The second and third theaters, again where American air power was so important, were Burma and China. December 1942 saw the start of the British offensive in the Arakan, which was brought to a halt short of Akyab in January 1943. On 18 February 1943 the British embarked on the first Chindit operation, a much-proclaimed undertaking that resulted in the temporary interruption of communications between Mandalay and Myitkyina for only as long as it took the Japanese to organize themselves to meet the two attacks. After two months’ indecisive fighting in front of Akyab, a Japanese counteroffensive in mid-March resulted in the humiliating rout of the equivalent of a British corps by a Japanese division. At the same time the Chindit units were forced to cross the Irrawaddy and to withdraw to India under intense Japanese pressure. In both efforts the British were decisively outfought, but, as is often the case, in victory were the seeds ofJapanese defeat. The fact that the British were able to undertake offensive operations in 1943 after their comprehensive defeat in 1942 prompted the Japanese to consider the possibility of a preventive offensive, a preemptive attack that would forestall a British effort in the 1943-44 campaigning season. Thus, while Chinese forces in northern Burma began an offensive in the Hukwang valley in October 1943 and the following month played host to a second British offensive in the Arakan, the Japanese military settled on “the March on Delhi” that was to end so disastrously at Kohima and Imphal in 1944. This effort compromised the Japanese ability to mount an effective defense of Burma during the November 1944-May 1945 campaigning season.
In the China theater of operations this period saw events that were to be profoundly important in terms of Sino-American relations. The Fourteenth U. S. Air Force was activated on 11 March 1943. The first offensive operation by American aircraft (P-40 fighters) within the China theater was staged on the 16th and the first operation involving bombers was three days later: the targets on both occasions were shipping and installations on the Red River, in French Indo-China. The months of May and June saw a major Japanese raid into western Hupei, and the Japanese withdrawal at its end, deliberately and dishonestly portrayed by the Chinese Nationalists as a major victory, was used by pro-Nationalist and air power lobbies in Washington to support their respective causes. The Tenth U. S. Air Force headquarters at New Delhi, India, began functioning on 20 August while the next day there were the first major air battles in the China theater since 1940-41. These battles were fought over Hangchow, Heng-yang, and Ch’ang-sa, and were followed on 7 October by the first operation by heavy bombers against a target in Burma and on 25 November by the first Fourteenth Air Force raid on Formosa.
By common consent this last operation, against targets in Formosa, represented the point in time when the Japanese high command began to consider seriously a general offensive in central and southern China in 1944. It did so for obvious reasons and with obvious repercussions. The thoughts of the Japanese high command turned to the possibility of a general offensive in central and southern China because it lacked the means to meet and defeat an American bomber offensive: the only counter it could possible employ was the seizing of airstrips from which any such offensive would have to be staged. The implications of this line of reasoning were profound because the Japanese plan, as it took shape, struck at the raw nerve of Sino-American relations.
Much more was at stake at this particular time, in fact, than just relations between Chungking and Washington. These months with which we concern ourselves here, between the end of the Guadalcanal campaign and the landings in the Gilbert Islands (give or take a couple of weeks), saw the Trident Conference in Washington (12-25 May), the Quadrant Conference in Quebec (14-24 August), the first and second Sextant Conferences in Cairo (22-25 November and 4-6 December), and the Eureka Conference in Tehran (28 November-I December). These months also saw profound changes in the European situation. The defeat of German forces in front of Kursk in July 1943 represented the point where possession of the initiative finally passed irrevocably to the Allies, and the landings at Salerno in September 1943 for the U. S. forces thus engaged represented the first invasion of the European mainland by a non-European army since 1354. Herein were matters of no little import, of considerable meaning and significance. But in terms of China, air power, and the United States, the events in eastern Asia, even if they lacked the grandeur of these other changes, were nonetheless crucially important in terms of relations between China and the United States and the conduct of the war against Japan.
The United States found itself at war in December 1941 wedded to the belief that Japan’s defeat had to be total and embrace both the Pacific and the Asian mainland. To this end the Americans were prepared to support China with weaponry, supplies, and money sufficient to ensure the prosecution of the war within that country to the end desired. The Chiang Kai-shek regime at Chungking was eager to play the role of willing recipient of American aid, but it saw as its real priority the civil war against the Communists, which would be resumed once the Japanese were defeated: it had little interest in fulfilling the role that Washington, without consultation, had assigned for it. The American air power lobby, which had come up with the absurd claim that 200 U. S. aircraft based in China could complete Japan’s national defeat, had common cause with Chungking: the air force would do the fighting, and the Chinese would hold the airfields. After May 1943 these two interests-the China and the air power lobbies-held the initiative in Washington and prevailed over the various individuals within the State Department and the military who argued that American policy toward China was nonsensical. The military feared a Japanese offensive, believing that Chiang Kai-shek’s armies, riddled by corruption and incompetence, would fall to pieces, and there were people in the State Department who feared for American interests by being tied to a regime with so little genuine support among the Chinese people. The conflict between these different factions, and the very real crisis in Sino-American relations that the course of events brought to the forefront of national deliberations, had to await the summer of 1944, but for the discerning and the fearful within the American high command the outline of events was there one year beforehand.
The war against Japanese shipping in this third phase of the war, between 1 March and 31 October 1943, Japan’s defeat was already reality because in this period it suffered shipping losses from which there could be no recovery.
