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The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months

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The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months - 8/30/2004 1:14:31 AM   

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Before considering the opening months of the War in the Pacific, it should be stated that despite the insinuations of some of his detractors, the Allied Supreme Commander, Admiral and Grand Pubah SaintEx, had never pretended to have been flawless during those crucial first days. On the contrary, as can be seen below, he lamented his own poor preparation and readily admitted that his initial decisions were suboptimal. "Alcohol had nothing to do with it," he stated to his first biographer, shortly after the conflict's conclusion. "It was sheer ineptitude."

Luckily for the Allied cause, SaintEx seems to have been a relatively fast learner.


The causes of the War in the Pacific are many and varied, and it is not the objective of this book to go into them in detail. Suffice it to say that Japanese imperialism on the Asian mainland, coupled with the insatiable need for oil and the nationalistic renaissance of the Meiji restoration made conflict inevitable, given the reluctance of the European powers to accept the Japanese expansion, and the refusal of the United States to ignore it.

Our focus is on what occurred once the conflict broke out. In the following pages, we will examine the first five months of the war, a time of much confusion on the part of the Allied command, and of great successes, tainted with inexplicable errors, on the part of the Japanese high command.

The First Hours

Isoroku Yammamoto's initial plan was, by all measures, brilliant (see Alfred Wisselstopf: "Yamamoto Was one Smart Cookie", Simon & Schuster, 1956). The centerpiece of the plan was the air strike on Pearl Harbor, coupled with invasions of Malaysia, the Philippines and Wake island. The invasions launched on December 7, "A date that would have lived in infamy if they had sunk more battleships," as Roosevelt was heard to muse, were rapid and effective. Wake Island fell within 24 hours and the Japanese gained substantial footholds on the Malaysian peninsula and the Philippine Island of Luzon. The Pearl Harbor strike itself was disappointing to Yamamato, however, as only one battleship, the Nevada, was sunk, with six others damaged. Damage to other capital ships was likewise relatively light, although the air units based on Oahu suffered greatly. Luckily, the three American aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor at the time, and they escaped any harm.

The Allied response to the Japanese strikes was disjointed and confused. "We had no experience," lamented Admiral and Grand Pubah SaintEx, responsible for Allied grand strategy. "It's not as though we had already practiced this," he continued. "We had conducted some small-scale exercises but in retrospect, we were undoubtedly unprepared for the demands the conflict made on us, particularly in terms of logistics. What's more, I should have read the manual more thoroughly."

Allied instructions were indeed confused, as various units were ordered to march and then countermarch. The situation was particularly pitiable with respect to engineering troops. "We were not exactly sure how to allocate our aviation support capabilities," said General Konfuschan in an interview years later, from his llama farm in Peru. "We dispatched air units to bases that were woefully understaffed, then tried to march base forces to them to help service the aircraft…only to discover that the bases they had left behind were now littered with worn out and rusting wrecks."

The situation was particularly acute in Australia and Southeast Asia, although even Los Angeles and San Diego temporarily suffered as their base forces were marched to San Francisco, only to be told to turn around and go home. Commander Robert "Mellow" Keller , the commander of the 103rd base force sent a communication to General Bachurek, commander of the West Coast headquarters saying: "Dude, like make up your mind." This was not appreciated, and Keller was eventually driven out of the army for "lackadaisical and disrespectful attitude". He became a professional surfer.

Eventually, though, Allied command began to work out its logistical issues. This would prove to be too late for Malaysia, however.

The Malaysian Debacle

General Tomoyuki Yamashita had vowed that he would be in Singapore before the end of February. After landings at Khota Baru he began advancing down the peninsula toward his goal. British efforts to stop his advance proved futile, as troops poured in to accelerate the push.

British high command decided against a strategy of pulling back to Singapore, instead making as much of an effort as possible to slow the Japanese on the peninsula. This proved to be a mistake, as a sizable force was cut off at Georgetown and forced to surrender, whereas a slow retreat down the peninsula would have permitted these troops to participate in the inevitable battle that would occur around the island itself.

