Must We Repeat History?

By William R Hawkins

The Fall of the Philippines

Major General Edward P. King, an artillery expert from Georgia, commanded Luzon Force defending Bataan in April 1942. When he heard of the Japanese demand to surrender, he told his staff that he had graduated from the Command and General Staff School and from both the Army and Navy War Colleges without ever learning how to surrender. But his men were gaunt from lack of food. Rations were under 1,000 calories a day; the Army had eaten its horses and now was scrounging for insects. Malaria, dysentery, beriberi, and scurvy affected most of the men in some combination. No blockade runners had made it into port for three weeks. According to prewar plans, the troops had been expected to hold for three months-until the Navy could fight its way to their relief. They were now entering their fifth month-and the Navy wasn't coming.

Antiaircraft and antitank shells were in short supply. Many of the artillery shells were unreliable because they had been in storage since World War I. Lack of fuel made it difficult to move supplies or artillery to new positions. Medicine stocks were low.

Fresh Japanese troops led the attack with tanks. American artillery was suppressed by Japanese bombers. The few antitank guns available were destroyed by enemy artillery. Enemy fighters strafed anything that moved. The United States no longer had an air force.

Many of the defending troops were too weak or sick to fire their weapons. When the U.S. 31st Regiment was ordered forward, one out of every five men had to be left behind because they could not walk or had fevers over 104. Disease and starvation had done what the Imperial Army could not do in the four previous months of fighting. The Japanese rolled up the defenses. Only about 3,000 survivors made it across the water to the Corregidor fortress.

Some 75,000 Americans and Filipinos went into captivity. In the next two months, 21,000 would die from wounds, disease, and starvation. Another 10,000 (2,300 Americans) died on the infamous Death March, a 60-mile trek through the steaming jungle during which the prisoners were given little food or water. Anyone who could not keep up was executed.

On Corregidor, the American garrison had only a week of fresh water left by I May. Fate had placed General MacArthur in command of the Philippines eight years after his confrontation with President Roosevelt. After implementing his plan to withdraw to a stubborn defense of Bataan, MacArthur was ordered to leave Corregidor to organize the rebuilding of U.S. strength in Australia. Both he and his successor, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, knew that no help was coming to the island fortress.

On the night of 4 May, 2,000 Japanese troops stormed ashore. They took heavy casualties from the entrenched Marines, but gained a foothold. More Japanese followed with tanks. The fighting was intense and bitter. To avoid a slaughter of the wounded, Wainwright surrendered that evening. In this final battle, 800 Americans and Filipinos died along with more than 2,000 Japanese.

Radio operator Private Irving Strobing told the story in one of the last radio messages sent out. "I feel sick at my stomach. I am really low down. They are around now smashing rifles. They bring in the wounded every minute. We'll be waiting for you guys to help.... General Wainwright is a right guy and we are willing to go on for him, but shells were dropping all night. . . . Damage terrific. Too much for the guys to take." His last words before the radio went dead were, "Tell mother how you heard from me."

Not Enough Carriers

Private Strobing and his comrades waited in vain for help, not because the U.S. battleship fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, but because there were not enough U.S. aircraft carriers available to cover a relief effort. This was the fault of inadequate prewar construction, not enemy action. No carriers were at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack. The United States had six first-line carriers in the fleet-versus ten for Japan-and they were divided between two oceans, with only three deployed in the Pacific.

The United States had been a pioneer in carrier aviation, but carrier design and procurement had been hobbled by the disarmament sentiments of the interwar era. Only two fleet carriers, the Saratoga (CV-2) and Lexington (CV-3), had been built in the 1920s, from the hulls of battlecruisers canceled under the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. The Ranger (CV-4) was laid down in 1931, but was limited to 14,000 tons to offset the 38,500-ton Saratoga and Lexington. Overall carrier tonnage also had been set by the Washington Naval Treaty and extended by the 1930 London Naval Treaty.

Unsuitable for the high-intensity operations of the Pacific War, the Ranger was relegated to lighter duties in the Atlantic throughout World War II. It was not until 1934 that two more full-sized carriers were laid down, the Enterprise (CV-6) and the Yorktown (CV-5). This was followed in 1936 by another 14,700-ton compromise design, again mandated by treaty limits. This ship, the Wasp (CV-7), lacked armor and anti-torpedo protection and, like the Ranger, initially was assigned to the Atlantic.

The Roosevelt administration had withdrawn its plans for major cuts in defense spending after the president's meeting with MacArthur and other officers. Indeed, motivated by the need to provide economic stimulation during the Depression, 170 new warships were authorized during FDR's first term, compared to only 28 during 1922-32. In the president's words, however, it still was U.S. policy "to build up to the London Naval Treaty limits," which FDR initially did not plan on reaching until 1942. The prior Coolidge and Hoover administrations had kept force levels below treaty limits, both to save money and in anticipation of future arms control agreements. The arms control regime broke down after 1935, when Japan and Italy withdrew from negotiations and Germany started to rearm. War broke out in Europe in 1939, leading to another cautious upward tick in U.S. naval procurement.

