World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

AMERICA’S WAR

And so now we come to the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the Pacific War. As I’ve discussed in previous essays on the topic, much of the action was driven by the needs and blunders of the Japanese Army. The Japanese Navy was much less enthusiastic about the project, although they did not try very hard to stop it.

The Japanese logic was straightforward, though misinformed. The US (the world’s largest oil producer) had just cut off their total supply of oil. There was only about two years supply left in-country — two years for the Navy, if everyone else was starved of it. The US demand was simple, total withdrawal from China. The implications, which the US did not consider, were that Japan would become a client state of the US, and give up its aspirations to become a world-class nation. Better to go down fighting than acquiesce to that kind of abject surrender.

If Japan was to become independent in oil (does this have a modern ring to it? has the irony sunk in?), they would have to take it from someone, and the Dutch and British possessions were closest. So it was war with the UK and Holland.

But the UK was a close ally of the US, particularly in the Pacific. If Japan attacked the UK possessions there, the US would surely come into the war to support their ally. So it was war with the US. The Japanese (or at least those Army officers with the most clout) didn’t know that isolationist opinion in the US would have made it difficult to declare war without an overt attack on US forces, so they decided to make one.

Surprise attacks are a long-honored samurai tradition, retained into the modern age. The Russo-Japanese war started with a surprise bombardment of Port Arthur. The Japanese wanted to knock the US back on its heels for a year, while they ran wild across the Western and Central Pacific. Then they’d be able to negotiate from a position of strength. In fact, it was the one thing that would ensure a unified American response.

The combat portion of the Pacific War is shortly told. The IJN carrier strike forces ran roughshod over their enemies for six months, sailing one-third of the way around the globe, destroying ships and facilities from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Colombo, Ceylon. Probably the single greatest naval campaign in history. Their run came to an end at the Battle of Midway, and they never recovered from the loss of ships and aircrews. The first nine months combat used up most of the aircraft carriers on both sides, and there was an eighteen month lull in carrier warfare while both sides rebuilt.

The Army, meanwhile, either retained most of it’s combat troops in China (to defend their gains or protect against a Russian invasion), or committed them to the campaign in Burma, in an attempt to split India off from the Allies. Fewer than twenty army divisions defended the islands between the US and the Home Islands. Because of this, the Army lost what was essentially a slow-motion meeting engagement on Guadalcanal, and was forced back and back by US ground forces, supported by superior naval and air firepower. One of the reasons for their losses was the fact that they had only fought the Chinese for the last quarter century, and had no idea what a modern Western army could do.

Through defeat after defeat, however, they were able to hone an effective, though not successful, defensive strategy. Rather than attempting to stop an invasion at the water’s edge, they opted for a defense in depth, relying on the stubborn determination of the Japanese infantryman to hold every position until the end, and in doing so, bleed the invading force with horrific casualties. They refined this approach at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and their preparations for an archipelago-wide battle to the death was one of the considerations in our decision to drop the atomic bomb.

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