America in the Far East 1941


B-17D at Iba Airfield. Contrary to the belief of some historian wannabees that it was only Clark and Del Monte airfields that can accommodate heavy bombers. This photo dispells the myth. At the background is an A-27.

Below is a whole body shot of the same aircraft with the Zambales coastline in the background.

US defense officials became fixated with the notion that Japan could be deterred by a show of force. This became especially true after the Joint Board approved the plan to dispatch several squadrons of medium-range B-17 bombers to the Philippines. The decision to bolster American strengths in the Far East was made during summer 1941, out of concern that Japan’s alignment with the Axis powers necessitated protective measures. In October, Secretary of War Henry Stimson told Roosevelt that the bomber threat “bids fair to stop Japan’s march to the south.” By reinforcing the Philippines, the Americans could bide their time, and avert hostilities until their military position was strengthened. Large sections of the military leadership also concluded that Allied forces could inflict crippling losses on a Japanese expedition. The belief was based on an underestimation of Japan’s military strengths and its determination to eliminate Allied positions in Southeast Asia. The War Department’s planning division contended that the Associated Powers should attempt to halt Japan along the “general line of Hong-Kong to the Philippines,” the latter of which held the key to maintaining the line. South of this line were “successive positions from which the combined ground, air and naval forces of the Associated Powers could exact a tremendous toll.”

The United States thus did not anticipate a war against Japan, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was a genuine surprise. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that President Roosevelt knew about the Japanese plan, but kept the information secret from the public in order to allow the Imperial forces to carry out their operations and thereby give the US a valid pretext for declaring war. However, the theories are based on tenuous evidence. A more credible argument is that the US intelligence community had only vague data on what Japan intended to do. The government and military leadership continued to keep their policies under a tight veil of secrecy. Under the circumstances, the Americans could receive only hazy indications of their adversary’s intentions. For example, in March, the naval attaché in Tokyo quoted a statement by a former Japanese admiral to the effect that war against the US would commence with the navy conducting attacks against the Philippines and Hawaii. However, the statement was made long before the navy had finalized its strategy, and appeared more as a boastful announcement.

Between December 1941 and early 1942, while Japan made its lightning conquest of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, its navy and army appeared invincible to the Allies. Indeed, the Japanese victories owed themselves largely to skilful planning, along with the tactical and technological efficiency of their armed forces. The weak state of the US and British Empire also played an important part in facilitating Japan’s successes. Yet, as early as March 1942, the high command had to contend with many of the weaknesses which plagued its war machine, the most important of which was that neither the IJN nor IJA had the capacity to defeat the Western powers in a prolonged conflict. The Imperial forces were overstretched, and America had not been knocked out of the war. On the contrary, the US was preparing to strike back, and most importantly, it possessed the industrial resources to build a military force that was far superior to anything the Japanese could deploy. Yet the military leadership failed to comprehend the predicament it faced, and maintained that Japan could deal a crippling blow on its opponents and thereafter secure its conquests against enemy invasions. The misperception led the Japanese to embark on a number of failed ventures in the Indian Ocean and Pacific areas which eventually culminated with the IJN’s defeat at Midway in June 1942. The latter encounter was arguably the single battle which turned the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor, and emasculated Japan’s capacity to conduct further territorial conquests.

The Pacific war commenced 7-8 December, with Japanese forces attacking the US fleet’s main base at Pearl Harbor, while simultaneously launching their invasion of British, American and Dutch territories in Southeast Asia. On the morning of 7 December, local Hawaiian time, a task force composed of six aircraft carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku – reached the vicinity of Oahu, after sailing across 3,000 miles of open sea. 1 The carriers, along with their accompanying battleships and cruisers, had set off from Tankan Bay in the Kurile Islands on 26 November, and took a northerly route across the Pacific. By doing so, the carriers avoided the main shipping lanes and remained undetected. The weather conditions were also conducive for concealing the task force from reconnaissance aircraft, with thick fog interspersed by heavy gale winds. The final order to carry out the operation came on 2 December, when Admiral Nagumo, commander of the task force, received a coded message, “Niitaka yama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka). After reaching within 300 miles of Oahu, Nagumo ordered the aircraft to fly off in separate waves, so that they could evade radar detection. By 06:15, all planes from the first wave, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, were on their way. The first bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor at 07:55. The raid lasted a little less than 2 hours, and by the time the Japanese had recovered their planes and the carriers retreated from Hawaiian waters, they destroyed two battleships, including the USS Arizona and Oklahoma. The battleships, California, Nevada and West Virginia, along with a number of cruisers and destroyers, also suffered extensive damage. Over 100 aircraft were also destroyed, while Japanese losses amounted to a mere 29 planes.

Concurrently with the Pearl Harbor attack, the Imperial forces launched their invasion of the southern regions. The ultimate objective was to secure the East Indies oilfields. In order to achieve this, the army conducted a two-pronged assault. The first column focused on Malaya and the British navy’s bastion at Singapore, with the second column taking on American forces in the Philippines. After securing both areas, the invading forces were to converge. The assault on Malaya and the Philippines commenced on 8 December, local time. Unfortunately, the army encountered unexpectedly strong resistance in the Philippines. Although by early January, the bulk of the American forces were confined to their enclave on the Bataan peninsula, the rugged terrain and thick jungle vegetation did not permit easy movement, and the defenders also put up a strong fight. General Homma’s conquest of the archipelago was delayed, and the invasion plan for the southern regions was thrown off balance. Yet the high command decided that the East Indies needed to be secured before the Allies could bring in reinforcements. In order to allow the army to commit the larger part of its forces towards its main objective in the Indies, the Imperial high command reduced the size of the Philippines force, and by doing so, incurred a substantial delay in eliminating American forces on the archipelago.