On the sea, Force Z, consisting of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, initially attempted a sortie against the invasion force, at the insistence of Admiral Tom "Thumb" Philips, who continued to believe that the ships would be able to resist air attack. The ships came under attack quickly by a mixed force of Japanese aircraft, which inflicted systems damage, but did not substantially affect the seaworthiness of the vessels. During this attack, Admiral Philips disappeared and Captain William Tennant, of the Repulse, immediately ordered a retreat into the Indian Ocean. Escorted by an assortment of other ships, both battlewagons made their way through the straights of Malacca, where they come under further air attack that was, thankfully, not lethal. They were able to shelter in Colombo where they underwent repair over the months that followed.

Rumors persist to this day that Philips was actually thrown overboard by Tennant. "Face it," said one sailor, "Philips was just a little bloke, and it's not as if anyone would miss him."

In the meantime, Yamashita continued his inexorable advance while Japanese air forces pounded the Singaporean defenses and the air units stationed at the base.

The end came quickly, and relatively cheaply for the Japanese. Yamashita had been even more successful than he had hoped: by the end of January, Singapore was in Japanese hands.

The Philippines

The Philippines narrowly escaped a fate similar to that of Singapore. However, before the forces on northern Luzon were cut off, they were able to retreat to a strong defensive triangle of Clark/Manilla/Bataan. The Japanese advance from Naga toward Manila proved to be temporary, as the Japanese relieved the pressure of their push once Macarthur retreated to Manila.

On the northern front, however, things were quite different, as the Japanese waged constant battle on the USAFFE forces in the area around Clark field. Fortunately for the defenders, the Japanese failed to include adequate engineer units in their attacking force, meaning that the strong American fortifications around the airbase proved difficult to reduce.

Eventually, the Japanese fell into a pattern of continuing air attacks and deliberate, daily ground attacks on the Clark Field defenders, with no pressure at all on the city of Manila itself. Macarthur responded by gradually shifting forces to Clark, while still not uncovering Manila, and retaining a strong presence in Bataan, so as to have some relatively fresh troops ready in case the Japanese finally took Clark.

In the meantime, MacArthur refused to stop hoping that the Allied high command would bring relief to his forces, whose supply situation was becoming critical. He continually lobbied SaintEx to fight a convoy across the Pacific to deliver much needed supplies and troops, according to the old “Orange” war plan. "Dream on, Doug," responded SaintEx, which apparently caused MacArthur to choke on his corncob pipe.

Despite a worsening supply situation, US and Filipino troops maintained their resistance through the early months of 1942. The 24th fighter group continued to respond to the Japanese air raids, although the lack of replacement aircraft and pilots eventually doomed the unit. Likewise, the 19th bomber group found itself unable to escape, as by the time SaintEx got around to considering its fate, all the Dutch bases that could have served as an escape route for the B-17's were in Japanese hands. Rumors are that SaintEx kicked himself repeatedly over this oversight on his part.

Finally, in late April, 1942, the Japanese renewed their attacks with increased vigor, including an amphibious operation against Manila. They also finally brought engineers into the fray against Clark. Time was running out for the USAFFE.

A Light Burns in Burma

It was in Burma that Allied fortunes began to turn. This was certainly not the case in the beginning, as the Japanese advance to Rangoon was rapid and effective. Allied high command again proved to be slow and confused in their response, and the troops sent to defend the approaches to Rangoon arrived far too late to save the city, which fell with little struggle before the end of January, sealing one of the darkest months in British military history.

By then, however, the Southeast command had learned its lesson, and once Rangoon was obviously doomed, Alexander began preparing the Irrawady river line, centering his defense on Mandalay, with a southern anchor at Akyab. His daring plan consisted of essentially stripping the Indian subcontinent and the island of Ceylon of their defenses and creating an extremely strong position along the Irrawady.

Almost all non-naval aircraft were transferred to Akyab and Mandalay, with bombers operating out of Mitkinya and Imphal. Nine Chinese division were immediately marched from Yunan to Lashio to provide the northern cornerstone of this line, protect the Burma road, and threaten any attacking Japanese with a flanking move.

The Japanese paused briefly to gather their forces after the fall of Rangoon, and then advanced straight toward Mandalay. The defenses were well-prepared, however, and they were able to resist the Japanese onslaught, despite its intensity.

