Monthly Archives: May 2014

Military Incompetence at Port Moresby, 1942

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3451-76:

Visiting the front lines on just his second full day in the theater, [George] Kenney impressed the men at Port Moresby. They had lost faith in [George] Brett, who rarely visited and had no concept of how awful the conditions at Port Moresby had become. Kenney later wrote: “[Brett] didn’t get up there very often; I think he was up there maybe twice. They didn’t have much equipment and weren’t getting any more equipment; they weren’t getting spare parts when their airplanes began falling apart. Brett didn’t get up to [see] them, and he didn’t check and find out what they needed and see that they got it. Their food was terrible stuff, and he wouldn’t do anything about that. They were getting malaria pretty badly, and there was nothing done about that.”

Kenney was disgusted with just about everything he saw on the tour. Joined by Brig. Gen. Martin F. “Mike” Scanlon, the ranking American at Port Moresby, Kenney spent the day visiting the base with Royce and Whitehead. During the briefing for a bombing mission, Kenney was appalled by the lack of organization. The preliminaries were conducted by an Australian officer who simply declared that the objective was Rabaul, giving no specific targets. Kenney later wrote, “I found out afterward that nobody expects the airplanes to get that far anyhow, and if they do, the town itself is a good target.”

A meteorologist spoke next. His estimates of the weather conditions over Rabaul were based on historical data rather than real-time analysis. Kenney observed that no one was designated to lead the formation, mainly because the bombers were not expected to stay together en route to the target—and no one seemed to care. The only thing the crews fretted about was their bomb load. “The personnel are obsessed with the idea that a bullet will detonate the bombs and blow up the whole works,” Kenney noted. “If enemy airplanes are seen along the route, all auxiliary gas and bombs are immediately jettisoned and the mission abandoned.”

Thoroughly displeased with bomber operations, Kenney next inspected the fighter squadrons and found them no better. After touring the fighter area for a few hours with Lt. Col. Richard A. Legg, commanding officer of the 35th Fighter Group, Kenney wrote, “His organization is lackadaisical, maintenance is at a low ebb, and while he is short of spares there is no excuse for only six P-39s out of forty being constantly available for combat.”

Kenney also investigated the camp areas. “Throughout the Moresby area the camps are poorly laid out and the food situation is extremely bad,” he later wrote. “There is no mosquito control discipline and the malaria and dysentery rates are forcing relief of a unit at the end of about two months’ duty.”

Now Kenney knew why MacArthur was displeased. Nobody seemed to be doing anything about the appalling conditions at Port Moresby, though Kenney did find a few subordinates—none above the rank of major—who were actually attempting to improve things.

After a quick assessment of the overall situation, Kenney immediately began to make changes. First, he told Whitehead to remain at Port Moresby to “look after the fighters” and implement some new policies. He directed that an American staff officer attend every mission briefing; also, every bombing mission would have a specific primary target assigned along with at least two alternates. Finally, he instructed Whitehead to inform Legg that if he didn’t snap out of his lethargy, he’d be replaced.

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Japan’s Aircraft Shortages, 1942: Zeros on Oxcarts

From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 3191-3213:

The fallout from Midway affected both services. A planned invasion of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, known as FS Operation, had been scheduled to begin in mid-July but was postponed for two months. Soon after that decision was made, the operation was abandoned altogether. Among the reasons for scrapping it: a newly published report from the Imperial Navy citing several problems in the South Pacific.

