restricted access Three The Search for Solutions: The Japanese Situation in the Aftermath of Defeat in the Philippine Sea
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c h a p t e r t h r e e The Search for Solutions The Japanese Situation in the Aftermath of Defeat in the Philippine Sea What does a nation and its navy do after “the decisive battle,” which the navy had gone to war and sought to fight and win and on which the security and well-being of the nation was dependent, has been fought and lost? In an obvious sense, the only sensible thing that Japan could have done was to have sought an end to the war which she had initiated, that somehow she might avoid at the conference table the total defeat that was taking shape in the Pacific.1 States, however, seldom act so rationally and responsibly in such situations, and indeed if Japan in 1941 had been inclined to adopt so rational an approach to proceedings she might well have sought a solution to her problems that did not lead the way of Pearl Harbor. Be that as it may, the basic point that confronted the Japanese national leadership in the wake of the Kaigun’s defeat in the Philippine Sea in June 1944, and the annihilation of the carrier air groups that had been readied for “the decisive battle,” was that the home islands and conquered areas of Southeast Asia lay exposed to an enemy with the full power of choice of when, where, and in what strength the next moves would be made. The latter point, that the home islands and conquered areas of the southern resources area lay open to the enemy, was the crucial fact in providing the Japanese military leadership with focus and purpose in the wake of this disastrous defeat. In the immediate aftermath of this devastating failure, 36 The Battle of Leyte Gulf Imperial General Headquarters (and hence the Naval General Staff) and the Combined Fleet “were both at a loss as to what to do.”2 Such is the nature of military staffs and planning, however, that nothing so minor as a defeat, however disastrous, can long frustrate ill intent; within a month the basis of future resistance had been determined. Without knowing where the Americans might make their next effort, the Japanese high command was obliged to plan for four separate contingencies against landings anywhere between the southern Philippines and the Kuriles. The critical calculation, however, involved the Philippines, and for two obvious reasons. The first, simply, was that these islands clearly beckoned the enemy in the sense that both American drives across the Pacific, along the northern coast of New Guinea and through the Carolines , pointed in the general direction of this archipelago. The second, and all-important, point for the Japanese high command was the simple fact that the Philippines lay astride Japan’s communications with the southern resources area, and, in strategic terms, the loss of the island group would represent a defeat virtually indistinguishable from an invasion and conquest of the home islands.3 The importance of the Philippines to Japan in terms of national ability to wage war was critical: the Americans had to be denied the positional advantage that would result in their severing Japan’s seaborne lines of communication with the south. This basic consideration was one of three matters that shaped Japanese strategic thinking in the month following the defeat in the Philippine Sea. The second and third matters must await their turn to come to center stage, but suffice it to note that this fundamental calculation, involving the strategic geography of Japan and her conquests, was immediately tied to two contradictory caveats. After 20 June and defeat in the Philippine Sea, the bulk of the Japanese fleet had withdrawn to the Nansei Shoto (i.e., Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands) and thence to home waters. But even in 1942, at its peak strength and capability, the greater part of the Japanese fleet was deployed in the south primarily because Japan lacked the number of tankers to sustain the nation and a navy in home waters. Put at its simplest, and with scarcely any exaggeration, Japan went to war in December 1941 in order to secure control of certain resources, most obviously oil, without which she could not ensure national survival, but even in the period of her greatest success, and before defeats made their appearance, Japan could supply the nation with oil or it could supply a navy in home waters with oil, but not both and not at the same time. Japan...