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Japan in Flames

David Clark

July, 2003


In an earlier issue of Changing the Times, Scott Palter contributed an article entitled Victorious Japanese Arms, Version 2 (hereafter VJA2). In this article the author proposes that by making some strategic changes to their war plans in April, 1942 after the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese would have been able to fight the United States to a bloody stalemate in the Pacific and pull out a negotiated victory. It is the intention of this article to reexamine the likely consequences stemming from these points of departure and suggest a different outcome.

The VJA2 article suggests that the Japanese make four changes to their plans in late April, 1942. Briefly stated these are:

  1. An adherence to the original plan to entrench within the defensive perimeter and bleed the US attackers.
  2. A scaling up of the Coral Sea operation to include all six fleet carriers.
  3. A determination to use the submarines for a German style war against merchant shipping.
  4. An attempt to improve their abilities in anti-submarine warfare and the defense of trade.

Adhering to the original plan would have meant digging in behind the line of the Outer Self Defense Perimeter and waiting for the eventual counterattack. This would mean forgoing the attacks that were being planned on Midway, the Aleutians, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, and elsewhere and adopting a defensive strategy. Certainly Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet staff would have kicked about this but the Naval General Staff would have been more agreeable. It is certainly plausible that the Japanese could have adopted this strategy, with or without some arm twisting by the Emperor. The short term benefits are obvious since the historical, but far from inevitable, losses at Midway are avoided. But by adopting a defensive posture the Japanese forfeit any remote chance that might exist to knock the United States out of the war by continuing to attack. (No further discussion of that here.) They must now rely on the United States forces to exhaust themselves during the counter attacks to come.

A Japanese decision to launch a full blooded attack in the Coral Sea in May, 1942 would certainly have changed the result of that battle. The Japanese convoy would have reached Port Moresby with the probable capture of the port. The USN carrier force could have been wiped out (unless intelligence warned them of the Japanese strength in time to flee the area) and the Japanese carriers would probably have come through unscathed, preserving Shoho for the future. Pulling back inside the defensive perimeter afterwards would avoid the catastrophic Midway losses and leave the Japanese with carrier superiority into 1943. With the Japanese not venturing out on offensive operations and the United States having the luxury, through radio intelligence, of being able to avoid a battle with superior forces there might well be no further carrier battles between the Coral Sea, with the loss of Yorktown and Lexington, and the closing months of 1943. There is always the chance that submarines or some other fortune of war might have sunk a carrier but the odds of this happening to either side are similar. In our own time line there were no carrier losses to either side during the lull in carrier engagements between October, 1942 and June, 1944. For simplicity we will assume that the same holds true in this time line between May, 1942 and November, 1943.

A change in the tactical deployment of Japan’s submarines would certainly have had a noticeable impact, particularly in the early years of the war. In any comparison between the possible effectiveness of Japanese versus German submarines it must first be noted that while Germany commissioned 1149 U-boats before and during the war the Japanese completed only about 163. Due to limitations of range and numbers their presence on the United States west coast and in the shipping lanes from there to Hawaii would have been only sporadic. They could certainly have forced the USN to devote considerable resources to convoying and escorts but they did not have the ability to break this important lifeline or seriously impede the buildup in Hawaii. A more fruitful hunting ground might have been the sea lanes leading to Australia as suggested in VJA2. This could have slowed to a degree the buildup in Australia and delayed, but not prevented, the start of MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific campaign. Not until 1943 would Allied hunter-killer groups have been able to really clean out this area. However, as we will consider shortly, slowing down the Southwest Pacific campaign by a few months will have little effect on the outcome of the war.

The question of what the Japanese could have done to protect their own trade is much more problematic. For all of 1942 and well into 1943 they are largely shielded from harsh reality by the appalling collection in defects in American torpedoes. Only after these are corrected can the USN submarines really begin to bite. The problems on the Japanese side include; a philosophy that considered anti-submarine warfare to be “defensive” and therefore a dead-end career path for any officer who might specialize in it, a pressing lack of escort craft, technically inferior sonar and depth charges, a poorly developed doctrine for convoys and escorts, and an overall low production rate of replacement shipping. During the “grace period” while the USN struggles with its torpedo problems it is just possible that a suddenly enlightened IJN might be able to revise its tactical doctrines and perhaps even assign a higher priority to the construction of escort vessels. Given the capacity of yards there is not much room for further improvement in the production of new merchant shipping.

