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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 186-188



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Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941. By Mark R. Peattie. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001. Pp. xxi+364. $36.95.

This sequel to Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (1997), coauthored by Mark Peattie with the late David C. Evans, carries the same themes forward. It tells of the evolution of the Imperial Japanese Navy's aviation arm in its two parts, carrier- and land-based, and of the impact of the war in China from 1937, and explains how the navy's defeat came about. As in the case of the nation itself, this did not result from the B-29 fire raids, or from the atomic bombs, the icing on the cake of Allied victory, but rather from a maritime nation's fundamental weaknesses at sea and a lack of vision that caused it to commit suicide. [End Page 186] The final chapter of Sunburst details some thirty reasons why Japanese naval air lost the war.

The Japanese peaked in the late interwar years with highly innovative designs such as the Mitsubishi Zero, a very nimble and long-legged but fragile fighter. But they failed to increase their aircraft production soon enough and to allocate among many different priorities. They paid too little attention to logistics, spares, and mechanics. The navy assumed that it could use bases as far as 2,400 miles from Tokyo without the air transport or shipping with which to supply them; as a result, serviceability in the critical Southwest Pacific theater during 1942 and 1943 was only 50 percent. And the vital skilled mechanics had either been lost in sunken carriers, notably at Midway, or callously abandoned as the Japanese withdrew from their advanced bases.

After 1937, Peattie argues, the Japanese navy's sense of mission was skewed by operations on the Asian continent. This led both to the development of long-range aircraft able to bomb Chinese cities and to external tankage for their escort fighters. The latter learned dogfighting tactics against inferior biplanes. Moreover, since casualties were extremely low, the Japanese enjoyed flying organizations that had the cohesiveness of professional teams. At the same time, recruiting and training were based upon consumption and wastage at essentially peacetime rates. When this was coupled to a "short-war" vision, the consequences of the failure to achieve a decisive victory at Pearl Harbor proved insurmountable and fatal to Japan itself.

Peattie demonstrates that these factors supported the longstanding dominance of the big-gun battleship school, even after the airmen had demonstrated the primacy of air power by sinking HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales with torpedoes off Malaya. He argues that both the navy and its land- and sea-based air services were highly technical organizations susceptible to critical constraints concerning design specifications, industrial know-how and capacity, testing, training, doctrine, and availability of personnel as well as of new equipment. Even in 1945 there were no reliable radiotelephones. When radar was finally made available, the key base at Rabaul could not be forewarned because there was no link between radar operators and airmen.

Peattie blames this in part on the desperate shortage of staff officers in the field and in part on a lack of vision as to American aircraft developments. The Japanese navy and Tokyo in general failed to anticipate the masses of B-17s and B-24s that the United States could put into the air with trained crews supported by a sufficient number of mechanics. Also affecting performance were poor food and inadequate medical care for men from a temperate climate immured in hot, humid tropics.

The underlying theme, then, is that mismanagement of technology and inadequate organization debilitated a stunningly successful force to the [End Page 187] point where it found itself constantly fighting for its life while becoming ever more fatigued. In part this came about because the Japanese were a manual-labor society, without earthmoving equipment, and so were unable to build the myriad...

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