By Tom Anderson
The name ‘Pacific’ Ocean means ‘Peaceful’; it was so named by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 because he found favourable winds there in his voyage to circumnavigate the world. The name was always ill-fitting from a human perspective, as the Pacific has always had its conflicts; but in the 1940s it became particularly ironic, as the Pacific played host to the greatest naval conflict the world has ever seen.
The United States Government and military theorists had regarded war with Japan as an inevitability for at least a generation. America had had Pacific interests long before she even had a Pacific coast; in the earliest days of the republic, American traders had had more success breaking into isolationist imperial China’s markets than their European counterparts due to having the trade good of Appalachian ginseng, useful in traditional Chinese medicine. The Empire of Japan, on the other hand, wished to dominate the Pacific and all of East Asia, principally China—which had suffered military loss to Japan in 1895 (including Japanese control of her former tribute state of Korea), followed by revolution and civil war. In the 1930s, Japan seized control of Manchuria and split it off as a puppet state under the Chinese imperial heir Puyi, then began open war with China’s republican Kuomintang (KMT) government following the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937. The KMT’s response was ineffectual, with China divided between warlords and Communists as well as its own control, but Japan was also unable to actively conquer the whole of China given the disparity in numbers. After losing her then-capital of Nanjing (Nanking)—leading to the Rape of Nanjing as the Japanese committed war crimes against civilians—and failing to stop the Japanese at the Battle of Wuhan, China’s forces began to turn the tide with victories in Changsha and Guangxi. The Chinese Communists, who had conducted their ‘Long March’ to Shaanxi province in the early 1930s to escape the KMT, also successfully resisted the Japanese. A Chinese offensive in winter 1939 meant the war stalemated.
Japan urgently needed resources such as scrap metal, rubber and especially oil to continue the war. America, whose people had grown more sympathetic to the Chinese’s plight, imposed an embargo on on trade with Japan, in particular oil. The situation in Europe changed matters, however. When Japan’s ally Germany conquered France, the collaborationist Vichy French Government allowed Japan to use bases in French Indochina. Any hopes the same would be true of the Dutch East Indies with its rich resources were, however, dashed when that colony remained loyal to the Dutch Government-in-Exile, which under American pressure joined the oil embargo. Japanese plans for an expansionary war to gain these resources dovetailed with long-held strategic goals to eject American and British Empire forces from the Pacific. Japan launched a propaganda offensive painting her as a champion of Asian freedom and seeking to liberate the colonised peoples of Asia from Western control as the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’. Of course, as Eastern Europe would later discover under the Soviets, ‘anti-imperialist liberation’ often looked an awful lot like colonialism with a different coloured flag…
Japan launched the most famous surprise attack in history on December 7th 1941 (local time) when her carriers bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack was planned by a team led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had been wounded as a young officer serving against Russia in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. That battle had been responsible for a shocked Western public suddenly taking Japanese naval power seriously; now Yamamoto would see that history was repeated. This was despite the fact that Yamamoto won posthumous respect for accurately predicting that Japan’s alliance with Germany was a mistake and warned that a conflict with the USA would be unwinnable in the long term. Yamamoto’s protégé Minoru Genda travelled to Europe and studied the aeronautical clashes there in the early part of World War II; in particular Britain’s successful air attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto would influence Japanese thinking. The Japanese fleet would be commanded by the elderly Admiral Chuichi Nagamo, and the air attack led by Genda’s classmate and friend Mitsuo Fuchida.
We should remember at this time that there was little experience of naval aeronautical warfare. In World War II bombers were divided into roughly three types: level bombers (such as Britain’s Avro Lancaster, America’s Boeing B-17, or Germany’s Junkers Ju 88) which dropped bombs from a high altitude on strategic targers; dive bombers (most famously the German Ju 87 ‘Stuka’) which plunged on a target to drop a bomb with high accuracy; and torpedo bombers (such as America’s Douglas TBD Devastator and Britain’s Fairey Swordfish) which dropped torpedoes into the sea to then collide with naval targets. (Many aircraft could also be modified to serve in more than one role). Debate continued at the time of the relative effectiveness of these methods, so the Pearl Harbor attack compromised by bringing all three types of bombers.