Likewise, Allied air units were increasingly successful against incessant Japanese air attacks. Initially, the American Volunteer Group, the famed "Flying Tigers" bore the brunt of the air defenses on their own, however the arrival of several squadrons of Hurricanes lightened the load on the tired American pilots. They were pulled back to Trincomalee to recuperate for a period of three weeks, during which they engaged in friendly competition with the sailors of the Indian Ocean fleet (who had been transferred to the port from Colombo), seeing who could catch the most clap. Operational losses to the dread disease were thankfully light.

By the time the AVG was returned to the mainland, the Allies were on the verge of achieving parity in the air. The Japanese were losing large numbers of aircraft, and allied pilots were learning how to use their heavier, faster aircraft efficiently against the nimble Japanese fighters. By mid-March, the toll on the Japanese air force was telling, and they shifted their attention to the port of Akyab. Allied fighter resources shifted with them, as the P-40's and the hurricanes continued to add to their success.

A number of top pilots emerged from this struggle, including Major "Teddy" Howard, of the AVG, who, with 25 air-to-air victories was by far the leading American ace of the war up to that point, until he was tragically killed in combat with Japanese zeros over Akyab.

Other pilots quickly rose in the ranks behind him, including Lt. Mark Jones, who managed 20 victories before the combat subsided. Lt. Jones later achieved fame in the United States when he became a sponsor for the Burma Shave company, which in an early example of associative marketing decided to make a play on the word "Burma" ("In Mandalay / the day was saved / and then our beards / were Burma shaved!").

As the Allies established their superiority in the skies they began incessant bombing of the Japanese forces besieging Mandalay. It was then that Alexander proposed his masterstroke.

Alexander suggested activating the flanking maneuver by the Chinese troops around Lashio, sending them south behind the attacking Japanese. More than that, though, he suggested advancing the 1st and 2nd and Burmese rifle brigades from their defensive lines on the Irrawady to flank the Japanese from the south, thereby encircling the 64,000 Japanese troops at Mandalay.

Churchill was enthusiastic about this move, but Peirse was doubtful, pointing out that the Japanese could easily fight their way out, or for that matter the troops garrisoning Rangoon could come to the rescue of the encircled force on the Irrawady. Alexander's response was that either way the pressure would be eliminated on Mandalay, and that given the newly established Allied air superiority, it was to their advantage to lure troops into the open.

Furthermore, Allied command had been extremely nervous about the initial Burmese strategy having stripped India and Ceylon of its defenses (aside from a small reserve force at Diamond Head). By destabilizing the situation in Burma, Alexander felt that the Japanese would be less likely to try any substantial Indian amphibious adventures, as their attention would be focused on saving the encircled force, and on Rangoon itself. And in the end, if the Japanese were slow to respond, the lack of supplies to the Japanese troops could perhaps disable them enough that the encirclement could work.

The movements were ordered, and the encirclement was completed with little effort. Much to the surprise of the Allied commanders, the Japanese did little to respond to the situation over the following weeks. The Japanese most pointedly did not try to fight their way out; in fact, after weeks of air attacks and ground bombardment, they were doing precious little fighting at all. From Rangoon, only an engineer and a mortar unit were sent to the rescue, and they were easily dealt with by the Chinese and Indian troops.

The plan had succeeded beyond the expectations of its authors. As it became clear that no further Japanese reinforcements were coming, opinions varied about what to do, with Alexander suggesting an immediate offensive against the encircled troops. In the end, British command decided on a strategy of reduction. Air and bombardment attack would continue while the Allied troops waited for these, coupled with a worsening supply situation, to weaken the Japanese forces. The 2nd division of British regulars was on its way from Karachi: it was decided that a determined offensive would be launched once they arrived at Mandalay. This could be none too soon for General Backhouse, in command of the 18th division, who was confident in his ability to thoroughly crush the Japanese force, and then move on to liberate Rangoon, but the going was slow for the 2nd British infantry division. Alexander tried to convince high command to build a better road, but this came to naught. In fact, a halfway decent road to Mandalay wouldn't be made until 1953, and it starred Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. One thing that did occur to Southeast command was to move its own headquarters from Trincomalee to Diamond Head, to better provide support before the offensive was launched.

In the air, the Allies had passed on to the offensive, beginning a series of ongoing airbase attacks against Rangoon, effectively eliminating the last serious threat to Burmese skies. Everything was poised for the Mandalay offensive.

