This week, courtesy UltimaRatioRegis, is a look at the IJN post Midway. After suffering grievous losses in ships, sailors and airmen at Midway, the IJN was still far from finished-for the moment. For while Midway had turned the tide, that razor’s edge could cut the other way given the reed-thin status of the US fleet. So, what would the Japanese, led by their revered flag, Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, the architect of the victory at Pearl Harbor, what would they do next? What *could* they do next? – SJS

Yamamoto-Isoroku-improvedContrastOn the eve of the epic fleet clash at Midway in early June, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy had very nearly driven the US and her Allies from the seas. The US Pacific Fleet battle line sat in the oily mud of Pearl Harbor, or was in drydocks stateside for repair of bomb and torpedo damage. The collection of gallant but obsolete warships that comprised the Asiatic Squadron had been hunted down and sunk, or chased to Australia, in the months following December 7th. Fleet carrier Saratoga (CV-3) had yet to return from Bremerton, where she was being repaired due to torpedo damage suffered in January, and getting a major refit which replaced her 8” guns with much more useful DP 5”-38 twin mounts . Yorktown (CV-5) was undergoing extensive repairs at Pearl Harbor from two bomb hits suffered at Coral Sea, in which Saratoga’s sister Lexington (CV-2) had been sunk.

It was clear, however, the US Pacific would not go without a fight. The stubborn bravery of Admiral Hart’s Asiatic Fleet against truly hopeless odds, Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched raid on Tokyo, surprisingly effective US carrier raids on Japanese outposts (including Tulagi), and the blunting of the Japanese stab for Port Moresby at Coral Sea, all signaled that the US Pacific Fleet remained a dangerous force with remarkable fighting spirit.

USS Marblehead (CL-12) Asiatic Fleet survivor (left) USS Houston (CA-30) sunk at Java Sea (right)

USS Houston (CA-30) sunk at Java Sea (left) and USS Marblehead (CL-12) Asiatic Fleet survivor (right)

The Battle of Midway was a catastrophic defeat for the Japanese, suffered at the hands of an inferior American force. It was a disaster from which the IJN would never fully recover. The sinking of four fleet carriers, a heavy cruiser, and loss of nearly 250 aircraft manned by veteran pilots could never be made good by the Japanese industrial base or her aviation training pipeline. US losses, carrier Yorktown, destroyer Hammann (DD-412), and 100 aircraft, were serious but temporary, and were offset once Saratoga returned to action, and the new Buchanan (DD-484) joined the Pacific Fleet in mid-June 1942.

USS Hammann (DD-412) by stricken Yorktown (CV-5) Hammann seen sinking after Japanese torpedo hit

USS Hammann (DD-412) by stricken Yorktown (CV-5) Hammann seen sinking after Japanese torpedo hit

Despite the disaster at Midway, however, the Japanese Navy held significant advantages over the US Pacific Fleet in nearly all categories in mid-1942. The IJN still badly outnumbered the US in aircraft carriers, (Shokaku rejoined the fleet after repair of damage at Coral Sea), and trumped the United States Pacific Fleet in battleships, heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers. The only warship type in which the US Pacific Fleet held an advantage over the Japanese was in submarines .

That disparity was more than simply numerical. Japan’s Navy was superbly trained and equipped, excellent in gunnery, and led by experienced and aggressive commanders. The Japanese held a decided advantage in warship and aircraft design, and fielded the finest and most lethal torpedo in the world’s arsenals. Their captains and crews were also highly trained in night surface combat.

Japan’s heavy cruisers, beginning with the four-ship Takao-class through the pair of Tones, were built in the 1930s well in excess of treaty limitations, and proved to be fast, powerful units, more than a match for American and Allied heavy cruisers of the same period. The excellent Fubuki-class destroyers and their successors were among the most heavily-armed of their types in the world until the US Fletcher-class began entering service in 1942. Follow-on classes of Japanese destroyers suffered weight issues (as did US designs) but overall were superb ships, much-respected by their opponents.

