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1/25/2018 7:38:29 AM
Posted: 3/4/2006 7:36:17 AM EST

World War II: Why we fought it in the first place

In any discussion of the Pacific War during World War II, a major aspect is why we fought the war in the first place. What series of events caused us to become involved in a bitter battle with an enemy across some 8,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, an enemy that less than 100 years earlier had decided to become "Westernized," with all the trappings of an industrial civilization, including a desire for "empire" and the building of a modern navy and army to attain the goal?

Japan made a trial run for empire with a small war against China in 1894-95, followed by a major naval war with Czarist Russia in 1904-05. This confirmed Japanese presence as a world power, and during World War I, Japan was allied with the Democracies against the Central Powers. (Can you imagine that Japanese destroyers provided naval escort to New Zealand soldiers on their way to fight in the Mediterranean?)

As one of the victors, Japan claimed spoils and was awarded a mandate over the former German islands in the Pacific. One problem: These islands were athwart our sea lines of communication between the American mainland and our own spoils of empire, the Philippine Islands.

Japanese control of those islands was thus a threat to continued American presence in the western Pacific. American Army Air Corps Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell pointed this out in 1924 when he testified in his court-martial. We were in danger in the Pacific, he said, and the enemy was Japan. This was not politically correct, and Mitchell was reduced in rank to colonel. He resigned a year later.

The Japanese denied allegations that they were fortifying these former German mandate islands, but all the while they were pouring concrete and embedding artillery.

The Japanese goal was to become the premier nation in the western Pacific and deny rights to that area to all other nations. Japan planned to gather all western Pacific nations into a geo-political entity called "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

Japan told the entire region that under this proposal, all would reap the benefits of economic cooperation. The truth: Japan would control the economies of all the nations in the western Pacific and planned on plundering their resources. Japan was especially intent on getting the one resource it needed -- oil -- to become a world-class power. Japan knew that the world ran on oil; it had plenty of coal and enough iron ore, but it lacked oil. Just to the south of the Japanese home islands lay the bulging underground oil deposits controlled by the Netherlands in the Dutch East Indies.

The other vital need in any modern industrial economy was rubber, and there were huge rubber plantations in French Indo-China; British Malaya also produced vast quantities of rubber along with tin. These resources were part of what Japan called the Southern Resources Area: All were to be included in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Thus, Asian politics and commerce were to flow through Tokyo.

During the 1930s Japan also began a rearmament program under agreed-to international treaties: the Five-Power Treaty of 1922 decreed that the ratio of naval tonnage was to be 5:5:3; that is, the United States and Great Britain could have a tonnage of "5" while Japan was restricted to a tonnage of "3." (The London Conference of 1930 amended this to a 10:10:7 ratio.) Japan agreed to these restrictions because it was the best deal it could get and proceeded to ignore all the clauses of the treaties as it embarked on a huge rearmament program.

By the late 1930s, there were other world events that got Japanese attention. Adolph Hitler's rise as the German leader and his re-arming and taking over European nations (Austria and Czechoslovakia) by threats and intimidation, caused Europe to be in a boil. And the United States embarked on a major rearmament program of its own, including the construction of a two-ocean navy and the fortification of its possessions (Guam, Wake Island, Hawaii) in the Pacific. Japan understood this to be a clear and active threat to Japan's goal of becoming the dominant industrial power in the area.

In July 1941, the United States and the Netherlands declared an embargo on shipping oil to Japan, agreeing it could be lifted only if Japan gave up its ambitions in the western Pacific.

But Japan had in its own oil bunkers about a two-year supply and decided it would not back down. Thus, during this brief period when the attention of the European powers was focused on events in Europe, leaving their possessions in the far east vulnerable to aggression; and the United States was at least two years away from being able to challenge Japan militarily; this was the perfect time to opt for war.

The Japanese hope was that they could achieve enough through military actions to force the United States to agree that the cost of reclaiming the status quo antebellum would be too high for Americans to risk war -- and Japan would thus be left as the dominant nation in the western Pacific.

The Japanese war plan: an air attack against the American bastion at Pearl Harbor to put the American fleet out of commission, coupled with a simultaneous attack to capture the European possessions in the Southern Resources Area.

Next column: the attack on Pearl Harbor and the American and Japanese war plans.


On the Author
For these columns on the Pacific War, I invite any veterans who were part of that war to send me their stories. I'll print as many of them as I can.

Glenn H. Campbell joined the U. S. Marine Corps in April 1943 and shipped out to Guadalcanal for training. (American Marines had assaulted Guadalcanal on Aug, 7, 1942, and completed the campaign on Feb. 9, 1943.)

He was assigned to artillery, and his first campaign was the Sept. 15, 1944, invasion of Peleliu. It was supposed to be a short "exercise" for the Marines, since the Navy considered that their pre-invasion bombardment had softened all resistance. Fat chance!

In Campbell's own words: "On the first day we tried to land on Peleliu the shore fire was so bad we could not get in. On the second day, we were able to get in but we had to jump in water up to our waist and wade in. While wading ashore, we waded right past ... Marines who tried to get in the day before, who were still in the water and lying on the beach."

Campbell adds, "In the next day or two, we got our big guns set up and started shelling the Japanese (front lines) in front of our own (Marine) infantry. It is hard to believe but most of Peleliu was coral rock and the Japanese had large rooms chiseled out of those rocks ... and just lived in those rocks. They were very hard to get out. The (Marine) infantry got shot up so bad they moved us out of artillery and onto the front lines for us to hold the lines while the regular Marine infantry went to the rear and reorganized."

It took until Nov. 24, 1944, before Peleliu was declared secure. In Campbell's opinion, Peleliu was "one of the hardest operations in the whole South Pacific."



Ned Harrison, a veteran of World War II, wants to hear from veterans of all our nation's wars. He also wants to hear from civilians who have stories about our wars or observations about veterans, and who otherwise supported those in uniform. Please send your war stories to: Ned Harrison, News & Record, P. O. Box 20848, Greensboro, N. C. 27420 or vetspeak@earthlink.net.


Does anyone see the Simularities between Pre-WWII Japan and the current geopolitical situation with China?

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