Au­thor and his­to­rian Jef­frey Cox on his lat­est book, Blaz­ing Star, Set­ting Sun


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What were some of the main short­com­ings and ma­jor changes that took place within the US Navy by late 1942?

The Java Sea cam­paign ex­posed more than a few short­com­ings within the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment as well as its ma­jor al­lies. Some of those short­com­ings could be ex­plained by the over­whelm­ing Ja­panese su­pe­ri­or­ity, es­pe­cially in air power, in that cam­paign. But not all of it by any means.

There were mas­sive lo­gis­ti­cal and sup­ply is­sues in the Java Sea cam­paign, in part be­cause the the­atre was so far from the US and Bri­tain but also be­cause the US was un­pre­pared for the war and Bri­tain was stretched al­most to the break­ing point by her fight against Hitler. By Au­gust 1942, US Navy lo­gis­tics, while hardly per­fect, had im­proved ex­po­nen­tially. The im­por­tance of ad­e­quate sup­plies in the the­atre can­not be over­stated. Dur­ing the Bat­tle of Ed­son’s Ridge, Ja­panese troops had bro­ken through the US Marine line, but in­stead of push­ing through to their ob­jec­tive these fam­ished sol­diers stopped to gorge them­selves on stores of Amer­i­can food. That by it­self may have lit­er­ally cost Ja­pan the Guadal­canal cam­paign.

An­other ma­jor prob­lem dur­ing the Java Sea cam­paign was the area of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. While sep­a­rate facets, they are so in­ter­re­lated that they must be con­sid­ered to­gether. Both were so bad dur­ing the Java Sea cam­paign that they were al­most nonex­is­tent.

The Guadal­canal cam­paign be­gan with the dis­as­ter at Savo Is­land, in which al­most ev­ery­thing that could go wrong with in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions did go wrong, but this was per­haps a bless­ing in dis­guise be­cause it was the prover­bial wake-up call that got these seem­ingly mun­dane is­sues taken more se­ri­ously.

Was High Com­mand uni­fied in the is­land-hop­ping strat­egy? Were there any al­ter­na­tive plans that were con­sid­ered?

No and no. The Guadal­canal-solomons cam­paign was ul­ti­mately the brain­child of Ad­mi­ral Ernest King, the Com­man­der-in-chief of the US fleet. He lever­aged some lawyerly lan­guage in the ‘Ger­many First’ Ar­ca­dia Dec­la­ra­tion into the Guadal­canal-solomons of­fen­sive. His coun­ter­parts on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen­eral Ge­orge Mar­shall and Army Air Force Gen­eral Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold were ‘Ger­many First’ to the point where they tried to starve the Pa­cific War of re­sources, Arnold to an al­most lu­di­crous de­gree. They were com­pletely un­in­ter­ested in the Pa­cific War at all, let alone a Pa­cific of­fen­sive. That is, un­til Gen­eral Macarthur es­caped the dis­as­ter (partly of his own mak­ing) in the Philip­pines and was avail­able for as­sign­ment. Then they be­came ad­vo­cates of a Pa­cific of­fen­sive – if it was led by Gen­eral Macarthur. That was not ac­cept­able to Ad­mi­ral King or the Navy, so at the start the Navy was on its own.

The op­po­si­tion to the Guadal­canal cam­paign was not just with Ad­mi­ral King’s col­leagues on the joint chiefs, but some of his sub­or­di­nates as well. While Ad­mi­ral Nimitz was rather ag­nos­tic as to the en­tire thing, Ad­mi­ral Robert Ghorm­ley, made the South Pa­cific Com­man­der and thus in strate­gic com­mand of the cam­paign, was op­posed to it from the out­set be­liev­ing it would fail, and to pre­pare for that fail­ure hoarded re­sources that were badly needed on Guadal­canal. Even worse, Ad­mi­ral Frank Fletcher, who led the US car­ri­ers in the South Pa­cific, fa­mously de­clared in a com­bat­ive con­fer­ence meet­ing that the Guadal­canal of­fen­sive would fail.

Mov­ing up the Solomons chain af­ter Guadal­canal was se­cured was al­ways in Ad­mi­ral King’s plan. That in­volved Macarthur be­cause the mid­dle and up­per Solomons were part of Macarthur’s com­mand area. And Macarthur had his own ideas about how to pro­ceed. They in­volved mov­ing up through New Guinea and across New Bri­tain to take Rabaul. This dis­pute was solved much later rather am­i­ca­bly and, ul­ti­mately, both the New Guinea and Solomons routes were in­cor­po­rated into the planned cam­paign.

How pre­pared were the US ground forces for the con­di­tions dur­ing the cam­paign?

To put it sim­ply, they weren’t. That is not meant as a crit­i­cism of the US Marines or the US Army. Sol­diers, sailors and air crews re­peat­edly train so that their du­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in com­bat are in­grained in mus­cle mem­ory and in­stinct. How­ever, there is only so much you can train.

The Marines also had to fight not only the Ja­panese but the en­vi­ron­ment: the heat, the rain and es­pe­cially the mos­qui­tos. The 1st Marine Di­vi­sion was al­most com­pletely un­trained in jun­gle war­fare [so] they were lucky that for the first few weeks af­ter the land­ing, the Ja­panese largely left them alone, giv­ing the Marines time to ad­just to the jun­gle en­vi­ron­ment. Later in the Guadal­canal-solomons cam­paign, dur­ing the New Ge­or­gia op­er­a­tion, troops had to ad­just to the jun­gle and com­bat at the same time. It was too much at one time for many of those troops.

