Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pacific Theater: 1941

Emperor Puyi - figurehead leader of Manchukuo 

Tensions between the two dominate powers of the Pacific Ocean, Japan and the United States, grew steadily during the decade of the nineteen thirties.  The long standing trade ties the U.S. had with China were threatened by the Imperial Army’s invasion of that country in 1937.  Earlier Japan had taken Manchuria and turned it into its client state of Manchukuo.   The island nation had industrialized in the manner of her Western mentors and was rapidly becoming a great economic power.  Yet Japan lacked the minerals necessary to fuel her growth.  She had to import almost all the raw materials of industry she needed to prosper.  To her south was the mineral wealth necessary for economic prosperity – oil, iron ore, tin, sulfur, phosphates, rubber, plus precious metals and agricultural abundance.  All of it colonized by the Europeans:  French Indochina, British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.  These colonies were, without exception, militarily weak.  By 1941 the French and Dutch had been defeated by Germany.  Britain was trying to merely survive the stranglehold of German submarines surrounding her island nation.  The colonial armies recruited from native inhabitants were often poorly trained and ill-equipped.  It wouldn't take much military effort to overthrow European Asia with an economic order more amenable to Japan’s needs – what its leaders would come to call “The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Brewster Buffalo - obsolete American aircraft: Manila

The American presence in the Philippines was the one impediment to removing Europe as the dominant force in Asian economics.  The U.S. Asiatic Fleet harbored at Manila Bay was small, symbolic in nature only.  American planes stationed there were mostly obsolete.  The U.S. Army provided the Philippines a token-size measure of defense.  The greatest vulnerability to a continued American role in Southeast Asia, though, was a line of Japanese held islands that isolated the Philippines from further U.S. military aid were there war.  Japan did not fear the opposing military forces stationed about the numerous islands of the South China Sea. 

Adm. Richardson opposed Pearl Harbor move

The 1940 move of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor was President Roosevelt’s message of resolve to Japan:  We will protect our Asian interests.  There was also the implicit threat that a military move by Japan against British Malaysia or the Dutch East Indies might result in conflict with the U.S. Navy.  Here, though, U.S. government posture had to remain ambiguous.  The American public was clearly opposed to any foreign entanglements.    One has to wonder what the American response would be were Japan to expel Europe from the region while scrupulously avoiding any attack on the Philippines or other U.S. possessions or installations.  Roosevelt was too shrewd a politician to force America into a costly war with Japan while the American public remained hotly divided.  Certainly protecting a British colony was no justification for sending one’s son into battle.  Unifying U.S. citizens for war would require more than a Washington manufactured pretext.  It would require the cooperation of the Japanese military.

Captured Midway survivors on USS Ballard

Victory at Pearl Harbor sealed Japan’s doom from the outset.  Sinking a handful of battleships gave the Imperial Navy nearly uncontested reign of the Pacific for all of six months.  Yet, it also rallied the American nation to vengeance whose economy was ten times that of Japan’s.  The military leadership in Tokyo had miscalculated.  Their victory on December 7 was devastating for the American Pacific Fleet but not the decisive battle intended by Tokyo.  The once-feared battleship would be relegated to the secondary role of shore bombardment while the aircraft carrier emerged as the true conveyor of naval power in the Twentieth Century.  Unfortunately for Japan the American carriers were not moored at Pearl Harbor on the Sunday of the attack.  They survived unscathed and began almost immediately to chip away at Japan’s newly won naval dominance.  The carrier Hornet launched the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April, 1942.  The following month American carriers in the Coral Sea turned back a Japanese invasion force bound for New Guinea.  Then in June, six months following Pearl Harbor, carriers of the Pacific Fleet ambushed a powerful Japanese armada near Midway Island, sinking the four Imperial Navy carriers present.  The fortunes in war had changed.  The initiative held by Japan had suddenly been lost.  So much was at stake and yet, despite all the planning, fate appeared determined by nothing more calculated than the single role of the dice.

No comments:

Post a Comment