For the purposes of illustration we will imagine that the Japanese manage to achieve absolute miracles which result in the halving of all of their merchant losses to submarines from May, 1942 through the end of 1944. Because of the lower intensity of combat (see below) we will also halve the combat losses from all other causes, mainly aircraft, for the same period. In our time line the cumulative combat losses for shipping from 1941 through 1944 totaled 6,295,614 tons (over two thirds being submarine sinkings) leaving Japan with a remaining merchant fleet at the beginning of 1945 of 2,129,000 tons. Reducing the combat loss rate by half (beginning from May, 1942) would instead leave them with about 5,151,000 tons. This is actually rather close to the 4,694,000 tons with which they began 1944 in our time line. In 1945 the historical rate of sinkings declines sharply due to the exhaustion of the supply of targets. At the same time new construction almost ends because of the bombings and shortage of supplies. In this alternate time line the submarine sinkings will still be trending upwards and the USN carrier fleets will rampaging off the Japanese coasts, while construction will have passed its peak. Still halving the effectiveness of the USN the projected loss rate for shipping will reach at least 3,000,000 tons for the full year of 1945. Replacement construction might approach 500,000 tons (compared to 1,600,000 tons in 1944). The net result will be a surviving tonnage at the end of 1945 of about 2,650,000 tons which is not much more than the 2,129,000 tons with which Japan began 1945 in our time line. The point of this exercise is that even with the most generous assumptions the Japanese can not delay the destruction of their merchant fleet by much more than a year as compared to the historical loss rates. This is not enough for them to continue any semblance of overseas trade by 1946.

Returning to 1942, Operation Watchtower, which began the Guadalcanal campaign in our time line, was a response to the unexpected victory at Midway. In this timeline there is no Midway battle and the Japanese will be left to complete their airfield on Guadalcanal unmolested. General MacArthur’s forces in Australia will be built up as rapidly as the supply lines permit. At some point he will land troops in southern New Guinea, under protection from land based air in Australia, and construct an airbase. The Japanese can not prevent this. MacArthur will then proceed to coast-hop his way around New Guinea, always under the protection of his own airfields. The air campaign between the USAAF and the JAAF will result in the serious attrition of Japanese assets. There will also be naval fighting between the light forces supporting both sides but not at the intense level of the Solomons campaign in our timeline. The Southwest Pacific campaign should eventually grind its way past New Guinea and on to other islands in the Pacific. However, the bottom line on the Southwest Pacific campaign, in our time line, is that after 1942 it served the primary purpose of gratifying General MacArthur’s enormous ego by permitting him to eventually redeem his famous pledge to the Philippines. It diverted huge amounts of Allied resources, which proved to be available, ground down the strength of the Japanese Army, which proved to be unnecessary, and captured plenty of territory, which proved to be useless. Whether MacArthur can finally manage to “return” to the Philippines in 1944 or 1945 or ever will be as inconsequential to the final outcome of the war in this timeline as it was in our own. 

Meanwhile the United States will have been preparing for their Central Pacific drive. Nothing that has been happened, or not happened, in this timeline should in any way delay the onset of that campaign. In our timeline the United States navy jumped into the Southwest Pacific as soon as they had achieved parity with the Japanese navy. In this timeline the USN will be at parity with the IJN by the fall of 1943 and ready to take the offensive. As in our timeline it will begin with a series of carrier raids on Japanese bases to exercise the forces. If the Japanese carrier forces manage to intercept any of these raids a carrier battle could result which, if the Japanese are sufficiently lucky, might inflict equal losses on both sides. More likely the same factors of surprise and slow reactions will prevent any battles as they did in our time line.