Am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tions were also a rel­a­tively new thing for the US mil­i­tary. Ad­mi­ral Rich­mond Kelly Turner had to as­sem­ble an am­phibi­ous force from scratch. When he re­ceived this as­sign­ment, he com­mented to Ad­mi­ral King that he did not know how to cre­ate and lead an am­phibi­ous force. King re­sponded, “You will learn.” This line in essence be­came one of the bases for the Guadal­canal-solomons cam­paign and, in­deed, the en­tire war ef­fort, en­cap­su­lated by the phrase ‘ma­kee learnee’.

The Guadal­canal land­ings were ‘ma­kee learnee’ on a grand scale. De­spite all of Ad­mi­ral Turner’s prepa­ra­tions, the re­hearsal for the land­ings were a dis­as­ter and the land­ings them­selves, while suc­cess­ful, were a mess. Land­ing the troops was not so much an is­sue as land­ing the sup­plies. Com­bat load­ing was ba­si­cally only a the­ory at this time, and the lack of proper load­ing both ham­pered un­load­ing and left the Marines short of sup­plies for about the first month of the cam­paign.

Was a Ja­panese de­feat in the Pa­cific in­evitable?

Not at all. The Ja­panese gov­ern­ment went into the war with no il­lu­sions as to the man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­par­ity as well as the prob­a­ble out­come of the war. But the Ja­panese strat­egy was the same strat­egy later used against the US by North Viet­nam, the Viet Cong and the Tal­iban: to out­last the US po­lit­i­cally. To take so much ter­ri­tory in that six months and so for­tify the de­fences of that ter­ri­tory that ef­forts to lib­er­ate it would take such a long time and cause so many ca­su­al­ties that the Amer­i­can pub­lic would find it un­ac­cept­able and look for a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment that would al­low Ja­pan to keep that ter­ri­tory. Of course, that strat­egy de­pended on not so in­fu­ri­at­ing the Amer­i­can pub­lic that such a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment be­came po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able in the US. That was the ef­fect of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack.

Al­though the Ja­panese went to war in the Pa­cific to seize the re­sources needed to se­cure an ac­cept­able res­o­lu­tion to their in­va­sion of China, the Ja­panese could have with­drawn from China, but that would have been a loss of ‘face’, which re­mains an im­por­tant facet of East Asian coun­tries like Ja­pan and China that re­mains im­per­fectly un­der­stood in the West. The in­escapable fact is that when given a choice be­tween a prob­a­ble cat­a­strophic loss in a war and a loss of ‘face’, the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment chose the war. Such a choice might be un­think­able to us, but it is not in East Asia.

The Guadal­canal cam­paign is less well known than other Pa­cific op­er­a­tions. What do you think is the rea­son for this and what makes this un­sung cam­paign so es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing the Pa­cific the­atre?

I don’t know that the Guadal­canal cam­paign is un­sung so much as the Solomons cam­paign, which is one rea­son I’ve tried to tie the two to­gether into one over­all cam­paign, but to the ex­tent that is so I would cite three pri­mary rea­sons.

First is the length of the cam­paign. Op­er­a­tions to se­cure Guadal­canal took six months, from Au­gust 1942 to Fe­bru­ary 1943. Ex­cept for the sieges of Rabaul and Truk, that would be the long­est ac­tive op­er­a­tion of the Pa­cific War by far.

Sec­ond would be the emo­tional im­pact of the cam­paign. For Mid­way, the emo­tional im­pact comes from the fact that the US Navy had not only stopped the Ja­panese but gave the Ja­panese a bloody nose with the loss of four car­ri­ers of Kido Bu­tai and the cruiser Mikuma. But usu­ally much of that im­pact comes from just how costly the cam­paign was in hu­man lives. There were maybe 26,000 Al­lied ca­su­al­ties at Iwo Jima and roughly 82,000 at Ok­i­nawa. By com­par­i­son, the six months of Guadal­canal led to some 15,000 dead and wounded among all branches of the mil­i­tary. Heavy ca­su­alty fig­ures cap­ture pub­lic at­ten­tion and emo­tion, and un­der­stand­ably so.

Fi­nally, there is the cam­paign’s vis­ual as­pect or lack thereof, which are im­por­tant in cap­tur­ing the read­ers’ and view­ers’ at­ten­tion and imag­i­na­tion. For Iwo Jima, you have the, staged, photo of the US Marines rais­ing the flag on Mount Surib­achi. For Ok­i­nawa, you have the kamikaze run that ended in the sink­ing of the su­per­bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, pho­tos of whose ex­plo­sion were dis­sem­i­nated widely.

What does Guadal­canal have? Noth­ing that can com­pare to any of the above. Most of the ma­jor bat­tles of the Guadal­canal-solomons cam­paign took place at night or over long dis­tances. Nei­ther sit­u­a­tion lends it­self to good pho­to­graphs.

All of these fac­tors com­bine to make the Guadal­canal­solomons cam­paign very dif­fi­cult to en­cap­su­late. Though Mid­way shat­tered the myth of Ja­panese in­vin­ci­bil­ity and vic­tory, Guadal­canal started etch­ing the Ja­panese de­feat in the Pa­cific War in stone.

Navy troop trans­port USS Pres­i­dent Jack­son (AP-37) ma­noeu­vring un­der Ja­panese air at­tack off Guadal­canal, 12 Novem­ber 1942

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