Two more carriers were authorized in 1937, but construction was delayed to keep defense spending down. The Hornet (CV-8) was laid down in 1939 and was commissioned less than two months before Pearl Harbor. The Essex (CV-9) was not laid down until April 1941, four years after authorization, and did not reach the Pacific until May 1943. She thus missed the crucial battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, where the Navy was fighting outnumbered in carriers. A new class of light carriers was started in May 1941, but the first of these ships, the Independence (CVL-22), was not ready for combat until the summer of 1943.

No Relief for Wake Island

The Marine repulse of the first Japanese attempt to take Wake Island on 11 December 1941 gave the U.S. Navy a chance to strike at an exposed part of the Japanese fleet. All the offensive power the Navy still had afloat in the Pacific was committed. Unfortunately, only three aircraft carriers were available. The Saratoga was to escort supply ships and Marine reinforcements to Wake; the Lexington was to attack Japanese air bases; and the Enterprise was to screen Hawaii, but be prepared to support the Wake operation.

Under cover of bad weather, a PBY seaplane landed at Wake on 22 December. It brought word that the Saratoga relief force would arrive the next day. But instead of U.S. warships, the Japanese fleet arrived with 5,000 assault troops.

There were 447 Marines on Wake supported by a single fighter squadron, VMF-211. These "flying leathernecks" never had more than five F4F Wildcat fighters operational at any one time, yet they continued to go up with whatever they could get into the air. The last two fighters went up the day of the invasion to face 39 incoming warplanes. They never returned. The rest of the squadron's personnel joined the ground battle.

The Japanese had reinforced their invasion force substantially, including adding two carriers from the force that had raided Pearl Harbor. The stage was set for the war's first carrier air battle, but it did not happen. The Saratoga still was 500 miles away when the Japanese stormed ashore. The Lexington was 750 miles to the south, and the Enterprise was 1,000 miles to the east.

The Marines on Wake had reported seeing Japanese carrier planes, and the fear was that the entire Pearl Harbor strike group had gone to Wake. This would have pitted six Japanese carriers against two or three American. The Navy could not risk such a battle. The carriers were recalled to Pearl Harbor. Without a stronger Navy, the thousands of Americans deployed across the Pacific from Wake to the Philippines to the Dutch East Indies were doomed, no matter how bravely they fought.

Carrier Losses in 1942

The Lexington was lost during the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942.

The Yorktown, damaged at Coral Sea, was lost in June 1942 during the Battle of Midway, which pitted four Japanese carriers against three U.S. carriers. Only superior U.S. signals intelligence and the luck of American dive bombers in finding the Japanese carrier group just before it launched its strike kept the battle from going the other way. Even after losing three carriers to the U.S. first strike, the remaining Japanese carrier was able to sink the Yorktown.

The Wasp was lost off Guadalcanal in September 1942, and the Hornet was sunk during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942. The Saratoga was torpedoed in January 1942 and again in August by enemy submarines and was out of action most of the year.

The Enterprise took several hits off Guadalcanal in August 1942 but was back in action in time for the Battle of Santa Cruz-where she took more hits. With dockyard crews still on board, and a reduced air wing, she sailed back into combat in November to support Guadalcanal. At the time, the Enterprise was the only operational U.S. carrier in the Pacific. Damaged or not, she had to fightbut prudence required that she stay well south of the island, out of range of Japanese air power.

Could the War Have Been Deterred?

Most Japanese leaders knew that their country could not compete with the industrial might of the United States. The U.S. share of world manufacturing in 1938 was 28.7%, compared to only 3.8% for Japan. A Japanese assessment made in August 1941 indicated a U.S. superiority in war potential of 10-1 over Japan. However, since the United States had not made use of this advantage in the 1920s and 1930s, Tokyo's leaders convinced themselves that it was possible to win a war under the following conditions:

  • Japan would gain rough parity with the United States before the war.
  • A devastating first strike against U.S. forces in Hawaii and the Philippines would convert parity into superiority.
  • This superiority would last long enough to seize territory throughout the Pacific and to fortify strategic positions.
  • The United States would suffer such high casualties trying to retake this territory that it would be willing to negotiate a settlement that would preserve most of Japan's gains. Didn't America's lack of preparedness indicate a decadent society with no stomach for war?

The first three steps were successful. It was at the fourth step that Tokyo underestimated American resolve and military capabilities. Yet, victory was very costly for the United States. How much better it would have been had Japan become convinced by U.S. actions before the war that its strategy could never even reach the first step.

Nor is this just an isolated fact of ancient history. Saddam Hussein had a similar notion about threatening unacceptable casualties to gain a negotiated settlement that would recognize his power in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait. And in 1990, unlike 1941, there was no lack of American commentators who advanced this same argument to forestall U.S. military action. They were proved wrong, in large part because of the rearmament and military modernization programs of the 1980s. Yet, it would have been better for all concerned if Iraq never had been able to delude itself about U.S. power.

