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.
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.