The ten-point position paper, submitted by the navy’s Operations Section on July 7, revealed multiple concerns. First, the service frankly admitted that the New Guinea campaign had degraded “into a war of attrition.” Navy leaders also acknowledged that they faced “a huge challenge” in replacing the four hundred plus aircraft lost during the Coral Sea and Midway battles. As of late June, land-based fighter units averaged only 54 percent of their full complement. Reconnaissance units were at 37 percent, medium bombers at 75 percent, and seaplanes at 80 percent. The Tainan Air Group, now divided between Rabaul and Lae, was a prime example. On paper, it had a nominal strength of more than fifty pilots and was allotted forty-five Zeros; but from May through July of 1942, the air group averaged only about twenty combat-worthy fighters. The supply line for replacements was described as “very sluggish,” namely because not enough new aircraft were coming from the factories. The monthly output of all naval aircraft was only slightly ahead of attrition levels, and the navy was particularly disappointed in the slow delivery of fighters—less than ninety aircraft per month in the spring of 1942.

Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet Staff should not have been surprised by the deficiencies. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built the majority of its Type 0 fighters at the Nagoya Aircraft Works, a huge factory in the densely crowded port city of Nagoya. The plant had recently been enlarged to more than 1.6 million square feet and boasted a workforce of some thirty thousand people, but for all that, it did not produce complete airplanes.

Due to a combination of industrial congestion and inconceivable shortsightedness, the aircraft factory had been built miles from the nearest airfield. As a result, the plant was restricted to producing subassemblies rather than whole planes. The engine, wings, fuselage, and tail section all had to be transported thirty miles to an airfield big enough for assembly and testing. There were no rail lines available, and the streets of Nagoya were too narrow for large trucks. Horse-drawn wagons had been tried, but their speeds over the narrow, rough roads caused too much damage to the aircraft components. Thus, the Japanese resorted to using primitive oxcarts to haul the subassemblies of their modern fighter to Kagamigahara airfield. It took twenty-four hours for each team of lumbering oxen to cover the thirty miles through the crowded streets. No improvements were made to the roads, which deteriorated as production rates increased and more oxcarts were employed. Determined to build more Zeros, the Imperial Navy contracted with another aircraft manufacturer, Nakajima, whose plant eventually exceeded Mitsubishi’s in monthly production; but even at their highest output, the two factories averaged only 140 fighters per month.

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Problems of Building the World’s Largest Battleships

From “Some Stories Concerning the Construction of Yamato Class Battleships,” by Masataka Chihaya, in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 99-100 (paraphrased freely):

The three Yamato-class battleships were launched at three different dockyards: the Musashi at Nagasaki, the Yamato at Kure, and the Shinano at Yokosuka. The Yamato and Shinano had few problems, for they were to float in their docks after completion, but the launch of the Musashi had many problems, as it set new world records.

The hull of the Musashi was eventually launched with great success in 1940 after very careful work, but many problems remained in equipping the battleship after the launch. First, she needed a huge dry dock, which was specially built for her in the Sasebo Naval Yard. Second, she required a large floating crane capable of lifting more than 300 tons in order to emplace her massive guns and armor plating, which often weighed more than 100 tons each. Finally, she required an extra large-sized ship to transport her 18-inch gun turrets from the Kure Naval Arsenal to Nagasaki. For this purpose, the Japanese Navy built the Kashino, specially designed to transport one 18-inch gun turret at a time. The Kashino made several voyages between Kure and Nagasaki, and the Musashi was finally completed nearly on schedule in August 1942.

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Importance of Hiroshima Bay to Japan’s Navy

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases in the Homeland,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 6 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), p. 59 (paraphrased freely):

Peculiar features of the Kure Naval Base were the Naval College, the Submarine School and its huge Naval Yard. I will provide details about the Naval College in a separate report but will outline it here. The Naval College was situated on Etajima, the island opposite Kure, and there was no establishment except the college. Its environment was calm and excellent, and its effect upon the cadets was so remarkable that we cannot neglect it in analyzing Japanese naval tradition.

The width and depth of Hiroshima Bay was so suitable for small-craft maneuvering that the Japanese Navy trained it submarine forces there from the beginning. The Submarine School trained all of the crews of the midget submarines of the type that were deployed in the Pearl Harbor attack, and would have later been deployed in large numbers to defend the homeland.

