The Road to the Pacific War

6 Nov



As 1939 came to a close, war in Europe had rapidly escalated, as had combat in China. America’s pledged neutrality, a concept many supported, including Charles Lindbergh, the legendary pilot who had crossed the span of the Atlantic Ocean in the Spirit of Saint Louis in 1927. The American government remained neutral in spirit, yet in practice embraced the very opposite. On March 11th, 1941, nine months prior to America’s entry into the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Lend-Lease Act, promising aid to not only America’s European allies, who had stumbled and fell in France, yet had no choice but to pick themselves up, and also to China, whose ragtag force of mixed, ill-supplied, poorly led and even more poorly equipped, was attempting to fend off the massive well-trained might of Japan’s Kwantung Army, under the ruthless, merciless, and equally cunning Hideko Tojo, whose name will forever live in infamy. America was facing a desperate situation. Its economy was in an abysmal position, with unemployment topping record heights. The size the U.S. Army in 1941 numbered only around 400,000 men, the same size as the British Army, although the British Army is professional, and the American is volunteer. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, America lay sleeping an ocean away from its soon-to-be enemies, and it did not even know it yet.

The seeds for war were sown as early as the cessation of the First World War. Japan had proven a valuable combatant on the Allied side, and had assisted in overthrowing Germany’s provincial government in China, as well as the Mariana Islands. Japan had demanded some form of territorial compensation for its assistance in the Allied cause, and the British, fearful of the Japanese, gave unto them the territories of the Mariana Archipelago, although the island of Guam was already under American control. Since the period of the Meiji Reform (1868-1912) in Japan, the government had become increasingly hungry for territory, and following the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the Japanese were granted control over the Korean Peninsula in 1910, and following the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China had ceded the region of Formosa, now known as Taiwan, to the Japanese Empire. Yet that had not proven enough. With her hunger for land, Japan’s ravenous eyes turned to China, as well as the regions of the Pacific, including lands nominally under the control of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. War was on its way.

With several agreements and international laws authored by the United States and arbitrated by European powers such as France and Great Britain, a job nominally reserved for the League of Nations, although the United States never ratified the League of Nations charter (whose foundation was based on the teachings of former President Woodrow Wilson), and Japan did not join until deep into the 1930’s before rapidly withdrawing its membership on the eve of the Second World War. The laws had been based upon terminating disputes between the United States and Japan over territorial control in the Marianas, as well as naval treaties designed to limit the sizes of international navies. With the Western powers still possessing the mindset of ending war altogether, Japan sat poised to strike. In 1930, it was given that chance. By the time the Second World War began, its armies and navy would be larger, and possess far more combat experience, than those of her rivals. 

In 1930, a Japanese envoy en route to Peking (Beijing), was suddenly and surprisingly killed when his train car exploded near Mukden, a small village in northeastern Manchuria and the site of the bloodiest land battle in the Russo-Japanese War. The incident was immediately acted upon the Japanese military, who had been mobilized for an invasion of Manchuria. Contrary to popular belief, the Mukden assassination was orchestrated by Chinese agents angered by Japan’s stance against the Chinese, which is partly attributed to a long-standing rivalry and the runoff of the infamous Japanese nationality from the Meiji Reform, and not by the Japanese to justify their invasion, like many have thought. The Japanese organized an invasion army, known as the Kwantung Army under the command of none other than Hideko Tojo, to execute an invasion of Manchuria. And it could not have come at a more opportune time. The Army executed its invasion beautifully, and due to China’s internal situation, it faced little resistance. The Chinese, deep inside a civil war between the capitalist forces of Chiang kai-Shek and the Communist forces of Mao Zedong, were firing more bullets at one another than at the Japanese forces now occupying one of the largest states inside their borders. Japan did not miss a step as it began to disestablish the Chinese government inside Manchuria, and even renamed it Manchukuo. Yet to prevent a popular insurrection by the Chinese inside Manchuria, they established a pro-Japanese puppet regime inside the territory under the last of the Qing Dynasty, P’u-Yi. Yet by 1937, the situation had begun to deteriorate into all-out warfare. 

