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The War with Japan: The Period of Balance, May 1942–October 1943

The War with Japan: The Period of Balance, May 1942–October 1943 by H. P. Willmott. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, 180 pp.

          The War with Japan argues that the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway did not dictate the outcome of the Pacific War. Rather, it holds that single battles seldom have determined naval wars and that after those encounters, the situation was still to be decided. Willmott argues that an analog might be a brawl at the end of which a single pistol was left on the ground. Both sides were capable of grabbing it, and success would go to whoever grasped the initiative. That initiative was Guadalcanal, which was really undertaken before the United States was ready to do so. It was a close-run thing, but it turned out that the initiative was more important than the readiness for battle.

          H. P. Willmott is certainly qualified to write such a work. He has a doctorate from London University and has taught at Sandhurst and the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom and in America at Temple and the National Defense University, among other institutions. His list of publications is staggering, and many of them focused on World War II in general and the Pacific War and naval operations in particular. This short work is especially valuable for the aspirant strategists, for Willmott’s knowledge and wisdom are applied to a particularly worthy case study artfully.

          The War with Japan is focused on the New Guinea and Guadalcanal campaigns, with greater emphasis on the latter. The discussion makes clear that the Clausewitzian idea that war is the province of chance is sound. Many things in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway were heavily dependent upon luck. The Japanese assumption that the Yorktown went down was chance, and the way that the US naval aviators accidentally found the Japanese carriers just as they were refueling and rearming the planes from the first strike on Midway was sheer luck.

The fog of war was everywhere, and the importance of sound intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance is clear—the Americans held important advantages in code breaking and in radar. The radar came along ultimately to rescue the US Navy (USN) from its disadvantage in night operations. The Japanese had trained long and well for night visual alertness and gunnery; the Americans had not. But the Americans had done far more development and training in shipboard damage control than had the Japanese.

Jointness left something to be desired on the American side, but that problem was far worse among the Japanese. The Japanese had made a short war assumption at the outset. That assumption was responsible for one of their most serious failings: inadequate force sustainment. They built a huge defensive perimeter of island bases, but the gaps between them were many, and in the end, their maritime transport and ship-building industries were far from able to cope with a long war. The role of airpower in crippling that transport was vital at both Guadalcanal and New Guinea, and Japanese losses of transport ships in 1942 and 1943 put them so far behind that they did not have a prayer of catching up. USN submarines were vital in this part of the effort as well.

          Bureaucratic rivalry on the American side did get in the way of strategy making. The USN recognized that the European theater would be owned by the US Army, and the establishment of Douglas MacArthur in Australia was seen as an unwarranted intrusion into the naval theater. Personality played a role in this as well, as there was little love lost between MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific and ADM Ernest King in Washington. But the relationships between army and navy on the Japanese side were much worse. One demonstration was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s leaving their surviving soldiers in Guadalcanal to die of starvation.

          Willmott’s little work is a splendid case study for the modern strategist. He has his facts straight and has a fine writing style.

David R. Mets, PhD

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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