JDB Communications, LLC is proud and pleased (and relieved, after two years) to announce the publication of Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Follyby John D. Beatty and Lee A. Rochwerger, a reworking of their earlier and acclaimed What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War, 1941-1945 (Merriam Press, 2009).
Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t just another “west triumphant” hagiography of WWII. Nor is it a “Japan as victim” story of lost opportunities for peace. Instead, it is a study of agrarian and cash-poor Japan’s desperate need for resource independence, and of the warriors who sought to satiate that need…the samurai.
When Perry sailed to Japan in 1854, the whole of the Japanese Empire had fewer paved roads than a square mile of the city of London. In 1941, Japan sent the largest aircraft carrier task force in the world to attack the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor. How this three-generation, breakneck-paced modernization, and industrialization affected Japan is just one subject explored in Why the Samurai Lost Japan.
Beginning in the late 19th century, Imperial Japan embarked on a program of aggressive military overseas adventures in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Japan’s economy changed from largely agrarian to mostly industrial. Between 1904 and 1941 Japan conquered Korea, Manchuria, large parts of China, and French Indochina, and occupied large swaths of Pacific islands. This provided tremendous resources, but it still wasn’t enough: food riots wracked Japan right up to 1945. How this powerful-yet-weak empire managed these conquests is also explored by Why the Samurai Lost Japan.
Japan’s empire-building aggressions were driven by the ancient cult of samurai warriors who were answerable only to their Emperor. The samurai followed a freewheeling, freely interpreted “code” of bushido—a code better understood than it was understandable, more spoken of than written down with authority. Bushido left only one option for any failure, regardless of scale or import—death. Why the Samurai Lost Japan is also a study of that code and the warriors who followed it—their aspirations, successes, miscalculations, and follies.
In 1941 the samurai picked a fight with arguably the greatest western industrial power on the planet at that time—the United States. They led Japan into a horrible war—the Pacific Theater of World War II—stretching across a third of the Earth’s surface, and spanning an additional three years, eight months, three weeks and five days. Their early and easy victories convinced them of their invincibility. They refused to believe that their fighting spirit could be defeated by superior firepower. However, before they started the war, the samurai knew they could not win outright. The west had to stop fighting early on, or Japan was doomed…and they had no Plan B. Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores the expectations of the samurai planners, and their main planning tool—hope.
The samurai’s war ended after two nuclear devices were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Most authorities believe that Japan’s seeking peace after the atomic bombings were connected to those bombings. Why the Samurai Lost Japandiscusses and challenges how the war in the Pacific really ended…and questions the popular assumptions about governance in pre-1945 Japan.
So, glad you survived not only Thanksgiving last Thursday but Black Friday the day after, for those of you who indulge in that orgy of retail greed. But today is Cyber Monday, so those among you who want to wait in your living room watching your computer rather than standing in a checkout line for the same stuff–knock yourselves out.
On this day in 1941, the main portion of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) Kido Butai (literally mobile force. but also known as the Carrier Striking Task Force, depending on sources) with the 1st Air Group embarked (sources differ, but this was more symbolic than a real operational command) left the fleet anchorage at Hittokapu Bay and headed for Hawaii. The six aircraft carriers in the Kido Butai were the largest concentration of naval air power anywhere in the world and would be the largest until the US invasion of the Marshall Islands in 1944.
Though the details are sketchy, the Kido Butai proceeded on its course with strict communications discipline, giving position reports and little else. This in itself is somewhat unremarkable to serious analysts, but to conspiracy-minded Americans, it’s proof of a US government cover-up at the very highest levels.
Regardless, the Japanese force was proceeding, supposedly, under the strict control of the “government” in Tokyo, which in theory was in control of the entire mission, indeed the whole war. The story goes that there was a chance that the attack on Pearl Harbor–which had required a complete redirection of the IJN from a mid-ocean ambush of the USN strategy that had been planned since 1922 in a matter of months–would not be needed. This is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying version of what was likely the truth: the Pearl Harbor attack was going in no matter what because stopping the samurai from going to war was not going to be possible. After 1938 they controlled the economy; by October 1941 they controlled the government outright. The negotiations with the diplomats in Washington were, as FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought at the time, a stalling tactic.
The “go code” message “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208,” has been widely asserted to have been sent by Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, to Nagumo Chuichi, commanding the Kido Butai, on 2 December 1941. This has been interpreted to mean that the attack on Pearl Harbor was to go ahead as scheduled on 8 December (Japan time). There are many different versions of this episode, but none of these versions answer the simple question that any good analyst would ask:
WHO authorized Yamamoto to send such a message?
THAT part of the story is left out, and there is no evidence of any discussions of any “authorizations” by Tojo Hideki’s government that would have unleashed the attack–or how a lack of any such instruction would have restrained it–outside the movies. In other words, the military government (bakufu) that ran the country didn’t appear to authorize it. Huh.
So, who was waiting for word from the negotiations in Washington? Not Yamamoto, apparently. Beyond that, where are the similar messages to all the other Japanese commands headed to Malaya and the Philippines at the same time, and those poised to strike at Hong Kong? Was it the same message for everyone? Was the Imperial Japanese Army going to be taking orders from the Navy? Really?
Another nagging part of this story is the “1208” tacked on to the end of the message, always interpreted at December 8th. Huh. Some code, eh? One would think that if they went to the trouble of encoding the actual order, the date would be too, yeah?
The “Climb Mount Niitaka” message was purportedly intercepted by the Americans and the British, and probably by the Russians (though that is unclear in the “sources”). Its significance was, of course, missed, or misinterpreted. Trouble is, there’s no original source on any intercepts, nor any record or memory of discussions of any meaning attached to such intercepts at any level. More than that, the “East wind rain” message that signaled imminent hostilities that was supposedly also sent sometime before the Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t transmitted according to Japanese sources and was almost certainly never intercepted by anyone.