IJN Destroyer Amagiri
IJN Destroyer Amagiri
Heavy Cruiser Chokai
Heavy Cruiser Chokai

The heavy cruisers and destroyers, as well as Japan’s light cruisers, carried the deadly 24-inch Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedo. With a half-ton warhead and a range more than three times that of the American 21” Mark 14 torpedo, the Long Lance struck mortal fear into US ship captains, particularly at night. The Japanese were able time and again to inflict frightful damage to US units as the latter attempted to close range for a gun duel.

Type 93 “Long Lance” (left) and damage to USS Minneapolis (CA-36) from Type 93 hit at Tassafaronga (right)
Type 93 “Long Lance” (left) and damage to USS Minneapolis (CA-36) from Type 93 hit at Tassafaronga (right)

By contrast, problems with the US Mark 14 torpedoes, most notably the exploder, magnetic detonator, and depth-regulation, frustrated American submarine and PT skippers throughout the first two years of war. These defects thwarted what might have been several devastating attacks on Japanese carriers and capital warships.

In the air, the vaunted A6M2 “Zero” fighter had nearly swept the handfuls of obsolescent Allied aircraft from the skies of the western Pacific in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. By July of 1942, it was only the skill of US Navy pilots in exploiting the strengths of the stubby Grumman F4F Wildcat which offset the Zero’s considerable edge in climb and maneuverability, and prevented defeat in what would otherwise have been a short and unequal fight.

 A6M2 Zeroes with drop tanks (left) and B5N2 Kate taking off from Shokaku (right)
A6M2 Zeroes with drop tanks (left) and B5N2 Kate taking off from Shokaku (right)

The Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bomber was the most advanced aircraft of its type in the world in 1939, and in 1942 was still far superior to the vulnerable, lumbering Douglas Devastator that had met with such disaster at Midway and was in the process of being withdrawn from service. In addition, the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber was at least a match for the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and one of the few Japanese aircraft sturdy enough to absorb punishment and survive.

F4F-2 Wildcat in early-war markings (left) TBD Devastator launches torpedo in training run (right)

Perhaps the biggest advantage the Imperial Japanese Navy held over the US Pacific Fleet in the summer of 1942 was that of training for night surface combat. The emphasis on seeking and winning night combat, like that of torpedo technology and employment, was born of necessity. The provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty ensured that the Japanese Fleet would be at a significant disadvantage in the Jutland-style fleet actions anticipated by both sides in the event of war between the US and Japan. Therefore, the IJN sought to master a doctrine that would largely negate the US advantage in numbers of ships and weight of broadside. Night tactics were the answer. Great emphasis on individual and squadron formation and maneuver procedures, communications, night gunnery, use of flares and searchlights, resulted in the skills of fighting a night surface engagement being raised to a near-art form . Conversely, the US Pacific Fleet, not wanting to squander its numerical and power advantage, emphasized a doctrine that looked to avoid night combat.

Even after Midway, the Imperial Japanese Navy remained a most formidable opponent. But the eastern horizon was growing increasingly dark. The United States Navy was expanding with lightning speed. US shipyards and factories had revved into high gear. New aircraft designs were entering service or mass production that outclassed any Japanese machines. And by August 1942, the following warships were on the ways or awaiting completion in American shipyards :

• Six Fleet Carriers

• Eight Light Carriers

• Twenty-two Escort Carriers

• Five Battleships

• Four Heavy Cruisers

• Nine Light Cruisers

• One hundred thirteen Destroyers

• Twenty-nine Submarines

US Gleaves-class destroyer construction at Boston Navy Yard, 1942
US Gleaves-class destroyer construction at Boston Navy Yard, 1942

Yamamoto’s “sleeping giant”, was awakening. The Japanese had tipped the hourglass at Pearl Harbor. By August of 1942, the sand that measured the Japanese Navy’s pre-eminence in the Pacific had all but run out. The coming clash in the Solomons represented the last real chance for the Imperial Japanese Navy to inflict a strategic defeat upon the US Pacific Fleet.

