"Palos Verdes Resident since 1947"

The Other Reasons Japan Lost the War

This is the text of a talk I gave to veterans of the Pacific War.  It was given as a distillation of 40 years of studying the subject and was given “off the top” without reference to books, notes, internet, etc, so there are no footnotes.  While the reader may take issue with some of the positions, he will presumably forgive any incidental, non-substantive errors.  If you want the 58 minute You Tube digest, here’s the link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ACyOeTm6RA



Let’s just start by saying that there was simply no way Japan could have “won” WW 2 militarily but that, from their perspective, they pursued the only course that offered any hope of success:  that of a relatively short war, with the US becoming demoralized and suing for peace, aka “cutting and running”.  Unfortunately Japan was [ahem] about 65 years too early for that strategy to work.  If they were to avoid the fate of China who, from Japan’s perspective, had lost their independence to foreign influence (read: European/American), Japan needed resources to build up their economy and military.  The roots of Japan’s involvement in WW 2 go back to 1600 when Japan, in an effort to avoid “corrupting” foreign influence, had expelled all foreigners, which included primarily Jesuit missionaries and European trading companies.  250 years of resulting self-imposed isolation had seen them fall far behind the West technologically.  Visits by western naval units in the mid-19th Century made it clear to them

Emperor Meiji on his way to assume power — 1868

that, without a crash industrialization program, they they were doomed to China’s fate.  Thus the 250 year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended with the 1868 Meiji Restoration, putting the Emperor Meiji on the throne with the charge of getting Japan up to speed militarily and, by implication, industrially and economically.

In the Mahan-dominated days before WW 2, a nation’s (and especially an island nation’s) military strength was directly related to its navy, which implied re-fueling (be it coal or oil) bases, which implied colonies, which meant an empire. Of course, while the Japanese were looking inward 1621 thru 1868, the world’s major powers were claiming as possessions the very island bases the Japanese now needed.  The Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, minor involvement in WW 1, etc, all went pretty favorably to Japan.  But the Japanese were on a mission and thought, in view of their status as an ally on the winning side in WW 1, they had been unfairly treated by the Western nations at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference and later at the League of Nations and 1935 London Naval Conference, where Japan had lost “face” by accepting relegation to an inferior position of naval strength vis a vis Britain and the US.  The Japanese thought their involvement in WW 1, along with having proven themselves versus Russia 1904-05, should have entitled them to more than the few former German mandates they got (Marianas, Carolines, Gilberts, etc) . . . so they got a chip on their national shoulder.

The most important and portentous manifestation of this chip was the division of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the 1930’s into the Treaty Faction, who believed that Japan’s best bet was to achieve her goals thru cooperation with the international community, and the Fleet Faction, basically a group of “hot blooded young officers” who wanted Japan to take a more aggressive military posture, hadn’t a clue what they were getting into, but were anxious to get into it nonetheless.  As the perceived slights continued at the mid-1930’s London Naval Conference, the Treaty Faction lost credibility along with the civilian government, and the Fleet Faction gained the ascendancy, which led directly to the attack of December 7, 1941.

The late 30’s-early 40’s aggression of Mussolini and Hitler in Europe encouraged Japan to think that now might be the time to attain her goals militarily, especially since the European powers had their hands too full to defend their colonies.  With the US having cut off export of raw materials to Japan in an effort to end Japan’s China escapades, not to mention moving the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii, Japan’s military build-up and protracted rape of China was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.  At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had roughly an 18 month supply of oil with which to fuel their fleet; oil was on the US embargo list, so this was additional pressure.  Given their interests in the area (Philippines and China), the Japanese viewed it as unlikely that the Americans would stand by and watch Japan

USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37).

colonize East Asia.  So, to the Japanese way of thinking, if their contemplated grab at SE Asian resources was going to have any chance of success, they had to “defeat” the US before it had a chance to mobilize.  What better way than to take out the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, which should give Japan a year or two to consolidate its holdings before the reconstructed US fleet began the long journey across the Pacific to fight the Decisive Battle (as tho one would do it), whittled away en route by Japanese submarines.  Better yet, the surprise strike would result in a peace offer of status quo from an over-stretched and “soft” US — or, as Knute Rockne would have said, go for the “Hail Mary” with no time left on the clock versus a time-consuming drive.  Time was a luxury the Japanese did not have.  So went the insular Japanese thinking.

