260px-Isoroku_YamamotoCINCLAX checks in with a strategic summary of where the players stand at this point in the Solomons Campaign. As we will see here and in detail later ths week with the Battles of Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal I & II, this is still a very close run deal with either the Japanese or Allied forces in a position to come out on top. How close is it? See below… – SJS

In his State of the Union message in January 1943, FDR would note:

“The Axis powers knew that they must win the war in 1942–or eventually lose everything. I do not need to tell you that our enemies did not win the war in 1942.”

He was correct. All IJN commanders, especially Yamamoto, knew that Japan’s only chance in the Pacific War against the United States was to win a “decisive battle” and hopefully bring the United States to a negotiated peace. Assuming this strategy would have succeeded, which is, of course, a huge assumption in view of American bitterness over Pearl Harbor, it meant Japan had to win it early-on before the vastly greater American war production capacity could be brought to bear, presumably by mid/late-1943. Japan had simply not prepared for a protracted naval war.

Inescapably this meant the IJN had to take chances, just as they had with the Pearl Harbor attack in the first place. Would they?

Six months into the war, Yamamoto’s first decisive battle attempt failed completely at Midway, largely because he underestimated his opponent and needlessly divided his forces with an almost impossibly complex plan. As a result, some nine battleships, one fleet carrier, three light carriers, nine heavy cruisers and 30 destroyers actually put to sea but took no part in the main Midway action. Here was a force capable of pulverizing Midway all on its own, leaving Kido Butai to deal directly with TF-16 and TF-17 without worrying about having to bomb the atoll.

Now, several months later in the Solomons, Yamamoto would get his second-and perhaps final-opportunity for that decisive battle. If the Japanese could hand the U.S. Navy a crushing defeat and force the American troops to surrender or withdraw from Guadalcanal, they would stand their best chance of achieving that negotiated peace. So far the IJN had not sought that battle. They had committed their surface forces piecemeal at a critical time when the Americans were relatively weak and the “Cactus” air force still small.

Still, by mid-October 1942, most of the signs were still favorable for a potential Japanese victory:

  • American senior naval leadership to-date was irresolute, notably Ghormley and Fletcher.
  • The American Joint Chiefs had already diverted large amounts of Army and Navy assets to the upcoming Torch landings in North Africa. The British continually pressured their ally for increased operations in the Mediterranean Theatre and would continue to do so throughout 1943.
  • The IJN had proved its superior skills and weaponry in surface night actions.
  • The Cactus Air Force was largely unable to stop the “Tokyo Express” fast re-supply and troop transport convoys. The new TBFs with their old MK-13 torpedoes hardly ever made hits, the SBDs had great difficulty scoring on anything but slow transports, and the B-17s were useful only for reconnaissance. Thus Japanese surface warships underway were largely immune from American attack planes. (Note: We’ll be seeing more about this in the near future – SJS)
  • American submarines-and torpedoes-had been singularly ineffective, and to-date there had been no disruption of the delivery of oil and raw materials from the Southern Resources Area. In contrast, Japanese I-Boats had been doing solid work against American warships.
  • The opening of the new airbase at Buin (Bougainville) cut the flight time to Henderson Field almost in half (compared to Rabaul) and allowed the Japanese to come closer to maintaining air superiority over Guadalcanal because they could now employ their shorter range Zeros (model 21s).
  • The floatplane base at Rekata Bay (on Santa Isabel and only 130 miles from Henderson Field) continued to provide a modicum of air reconnaissance in the waters around Guadalcanal.
  • The IJN had substantial heavy surface units at anchor in the Home Islands and Truk, including superbattleship Yamato. If ever they were going to play a truly key role and not simply collect barnacles, this was their time to get into the fight.
  • After the Battle of Santa Cruz (October 26-27), for nearly a month the Americans would have no operable carriers in the Pacific.

But time was limited, and Yamamoto’s window of opportunity was closing fast. The handwriting was on the wall for all Japanese to see.