The two supposed coded messages combine in some minds into a missed opportunity to alert Hawaii and minimize the loss of life on 7 December. However, they are more critical to post-war views that Japan was a rational actor, that they genuinely wished for peace, and that by extension the American peace overtures in 1945 should have been more strident…and generous. Without the “Climb Mount Niitake” message, the Pearl Harbor strike was merely ordered by a duplicitous regime, not allowed by a more reasonable one.
So, after all this…what about the Kido Butai? It was ordered to attack Pearl Harbor regardless of what happened elsewhere because the entire Southern Operation (seizure of the Duch East Indies) was the objective. Neutralizing the US Pacific Fleet, even if briefly, was seen as an essential element of that operation. These coded messages were needed for other purposes, and have no basis in fact or hard evidence to support the contention that they were final instructions.
Waking the sleeping dragon/tiger of the US was concerning, but not restricting. If the carriers were there, excellent and most desired; if not, it would have been impossible not to attack whatever ships and facilities were there.
Think about that.
Next week, I start a series called “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” to frame the publication (finally) of Why the Samurai Lost Japan on or about 15 December. The series will explore Japan’s strategic and tactical options for that December in 1941, including the folly of the mythical Third Strike on Pearl Harbor. Hope you enjoy it.
National Cake Day…who’s idea was this? No one knows, apparently. And yet, the world continues to turn…
The word cake to denote baked goods is said to be derived from the Old Norse “kaka.” However, “kaka” in English is borrowed from the Maori and used to describe a species of birds native to New Zealand…or, for children and gremlins, poop.
No one can know how many different kinds of cake there are worldwide. There are countless recipes, some are bread-like, some rich and elaborate, and many are centuries old. Cakes typically contain a combination of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter or oil, with some variety of liquid which may be milk or water, along with a leavening agent such as yeast or baking powder. Flavorful ingredients are often added, for example; chopped nuts, fresh, candied or dried fruit, fruit purees or extracts. Cake can be enjoyed with or without frosting or icing…or eating, as these two examples show.
Look hard enough on the internet, and you can find some even more remarkable cakes. Since I strive to make this a family-friendly blog, I shall avoid including the more salacious images or links to them. The cake to the left is one of the tamer images I found on a particular site.
There are several “cake” days (and a month), according to at least one source. Here’s a list With luck, I won’t be punished for blatantly stealing it:
Mid-January already. Wow. While here in the Great Lakes we’re stuck in a deep freeze that started last November, I can only hope you aren’t. I can also hope that you keep reading.
As early as November 1942, low-level Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) officers had been advising that Guadalcanal couldn’t be retaken or held. At the far end of a logistical chain that stretched over 3,500 air miles back to Japan, the nearest Japanese base to Guadalcanal of any size was Rabaul, still over 600 miles away with limited air cover in between.
By January 1943, Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) decided to pull out. The Japanese weren’t used to retrograde operations, but they were so short on troops that they had to learn, and quickly. In five months the Japanese forces on the island had gone from less than a thousand before the US Marine landing on 7 August 1942, to 36,000 at their peak in October, to 11,000 in January 1943, and the survivors were in awful shape. Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) resupply runs from Rabaul were increasingly hazardous due to the American buildup on the island. Conditions were so primitive on what the troops called Starvation Island–where the sick rate approached 50% on any given day– IJA Seventeenth Army’s commander Hyakutake Harukichi’s staff was less than ten men. Mikawa Gunichi commanded the IJN Eighth Fleet at Rabaul responsible for the Solomon Islands. On him would fall the responsibility for the evacuation. dubbed Operation Ke.
Commanding the Allied naval forces in the South Pacific Area was William F. Halsey with two fleet carriers and six escort carriers, six battleships, and a relay of 12 light and heavy cruisers and sundry escorts and destroyers. Commanding the American ground troops on Guadalcanal was Alexander Patch with about 40,000 soldiers and Marines. Halsey enjoyed supremacy of ships, aircraft, and logistics over Mikawa; Patch had numbers and logistics over Hyakutake. At the same time, they knew that their opponents were no pushovers. Aware of an uptick in activity in early January 1943, the Americans suspected a major reinforcement of either Guadalcanal or New Guinea, and they moved to counter both.
A fresh battalion of infantry and a battery of guns were landed on 14 January to act as a rear-guard, which was the first time that Hyakutake was aware of the withdrawal. Backed by two aircraft carriers, an IJN air superiority campaign from Rabaul commenced at about the same time. The Japanese air campaign was not a severe threat to the Allies in the area since their air power in the region was outnumbered by about 500 Allied to 400 Japanese.
Aided by covering surface ship skirmishes, radio deception, desperate air attacks, and long-practiced deception operations on the ground, the IJA ground troops disengaged and moved off from the front. The Americans, attacking as ever, exploited the weak lines and pushed forward. Still fearing a counterattack on his weary ground troops, Patch again moved cautiously. It should be remembered that tropical conditions weren’t to the liking of the Americans either: their sick rate was close to 20%. At the same time, a withdrawal was not thought to be in the Japanese playbook.
Still suspecting that a reinforcement was underway, a small surface task force under Robert C. Giffen was sent to patrol between the south coast of Guadalcanal and Rennell Island. In a confused air-surface night action 29-30 January, USS Chicago was sunk, and another US destroyer damaged to 12 IJN torpedo bombers shot down. But this minor battle had the effect of brushing back the Americans, enabling the evacuations to continue unimpeded by heavy surface forces.