The fundamental problem was that most Japanese simply had no idea what they were up against.  The few who did knew that a) the US was unlikely to throw in the towel immediately, and that b) the resulting long war with an industrial powerhouse like the US was a guaranteed loser.  Knowing that, it’s possible that many of Japan’s seeming mistakes may have been intentional expedients, or at least worked out for the best as events proved.

Isoroku Yamamoto all decked out

Interestingly enough, Isoroku Yamamoto, having spent time in the US in the early 1920’s and being familiar with the character and industrial power of the US, was identified with the Treaty Faction but, as a “good soldier”, resolved to make the best of what he viewed as a bad decision.

The most obvious and largest cause of Japan’s defeat in WW 2 was that she was simply outclassed by the industrial production capacity of the United States who, with roughly 20% of its war effort allocated to fighting the Japanese, originally conceived simply as a holding action until Germany could be defeated, drove Japan to utter and unquestionable defeat.  Even without any other causes, this would have guaranteed Japan’s demise.  Japan, however, contributed to her own defeat in a number of ways which are not often discussed.

As a general observation, Japan’s approach to World War 2 was that of a military that had never been seriously tested in battle.  It just seems as if they didn’t expect anyone competent to be shooting back at them.  For example, while the Japanese seem to have fully absorbed Mahan, they missed Moltke’s observation that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.  The following discussion makes more sense if the reader will keep that in mind:

1) Bushido.  The Japanese warrior mentality of “fighting to the death” and being willing to give up one’s life “for the Emperor”, while admirable in itself had, in the passion of the militarist Japanese regime, mutated from “willing” to

These outfits were probably not all that practical in combat

“anxious”, which led to much useless sacrifice of life.  The Banzai Charge is the most well-known example, but many thousands of Japanese when trapped in their caves or wherever, rather than suffer the ignominy of capture, would put their Arisakas under their chin and pull the trigger with their big toe, hug a grenade, or whatever.  In Japanese culture (and this is true even today), much more importance is placed on the appearance of things than the result, than is the case in more results-oriented Western culture.  It was extremely important to the Japanese soldier to appear to have done his best and died gloriously in battle which, along with saki, aided in recruitment for banzai charges into dug-in heavy machine guns.  The fact that everyone knew the thing was futile was immaterial.  The alternative of returning alive to face the scorn of family and community was unthinkable.

Your humble correspondent at Marpi Pt, Saipan. It was better, to Japanese way of thinking, to throw oneself off these cliffs than to surrender to the Americans.

Another provision of Bushido was that the defeated Japanese officer should die in battle so that the appearance of maximum effort was maintained.  The problem here is that, rather than surviving and learning from defeat, the defeated are dead and cannot either benefit later from what they learned or

Rare picture of banzai charge. Officer with sword was just too conspicuous.

pass it on to others.  Japanese tactics changed little during the War, and this is a major reason why.  Banzai charges, by the way, were generally led by a company or field grade officer conspicuously wielding an officer’s sword (the “appearance” thing again), thus aiding the Americans in helping him be first to die for the Emperor, and leaving the unit leaderless.  Unlike the Americans, the Japanese did not have a tradition of NCO’s and other lower level ranks assuming command when the ranking officer went down so, rather than take cover and reassess the strategy, the survivors simply continued on to their deaths.

2) Defense.  Relatively easy victories prior to WW 2 seem to have lulled the Japanese military planners into the denial that anyone competent would actually be shooting back at them.  This paradigm filtered its way down thru all aspects of the Japanese military.  Japanese battle plans, for example, were exceedingly complex and depended upon the enemy (and the weather) doing exactly what was anticipated.  Coral Sea, Midway, Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and the Marianas are good, big examples of this.  The idea was that with sufficient feints and nuanced attacks, the enemy could be thrown off-balance or lured into an intricately-contrived trap.  The problem, in addition to lack of enemy cooperation, was that this required a division of force that often left any one fleet element incapable of dealing with the unanticipated and unable to support any other.  With limited resources to deal with the huge empire which fell into their laps during the first 6 months of 1942, the multiple deployments were often of the shoestring variety, even when Japan had overwhelming control of the sea.  The battles around Guadalcanal/Tulagi amply illustrate this, but each of the islands in Japan’s newly won empire had to be garrisoned and supplied lest the enemy set up on one, fragmenting their forces and fatally complicating the problem of re-supply.  However, if the assumption is that the enemy is too incompetent to meaningfully shoot back, all of this isn’t a problem.

