The Plan Orange Disaster – A What If… Part I

Secrets abound in times of war, as does what Winston Churchill termed the “bodyguard of lies” surrounding any important military “truth.” Some sixty years ago the failure of American, British, and Russian military intelligence to penetrate Japan’s secret stratagems placed the U.S. Navy on the wrong side of the greatest naval debacle in history. How and why the United States suddenly implemented a version of War Plan Orange that had been abandoned as unfeasible in the 1920s is, perhaps, even more important than the story of the proud warships gutted by its implementation.

From War Plan Orange to Rainbow

In the 1890s, U.S. military staffs began to consider the Pacific a potential major arena for international conflict. Initially they envisioned Europeans as the anticipated enemy—one of the earliest plans called for the destruction of a weak French Asiatic squadron in support of America’s Open Door Policy in China. The joint U.S. Army and Navy Planning Boards, for the sake of secrecy and perhaps from the awareness that giving names to possible enemies tends to raise levels of international tension, soon devised a color-based system for identifying nations during planning. They designated the United States as “Blue,” the British as “Red,” the Germans as “Black,” and so forth. The acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 increased the emphasis on defensive operations in surrounding waters and necessitated giving consideration to the acquisition and protection of “stepping-stone” logistical bases from the West Coast of the United States to Manila Bay, and onward to the resources and markets of the Orient.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a new potential enemy emerged in the Pacific. With the Meiji Restoration, Japan had embraced Western-style industrialism and the imperialism that inevitably accompanied it. A modern Imperial Japanese Navy, modeled on the British Royal Navy (not to mention trained by that navy, and often using ships built in British shipyards), played the key role in defeating Russia in 1904–1905. The naval successes at Port Arthur and Tsushima established the UN as a force to be reckoned with. In the eyes of U.S. military planners, this impressive display earned Japan its own designation, “Orange,” and afterward actions deemed necessary to counter future Japanese aggression in the Pacific could be found in War Plan Orange.

The rapid technological shifts resulting from World War I, coupled with postwar diplomatic initiatives and the economic difficulties of a worldwide depression, dictated numerous changes in War Plan Orange between 1919 and 1939. In various guises and with the occasional twist and turn, planning moved from a determined direct defense of the Philippines by the U.S. fleet in the early 1920s, to the anticipated loss of those islands to a superbly trained well-equipped, and (thanks to its Chinese adventures) veteran Japanese military in the 1930s. By early 1939, Plan Orange called for the recapture of the Philippines after a two- to three-year methodical advance across the Central Pacific, at which time Japan’s home fleet would be confronted and destroyed allowing a close blockade of the home islands (hopefully decisive without the need for an invasion). In mid-1939, with war in Europe threatening to erupt at any moment, War Plan Orange was incorporated into Rainbow 1, a unilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere against Germany, Japan, and their fascist minions.

By mid-1940 a new plan, Rainbow 4, offered a multilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere, assuming alliances with Great Britain and France. This plan forbade any Blue offensive action in the Pacific—a clear acknowledgment of Germany as the most dangerous of potential opponents. In essence, the United States would abandon the Philippines, Guam, and even Wake Island to a hopeless delaying action against superior Japanese forces. Rainbow 4 allowed Japan a free hand in Asia and the Pacific while the military assets of the United States and its eventual allies knocked Germany out of the war as quickly as possible.

Japan: Options and Planning Through 1939

The industrialization of Japan’s economy may have saved the nation from direct European domination in the late 1800s, but it resulted in a quandary for Japanese leaders. The home islands simply lacked the raw materials to support massive industrialization. Thus, the history of modernized Japan became one of aggressively seeking control of Asian resources. Through 1920, military success followed military success, yet European and American diplomats more often than not managed to strip away the fruits of Japanese victory. After 1920 the Japanese government became increasingly dominated by its officer caste, the same men who had found victory to be bittersweet, at best. They knew a reckoning with their foreign tormentors could not be avoided, and the greatest threat appeared to be the United States, a nation with seemingly endless industrial might.