The Kure Naval Yard was not only the greatest dockyard in Japan, but also the largest arsenal, especially in such heavy industries as the manufacture of steel armor plates and large-caliber guns. The Kure arsenal produced the thickest armor ever made in Japan, and the greatest (18-inch) naval guns ever made, both of which armed the Yamato and the Musashi, the greatest battleships ever made.

Moreover, Kure Naval Base held a substantial portion of the war stocks of ammunition and fuel. Kure was in both reputation and fact the most important naval base in the country.

In addition, it had other particular advantages that Yokosuka and Sasebo both lacked.

1. Kure could accommodate a large fleet, but neighboring Hiroshima Bay also allowed dispersed anchorages that were not so exposed to public view.
2. Its Inland Sea location made Kure less accessible to direct attack by enemy carrier-borne aircraft than Yokosuka and other bases were.
3. The large expanse (Suō-nada) in the western part of the Inland Sea near Hiroshima Bay was the only area where large fleets could maneuver without fear of enemy submarines.

Consequently, Kure Naval Base had been used as a center for fleet operations from the beginning of the Pacific War until the spring of 1945, when Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet annihilated the remainder of the Japanese fleet in Hiroshima Bay.

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Evolution of Rabaul as Japanese Military Base

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 65-66 (paraphrased freely):

Even after Japanese forces occupied Rabaul at the outset of the Pacific War, it was not a major center until May 1942, when large-scale American and Japanese carrier-borne forces clashed in the nearby Coral Sea. Not long after that, in August 1942, the U.S. Navy landed its crack 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. As all of Japan’s attention focused on the Solomons and New Britain, the Japanese Navy came to appreciate the magnificence of Rabaul as a naval base.

Rabaul had several sites suitable for large-scale airstrips and good anchorage, too. The land was suitable for cultivation and it was located in the center of the Pacific theater. During the Solomon Islands Campaign, the Japanese often compared Rabaul to the rivet of a folding fan, implying that it was so important that its loss would cause their whole campaign to fall apart.

From the autumn of 1942, Japan, especially its Navy, did everything it could to reinforce Rabaul by stocking it with as many weapons, airplanes, and ammunition as it could spare. Even so, these stocks were almost exhausted by February 1944, in the wake of the disaster in Truk Lagoon, when Japan was forced to withdraw its air forces from Rabaul and cease supplying it.

Japan moved its air forces from Rabaul to Truk and the Marianas not long before the Allied Powers penetrated the Dampier Strait [between New Guinea and New Britain] and invaded the Admiralties, leaving Japan without any means to counterattack. The Admiralties are situated in a position to cut Rabaul’s communication lines with Japan. In consequence, the once-famed base was left isolated in the Southern Pacific, serving primarily as a training target for Allied air forces.

The Admiralties are not only strategically well situated, but also offer a good harbor in Manus, one of the most magnificent bays in the southern Pacific. Whey did the Japanese forces let the Allied Powers invade such an important island without any effective counterattack? Why did the Japanese forces make no effort to fortify it to meet the enemy? Didn’t the Japanese Navy, which constantly emphasized the importance of the South Pacific theater, realize the importance of Manus and the Admiralties?

One cannot but doubt it. I once asked Capt. T. Ohmae, who was a staff officer in that theater, why the Navy did not recognize the importance of Manus? He replied, “It was not that the Japanese Navy didn’t recognize its importance. It was just that some survey of that island found that it was not entirely suitable for human habitation. So we had to give up building a base there.” This was indeed among our great blunders, for the Allied Powers succeeded in constructing a magnificent naval base at Manus after they occupied it.

The fate of once-famed Rabaul went from bad to worse after the fall of the Admiralties in February 1944. After losing its air power, the Japanese garrison at Rabaul had to go underground—literally. They constructed extensive underground fortifications, containing factories as well as warehouses. When the war ended in August 1945, Rabaul was found to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Pacific.

