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More of my interview with John Burton, author of Fortnight of Infamy: The Collapse of Allied Airpower West of Pearl Harbor, December 1941. How did sudden dependence on airpower in the Far East present a serious problem for the United States?
Today, we take for granted the importance of the role of airpower in any theater of war; whether we’re considering the contest for air superiority above enemy lines, precision bombardment of strategic objectives, interdiction of supply lines, or vertical envelopment operations to capture key territories. It has become a given that control of the skies is a necessary prerequisite for control of the battlefield. From a naval point of view, the carrier task force has been the flexible base of power for every ‘projection of force’ mission the United States has staged since World War II. Airpower has actually become such an integral part of our concept of military action that it is virtually impossible to imagine the U.S. conducting any operation without aviation involvement.
In 1941, however, United States doctrine for employment of airpower was more of a theory than a practical tool that could be leveraged to win campaigns. Until the middle of that year, in fact, the shelves of Franklin Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” were bare – particularly with regard to supplies of modern aircraft. At that point in time, Japan possessed greater aviation resources and had amassed far more practical experience in managing air operations.
In the words of Major General Lewis Brereton, commander of the U.S. Army’s Far East Air Force, “we were definitely a third-rate air power”. The U.S. may have had a first-rate navy, but in 1941 that service could reach, at best, only at a level of parity with the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific. A five-to-three overall numerical and tonnage advantage that arms control negotiations had bestowed upon the U.S. Navy was hardly enough for America to manage an adequate defense for both the Atlantic and the Pacific in any “two ocean war”. When the Japanese finally chose to ignore the treaties, the balance of naval power tipped firmly in favor of Tokyo. Coupled with the fact that American land and air forces were actually quite inferior in both quantity and quality when compared with those of Japan, the United States found itself in a decidedly tenuous position at the end of 1941.
General Brereton and his peers faced a grim reality that the United States could do little to threaten, let alone stop, Japan’s armed forays into China and Southeast Asia. For nearly forty years, the secret papers and studies that constituted America’s War Plan Orange indicated that a rapid defeat of forces in the Philippines would be inevitable once the Japanese committed to any serious invasion attempt. Grudgingly, U.S. military leadership had come to accept the fact that naval limitation treaties and budget constraints all but precluded armed intervention in the Far East. By the mid-1930s, American politicians had even decided to grant the Philippines independence; an act that would effectively and conveniently relieve the U.S. of any responsibility to defend interests in Southeast Asia. After Japan began its invasion of China in 1937, the best the United States could really hope to do to curb Japanese expansion was to materially support the Chinese Nationalist war effort being led by Chiang Kai-Shek and place progressive sanctions on Japanese trade. Predictably, the results of that effort were less than satisfactory.
At the close of 1941, neither the U.S. nor Great Britain was in any position to provide an adequate ground force or naval deterrent to rein in Japan; even by marshaling their collective resources. In an unusual confluence of events that began in a series of clandestine meetings with Chinese authorities during November of 1940, and culminated with a secret agreement between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Argentia Conference in August, 1941, the idea of a pre-emptive bombardment of the Japanese home islands took shape. Aircraft procurement plans that had been set in motion by France before its defeat in 1940 – and Churchill’s willingness to defer deliveries of fighters and long-range bombers that had been scheduled for delivery to the Royal Air Force – enabled a rapid, if somewhat ill-conceived, American plan for deployment of a substantial air force presence in the Philippines. Four-engine bombers were judged to be the only stick the Allies could wield in the struggle to bring Japanese aggression to a halt – at least for the near term.
In most War Plan Orange scenarios, the U.S. intended to maintain only minimal garrison forces in the Western Pacific, and all U.S. possessions west of Midway were expected to be lost in short order. Once an attack by Japan triggered an American response, the U.S. planned to begin a gradual, relentless, build-up of naval and ground forces that would slowly advance westward from Hawaii toward Japan. Victory was anticipated, but generally estimated to require three to four years of active fighting. Generals and admirals understood the basic constraint: until war was formally declared, a parsimonious Congress would be unlikely to release the funds needed to prepare for such a costly effort.
The eleventh-hour investment of strategic aviation assets in the Philippines constituted a problematic ‘about face’ with regard to the tenets of War Plan Orange. When the decision to send nearly a thousand planes to the Philippines was finally confirmed at the Argentia Conference, no logistics process existed to support such an extensive deployment. The required numbers of transport ships, airbases and trained personnel simply did not exist – and it was believed that adequate preparations to achieve a critical mass for success of the plan could not be made before April, 1942. Consequently, the U.S. diplomatic process in the closing weeks of 1941 was generally tuned toward delaying any Japanese attack in the Far East until the spring months of 1942.
In an unfortunate turn of events (and possibly due to some miscommunication between government departments), the Allied oil embargo forced Japan to tip its hand prematurely (at least as far as the Allied timetable was concerned). In reality, an oil-thirsty Japan had actually planned to launch its attack in October, 1941, but the abrupt resignation of most of Japan’s governing cabinet led to a delay and additional “peace” negotiations.
As is often the case, timing is everything: the Allies were caught with their trousers rather tightly wrapped around their ankles.
To be continued…