Pacific War January-November 1943 Part I

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Combined Fleet, transferred headquarters to Rabaul for Operation I-Go.

Histories of the Pacific inevitably gloss over the events between the end of the Guadalcanal and the landings in the Gilbert Islands. In this period ‘nothing happened’ —  the equivalent of June 1943 in the European theater of operations as the month, with German losses totaling only nineteen tanks and thirty-six assault guns, when the world held its breath at the prospect of what was to come.

It is easy to pass over this period. There were no great shifts in territorial ownership. Certain islands changed hands but none of any consequence, and indeed prior to 1942 few people in Britain, Japan, and the United States would even have heard of most of them. There were no major battles, whether on land, at sea, or in the air. It must be admitted that there were a number of naval actions in the central and upper Solomons, but these were small in scale and none was of any real importance, although one point does demand acknowledgment. The clear American victories at Vella Gulf (6-7 August 1943) and at Cape St. George (26 November 1943) indicate the extent to which Japanese superiority in night fighting, doctrine, and technique had passed.

Acknowledgment of this change is essential to any understanding of the Pacific war because an explanation of this conflict is possible, if only in part, on the basis of this period being a watershed. In the first year or so of the Pacific war two interwar navies fought one another to exhaustion. Initially, Japan’s enemies, each individually weaker than its common foe, were defeated separately by a Japan that possessed local superiority and the advantage of the initiative and surprise. In some five months, Japan secured all those territories for which it went to war, and after the defeat off Midway it then settled for a defensive strategy that sought to fight the United States to exhaustion. This strategy was very largely achieved, and a glance at any map showing the changes of ownership of islands in the Pacific or territory in eastern and Southeast Asia between May 1942 and November 1943 will immediately reveal how little progress the Allies made in seeking to reverse the defeats of the first phase of hostilities. But, in fact, after November 1943 the United States, with a fleet that was principally a wartime creation, carried the war to the enemy, and it did so in a way that was remarkable on several counts. Naval wars invariably are slow and seldom noted for speed. The Pacific war lasted forty-four months, which was a remarkably short period for a naval war, and it ended with the Americans having taken war to the shores of the enemy state and, in effect, having defeated that state: American carrier aircraft even flew combat patrols over airfields in the Japanese home islands. Such achievements have few parallels in history, and it is possible to argue that, in terms of decision, the Pacific war ended in November 1943. By this time the United States had come into possession of such margins of superiority in the conduct of amphibious operations that its victory in any single landing operation was assured. The only questions that remained were ones of timing, cost, and the exact nature of its final victory over Japan.

Lest this interpretation of events be doubted, reference to one fact should be noted. In February 1945 five American carrier task groups operated off the Japanese home islands and mustered between them 119 warships: eleven fleet and five light fleet carriers, eight fast battleships, one battle cruiser, five heavy and twelve light cruisers, and seventy-seven destroyers. Of these ships only the fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga and the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Indianapolis fully predated Pearl Harbor, although also present were the battleships Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington and the light cruisers San Diego and San Juan, all of which had been launched before 7 December 1941. Any perusal of the lists of warships involved in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa reveals similar pedigree. The battleships detailed to support these landings, but virtually nothing else, predated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the escort carriers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, transports, and assault shipping virtually without exception were built after 7 December 1941, and it was this achievement on the part of American shipyards that was so relevant in this period between the end of the Guadalcanal campaign and the landings in the Gilbert Islands. This was the time when the first results of this massive building effort really began to deliver warships, assault shipping, and merchantmen in numbers-indeed, in such numbers that Japan could no longer hope to evade final defeat. American merchantman production reached its peak in this period. In March 1943, American yards launched no fewer than 140 Liberty Ships, that is, a 7, 176-ton “deplorable-looking object” every 310 minutes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s description was less than complimentary, but there is no indication that he ever questioned the Liberty Ship’s worth. Herein lies the basis of explanation rather than a mere description of events. If one refuses to accept that Japan’s defeat was assured from the time that its carrier aircraft struck at the U. S. Pacific Fleet at its base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, then it was in the first two years of the Pacific war that the basis of America’s victory and Japan’s defeat was established.

