Why didn’t the US attack Japan through the North Pacific?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

HBO’s The Pacific got me thinking about the Pacific Theater and why the US fought its way toward Japan through the South Pacific and the Central Pacific. Why didn’t the US attack Japan through the North Pacific?.

The slashing Japanese attack in the western and central Pacific in December 1941 opened the prospect of a more active military role for Alaska, especially if the Soviet Union became involved in the new Pacific war. Even before the Japanese struck, the United States had been hoping to obtain the use of Soviet air bases in the Vladivostok area, and, if Japan now attacked the maritime provinces of Siberia, the military collaboration of American and Soviet forces in the North Pacific appeared inevitable.

The Soviet Union, desperately involved against Germany in Europe, had neither the desire nor the resources for a two-front war if it could be avoided, although Marshal Joseph Stalin at first indicated that the Russians might be ready for some sort of positive action against Japan by the spring of 1942.

As the new year opened, both General Buckner in Alaska and the military planners in Washington wanted to push the development of an air route through Alaska that would permit the operation of American aircraft from Russian bases against Japan, and President Roosevelt himself was keenly interested in the proposal. The President was also concerned about the danger of a Japanese raid on the new military installations in Alaska, more concerned, indeed, than were his military advisers. In mid-February he indicated his desire for a “complete plan” for establishing a striking force in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and in pushing the execution of this plan as far as possible by midsummer.

Taking into account the military situation in the western Pacific at the end of January 1942, the Army and Navy commanders in Alaska recommended a more specific plan for attacking Japan by way of the North Pacific. Noting that the other approaches to Japan were already protected by land based aviation, they advocated the establishment as soon as possible of striking bases on the Siberian mainland and Sakhalin Island, and the development of a secure convoy route to the Russian naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Their plan would involve rushing work on the airfields already under construction in Alaska, improving the air route via Nome and across Bering Strait, and establishing a string of seaplane bases, to be protected by Army garrisons, in the Aleutians beyond Dutch Harbor and Umnak. It would also require a large air and ground reinforcement of Alaska, and immediate negotiation with the Russians to permit the development and use of Siberian bases.

General DeWitt, in forwarding this proposal to Washington, concurred in its general concept, but he noted that the better part of a year would be needed to construct the facilities necessary for executing the plan and that, before Alaska could become a useful base for offensive operations, its successful defense must be assured. In Washington, Admiral King observed that the development of aviation facilities in Alaska was already well ahead of the ability of the War and Navy Departments to supply them with aircraft and that new and undefended air bases would be more of a liability than an asset. For the time being he was firmly opposed to the extension of aviation facilities in the Aleutians beyond Umnak, and indeed to any other preparations for offensive operations from Alaska until the Russians indicated a willingness to permit the operation of American planes from Siberian bases.

While the plan of the Alaskan commanders for an offensive from Alaska was still under review, the President in early March asked for further study of the feasibility of opening the Aleutian route to Siberia, so that it could be used if Japan attacked the Soviet Union. By March it was fairly evident that the Russians were not going to enter the Pacific war on their own initiative as long as they were heavily engaged in Europe, and therefore that they were very unlikely to give the Japanese cause for attack by opening their Far Eastern bases to American ships and planes, or even by letting Americans reconnoiter these bases as a step toward future offensive action from them. By the end of the month the Army and Navy had concluded, and so advised the President, that while the Alaskan air route via Nome might be used to deliver planes and other supplies to the Soviet Union, or to reinforce Russian air forces in Siberia if the Japanese attacked, it would be futile to do any more planning toward these ends until the President was able to conclude an agreement with Marshal Stalin for military collaboration. General Buckner was informed that for the present his forces would have to remain on the strategic defensive and that he could expect only a modest augmentation of these forces and for defensive purposes only.

This is all going on while the US is feeding the bear via Lend-Lease:

The Lend-Lease Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in March of 1941, gave President Franklin Roosevelt power to sell, transfer, lend or lease war supplies, including food, machinery and services, to nations whose defense was considered vital to the security of the United States during World War II. The program was originally intended for China and countries of the British Empire but in November, 1941, the USSR was included.

About 70 percent of all U.S. aid reached the Soviet Union via the Persian Gulf through Iran and the remainder went across the Pacific to Vladivostok or across the North Atlantic to Murmansk.

American aid to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945 amounted to 18 million tons of materiel at an overall cost of $10 billion ($120 billion modern) and 49 percent of it went through Vladivostok, the major Pacific port of Far Eastern Russia, Tuyll reported.

Vladivostok was a valuable port for this program because Russia’s northern ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk were attacked by Nazi Germany and many of the lend-lease shipments were lost.

In 1942-1944 the Soviet Union chartered about 120 American ships and 50 U.S. tankers, and to protect these vessels from attack by Japan in the wake of its December 1941 strafing of Pearl Harbor, American crews sailed under the Soviet hammer and sickle flag. When lend-lease shipments arrived at Vladivostok they were stored both in port terminals and in warehouses on Portovaya and Verkhne-Portovaya streets, then they were conveyed by train along the Trans-Siberian Railroad to points west. During the war the port of Vladivostok handled four times more cargo than Murmansk and Far Eastern railroad traffic was four times greater than the rest of nation.

90 percent of lend-lease cargo was not military, however it’s impossible to talk about this U.S. government directive without mentioning the huge number of trucks, planes and tanks which were supplied by America to the Soviet Union because most of the country’s vehicles were destroyed in the first months of war, Tuyll noted.


  1. Adar says:

    Each Murmansk convoy carrying munitions and supplies of all sorts to equip an army of 50,000 men. And forty such convoys sailed to Murmansk during the war. But that was only a small portion of the whole as sent to the Soviets. The amount of gear of all sorts going to the Soviets and everyone else for that matter during the war astounding. Courtesy USA.

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