Imperial forces were aided because the defending Allied forces were in a weak state. In regard to naval and air forces, the British and Americans not only lacked adequate strengths, but were poorly equipped and inefficiently trained. Part of the problem was that Western personnel held condescending views of the Japanese, and thought that the latter were incapable of putting up a serious contest. A more serious problem stemmed from the fact that the bulk of the Allied navies and air services were committed to the Atlantic theater, which meant the Pacific areas could not be defended with large forces. The most scathing criticisms, however, were directed at the armies. In many cases, the Americans and British outnumbered the Japanese, but lacked the tactical skill to forestall the invaders. Troops were inept at fighting in undeveloped country. In order to ensure that their positions could be defended, soldiers had to adopt more imaginative methods. Many British army officers conceded that their traditional procedures of employing fixed defenses were unlikely to work if the positions could be bypassed and were not held with adequate strength. Defending forces needed to conduct an aggressive patrol of their surroundings, and in situations where difficult terrain restricted the use of motorized transport, the proper deployment of foot soldiers was vital. Allied commanders also conceded that their failures were due to a prevailing lack of discipline. A US officer who served in the Philippines noted how the morale of troops was unsatisfactory, and insisted that soldiers needed to undergo a “spiritual training” along the lines of the Japanese, in order to develop a more aggressive attitude. Likewise, General Pownall pondered how British troops were overly dependent on creature comforts and held an aversion to strenuous work, both of which gave rise to a situation where training was conducted without preparing troops for battle conditions. Western personnel who lacked the fortitude to fight in the trying conditions which prevailed in the jungles of Southeast Asia and the islands of the western Pacific were simply no match for the efficiently trained Japanese army, whose troops held a high level of stamina.

The army in particular maintained that, because the British and Americans were unable to hold their positions in Southeast Asia, they were categorically incapable of putting up a serious challenge. In reality, the conquest of areas such as the Philippines and Malaya was quick not only because the Japanese demonstrated a good level of tactical skill. The successes also owed themselves largely to the fact that the IJA only had to face poorly trained and ill-equipped opponents. Yet the rank and file remained imbued with an institutionalized conception that Western forces were unable to achieve the discipline needed to withstand the strains of prolonged combat. The accepted belief was that, in spite of the Imperial army’s shortage of modern weapons, its troops could prevail in all circumstances solely by the virtue of their spiritual bravery. The belief that morale and psychological factors could overcome all obstacles was shared by top leaders within the political and military hierarchy. For example, when speaking to a group of reporters in November 1942, General Suzuki Teiichi, the president of the cabinet’s planning board, stated, “the key to final victory lies not in the material strength of the nation, but in the spirit which infuses strength in all directions.” The lack of concern for technological resources and modern equipment, including tanks, heavy artillery and motorized vehicles, meant that the army did not make any earnest attempts to modify its procedures, and abided by its practice of relying upon the infantry as its primary weapon.

The IJN and its air arm were marginally less blissful than the army, and their combat doctrine demonstrated a degree of understanding that adequate equipment was essential when fighting the Allies. However, neither the fleet nor the air services were constructed with a view to fighting a protracted conflict. Naval policy was geared towards constructing vessels for offensive operations, namely battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines. Little thought was given to safeguarding the oceanic trade routes between Southeast Asia and the home islands, which Japan’s war industries relied upon for their supplies of raw materials. At the start of the war, the Imperial navy did not have any ships assigned for convoy tasks, and even when Japan started to construct its fleet of destroyer escorts, the number available was far below the minimum required. Naval traditions had scorned escorting missions as mundane, and not befitting of a fighting force geared for offensive warfare. Because Japanese doctrine focused on the concept of defeating the enemy in a battle fleet action, naval officers paid scant attention to developing the vessels, tactics, and doctrine needed for a successful merchant shipping defense. Consequently, the Japanese were ill-prepared for a situation where the Americans conducted sustained attacks on their transports, and the navy ended up facing severe shortages of oil and other resources needed to support its war effort.

The air services were plagued by a skewed doctrine which stated that the quality of their planes was sufficient to overcome any material advantages which the Allies enjoyed. In fact, Japan could maintain its lead only so long as its forces were facing weaker opponents. Because aircraft and pilots could not be constructed at an equivalent rate to what the Allies could achieve, losses could be afforded only with the greatest difficulty. To make matters worse, the initial successes created a false sense of confidence, and the air services did not try to modernize their equipment. Commanders also failed to grasp the extent to which their successes during the opening months of the conflict owed themselves to Japanese forces having an overwhelming numerical superiority in the air. Instead, the victories were attributed solely to tactical talent, and the significance of statistical factors in determining the outcome of battles was overlooked. As a result, the naval air arm failed to prepare for encounters with stronger opponents.

Leave a Reply