The lack of defensive thinking carried thru to their hardware.  Most Japanese equipment was very lightly built, the most

The legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero

well-known example being the A6M Zero fighter, which sacrificed self-sealing fuel tanks, armored pilot seat, etc, for lighter weight and thus greater agility.  Early in the war the Brewster Buffaloes, P-40’s, and Grumman Wildcats had a tough time getting a bead on them, especially as they were dealing with veteran Japanese pilots battle-hardened from years of war in China.  But as the American pilots’ skills and equipment improved, the Japanese were shot down in droves.  Japanese lack of defensive foresight also led them to deny their pilots parachutes, thinking that it would make them too willing to bail out.  Thus Japan lost most of its best pilots during the first 7 months of US involvement.  Also suffering from a lack of robustness was the G4M “Betty” medium bomber, on paper the rough equivalent of the US B-25 Mitchell.  The Betty

Japanese G4M “Betty” Bomber

became known at the Ronson Lighter as one .50-cal into a [non-self-sealing] wing tank caused it to burst into flames.  The Japanese lost Adm Yamamoto due to exactly this cause, aided by knowing his schedule, as discussed later.  The US, on the other hand, chose the path of greater armor and defensive features, preferring survivability over improved maneuverability.  American planes were therefore relatively tough for the Japanese to bring down and many of the latter were shot down while pumping round after round into a Hellcat or Corsair with little effect.  Many of the American pilots who were shot down ditched or bailed out, were rescued, and were able to put their experience to use in the next fight.

The Arisaka rifle is another example.  A variant of the turn-of the century German Mauser, and whereas the Americans

The bolt-action Arisaka rifle used by Japanese infantry was outdated, and outclassed by the American M-1 Garand

were generally equipped with the semi-automatic M-1 Garand, the Arisaka was a single shot, bolt action rifle which was longer than the average 5’3″ Japanese soldier was tall, especially with bayonet fixed for banzai charge.  Again, these cumbersome, slow-firing weapons were fine if you had no serious enemy shooting back, and they looked great on the parade ground, but suffered in collective firepower against an enemy actually providing some opposition.

Type 11 Nambu Light Machine Gun

In fact, the Nambu light machine gun was the only Japanese infantry weapon that could be considered on a par with its Western equivalent, the Browning air-cooled light machine gun.

It is also interesting, given that a major motivation for moving into SE Asia was to obtain resources Japan sorely lacked and needed to defend the empire she was conquering while doing it, and that those resources would have to be brought back to Japan via ship, no one seems to have realized that Japan’s merchant marine wasn’t up to the task.  Again, the unwritten assumption (hope) seems to have been that the Americans would sue for peace following 12/7/41, rather than send them pesky submarines over hunting Marus.  It did begin rather slowly, as the Mark 13 torpedoes of the Americans were famously unreliable (depth mechanism and detonator were defective on over half), to the immense consternation of the sub crew who had risked their lives to line up a shot only to have the torpedo either go under the target or bounce off.  This problem was solved by 1943 and the lightly escorted Japanese freighters went down in bunches.  Apart from other raw materials, the resulting lack of fuel serious proscribed the naval strategies available to Japan.

There was also a huge contrast between the average American soldier/sailor and that of the Japanese with regard to the practical ability to fix things mechanical/electrical.  The US had been an industrialized society far longer than the Japanese, who still really weren’t.  There were many more men in the US ranks who knew how to repair internal combustion engines, rifles, wheel bearings, etc, than there were in the Japanese or, for that matter, the German military.  As a result, whereas the Americans could frequently devise a field expedient to get their hardware working, the Japanese were forced to wait for a specially trained contingent, hoping that the guy who had the training hadn’t run into a bullet.

3) Ships.  The Imperial Navy was, on paper, the third most powerful in the world at 0755 7 December 1941, behind Britain and the US respectively.  This was deceptive, however.  It is well-known that Japan had never lost a war prior to WW 2 — that’s the good news.  The bad news is that, whereas the Japanese did the US the “favor” of sinking most of her

Japanese BB Yamashiro. “Pagoda” style mast probably looked real good on parade.

overage capital ships at the outset, Japan was left with her ships of generally older design, some refitted, some not.  Most of her capital ships were in this class (Haruna, Kirishima, Hiei, Fuso, Kongo, Yamashiro, etc), notwithstanding a relatively few well-known exceptions such as Yamato, and some very good heavy cruisers (Mogami, Mikuma, Chikuma, Aoba, etc, made better by Japan’s disregard for London Naval Treaty, provisions of which Japan had renounced), etc.  So most of her heavy units were basically of WW 1-era design.  The crucial difference here is that naval warfare had changed in a couple of critical areas in the intervening time:  1) fire direction and control had improved drastically so that long-range gunnery actually had a chance of hitting an opposing ship.  This implied what is known as plunging fire, where the trajectory of the shell was much closer to vertical upon impact, thus making deck armor much more important, versus the relatively flat

