Modern history


Japan’s Achilles’ Heel

IN THE FIRST WEEK of December 1941, an American naval squadron was on a courtesy call in the huge, splendid harbor at Balikpapan, in Borneo, in the British East Indies. At the turn of the century, at that then unknown spot on the map, Marcus Samuel had ordered his nephew to carve a refinery complex out of the jungle. Over the four decades that followed, what had seemed Samuel’s foolish and reckless dream had not only turned into a great oil-refining center for the island’s production, but had also become one of the grand jewels of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group and a major landmark in the world oil industry.

Now, in December 1941, the refinery management had just hosted a party for the visiting American sailors, and the Americans were planning to offer a return party onshore, at the local club. The junior officers, along with crates of liquor, were already assembling at the club when a senior officer suddenly appeared and ordered them back to the ship immediately. On board, fueling began at once, and by midnight, the American ships were steaming out of the harbor. That was how the English and Dutch oil men at Balikpapan learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The war for which they had been waiting and preparing had, at last, begun.

A year earlier, in 1940, when a Shell manager named H. C. Jansen arrived at Balikpapan, he had found air raid shelters already built and evacuation plans developed. In the subsequent months, the entrance to the harbor was mined, and 120 men practiced destruction exercises. They all knew that Balikpapan and the surrounding oil fields were one of the great prizes for which the Japanese would go to war. The oil men’s job would be to deny the Japanese that prize.

In the days right after Pearl Harbor, the wives and children of the oil men were evacuated from Balikpapan. In the nights that followed, Jansen and his colleagues, now all bachelors, would sit in rattan chairs in his garden, looking down in the darkness at the refinery and the ocean beyond it—the moon did not rise from the sea until late—talking about the depressing radio reports of the Japanese advances into Southeast Asia. What would the Americans do? When would the Japanese come to Balikpapan? What would be the future of this great industrial enterprise? They wondered, as well, about what fate held in store for each of them. They talked, more immediately, about how to strengthen the defenses of Balikpapan. During the days, however, they had precious little time to reflect on anything; they worked themselves to exhaustion, seeking to turn out as much refined product as possible, which would be used, they fervently hoped, for the Allied war effort.

In mid-January 1942, with the Japanese closing in, crews in the outlying oil fields began to destroy the wells, as was being done elsewhere in the Indies. They pulled out the tubing, cut it up, and jammed it down again into the wells, along with pumps, rods, any bolts, nuts, and drilling bits they could lay their hands on, and one other thing—a tin of TNT for each well. The wells were blown up. The crews started with the least productive wells, but finally all were destroyed.

Meanwhile, the first steps toward demolishing the Balikpapan refinery complex were underway. The stills and steam boilers were turned on and allowed to boil dry until they collapsed. No one knew how long it would take. But, after thirty hours, the first still began to fall apart, and the others soon followed. Then on January 20, the men at the refinery received the word they had feared: A Japanese fleet was at sea only twenty-four hours’ steaming time away. The Japanese sent, via two captured Dutchmen, an ultimatum: Surrender at once, or all would be bayoneted. A military officer assigned to the refinery gave the order to begin the demolition.

Jansen and the other men blew up the mines store first; the blast shattered all the window panes in the area. Next came the wharves, which had been thoroughly doused with either gasoline or a mixture of kerosene and lubricating oil. By noon, the docks were aflame. The oil men noticed, with some technical curiosity, that when the smoke from the wharves that had been set on fire by gasoline converged with the smoke from those set aflame by kerosene and lubricating oil, the interaction ignited bursts of lightning in an otherwise clear midday sky.

From then on, the huge complex was rocked by one explosion after another. The flames leaped 150 feet in the sky, as the salt water station, the tin plant, the refinery installations, the power plant, and more and more buildings joined the conflagration. The men, covered with sweat and soot, ran about amidst the flames, following plans they had rehearsed many times. They moved on to the tank farm, the area in which oil was stored. To each tank, fifteen sticks of TNT had been affixed. But some of it had deteriorated in the humid weather and would not ignite. Moreover, exhaustion was starting to overcome the men. Would they be able to find some way to set the tanks on fire? A fresh batch of volunteers tried to ignite them with rifles, but to no avail. The alternative was to open the valves. But the keys to the valves, they realized, were back in the tank farm office, which had already been destroyed.

Finally, the tanks on the higher ground were opened, and the oil poured down to the tanks below. Electrical ignition would be used to detonate four or five tanks, with the hope that flaming oil would set off fire in the rest. Jansen took cover with the others behind an empty tank as the ignition was sent. Instantly, a great ball of fire rose up, followed by a terrific explosion, and then a huge hurricane of wind. As the flaming sea of oil poured down the hill toward the other tanks, the tank farm became a hellish conflagration.

There was nothing more to do. Jansen and the others ran down the hill to the wireless station; native guards, in full uniform, saluted them. The oil men, their throats parched, exhausted to the bone, climbed into native boats called proas. The sea around them was red from the reflection of the great columns of fire, and still there was one explosion after another. Now came the next phase of the plan, the one that had never been practiced—escape.