In summer 1937, while a patrol of Japanese troops was marching outside Peking (as by this time, elements of the Japanese military had diffused from the Manchuria region), were engaged and fired upon by Chinese guerrillas near the Marco Polo Bridge. The incident sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would rage viciously until September 1945. Some of the most brutal incidents of the war, including the Rape of Nanjing, when the Japanese Army entered kai-Shek’s capital Nanjing, slaughtered almost everybody inhabiting the town, looting it, and finally burning it to the ground, and also the bombing of Shanghai, in which the Japanese dropped incendiary explosives on civilian targets. The incidents sparked anger among American sympathetic to the Chinese, who by now had placed their differences in ideology aside and, surprisingly, placed the civil war on hold to combat the Japanese as a combined front. Americans were enraged when they learned of the Rape of Nanjing and bombing of Shanghai, and public support would only grow. Yet due to America’s neutral position, it could not directly assist unless it declared war upon Japan. Her hands were tied. With the Japanese attempting to enlarge their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, their mission to unite all of Southeast Asia under one strong Japanese Empire, the United States could only watch while Japan ripped China apart at the seams. And Japan had, and was eager to, look ahead at the broader scope of what would soon envelope multiple nations in a world war. 

The extent of American aid came in the form of Lend-Lease, which did very little to assist the Chinese in their cause, as well as the First American Volunteer Group, who would later become known better by their nickname, the “Flying Tigers”, headed by Claire Chennault, a fighter pilot and officer who had actually seen no combat prior to the Second World War. Chennault’s position had originally been to train Chinese airmen to combat the Japanese, yet with increasing casualties, Chiang kai-Shek ordered Chennault, who had been promoted to his chief air officer, back to Washington to request an American volunteer unit to serve alongside the Chinese to combat the Japanese. The request was almost instantly denied, yet President Roosevelt, himself a sympathizer with the Chinese due to his long-standing interest in the country, and his family having possessed a house there in the past, granted Chennault use of American pilots who had been trained by Americans, but once they arrived in China they were stripped of their rank, and in order to be inducted into the Tigers, they would have to resign from the United States Army Air Force in order to protect America’s neutrality. They were essentially the Chinese version of America’s Eagle Squadron flying alongside the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Soon enough, the Tigers were born. 

The legendary moniker bestowed upon the Tigers originated when Colonel Chennault managed to convince President Roosevelt to give his men the new, rugged, and powerful Curtiss P-40 Warhawk to combat the Japanese utilizing the Mitsubishi A5M “Claude”, as well as what would soon come to define Japanese aces, the agile and treacherous Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar”, and the most infamous of them all, the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”. With American airmen engaged in combat against Japanese pilots, and with American politicians condemning almost every action taken by the Japanese in China, the situation seemed bleak. Tokyo had gone dark, and Washington no longer wished to listen. In July 1941, Washington placed an international oil embargo on the Japanese, enforced by the United States Navy Pacific Fleet, whose anchorage was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Her flagship was the battleship Pennsylvania, and alongside other such ships as the Nevada, the OklahomaUtahCalifornia, and Arizona, the blockade was not only formidable, but impregnable. Japan’s massive fleet, laying hidden for the time to strike, was forced to lay hidden longer than anticipated. With war waging in China, Japan needed to step up its efforts for beginning a war that would most certainly be international. 

In 1940, with supplies leaking into southern China and reaching Chinese guerrilla forces, the Japanese attempted to kill two birds with one stone. If they could somehow point the finger at an area that seemed a legitimate source for supplies smuggled over the border by the nearby Indochinese states, controlled by Allied forces, while simultaneously shutting down the Allies’ methods of supply, they could easily steamroll over their enemies to the south. The first to fall was Britain. The Japanese demanded the British close the Burma Road, a 717-mile-long unpaved road built by hand and completed in 1938. The road was a major route of supply, as well as major highway, and without it, the British retreat from northern Burma would not only be slow, but extremely sloppy and unorganized. The British reluctantly consented, considering the situations unfurling in North Africa and Europe were more close to home than Burma would ever be. Now if supplies were to reach Chiang kai-Shek, they would have to be flown, the method of which had been patented by RAF pilots in India, flying the “Hump”: flying over the daunting Himalayas. Japan then turned its attention toward the French in Vietnam. With France’s surrender in July 1940, and the creation of the Vichy government that had seized all of France’s territorial assets, Vietnam was nominally under Axis control, albeit reluctant. In September 1940, the Japanese turned their attention toward northern Vietnam, where they believed supplies were leaking into China via the Sino-Vietnamese Railway, which ran from Haiphong to Kunming, the stopping point of the Burma Road as well. After several demands were made to shut the road down, the French continuously disagreed, although they were truly stuck between a rock and a hard place, considering their reluctant alliance to Germany and pressure from Germany’s ally. After their failure to shut the road down, the Japanese invaded near Hanoi via an amphibious invasion, and after fighting broke out, the Japanese managed to control northern Vietnam, leaving the provincial French government to reside in Saigon. By December 1941, the Japanese had shut down the Burma Road, established a foothold in Indochina, controlled Formosa and Korea, dominated China, as well as trained the majority of its military by trial-by-fire against the Chinese. Yet in order to open the gateway to the Pacific, Japan would be forced to strike at the United States, who not only controlled the Philippines, which dominated the entryway from Japan to the natural resources of Southeast Asia, but also possessed a navy which not only rivaled the Japanese in size, but also in firepower. If the Japanese struck first, they may gain a foothold that could give them enough of a time table to take as much of the Pacific as they can, and then negotiate a peace in their favor. It all began with knocking America out early. The strike would have to be directed at the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor.

