Victory against Japan in WWII looked doubtful before Americans showed their abilities and moral fiber
During the winter and spring of 1942, the armed forces of Imperial Japan chained victory after victory in the Pacific. But in the latter part of 1942, the Americans began to turn the war in the Pacific in our favor.
After their devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent their fleets and armies into this vast ocean, battling American forces and their allies and taking control of the seas, straits and islands. Within months, they had taken over places like the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Malaysia, Guam and Wake Island, all in a quest for oil and other natural resources. It was the equivalent of the German blitzkrieg, or “lightning war“, except that these assaults were launched over thousands of miles of water.
By the end of February, Japan was waging its war on a front 3,000 miles deep and 7,500 miles wide. His navy even managed to get a submarine a few miles off the California coast, where they bombarded an oil field on the Ellwood Cooper Ranch in hopes of causing a massive explosion. This attempt failed, but the Japanese had succeeded in striking the continental United States.
During those dark days, thousands of American soldiers, sailors and airmen lost their lives in battle. Thousands more became prisoners of war. On May 6, for example, when General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered his starving garrisons in the Philippines, the Japanese picked up over 11,000 American fighters.
Yet hindsight in history, as in sport, makes the results seem inevitable. We won the war against Japan, but maybe we forget that back then it was a touch-and-go.
“In early 1942, it was not clear that the United States could win the war,” says Reagan Grau, director of collections and exhibits at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. “The Japanese were attacking everywhere. They chased the Asiatic fleet out of the Pacific or sank its ships outright. It was inconclusive that we could win this war.
So what has changed?
A sleeping tiger wakes up
Tokyo and Berlin underestimated the capabilities and moral fiber of their American adversaries.
The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked Americans, but it also infuriated them. There were a few dissidents and war protesters, but the vast majority of citizens were calling for revenge. Men and women jostled for recruiting posts, seeking to join the armed forces. Others quickly organized scrap collections and cultivated “victory gardens”, and eventually an army of women worked in defense factories.
And as Wilfred McClay tells us in “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story,” these factories soon began producing the armaments that would win the war. By late 1942, “American arms production had reached the same level as that of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined.” Two years later, our factories and shipyards had doubled that amount of weapons, while some 16 million Americans served their country in uniform. According to McClay, among these military products were 280,000 aircraft, 86,000 tanks and 8,800 ships.
The quality of our war machines has also improved. “At the start of the war, it was quite clear that the Japanese had better planes than the Americans,” says Grau. “They had a definite advantage in the air, which was important because of the expanses of the Pacific.” Over the next two years, this inferiority of our aircraft changed dramatically.
Used by our allies as well as by our own military, these weapons of war proved decisive in the war against Japan.
In those early days of setbacks and defeats, many Americans in uniform shocked the Japanese with their bravery and fighting spirit. Accounts of their courage and sacrifices abound.
In the Philippines, for example, Captain Arthur Wermuth, later called “the one-man army of Bataan”, launched raids behind Japanese lines, where he fought a private war and killed 116 enemy combatants. Second Lieutenant Alexander Nininger, in hand-to-hand combat, attacked several enemy positions, killing many of their defenders and disrupting a Japanese attack. He was killed in this battle and was later found with three dead Japanese soldiers beneath him. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, the first to receive this honor during the war.
In February, Lt. Edward H. O’Hare spotted nine Japanese Mitsubishis coming for the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. He immediately flew his plane towards the attackers, shooting down five enemy aircraft and at one point chasing them through his own anti-aircraft fire. Like Nininger, he also won the Medal of Honor, the first awarded to the Navy. He fought further dogfights for nearly two years before being shot down and killed in the Battle of Tarawa.
These men not only proved their mettle to the enemy, but also brought hope and inspiration to those on the home front.
Arrogance and ferocity
Their rapid victories in these early months of the war left the Japanese haughty and overconfident, and their government decided to advance their military forces into the South Pacific, with the object of isolating Australia and striking at new Hawaii to cripple American efforts to rebuild ships there. They seized islands west of Hawaii like Guam, the Solomons and even part of New Guinea, hoping to cut off Australia.
Their tactics worked – they captured the islands and expanded their empire – but the overall strategy left them with stretched supply lines. Later, General Douglas MacArthur proposed “island hopping”, a plan of action in which certain Japanese posts were not directly attacked but were bypassed by American forces, leaving them to wither on the vineyard for lack of supplies.
From the beginning of the war, with the “Death March” on Bataan during which American and Filipino prisoners of war were executed by ill-treatment or by a bullet in the head, the Japanese practiced a warrior code, the “Bushido”, which was incomprehensible. to the men who fight them. The Japanese willingness to die for their Emperor, as evidenced by their infantry and later suicide bombings by kamikaze aircraft against American ships, and their contempt for those who found no dishonor in surrender resulted in vicious and brutal fights unknown in the European theater. More importantly, if the Japanese had treated the peoples they had conquered with more consideration and respect, they might have gained allies rather than bitter enemies.
“I don’t know if we Americans really understood the importance of the aircraft carrier at the start of the war in knowing who was going to be victorious,” Reagan Grau said. “Right after Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet was quite badly damaged, with battleships damaged or sunk, and so we had to rely on aircraft carriers. It quickly became apparent that battleships were becoming obsolete, being replaced by air power aircraft carriers.
That this was true became abundantly clear during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942), when American aircraft carriers first blunted a Japanese attack, then, at Midway, sank four Japanese carriers, killing many experienced pilots and leaving their fleet crippled for the rest of the war. A good number of American pilots also lost their lives that day, many of them flying aircraft inferior to those flown by the Japanese.
Although the war continued for over three long years, Midway marked the beginning of the end for Japan’s Pacific Empire.
In his “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power”, Victor Davis Hanson devotes a chapter to Midway and American pilots. It tells story after story of bravery and selflessness, of young men who fought voluntarily and gave their lives often knowing that the odds of their survival were stacked against them.
At one point, Hanson writes that these airmen “were not all eighteen-year-old conscripts, but often married and with children” who were ready to “fly their decrepit planes to a fiery extremity above the Japanese fleet, in seconds to orphan their families as needed to defend all they hold dear.One wonders if a suburban America, playing videos, Nicoles, Ashleys and Jasons will ever see their like again.
One way we can attempt to see their fellow human beings again is to remember and honor these heroes.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.