Japanese naval thinking fixated on victory through a single great battle. Before the technological changes during and following World War I, planners envisioned the U.S. fleet being brought to battle near the home islands. As had the Russians at Tsushima, the U.S. Navy (USN) would be debilitated by its extended voyage, considerably improving the odds against a numerically superior American fleet. After the technological changes, the expected interception point moved south and east, its location varying with changing plans from the coasts of the Philippines to the Marshall Islands. With the distance traveled less of a debilitative factor (speed, range, and durability had improved dramatically), the IJN planned an attritional war against the advancing USN. Submarines, land and naval airplanes, and night attacks by light surface units equipped with the superb Type 92 “Long Lance” torpedo, would deplete the American forces by as much as thirty percent before the main battle fleets clashed and decided the issue.

The timing and location of the final battle, as well as the success of the UN’s strategy of attrition, depended upon which nation seized the initiative. If Japan struck first (first strike, the surprise attack, being prominent in Japanese military tradition), it could quickly seize the U.S. Pacific bases—the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and perhaps even Midway Island and the Aleutians—forcing the USN into a protracted advance of one to two years’ duration. This would allow time for the attritional strategy to work; but a danger (almost a certainty) existed that the production capacity of the United States would so far exceed that of Japan that the USN would actually be stronger, despite a thirty percent attrition of its starting forces, once it breached Japan’s defensive perimeter in the Pacific. If the Americans struck first, especially with the UN scattered across the Pacific and along the coasts of Asia, disaster would result. Thus, by 1940, as the Imperial Army continued to advance in China, Europe dissolved in flames, and the American people prepared to elect a president to lead them away from or into war, the UN lacked a truly effective counter to an aggressive War Plan Orange.

Democracy at Work

The Democratic Party nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a third consecutive term as president in 1940. The Republican Party opposed the highly popular Roosevelt with Wendell L. Willkie, a major player in the corporate world but not a man expected to win the heart of the common man, still suffering from the Great Depression. It may never be known exactly who leaked details of Rainbow 4 to the American press, but on October 18 newspaper headlines across the United States screamed FDR PLANS TO ABANDON OUR BOYS IN THE PHILIPPINES TO THE JAPS! Gen. Douglas MacArthur, caught unprepared by reporters that morning, inadvertently added fuel to the political fire: “Gentlemen, no American president has ever willingly abandoned an inch of American soil to an enemy, much less thrown away the lives of American soldiers and sailors. Our good President would be the first person to agree with me on that. In fact, I have so much faith in President Roosevelt that I would willingly leave for Manila today.”

The Republican Party knew a possible winning gambit when they saw (or leaked) it, especially with less than a month remaining until the election. Hammered by Willkie on the only issue available, and with the polls only a week away, Roosevelt finally offered a statement to the American public via his Sunday radio chat. “I will no more abandon America’s sons than I would my own children. The United States Navy is one of the most powerful forces in the world; should—and I pray it never does—war come to the Pacific, the enemy will be met and destroyed in the Philippines.” Somewhat reassured, voters elected their president to a third term, though not by the expected landslide.

The day after the election, three things of note occurred. In Washington, naval planners dusted off old copies of an aggressive Plan Orange to use in preparing a new multilateral war plan, Rainbow 5. In San Francisco, a vacationing Gen. Douglas MacArthur received orders to take command immediately in the Philippines. And at his office in Tokyo, Adm. Isokura Yamamoto, the man commanding the Japanese navy, smiled as he read the news from the United States.

Yamamoto and Plan Z

Isokura Yamamoto towers above the great admirals of history, despite his five-foot-three-inch height. As a young officer he paced a deck at Tsushima, sacrificing two fingers to Imperial glory. Later, he attended Harvard and served as a naval attache in Washington, gaining a firsthand understanding of the overwhelming resources and industrial capability of the United States. Throughout his life he excelled at games of skill and strategy—bridge, poker, and shogi (similar to European chess). And it was with great skill that he tackled the problem of defeating the American giant.

In August 1939, Yamamoto found himself at the pinnacle of his profession, commander and chief of the Combined Fleet. Two months later he observed a demonstration of naval air power from the bridge of the carrier Akagi. Turning to his chief of staff, the admiral remarked “Impressive! If I can use our fast carriers to sink the American fleet in the mud of Pearl Harbor, I shall run wild in the Pacific for a year, maybe two.” From behind the two men, the absentminded (though brilliant) Capt. Kameto Kuroshima murmured “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral.” Pressed for an explanation of his less than artful words, Kuroshima replied “The mud of Pearl is shallow. If the Americans are the industrial geniuses that you have preached about so often, then they will simply raise the ships and repair them. Far better if the mud is deep, and the victory permanent.” Yamamoto agreed but lacking the ability to force the USN into a deep water engagement, he assigned Kuroshima the task of planning a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. The resulting plan, though offering a strong possibility of tactical success, left both men troubled because it would not force the United States to negotiate a peace treaty.

