Thursday, December 08, 2011

Pearl Harbor: Japan's oil blunder

In a sad admission of the passing of time, the Pearl Harbor survivors association used the 70th anniversary of the attack to announce they will disband at the end of the year. An estimated 8,000 people are still alive who survived the Japanese attack on Hawaii and some 2,700 of them are members of the association. But it has become too difficult to organise the annual national reunion in Honolulu. Association President William Muehleib cited the age and poor health of remaining members. "It was time. Some of the requirements became a burden," Muehleib said after this year’s ceremony at Pearl Harbor. (photo:Matt York/Associated Press)

The moment of silence at the ceremony was marked just before 8am when the first Japanese planes launched their attack. Tuesday, 7 December 1941 would become a day that would “live in infamy” as Roosevelt predicted when he responded to the attack. In two hours, 2,400 people would be killed, 1,200 wounded (a shocking discrepancy between the dead and wounded) 20 ships sunk and 164 planes destroyed. Yet the infamy FDR spoke about was not the death toll but the fact the Japanese had lied to him and attacked 30 minutes before they declared war.

The cause of Pearl Harbor, as so much of the 20th century’s conflict, was oil. Expansionist Japan was 80% reliant on US petroleum to fire its economy but knew the time would come when the alarmist Americans would turn off the tap. The US took a dim view of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war with China. Modern China retains so much bitterness about that war it still refuses to call the area Manchuria because it might legitimise Japanese claims. Instead it just called “North East China”.

From their puppet base in Manchukuo, belligerent Japan declared all out war on China in 1937. Relations with the US deteriorated with the USS Panay Incident that year when the Japanese sunk an American ship in Nangking and then the Allison Incident where US consul to Nangking John Moore Allison was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier. Japan said sorry for both incidents claiming it did not see the American flags on the Panay. It did not offer an excuse for Allison but bowed to US demands for an apology.

Despite the provocation, economic self-interest ensured the US kept supplying oil to Japan until 1941. It wasn’t until July that year they finally placed an embargo as did Britain. Crucially so did Dutch two months later, breaking an existing treaty with Japan and ending the possible increase in the supply line of Javanese oil which supplied 15% of Japanese crude. The embargo put a critical constraint on the conduct of the long-running war in China. Japan was the sixth largest importer of oil in the world. If Japan wanted to resume bombing Chiang Kai-Shek's and Mao Zedong’s armies, it would have to grab oil for itself and the East Indies was the easiest target.

While Pearl Harbor was a shock, the Pacific war was no great surprise. A majority of Americans expected war with Japan especially over the Philippines which held many strategic American interests. But Japan had other ideas. It was well aware it could not cope with planned American expansion of the Navy. The 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act (sponsored by two Democrats Carl Vinson of Georgia and David Walsh of Massachusetts) planned to expand the size of the US Navy by 70%. Japan could never match this so struck a blow early before the Vinson-Walsh ships came off the assembly line.

An attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese believed, would also neutralise the existing Pacific Fleet to give Japan free reign to take Jakarta. Then the Americans would sue for a peace profitable to Japan. That this was flawed thinking is obvious in retrospect as was their complete failure to work out how the US would respond. Yet as a plan it no woollier than the thinking that led to another oil war while the execution was just as striking.

The 1941 attack was led by submarines. Five midget submarines came within 20km of the coast and launched their charges at 1am. At least four of them were sunk. Then the planes struck. There were almost 200 of them in the first group. A second wave of 170 flew closely behind. They were picked up by newly established radar on the northern tip of Oahu but misdiagnosed as a returning US crew and its immense size was not passed on to headquarters. At 7.48am they arrived at Pearl Harbor. The immediate target of the first wave was the battleships.

Japan believed that by targeting the battleships they would remove the biggest status symbols from the Navy. While they succeeded, they badly misread the importance of the technology. The sinking of one battleship the USS Arizona caused half the death toll on the day. Ten torpedo bombers attacked the ship. After one bomb detonated in the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, she went up in a deafening explosion. 1,117 of the 1,400 crew were killed instantly and the fire took two days to put out.

The second wave had various targets including hangars, aircraft, carriers and cruisers. After 90 devastating minutes, half the planes on Oahu were destroyed. A planned third wave to knock out Pearl Harbor’s remaining infrastructure was called off which Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted could have postponed US operations for another year. But Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo refused because of likely casualties and a need for night-time operations.

Despite this lapse, the Japanese did not rest on their success. Hong Kong was attacked a day later as were US territories Guam and Wake Island. The Philippines, a commonwealth of the US at the time, was also invaded on 8 December. The same day Japanese troops made an amphibious landing at Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya, and six points along the south-east Thailand, an invasion ended by an armistice which allowed Japan to use Thailand as a base to attack Malaya. Malaya had rubber and was the obvious dropping off point to access Dutch oil in soon-to-be Indonesia.

Only the US, Iran and Romania exported more oil than the East Indies in 1941 but the profits went to Amsterdam and Royal Dutch Shell not Jakarta. Borneo was another yet victim of the 8 December naval blitzkrieg threatening the oilfields of Kalimantan. The rest of the island archipelago quickly fell and would remain in Japanese hands until 1945 while the war was fought elsewhere. The three aircraft carriers that called Pearl Harbor home were out at sea during the attack and the elimination of its battleships gave the US no choice but to put the fate of the war in its carriers.

While the Europe First policy slowed down the Pacific Conflict it was almost over as soon as it began. A wrathful America armed with its new Navy and massive fighting capacity was never going to forgive Japan’s treachery. By July 1942, America sunk four of Japan’s own carriers at Midway. Japan used its fierce military pride, deadly code of honour, incessant pro-war propaganda and Indonesian oil to keep the insanity going for another three years.

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