Nonetheless, in setting down such a notion two points need to be noted. First, to recognize that a war is a total one is to recognize that its military dimension can only partially explain its course and outcome. There must also be recognition of the war’s nonmilitary dimensions, in such matters as choice of allies and economic issues. But to recognize that a war involves alliances is to recognize that no single nation can ever account for any single dimension of that war. The United States was by far the most important single member of the United Nations involved in war with Japan after December 1941 and it could have completed the defeat of Japan through its own efforts. But that was not the victory that was won between 1941 and 1945. Other powers played their part, at this stage of events none more obviously than China, in contributing to Japan’s overcommitment and exhaustion of resources. These aspects of Japan’s defeat, over time and distance and of resources, lacked the immediacy and obvious impact of military defeat in the field, and in the final analysis it is the reality of military defeat that decides the outcome of wars. But an intelligent appreciation of both the nature and conduct of the Pacific war lies in recognition of contributions of differing worth and importance.

Second, in seeking to explain events one has to acknowledge the events themselves: explanation does not do away with the need for recounting. In the Solomons the campaign on Guadalcanal witnessed on 10 January 1943 the start of the U. S. offensive that was to result in the clearing of Guadalcanal. American forces landed at Verahue on 1 February, but by this time the Japanese were committed to the evacuation of their forces, which was completed between 1 and 7 February, without the Americans realizing what was at hand. When the Americans did realize what had happened they moved immediately to occupy the Russells (21 February), and at the same time the Japanese defeat in eastern New Guinea assumed an added dimension with the breaking of their offensive from the Mobu area against Wau (21 January-2 February): the Japanese were obliged to withdraw from the Wau area between 3 and 9 February.

Thereafter, events in eastern New Guinea and in the Solomons continued to run in tandem much as they had over the previous five or six months. March 1943 saw a major Japanese defeat in the Bismarck Sea at the hands of American shore-based air power, and also a minor action in Kula Gulf in which an American cruiser-destroyer force sank two Japanese destroyers carrying supplies to the garrison at Vila. Between 7 and 18 April the Imperial Navy, having flown four carrier air groups into Rabaul, conducted what was grandiloquently described as a major air offensive over the Solomons and eastern New Guinea. As always, the Japanese claims of success were grossly exaggerated, and evidence of this fact was provided on 18 April when the Americans shot down a transport carrying Yamamoto to Buin. If the Japanese operation had been successful such an episode could not have happened, but what was even more remarkable about this whole affair is that the Japanese mounted three operations during this offensive-on 7, 11, and 14 April-and with never more than 200 aircraft in any single effort. Moreover, they attacked Lunga Point-Henderson Field and then Oro Bay (near Buna) and Milne Bay in succession. How single efforts against three separated targets, two of which had been stocked by the Allies over seven-month periods, were supposed to reverse recent Japanese defeats is far from clear. But from early June 1943, almost as if they staged a demonstration of how things should be done, the Americans systematically fought for air supremacy over the central Solomons in preparation for a series of landings throughout the theater.

On 21 June, American forces came ashore on southern New Georgia, and then on 23-24 June on Woodlark Island and on 28-29 June on Kriiwana. With the whole of eastern New Guinea thus secured, American forces came ashore on 30 June on Rendova in the central Solomons, near Salamaua and on Woodlark and the Trobriand Islands, off eastern New Guinea, and in Nassau Bay. These actions sparked simultaneous American and Japanese landings in Kula Gulf on 4-5 July and then the naval battles of Kula Gulf (6 July) and Kolombangara (13 July). The American capture of the airfield at Munda, New Georgia, on 5 August prompted the battle of Vella Gulf (6-7 August), and the Americans’ crushing victory in that battle paved the way for their landings on Vella Lavella (15 August) and on Arundel Island (27 August).