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Military Importance of Truk Lagoon to Japan’s Navy

From “Importance of Japanese Naval Bases Overseas,” by Masataka Chihaya (written on 14 January 1947), in The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II, edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 63-65 (paraphrased freely):

Truk Lagoon is one of the greatest, forming a rough triangle more than 30 miles on each side. Inside the lagoon are many islands, not sand islands or coral reefs, of which more than eight are more than one square mile in size. It provided not just sufficient anchorage for a whole Japanese fleet during that era, but also enough area to allow several vessels to maneuver for training. The islands also provide enough room for several airstrips. In fact, by the end of the war, the Japanese Navy had built at least four such strips. The climate is also tropical but mild. In addition to these advantages, Truk occupies a key position in the middle Pacific area, able to control Midway to the north, the Marshalls in the east, and Rabaul and New Britain to the south. From every point of view, Truk was one of Japan’s most important bases in the Pacific.

When it occupied Micronesia in World War I, and during the League of Nations mandated administration that followed, the Japanese Navy was well aware of Truk’s importance. However, in strict observance of the postwar naval treaties, it did little to establish a naval base there. It may be hard to believe, but it is true. At the outbreak of the Pacific War there was only one half of a completed airstrip on Takeshima (Bamboo Island), a small island less than 1,000 meters long. There was no underground oil storage, nor any repair facilities on land. The only naval facility worthy of the name was that half-completed airstrip.

Even after war broke out, the Japanese Navy was rather slow to strengthen Truk Naval Base. As soon as the U.S. Navy began its offensive on Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, and the Solomon Islands became the main theater of fighting for both navies, Truk became the center of Japanese naval operations. Almost all naval vessels gathered there before making sorties into the Solomons, and returned there for refueling and repair when damaged. Never before had the need for oil storage and repair facilities been more urgent, and the Japanese Navy concentrated its oil tankers and repair ships there while quickly trying to build such facilities on land as well. But it was too late. This concentration of oil tankers in Truk disrupted the flow of oil from Southeast Asia back to the Japanese homeland. Even the giant battleships Yamato and Musashi, which should have been at the center of the Japanese fleet, were often nicknamed “the tankers Yamato and Musashi” because they served as tankers supplying fuel to smaller warships instead of engaging in combat operations.

As there were not enough repair facilities on Truk, Japanese naval vessels sometimes had to go all the way back to the homeland for repairs, thus reducing the size of the naval forces available for the Solomons campaign.

It was not until the summer of 1943 that the Japanese Navy began to construct three more airstrips at Truk, two on Harushima (Spring Island) and one of Kaedeshima (Maple Island). By the time the U.S. Navy made a surprise attack on Truk on 17 February 1944, those three bases were almost complete, but they lacked adequate radar and command-and-control equipment, which would have made them more useful.

As a result, during the surprise attack on Truk in February 1944, U.S. Navy carrier-borne aircraft came out of the blue, destroying one light cruiser, 4 destroyers, 26 transport ships, 3 oil tanks, 2,000 tons of food, and more than 180 airplanes, of which more than 100 were lost on the ground.

This fiasco, together with the loss of the Gilberts and Marshalls, suddenly lessened the importance of Truk as a naval base. The Japanese fleet, which had long gathered at Truk, moved westward into the Carolines, Singapore, and even the homeland. Soon afterward, the Japanese Navy withdrew its land-based aircraft to the Marianas and western Carolines. Truk was no longer a vital naval base, just a stepping stone between the Marianas and Rabaul.

The bad situation on Truk got worse when U.S. forces invaded the Marianas in June 1944. Truk could contribute little to the Japanese defense, and the fall of the Marianas left Truk largely isolated, except for very few small visits by submarines and flying boats. From that time on, Japanese forces on Truk had to endure not just Allied air attacks, but mounting starvation and disease until the war ended in August 1945.

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