Roosevelt’s commitment to defend the Philippines changed everything. The strike at Pearl scrapped Yamamoto officially unveiled “Plan Z” to the army and navy in September 1941.The plan meshed well with the idea of a Southern Offensive then being championed by the army, one designed to secure quickly the Philippines and Malaysia as a stepping-stone to resource-laden India and the East Indies.8 Plan Z anticipated an immediate advance of the USN from Pearl following the line Midway-Wake Island-Guam-the Philippines, in order to secure American territory, avoid Japanese land-based air and light surface units in the Marshalls, and force the battle line of the IJN into a decisive engagement east or northeast of the Philippines. Without attrition of the USN, the Japanese Combined Fleet, divided as it supported the army, would face anticipated ratios of (USN: IJN) 13:9 in battleships, 20:12 in cruisers, and 60:40 in destroyers by M plus 20 (the earliest date on which the American fleet should near the Philippine coast). Only in fast carriers, 4:6, and naval air power, 400:500 planes, would ratios favor the IJN. Yamamoto, however, expected the Americans to split their light surface forces in order to support the British and Dutch, to escort troop convoys closely following their main fleet, and to cover the fleet’s large logistical train.

Central to Plan Z was a daring scheme to lull the Americans into misusing their carriers. Five old merchantmen would be converted to appear as flattops—including dummy planes on the decks. These vessels, accompanied by the light carrier Ryujo, would operate west of the Philippines. If they could fix American attention, Yamamoto’s Fast Strike Force of six carriers, supported by two battle cruisers and assorted lighter vessels, would have an opportunity to weaken the USN with repeated strikes once it reached Guam. The carriers would then drive the U.S. fleet through the southern approaches to Manila—either San Bernardino Strait or Surigao Strait—where Yamamoto would be waiting with a gauntlet of destroyers, cruisers, and battlewagons quickly concentrated from forces supporting the Southern Offensive. Surviving elements of the American battle fleet would undoubtedly reach Manila, where they could be pounded by land-based airplanes operating from newly captured fields on Luzon or those recently occupied in (formerly French) Indochina. To avoid a change of heart by the Americans, Guam and Wake Island would not be seized until after the defeat of the USN’s main fleet.

Though the Imperial Japanese Army did not smile upon Plan Z, arguing that the fast carriers would be better used covering the invasion of Malaysia and clearing the South China Sea of Allied naval forces, they could not disagree with Yamamoto’s logic: “Only the complete destruction of the American Pacific fleet and the loss of the Philippines will shock the citizens of the United States into a negotiated peace. It will take twenty years and the resources of Asia to allow our nation to achieve industrial parity with our enemy. Samurai of Japan! We must have that quick peace!” In the end, all present concurred that land-based aircraft and those surface units scheduled to rendezvous at Surigao Strait would suffice to cover the invasions.

In the following months, as negotiations with a U.S. government angry at continued Japanese expansion in China and obviously preparing for a showdown in the Pacific, moved toward collapse, Tokyo set December 7, 1941, as the date for its assault against Allied territories in the Pacific. Sunrise of that day found Yamamoto off the Philippine coast, aboard the hastily completed super-battleship Yamato, wondering how quickly the USN would sortie from Pearl Harbor.

Kimmel at the Helm

Roosevelt’s choice of the two key officers responsible for finalizing and implementing the War Plan Orange segment of Rainbow 5 has been debated by historians almost as much as it has been lamented by Americans as a whole. It is not difficult to argue that the self-proclaimed military genius MacArthur’s mouth earned him the hot seat; but the much maligned Adm. Husband Kimmel is a different story. War Plan Orange actively sought a big-gun confrontation, and Kimmel was a big-gun admiral, having served on a dozen battlewagons in his career. Though he lacked experience with naval aviation, carriers constituted a virtually untried arm of the U.S. Navy at that time. Without doubt, Kimmel was the consensus choice to implement War Plan Orange. Even Gen. George Marshall whole-heartedly supported the aggressive Kimmel for the role.

