Japan And The Great Pacific Conflict - Part 2

The invasion of Guadalcanal had brought a subtle, unannounced change to the Japanese war that was felt by the people long before official announcements gave any indications. All autumn it had become growingly apparent that the euphoric days of constant victory had ended.
Six months earlier, the newspapers were so bursting with reports of Japanese victories throughout Asia and the Pacific that the news editors of the newspapers found it hard to decide which stories to report in the most prominent columns. By September 1942, fully half the front pages were devoted to stories of the world war on the Western and Soviet fronts, and to articles about life inside the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It was mandatory (to keep up civilian morale) to have reports of victories. This took a bit of sleight of hand. On September 1 several newspapers published a report released by naval censorship by novelist Fumio Niwa, who had been aboard Admiral Mikawa's flagship Chakai as a war correspondent during the first battle of the Solomon Islands (Savu Island) when Admiral Mikawa had sunk four Allied cruisers. The battle had been fought on August 9. The report appeared on September 1.
Correspondent Niwa's eyewitness account began with homage and historical comparisons to the glorious Japanese past, but he also described some thrilling moments:
We all held our breaths when a San Francisco type cruiser suddenly re-pointed its prow and plowed its way toward us. With its aft enveloped in flames, the ship was plunging toward us. What a magnificent night! For the first time I realized the imminent danger that threatened me. Half paralysed, the Sun Francisco type was spitting fire from its fore embrasure in the last desperate resistance. Because of that A-type cruiser I was wounded. My left arm was hit by one of the fragments from the three shots that struck the bridge. My body was covered with countless wounds and my face and my hearproof suit stained in a bright yellow. Many of the men had fallen. The collar of my heat suit was stained with blood and my hat was spotted too.
"Damn the shot." This was my feeling. The note in my right hand was smeared with blood. However, that was the enemy's last struggle. The bridge was right in front. It was blown off and the San Francisco type cruiser reared. The desirable enemy had been sunk. A tumult of excitement rose within our ship, but the sunken cruiser was soon forgotten as we turned about in search of another prey.
Correspondent Niwa went below to the wardroom and found a surgeon there who dressed his wounds.

The sound of firing ceased after I came down to the officers' quarters. Our fleet was making a striking withdrawal. Not one enemy ship was following us. Eight A-type cruisers and six destroyers instantly sunk, two destroyers damaged beyond repair. All this achieved with our ship in the condition of "At Your posts." No disorder with the ship from the ordinary except for taking care of the wounded.

Satisfaction and joy lighted the faces of the chief gunner and the chief engineer. The chief torpedo officer modestly showe3d his joy in being the first to put the coup de grace to an enemy cruiser ....

Two staff members of Headquarters also joined the group and started to make out reports of the battle for Imperial Headquarters.

Leaning against the long sofa, I withstood my pains. I watched the results of tonight's battle being written on the blackboard in the officers' quarters. I thought of how the chief gunner must be feeling after he had stuck to his heart's content.

The Niwa report was not much different from the sort of eye-witness accounts that American correspondents were writing from shipboard. It was, however, a "feature story" and not the sort of material that would have appeared on the front pages a few months earlier. Less than a year after the beginning of the war, editors were searching for victory stories. This account and a story from Manking about the Imperial forces "adjusting their lines" after the end of the Chekiang-Kiansi campaign, were all that Asabi Shimbun could find to raise civilian morale that September 1.
Next day the front page was dominated by a war ministry article describing citations for valor presented to two army tank companies for especial heroism in the Malaya campaign which had ended in February. The only "news" from the front concerned Shantung Province of China, where the Japanese "annihilated" eleven hundred more Chinese troops. The Japanese had been annihilating the Chinese now for five years, and yet they were still encountering the Nationalist forces in the coastal provinces. No wonder the Japanese people were beginning to have some doubts about the progress of the war.
In September Prime Minister Tojo announced the creation of the Greater Asia Ministry, to bring the economies of all the captured territories under control. that is not how it was put, but concurrently the china Affairs Board, Manchurian Affairs Bureau, Ministry of ministry were all abolished.
