired. However, if production in Indonesia, Phillipines, Malaya and Burma were to be included, Japan would be capable of completely satisfying its resource requirements. This again brought economic and military cliques together, and Japan refused Ribbentrop’s offer to attack the USSR as Siberia would not be able to cover what Japan needed.

This conference had long-reaching consequences. Reason for this was the Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Japanese combat fleet. He had fought in the Battle of Tsushima, where he was wounded, and since achieving his post he had introduced many farsighted reforms into the Japanese Navy. Fleet and its air arm were subjected to a strict regiment of training. While he was aware of the US strength, and thus opposed to any war against the United States, in 1940. he suddenly changed his opinion. Now, he advocated a fast and a decisive campaign with the aim of securing the necessary resources. More to the point, he started openly advocating for a direct attack against the United States and the Great Britain. This was not completely illogical: United States and the Great Britain had major interests as well as major naval bases in the area, and if it came to war, these could relatively easily interdict Japanese movements and the supply lines. But this was the exact faulty logic described in the introductory paragraph: rather than asking “what we will do if it comes to war with the US and UK”, and “whether we should go to war against them” (answer was a clear NO), the war against the two powers was taken as a constant, something unavoidable. From there, best chance of success was – according to Yamamoto – a surprise attack against all major naval bases US and UK had in the Pacific.

Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

After all, such a plan did have a precedent. Four decades earlier, Japan had started a war against Russia in a similar manner. Surprise attack against Port Arthur had given Japan significant advantage in later engagements, and thus such an idea was easy for the Japanese command to accept. First to support the plan was admiral Osami Nagano, Chief of Staff of the Japanese Armed Forces, followed by other members of the Imperial Headquarters. But the commanders did understand that United States were a far more powerful opponent than Imperial Russia. Therefore, attacks had to be quick, powerful, and carried on multiple fronts at once to achieve greatest benefit from the surprise. This made the operation a high-risk one, but the Japanese Navy spent a year in preparations. Date of the attack could not be known in advance, as it would be determined by other events going on in Europe and elsewhere. But in late 1941., preparations began.

The operation was planned in details. Attack on Pearl Harbour received special attention, with plan of the attack being prepared under personal supervision of Admiral Yamamoto. In November 1941., final meeting between chiefs of the Army and the Navy was carried out, in which final details were agreed on. As planned, focus was to be on attack against the Pearl Harbour, but operations in other areas were to begin without waiting for the outcome of this attack. Therefore, separate forces were formed for conquest of Malaya and Phillipines, as well as for attacks on Guam, Wake, Singapore and Indonesia. Each group had its own command, with coordination carried out by the Imperial Headquarters as necessary.

Following this, admiral Osami Nagamo, chief of staff of the naval armed forces, published a general order for operations which was delivered to all army and navy commanders during November 1941. These put forth the primary tasks of the navy: continued control over the coasts of China, destruction of the enemy forces in the Far East, destruction of the enemy fleet at Hawaii, conquest of the most important strategic points in the south, and destruction of the enemy combat capability. The date of the attack was determined only on a conference held on 1st December 1941.

US Defensive Planning

US High Command took the correct stance that the most dangerous opponent is Nazi Germany, and thus the focus of the war should be in Europe. Thus majority of forces were in the Atlantic, leaving relatively little for the Pacific theatre. Duty of navy in the Pacific was to defend and delay the enemy until the time when offensive could be undertaken.

US Navy was headed by minister Frank Knox, and his state undersecretary of the Navy was Forrestal, whose economic experience allowed him to organize excellent logistical support for the Navy. When Knox died in 1943., Forrestal became minister of the Navy. Overall commander was formally the President of the United States, who also had his own staff. Chief of President’s General Staff was, during the entire war, admiral Leahy. Army was under command of general Marshall, while Navy was under the Chief of Naval Operations, admiral Stark. Under him were admiral King, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, and admiral Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet. After attack on the Pearl Harbour, admiral Kimmel was replaced by admiral Chester Nimitz, while admiral King became Chief of Naval Operations.