By the end of April, the 2nd division was in position, and the attack was launched. The Japanese took heavy casualties, but they managed, amazingly, to slip through the Allied lines in the direction from which they had been attacked. Exactly how they did this has never been definitively established: Alexander insisted that they had been carefully surrounded. Suppositions range from secret camouflage equipment to alien abduction.

Alexander had originally wanted to pursue the Japanese into the jungle, but the British command decided to leave them there, under continuing air attack and surveillance by a Chinese division. The bulk of the Commonwealth forces advanced across the Irrawadi. The push to retake Rangoon had begun.

The Valiant Dutch

After the rapid capture of Singapore and Rangoon, the Japanese enacted the next phase of Yammamoto’s plan, and began invading Dutch holdings in the East Indies. Their aim, of course, was the oil they had been coveting since the 1920's.

The Dutch began shifting defenses, preferring to concentrate their defense in specific strongpoints as opposed to leaving troops spread throughout the region. This initiative was too late for much of Borneo, which fell handily to the Japanese, but the Dutch did manage to concentrate most of Java’s forces in Soerabaja.

Soerabaja was to prove to be a thorn in the side of the Imperial Japanese Navy for some time. Martin bombers based there enacted a heavy toll on Japanese shipping, as brave Dutch pilots flew their outdated aircraft against Japanese merchant ships and transports. The Japanese air force was slow in basing long-range fighters in the region (the British long maintained that this was due to the losses they were inflicting in Burma). Eventually, Japanese high command decided to send the Nagumo's powerful strike force into the Java sea to reduce the Dutch forces and cover the Sumatra landings. Nagumo was surprisingly ineffective in this role, as the crack pilots were distracted by bombing runs on isolated and relatively unimportant Dutch destroyers and PT boats. They undoubtedly would have been better employed in massive raids on Soerabaja.

Not that the PT boats were entirely ineffectual. In one of the more courageous (not to say foolhardy) acts of the time, two squadrons of PT boats made a sortie from Soerabaja to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet. They ran into a powerful surface force, but instead of retreating into harbor, they attacked, scoring torpedo hits on two battleships and a cruiser before being reduced to a floating pulp of tinder and matchsticks. This was forever remembered in Dutch history as "DeBoer's Battle", since in a fluke coincidence, all of the boat skippers were named DeBoer.

The Americans begin to Move

The first feeble American response to the Japanese expansion had been a number of raids on Kwajeilin and Wake, but these were of limited strategic impact. The true resurgence of American force in the Pacific only began after the Americans began better to coordinate with Australian command. Australian general Derrick Hagiri had reinforced the Northern approaches significantly, transferring troops and aircraft to Darwin on the West coast, and to Townsville and Cairns on the East coast. Most importantly, however, Port Moresby was strongly reinforced and the base expanded.

A number of broad strategic options were open to the US navy, and several were considered. Eventually, three lines of attack were chosen.

The first, and the principle thrust, was in Coral Sea area. The Japanese had taken Rabaul from the Australians and had advanced as far as Bougainville, but they had not yet reached any further. A decision was jointly made by American and Australian planners to occupy Guadalcanal island before the Japanese, and to advance from the strong Port Moresby base to Lae.

The second approach was to plan a probing invasion of the Kurile islands. The Americans had reinforced Dutch harbor and had begun building a sizable base on Kiska. SaintEx decided to prepare for a limited push into the northern Kuriles. At worst, this would distract Japanese attention and at best it could provide a base for air attacks on Sakhalin and eventually a further advance from the north.

American planners also left open options for a central Pacific attack, via the Gilberts. The 1st Marine division began plans for an invasion of Tarawa.

In preparation for the southern initiative, staging bases across the Pacific were expanded and reinforced, and troops, aircraft and supplies were sent to Noumea. The American 102nd regimental combat team was airlifted over the Owen Stanley mountains, to Salamaua, to begin an advance on Lae (which had not yet been captured by the Japanese) and a task force of destroyer transports carried in the 101st Royal Australian Navy base force as well. Soon, a squadron of P-40s had extended allied air cover to the northern part of New Guinea.

In March, a strong force of three carriers was sent to the Coral Sea to cover operations there. They made a series of devastating raids on Rabaul, then retreated to Noumea only hours before Nagumo showed up with his carrier strike force. A potentially dramatic defeat was avoided; Nagumo sailed around for a few days before returning in frustration to the Java sea. By then, two allied divisions plus supporting troops were in place on Guadalcanal, and the base at Lae had been established. The southern carrier force remained based at Noumea.