Without victories, the government must have heroism to laud. On September 21, 1942, a splendid military funeral was held for Major General Takeo Kato of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Forces, who had been killed in Burma. General Tojo made a funeral oration. So did General Sugiyama, chief of the Army General Staff, and General Doihara, who was now chief of army aviation, General Terauchi, commander of Southeast Asia, sent a telegram. So did the German general staff. Students at the various military academies and military units were called up to parade. The public was invited to burn incense, all in honour of this "hero God." A week later another "hero God" was laid to rest with the same sort of ceremony. Lieutenant General Naotsugu Sakai, commander of the Chekiang-Kiangsi front, who had been killed by a land mine laid by a Chinese guerilla. On October 9 the Japanese minister to Australia was repatriated and he brought home with him the ashes of four more god heroes, the crews of the two-man submarines which had penetrated Sydney harbour on May 21 in an abortive attack. Huge picture spreads and long articles appeared in the press in connection with the funeral ceremonies. four months had gone by and there had been no previous mention of any attack on Sydney. this occasion of the funeral and memorials defied censorship, it was the method by which the Japanese received much of their information about the conduct of the war.
Occasionally a glimpse of reality pushed through the censorship. On October 19, 1942, Tomokazu Hori, spokesman for the Japanese Board of Information (the cabinet's mouthpiece), warned of a "second front" in the war.
"The creation of a second front in the Pacific means America's plan to launch a general offensive against Japan and Chungking's attempt to recapture Burma and other Japanese-occupied areas.
"The war situation has now entered a new stage," Hori said, "indicating every sign of a protracted strife .... We are facing a stage of real war, a stage which demands the nation's totalitarian strength."
Three days later the Asabi Shimbun announced that China's "jugular vein has been slashed" with the capture of the Burma Road. But... Even with a slashed jugular vein, the Japanese noted, China fought on.
The confused battle off the Santa Cruz Islands, in which the Americans and Japanese exchanged carrier strikes like chess players exchanging knights, was greeted in Japan as an enormous victory. In fact, it was a Japanese victory in the sinking of the carrier Hornet, and other damage to Allied ships. but three Japanese carriers had been damaged, two of them badly, and at this stage of the war the Americans were nearly in a position where an American carrier sunk could be regarded even up for a Japanese carrier seriously damaged, so great was American ship production by the fall of 1942. At the moment, the sinking of the Hornet posed serious problems for the Americans, reducing their South Pacific carrier force to one. Admiral Halsey would have to avoid "the decisive battle" for a while. Japan literally went wild with the news of the battle victory. It had been so long since there had been anything to crow about that Imperial Headquarters pulled out all the stops. The Invincible Japanese Naval Forces, and headquarters, had scored an enormous victory, sinking four American aircraft carriers, one battleship, many other ships, damaging more ships and shooting down two hundred American planes. Japan's navy, in turn, had lost no ships, but suffered alight damage to two carriers. 
"Note:" said Imperial Headquarters. "This battle shall be called the Battle of the South Pacific." The statement read as though the spokesman was describing a victory as important as the Battle of Trafalgar. The victory, said Imperial Headquarters, had completely foiled the American attempt to launch a counteroffensive against Japan.
"The results," said the editor of Asabi Shimbun, "were enough to make us all dance with joy." But once again, although "annihilated," the enemy refused to stop fighting. The Imperial Navy's problem, not at all helped by the damage of the carrier fleet, was to keep Henderson Field under bombardment at every opportunity, and to supply the Japanese forces in the Taivu Point area. The navy failed. The Japanese "won" one naval engagement after another, but they could not reach Guadalcanal with enough supply ships or keep those that did get through on the shore long enough to empty them. The Japanese troops continued to stave, so weak that simply going out to forage for food became a day's major occupation. The rice had given out. The Japanese lived on rats and insects and on the roots of jungle plants.
By December, the South Pacific situation had become so serious that drastic measures were demanded. A new China offensive, against Changking, was scheduled for September. But all available resources were being pushed south, and before the end of the year General Tojo put the china assault aside. Divisions from Korea and China were ordered to the South Pacific. The war was changing. General Tojo hoped to regain the initiative with the capture of Port Moresby, but Admiral Yamamoto had no such hopes. Better than Tojo or the Imperial General Staff, he knew the enemy, and the enemy's rising capability. More important, he was only too well aware of his own failing capability to carry the battle. On December 31, 1942, for the first time the Japanese held an Imperial Conference, the subject of which - no matter how it was masked - was defensive. Guadalcanal would be evacuated by the first week in February. The defense line would then run north of New Georgia and Isabella islands. The offense would turn to New guinea, where reinforcements were to help capture Port Moresby.