HMS Hood in happier days

trajectories of WW 1 naval gunfire.  Plunging fire had not been of much concern in WW 1, but the WW 1-era HMS Hood’s demise at the hands of freshly-minted Bismarck in 1941 provided a traumatic demonstration of the advances that had been made.  2) Airplanes were now able to carry enough ordinance to effectively attack ships, which was not the case in WW 1, so armored decks were doubly important.  3) Damage control was also given relatively short-shrift.  The most obvious example is comparing the fates of Japanese carriers at the battles of Coral Sea and Midway with those of the US carriers, while Japan was still clearly in the ascendant.  Simply stated, with the overwhelming superiority of ships, planes, and battle experience the Japanese had April thru June of 1942, they still managed to lose 5 carriers (Shoho, Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, and Kaga) to the Americans’ 2 (Lexington and Yorktown, with the latter requiring both battles to sink).  Even granting that a certain amount of luck was with the Americans at Midway with regard to timing, with the Japanese superiority in nearly every category (at least on paper), luck shouldn’t have mattered.  Yorktown took at least as much damage at Coral Sea as did any of the Japanese carriers at Midway, yet Yorktown was patched up and under way to Pearl for repairs that would have taken the Japanese a year (witness Shokaku after Coral Sea), were supposed to take the Americans 3 months, and actually took 3 days.

Additionally, in the area of ship design and battle doctrine, the Japanese don’t appear to have thought thru the consequences of battle damage.  Again looking at Midway, the combination of leaking fuel lines due to battle damage (hardly unforeseeable) and sealed hanger decks essentially created a bomb; not filling those fuel lines with CO2 prior to entering battle was just asking for it.  Add to that sloppy ordinance storage procedures and a relatively small proportion of the ship’s company trained and assigned to damage control and with very little cross training, so that if the guy who knew how to counter-flood was hit by the first bomb, and the gig was up.  There is a long list of such oversights that

Carrier Taiho sank as a direct result of inadequate defensive measures and crew training

appear attributable to the Imperial Japanese Navy never having really been tested in battle.  Dumb stuff like small carrier elevators, making it take forever to get a flight into the air while the first launchees burned up fueling circling.  But it is also true that, as discussed elsewhere, the Japanese put heavy emphasis on the appearance of things and doing things correctly according to their rather insular doctrine.  Spending too much time training damage control parties or taking other measures that would only matter if the ship was hit by the enemy would be construed as defeatist.  Rather, let’s make sure the Emperor’s portrait is straight and the chrysanthemum polished.

The Japanese saw no requirement for radar either on ships or in planes, so convinced were they of their visual prowess

I took this picture of Cape Esperance, the northern end of Guadalcanal. It is from here that the Japanese evacuated the last of their starving troops.

especially in night fighting.  They got some initial encouragement in the naval battles around Guadalcanal when the Allies didn’t yet understand how to make best use of radar, but clearly they chose the losing path in that area.

4) Hubris:  In the early days it took the form of what the Japanese themselves called Victory Disease, assuming that, based upon the first 6 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, it was going to be a quick and easy victory.  But in the larger sense it was related to the previously-discussed notion that the enemy was too incompetent to provide any meaningful resistance.  The most serious manifestation of this was their refusal to consider the possibility that the US had broken their codes, primarily Purple (diplomatic) and JN-25 (naval).  By the Pearl Harbor attack, as is well-known now, the US was reading Purple well enough that Cordell Hull had a copy of the Japanese 14 part message to their Consulate breaking off diplomatic relations in his hands prior to meeting with Nomura and Kurusu, who were supposed to deliver it 30 minutes before the attack.  In the early stages of the war when the situation was still in doubt and the Japanese had their best chance for a favorable negotiated settlement, no Japanese who mattered thought the US capable of breaking the higher-level Japanese codes.  It is also unlikely, by the way, even if the US had offered to settle at this point, that the Japanese, flush with an unbroken string of victories, would have agreed . . . but that’s another subject.  The codes were progressively broken from the months before the Pearl Harbor attack thru 1943.  By Midway we were reading their

Joseph Rochefort

messages sufficiently well to uncover the identity of Midway in a flurry of messages clearly indicative of big naval doings.  Ingenious codebreaker Joe Rochefort had a hunch that the code name AF in Japanese transmissions was probably Midway Island and came up with the idea of having Midway transmit in the clear about a week before the operation was to begin that their desalination plant had broken down — right on schedule, the Japanese advised the Striking Force to bring extra fresh water because AF was short of it.  Knowing that Midway was the objective, Admiral Nimitz was able to place the puny US fleet (Enterprise and Hornet, with Yorktown arriving in the nick of time after the above-discussed repairs) just northeast of Midway, ahead of the screen of Japanese submarines meant to sink some of them, out of range of the Japanese Striking Force until the last minute, and ready to pounce on the unsuspecting Adm Nagumo.  The story of the battle is too well-known to bear repeating here, and the US was the beneficiary of a certain amount of luck especially as regards timing, but none of it would have happened had the US not broken the Japanese codes.  Midway would have been taken and Hawaii would have been next, forcing the US fleet back to the US West Coast, with all that that implied for the length of the War and increased US casualties.  Revisionists notwithstanding, Midway was certainly the turning point of the war in the Pacific (with Japanese defeat being inevitable, there was certainly going to be some turning point after their initial success), as the Japanese did not have the ability to recover from the loss of 4 heavy carriers within the space of the short war they required for victory.

The other important advantage the US gained thru reading Japanese codes, especially in the first 18 months or so, was that it allowed Nimitz to concentrate his relatively meager resources where they would do the most good.  This advantage was unwittingly enhanced by the Japanese tendency to divide their forces so that the entire theater could be

Professor Fate & Max (Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk) with another ill-fated weapon in The Great Race

covered with the intricate ballet of their battle plan.  It’s almost comical to imagine the Japanese, sailing confidently into battle, supremely confident in their navy and elaborate battle plans, chagrined time after time when the US navy invariably just happened to show up at absolutely the most inconvenient time and place to thwart them.  Think of Professor Fate in the movie The Great Race.

With hindsight, it is easy to ask “how could they not have known their codes had been broken”, as it is easy with hindsight to second-guess many historical events.  The overconfidence brought on by nothing but victory (the “draw” at Coral Sea was seen as an aberration) did not make changing the codes a priority while it could still be done; later, when the US controlled the seas and Japan was in full retreat, there was simply no way to physically deliver new code books to all the islands Japan still held.

But back to Midway:  there are a couple of instructive facts concerning the battle that get little notice.  Contrary to what

Yours truly standing in front of the Midway power plant. Damage from the battle is still evident.

you may read, aircraft carriers at this point in the War had just advanced beyond the status of “Fleet Auxiliaries” such as tankers, mine sweepers, etc.  For proof of this one need look no further than Adm Yamamoto’s decision to keep his battle line, including Yamato, at a safe distance behind the battle, not wanting to risk losing any of his capital ships.  Had the entire Japanese fleet participated in the battle, the outcome would almost certainly have been different.  This is also yet another example of the Japanese tendency to divide their forces to achieve several objectives via nuanced feints, etc, leaving them unable to deal with the unexpected.  Simultaneous with the Midway attack, not realizing the US was reading their messages, and trying to lure the US Fleet away from the battle, Yamamoto sent Adm Hosogawa to take the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska, thinking the US would have to defend “home” soil and send the fleet north, to be ambushed by the Japanese Main Body.  While the Japanese were successful in taking Attu and Kiska, Nimitz knew the real objective, and this ended up being a meaningless dead end as the Japanese hadn’t the resources to capitalize on it.  It was, incidentally, the thing that caused the building of the Alaska Highway.

The now-well-known facts surrounding the shootdown of Adm Yamamoto over Bougainville in the Spring of 1943 again illustrate the importance of knowing where the enemy will be, and when.  In fact, the ramifications of the code breakers’ activities are only now being fully appreciated.

Speaking of cause and effect, the Doolittle Raid of April, 1942 led directly to the Battle of Midway.  The Japanese military

B-25’s on deck of Hornet fixin’ to take off for raid on Tokyo

leadership was horrified that the Emperor had been put in danger via US bombers directly overflying the Imperial Palace (Tokyo, not Vegas) though, unbeknownst to them, Doolittle’s pilots had specific orders not to bomb it.  The Japanese assumed that the Mitchell bombers, being land-based planes, must have taken off from land.  Since the closest US base capable of mounting such an attack was Midway, the plan was hatched to insure the Emperor’s safety by “annihilating” that base, along with the rest of the US fleet, which would feel compelled to defend it — Japanese battle plans, by the way, always included “annihilating the enemy”, as if repeating it enough times would bring it about.  Western logic leads one to question who in Tokyo thought the Mitchell had such stupendous range, but I suspect it was more the need to appear to be striking back after such a public display of vulnerability.  In any event, after Midway was “annihilated” the Japanese would take Hawaii, forcing the US back to the West Coast.  Only by the most fortuitous series of events did the US win the Battle of Midway.  Hawaii was certainly wide open to invasion and mounting an operation to re-take and supply it would have set the US war effort back at least a year.