In November, 1943 the United States will invade the Gilberts. Assuming no losses since the Coral Sea they will actually have two more carriers available (Wasp and Hornet) than in our time line. The full lineup includes; Yorktown, Lexington, Cowpens, Enterprise, Belleau Wood, Monterey, Essex, Bunker Hill, Independence, Saratoga, Princeton, Wasp, and Hornet. (Yorktown and Lexington are the Essex class replacements for the ships lost at Coral Sea.) On the Japanese side the Combined Fleet, with no wartime losses, will be able to muster Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, Hiryu, Zuikaku, Shokaku, Zuiho, Junyo, Hiyo, Ryuho, Shoho, and Ryujo. This is six more than had survived in our time line. The thirteen USN ships carry a combined 876 aircraft versus 603 for the twelve IJN ships (see notes). In addition to an almost 3 to 2 superiority in aircraft numbers the USN fleet has a host of hidden advantages including radar fighter direction, proximity fused anti-aircraft shells, and superior damage control. The USN planes are faster and more rugged than their IJN counterparts and the Hellcat in particular completely dominates the Zero by this date.

Somewhere in the Gilberts or the Marshalls the Combined Fleet will come out to contest the American landings. And whether it takes one battle or many the Japanese will be butchered. Given the huge advantages of the USN and the historical results of the Battle of the Philippine Sea there is no other plausible result. By June, 1943 when the American drive reaches the Marianas the IJN will have added three new carriers; Taiho, Chitose, and Chiyoda. The USN will have added another six carriers and there will still be twenty more Essex class and six of the huge Midway class in the pipeline unless some are cancelled for lack of need.

In June, 1944 the Americans will invade Saipan. The VJA2 timeline postpones this invasion until January, 1945 but none of the reasons for this delay can be reasonably supported from the points of departure. The Japanese have done nothing significant to slow down or delay the Central Pacific drive. In VJA2 an additional point of departure is introduced and it is supposed that the Japanese army has adopted an Okinawa style method of defense on Saipan (e.g. a defense in depth out of range of naval gunfire, no kamikaze charges, extensive use of caves, etc.) Since this was stated as a point of departure in VJA2, I will also incorporate it into this timeline and consider the consequences. There are thus 100,000 US soldiers killed and wounded in the capture of Saipan (roughly ten times the historical loss). This sort of shock may indeed create a pause in the American drive across the Pacific but it will not stop it indefinitely. Consider that in our time line there were some 22,000 casualties in the capture of Iwo Jima (Marine plus Navy) and 49,000 casualties in the capture of Okinawa (Army plus Navy) and the United States still continued planning for the invasion of Japan. At some date the American drive will resume, probably with new tactics, and more islands will be taken. However the specifics of when and where are of small consequence because once the United States has secured Saipan, Japan is consigned to the flames.

The B-29s moved into Saipan in late 1944 after an abortive attempt to operate from bases in China. By the early months of 1945 they were flying regularly over Japan and burning their cities to the ground. The missions were flown at night, after General LeMay changed his tactics from precision bombing to fire bombing, and encountered negligible resistance from the token force of night fighters that the Japanese had available. (Perhaps in another alternate history this is something else the Japanese ought to wish for.) Several points are worth noting here. Firstly, the serious fire bombing of Japan begins with the Tokyo raids in March, 1945 so a few months delay in the capture of Saipan would not have affected the result. Secondly, the bombing of Japan began before the capture of Iwo Jima so it would not be delayed if that island fell later or not at all. Thirdly, the P-51s based on Iwo Jima never did fly as escorts for the B-29 night missions. Thus the failure to capture Iwo Jima, as in VJA2, will have only the result that the B-29s will be deprived of an emergency landing field close to Japan. This will somewhat increase the loss rate of B-29s (although the majority of the planes that did land at Iwo Jima were sufficiently damaged that they did not quickly return to service) and the loss of aircrew (although the majority of aircrew who ditched at sea were in fact rescued and returned to duty). Perhaps the net result of this will be to stretch out the immolation of Japan over a few additional months. It will certainly not delay the arrival of the atomic bombs in August. The United States has three of these available in 1945 and Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Kyoto will be destroyed.

Meanwhile Stalin will be casting his greedy eyes on the Japanese positions in Asia. Without the pressure of an imminent Japanese surrender the Russians will attack on their own time schedule which was September, 1945. The Red Army will quickly roll through Manchuria and down the Korean peninsula. If USN submarines have not already isolated Japan from the mainland, then the loss of the mainland to the Russians will have the same result. As oil imports drop to zero and the aircraft factories are bombed out of existence the ability of the Japanese to defend themselves against air raids will dwindle to nothing. By the end of 1945, Japan will be surrounded, starving, and under constant attack.