In the first week of February 1943 the Japanese navy carried out one of the most successful retreats in history, moving nearly all of the 17,000 remaining troops on Guadalcanal. One unit, the Oka Regiment on Mount Austen, was surrounded and wiped out, except for one lieutenant who wrapped the regimental flag around his body, broke through the lines and found his way to one of the evacuation points. Another unit, the Yano Battalion, fought a rearguard action to assist the evacuation with such vigor that the Americans believed reinforcements had come in and that they could expect a new Japanese attack. The Americans were planning an attack of their own to crush the Japanese in pincers coming from east and south. The two U.S. forces met at Cape Esperance on February 9, but there was nothing to pinch. Every living Japanese had left Guadalcanal. The battle was over. It had cost the Americans two dozen warships, about two thousand killed and five thousand men wounded. Japan had also lost twenty-four ships, plus nine hundred aircraft and more than two thousand air crewmen. On land eight thousand Japanese soldiers and sailors had fallen in battle, and eleven thousand had died of starvation and disease. Guadalcanal was the saddest page yet written in Japanese military history.
As the war situation deteriorated the demands on the Japanese people for more patriotic efforts grew steadily. "Down with the American and English Devils" was one theme, hammered week after week by radio and press.
"Ichioku Ichigan" was another - One hundred million as one bullet. Such slogans were presented in all seriousness, and in all seriousness they were accepted by the vast majority of Japanese. The almost total acceptance of every measure, very slogan, led some on the staff of Mainichi Shimhun (then called Nichi Nichi) to suggest (long after the war) that a look back into the files indicated that "the Japanese have had an incurable liking all along for totalitarianism. ... The Japanese once liked, and may in the future like, to bask in a blissful sense of national one-ness."
When 1943 came in, the supernationalism grew. Take besu-boru, that fine old sport of Abner Doubleday's derived from the Americans. It became yakyu. A sutoraiku became a yoshi. Boru became tama, "you're out" became hike (heekay). The teaching of English ended in the public schools and in the universities, finally, only the naval academy continued to teach the English language. Crowds would descend on the English-language newspapers to demand that they close down. The argument used to prevent violence was that the editors were representing the Japanese people, keeping track of the English language so they would know their enemies after they had defeated them. Many of the media people of Japan were up front with the jingoists, but a few were dedicated to trying to tell the truth about the war. Here is a recollection from the Nichi Nichi offices:

A part of the Mainichi Daily News staff stealthily vanished into the women's toilet converted into a "black chamber." They set up a monitoring apparatus inside the toilet converted into a sanctuary free from military inspection and listened to shortwave radio (forbidden to civilians at the time) to the BBC, Voice of America, Treasure Island, Ankara, and other foreign broadcasts. The news obtained was circulated among the editors of both the vernacular and the English newspapers. Some of it was printed under the datelines of neutral countries - Stockholm, Zurich, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, where there actually were Mainichi correspondents, isolated by the outbreak of the war. This valuable but highly secret newsgathering activity was given an inglorious name, Benjo Press (Toilet Press).

In February 1943, Rabaul and New Ireland really represented the reality of the Japanese defense line. Everything south, in the Solomons, was expendable, but it was expected that the fight would be island by island. Perhaps by the time the Americans moved up the string of the Solomons, the army would have defeated MacArthur's forces in New Guinea, and the South Pacific effort would be deemed by the Americans to be useless. Perhaps, even more desirable, a new drive into China would bring an end to the China incident and thus eliminate the whole United States reason for fighting the war. If the China war could only be settled, Tojo was certain, the war against the Americans and the British could be brought to a successful climax at the peace table. By this time, Tojo would have been willing to withdraw from the South Pacific. In January 1943, at the Casablanca conference the United States and Britain promised to give more help to Nationalist China. A new road was to be built through the Himalaya Mountains from Assam Province, India, to pick up the old Burma Road in Northern Burma. The American air force also began launching air raids on Indochina, to destroy the Japanese potential to strengthen forces in Burma. The Japanese response was to prepare new troop units for dispatch to Indochina and to send three battalions to Hainan Island.