Japanese aircraft in World War II had alphanumeric designations, but are also often known by their Allied reporting names, given in quote marks. The two waves of attack on Pearl Harbor consisted of a total of 354 planes (though not all launched successfully) including Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’ bombers (some outfitted as level bombers with armour-piercing bombs, others as torpedo bombers), Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive bombers, and escorting Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero’ fighters. Both the ability of Japanese pilots and the capabilities of their machines would catch America and her allies offguard. Japanese planes typically sacrificed armour and resilience (such as self-sealing fuel tanks) in favour of speed and manoeuvrability. If the Spitfire was the most iconic plane of the Battle of Britain, the Zero—capable of out-turning any of its opponents—would be that for the Pacific conflict.
On the face of it, the Pearl Harbor attack was a great success. The US Pacific Fleet was caught in harbour and all seven battleships on ‘Battleship Row’ at the Pearl Harbor base were hit. The USS Arizona blew up, the Oklahoma capsized, and California and West Virginia settled to the bottom. The Japanese also damaged a number of cruisers and destroyers, and all for the loss of less than 30 aircraft. President Roosevelt described it as ‘a day which will live in infamy’ and the attack was regarded as a war crime for having preceded a declaration of war. (America was already breaking Japanese naval codes, and so many signs of the attack were overlooked that conspiracy theories have grown up that Roosevelt deliberately allowed the attack to happen to bring America into the war). However, appearances were deceptive. Firstly, the attack happening in the shallow waters of the harbour meant that many of the sunk US ships could actually be raised and repaired, and went on to fight later in the conflict (such as the USS California). One ship which escaped attack altogether, the cruiser USS Phoenix, would go on to play a crucial role in the biggest naval conflict of the 1980s—as the Argentina vessel General Belgrano).
More importantly, the US Pacific Fleet’s carriers escaped the Japanese attack, as they had already been ordered westward to reinforce the defences at Midway and Wake Island. And, as it would turn out, carriers would be far more important than battleships for this new kind of warfare.
Nonetheless, Japan enjoyed many early shocking victories in the early part of the conflict, as the United States was temporarily put on the back foot. Britain suffered what Churchill described as the greatest defeat in her history when the strongpoint about which the eastern Empire turned, Singapore, was taken by General Yamashita from land rather than sea. Hong Kong also fell to the Japanese. Britain had also sent the battleships HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales to reinforce the Far East, but in the opening days of the conflict these were sunk by torpedoes dropped by Japanese Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell’ and G4M ‘Betty’ torpedo bombers. This shock heralded the recognition of the decline of the battleship in the face of air power. Meanwhile, the Philippines, American since the Spanish-American War of almost fifty years earlier, were taken by May 1942—with controversial US commander Douglas MacArthur declaring ‘I will return’ when he evacuated.
Japan’s primary target, however, was the ‘Southern Resource Zone’ of the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were faced by the ‘ABDA’ alliance (American, British, Dutch, Australian). A combined force under Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman attempted to stop the Japanese invasion convoy, but was repeatedly rebuffed at the Battle of the Java Sea. This was a rare case in this conflict of a clash between only non-carrier ships, but the ABDA fleet was defeated in part because of Japanese air power operating from land bases. Doorman was killed when his flagship HNLMS De Ruyter was sunk by a torpedo fired from the Japanese cruiser Haguro. The Japanese conquest proceeded swiftly, and the Dutch East Indies government surrendered in March 1942. Japanese capability in night-fighting operations and the Allies’ inability to take advantage of their superior radar technology had both taken their toll.