The men left the bay and entered the mouth of the Riko River, headed up-river toward an evacuation camp. Eventually, the fiery carnage at the refinery site disappeared, lost in the dark jungle foliage and the heavy night, and the explosions faded away into the endless chorus of cicadas. For hours, they sailed on. Occasionally, they could still spot the red glow from Balikpapan high in the sky. They had done their work well; four decades of industrial creation had been destroyed in less than a day. Finally, they came to the evacuation camp deep in the jungle, on a small tributary of the Riko. They spent interminable hours listening intently for the sound of the airplane that was to be sent to their rescue. It did not come.

The next night, Jansen and a small group sailed back down the tributary to its junction with the Riko. They passed that night in the boat, hoping that rescue would arrive, straining their ears to hear a plane or a boat but worrying that whatever they heard might be Japanese. One man, asleep on the hard seat, fell overboard; the others pulled him back in, making a great din to scare the crocodiles away. The only way to keep the mosquitoes at bay was by smoking pipes and cigarettes. To Jansen, the hours seemed unending. Dawn came, and still they waited.

At about one in the afternoon, a company seaplane appeared out of the sky and set down on the river. The pilot was going on to pick up a wounded man at another location and promised to return. He was as good as his word. He took four people. Jansen was not among them. Later, Jansen and the others received a message to go back to the bay at Balikpapan, and they set off downstream again. That night, two seaplanes appeared and evacuated many of them. Jansen was on the second plane, packed in so tightly that he could hardly breathe. But once they were in the air, a breeze filtered in through the cabin, and some even sank to the floor of the plane, asleep.

When the evacuees arrived at Surabaya, on the north coast of the island of Java, they were greeted by the commander of the local airbase. “It is no longer possible to send planes to Balikpapan; the Japs are there,” he said. “I have forbidden the Grumman to go back.” Seventy-five people were left stranded by the bay at Balikpapan, still awaiting rescue. It was too late; the Japanese had landed on the south side of the bay. A few hours after midnight on January 24, four blacked-out American destroyers slipped up on a dozen Japanese troop transports, starkly silhouetted against the red fires of the still-burning refinery complex. In what became known as the Battle of Balikpapan, the Americans sank four of the transports, plus a patrol boat. But, owing to faulty torpedoes, they did not sink more. It was the first American sea battle with the Japanese, indeed, the first time the United States Navy had been involved in surface action since Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila in 1898.

It hardly slowed the Japanese landing at Balikpapan at all. The stranded oil men had no choice but to retreat into the jungle. They broke up into small groups for what proved to be a desperate effort to find some route of evacuation through the jungle. It was a terrible ordeal. They made their way by foot or in proas, beset by hunger, exhaustion, malaria, dysentery, and fear, their parties growing smaller and smaller as the ill and dead dropped away. From natives they encountered, they learned that the Japanese had landed all over Borneo. Trapped in the jungle, they felt like rats in a cage. A few did finally escape from the island. Of the seventy-five people left behind, only thirty-five survived the jungle, the Japanese firing squads, and the Japanese prisons.1

“Victory Drunk”

Preemptive destruction of oil facilities, similar to that at Balikpapan, was carried out elsewhere in the East Indies. But this seemed a minor inconvenience to the Japanese wave sweeping across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. By mid-March 1942, Japan’s control of the East Indies was complete. Coming in the wake of other conquests, this meant that Japan had, in just three months, won possession of all the rich resources of Southeast Asia—and the oil, in particular, for which it had gone to war. And still the Japanese war machine rolled on. In Tokyo, Premier Tojo bragged that Hong Kong had fallen in eighteen days, Manila in twenty-six, and Singapore in seventy. A “victory fever” gripped the country; the stunning military successes spawned such a runaway stock market boom in the first part of 1942 that the government had to intervene to dampen it down. Some said the country had become “victory drunk.” Only a few warned of the inevitable morning after.

The Japanese elation was more than matched by American shock and despair. On Christmas Day 1941, Admiral Chester Nimitz, newly appointed head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, arrived by seaplane at Pearl Harbor to begin the job of picking up the pieces. As he was ferried across the harbor to the dock, he passed small boats that were searching for bodies; two and a half weeks after the attack, corpses were still floating to the surface. That grim scene in Hawaii was only part of the larger, dismal outlook facing the United States—war in both hemispheres, a truly global conflict. Pearl Harbor was, almost certainly, the worst humiliation in American history. Fear and panic gripped the nation. Yet the war, so long feared and so long half-expected, was finally here, and the country quickly rallied for the long, arduous struggle with Germany and Japan.

Who would be in charge of America’s Pacific War, the Army or the Navy? Each service was loath to commit its entire force in the Pacific to an officer from the other. Personal rivalries and animosities compounded the bureaucratic competition. As a result, two commands and two theaters were set up. The contrast between the Army’s and Navy’s top commanders was enormous. General Douglas MacArthur, although a strategist of great shrewdness, was also egoistic, bombastic, and imperious. At one meeting during the war, after three hours of listening to MacArthur, Franklin Roosevelt told an aide, “Give me an aspirin…. In fact, give me another aspirin to take in the morning. In all my life nobody has ever talked to me the way MacArthur did.” For his part, Admiral Chester Nimitz was a soft-spoken, unassuming team player, who, when waiting word on the outcome of a battle, would practice on his pistol range or toss horseshoes right outside his office. “It simply was not in him to make sweeping statements or to give colorful interviews,” noted one correspondent.