One other interesting event:  immediately after the Battle of Midway, the Chicago Tribune got wind that the victory was made possible by the US having broken the Japanese codes and was going to run a front page story on it.  FDR sent George Marshall and a few others to meet with the publisher and he was dissuaded, in the national interest, from running the story.  Of course, this was in the days when the US press was actually rooting for the US to win.  Later, in 1943, the NY Times did run a story about how the US had been reading the Japanese codes since before the Battle of Midway, so their recent revelations about wiretaps demonstrate (as if further proof were needed) that things haven’t changed all that much there.  By that time, however, Japan was incapable of changing their codes, as it required physically transporting new code books to each of their island bases over seas increasingly controlled by the US Navy.

I suppose Japan’s lack of any pilot training program that approached adequate could also be chalked up to hubris; after all, if you don’t think anyone will actually be shooting back, you don’t plan to lose many pilots.  And if you know that a long war is a loser for you, no point in wasting resources on a big pilot training program, by implication taking some of your better pilots off the front lines to train new ones.  May as well have your best out there in the beginning when the issue must be decided if it is to go your way.  But it is a fact that, whereas US pilots got progressively better during the war, Japanese ones got worse and worse.  Apart from simply needing bodies in those cockpits as soon as possible, Japan could ill-afford simple things like fuel to “waste” on training.  The OJT thus forced on them guaranteed a short career for most Japanese pilots.

Japan’s lack of investment in radar research was brought on by their overconfidence in the night vision of their lookouts, and the IJN’s experience around Guadalcanal did nothing to shake this.  It is important to note that early radar, like many technologies that greatly improved over time (the firearm being another prime example), was not all that reliable or accurate in the beginning, as famously illustrated by Lt Kermit Tyler 30 minutes before the Pearl Harbor attack.  So the difference between radar and eyesight at that stage wasn’t as great as it might now seem.  Unfortunately for the Japanese, before long US radar was demonstrating that Japan had chosen the wrong path.

5) Rigid, top-down command and control:  Japanese field commanders were given very little tactical leeway when compared to the Americans.  So while at Midway John Waldron intuitively deviated from his assigned flight plan and found the Japanese fleet, Adm Nagumo plowed ahead with the Yamamoto (who was far in the rear)-devised battle plan, dithering only between high explosive and anti-ship ordinance, depending upon the latest incomplete and conflicting

As the CO reported back to Tokyo “The attack of the Ichiki Detachment was not entirely successful”. Ya think?

report from his scout planes.  And on Guadalcanal Col Ichiki, leading one of the best units in the Imperial Army, could think of nothing better than leading them into emplaced machine guns — all roughly 1000 of them, who died to a man.

My personal distaste for hindsight requires me to say that, with regard to the Japanese fondness for overly complicated battle plans requiring division of their force, we have the benefit of hindsight in knowing that, as things worked out, that probably was not such a wise course; however, had Japan consolidated their forces and won at Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and other battles that took place while they still had a chance, but had lost the war as was inevitable, historians would likely now be saying that “heck, with the tremendous advantage the Japanese had in almost every category at the start of the war, and with their enemies focused elsewhere, the Japanese certainly had the ability to tackle several objectives at once and could have won Midway with half the force while taking a foothold in the Aleutians, thus maximizing their advantage while they had it and optimizing the chance for a negotiated settlement”, etc, etc.  This is a pet peeve of mine that carries right thru to today:  those charged with making the decisions make them on the information at hand and, if things don’t work out satisfactorily, it is then easy to suggest other options that “should” have been taken without consideration to the one that was, even tho that may indeed have been the best one with the information available at the time (think Iraq).  J F C Fuller touched on this when he famously said “History is not the history of what happened; it is the history of what happened in the context of what might have happened”.  Or, alternatively, “The road not travelled always looks smooth”.