The first IJN evacuation was conducted 1-2 February, pulling nearly 5,000 sick and emaciated soldiers off the island in 11 destroyers. It was opposed primarily by PT boats and ground-based aircraft from Guadalcanal. The second (4-5 February) and third (7-8 February) lifts were similarly opposed by light forces. Halsey’s ships were 200 miles away to the south. Unaware of how high Japanese casualties were among their long-range medium bombers, he did not venture to interfere in a major way. Halsey and the other commanders were also becoming convinced that the Japanese were evacuating Guadalcanal–not reinforcing–since the resistance on the ground was rapidly vanishing, and saw no need to keep the Japanese from leaving the rock that they had fought over for six months.
Operation Ke was arguably one of the last Japanese successes in WWII. Called an “operational success” by some sources, it was nonetheless a retreat–not on the scale of Dunkirk but a retreat nonetheless. It cost the Japanese a destroyer and a submarine sunk and 56 aircraft shot down to save a little over 10,000 sick and emaciated soldiers, about a third of whom would never serve in the field again. The Allies lost a cruiser, a destroyer, and three PT boats, in addition to 53 aircraft. The balance sheet tilted slightly towards the Japanese in raw numbers, but they also lost the southern Solomon Islands, a position they could–unlike the British and French after Dunkirk–never regain.
The Americans weren’t asking for negotiations: in fact, with the Casablanca conference underway between US, British and French leaders, such thoughts seemed ages away. After the collapse of German resistance at Stalingrad on 2 February, the Soviets weren’t giving up either.
One by one, Japanese prewar miscalculations were adding up to doom.
Wednesday, 16 January, is traditionally recognized as National Nothing Day since it was allegedly invented in 1972 by Harold Pullman Coffin, a San Francisco Examiner columnist who went to his nothing reward in 1981. He also created the National Nothing Foundation in California, which may have gone to nothing since as well.
Nothing Day was supposed to be the one day that we were supposed to be able to recognize or celebrate or remember anything at all. In part, it has been co-opted by a “buy nothing” movement that has always been the alternative to Black Friday: the day after American Thanksgiving. Regrettably, for Coffin’s non-day, 16 January is also:
National Fig Newton Day (since…no one’s sure);
National Religious Freedom Day (since 1993);
National Without a Scalpel Day (since 2016).
While the idea is pretty neat, like everything else, time and events have a way of catching up to intent. When Washington first proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, he could not have imagined the Macy’s Parade. No American could imagine a greater catastrophe than Pearl Harbor in 1941, right up until 9/11.
Or, as the expression goes: Man proposes; God laughs.
So, you’ve survived The Holidays, that period between late November and the end of the year when the Western world goes mad for made-for-TV movies with the same plot, metalized paper strips, dead trees in their homes, and spending too much money on things that the recipients of your largesse don’t really want. Welcome to the depths of January.
The war that Japan started with the West in December 1941 had been going pretty much according to the plan by the end of the year. The earliest Japanese landings under Homma Masaharu on the big Philippine island of Luzon began on 10 December 1941. On 22 December the main offensive on Luzon began. Always outnumbered, 48,000 Japanese with complete air and sea supremacy pushed against the 151,000 American and Filipino troops who rarely saw friendly air support of any kind. The issue was never really in doubt.
The prewar plan that the Philippines’ senior officer, Douglas MacArthur, had out was for the ground forces to fall back into the Bataan Peninsula to deny any attackers free use of Luzon’s greatest asset: Manila Bay. The evacuation to Bataan was fairly orderly, with 80,000 troops of two US/Philippine army corps filing in, along with 26,000 civilian refugees, and needed supplies ferried in from Manila.
The first problem for the Americans was that the supplies earmarked for the upcoming siege was only for 46,000 people, not 106,000. The first problem for the Japanese was that the defensive lines, the American artillery, and the American determination to make a stand were not a part of the Japanese plan.
On 7 January 1942, the same day that the Soviets declared victory at Moscow and began their own counteroffensive, Homma started a general assault on the Bataan defensive lines and was repulsed at every point. Also on that day, President Roosevelt announced the largest increase in defense spending in American history, tripling the size of the US military in 18 months. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans were acting according to the Japanese plan.
While the Bataan battle was raging, the Americans and their Filipino allies were starving, and the Japanese–some of them, anyway–were starting to wonder what went wrong with their brilliant plan. The Declaration by the United Nations, where the US, China, Great Britain, and her Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, all the governments-in-exile from Europe and Scandinavia, and a host of smaller states declared that they would fight on for as long as possible, and none would seek a separate (unilateral, like Russian pulling out of WWI) peace with any “signatory of the Tripartite Pact.” This Declaration was a direct attack on Japan’s main goal for attacking the West in the first place: a negotiated settlement to Japan’s advantage.
The American/Filipino Bataan plan was borne of the outdated hope that a US fleet and avenging army would be only a few months away from succoring the Philippines. However, as early as 1910 US planners knew that a rescue of a Philippine garrison was logistically impossible. In the 1920s, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was built on the idea that the US would crawl across the Pacific into a massive ambush. By 1940 that plan was scrapped, but the entire fleet had been trained for it, and every ship built for it. Though hastily retrained and reorganized, it was hard to get that obsolete plan out of many Japanese sailor’s heads.
But the US Bataan plan was meant to make the invader hurt–and that it did. For three months the ragtag army held out, inflicting over 20,000 casualties on the Japanese, including China campaign veterans who were impossible to replace. By the time the last position was overrun on Bataan, some 76,000 captives were in Japanese hands, more men than the Japanese had started the campaign with, and four times what they were prepared for. While the Japanese eventually defeated the Americans and Filipinos on Bataan, they did it at a cost that it would have been unsustainable, was two months behind schedule, and had consumed far more resources–especially fuel–than had been planned for.
And the Americans were showing no signs of heading to the negotiating table.
Bataan and Wake Island were only two of many early “victories” that Japan obtained in the early days of the war that were but portents of the resistance they would encounter. Read all about it in Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly now available from JDB Communications, LLC.