During this time, American and Dutch submarines mounted an offensive against Japanese shipping, the Americans operating out of Manila and an expanded submarine base at Dutch Harbor, while the Dutch primarily operated out of Soerabaja, although boats were gradually transferred to Darwin, as the Dutch began to accept the inevitability of Soerabaja's fall.

American submarine captains repeatedly lobbied naval command to correct fundamental flaws in the explosive system of their torpedoes, complaining that they often failed to explode. American command discounted these reports, responding that if only the sub captains would aim better, the torpedoes would explode.

In a fit of pique, Cpt. Gilmore, of the SS Growler, who had seen almost two thirds of his torpedo hits result in duds, decided to prove his point by torpedoing the private yacht of Admiral Nimitz. To his dismay, that particular torpedo did explode. Luckily, no one was aboard the yacht, which was anchored in San Diego harbor. The navy, wishing to avoid scandal, never made the incident public, saying that a cigar was responsible for the explosion, however it had an extremely deleterious effect on Cpt Gilmore's career. It became a running joke among American submariners that if it really was a cigar that destroyed Nimitz's yacht, it must have been a Dutch cigar, because American cigars don't explode.

This issue would remain unresolved for a further year.

Another major difficulty for the Americans was in the slipshod nature of their logistical operations, particularly with respect to supply. The brothers Otto & Matt Ick had been given the responsibility of running supply convoys to American bases from the Aleutians to Australia, but they proved to be less than expert, if not downright stupid. Many were the convoys that had been slated to sail straight through the Carolines, within 200 miles of Kwajeilin and its powerful air units. After one or two of these convoys suffered from this planning, SaintEx eventually fired the brothers and took over convoy operations himself, personally planning every supply convoy that went any farther than Palmyra.

The End of the Beginning

As May 1942 drew to a close, the situation in the Pacific was dire, but several rays of hope remained. Manila and Soerabaja had both fallen on May 7, 1942, exactly five months after the beginning of hostilities. However, by having held out until then, they had drawn sizable Japanese forces. The Japanese had advanced into the Northern Solomons, but the allies were poised to stop them on Guadalcanal and Lae. The American carriers were poised for a second series of raids on Rabaul, this time backed up by over 100 heavy bombers based at Port Moresby, and the Southern command was beginning to eye Bougainville. The invasion of Tarawa was being planned and most importantly, the British had established air superiority in Burma, eliminated the threat of 64,000 troops trapped in the jungles of Burma and were advancing on Rangoon.

Clearly, something had gone wrong for the Japanese. Many historians have identified as crucial the transfer of strategic planning responsibilities from Yamamoto to General Jinko Chino. In later years, Chino's ineptitude was to become so notorious that his very name would become synonymous with a level of intelligence that is subhuman, or even artificial.

No matter what the cause, the Japanese war machine, while still going strong, had lost much of its momentum. As Churchill would soon say, this was… "not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning."

< Message edited by SaintEx -- 8/30/2004 12:37:48 AM >
Post #: 1
RE: The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months - 8/31/2004 6:40:30 PM   


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Joined: 7/27/2004
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Nice one, SaintEx.

Amusing and well-written. Also good tips for a novice such as myself as I embark on my first post-tutorial expedition (Coral Sea): logistics, dull though they are, seem to be critical to WitP success.


(in reply to Dolgin)
Post #: 2
RE: The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months - 8/31/2004 7:56:55 PM   

Posts: 1794
Joined: 5/13/2004
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More than amusing: Quite dangerous! Spilled some coffee over my keyboard

(in reply to Dolgin)
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RE: The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months - 9/10/2004 8:43:49 AM   
dan frick

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Thanks for the wrap-up. I loved it. Lots of good tips, and humor too.

(in reply to Dolgin)
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RE: The Pacific War, Volume 1: The First Six Months - 9/10/2004 9:08:02 PM   

Posts: 182
Joined: 9/5/2004
From: Texas
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There is a saying about being able to laugh at your self, etc. Very nicely done and I think we have all been there!


You are what you do, when it counts.

(in reply to dan frick)
Post #: 5
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