  • On Guadalcanal, the 17th Army was in dire straits. While the fast destroyer transports of the Tokyo Express were having some success in landing new troops, they could not carry much in the way of heavy equipment, ammunition, food or medicine. Within a month, over 100 soldiers a day would be dying of starvation and/or disease, and combat effectiveness would be down to 20-30%.
  • The costly failure of Gen. Hyakutake’s October offensive had exhausted the army to the point where it could no longer strongly defend the west bank of the Matanikau River. Soon, land-based shelling of Henderson Field would no longer be possible because the Japanese guns would be out of range.
  • Since Midway, the carrier air groups and the IJN air fleets were already under strength and steadily running out of their most experienced air crews due to combat and operational losses. The replacement pipeline wasn’t doing the job; people were available, but the training hours weren’t.
  • In New Guinea, the Japanese attack down the Kokoda Trail had been stopped by the Australians, and Port Moresby remained in Allied hands as an important air base from where constant attacks could be launched eastward against Rabaul as well as northward towards the Bismarck Sea.
  • New American warships (or repaired vessels, notably carriers) and additional transports could be expected in-theatre within 4-8 weeks.
  • New model American fighter aircraft could be expected to replace the tired and outclassed F4Fs-and in greater numbers. Soon an air raid on Henderson Field would be an impossibly costly venture.

So what did Yamamoto eventually do? We’ll see in the coming week’s posts…

(Crossposted at steeljawscribe.com)

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

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  • Chuck Hill

    It wasn’t so much that the Japanese had not thought to prepare for a long war, as it was simply impossible for them. At the time the US GNP was ten times that of Japan. A huge percentage of their GNP was going to the military. The Navy had squirreled away all the fuel they could. They were hiding it from the Army. This was a country where new fighter planes were taken from the factory, disassembled and taken by ox cart to the nearest airfield. It is frankly amazing they did as well as they did.

    For this short window they would have superiority in numbers, but yet they failed to use it, failed to press forward with all their strength to crush the American forces.

    What they failed to see was that the Marines on Guadalcanal were their lever to force the American fleet to fight to the finish. If they had used all their forces to neutralize Henderson field and keep it down and blockaded the Marines to keep out supplies and reinforcements, the US Navy would have had no choice but a fight to the death.

    It would be interesting to find out if a shortage of replenishment vessels was at the core of the Japanese failure to use all available force.


    Chuck, you’re correct. The Japanese were chronically short of oil throughout the war. In fact the American oil embargo of summer 1941 was a primary cause for starting the war in the first place.

    And yes, later IJN apologists would repeatedly state oil-related reasons for not deploying Yamato and Musashi from Truk and having to use them as tankage sources for lesser warships. So they became the most expensive tankers—and staff hotels—in history and didn’t fire a shot in anger until 1944.

    That said, one must seriously question IJN preparedness for war, and why they failed to build sufficient tankers to supply their air and surface strike forces. One would have thought that by 1942 there would have been a virtual shuttle of tankers between, say, Brunei, Balikpapan and Tarakan to Rabaul and Truk to keep the IJN underway. Throughout the 17 months of the Solomons campaign the IJN didn’t need much oil anywhere else. So while we may give them generally high marks for strategy, their logistics were terrible.

    You wrote:

    “What they failed to see was that the Marines on Guadalcanal were their lever to force the American fleet to fight to the finish. If they had used all their forces to neutralize Henderson Field and keep it down and blockaded the Marines to keep out supplies and reinforcements, the US Navy would have had no choice but a fight to the death.”

    Correct! And then Yamamoto would have won his “decisive battle.”

  • LCDR Joseph J.Leonard, Jr., USCG

    The Solomons Campaign, like many other critical capaigns of World War II, demonstrated that a strong logistics tail was the key to victory (as a weak one would lead to certain defeat).

    This “friction of war” is often understated and the complexities of it are minimized by armchair generals who do not view war from the 10,000 foot view but look at combat only from the tactical perspctive.

    Successful battlefield commanders must not only apply the combat power of combined arms along with the priciples of war, but have the logistical support necessary to sustain operations to the point of victory. The overly complex plans that were fashionable for the the Japanesse in general and the IJN in specific failed to heed Clausewitz’s principles of SIMPLICITY and MASS.

  • SAM

    The Solomon campaign is notable not for what we have accomplished, but for what we failed to accomplish, namely, to check quickly and effortlessly an adversary with a far smaller economic and material footprint than the US Navy’s. If the US and Japanese economic potentials were somewhat evenly matched, it would’ve been the US, not Japan, that would’ve thrown the towel in first. The naval side of the campaign was dominated by the Japanese hands down until Vella Gulf, in August 43. Shameful defeats, like the first battle of Savo Island or the battle of Kolombangara, showed that the Japanese Navy had superior tactics, training, and even equipment.