With the Imperial Japanese Army prepared to invade British Burma, as well as Siam and Cambodia, the Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines, Fiji, French Polynesia, the British Solomon Islands, British Gilbert Islands, British Admiralty Islands and Bismarck Archipelago, New Caledonia, New Guinea (which was controlled by Australia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands simultaneously), New Ireland, New Britain, Bougainville, the Marshall and Mariana Islands, the United States needed to be removed as a permanent threat. With the British and Dutch committed to war in Europe, and France effectively neutralized as a threat due to its collaborationist government in Vichy, the United States and Australia were the only real threats against the Japanese. With the Japanese Army numbering close to 1,700,000 men, while the United States Army numbered close to 400,000, the outcome seemed clear. Yet that could not be farther from the truth. The Japanese had made a severe underestimation of the sheer span and capacity of America’s economy, although it seemed to be in tatters at the start of the Second World War, yet war is what she needed. In December 1941, the plan for the infamous strike at Pearl Harbor had been drafted by Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. With a task force of six aircraft carriers (three of which would be sunk at Midway in June 1942 [AkagiKagaSoryuHiryu] one was sunk by the submarine USS Cavalla during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 [Shokaku] one was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 [Zuikaku]) supported by a fleet of auxiliary ships, would advance toward the harbor, and strike the fleet with aircraft carrier-based torpedo bombers in several waves. The date was set for December 7th, 1941, a Sunday, while all the naval personnel were thought to be in church and away from their stations. After slipping out of cover undetected and sneaking to within strike range of the harbor, the Japanese commenced their attack. Unbeknownst to them, the United States had actually fired the first shots of the Pacific War. A few hours prior to the IJN task force’s arrival near the Hawaiian Archipelago, one of a small fleet of five “midget” two-man miniature reconnaissance submarines that had been dispatched to reconnoiter the harbor prior to the fleet’s arrival and strike, was fired upon by a USN destroyer, the USS Ward, which had been patrolling the antisubmarine nets lining the entrance into Pearl Harbor. A shell from one of her bow guns had pierced the submarine’s conning toward after it had lifted its periscope near the stern of the Ward. One of the crew members had spotted the periscope, reported the incident to the Ward‘s commanding officer, who ordered depth charges to be dropped. After the submarine was damaged by depth charges, a shell was placed through the conning tower and the sub was subsequently rammed by the Ward, sending her to the bottom. The incident was reported by the Ward‘s CO, although nothing was done about it. Similarly, as the massive fleet of Japanese bombers approached Pearl Harbor, a recently established radar position atop Diamond Head bluff near Pearl Harbor detected the aircraft en route. One of the operators reported it, yet his commanding officer waved it off, commenting that it was just a task force of B-17’s coming in from Naval Air Station North Island outside of San Diego, California. Yet these radar contacts were coming from the southeast. The bombers would be flying in from the northwest, the completely opposite direction.