With the American grip on the central Solomons tightening with every landing, the following month saw the focus switch to eastern New Guinea where the Australians landed at Lae on 3-4 September, while Nadzab saw one of the relatively few airborne landings of the Pacific war on 6 September. The American occupation of Salamaua on 12 September was followed on the 22nd by the Australian landings at Finschhafen, eastern New Guinea. This landing initiated what was for this theater a protracted exchange. A Japanese counterattack was repulsed on 26 September before the Australians moved to occupy Finschhafen on 2 October. This prompted a series of Japanese attacks until 25 October, when the Japanese admitted defeat and evacuated the area. They had read the signs in the Solomons a little earlier and on 20 September completed their evacuation of Vella Lavella and Arundel. Between 23 September and 2 October the Japanese evacuated Kolombangara, where the Americans landed four days later. The latter action provoked the Battle of Vella Lavella, which was really the last drawn battle between the Imperial and U. S. Navies, but no less important was the fact that after 12 October the Americans began their campaign with land-based aircraft aimed at neutralizing and isolating Rabaul.

The whole of the lower Solomons campaign had been conceived and conducted as part of an effort that was to take the Allies to Rabaul, but as the tide of war made its way through the central and into the northern Solomons, this aim changed. The Americans settled on a bypass strategy whereby the enemy was attacked where he was not, his strengths were avoided, and his forces were left “to wither on the vine.” On 27 October there took place the New Zealander landings in the Treasury Islands, and then followed on 1-2 November the American carrier raids over the upper Solomons and the American landings on Bougainville, which induced the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. In the second half of October the Japanese transferred six carrier air groups to Rabaul to counter the growing American pressure in the upper Solomons, but the raid of 1-2 November, and particularly the raids of 5 and 11 November, had the effect of wrecking Japanese intentions. All the units of a squadron of four heavy cruisers, along with two light cruisers and a destroyer, were badly damaged by carrier aircraft within a matter of minutes of arriving at Rabaul on 5 November, and with the Japanese, in effect, abandoning Rabaul as a naval and air base in mid-November two parts of the American intent came together. The attacks on Rabaul were part of the effort that heralded not only the end of the Solomons campaign but also the start of the U. S. offensive in the central Pacific. With their victory off Cape St. George on 26 November complementing the landings in the Gilbert Islands, the Americans moved into possession of numbers and technique that ensured victory in every individual enterprise. The Japanese claim that during the November 1943 air battles over Rabaul and the upper Solomons they sank ten aircraft carriers, five battleships, nineteen cruisers, seven destroyers, and nine transports prompts incredulity at the fact that such claims were even entertained, much less given credence. In retrospect they seem almost deliberately to be inversely related to reality.

The start of the central Pacific offensive had been foreshadowed by the American carrier raid on Manus (31 August), on the Gilberts (17- 19 September), and on Wake (5-6 October), but if one is obliged to consider the other events relevant to the story then there are four areas of interest that remain to be considered. The first, perhaps naturally, is the north Pacific theater. Here the months that saw growing American success in the southwest Pacific also witnessed American victories that eliminated the Japanese presence in the Aleutians that had been established in June 1942. The only real naval action in this theater, the Battle of the Kommandorskii Islands on 27 March 1943, resulted in the Americans frustrating a Japanese resupply mission to their garrison on Attu. Other than the Battle of the Java Sea, this was the only daylight surface action involving major warship formations of the Pacific war, and it was followed on 11 May by the American landings on Attu. Backed by a massive force that included two battleships, an escort carrier, and seven cruisers, the Americans ensured the collapse of organized resistance on 30 May, the island being declared secure the following day. On 8 June the Japanese high command, recognizing the inevitable, ordered that Kiska be abandoned, and this task was completed on 28 July. In one of the more embarrassing operations of the war American and Canadian forces conducted an assault landing on Kiska on 15 August and fought a series of actions before realizing that the island was deserted. Perhaps the corrective to this singularly sorry state of affairs was the fact that 10 July 1943 witnessed the first American air raid on the Japanese home islands, the Doolittle Raid excepted. The attack, directed against Paramushiru in the Kuriles, was staged by eight B-25 medium bombers operating from Adak via Attu. The last such raid was conducted on 13 August 1945.


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