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. Alll gigantic undertakings, however noble, contain at least some folly, and pointing out this folly should not be taken as insult to the the undertaking itself or those who participated in it.
The US victory over Japan was much better than that of Britain, France, the US and Italy over Germany in World War I. Japan became a reconciled former adversary. That makes for a permanent victory. As Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote, "A merely fallen enemy may rise again." The shabby treatment of Germany in the settlement of World War I was a mistake.
The US entered war against the Japanese with major damage to its fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan was fully mobilized and rolling. The invasion of Japan began on December 8, the day following its attack on Pearl Harbor. US forces in the Philippines were not prepared numerically for Japan's onslaught. US aircraft on the ground in the Philippines had been severely damaged at the very beginning of the war, and without air cover the US fleet withdrew 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 March 11, 1942, MacArthur and a few others left the Philippines by patrol boat and 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 April 9, 1942. Nearby in Manila Bay, the 13,000 still surviving on Corregidor island surrendered on May 6th. Something had gone wrong regarding the defense of the Philippines and the anticipation of a 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 U.S. 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 U.S. side, 52 sailors and marines and 70 civilians were killed, and others became prisoners.
But strategic withdrawal appears not to have been on the minds of rather stunned US strategists. 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 January 23, 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 invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians in early June, while Australian troops were returning from warfare in Europe.
Japan intended to send forces to capture Port Moresby, but the invasion was prevented by the U.S. 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 U.S. Navy responded and the Battle of the Coral Sea followed. Japan's expansion was stopped for the first time. Then in June the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. From this time forward, U.S. 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 U.S. Navy, under the command of the level-headed Chester W. Nimitz, saw this as unnecessary. But MacArthur was given a green light for a campaign to put boots on the ground in the Solomons – Operation Watchtower. The infamous war for Guadalcanal was in the making.
Until someone convinces me otherwise, I'll hold to the idea that the U.S. Navy should have left the Japanese to rot in the Solomons, 1,100 miles east of Australia. The U.S. 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.
MacArthur sent 11,000 Marines against Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, well after the naval victory on the Coral Sea. It was a big show for MacArthur, his first major offensive. The fight in the Solomons was fought to February 9, 1943 when the Japanese left the island. The operation killed 31,000 Japanese according to U.S. sources and killed 7,100 U.S. servicemen. Australians and other Allies also died.
Meanwhile a terrible mistake was being made on the U.S. home front. The imprisonment of Japanese was a cowardly act, a work of exaggerated fear and stupidity and abuse that had been visited upon German-Americans in World War I. 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.
Regarding actual warfare, imagined spies were more or less inconsequential, and in early May, 1943, invading U.S. 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 being over powered.
Copyright © 2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.