6) The Japanese style of decision-making:  Then, as now, the Japanese tended to make decisions by concensus.  It appears to have been very difficult for a commander to simply order an operation carried out if even one of his subordinates disagreed with it.  Not only did this lead to paralysis in the decision-making process, often when time was critical, but it also contributed to the overly complicated battle plans as outlined above, trying to give everyone what they wanted lest the dissenting officer go off and commit hara kiri.  In fairness, the Allies were not immune from this, the most famous example being FDR’s pandering to Douglas MacArthur’s ego in letting him run his superfluous campaign up thru Southeast Asia.  But the US could afford such indulgences; the Japanese could not.

Japanese POW’s listening to Hirohito’s speech announcing surrender

Closely related is the Japanese aversion to delivering bad news.  The extreme example of this was in Hirohito’s recorded speech announcing Japan’s surrender, delivered after a couple of days of dithering following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Said Hirohito, in a breathtaking understatement:  “The war has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”.  No kidding!  As the Americans discovered before and after the War, rarely would a Japanese simply say “No” to anything; instead, they would dissemble, dance around, and dither, apparently hoping for some sort of neutral ground to somehow appear.  As discussed above, if one lost a battle, it was easier to simply commit seppuku than to tell one’s superiors.

The seemingly cultural difficulty in dealing with adversity was especially brought home in the closing days of the War, when the Supreme Council were running around in a tizzy just before and after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trying to figure out what to do and how to tell anyone else.  Had Gilbert & Sullivan been around, this would have been the basis for at least one musical number in The Mikado.

A few other thoughts:

1)  There is utterly no evidence that Franklin Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor tho some have tried to make that case.  The temptation to go back thru the record with benefit of hindsight and cherry-pick circumstantial evidence that seems to support the pre-drawn conclusion that he must have known (after all, how could we miss something that big?) ignores a couple of factors:  no one really expected, or thought the Japanese even capable of mounting such an attack, notwithstanding Hector Bywater and a few other predictions and war games in the 1920’s and ’30’s that seemed to both predict it and demonstrate its feasibility.  If one studies enough history, one can find seemingly prescient predictions for every otherwise unexpected event in history; in other words, there is always someone somewhere who has predicted just about everything imaginable, is wrong 99% of the time, but is dredged up after the “unexpected” event and held up as a visionary.  The problem for those in power is that they must sift thru myriad intelligence and other indicators, 99.9% of which is worthless and, without knowing the future, figure it out.

It is true, of course, the FDR was convinced that the US would end up in the War and was trying to maneuver the Japanese into committing causus belli.  Takeover of the Philippines on the way to S E Asia probably would have been sufficient when added to years of abuse of China and other misdeeds, but the proposition that he was willing to risk losing the Pacific Fleet as the price of public support for war, not to mention the number of people who would have to have been complicit in such a massive conspiracy, fails the logic test.  In this case, and if he had such precise knowledge, why would he not give the Fleet 12 hours or so warning and either be prepared for the attack or, better yet, catch Kido Butai red-handed 250 miles from Pearl with the air strikes staged and ready?  The fact is that US cryptanalysis was sufficiently advanced by December 1941 that intelligence knew something was afoot, but a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was pretty far down the list of probabilities.

2)  Which bring us to Admiral Kimmel and General Short, the two US commanders at Pearl Harbor 12/7/41.  The short

General Walter C Short

version is that they were clearly scapegoats when scapegoats were clearly needed.  Absent scapegoats, the American public was liable to question the entire US intelligence operation and/or condemn US leadership, which was not at fault and whose public reorganization and censure, respectively, was not something we had the luxury of in the bleak months of early 1942.  There is no way, except with the crassest hindsight, to say that Kimmel and Short should have known an attack was coming, let alone when.  Sure the British attack on the Italian base at Taranto now looks like a clear demonstration of feasibility, but the difference in logistics (distance and scale of attack) makes such a comparison weak at best, and to say that it should have served as a warning is pure hindsight.  It is also true that Washington did not pass on to Pearl Harbor some very crucial pieces of intelligence motivated, at least in part, by an extreme desire to keep secret the fact that they were reading the Japanese codes.  Since the attack, it has been fashionable to cite the bunching of aircraft to facilitate guarding against sabotage as evidence of Short’s incompetence, but if you’d asked 100 officials in a position to

Admiral Husband E Kimmel

know in Hawaii and Washington 12/6/41, 99 of them would have said that sabotage was easily the biggest danger, especially given the large ethnic Japanese population on Oahu.  In this respect, one must give the Japanese high credit for pulling off, in total secrecy, one of the most amazing feats of projecting military power in human history.