At the same time, Tojo wanted to attack India. Since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had gained the adherence of the Provisional Indian Government of Subhas Chandra Bose, a nationalist leader who had abandoned Nehru and the Congress party to embrace Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the concept of Asia for the Asiatics. For months Bose had been pleading an advance against India, to seize a corner of that country where he could set up his government on India's soil. He promised the Japanese that if they would do that much, he would bring millions of Indians flocking to his banner. In the Solomons the Americans were planning to move up the chain of islands toward Rabaul. The strategy called for moment, island by island. Just after the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal the Americans seized the little Russell island chain to the north. The Japanese, meanwhile, were building up their forces at Kolombangara Island and on New Georgia, across the Kula Gulf. Admiral Yamamoto had ordered the building of new air bases on Buka and Buin and Munda on Georgia Island. From these advance bases, the Japanese proposed to harry the Americans on Guadalcanal and pin them down so they could go nowhere.
The catch, however, was that the major Japanese bases in the south had to be supplied. And what was going to happen about supply was indicated on the night of March 5, 1943, when the Japanese destroyers Minegumo and Muraiame came south to Kolombangara to supply the garrison there with food and ammunition. An American squadron caught them and destroyed them in short order. They had delivered their cargoes but they would deliver no more. The sinking of the Mareiame and the Minegumo marked another turning point in the naval war. The Americans had tracked the Japanese ships with radar and had fired on them with radar-controlled guns, before torpedoing. The enormous advances in American radar at this point more than balanced the superiority of Japanese torpedoes and Japanese skill at night fighting. For the rest of the war the Japanese would labour under a distinct technological disadvantage, just as Admiral Yamamoto predicted.
Following the initial landings on the Aleutian islands of Kiska and Attu at the time of the Midway assault, the Japanese had planned to make another landing at Adak. Where they would go from there no one at Imperial Headquarters quite knew. There were dreamers who talked about using the Aleusian base as a jump-off point for invasion of Alaska. but after the failure of the Midway operation and the call of Admiral Yamamoto for the return of the northern carriers to the Combined Fleet, the landing on Adak was cancelled. The three battalions of Major General Juichiro Mineki's Hokkai Detachment remained on Kiska and Attu with no orders. The name was changed to Hokkai garrison, which meant there were unlikely to be any order for attack. The garrison was soon under threat; the Americans built air bases on Adak and Amchitka. They also increased the U.S. naval force in the Aleutians area. On October 24, 1942, the Hokkai garrison was resupplied, but it was an enormous effort, involving the use of carriers and a number of destroyers to escort the transports. It was a most unsatisfactory bit of territory for Japan to hold.
Admiral Yamamoto and General Imamura were now under orders to cooperate in the capture of New Guinea and the defense of the central Solomons. the first effort to speed up the capture of Port Moresby came late in February 1943. Between July and December of 1942 the Japanese had sent 18,000 men onto the Buna coast for the assault on Port Moresby. In the assault on the Own Stanley Mountains they lost six thousand men. Between November 1942 and January 1943, disease and hunger and battle had killed another eight thousand. In February a convoy of troops and supplies was sent from Rabaul, protected by ships and planes of the English Fleet; eight transports, eight destroyers, and the resources of the land-based air force at Rabaul. The convoy was completely decimated by American air attack. Of the seven thousand men aboard the transports, only twelve hundred had reached New guinea and three thousand men were lost. four destroyers were lost. Scores of Japanese aircraft were shot down. When the damage was assessed at Rabaul the decision ass made in the middle of March that no further effort would be taken to resupply New guinea by ship. all supply would be done in stages, by barges that could duck in and out of the little bays and travel by night. virtually no supplies made it across to the Buna coast. At this stage of the battle for New Guinea it was known that the initiative was lost. But the Rabaul command could not admit defeat in view of the attitude of Imperial Headquarters, so the growingly unequal struggle continued. The mysticism of bushido was invoked rather than with food and weapons, the troops on New guinea were ordered to fight with courage, and in the end to sacrifice their lives for the emperor. Of courage there was no shortage among the Japanese troops, and ultimately nearly all of them died fighting. They did not know it, but back in Tokyo they had already been written off.