With these reversals, as well as the more obvious conflict with Germany closer to home, it is unsurprising that British pop culture and historical awareness tends to ignore this conflict or allow American media to attribute Allied contributions solely to the United States. The author has encountered this firsthand through his grandfather, who was captured by the Japanese in Timor and subject to the typically brutal and inhumane treatment of Japanese POW camps, being one of few in his company to survive mistreatment and starvation. On returning to the UK, he found that the conflict in which he had served was barely acknowledged thanks to the attitude of collective embarrassment over British mismanagement in that theatre of war.
By August 1942, Japan controlled an empire which extended from Burma in the west to Alaska’s Aleutian islands in the east. She had raided Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and bombed Darwin in Australia to deny its use as a resupply point to the Allies. Given the pace of these remarkable victories, it is small wonder that Allied paranoia led to fears of Japanese invasions of Australia and bombing raids on California; Madagascar was pre-emptively occupied from the Vichy French to prevent it falling into Japanese hands! But Japan had reached the limits of her expansion.
The Battle of the Coral Sea in April-May 1942 was a landmark for naval warfare, being the first battle in which neither fleet made visual contact with the other. The advantage would be to whose aircraft first found each others’ floating bases. Following successful American codebreaking of Japan’s naval plans, American Admiral Chester Nimitz sent a force under Admiral Frank Fletcher to intercept a Japanese naval operation to seize Port Moresby in New Guinea. With Australian forces added to America’s, the Allied and Japanese forces were strikingly almost a mirror match, each possessing 2 carriers, 9 cruisers, 14-15 destroyers and 127-8 aircraft. The battle was inconclusive, with the Japanese winning a narrow tactical victory (causing more damage than they took and destroying the carrier USS Lexington) but a strategic defeat. The battle was the turning point for Japanese expansion, and knocked Japanese some carriers out of action which would make them useless for the Battle of Midway in June.
Japanese public opinion had been shocked by the high-profile Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, where American B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from USS Hornet bombed the Japanese capital before landing (due to fuel constraints) at air bases in China—where the American ‘Flying Tiger’ volunteer pilots had already been aiding Chiang Kai-shek’s armies. Though the actual damage was minimal, the psychological impact was huge. Admiral Yamamoto was determined to bring the American carriers to a decisive battle and destroy them, choosing to seize the key island base of Midway, west of Hawaii, as a way to bring the Americans out. Yamamoto’s battle plan was complex and fatally flawed because it rested on several incorrect assumptions: that American morale was suffering, that the carrier USS Yorktown had been sunk along with the Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and that his transmissions were secure. In fact, American codebreaking efforts meant that Nimitz was well aware of many details of the plan.
Yamamoto’s plan saw the carriers Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu and Akagi lead the way under Admiral Nagumo, while battleships would follow (including the Yamato, the biggest and most powerful battleship in history). His intention was to weaken the Americans by carrier attack and then close for a daylight battleship gun battle—with the plan allegedly rushed so it could take place on the anniversary of Tsushima. Once again we see how even the Japanese, who more than anyone had shown the power of carrier warfare, remained fixated on battleships as the keystone of naval power. One of the propaganda posters issued by the Japanese at the time shows a potent-looking Japanese battleship with caricatures of Roosevelt and Churchill farcically aiming a toy plane at it—the opposite to what one would expect from how Japan had easily sunk two British battleships in the opening days of the war with aircraft.
Midway, more than anything, underlined the absurdity of that attitude. Admiral Spruance (who along with Fletcher was in command of the US carriers Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet) was not even aware of the existence of Yamamoto’s distant battleship force, and yet won the battle anyway because it was so irrelevant to its outcome. The famed Yamato would only fire its guns once in anger in the whole of the war, later in 1944, and would be sunk by American aircraft shortly before the end of the war. To return to Midway and 1942 (to very briefly summarise a long and complex battle!), the Americans successfully sank all four Japanese carriers while losing only the Yorktown, and the Japanese turned back from Midway.