In early November 1941, Kimmel held a conference for his top officers at Pearl. There, he presented the plan that would be implemented as it happened the following month. In the Philippines, MacArthur, recently reinforced by fifty P-40 fighters and twenty-four B-17 bombers, would fight a delaying action, preserving Manila Bay as a primary fleet anchorage. A British fleet of two battleships, a carrier, and screening elements would similarly defend Singapore, the Gibraltar of the Pacific, as a secondary base for the U.S. fleet. Southward, the ABDA flotilla (a small U.S.-British-Dutch-Australian force built around two heavy cruisers) would be reinforced by the carrier Yorktown.10 It would secure a secondary supply route to the Philippines from Australia, distracting Japanese naval forces in the process.

Task Force 1—eleven battleships, three cruisers, and eighteen destroyers—under the tactical command of Kimmel, aboard the battleship Pennsylvania, would sail on M plus 2 to Wake Island via Midway, arriving on M plus 12. In case Wake had fallen, a battalion of Marines in APDs (old destroyers modified as high-speed transports) accompanied the task force. A convoy transporting a coastal defense battalion, fifty crated aircraft, and supplies for Wake, trailed the task force by approximately five days. TF 1 would sail from Wake for Guam by M plus 15. Guam, probably lost to the Japanese in the first days of the conflict, would be briefly bombarded and recaptured by the Marines. On or about M plus 21, the fleet would leave Guam for Manila, arriving off the Philippines no later than M plus 25 and taking a northern route around Luzon, hopefully forcing the IJN to give battle or face the interdiction of its forces engaged in the invasion of the Philippines. Elements of the victorious TF 1 would arrive in Manila by M plus 28, at the latest.

Task Forces 2 and 3, centered respectively, on the carriers Lexington and Saratoga, would sortie from Pearl immediately upon the opening of hostilities. The carrier groups, each protected by a screen of cruisers and destroyers, would scout ahead of the fleet (TF 2 to the north, TF 3 to the south). Through M plus 15, the task forces would operate approximately 300 miles forward of TF 1. After the relief or recapture of Guam, the carriers would be reined in, to fifty miles, allowing them to fly CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over TF 1 as Japanese naval and land-based aircraft became more of a threat.

Task Force 4, composed of the carrier Enterprise and the fast battleships North Carolina and Washington—the last-named warship rushed to commissioning as the Japanese threat loomed— would provide a diversionary force. From either Pearl or its normal cruising station southeast of the Marshalls, TF 4 would raid through the Japanese mandates; its high-speed run concluding with a daring assault on Truk, the major IJN base in the area. TF 4 would then rendezvous with TF 1 near the Philippines around M plus 22.

On M plus 30, a large convoy with men and matériel for Guam, Wake, and the Philippines, would leave the West Coast. Task Force 5, composed of cruisers and destroyers, would escort this force to the Philippines—if the Japanese had not yet sued for peace. “The Japanese will face us because they must face us—or abandon their invasion forces in the Pacific. And their battle line cannot stand against us!” Kimmel stated at the conclusion of the briefing. He was interrupted by the man who would command TF 4, William F. “Bull” Halsey: “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral!” Ordered by Kimmel to explain his outburst, the unrepentant Halsey warned, “Somewhere across that water a little yellow bastard is telling other little yellow bastards the same thing; only he’s saying that our battleships cannot stand against their carriers. And until those carriers are burning, I say be damned careful what you wish for!”  As it turned out, both men were correct to some degree.

At 0800, December 7, an aide awakened Kimmel at his office on Oahu with the news that Japan had just invaded the Philippines. He immediately ordered War Plan Orange to be implemented and prepared to board Arizona, rather than Pennsylvania. Kimmel had placed the usual flagship of the Pacific Fleet in dry dock only three days earlier for annual servicing of its shafts, and rather than sail late, the admiral ordered it to join the M plus 30 convoy as reinforcement for his by then theoretically victorious fleet.