The date at which Japan finally chooses to surrender, or alternatively ceases to exist as an organized nation, will depend on the Japanese ability to endure hardships unparalleled in modern history. It appears that in our time line there was a hiatus in serious atomic bomb production after VJ day lasting into 1947. After that production ramped up to a rate of about fifty warheads per year. In a timeline where the war with Japan continues we can conservatively estimate a production of between twenty and forty warheads for 1946 and at least fifty per year in 1947 and thereafter. All of these will be dropped on Japan along with countless explosive and fire bombs.

The year 1947 also sees the service introduction of the Convair B-36 bomber. This immense 6 engined aircraft had twice the range of the B-29, a service ceiling of 42,500 feet (increasing to 45,200 feet in the B-36D), and a combat load of two 42,000 pound bombs. With mid-air refueling from B-29 tankers these aircraft could have bombed Japan from bases in Hawaii, Australia, or Alaska, if necessary, while remaining immune to interception by any fighter that Japan ever produced. The United States demonstrated in Vietnam that it had the national stamina to persevere in a costly and unpopular Asian war for over eight years. For Japan to emerge victorious from a Pacific war with the United States requires far more than just hunkering down behind an unbreakable defense perimeter. Japan must somehow find the means to actively drive the United States out of the war. Only by accomplishing that extraordinary feat can they save themselves from an eventual rain of destruction from the sky.

Authors Notes

This article is an outgrowth of various e-mail discussions and articles in the Changing the Times group over the past year. Scott Palter added to these recently with a pair of articles considering how Japan might be able to achieve a victory in World War II. Both of these are available on the Web site. I have no comment here on the first article, Victorious Japanese Arms, Version 1, since it supposes that Japan manages to avoid defeat in the Pacific by having the good sense to avoid fighting either the United States or Britain. It is only the second article that I have chosen to discuss. I remember back many years to the days of War in the Pacific and other products of SPI and various publishers. The common theme in all of them was that if Japan could survive until the end of 1945 they would “win”, or at least the Japanese player would win. Some games would also declare Japan the winner for achieving certain transient successes such as a brief interdiction of the shipping lines to Australia. In other words, the best that any game designer could imagine was for Japan to improve slightly on their historical record. But the United States in real life was not operating under this sort of artificial victory condition. The capability and the will existed to extend the war into 1946 and probably far beyond. If the example of Vietnam is any guideline then I would expect that Japan would have needed to hold out until at least 1949 before the United States finally grew bored with bombing them into radioactive rubble. By no later than December 8, 1941, the doom of Japan was largely sealed and a passive strategy like the one suggested in Victorious Japanese Arms, Version 2 does not seem to hold much potential for success.

The best source I have for the woeful state of Japanese anti-submarine warfare is The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II, Mark P. Parillo, Naval Institute Press, 1993. There are also helpful mentions in Kaigun – Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941, David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Naval Institute Press, 1997 and The Japanese Navy in World War II – In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers, David C. Evans ed., Naval Institute Press, 1986 edition. The unavoidable conclusion from all of these works is that Japan’s situation by 1942 was beyond hope of repair. A concerted effort beginning many years earlier might have given them a chance of resisting the depredations of USN submarines but by 1942 any measures that were, or could have been, taken were far too little and too late.

I am obviously no big fan of General MacArthur. Let me just say that my father fought in the Philippines in 1945 (38th Infantry Division) and my disrespect is exclusively for the general and not for the men who served under him (who, I am told, didn’t respect him that much either).

Carrier air groups in November, 1943 are compiled from several sources. For the USN these are the actual air strengths listed in Morrison for Operation Galvanic (History of United States Naval Operation in World War II – Volume VII – Aleutians, Giberts, and Marshalls, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Little Brown and Company, 1951). For the Japanese the air groups are based on the largest air group that a particular ship actually operated during the war (e.g. Midway or Solomons for many ships) from a variety of sources. By late 1943/44 the IJN air groups in our time line had been bled down by attrition and the diversion of aircraft to the Solomons but it is presumed here that that has not happened and they are presented at their full strengths.

The air war against Japan is documented in a large variety of sources. My reference for the production rate of atomic bombs after VJ Day is page 203 of Danger and Survival – Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years, McGeorge Bundy, Vintage Books, 1988. I would be interested if anyone has a more recent or detailed source.