Japanese losses reached a disastrous level above 131,500 tons per month without any contribution to losses being made by carrier-based aircraft: between 1 May 1942 and 31 October 1943, aircraft operating from American carriers accounted for just one transport, while the sinkings by warships were also very modest indeed. The point that is relevant is primarily negative, namely, that if Japanese losses were so disastrous in these periods, then the adjective to describe their losses when the carrier force did contribute was likely to prove very elusive. So it was to be, and for a reason that is often not properly appreciated. The Japanese activated the General Escort Command on 15 November 1943, and it is generally held that the Imperial Navy’s creation of this organization, without fully understanding both the principle and detail of convoy and without having sufficient numbers of escorts to properly provide for convoys, meant that it actually worsened the situation: the concentration of Japanese merchantmen in poorly or inadequately protected convoys led to increased losses. That was true, but not until the second half of 1944. The massive increase of Japanese shipping losses between November 1943 and June 1944 was registered primarily not among merchant ships but among naval and military transports in the central Pacific theater, where they were forced to work in waters that were dominated by American carrier aircraft and in which American submarines had concentrated in support of the carrier operations.
The figures tell the story. In the period from 1 March to 31 October 1943 the Japanese lost 109 merchantmen of 376,334 tons, and 160 Army and Navy transports of 676,406 tons: the average monthly loss of shipping of all types other than warships amounted to 33.63 ships of 131,593 tons. In the period from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944 the Japanese lost 154.5 merchantmen of 519,187 tons, a significant quickening of the pace. But in this same eight months, 399.5 Army and Navy transports of 1,782,722 tons were lost, and the average monthly loss of shipping of all types other than warships amounted to 89.25 ships of 287,739 tons. Sinkings by submarines increased significantly, from a total of ninety transports of 477,535 tons from 1 March to 31 October 1943 to a total of 225 transports of 1,081,451 tons from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944; sinkings by carrier aircraft totaled 76.5 naval and military auxiliaries of 420,337 tons. But even more significant were the returns by area. In the period from 1 May 1942 to 28 February 1943 the transport graveyard was, not surprisingly, the southwest Pacific, but from 1 March to 31 October 1943 transport losses were more evenly distributed, with significant numbers in the East China Sea, the central Pacific, the southwest Pacific, and the southern resources area. In the period from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944 total transport losses were 379.5 ships of 1,782,722 tons, with 192 of these transports, of 941,769 tons, sunk in the central Pacific theater. What is no less surprising than the central Pacific toll is the fact that Japanese transport and auxiliary losses in the southwest Pacific were greater in this period than they were between March and October 1943, while losses in the southern resources area also reached disastrous levels, a total of 91.5 naval and military ships of 452,201 tons being lost.
During the Second World War the United States produced more than one hundred fleet, light fleet, and escort carriers, and the Kaiser yard launched its fiftieth one year and one day after launching its first. In 1943 the United States was building ten destroyers and destroyer escorts to everyone launched by Japanese yards, but this modest level of construction on the part of Japan was achieved only at the cost of maintaining the merchant marine. In short, Japan could build merchantmen or warships, or it could build some merchantmen and refit and repair others, or it could build warships. What it could not do was undertake all three on any scale, and the Japanese efforts were utterly inadequate and unavailing. By war’s end the American advantage of numbers was overwhelming, and the basis of this numerical superiority was to be found in 1942-43.
In the American and Japanese national aircraft industries the situation with respect to comparative production was the same as that in the shipyards: the United States out built Japan by four to one in aircraft, by nearly seven to one in aircraft engines, and by nearly eight to one in airframe weight. In terms of individual aircraft the basic picture repeated itself. In the course of the Pacific war, Japan produced ninety different types of combat aircraft while the United States produced only eighteen, and, even more significant, in 1943 American factories put out more aircraft than did Japan in the whole of the war. The total number of A6M Zekes (excluding trainers and seaplane derivatives) was (depending on the source) between 10,094 and 11,283, while the United States built 12,272 F6F Hellcats and 12,681 F4U Corsairs. Japanese factories produced 2,446 G4M Bettys while American plants put into the air 9,816 B-25 Mitchells and 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses. The latter aircraft was withdrawn from the Pacific theater during 1943 and concentrated its efforts thereafter in Europe, but the B-24 Liberator, with its longer range, continued to serve in the Pacific. With the G5N Shinzan the Japanese had an aircraft that compared very closely to the Liberator in terms of speed, range, defensive firepower, and payload. American factories produced 18,188 B-24 Liberators of all variants. It would be wrong to give Shinzan production in terms of Japanese factories: the entire national output amounted to only six aircraft. Conversely, at peak, in March 1944, American factories were building an aircraft every 294 seconds.
More examples of this disparity could be given, but to no real effect: the situations in the shipyards and aircraft factories serve as indicators of national strengths, and the use of further examples would not add much in terms of explanation of events. Suffice it to note just one matter: that in initiating a war with the United States that Japan knew that it could not win but which it reasoned could be drawn on account of the higher commitment of its people to war, the Japanese high command made one critical error. Clausewitz’s words are worth repeating: “the first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgment which the Statesman and General exercises is rightly to understand [the nature of] the War in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make of it something, which it is not … and it is impossible for it to be.” And herein lay the Japanese error. If war is a political phenomenon, then it follows that its most important elements are political rather than military or material, but political elements cannot offset material or military deficiencies or imbalances that are too severe. This was the reality that Japan faced in November 1943. For almost two years the United States had found that it had to fight the war in which it found itself as it found it, and not as it would, but by November 1943 the nation, backed by the resources of a continental land mass, was in a position to start to wage the war as it would, and to that Japan had no answer. In part, possession of the initiative had served Japan well in deflecting the United States from its main aspirations, but by November 1943 the advantage that had been Japan’s on account of its earlier victories had been spent. From this time, what awaited Japan was the reckoning.