The divided command did much more, however, than provide a contrast in styles of military leadership; it also led to bitter and wasteful battles over scarce resources and, worse, poor coordination in key military operations in the farflung battle zones. The distances American forces would have to cover in their ultimate convergence on the Japanese Home Islands were simply enormous. No war had ever been fought on such a scale. America had a great advantage in resources. But how were American forces to be supplied? And how were the Japanese to be denied the abundant resources they had already captured? The answers to these two questions would help shape strategy and would do much to determine the course of the far-flung war in the Pacific. From the beginning, Nimitz had no question in his own mind as to what his strategy would be. He and Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations, agreed, in the words of Nimitz’s biographer, “that the primary objectives of the Allied armed forces were to safeguard their own supply lines and then drive westward in order to capture bases from which Japan’s indispensable ‘oil line’ might be blocked.”2

“The Adults’ Hour”

While, in the early months of 1942, the Americans belatedly mobilized for the conflict, the Japanese, glorying in their astonishing string of victories, pondered their next moves. So self-confident had they become that the country’s military leaders considered thrusting westward through the Indian Ocean to link with German forces in the Middle East or Russia and help sever the Allies’ supply of oil from Baku and Iran. Not all the Japanese, to be sure, fell victim to “victory fever.” In April 1942, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, wrote to his favorite geisha: “The ‘first stage of operations’ has been a kind of children’s hour, and will soon be over; now comes the adults’ hour, so perhaps I’d better stop dozing and bestir myself.”

Yamamoto continued to share with other Japanese naval leaders the deep belief in and commitment to the “decisive battle,” which would knock the enemy out of the war. A quick victory was essential, he knew from his years in the United States, because of America’s oil and other resources and its industrial might. Thus, the Japanese decided to mount a major attack on Midway Island, just eleven hundred miles west of Hawaii. At the very least, the Japanese planned to use an assault on Midway to extend their defense perimeter. And if the American fleet were drawn out, so much the better, for the Japanese could make this the decisive battle and finish the job they had started at Pearl Harbor, obliterating the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Battle of Midway, in early June 1942, turned out to be decisive, but not in the way most Japanese expected. Instead, it was the “adults’ hour” that Yamamoto had feared. Having made a remarkable recovery from the devastation at Pearl Harbor, and with the additional advantage of being able to read the enemy’s code (which the Japanese had been slow to change because their forces were so dispersed), the U.S. Navy dealt a resounding defeat to the complacent Japanese, sending four of the Imperial Fleet’s aircraft carriers to the bottom, while losing just one of its own.

Midway was the true turning point in the Pacific War, the end of the Japanese offensive. Thereafter, the balance would shift, as the relentless weight of American manpower, resources, technology, organizational ability, and sheer determination began to push the Japanese back across the Pacific in one bloody battle after another. The counterattack began two months after Midway, when American troops landed on the island of Guadalcanal, off New Guinea. Six months of brutal fighting followed, but finally the United States captured the island in what was called the first American offensive of the war. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the Japanese Army had been pierced. But it was only one small and costly step in the long struggle to exhaust the resources, if not the will, of an implacable enemy.3

The initial attempts to deny Japan the oil of the Indies did not prove much of an impediment. The Japanese had anticipated the demolition—the likelihood had long been signaled—but they found, despite Shell’s efforts at Balikpapan and Stanvac’s on Sumatra, that the destruction was neither as severe nor as widespread as they had expected. The Japanese immediately set about rehabilitating the oil industry of the Indies. Drilling teams, refinery crews, and equipment were rushed in. In short order, some four thousand oil field workers, 70 percent of the total in the Home Islands, were shipped south.

The result was astonishing. Before the outbreak of war, the Japanese military had planned on getting sufficient oil within two years from the Indies—what was called the Southern Zone—to make up for shortfalls. That goal was exceeded. Oil production in the Southern Zone had been 65.1 million barrels in 1940. In 1942, the Japanese were able to produce just 25.9 million barrels, but by 1943, they had gotten it back to 49.6 million barrels—75 percent of the 1940 level. In the first three months of 1943, Japanese oil imports had risen to 80 percent of the amount imported in the same period of 1941, just before the imposition of the oil embargo in July 1941 by the Americans, British, and Dutch. As they had planned, the Japanese were able to use the captured East Indies to replenish their stocks of petroleum. Moreover, there was no lack of oil in the Southern Zone. The Japanese fleet could refuel locally at will.

