Pearl Harbor: Japan’s oil blunder

The Pearl Harbor survivors association has used the 70th anniversary to announce they will disband at the end of the year. An estimated 8,000 people who survived the Japanese attack on Hawaii are still alive and 2,700 are members of the association. But it has become too difficult to organise the annual national reunion in Honolulu. Association President William Muehleib cited the age and poor health of remaining members. “It was time. Some of the requirements became a burden,” Muehleib said after this year’s ceremony at Pearl Harbor.
(photo:Matt York/Associated Press)
The moment of silence at the ceremony was marked just before 8am when the first Japanese planes launched their attack. Tuesday, 7 December 1941 would live in infamy” as Roosevelt predicted. In two hours, 2,400 people were killed, 1,200 wounded (a shocking discrepancy between the dead and wounded), 20 ships sunk and 164 planes destroyed. The infamy FDR spoke about was not the death toll but the fact the Japanese had lied to the US Government and attacked 30 minutes before they declared war. The cause of Pearl Harbor, as so much of the 20th century’s conflict was oil. Expansionist Japan was reliant on US petroleum to fire its economy but knew the time would come when America would turn off the tap. The US took a dim view of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war with China. From their puppet base in Manchukuo, Japan declared all out war on China in 1937. Relations with the US deteriorated with the USS Panay Incident in 1937 when the Japanese sunk an American ship in Nangking and then the Allison Incident where US consul to Nangking John Moore Allison was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier. Japan said sorry for both incidents claiming it did not see the American flags on the Panay. It did not offer an excuse for Allison but bowed to US demands for an apology.Economic self-interest ensured the US supplied oil to Japan until 1941. In July that year they finally placed an embargo as did Britain. So did the Dutch two months later, breaking a treaty with Japan and ending the supply line of Javanese oil which had supplied 15% of Japanese crude. The embargo put a critical constraint on the war in China. Japan was the sixth largest importer of oil in the world. If Japan wanted to resume bombing Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong’s armies, it would have to grab oil for itself and the East Indies was the easiest target.

While Pearl Harbor was a shock, the war between US and Japan was no great surprise. A majority of Americans expected war in Asia especially in the Philippines which held many strategic American interests. Japan knew it could not cope with planned American expansion of the Navy. The 1940 Two-Ocean Navy Act (sponsored by two Democrats Carl Vinson of Georgia and David Walsh of Massachusetts) planned to expand the size of the US Navy by 70%. Japan struck a blow before the Vinson-Walsh ships came off the assembly line.

An attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese believed, would also neutralise the Pacific Fleet to give Japan free reign to take Jakarta. Then the Americans would sue for a peace profitable to Japan. That this was flawed thinking is obvious in retrospect as was their failure to work out how the US would respond. Yet it was no woollier than the thinking that led to another oil war.

The 1941 attack was led underwater. Five midget submarines came within 20km of the coast and launched their charges at 1am. At least four were sunk. Then the planes struck. There were almost 200 in the first group. A second wave of 170 flew closely behind. They were picked up by newly established radar on the northern tip of Oahu but were misdiagnosed as a returning US crew and its size was not passed on to headquarters. At 7.48am they arrived at Pearl Harbor. The immediate target of the first wave was the battleships.

Japan believed the battleships were the biggest status symbols of the Navy but badly misread their importance. The sinking of one battleship the USS Arizona caused half the death toll on the day. Ten torpedo bombers attacked the ship. After one bomb detonated in the Arizona’s ammunition magazine, she went up in a deafening explosion. 1,117 of the 1,400 crew were killed instantly and the fire took two days to put out.

The second wave targetted hangars, aircraft, carriers and cruisers. After 90 devastating minutes, half the planes on Oahu were destroyed. A planned third wave to knock out Pearl Harbor’s remaining infrastructure was called off which Admiral Chester Nimitz admitted could have postponed US operations for another year. Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo refused because of likely casualties and a need for night-time operations.

Hong Kong was attacked a day later as were US territories Guam and Wake Island. The Philippines, a commonwealth of the US at the time, was also invaded on 8 December. The same day Japanese troops made an amphibious landing at Kota Bharu in north-eastern Malaya, and six points along south-east Thailand, an invasion ended by an armistice which allowed Japan to use Thailand as a base to attack Malaya. Malaya had rubber and was the obvious dropping off point to access East Indies oil.

Only the US, Iran and Romania exported more oil than the East Indies but the profits went to Royal Dutch Shell. Borneo was another victim of the 8 December attacks threatening the oilfields of Kalimantan. The rest of the island archipelago quickly fell and would remain in Japanese hands until 1945. The three aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor base were out at sea during the attack and the elimination of its battleships gave the US no choice but to put the fate of the war in its carriers.

While the Europe First policy slowed down the Pacific conflict it was almost over as soon as it began. A wrathful America armed with its new Navy and massive fighting capacity never forgave Japan’s treachery. By July 1942, America sunk four of Japan’s carriers at Midway. Japan used Indonesian oil, fierce military pride, a deadly code of honour and incessant pro-war propaganda to keep the insanity going for another three years.


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