An hour later Kimmel’s blood pressure soared when he learned that Douglas MacArthur had somehow managed to be taken by surprise. Most of his planes had been destroyed on the ground and the Imperial Army had landed at points across the Philippines with minimal resistance. Turning to Ensign Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, his newly appointed aide, Kimmel snarled, “If MacArthur loses my base before I get there, he better have died gloriously—or I will kill him myself!”

As the U.S. fleet began its exodus from Pearl, a last telegram crossed the Pacific to Tokyo.14It read, “Hope to leave for Tokyo tomorrow. Plan to Climb Mount Niitaka next week.” Unknown to the American telegraphist, the sender, Takeo Yoshikawa, had been carefully observing the U.S. base for six months. His telegram, received at the American Desk of Japanese Naval Intelligence and forwarded immediately to Yamato, gave rise to cheers among Yamamoto’s staff. Their admiral, an avid climber, had picked the phrase “Climb Mount Niitaka” as the signal that the U.S. battle fleet had entered the fray.

A Stillness on the Sea

MacArthur had, indeed, been caught unprepared despite the obviously critical place of the Philippines in War Plan Orange. Clark Field outside Manila, bloomed with fires from the prettily arrayed rows of U.S. planes pummeled by Japanese bombers. By 2000 on December 7, only thirty-one fighters, twenty-seven bombers (including five B-17s), and three seaplanes remained operational.

Though MacArthur failed to contest the landings in the Philippines, that did not mean resistance melted away. On the contrary, Americans as well as the green Filipino Constabulary fought magnificently on the ground. As early as December 9, Gen. Nasaharu Homma, commanding the Imperial Army’s invasion of Luzon, sent a message to Tokyo demanding increased naval air support and additional troops. Yamamoto refused to release his carriers (now lurking west of Guam), partly out of fear that too rapid a success on the ground would cause the U.S. fleet to return to Pearl, thus evading his trap. As a result, considerable friction developed between the army and navy hierarchies. Fortunately for Japan, Yamamoto’s threat to resign, following on the heels of naval successes in the South China Sea on December 8, squelched that particular internal conflict.

On December 7 a British force composed of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, with the carrier Indomitable providing air cover, sortied from Singapore to disrupt Japanese amphibious landings along the Malaysian coast. On the following day, Indomitable’s CAP found itself swamped by waves of Japanese fighters and bombers. The British lost all three capital ships, but not before scout planes from their carrier reported the source of their numerous attackers—six Japanese flattops, steaming just within maximum range of Clark airfield. For once, MacArthur acted with alacrity, dispatching every available plane to attack the enemy task force. The uncoordinated waves of U.S. planes began their attack as darkness fell across the South China Sea. Short on fuel and blanketed in darkness, few of the bombers and fighters managed to return to Clark, but those that did allowed MacArthur to send his historic message at 2330 that evening: “Tonight there is a stillness on the South China Sea where once the fleet of Japan roamed at will. I have avenged the brave crews of the Repulse, the Prince of Whales [sic], and the Indomitable. Five carriers of the Japanese Navy have been confirmed as destroyed by my heroic American aviators, and another is damaged and presumed sinking.”

Thus Yamamoto won a double victory that day—three British capital ships stricken from the Royal Naval list, and MacArthur’s reassurance to the world that the carrier might of Japan had been destroyed. Kimmel, steaming rapidly to Wake Island, is reported to have held a dinner party the following evening, neither the first nor the last warrior deceived into celebration while a trap waited patiently mere days ahead. Rear Adms. Wilson Brown (TF 2) and Frank Fletcher (TF 3), scouting far forward of TF 1, breathed sighs of relief. Until that moment, each man had wrestled with nightmares of their single carriers isolated and destroyed by the numerically superior IJN naval air power. Fletcher, always concerned about the fuel levels of his ships, even slowed his advance the following day to replenish.

Only aboard Enterprise, flagship of TF 4, did a senior American officer seem to have doubts concerning the veracity of MacArthur’s message. A young flier overheard Halsey, then suffering from a constantly worsening skin rash, snorted, “That son of a bitch was born an egotistical liar. Even those yellow bastards aren’t stupid enough to put six big carriers where his fliers could get at ’em. Doug couldn’t sink an outhouse, not even if he dropped a brick one in the middle of Subic Bay. I hope to God that Wil and Frank see through this crap. ‘Stillness on the sea’—shit!”

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