The Japanese also took advantage of efforts by Caltex, the partnership in the Eastern Hemisphere of Standard of California and Texaco. Just before the war, Caltex had identified a very promising field, the Minas structure, in central Sumatra, and had moved in a drilling rig and the required equipment. The Japanese took over the work and, using Caltex’s rig, drilled a discovery well—their only wildcat in all of World War II. They struck a super giant field, the largest between California and the Middle East. So successful was the overall effort in the Southern Zone that in 1943, Premier Tojo announced that the oil problem—which had triggered Japan’s aggression—was solved. But Tojo had spoken too soon.4

The Battle of the Marus: The War of Attrition

In devising their military strategy, the Japanese had assumed that the rich resources—the oil, the other raw materials, the food supplies—of the Southern Zone could be welded securely to the economy and needs of the barren Home Islands, thus giving Japan the staying power to erect and maintain a “Pacific wall.” The Japanese could then take on the Americans and the British, wearing down their resolve until they wearied and made peace, leaving Asia and the Pacific to the Japanese empire. That strategy was a gamble, the success of which depended not only on weakening the opponents’ resolve, but also, and absolutely, on the integrity of Japan’s own shipping system. Japan had entered the war with oil inventories sufficient to last two years—or so Japanese planners thought. Beyond that time, Japan would have to call upon the oil of the East Indies. And this dependence, in the words of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, “proved to be a fatal weakness.” Or, as one history of Japanese military operations put it, “The shortage of liquid fuel was Japan’s Achilles’ heel.”

The specific weakness was the vulnerability of Japanese shipping to submarines. Military planners had given surprisingly little thought to that risk. They underestimated both American submarines and the men who would sail on them. The Japanese thought Americans would be too soft and luxury-loving to stand up to the rigors of undersea living and warfare. In fact, America’s submarines were the best in the war; and once equipped with improved torpedoes, they were a deadly weapon that weakened and then ruptured the critical shipping links between the Southern Zone and the Home Islands. The long, drawn-out confrontation became known as the Battle of the Marus, after the term the Japanese used to describe all merchantmen. But only in late 1943 did the Japanese begin to give serious attention to the protection of shipping against submarines, including the establishment of convoys. Their efforts were inadequate and incomplete. “When we requested air cover,” one convoy commander said ruefully, “only American planes showed up.” The Japanese shipping losses continued to mount.5

Moreover, convoys created their own problems, which actually aided the Allies. Assembling and directing the movement of convoys required the generation of a network of radio signals that, among other things, announced exact “noon positions.” The interception of these messages by the Americans, who had cracked the Japanese codes, provided vitally useful information for the submariners. Overall, the consequences would be devastating. Of Japan’s total wartime steel merchant shipping, some 86 percent was sunk during the conflict and another 9 percent so seriously damaged as to be out of action by the time the war ended. Less than 2 percent of American naval personnel—the submariners—were responsible for 55 percent of the total loss. Submarines from other Allied nations contributed another 5 percent. The success of this campaign—in effect, an ever-tightening blockade, a war of attrition—was later described by a group of Japanese economists as “a death blow to the war economy of Japan.”

Oil tankers were among the favorite targets of the submariners, and tanker sinkings rose very sharply from 1943 on. By 1944, sinkings were far outrunning new tanker construction. Oil imports into Japan had reached their peak in the first quarter of fiscal year 1943. A year later, in the comparable quarter of 1944, the imports were less than half the 1943 figure. By the first quarter of 1945, imports had disappeared altogether. “Towards the end the situation was reached,” a Japanese captain said, “that we were fairly certain a tanker would be sunk shortly after departing from port. There wasn’t much doubt in our minds that a tanker would not get to Japan.”

As their oil situation worsened, the Japanese tried many expedients and improvisations. Oil was put into drums of many sizes, and even into fiber containers that were loaded onto the decks of freighters. The Japanese filled large rubber bags with three hundred to five hundred barrels of oil that tugs were to tow to Japan. As ingenious as this was, the concept failed for a number of reasons: The gasoline attacked the rubber, the filling and emptying of the bags was difficult, and the bags reduced the maneuverability of the tugs, making them better targets for air attack. In desperation, the Japanese even tried to transport oil in their own submarines and sought to force German subs to deliver oil in exchange for access to repair facilities in Japan.

At home, as imports dried up, the Japanese squeezed and squeezed. Civilian gasoline consumption in 1944 was down to just 257,000 barrels—a mere 4 percent of the 1940 figure. Those gasoline-driven vehicles deemed essential were reequipped with charcoal or wood burners. Oils for industrial uses were made from soy beans, peanuts, coconuts, and castor beans. Civilian stocks of potatoes, sugar, and rice wine—even bottles of sake from the shelves of retail stores—were requisitioned for conversion to alcohol, to be used as fuel.

In 1937, the Japanese had made an ambitious and determined commitment to synthetic fuels, and in the months before Pearl Harbor, some in Tokyo had championed synthetic fuels as an alternative to war. But the actual wartime effort failed miserably, crippled by shortages of steel and equipment, and by a never-ending series of technical, engineering, mechanical, and personnel problems. In 1943, Japan’s synthetic fuels production amounted to a total of one million barrels—only 8 percent of the 14-million-barrel target that had been set for that year—and never did those fuels meet more than 5 percent of the total oil requirements. Moreover, over half of the capacity was in Manchuria, where it was rendered useless in late 1944 and 1945 by blockade. Synthetic fuels were not only a failure, but an expensive failure because of their drain on resources, manpower, and management—to the degree that one analyst would comment, “The synthetic fuel industry in Japan, in terms of its absorption of materials and manpower and its meager product, was more of a liability than an asset during the war.”6

“No Sense in Saving the Fleet”

The growing shortage of oil increasingly constrained Japanese military capabilities and directly affected the course of many battles. The pinch had been felt as early as June 1942, with the Battle of Midway, in which, as one admiral said, “We used very much fuel at that time, more than we had expected would be necessary; and the effect of that was felt right through afterwards.” Following the victory at Midway, Allied forces were on the offensive, island-hopping westward, in a combination of naval and land operations that steadily removed ever closer to Japan—Tarawa and Makin in the Gilbert Islands, Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Guam in the Marianas. For both sides, every yard on every beach seemed to be measured in hundreds of lives. But the Americans had put together a devastating package—amphibious warfare, carrier air power, and industrial might. The Japanese could not match this enormous expenditure of resources. The Americans even exacted their revenge for Pearl Harbor in April 1943, when cryptanalysts learned that Admiral Yamamoto, who had planned the deadly attack, was due to make a visit to the island of Bougainville, near New Guinea. American fighters, waiting in ambush, came out of the clouds and sent the admiral down in flames to his death in the jungle below.

Yet it was not until the early months of 1944 that the submarine campaign finally began to make the Imperial Navy feel the fuel shortage “very keenly,” as another admiral put it. Vanishing oil inventories also started to influence strategic decisions, with increasingly devastating consequences. In the Marianas campaign in June 1944, the Japanese battle fleet did not join the action because its fuel was low. Moreover, the carrier force approached the Americans directly rather than circuitously, in order to conserve oil. “It would take too much fuel to take the longer route,” the Japanese commander was later to say. The direct approach was a costly one, for the result was what became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” in which the Japanese lost 273 planes to the Americans’ 29. With their victory in the Marianas, the Americans had finally penetrated the inner Japanese defense ring.

In the aftermath of that battle, it would have made good strategic sense for the Japanese to base the two battle groups of the Imperial Fleet in home waters—either at Okinawa or in the Home Islands themselves—ready to strike in any direction. But the sundering of the oil line to the Home Islands and the rapidly disappearing stocks of fuel did not permit such disposition. Thus, part of the fleet, with the carriers, was based in Japan, where it would await new aircraft and pilots, in the process draining the last of the fuel oil inventories. The heavy battleships were stationed close to Singapore, to be near the East Indies supply, but there, once committed to action, they could not refuel and be ready for action again for about a month. The overall consequence of the oil shortage was to divide naval strength when the Japanese needed a truly combined fleet, strong enough to repel Allied advances.

Japanese air operations were also severely curtailed because of the fuel shortage. Pilot training in 1944 was cut to thirty hours, half of what was considered necessary. And as the shortage worsened in 1945, navigation training was eliminated altogether; pilots were simply to follow their leaders to targets. Few were expected to return. Aviation gasoline was made from the only available source, wood turpentine, which was mixed with larger and larger proportions of alcohol. The combination of inferior fuels, poorly trained pilots, and inadequately tested planes was a deadly one. The Japanese lost up to 40 percent of their aircraft on ferrying operations alone.


In order to stretch oil supplies, many Japanese ships burned unrefined Borneo crude, which, as Marcus Samuel had claimed many years earlier, was indeed good for fuel. However, it was also highly flammable, and thus a threat to the ships it powered. Under duress, the Japanese even reversed the historic trend in naval propulsion and rebuilt ships in service to burn coal where available. Ships under construction were converted to coal before launching. That achieved a relative security of supply, but meant a loss in speed and flexibility.7

It was the primacy of fuel that finally led the Imperial Navy to throw all its weight into the Battle of Leyte Gulf, off the Philippines, in October 1944. By then the noose was growing very tight. The recapture of Guam in August 1944 brought cities on the Home Islands into the range of the new B-29 bombers. To the south, on September 15, General MacArthur landed on Morotai, in the Moluccas, only three hundred miles from the Philippines. Looking in that direction, he declared, “They are waiting for me there.” To the Japanese, there seemed no choice but to put everything they had into trying to prevent the Americans from recapturing the Philippines, which were within air striking distance of the Home Islands and stood astride the sea lanes between Japan and its conquered territories in Southeast Asia. Admiral Soemu Toyoda, Chief of the Naval General Staff, gave the order that would lead to the greatest battle in the history of naval warfare. “Should we lose in the Philippines operations,” he later said, “even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the Philippines. That was my reason for my order.”

But the shortage of fuel handicapped the Japanese again and again in the battle for the Philippines. Because of the split in basing, their Navy had to try to concentrate its forces at decisive points from widely separate directions. Two Japanese battleships never even made it to the great battle because of the lack of oil. Instead, they proceeded to Singapore, where they refueled and went home again. Other ships arrived a few critical hours too late because they were slow-speeding to conserve fuel. On October 25, 1944, Admiral Takeo Kurita, commander of the Second Fleet, was in position to enter Leyte Gulf, which would have made it possible for him to annihilate General MacArthur’s lightly defended invasion troops and change the course of battle. But, just forty miles away from the invasion beach, Kurita abruptly pulled off and sailed away. After the war, one of the Japanese admirals was asked why. “Because,” he replied, “of shortage of fuel.”

The three-day battle of Leyte Gulf was a devastating defeat for the Japanese. Their losses included three battleships, all four aircraft carriers, ten cruisers, and thirteen destroyers. It was out of desperation in this battle that the Japanese explicitly introduced a new weapon—the suicide pilots called kamikazes. The word meant “divine wind,” after a typhoon in the thirteenth century that had shattered the great invasion fleet of Kublai Khan before it could land in Japan. These suicide pilots, who were ordered to crash their planes (including specially designed manned rocket bombs) onto the decks of the American ships, were meant to be the ultimate embodiment of the Japanese spirit, inspiring all their compatriots to total sacrifice. But they also served a very practical purpose for a country extremely short of oil, planes, and skilled pilots. The Japanese had methodically calculated that, whereas eight bombers and sixteen fighters were required to sink an American aircraft carrier or battleship, the same effect could be achieved by one to three suicide planes. Not only was the pilot sure to cause more damage if he crashed his plane, not only would his commitment and willingness to die unnerve an enemy who could not comprehend the mentality of such an act, but—since he was not going to return—his fuel requirement was cut in half.8

The End of the Imperial Navy

The Japanese could do little or nothing to interrupt the ever more abundant flow of fuel and other supplies to the American forces in the Pacific, no matter how distant their source. The Americans developed huge floating bases—composed of fuel barges, repair ships, tenders, tugs, floating docks, salvage ships, lighters and store ships—that gave the U.S. Navy “long legs” across the vast expanse of the Pacific. Roving fueling task forces, made up of two or three giant tankers plus destroyer escorts, took up stations at designated areas, large rectangles twenty-five miles wide by seventy-five miles long, where American ships would rendezvous to refuel. When Guam became, in the second half of 1944, the major American base for bombing Japan, 120,000 barrels of aviation gasoline were supplied there daily. At that same time, Japan’s entire air forces on all fronts were consuming just 21,000 barrels per day—one-sixth of what was available just at Guam.

The Japanese were being pushed back on almost every side. By early 1945, the Americans had recaptured Manila in the Philippines, as well as Iwo Jima, though at appalling cost—6,800 Americans and 21,000 Japanese dead, with another 20,000 Americans wounded—for an island that measured 4.5 by 2.5 miles. In South Asia, the British had launched their final offensive in Burma. The Japanese abandoned Balikpapan and the other chief oil port in the East Indies, and most of their Home Islands refineries were out of oil. In March 1945, the last Japanese oil tanker convoy left Singapore. It never got to Japan. It was sunk.

At home, oil had virtually disappeared from the domestic economy, in part of a larger pattern of deprivation. Gas, electricity, coal, and charcoal were all in incredibly short supply. It was no longer possible to take private baths, and the public bathhouses became very crowded. People called the experience “washing potatoes in a tub”—with the heat coming from scrap wood gathered in the streets. Many Japanese took to burning their libraries for fuel, figuring that the books would, in any event, be destroyed in the next air raid. Tokyo’s fuel distribution for the cold 1944–45 winter season did not commence until May 21, 1945, long after most residents had learned to cook with the charred ruins scavenged from a bombed-out city. Food intake was down to less than 1,800 calories a day, substantially below the minimum requirement of 2,160 calories.9

The fuel situation had become so severe for the military that the Navy decided on a dramatic variant of the kamikaze raid—to sacrifice the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship and the pride of the Japanese fleet. It was to be the nucleus of a Special Attack Force that would break through the American ships supporting the invasion of Okinawa, do as much damage as possible, then beach itself and use its huge eighteen-inch guns in defense of the island. “Any large-scale operation requiring heavy supplies of fuel became almost out of the question,” said Admiral Toyoda. “Even in getting the squadron together we had a very difficult time getting the necessary 2,500 tons of fuel oil together. But it was felt that, even if there was not a fifty-fifty chance, nothing was to be gained by letting those ships lie idle in home waters, and besides it would have been contrary to the tradition of the Japanese Navy not to have sent them, even though we could not clearly perceive they had a fifty-fifty chance of success. That is how acute the fuel situation was.”

It was clearly a suicide mission; the Yamato carried only enough fuel for a one-way trip. The monster battleship, with its accompanying vessels, cleared Tokuyama the morning of April 6, deprived of all air cover by the requirements of the kamikaze campaign. On April 7, at midday, three hundred American planes came out of the low-hanging overcast and began their barrage. By mid-afternoon, the Yamato and most of the other ships had been sunk. To many, the sinking of the Yamato, which had been destroyed even before it could commit suicide, marked “the end of the Imperial Navy.” The Japanese fleet, which had prided itself on commanding the entire western Pacific, had now been driven even from the immediate seas of the homeland.10

A Fight to the Finish?

And still Japan’s position worsened. Shortages of fuel were preventing its planes from flying more than two hours a month. Was there no other way to get oil? Desperate for fuel, the Navy launched its fantastic pine root campaign. Guided by the slogan “two hundred pine roots will keep a plane in the air for an hour,” people all over the Home Islands began to dig up pine roots. Children were dispatched to the countryside to scour for the roots. The pine roots were to be heated for twelve hours, producing a crude oil substitute. Thirty-four thousand kettles, stills, and small distillation units were put in place, with the aim of each producing three or four gallons of oil per day. The futility of the effort was revealed by the labor requirements. Each gallon produced required 2.5 man-days of work. To meet the official target of twelve thousand barrels per day would have required 1.25 million persons per day!

Some of the results of the pine root campaign were evident to the eye: mountainsides stripped bare of every tree and sapling, huge piles of roots and stumps lining roads. By June 1945, production of the pine root oil had reached seventy thousand barrels per month, but the refining difficulties had not been solved. Indeed, by the time the war ended, only three thousand barrels of gasoline intended for planes had been produced from pine root oil, and there was no evidence that any of it had ever actually been tried in a plane.

The end was nearing for Japan. Under relentless American bombardment, the country’s wooden cities flamed into charred ruins, the economy ground ever more slowly, and the military’s ability to mount any counterattacks virtually vanished. The Razor—Hideki Tojo—had been forced out as premier the previous July; now, in the spring of 1945, yet another new government came in, with at least some of its members interested in finding a way to end the war short of total annihilation. “Everything had just about come to the bottom level,” said one minister. “Looking in whatever direction, we had come to the end of the road.” The new government was headed by an eighty-year-old retired admiral, Kantaro Suzuki, who carried some prestige and was seen as a relative moderate. The jockeying became even more intense between those who wanted to carry on the war and those who wanted to find a way to bring it to an end. Those in the latter group were, however, cautious and circumlocutious, deathly afraid of either a coup or their own assassinations.11

The Soviet Union renounced its neutrality pact with Japan on April 5, 1945. Under the terms, however, the pact would remain in effect until April 1946. Now senior officers in the Japanese Navy conceived yet another idea, no less fantastic in its own way than the pine root campaign—to approach the Soviet Union directly and ask it to mediate between Tokyo and Washington and London, and to trade Soviet oil for resources from the Southern Zone. Koki Hirota, a former premier and ambassador to Moscow, was charged with opening the dialogue with the Soviet ambassador to Japan. But the Japanese did not know that, at Yalta the preceding February, Stalin had promised Roosevelt and Churchill to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan some ninety days after the end of the war in Europe. Moreover, Stalin had worked out a far more attractive exchange than one involving just raw materials. As the price for his entry into the war, the Soviet dictator had obtained rich territorial concessions: the reestablishment of Russian predominance in Manchuria, the recovery of the southern part of the Sakhalin Islands, and the acquisition of the Kurile Islands. Though an ethnic Georgian, Stalin was a Russian nationalist par excellence; with those rewards, he would right the defeat that Czarist Russia had suffered at the hands of the Japanese in 1905. The Soviet ambassador thus dismissed all of Hirota’s political proposals when they met in late June. As for exporting oil to Japan, the ambassador added, that would be quite impossible, as the Soviet Union itself was much too short of petroleum.

Premier Suzuki ordered a survey of Japan’s fighting capabilities to determine whether they were sufficient to continue the war. The study came back in mid-June 1945 with a picture of a war economy that was almost immobilized because of lack of fuel and the fury of the American aerial attacks. The numbers gave further proof of Japan’s desperate situation. Fuel oil inventories had been 29.6 million barrels in April 1937; by July 1, 1945, they were just 0.8 million barrels. Below a million barrels, the Navy could not operate. For all practical purposes, it was out of oil. To some in the Japanese government, “the utter hopelessness of our situation” was clear. But not to all, by any means. The possibility of surrender was far from accepted at the top of the Japanese government, and many bitterly rejected even its mention. The government was still pushing the slogan, “100 million people united and ready to die for the Nation.” The Army and elements of the Navy were battling to commit Suzuki’s Cabinet to a war to the bitter end.12

As if to demonstrate what they had in mind, Japanese resistance to the American invasion of Okinawa in April of 1945 was fierce and fanatic and, in its organized form, did not end until June 21, 1945. The Americans experienced a 35 percent casualty rate in taking that island. Assuming that a similar ratio would hold in an invasion of the Home Islands, the American commanders anticipated a minimum of 268,000 dead and wounded on their side in the first phase of the attack. Altogether, they anticipated up to a million American military casualties—with a similar number for the Japanese, and many, many more millions in civilian deaths.

The bloodiness and stubbornness of the battle on Okinawa contributed strongly to the American decision to use, if necessary, a new weapon that, though unproved, would soon be in the U.S. arsenal—the atomic bomb. The American leaders knew that Japan’s fighting capability was crumbling, but they saw no sign that its fighting spirit was fading. And, indeed, it did seem that the whole island nation was being mobilized for a suicidal battle to the death; even young schoolchildren were ordered to start sharpening bamboo shoots with which to kill Americans. The secret messages between Tokyo and Moscow that the Americans intercepted were hardly sufficient to indicate that the Japanese government was prepared to ask for peace—because it was not.