USS Essex (CV 8) Launch, July 1942
USS Essex (CV 9) Launch, July 1942

Posted by SteelJaw in Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy

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  • solomon

    I absolutely luv these historical “flashbacks”…I always thought that one of the hallmarks of the Marines was the fact that the history of the service is pounded into you from day one. With the other services, not so much. And with the Navy in particular it seems like such a waste. The history is so rich and proud, that to ignore it seems to be forgetting greatness and past heroes. I don’t want to put sailors back in dungarees but historical flashes done in a contemporary way might help bridge the future with the past. Its too important to allow it to languish.

  • Steeljaw Scribe


    Agree – which is why as we move further into this project there will be themes evolved that wrap the lessons learned then into today’s context. That, I think, is one of the values of not only being familiar with one’s heritage, but deeply understanding its context and contributions that are relevant today…
    w/r, SJS

  • Chris Goodrich

    George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  • capospin

    Well said. That is what I am talking about.

  • solomon

    Did more reading on the Battle of Midway and its amazing that even after that successful battle, the US Navy was still in jeopardy. One author has even surmised that if the IJN been more agressive, then things might have turned out differently. AMAZING. And I considered myself well versed in Naval History. These stories must be told. Keep up the good work.

  • Byron

    Truly! We had two carriers with greatly diminished air groups, and little or no screen. The decision to leave the area was a smart one. Had they not, they would have run into the IJN surface action group, including the Yamato.

    Look ahead in the weeks ahead. The Battle of Eastern Solomons was a decisive action that left us with ONE carrier in action: The Big E.

  • SteelJaw

    …and limping at that…

    – SJS

  • Byron

    …and with No.1 elevator stuck in the up position, which greatly affected her ability to re-arm and launch aircraft…

  • Chuck Hill

    I wonder if the Japanese really appreciated how narrow their window for defeating us was. At Guadalcanal they had the opportunity to make the US Navy fight at a disadvantage because the Marines had to be supported, but by the end of the war they could have sunk all of our prewar forces, lost none of their own, even adding all they had built, we would have still outnumbered them with just new construction. Instead of applying mass they seemed to prefer to use the minimum force that looked like might work. They also seemed to preferentially use their older, weaker units first holding back their more powerful stuff.

    Where that approach came from would make an interesting study.

    I’ve read that our GNP was 10 times greater than Japan’s. Their confidence was something akin to religious fanaticism in that they were seeing the “correlation of forces” clearly.

    Incidentally the labels for USS Houston and Marblehead are reversed.

  • Chuck Hill

    Disregard my statement about Houston/Marblehead. Must have misread it or had already been changed.

  • Chuck Hill

    But Houston was not sunk at the battle of Java Sea. She was sunk, along with the Australian light cruiser Perth, at Sunda Strait when she encountered a Japanese Convoy while trying to escape to Australia.

  • Byron

    Chuck, I’ve always said that a key element to hanging on to what we had and then starting to push back enough to occupy them was that we had a lot more interest in getting our people back out of harms way. We went through great lengths, sometimes putting ships and other aircraft at risk to get back downed pilots. Think of what might have happened after Midway had we not worked hard to get all those experienced aviators back. And where did they go when Midway was over and the carriers were back at Pearl? For the most part, they went home to training squadrons to teach the newest aviators how to fight and win in the air. What the IJN did was eat their own seed corn. We nurtured it, and grew the greatest Navy ever seen.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    That is technically correct, that Houston was sunk by Japanese units in Sunda Strait. After raising some havoc among the Japanese invasion force, by the way. There are those that consider the Java Sea/Sunda Strait action to be parts of the same battle. Certainly they often are not considered so, but the actions of Houston and Perth directly resulted from the fight the day before, and can be argued to have been a continuation of that battle.


  • UltimaRatioReg


    Admiral Yamamoto clearly understood the economic disparity. He told the Imperial Staff that he could “run wild for six months. After that, I have no expectation of success.” There must have been a sick feeling in the stomachs of the senior commanders in the IJN when the carriers were not at Pearl.

  • Chuck Hill

    BZ. Nicely done.

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