Friday, April 10, 2015

Early Months in the Pacific

In the first months of 1942, Americans were consumed by dire “what if?” scenarios that, for the moment, were not altogether fantastic. Now the U.S. must fight for its life, read the lead headline of the March 2 issue of Life. Less than three months after Pearl Harbor, the world was collapsing before the twin onslaughts of the Germans and the Japanese, and the United States seemed as vulnerable to Axis attack as the Philippines or the Soviet Union. The invasion fears were well-founded. When the war began, there were only 100,000 troops to guard the entire Pacific coast and precious little ammunition to arm them with. Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, who in December 1941 was charged with defending central and southern California, noted in his diary, “If the Japs had only known, they could have landed anywhere on the coast, and after our handful of ammunition was gone, they could have shot us like pigs in a pen.”

The same March 2 issue of Life served up a chilling menu of invasion schemes, and to make the peril more graphic, the magazine provided a series of artists’ conceptions of how the Battle for America might unfold. Those pictures showed U.S. demolitions men blowing up the San Francisco Bay Bridge just as a Japanese troopship arrived; the city was burning in the background. Lines of Japanese troops plodded by Mount Rainier and tankmen joined in a firefight at a southern California filling station. Indeed, these scenes perfectly suited the plans Japanese strategists had for their suddenly expanding Pacific empire. Overcome by what was known in Japan as the “victory disease,” they contemplated sweeping through the Indian Ocean to Africa, capturing Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, as well as invading Alaska and thrusting southward along the Pacific coast of Canada and into the U.S. Northwest. And while they were at it, they would take over all of Central America (including the Panama Canal), Colombia, Ecuador, and even extend their domain to Cuba.

If the United States was as edgy as it was unprepared, Australia faced a prospect that was even more dismal. By the end of the spring, Japanese troops had established themselves on the north coast of New Guinea, only a few hundred miles away from the island continent. Invasion seemed likely in a matter of months, and there was little that could be done to prevent it. The results of a Japanese beachhead could have drastically altered the way the Pacific war was played out. Why that invasion did not happen is one of the seldom-remembered episodes of World War II—except, of course, in Australia. The battle for the Kokoda Trail over New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Range and the Japanese attempt to reach and take Port Moresby, the settlement that would be the staging base for their Australian operation, had an undeniably epic quality. Though it is generally thought that the Battle of Midway in the first days of June marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese empire, the struggle for the Kokoda Trail and the bravery of a handful of young Australians may have been equally important in the reversing of what had seemed an irreversible tide. Only a few thousand men may have been involved on both sides, but the Kokoda Trail was a perfect example of what has been called the minimal rewrite rule of counterfactual history: that small events can have great consequences.

The Australian defense of the Kokoda Trail marked the first check on land suffered by the Japanese. Obscure events can have big consequences. A Japanese victory would have changed the entire calculus of the Pacific War. Once they had taken Port Moresby, an invasion of the almost unpopulated northeastern peninsula of Australia, just a few hundred miles away from Port Moresby, would have been impossible to stop. It would have forced the United States to divert its resources, still fairly negligible in mid-1942, to the defense of the island continent. (This was a time when more American soldiers—close to 20,000—were in Japanese POW camps than were available to fight.) Landings on islands like Guadalcanal and Bougainville would have to be postponed, as would any thought of an island-hopping strategy. Where could the Allies begin their opening thrust? Even if Japan could not conquer the entire continent, a substantial foothold would have been enough to provide a southern anchor for its empire. Imperial forces would have the Pacific battlefield bracketed by the Australian and Chinese landmass. Moreover, the securing of the Australia–New Guinea flank would have allowed the Japanese to cut off American aid to Australia and to initiate an island-hopping strategy of their own, with Hawaii as their ultimate goal.

The war may have turned on the struggle for the Kokoda Trail as much as it did on the more heralded June naval victory at Midway.

A wargame campaign designed for use with 28mm miniatures

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