6 January is also my sister’s birthday–which has nothing to do with Cuddle-Up Day but I just thought I’d give her a holler: Hi, Barb! Happy Day yesterday! How many anniversaries of your 39th birthday have you had now?
January typically contains some of the coldest days of the year, so what better way to stay warm and reap health benefits than by cuddling with a loved one on National Cuddle Up Day? Whether it’s a three-dog-night (not the musicians but what they were named after: a night so cold it takes three dogs to cuddle up with to stay warm) or only slightly chilly, there are many benefits to cuddling with human or canine or other warm-blooded pet.
Cuddling (defined as holding another close as a means of showing affection) releases oxytocin, which gives us warm-and-fuzzies and reduces minor pain. When the cold makes muscles and joints ache, cuddling can help. Oxytocin also helps reduce heart disease, reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety. If it weren’t free, cuddling would be covered by health insurance–but don’t give anyone any ideas.
In the days before humans became fleshy extensions of social media that they have become, personal presence was important. Communication is more than just e-mails and texts (or blogs, for that matter). Physical contact can communicate trust, commitment, safety, and reassurance. This goes for human-to-human contact as well as human-to pet-contact. Cuddling expresses everything vital in a healthy relationship.
Dopamine released while in close contact with a loved one stimulates the brain to seek pleasure…a little or a lot. Cuddling can also boost sexual desire, so, ah, hence the “warning” on the sign up on top.
This is the final installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and the final blog of the year…therefore my last pitch for Why the Samurai Lost Japan, Those of you who have hung in there since the beginning of December…many thanks. For those just now picking it up, just go to the website and start with the 3 December blog.
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of the book while you’re there…
While the Pearl Harbor strike began five minutes or so before the actual declaration of war on the United States was to be effective (but hours before it was finally delivered), that minor misstep was a good deal more important to the civilian diplomats than it was to their bosses in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Diplomacy no longer mattered to the samurai leadership…it hadn’t really mattered to the samurai since the Triple Intervention in 1895 “stole” Japan’s hard-won gains in China. If they were successful in their enterprise of getting the Americans back to the bargaining table in 1942, no one would either care or notice a five-minute gap between the diplomatic and the military; and if the Americans didn’t stop fighting, the samurai knew they were probably doomed.
And there is the crux of it…all of it. Japan had to succeed big and FAST. Even the most enthusiastic samurai bosses knew that in any protracted conflict—one lasting more than six months—Japan stood no chance of being able to carry on with a conflict against any Western power, especially the United States. Resources aside, Japanese technological edges were razor-thin, and in some areas non-existent. In any prolonged war, Japan from the beginning knew that she had but two real advantages: distance and time. Japan was half a world away, and that she was but one of three major enemies that the West was fighting at the time.
The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months…Britain was expected to capitulate…leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.
But before Pearl Harbor, Japan had planned everything they were to do with a short war as the starting premise. When the British and Americans decided on “Europe first” in March 1941 it came not as a surprise but a relief to Japanese planners. As long as Britain held out, Europe would be an easier target than Japan as long as Russia was out of the equation. The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months before the Soviets were either destroyed or sought an armistice. After that, Britain was expected to capitulate, as were the Dutch, leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.
…the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy…
But the Japanese failed to appreciate the depths of Stalin’s hatred of the Nazi regime in 1941 and the lengths to which he could get the Soviet Union to drive its people to crush Germany. They also failed to appreciate that their own fragile war machine could be crippled in mere minutes by unforeseen events—in this case, two naval battles in early 1942 that devastated their cadre of carrier pilots and maintainers. Finally, the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting—and hopefully being able—to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy. Even if Great Britain only wanted a return to the pre-1941 status quo ante, they at least had the wherewithal to try and, in some cases, succeed. Japan, once it lost any of its hard-won 1941-42 gains, could never get them back, and the leadership knew it.
The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.
While Pearl Harbor traditionally angered the US into a dreadful fury that ended in Tokyo Bay, any military action by Japan against any American territory in late 1941 would probably have had the same result. In the Atlantic, the US Navy had already been in a quasi-war with the Germans for close to a year by December 1941 and had lost a destroyer to German torpedoes in October. The American military was already on high alert; the National Guards and Reserves had all been called up starting in 1940 with the fall of France and a draft filling in the ranks since September 1940. American war materiel was being shipped to Britain and France (and the Soviets after June 1941) and was delivered to the “fighting French” in the Pacific. Even if Japan had only ventured upon a bombing raid on the Philippines, a war in the Pacific would probably have been the result anyway: the Americans were already tacit belligerents against the Germans. The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.
The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan
The Pearl Harbor attack, ultimately, was a devastating blow to samurai-dominated Japan far more than it was to the United States. Even if the US prewar carriers had been in the harbor, the war would have delayed the ultimate result by perhaps a few months. For while rousing the sleeping giant/tiger/dragon (choose your metaphor) was the result, the destruction of Japanese military power only left a clean palate for more representative government to take hold once the power of the samurai to dictate affairs had been broken. The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan.
Future essays of the “Reconsidered” variety, based on our research for the book, will follow in the next few months. Look for future series on Coral Sea/Midway, the Solomons and the atomic bombings.
Tomorrow is Christmas in the US, and for those of my readers who are far from home serving their country in the way they can, have a restful and peaceful day, and good luck.
There’s a certain ambiguity to imagery like this. Hitler is trying to be just another regular guy, and it’s before his Final Solution got started so it may be easy to dismiss this imagery as “early.” But there’s an eerie sort of shadow over it, no?
Then again, we have the image above, of future President Reagan hawking cigarettes as Christmas presents while plugging his 1952 movie, Hong Kong, which fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. While the ad men didn’t care, the timing seems odd. Celebrity endorsements of tobacco products were common in the 1940s and ’50s, so there’s no issue there…but giving smokes to all your friends for Christmas? Huh.
This is the third installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and for those of you who have read the other two, thanks for sticking with me. Of course, I know you’ve all bought copies of Why the Samurai Lost Japan for yourselves and for all your friends (perfect Christmas gifts) as soon as it was available (which should have been Saturday).
No? What are you waiting for? This essay is just a sample of our research and analysis. Get the whole picture.
As far as “gambles” go, Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t much of one, either strategically or tactically. The strikes were carefully planned practically to the last bomb, torpedo, bullet, and ounce of fuel—they had to be because Japan could not carry more fuel for an attack so far away. The aircraft were fueled and armed in a flurry of activity beginning very early in the morning of 7 December, the second wave being hoisted to the flight deck as the first was taking off, and was launching as the first wave was returning. It was a practiced ballet of logistics, material handling, and timing—and nearly impossible to repeat on the same day with damaged aircraft and tired aircrews and maintainers.
The attack had intended to catch the American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor, but those ships were prevented from entering the harbor by the same storm that battered the Japanese task force en route to Hawaii. That the American carriers weren’t in Pearl Harbor (and their air groups parked on the airfields) was a grave disappointment…and created a grave danger. They and their 100+ aircraft were somewhere in the area…but Japanese intelligence was unable to say where. That one was near Wake Island, and two more were at sea a day away from Hawaii was unknown to the Japanese. For that reason, Nagumo had reason to fear for the safety of his command. Worse, he had no good idea how severe the American land-based aircraft losses were. His fleet was already low on fuel, including aviation fuel. Staying an extra day would have meant that some of the escorting destroyers would have been sucked dry of fuel for the carriers and abandoned…not recommended at the beginning of a trans-oceanic war.
The first two attack waves had been well planned, timed and executed, but a third wave that some say should have been mounted was impractical. Sending the superbly trained pre-1941 carrier pilots on a third mission that day would have been a tremendous risk for an uncertain (and unlikely) result. Though “sparing” the dockyards, maintenance shops, and the tank farm meant the US could swing into action in the Pacific faster, it is unlikely that these less-than-vulnerable facilities could have been significantly harmed, and would have exposed the fleet to much more risk that the risk-adverse IJN would have been willing to commit to.
…at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop.
Preparing the returning planes for another attack would have taken until at least mid-afternoon, meaning that the aircraft of a third wave would have been recovering at night. In 1941, only the Royal Navy had experience with carrier landings at night. Success would have been uncertain because American anti-aircraft performance improved between the first and second waves. Moreover, the strength of Hawaii’s remaining land-based air power was undetermined. The second wave, while damaging, had not done near as much as the first in part because there was a limit to how much damage any single-engine aircraft could do.
Further, at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop. The odds against hitting the drydocks effectively were even higher, and severely damaging the concrete basins or the massive doors would have been sheer luck for any pilot of that time and place. Great Britain, desperate as they were, mounted a commando raid on St. Nazaire in 1942 to disable the drydocks there and expended a destroyer and several hundred men to do it. Mere air-delivered bombs—regardless of size—weren’t going to do a lot of damage to the drydocks of Pearl Harbor without a great deal of luck.
Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly excecuted with a few hours of planning and 100% successful is too much to ask.
Many “counterfactual” claims for the value of a third strike emphasize the potential damage caused by the destruction of the millions of gallons of fuel stored at Pearl Harbor. While possible, these claims require the Americans either do absolutely nothing to stop the attacks on those big targets or that they do everything wrong. Letting out a few thousand gallons and setting it alight would have created a good smokescreen in a few minutes that could have baffled any further attacks…and a single successful bomb on one tank or pump complex might have done the same thing. Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly executed and 100% successful with a few hours planning is too much to ask.
Though the never-planned third strike on Pearl Harbor has been much touted over the years, and it is said that Yamamoto later regretted Nagumo’s decision to withdraw (though he supported that decision at the time), he afterward said it had been a mistake not to order a third strike. Sorry, but that sounds a great deal like second-guessing for the history books after the tide had already turned. While the raid on Pearl Harbor was at least a tactical success, the strategic value of it was diminished because it missed the American carriers.
In my next and final installment of “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered,” I’ll examine the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack, and its long-term effects on Japan and, more important, on the samurai leadership that ordered and planned it. While the Eastern Operation may have been perfectly executed, that perfect attack resulted in a disastrous war with an enemy they knew they could not defeat.
Today is Wright Brothers Day, one of the many commemorative days that is codified in US law. Though the brothers first flew on 17 December 1903, it took until 2014 before Congress passed the bill recognizing the fact. One of the reasons for the long delay was the inventor of the contraption on the left, Samuel P. Langley. He was said to have launched an unmanned powered kite in 1896 and convinced Congress to give him a contract to continue his research. It helped that Langley was the head of the Smithsonian Institutions at the time.
He had two failed manned launches in October and December 1903, and never went back to his experiments afterward in part because of the Wright brother’s success, and in part, because he couldn’t get money to continue. Langley died in 1906, having spent orders of magnitude more on several decades of failed tries to build a powered, manned, controllable heavier-than-air vehicle than the Wrights spent to succeed.
Even as the aviation industry took off and the Wrights undeniably went into the business of building airplanes, the battle for bragging rights over who flew first continued well into the 20th century. Though the first Wright Flyer was destroyed in a storm in early 1904, the Smithsonian wouldn’t even have a replica of it in its halls, instead emphasizing Langley’s efforts and even denying that the Wrights were first until well into the 20th century.
Today, as promised, I’m going to talk about how Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack was organized and actually, tactically authorized…or not.
Reorganizing and retraining the entire IJN in less than a year, the IJN created an administrative unit called the 1st Air Fleet to coordinate carrier air activities. In theory, the 1st Air Fleet included all ten Japanese aircraft carriers afloat at the time, but the Eastern Operation would only use six—the rest were incomplete or obsolescent. Committing their entire operational carrier strength was a gamble, but the Combined Fleet’s commander, Yamamoto Isoroku, was an inveterate poker player.
Once the Kido Butai (literally, mobile force) consisting of the three carrier divisions (two each, and three or four destroyers in each division), a battleship division (two ships), a heavy cruiser division (two), two destroyer divisions (two of four and one of two), at least 25 submarines and eight oilers sailed for Hawaii, three-fourths of the Imperial Japanese Navy was committed to a single attack. Conventional wisdom and popular culture have always held that the phrase “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” from Yamamoto in Tokyo Bay to the Kido Butai’s commander Nagumo Chuichi who was well on his way to Hawaii on 2 December meant that the diplomats in Washington had failed to reach an accord with the US, and the fleet was to attack Pearl Harbor as planned.
This is the top half of the message intercepted, as passed by the Hawaiian station that did get the signal and worked the code. Serial 676 is what it’s commonly known as.
The imagery of the bottom half is garbled, but it does say that the interception was at 2100 (9 PM) on 2 December 1941, and declassified in June 1972.
With all due respect to my predecessors (and my readers who saw part of this discussion two weeks ago) who have all agreed that this was a “go” message…that assertion makes no sense, because:
The Japanese diplomats in Washington had, on orders from Tokyo, been stalling on purpose for two months. There was no chance that the primary American demand—that Japan withdraws from French Indochina—was going to be met, and Tokyo knew it. No matter what else happened, the Americans weren’t about to shut off the 1941 sanctions spontaneously unless Japan complied…and no one expected them to.
Japan had committed huge forces to not only attack Pearl Harbor but also Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Guam, and Malaya. Stopping that whole mechanism because a single message from the Combined Fleet was not sent or received…impractical at best, unlikely at worst. Further, there is no record—anywhere—of a “no-go” message. If the Mount Niitake signal was the “go” there had to have been—logically—a “no-go.” What was it?
The IJA and the IJN didn’t play well together. Their rivalries made the annual American Army-Navy football game look like a Care Bears® convention. The IJA wasn’t going to take orders from the IJN—ever. A single message to start everything in motion…improbable doesn’t come close to describing it.
Yamamoto sent the message to essentially start the war in the Pacific…on whose authority? Sure, Japan’s Government Liaison Conference had approved war with the US, Britain and the Netherlands in November, and such approval was widely known among the senior officers in both the IJA and the IJN. After that, however…who said, “there’s a chance this won’t be needed so let’s make this code up?” No record of that, nor is there even a chance for such approval to have existed.
Mount Niitake on Taiwan was the tallest mountain in the Japanese Empire, so I submit that the “Climb Mount Niitake 1208” signal is better understood as meaning “perform the difficult task with the blessings of the boss.” That its absence would have stopped anything—absent a message to the contrary—is highly unlikely. It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint, that they went to war with some reluctance and trepidation. The “East Wind Rain” message, which was never transmitted according to Japanese records, was the only generally-accepted official “war warning” that existed, and even that was unspecific as to timing.
It is more likely that emphasis has been put on the Mount Niitake signal by post-war historians to make the pre-1945 Japanese appear to still have had some restraint…
Next week I’ll talk about the attack itself, and about the myths surrounding the legendary “third strike.” Remember, too, to look out for the release of Why the Samurai Lost Japan this Friday.
Wednesday, 12 December, is National Ding-A-Ling Day. Now, for those of you who are going to jump to the illogical conclusion that these “ding-a-lings” were for either the portions of the male anatomy that the filthy-minded thought Chuck Berry was singing about or about the local eccentric with the propeller beanie who talks to snowbanks, even if they aren’t there.
Nope, this national day was started by Franky Hyde of Illinois in 1971. For a buck, you could join the Ding-a-Ling Club. Members would be incentivized to call people that they hadn’t contacted for some time, like old neighbors, the kid’s former babysitter, classmates unheard for two reunions, former workmates and so on. According to Trivia-Library.com, there were some 600 members in 1981, and the dues had been raised to $3. However, since there is no website and no references after this, it seems likely that the organization has gone the way of many such outfits.
Sounds weird, but really not a bad idea. I’ve got family and friends I haven’t heard from in ages…regrettably I’m really not sure how many of them I still can get ahold of. Again, wouldn’t hurt to try, I suppose.
This four-part essay will discuss four salient points regarding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:
How and why the mission was authorized
How the mission was carried out
The intent and failure of the mission
The response and aftermath
This will not be a mere rehash of what thousands of other scriveners have already said and what the sources tell us, but an analysis of these points from a Japanese point of view.
How and Why
To recap how there came to be an apparent requirement for the Pearl Harbor attack:
Japan had been fighting in China off and on since 1932 because, like Germany in WWI, she needed independent access to resources.
The US expressed its displeasure diplomatically and economically with minor sanctions and “limited availability” of critical resources from 1933 to the summer of 1941 when they cut off petroleum and scrap metals and froze Japanese assets in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Great Britain and the Netherlands soon followed.
The samurai culture that dominated Japan regarded the sanctions as merely a hiccup, but the samurai themselves badly needed the imports to supply their China fighting.
Fighting for resources while being cut off from supplies became a vicious spiral from which there was no apparent escape. War with America, the British Empire, and the Netherlands was, by Japan’s lights, necessary to secure resources to grab the resources of China. So was born the Southern Operation, to seize the petroleum and other materials of the East Indies. But these islands were in the hands of the Netherlands and Great Britain, who would object. These two were on friendly terms with the US, which had considerable military forces in the Philippines, and were well-placed to cut off Japan from any successes in the East Indies.
