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MISTAKES: VICTORY in the PACIFIC (1 of 3)

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Victory in the Pacific

Japan made a huge mistake in the 1930s when it attempted to control China. Its war with China created its greater need for resources, mainly oil, from South East Asia, and this put it on a collision course with the British, the Dutch in Indonesia and the United States. The Japanese today realize that their military option was a mistake – that their country would have benefited more from pursuing economic cooperation with China and the West.

Regarding the United States and the war against Japan, I believe it was a noble cause. All gigantic undertakings, however noble, contain at least some folly, and pointing out this folly should not be taken as insult to the undertaking or those who participated in it.

After the war, Japan became a reconciled former adversary. That made the victory permanent. As Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote, "A merely fallen enemy may rise again." The shabby treatment of Germany in the settlement of World War is an example of a victory that went bad.

The US entered its war against Japan with major damage to its fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan was fully mobilized and rolling. On 8 December 1941, the day following its attack on Pearl Harbor. US forces in the Philippines were not prepared numerically for Japan's onslaught. The US air force in the Philippines was caught on the ground and severely damaged, and without air cover the US fleet chose to withdrew from the Philippines to Java.

What resistance their was to Japanese troops in the Philippines embittered those troops and made them more brutal. But evacuating US and Filipino troops en mass to Australia to fight another day was not an option. On 11 March 1942, MacArthur and a few others left the Philippines aboard a patrol boat that went to Australia – MacArthur having been ordered to do so by his superiors. Had the troops gone with him earlier they would have been left healthy and able to fight another day. Around 76,000 starving and sick Americans and Filipinos on the Bataan Peninsula surrendered on 9 April 1942. Nearby in Manila Bay, the 13,000 still surviving on Corregidor island surrendered on 6 May. Something had gone wrong regarding US anticipation of war with Japan.

Regarding Japan's initial and overwhelming aggressions at the very start of the war, it might have been possible for US forces to withdraw from Wake Island before Japan moved in a few days after Pearl Harbor. Wake was too far into the Pacific for the US to defend: 1,437 miles west of Midway and 2,378 miles west of Honolulu. The Japanese came a few days after their attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans on the island, including 68 Navy personnel and a contingent of 450 Marines, fought off the Japanese attempt to land forces. Ten days later the Japanese came again, and they took possession of the island (an atoll barely big enough for a naval station and airstrip). On the US side, 52 sailors and marines and 70 civilians were killed, and others became prisoners.

Strategic withdrawal appears not to have been on the minds of US strategists. But they were thinking right and proper about defending the Hawaiian Islands, Midway Islands, the Aleutian islands, and soon enough considering the need to help the Australians defend their homeland and their base at Port Moresby New Guinea – a base across 320 miles of ocean from Australia.

On 23 January 1942, Japanese forces landed at Rabaul in New Guinea, driving off the Australians, and the Japanese began to establish a military base there (500 miles northeast of Port Moresby). Japan intended to send forces to capture Port Moresby, but the invasion was prevented by the US Navy. As a part of their plans, the Japanese landed a force at Tulagi in the Solomons, intending to set up a seaplane base there. In early May 1942 the US Navy responded and the Battle of the Coral Sea followed. There, Japan's expansion was stopped for the first time. In early June, Japan invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians, while Australian troops were returning from warfare in Europe. Also in June, and of greater significance, the US Navy defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. From this time forward, US productive capacity and manpower would overwhelm the Japanese.

Anticipating that the Japanese would strike at Port Moresby again, MacArthur did his duty and strengthened the base there, and he established new bases at Merauke and Milne Bay. MacArthur proposed that the Japanese base at Rabaul be taken, but the US Navy, under the command of the level-headed Chester W. Nimitz, saw this as unnecessary. t MacArthur, however, was given a green light for a campaign to put boots on the ground in the Solomons – Operation Watchtower. The infamous battle for Guadalcanal was in the making.

Until someone convinces me otherwise, I'll hold to the idea that the US Navy should have left the Japanese to rot in the Solomons, 1,100 miles east of Australia. The US Navy had already proven its ability to neutralize the Japanese there, without boots on the ground. MacArthur was still thinking about Rabaul 643 miles northeast of Guadalcanal, wanting to do in the Solomons what the navy didn't allow him to attempt at Rabaul.

On 7 August 1942, well after the naval victory on the Coral Sea, MacArthur sent 11,000 Marines into the Solomons against the Japanese. It was a big show for MacArthur, his first major offensive. The fight in the Solomons was fought to 9 February 1943. The operation killed 31,000 Japanese according to US sources and killed 7,100 US servicemen. Australians and other Allies also died.

In early May 1943, invading US forces in the Aleutians did well enough against the Japanese. The Japanese withdrew their 5,000 troops from Kiska in July. It would have been wise of them to see the handwriting on the wall and to withdraw their troops from the Marshall Islands and the Carolinas also, but they were slow to admit that they were already being over powered.

Meanwhile a terrible mistake had been made on the US home front. The imprisonment of Japanese was a cowardly act, a work of exaggerated fear and stupidity. The rounding up of Japanese took place on the western coast of the United States and not in the Hawaiian Islands closer to Japan and where Japanese-Americans were more numerous as a percentage of the population. In Hawaii the Japanese were less vulnerable to small-minded passions and politics.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.