The Soviet Union followed a different line with Japan in the late 1930s. Japan renewed its expansion on the Asian mainland after 1937, using its more developed military to push deeper into China. Tokyo then decided to test the U.S.S.R. in a series of skirmishes in 1938 and 1939 along the ill-defined border between Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Korea and Soviet Siberia and Mongolia. However, Russian infantry, backed by superior armor, gave the Japanese a very bloody nose. Tokyo pulled back and signed a nonaggression pact with Moscow in 1941. Japan then turned toward the Pacific where opponents did not seem so tough.

The purpose of peacetime military procurement and readiness is to deter hostile ambitions. Weak countries are constantly challenged because they appear vulnerable. Today's threats may be undefined or ambiguous, as they were through much of the 1920s and 1930s, but history is not at an end. Given the long lead time to procure major weapons and to design new systems embodying steadily advancing technology, during no period can we afford to ignore security needs.

Downsizing the Military in the 1990s

The drop in procurement spending since the Persian Gulf War has been dramatic, amounting to a real decline of 60% between fiscal years 1990 and 1997. The administration's $38.9 billion request for fiscal year 1997 was the lowest since before the Korean War and was a cut of $3.4 billion from what Congress had authorized for fiscal year 1996. Congress was able to set fiscal year 1997 procurement spending at $43.8 billion, but this still is only about two-thirds of what the Joint Chiefs of Staff say is needed to equip the current force structure. Former JCS Chairman General John Shalikashvili stated in the fall of 1996 that beginning in fiscal year 1998, an annual procurement budget of $60 billion will be needed to keep the armed forces modernized. Under current budget projections, this level will not be reached until 2001.

Under the plan presented in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) released in May 1997, there will be I million fewer active-duty military personnel in 2000 than in 1955. Forty years ago, the Eisenhower administration explicitly rejected the maintenance of large-scale conventional and regional warfare capabilities in favor of a reliance on the "massive retaliation" of nuclear weapons but President Eisenhower still maintained a larger active force level for all services than at present.

The fiscal year 1996 budget completed the reduction of the Army to 10 divisions with 495,000 troops, down from 18 divisions with 750,000 troops in 1990. This is a smaller force than that of Russia and China, smaller even than militant Third World regimes such as North Korea and Iran. Between 1990 and 2003, the Navy will lose four active carriers and three air wings, 59 surface combatants, 19 amphibious warfare ships, and 43 attack submarines. The Marine Corps, though still organized to provide three division-sided expeditionary forces, will have 25,000 fewer Marines in the ranks by 2003. The Air Force has declined from 22 tactical wings to 13 and will see another wing shifted from active to reserve status under the QDR.

Plans to defend the United States from a strategic missile attack have been all but abandoned with the cancellation of the Strategic Defense Initiative and the reaffirmation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as the centerpiece of U.S. arms control doctrine. National missile defense plans now are based on keeping a research program in progress with the option of moving toward deployment of a limited system within three years of a determination that a threat exists. The administration does not yet see such a threat on the horizon.

Back to the Future?

The interwar period has been characterized as an era of isolationism. Many commentators, including President Bill Clinton, have expressed the fear that isolationism is again on the rise in post-Cold War America.

Isolationism and its cousin, appeasement, are the products of a mismatch between commitments and capabilities. To justify a reduction in military forces, commitments may be reduced or unrealistic assumptions made about the future peaceful nature of the world. The larger the defense cuts, the larger the withdrawals of diplomatic support from friends and allies. This can lead to isolationism. If commitments are not reduced to match reductions in military forces, then a government must either fail to honor its commitments when challenged, that is, practice appeasement; or enter a war unprepared, risking defeat or at least heavy initial losses.

Such a gap exists today between the QDR's declared strategy and its proposed force levels. The United States is supposed to be able to fight two major theater wars and engage in "multiple" small-scale contingencies. The QDR states, "Maintaining this core capability is central to credibly deterring opportunism-that is, to avoiding a situation in which an aggressor in one region might be tempted to take advantage when U.S. forces are heavily engaged elsewhere.... Such a capability is the sine qua non of a superpower and is essential to the credibility of our overall national security strategy." Yet, the 40% cut in active duty forces made since the Gulf War means that we will not have the forces to carry out this strategy.

The United States practiced various combinations of appeasement and bluff during the 1920s and 1930s, but in the end it was not willing to appease Tokyo sufficiently to remove itself as an obstacle to Japanese expansion. Washington thus found itself in a war for which it had inadequately prepared. Many of those who kept the faith and donned uniforms during the years of minimal budgets paid the difference between austerity and preparedness in blood. Ten or fifteen years from now, will the United States have learned from this history, or will it only be able to repeat it?

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Meet the Author & Book Signing

Sat, 2014-08-30

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership