The Ten Ships

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

HBO’s The Pacific follows a handful of individual Marines as they endure hellish conditions fighting the Japanese for control of tiny islands none of them had heard of before the war.

This raises an obvious question: Why were we fighting so hard to take these specks of rock from the Japanese? We didn’t realize just how hard the Japanese would fight to hold onto them, but were they worth even the (low) expected casualties? What strategy should we have followed?

My naive understanding of the situation:

  • The Imperial Japanese Navy is big and strong.
  • The United States Navy is not so big and strong, after Pearl Harbor, but it still has a decent carrier fleet — and the US has so much more industrial capacity than Japan that the USN will dwarf the IJN within a year or two.
  • The Japanese empire, with its newly acquired sources of oil, rubber, etc., is spread across a large number of islands and bits of the Asian continent.

Maybe I’m biased by my interest in logistics, but isn’t the obvious strategy to harass their shipping with subs — something that’s working quite well for the Germans against England at this time — until our carrier fleet is big enough to crush their fleet, at which point their entire empire becomes helpless?

Apparently John A. Adams’ book, If Mahan ran the Great Pacific War: an analysis of World War II naval strategy, recommends at least the second part. Richard “Wretchard” Fernandez references Adams’ book — which emphasizes focusing on destroying the ten ships at the core of Japan’s battle fleet:

One of the reasons the Navy opposed a Southwest Pacific campaign during the Pacific War was the shrewd appreciation that once bureaucracy started on a task it would grow with it like a cancer whatever its original purpose. Admiral King wasn’t against an action in the Solomons. He was just afraid that it would take on a life of its own.
Admiral Nagumo launched his infamous attack on Pearl Harbor from a nameless patch of ocean 200 miles North of Oahu. But Admiral King had the sense to understand that the location itself had little significance. It was the Kido Butai, the ten carriers which made up the Japanese Fast Carrier force which momentarily occupied that ocean waste that he had to destroy. While the Kido Butai existed it could move across the vast spaces and attack at a point of its choosing. While it survived every patch of ocean was dangerous. Once it had been neutralized all the oceans of the world were potentially safe. As John Adams in his book If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War wrote: “sink ten ships and win the naval war”. Both the Nihon Kaigun and the CINCPAC understood this. The entire purpose of subsequent American naval operations was to find and sink these ten ships; and the Nihon Kaigun’s subsequent efforts revolved around their attempt to preserve them.

The Mahan mentioned in the title is Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914), author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), a book both sides’ Navies — and neither side’s Army — had studied.

Wretchard’s reference to the ten ships is an oblique one, by the way; his article is actually about our misplaced emphasis on Afghanistan, rather than radical Islam, rogue regimes, and oil.


  1. Foseti says:

    It’s not obvious to me that the war in the Pacific was particularly costly compared to the war in Europe.

    Deaths in the Pacific were roughly 25% of total US deaths (see World War II casualties and Pacific War).

    If anything that seems low.

    Casualties on a tiny island might have been high, but that tiny island may have effectively put the US in control of thousands of square miles of ocean – who’s to say which metric of size is better.

    My understanding is that MacArthur’s strategy was to cut off the Japanese supply lines. He skipped taking lots of islands, but he still had to take some islands to do this. He cut off everything south of the Philippines when he took it (i.e. he never invaded Singapore, for example).

    Getting close to Japan was also worth something, as it allowed the US to bomb the mainland.

  2. Foseti says:

    Here is MacArthur explaining his strategy:

    My strategic conception for the Pacific Theater, which I outlined after the Papuan Campaign and have since consistently advocated, contemplates massive strokes against only main strategic objectives, utilizing surprise and air-ground striking power supported and assisted by the fleet. This is the very opposite of what is termed “island hopping” which is the gradual pushing back of the enemy by direct frontal pressure with the consequent heavy casualties which will certainly be involved. Key points must of course be taken but a wise choice of such will obviate the need for storming the mass of islands now in enemy possession. “Island hopping” with extravagant losses and slow progress…is not my idea of how to end the war as soon and as cheaply as possible. New conditions require for solution and new weapons require for maximum application new and imaginative methods. Wars are never won in the past.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think the issue is whether the war in the Pacific was costly compared to the war in Europe, but rather whether is was costlier than it needed to be, knowing what we knew at the time.

    Mahan’s insight is that navies don’t control the ocean in the same way that armies control the land, because navies are tiny compared to the oceans they travel, while armies can form fronts along whole borders. Controlling territory in the South Pacific isn’t valuable if the enemy can simply sail around you, but destroying his fleet lets you raid his shipping at your leisure.

    Land-based air forces complicate things, but it seems like denying the enemy the use of an airfield is much, much easier than seizing and supplying that same airfield. Certainly the American forces need some island bases on the way to Japan, but how many? And did MacArthur really implement the opposite of island hopping?

  4. Max Hastings, in his recent history of the Pacific campaign (Retribution), makes a good case that MacArthur’s campaign was redundant; only a country as wealthy as America, he argues, could afford to wage two different wars at once (MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s). The offensive in the central Pacific was the main event. MacArthur’s was an unnecessary sideshow except for the entertainment value of MacArthur himself. Hastings’ suggests that MacArthur wasn’t a great general but he played one with great aplomb. Island hopping and bypassing unnecessary strong points were a feature of both MacArthur and Nimitz. In the end, however, most of the damage to Japan was done by America’s unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan’s merchant marine.

Leave a Reply