With the warships of the Pacific Fleet moored in single-file, and, in circumstances, also side-by-side, off Ford Island inside Pearl Harbor, and the fighters of the Pacific Fleet at Hickam and Wheeler Airfields brought in tight together due to fears of possible sabotage from the Japanese Nisei living on the island of Oahu, the strike on Pearl Harbor would claim casualties in men and material that could be prevented. Combined with evidence of Japanese threats to strike on the morning of December 7th, the American government chose rather not to heed. Around 7:30 in the morning on December 7th, with Marines, sailors, and airmen asleep in their bunks or visiting church, the first wave of Japanese bombers appeared. Within a few hours, the Pacific Fleet had been reduced to nothing but a bubbling, fiery oil-slick atop the ocean’s surface near Ford Island. Black columns of smoke plumed out into the sky. The bodies of sailors and marines lay floating in the oil-coated ocean around them. Overconfidence had convinced the American naval administration that an attack on Pearl Harbor could not be done, primarily because of its shallow water that could stop a potential torpedo, and Japan’s ingenious invention of attaching wooden rudders to the back of a torpedo to provide necessary buoyancy to allow them to reach the desired depth changed that. Pearl Harbor was no longer impregnable. Now the United States had been thrust into war. Its army was microscopic, and not only was its navy protecting its Pacific coast wiped out, but its enemy possessed the upper hand. The same day as the strike on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Burma and struck at the rest of the Indochinese Peninsula. Through December into January, the British fought a valiant delaying action, but that was all it was, a delaying action, delaying the inevitable. In early February 1942, 50,000 British troops surrendered the city of Singapore, the crown jewel of Britain’s colonial empire in the Pacific, to the Japanese. The Japanese, for the first time in the Pacific War, utilized paratroopers to strike at targets in the Netherlands East Indies, namely oil refineries in Sumatra and Dutch garrisons in Java, as well as the Indies’ capital. In an attempt to prevent further losses and attempt to stabilize themselves following their being blindsided by the Japanese surprise attack, the British, American, Dutch, and Australians formed themselves into an alliance, although the ABDA Command was only short-lived. During the first and second Battles of the Java Sea during February and March 1942, a hastily-constructed task force of diminutive warships amassed from what was left of the Royal Navy, Royal Dutch Navy, United States Navy, and Royal Australian Navy in the Pacific, was defeated by the Imperial Japanese Navy, something that was extremely embarrassing for the Allies in the Pacific due to their inability to contain the Japanese threat. With the death of the USN in the Pacific, as well as the loss of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in December 1941, the two strongest naval powers involved committed very little. The Japanese seemed unstoppable. Indochina was under Japanese control, as were the Netherlands East Indies, Wake Island and Guam. The Philippines were being bombarded by Japanese aircraft based in Formosa, and soon enough a Japanese task force was on its way to strike the islands, forcing the American and Filipino forces with their backs to the sea on the Bataan Peninsula, which had been designed for this sort of defensive combat, yet the defenses were decrepit and useless to do overconfidence about the war, and negligence due to the overconfidence. In March 1942, the Allies managed to score a minute victory of the IJN in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea near New Guinea, yet it would not be until later into 1942 that Japan’s earlier successes would be reversed, namely at Midway in June 1942, and Guadalcanal in August 1942. 

The Japanese had gained a serious foothold when they struck Pearl Harbor late in 1941. President Roosevelt had signed an act granting the construction and commissioning of over one hundred more warships, yet with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had set this time table further back. Japanese strategists had predicted that they could buy themselves around six months of time to freely move about the Pacific without serious threats to their prestige, and aside from brushing aside the Allies at the Java Sea and a minor loss at the Bismarck Sea, it was not until the Battle of Midway that the Allies really began to turn the tables. Yet prior to that the Americans had already struck at the heart of Japan’s war effort — her moral — with the April 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, which proved the capital city was anything but impregnable. In May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea proved relatively indecisive, although the USN lost the fleet carrier Lexington and the Yorktown had been severely damaged in the strike and was hastily repaired just in time to see combat, and be sunk, in the Battle of Midway, while the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho and the Shokaku was damaged. Yet the Coral Sea set a new standard for naval warfare: neither side actually saw each others ships. It was fought with aircraft and aircraft only, and defined the standard for the Pacific war: whoever had the most aircraft carriers won. And thus the stage was set for the naval war that would define the entire Pacific War, the systematic hunting down and destroying of the enemy’s aircraft carrier fleet. As the war progressed, the United States pursued the Japanese up the International Date Line, taking back territories that had been stolen either from them or their allies, and destroying the Japanese army and marine personnel attempting to prevent them from doing so. By 1945, the United States had over forty aircraft carriers and two hundred cruisers in commission, while the Japanese had lost almost everything, with all of their carriers out of commission or sunk. With the Japanese defeat at Midway, and their subsequent loss at Guadalcanal, the war had been won for the Allies. Due to Japan’s small size and lack of natural resources, as well as the majority of their population being committed to the war, it took the Japanese far more time to recover from losses in material than the United States. By the end of the war, the Japanese army number close to two million, while the United States Army number close to sixteen million, although only a small fraction had been committed to the Pacific alongside the Marines, who numbered about 600,000. The war was won when Japan set her time table. America would recover, and strike harder than ever anticipated.  



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