The Pearl Harbor attack, known to the Japanese as the Eastern Operation, wasn’t undertaken lightly or easily. Attacking the United States, with which Japan had enjoyed cordial if not friendly relations, was more than a calculated risk: it was a fleet-wide gamble of enormous proportions. The entire Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to be retrained and restructured to pull it off. Because the Eastern Operation was one of several missions taking place in three different directions at once in December of 1941, the IJN’s original strategic concept of a mid-ocean ambush that had been in place since 1922 had to be scrapped. Sounds simple, but the whole navy and nearly every ship in it had for a generation been built and trained for one titanic Tsushima at sea.
That said, there was another issue: the IJN wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the need for the Eastern Operation in the first place. While the IJN did get their carrier air combat experience in China, their enthusiasm for the China project was a great deal less than was the IJA’s. However, they were interested in the oil of the East Indies, and for that and that alone they appreciated the need to attack the United States preemptively.
However, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a bold trans-oceanic mission that had not only never been done before, but it was also far and away the most ambitious naval operation ever undertaken by Japan and required the largest fleet deployment in its history. Even while planning was ongoing, there were questions raised as to whether it was necessary at all. Militarily, the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 was something of a dinosaur, the only modern parts being the three aircraft carriers assigned there. If the American carriers could be sunk in a single blow, that would create an advantage…especially since the US had seven other carriers scheduled for launch in the next year. While true, it should be remembered that Japan was fighting not to win a war but to get the West to end their sanctions and give Japan a free hand in Asia. She was trying to frighten, not defeat, the US. Would not the other bold moves elsewhere be enough to cow the soft, decadent Americans? Those who spoke against the Pearl Harbor strike were relegated to other duties as official enthusiasm for the project grew.
Next week we’ll talk about how the Pearl Harbor strike was organized, and how it (probably) got its orders.
And then there’s Bathtub Party Day (C) on Wednesday, created by Ruth and Thomas Roy over at Wellcat.com, purveyors of herbs and copyrighted holidays. They give no particular reason for the timing (though early December in these parts is chilly), but include the usual kinds of admonitions like turn the ringer off on the phone (how quaint), lighting candles and incense, and settling down with a favorite alcoholic beverage. This is all to be followed by scented oils and lotions and the usual big fluffy towels.
But seriously, a party is much more like what we have to the left, isn’t it? I mean, alone, with a roomful of candles and incense that would take an hour to light, a newer towel that’s probably been in the closet for a year and was half-stale when it got there (and the wife was saving for some later “special occasion” that somehow is never entirely defined.)
So, yeah, bathtub party if you’re so inclined, but I’d instead do it with a smaller group if I do it at all…which I likely won’t since, well, I don’t see much point, and my better half usually looks at me with some disdain when I suggest such things.
Once you get over the irony of my talking first about Stalingrad and then about American Thanksgiving, you’ll hopefully keep reading. But, just for a moment, remember that on that very American holiday in 1942, a quarter million Germans started starving to death along the Volga, trapped by America’s erstwhile allies, the Soviets.
Beginning in late summer, 1942, Germany and the Soviet Union were locked in a hand-to-hand battle along the Volga over the City of Stalin: Stalingrad. Today, the word means as much to us as Verdun: unceasing fighting in attritional firefights. But Stalingrad wasn’t just forts and trenches, it was where infantry platoons fought for days over single stairwells; companies launched assaults on the floor of the building above them; battalions attacked enemy lines to fight over a field bakery. From September to November 1942, the German Sixth Army under Friedrich von Paulus, the Romanian Third Army under Petre Dumitrescu, and the Romanian Fourth Army under Constantin Constantinescu-Claps fought the Soviet Stalingrad Front under Andrey Yeryomenko and Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and the Southwestern Front under Nikolai Vatutin in an ever-noisy world of dust and smoke, dying and fear.
To break the deadlock and take advantage of weaker German flank elements, Georgy Zhukov, then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, planned a counterstroke to encircle the Germans in Stalingrad. Another quarter million Soviet troops were poured into the region, while the embattled fighters in the city were merely told to hold on.
The plan unfolded on 19 November 1942, and except for some uniform confusion close to the city itself, successfully trapped Sixth Army, both Romanian armies, parts of the Italian force and part of Germany’s Fourth Panzer Army in its clutches. A subsequent Soviet operation, Mars, beat back other elements of Germany’s Army Group B, closing the trap on over 200,000 Axis soldiers in the Stalingrad area by 23 November–three days before Thanksgiving in the US.
Both German and Soviet survivors of the Stalingrad fighting declared that they could imagine nothing worse. Because both sides were surrounded and under constant observation, there was no respite from the threat of a sudden sniper shot or artillery barrage. With every significant landmark, building, hillock, clearing and street intersection zeroed in by artillery batteries of all sizes and both sides, any and all attacks were costly in human terms. Gradually, the fighting over buildings was so sustained that some collapsed merely from the concussion of days or weeks of nearby bombardments.
Stalingrad ended for everyone on 2 February 1943. It is unclear exactly how many Axis soldiers went into captivity (probably somewhere about 91,000), but fewer than 10,000 survived to be repatriated as late as 1965.
In the late 1990s a Soviet general, on his deathbed, said that his greatest regret in life was that, as the medical officer in charge of the prisoner transports, he didn’t spend any time arguing that an accurate count of the number of Axis prisoners taken at Stalingrad was needed, so that no one knew how many to expect. “Not enough of us cared,” he was reported to have said as he expired. True or not, it feels true.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US, a holiday known better for football and overeating than for prayerful offerings, as was originally intended. But you have to ask “who intended” before you go too far down that path. The first official Thanksgiving was from Washington’s proclamation of 1787, but days of fasting and feasting had been observed in French and Spanish New World colonies in the 16th century, and in Virginia as early as 1607. The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving that most Americans identify as the first Thanksgiving was, therefore, a latecomer in 1621. Lincoln fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in 1863, and Congress set it on the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Now, watch football if you’re so inclined, or play football if that thrills ya. But, the imagery above and to the right here should tell you what the holiday is for. Yes, they are Norman Rockwell paintings, and they were all done during WWII, but you don’t see them very much. The reason for that is both clear and obscure: not very cheery. While superficially true…the girls are alive, folks, in one piece but living in ruins that were not of their making. The GIs had enough to share and gave out of their bounty because they could, and they wanted to.
