Strategies for victory in World War II in the Pacific

General Tojo, Japan's wartime premier, said the three principal factors that defeated Japan were

  • island leapfrogging,
  • the depredations of United States submarines, and
  • the ability of our fast carriers to operate for long periods away from their bases.

We will explore these strategies for the four central sessions of the seminar. The first session explores the questions of the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, and the closing session the decision to use the atomic bomb. We will also explore a fourth factor: American breaking of three Japanese codes.

In the Pacific Fleet exercise (war game) of 1928 the new aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga, largest ships in the U. S. Navy, each able to launch almost a hundred aircraft, opened the war game by raiding Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning just after dawn, catching the “defending fleet” by surprise and decisively ending the war game. That tactic was repeated on 7 Feb. 1932 and in March 1938. These three attacks on Pearl Harbor were all launched from almost the same spot the Japanese used in December of 1941! On the morning of 7 December 1941 the new radar installation showed the attacking Japanese planes; at the same time the destroyer Ward on patrol off the harbor entrance saw, attacked, and sank a Japanese submarine. Both events were reported up the chain of command. We will discuss these and other factors in how we were surprised: Washington did not share the priceless decoded MAGIC messages with field commanders. Failures at Pearl Harbor were repeated under MacArthur's control at Manila hours later. As Admiral Nimitz pointed out, we were extremely lucky that the bombers did not hit the oil tank farms, the submarine base, and that our carriers were all at sea. Thus our submarines and carriers with ample fuel reserves immediately started hit-and-run actions.

The ability of fast carrier forces to operate for long periods away from their bases, the effectiveness of our submarines, and leapfrogging were all the result of planning and testing by thoughtful, imaginative middle level officers during the 1930’s. By 1941 many of these officers were in command and started using what they had so thoroughly prepared and tested years before. These three strategies were perfected from war experiences, for example

  • the first carrier raid on Rabaul 5 Nov 43 proved carriers could attack deeply defended land bases with their aircraft, cause significant damage, and escape,
  • the invasion of Tarawa showed very serious problems, but careful evaluation identified solutions, which were used to make future invasions less costly, and
  • aggressive submarine attacks as younger, aggresive officers were put in command, torpedo problems were corrected, and new tactics perfected. Now as commerce raiders they broke enemy supplying.

These brought American forces to the gates of Tokyo many years before Japan thought we possibly could. Japan planned to wear down American resolve in costly island by island assaults with well supplied defenders fighting to their death. Submarines cut supplies to isolated islands and the homeland, while fast carriers and leapfrogging put us at Tokyo's throat guided by the code-breakers.

Once the atomic bomb was tested at Trinity in New Mexico, Truman and his people decided how to use this weapon. Thanks to MAGIC intercepts we knew Japan was trying to get Russia to negotiate an end to the war and we knew Japanese demands. We were aware of plans Japan could not know that led to the use of the atomic bombs. Those bombs and the Russian army's rapid advance both forced the Japanese leaders' decisions, but the end of the war resulted from manipulation by leaders of the peace party and Hirohito. That end barely happened. There will be time to discuss the many strategic and moral issues.


Copyright © 2007 John F. Yeaman