Despite the ever-worsening position, the Japanese government remained ambiguous, indistinct, and tentative in its signals about surrender, reflecting the fact that internally there was no consensus, and that the war party still had the upper hand. Tokyo spitefully rejected the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration, which would have enabled Japan to quit the war on reasonable grounds, including the retention of the Emperor. Many Japanese leaders were unwilling to take the steps that would have spared the Japanese people, soldiers and civilians alike, any more of the terrible suffering they had already borne in the name of a fevered nationalistic ideology and relentless militarism. To the Allies, there was little indication of anything from Tokyo save a determination to fight to the finish.13

The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and sent its troops pouring into Manchuria, a week earlier than had been planned, in order to ensure that the war did not end before it could get in. On August 9, the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. Yet even as late as the Nagasaki explosion, the Army Chief of Staff insisted on reminding senior officials that Japanese soldiers and sailors were not permitted to surrender under any circumstances; suicide was the only acceptable way out. On August 13, four days after the explosion of the Nagasaki bomb, Vice-Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the creator of the kamikaze missions, was still advocating that the government reject surrender. Instead, he said, the Japanese people should fight to the bitter end, and 20 million of them should sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks against the invading troops.

Yet so appalling were Japan’s circumstances and so great the shock of the atomic bombs, made worse by the new Soviet threat, that those seeking to end the war finally prevailed over the intense opposition from the military. On the night of August 14, the Emperor made a phonograph recording that bore the surrender message. It was to be broadcast the next day. Even then, that same night, insurgent soldiers assassinated the head of the Imperial Guard and broke into the Imperial Palace, trying to capture the record, to prevent its broadcast, and at the same time kill Premier Suzuki. They were repulsed. The next day, the Japanese people heard over their radios a faint voice, fading in and out because of the uncertain electricity, that most had never heard before. It was the voice of their Emperor, calling on them to surrender. The war in the Pacific was over.

Still, not everyone was willing to heed the call. Earlier that same morning, War Minister Korechika Arami had committed hara-kiri; and the next day, Admiral Onishi did the same. Moreover, there had been notable preparations for Onishi’s final kamikazeattacks. After the surrender and the establishment of the U.S. Occupation, American authorities found a total of 316,000 barrels of oil, secreted away by the Imperial Army and Navy in remote caves and numerous hiding spots, to be used solely for suicide flights against the invaders. Some stores of the pine root gasoline—one of Japan’s last hopes for resistance—were also discovered after the surrender. It was tested in American military jeeps. It turned out to be a terrible fuel, gumming up the engines beyond use.14

The Ambulance

From the first moments of the Occupation, the fuel shortage continued to make its impact felt in Japan. On August 30, the Supreme Commander, General Douglas MacArthur, landed in Japan, at the Atsugi airfield. The propellers had been removed from the Japanese planes on the field so they could not be used for kamikaze attacks. The general immediately set off in a haphazard motorcade, led by a red fire engine that resembled the Toonerville Trolley. His destination was Yokohama and the battleship Missouri, which sat in the harbor, and on which, three days later, the instruments of surrender were to be signed. The motorcade route was lined with Japanese soldiers, their backs turned toward the passing MacArthur—the same sign of obeisance previously reserved for the Emperor. Though the distance was only twenty miles, the motorcade took two hours to make the trip; the battered vehicles, the best the Japanese could provide, were powered not by gasoline, because there was no gasoline, but by charcoal. They repeatedly broke down.

Twelve days later, on September 11, 1945, American officials in Tokyo arrived outside a modest one-story house on the edge of intensively cultivated fields. The house belonged to the Razor—General Hideki Tojo, the wartime premier. Tojo appeared at an open window, to be told that he was under arrest, and that he should immediately get ready to go with the Americans. He agreed and shut the window. A shot rang out. The Americans burst into the house and found Tojo sitting in an oversized chair, bleeding from a self-inflicted bullet wound just below his heart.

Four years earlier, in 1941, as War Minister and then Premier, Tojo had forced Japan’s decision to go to war against the United States, arguing that the fate of Imperial Japan hung in the balance because of its shortage of oil. The cost of what Tojo and his collaborators had launched was enormous. The Pacific War in its entirety claimed upwards of 20 million lives, including about two-and-a-half million Japanese. Now, in 1945, Tojo’s own life hung in the balance, not because his self-inflicted wound was inevitably fatal, which it was not, but because of the difficulty, first, in locating a suitable doctor, and then in finding an ambulance that had any gasoline in its tank. So widespread was the fuel shortage that it proved easier to find an American doctor than an ambulance with gasoline. But finally a vehicle with sufficient fuel was located, and it arrived at Tojo’s house two hours after he had shot himself. Tojo was carried off to the hospital and nursed back to health. The next year he went on trial as a war criminal, was found guilty, and was in due course executed.15

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