Pay attention, people.
The message of this sequence is that some people have more to be obviously thankful for than others. The GI to the right is clean, probably healthy and reasonably well-fed–possibly a rear-area guy. He looks older–maybe in his late 20s or 30s–than we’re used to seeing NCOs in uniform. But, too, he might be old enough to be a father who missed feeding his own little girl, who is safe at home on the other side of the world. And the top kick who gave the young woman above his jacket can always get another.
Think about it.
No, I’m not going to preach anymore. Have a happy and safe holiday.
Yesterday was Veteran’s Day in the US. Some of you will be observing the “holiday” today (using that uniquely American phenomenon known as the Monday Holiday Move), which keeps you from getting any mail today or doing any banking.
However, it should NOT have prevented you from realizing that yeaterday was the centennial of the end of World War One. I haven’t done a lot of WWI material on this blog (some, not much) because there have been so many experts who would put me to shame.
If you didn’t pay your respects before…pay them now.
By November 1942, the Japanese were beginning to realize that the American lodgement in the eastern Solomon islands was not just serious, but dangerous. Henderson Field was a fully-equipped air base (if extremely primitive) capable of handling long-range bombers that could threaten Rabaul. But earlier Japanese efforts to reinforce the ground forces on Guadalcanal had been unevenly successful, and the logistical situation on the island was increasingly grave. Finally, the superbly trained cadre of prewar pilots was wearing thin, for the Japanese could not rescue downed pilots like the Americans could, and frequently did, and the Australian coast-watchers on several of the islands didn’t take prisoners. At the same time, constant harassment of American supply runs cost time and material that even the Americans could ill afford.
The Japanese, directed by Yamamoto Isoroku, put together a reinforcement convoy of 11 transports backed up by two battleships, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and sixteen destroyers to run down the Solomons starting 12 November, shooting up Henderson Field while depositing another 4,000 men and their equipment, the whole commanded by Abe Hiroaki. Confronting them would be two American battleships, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and twelve destroyers, with an aircraft carrier available as needed.
The night gunfights that followed were confused enough: I’ll not make them worse this year. What mattered was that the Japanese were stopped, losing both battlewagons and all the transports. What mattered most wasn’t the fact that the Japanese couldn’t shell or reinforce, but that the troops already on the island were starving, and the supplies didn’t make it. The additional 600 Japanese soldiers and sailors that did manage to land just became that many more mouths to feed.
Guadalcanal was an attritional campaign on the scale of Verdun, though shorter and with less fanfare. Unlike Verdun, the Japanese and the Americans were both doing what they had always done: the Japanese attacked, the Americans defended, then attacked. The gates of Paris weren’t at stake at Guadalcanal, but the lifeline to Australia was.
Like the epic struggle then shaping up along the Volga between the Germans and the Soviets at the same time, the Solomons campaign would determine the initiative between the US and Japan for the rest of the war.
This is National Chicken Soup for the Soul Day, for reasons beyond anyone’s ken. Now, as we all know, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a commercial phenomenon, producing 100 million books with over 250 titles in forty languages, pet food, television shows, podcasts, journalism, and licensed products out of Connecticut. Starting in 1993, motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen produced the first book of inspirational stories they’d heard over the years, simply titled Chicken Soup for the Soul. It took off from there.
Just to be clear, I’ve never read any of the books, can’t stand the smell of chicken soup (a friend’s mom made it for every meal) let alone the taste, and I just don’t get the hoopla over it. But, multimedia phenomena are hard to ignore, so I’ll avoid criticism of my own. There have been accusations of plagiarism in some of the books, but it’s hard to plagiarize anecdotes. Some critics have claimed that the books are repetitive and somewhat dull. Others have been inspired. Ah, well.
It is, however, a little ironic that this day falls on 12 November, the day after the American remembrance of the end of WWI, when the 1918 influenza killed more people than the war itself was killing men, women, and children globally, and some clinicians were calculating the end of the human race because they had no idea how to stop it.
At left is an ad that ran in magazines in 1944, typical of the commercial phenomenon of the time. Yes, they wanted to sell chicken soup, and my parents were married in 1943, when my father was in the Army and, obviously, before he went overseas. My dad was not a fan of prepared foods, but regrettably, for the family’s palates, my mom was not a very good cook. This little scene may amuse and may have sold a lot of cans of Campbell’s, but I can practically guarantee you that, given a time machine, you would never have seen it around my parent’s home at any time.
All of this has nothing to do with the Chicken Soup for the Soul, but it is a sort-of lead-in for my next book, Tideline: a Story of Friendship. I’ve talked about it before, but now…it’s probably going to be ready by mid-2019. Here’s a tentative cover:
It’s a story about friends, love, youth, loss, finding yourself, and family secrets, but most of all it’s about the kind of trust that most of us are lucky to have just once in oneperson. You’ll also learn something about a family with a poor principal cook.
It takes place mostly in metropolitan Detroit and Key West, Florida at two times: 1963 to 1973, and 1985-86, before cell phones, the internet, and popular social media made personal contact between under-40 humans little more than fleshy accessories to digital noise. When the two main characters meet and fall in love it is personal; when they find each other again after half a lifetime apart, it’s still in the flesh.