The Micromanager himself: Rear Admiral Husband E Kimmel

Admiral Nimitz, once he became a commander of the Pacific Fleet, had one area of the ocean outside his control. This was the southwestern Pacific, where overall command was held by General MacArthur, which caused some confusion in situations such as the reconquest of the Phillipines in 1944. Both commanders proved adept at commanding both ground and naval forces, especially during the amphibious operations. Close to the end of the war the command was reorganized, with admiral Nimitz taking control of the naval forces and general MacArthur of the ground forces. During the war, need for combined allied operations led to establishment of the Combined Chiefs of Staffs, which coordinated actions of all Western allies.

Due to defensive nature of US planning, ground forces were tasked only with defense, primarily of Hawaii and the West Coast. Troops at Phillipines were to be reinforced, so that by February 1942. they could defend the islands for half a year until reinforcements could arrive. But the Japanese attack preempted all the countermeasures.

Also present in the Pacific were small elements of the British and Dutch navies. Dutch naval presence was centered around the naval base at Surabaya on Java and consisted of three cruisers (Java, de Ruyter, Tromp), six destroyers and 15 submarines. This fleet was commanded by Admiral Conrad Helfrich. British navy relied on Singapore, by far the strongest naval base in southern and southeastern Asia. Britain requested a part of the US Pacific Fleet to be transferred to Singapore, but the US had no confidence in the base, which later events would prove correct. Instead, the US transferred three battleships, a carrier, four cruisers and a number of destroyers to Atlantic, allowing the British to send some ships to Singapore.

As a result, total number of ships was as follows:

Aircraft carriers46
Hydroplane base ships27
Heavy cruisers1712
Light cruisers2723

Major weakness of the Allied forces in the Pacific was a lack of aircraft. While Japan had 2 550 aircraft for its offensive, Allies only had 1 300 aircraft available. These aircraft were mostly obsolete, far inferior to Japanese aircraft, and were also widely dispersed:

United States – Phillipines182
United States – Wake and Midway24
United States – Hawaii387
United States – aircraft carriers160
Netherlands – Indonesia200
Britain – Malaya and Hong Kong180

Aside from the Allies having obsolete aircraft, Japanese managed to achieve a complete operational surprise. As a result, many Allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Consequence of this was that Allied air power in the Pacific was completely irrelevant during the first stage of the Pacific campaign.

US plan predicted the Navy to carry out attack against Marshall Islands, attacks against Japanese naval bases and supply lines, cooperation with British naval forces, securing of the communication lines with Australia and Southern Pacific, and preparations for conquest of Marshall and Caroline Islands. Japanese advance meant that, with the exception of securing the communication lines to Australia, US Navy was not able to fulfill any of these tasks.

Breaking the Japanese Code

As so often in war, accidents and happenstances had a massive impact on the future course of events. This particular happenstance happened in May 1940. out in the Bering Sea, where US patrol ships were numerous – Soviet Union was only 92 kilometers away, and in this narrow passage, hundreds of US, Canadian, Soviet and Japanese fishing boats cruised the fish-rich sea. Yet the sea is very dangerous due to cold waters and propensity for storms. Among crews of sunk ships there typically were no survivors, as water temperature was around 1 – 2 degrees Celsius.

A patrol ship of the US Navy on the routine patrol discovered a corpse floating in the sea. After careful search, corpse turned out to be a Japanese naval officer, in whose pocket US commander discovered a hermetically sealed book which turned out to contain Japanese naval codes. After returning to the base next morning, the book and other possessions of the dead officer were turned over to the Naval Intelligence attache at the base, while the ship returned to patrol without any other contact with land. Commander of the base immediately called Pentagon and informed them of the find, and Pentagon immediately sent an officer to take the code book. This allowed the US Intelligence services to quickly decipher majority of Japanese messages as most of the communication was done on this code. Several months later, and using this code book as a basis, US Naval Intelligence succeeded in breaking the complete Japanese cypher.

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