As for the Solomons, Admiral Yamamoto's task was to build up the Eleventh Air Fleet at Rabaul, which had been badly decimated in the Guadalcanal battle, and send down such a hail of bombs on the Americans that Guadalcanal would be useless to them. It was a hard task for Guadalcanal was a long, long way from Rabaul. but by staging fighters and bombers from Rabaul to Buin and Buka, it could be done. By robbing the five carriers at Truk (Chuuk), Admiral Yamamoto managed to reequip the air forces at Rabaul for this new struggle, called Operation 1, which was supposed to knock out American air and sea power around Guadalcanal. A hundred and sixty carrier planes, with those precious pilots who could operate from ships, were sent down to Rabaul to join a hundred and ninety planes of the Eleventh Air Fleet. On April 7 they began to assault on Guadalcanal with a 170-plane attack. For six days they attacked, day after day with such force, alternating between New Guinea and Guadalcanal. The pilots came home with stories of their successes, most of them creations of overactive imaginations. At the end of the week, the operation was ended and declared to be a success. The real reason for abandoning it was the shortage of aircraft. Hundreds of planes were needed to replace those worn out and those lost. but from Tokyo came the message: there were no more planes. 
The grim knowledge that the war was no longer going Japan's way was not easy on morale, and Admiral Yamamoto decided to make a tour of his advanced bases to put spirit into the men. On April 18 he set out on a long day's air journey from Rabaul. His trip had been given advance notice by radio, and the radio messages had been intercepted by the Americans, who, as noted, had cracked the Japanese naval codes. A decision was made by the highest American authority (President Roosevelt) to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto. A special group of P-38 fighter planes was given the task and performed it admirably, shooting down Yamamoto's twin-engined bomber and also that of Admiral Ugaki, his chief of staff. Ugaki survived, but Yamamoto was killed. In a sense, it was fitting that Admiral Yamamoto should die just then: his strategy had failed, as he knew so well himself. Four times the combined fleet had been given the chance for the major naval victory that Yamamoto wanted. At Pearl Harbour, at Trincomalee, at Midway, and at Santa Cruz Admiral Nagumo's carriers had been within reach of victory only to be diverted by the admiral's timidity. Only at Midway was there even the excuse of superior enemy intelligence, at no point was there greater American strength. Nagumo had failed, and Yamamoto had to bear the responsibility.
As of the spring of 1943 the days of the superiority of the combined Fleet had ended. Two weeks before the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto, Mrs. Franklin d. Roosevelt travelled to the Henry Kaiser Swan Island shipyard in Portland, Oregon, to christen the first of a new class of aircraft carrier, the USS Casablanca. She and her sisters would carry thirty planes each - as many as a Japanese light carrier. The Casablanca had been built in nine months, but by autumn the time for construction had been cut by a third. The plans called for five hundred of these carriers if necessary, midsummer saw the laying down of Hull No. 319. Besides the escort carriers, the light carriers begun in 1941 were being completed and outfitted. And so were the new Essex-class fleet carriers of 20,000 tons and more. The Americans were preparing to carry the war to Japan. A week after Admiral Yamamoto's death the Japanese and Americans in the Aleutians fought the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. The battle was indecisive, but, once again, it emphasized the enormous difficulty of maintaining an outpost in the Aleutians in view of the worsening military situation. A month and a half later the Americans landed in force on Attu Island, and the Japanese garrison there fought on to the death of the last man.
General Tojo called on Imperial Conference to discuss the need for a changed strategy. Tojo, the army, navy, and emperor's representative agreed that the army must be withdrawn from the Aleutian, and in a few weeks, naval forces saved the Japanese troops retreat and the end of the last vestige of Admiral Yamamoto's strategy for the Pacific War. The admiral had told Prime Minister Konoye that he could hold the Americans at bay for perhaps a year, but after that . ... His silence was pregnant. Fate upheld the admiral's prophecy; he had held off the Americans for just over a year until the evacuation of Guadalcanal. Despite the timidity of his major operating subordinate, the combined Fleet had scored victory after victory at sea. But in the spring of 1943 all this glory had gone down with Admiral Yamamoto. His fall, like a cherry blossom in the wind, was in its way of prophecy.
The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Guadalcanal
The Battle of the Coral Sea
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th January 2009)