3)  Speaking of large ethnic Japanese populations, the detainment of Americans of Japanese descent has settled into the minds of most Americans as a major blot on our history.  This is the result of an imcomplete understanding of the actual circumstances.  I would like to suggest that it was a good idea at the time and makes sense today if the facts are known.  As previously discussed, the US had been reading the Japanese Purple (Diplomatic) Code with increasing precision in the months leading to war.  It is important to make a distinction between Purple and JN-25, the most common code used by the Japanese Navy, which was a much higher level (meaning difficult to break) code, lest the reader ask the obvious question of how we were reading Purple with enough precision to have translated and put in Cordell Hull’s hands almost the entire 14-part message declaring war prior to his famous meeting with Nomura and Kurusu.  The US was, in fact, enough better than the Japanese Embassy at decrypting and translating Purple that Nomura and Kurusu were hours late for the meeting (scheduled for 30 minutes before the attack) because their own staff couldn’t produce it in time, which gave Hull time to formulate one of the most delicious tirades in diplomatic history, and cast the Japanese as the treacherous villains most Americans were prepared to believe they were.

But back to the detention camps:  Executive Order #9066 provided that those of Japanese ancestry be rounded up and detained for the duration at camps located in remote regions of the American West.  After Pearl Harbor most Americans, who had little personal contact with ethnic Japanese, were in complete support.  Ethnic Germans and Italians were also rounded up on the East Coast, tho here the line between American and German/Italian became blurred, as the ancestors of many had immigrated far earlier than those of the generally first and second generation Japanese.  It is also true that the world (not just the US) was a virulently racist society during the first half of the 20th Century which, combined with the obvious physical differences between Japanese and those of European extraction, retarded whatever assimilation might otherwise have occurred.

Much of the information surrounding US cryptographic operations during the War (in which my father was a minor cog) was classified for 50 years following 1945.  As a result, much information has only recently come to light.  Here’s the kicker:  in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese had established an organization to conduct

This picture appeared on the cover of most major US dailies as stories of Japanese atrocities came out in late 1944. This is my father on Saipan.

sabotage against the many US defense industries primarily on the West Coast, and been recruiting (with some success) Japanese living in the US to carry out these operations.  This the US knew from reading Japanese diplomatic traffic to and from their US Consulates.  It wouldn’t have taken too many individuals bent on wreaking havoc to seriously affect US war production.  In the heat (not to say panic) of the moment, the Administration understandably didn’t feel it had the luxury of individually evaluating each ethnic Japanese to determine loyalty, so they were rounded up en masse.  The cooperation of the vast majority of Japanese-Americans with this order is one of the more poignant chapters in US history, but way down deep most understood the necessity and viewed it as their contribution to winning the War.

Next to the Manhattan Project, the fact that the US had broken the Japanese codes was the most closely guarded secret of the War and saved countless American lives, so the Administration could take no chance that might reveal it.  Had the Japanese really suspected that their messages were being read by the Americans and changed their codes early in the War when it would have been relatively easy to do, the battles of Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, etc, plus the shootdown of Yamamoto, would not have turned out as favorably to the Americans as was the case.  The War would have lasted at least a year longer, with many more casualties on both sides, albeit with the same result.

One note about my father, CPT Cliff Graham, USMC:  He was in the first class of about 150 hand-picked Japanese language students at the Univ of Colorado at Boulder in July, 1942.  If you watch the old newsreels of the Japanese and Chamorros jumping off Marpi Point on Saipan, some of them show the LST 400 yards offshore with some guy with a bullhorn trying to talk them (in Japanese) out if it and directing the Chamorros to Americans lines.  That is my father, who was being shot at by the Imperial Army soldiers, had to keep taking cover behind a 40 mm gun mount, and for which he received the Bronze Star.

So in summary Japan, caught in the pincers of expanding population, desire to be strong enough to fend off Western influence, while oil, steel, and other resources had been cut off, figuring that her odds would never be better than when her incipient enemies were distracted elsewhere, and having tried negotiation and still smarting from what she perceived as unfair treatment, reached the conclusion that military action in late 1941 offered the best hope for achievement of her goals.  Looking at it strictly from Japan’s viewpoint, and knowing the outcome, it is easy now to say that diplomacy would still have yielded a better result; however, given the international situation in 1941, and lacking a crystal ball, it is difficult to make the case that Japan’s actions in going to war when and how she did were completely irrational.

Copyright:  Dana Graham — January, 2007

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