That was the beginning of the end for Japan. US codebreaking meant that Yamamoto was intercepted and killed in flight while touring Japanese positions; his death was a huge blow to Japanese morale. US industrial superiority began to tell. Bitter fighting continued in the Solomon Islands, most famously at the Battle of Guadalcanal. At the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy had its final carrier clash on equal terms with the United States Navy. This was nicknamed the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ by American gunners and aviators due to the disproportionate losses inflicted on the Japanese. Three Japanese carriers were sunk and around 600 aircraft destroyed; the IJN would never recover from this. Simultaneously, the island of Saipan was lost to the Americans, which put Japan within bombing range of B-29 bombers and led to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
The US Navy strictly had the biggest defeat in its history at the Battle of Savo Island (August) in the Philippines, but this was almost irrelevant given the broader turn of the tide. The Battle of Leyte Gulf (October) is often considered to be the biggest naval battle in history, although by this point the Japanese were heavily outnumbered. It was the first battle in which the Japanese turned to the desperation tactic of kamikaze (suicide plane ramming) attacks, named after the Kamikaze or ‘divine wind’ that had saved the Home Islands from a Mongol invasion fleet centuries before.
A pattern emerged in the closing island-hopping stages of the war: overwhelming American and Allied firepower (helped by growing air superiority) facing fanatical Japanese defenders refusing to surrender, some of whom infamously disappeared into the jungles and did not emerge for twenty or thirty years. Although the Japanese were continually pushed back, rising Allied casualties were a serious concern for the Allied leadership. In particular, attacks on Okinawa and Iwo Jima in 1945 were so bloody that President Truman, having recently succeeded the deceased Franklin D. Roosevelt, was willing to try any option that would shorten the war.
Some time ago, I read an account of Admiral George Anson’s voyage around the world (1740-1744) in which he had sought to attack Spanish South America. The mission inflicted some damage on Spain but the British suffered horrific losses to disease and only one-tenth of the crew lived to return to Britain. Not even they would have survived, except they found a paradisical Pacific island when they were at the end of their tether. Curious, I looked up what this island was—and it was Tinian in the Marianas, which the Japanese had taken after World War I and then been conquered by the Americans in 1944. The Japanese civilian population had suffered huge losses not only from the actual fighting, but from suicide and being killed by their own military forces to prevent them being captured by the Americans. The US built concrete airstrips there, and in August 1945 two specialised B-29 bombers, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, were launched with the fruits of the Manhattan Project: the two atomic bombs ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’. So much for Anson’s paradise. There can be few clearer examples of what war does not only to people but to the world we live in.
The impact of the Pacific War on the national psyche of both Japan and America (as well as many other countries) cannot be underestimated. This is very visible, for example, in science fiction. America’s Star Wars gives the evil Empire fast but fragile TIE fighters and the good Rebels slow but armoured X-wings because George Lucas literally took clips from old Pacific War movies and asked his visual effects people to emulate the scenes. The image of the Japanese as ultra-xenophobic, fanatically loyal and contemptuous of surrender (to the point of fighting to the death and mistreating prisoners) created an entire genre of alien enemies in the American science fiction writer imagination.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, served in the Pacific War as a bomber pilot. The name USS Enterprise for the iconic starship was taken from the carrier of that name which fought in the war, being the second choice of name after the less-inspiring USS Yorktown. Other ships from the conflict appeared in later Star Trek series; the writers once chose to include Akagi and Hornet as part of the same Federation fleet, as a way of saying that the enemies at Midway had become friends.
Meanwhile in Japan, the atomic bombings inspired Godzilla (and the whole ‘kaiju’ giant monster genre) as well as the influential science fiction anime Space Battleship Yamato, in which that sunken battleship is revived and converted into a powerful spacecraft. (Once again, as in many other countries, actual effectiveness in combat is not a relevant factor for how beloved a particular war machine may be).
Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the Soviet Union opportunistically invading Manchuria and Sakhalin at this point to undo the losses of its predecessor in the Russo-Japanese War. An era of naval warfare was over, and the world had changed forever.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth