As war began in Europe, the entire structure of American plans for the Pacific had to quickly evolve.
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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode 22 - The United States Navy Part 4 - Orange: The Final Years. This is our final episode tracking the course of American Naval Planning for a war with Japan during the interwar years. Over the course of the last three member episodes we have tracked its evolution from before the second world war until the late 1930s and today we will take that evolution up to the state of the plan when the Japanese attacked Pearl harbor in December 1941. the basic concept and the detailed contained within War Plan Orange had changed sometimes slowly and sometimes with great leaps in the three decades before 1939, but in September of that year it was forced to deal with a momentous event, the start of the war in Europe. The war in Europe would have important effects on the planning for a war with Japan, as it completely shifted the global military situation, the ability of the Royal Navy to respond to Japanese aggression, and the possibilities that some or even most of America’s military effort would have to be first focused on Europe. This caused a lot of concern among American naval planners, as their well laid plans in the Pacific suddenly began to no longer be the focus of American military strategy, with it being far more likely that America would pursue a “Germany First” policy. This meant that in the opening phases of any war with Japan the United States would be on the defensive, which destroyed the ability to do any kind of aggressive push through the central pacific which had been a core feature of many iterations of the Orange Plans. But even with all of these challenges preventing the full implementation of War Plan Orange after 1941, the shadow of 3 decades of naval planning was incredibly evident in the events in the Pacific. Even though War Plan Orange would no longer exist by December 7, 1941, throughout the next almost 4 years of war the United States Navy and its leaders would pursue goals that roughly aligned with what had been discussed in the plan. Not just where to fight, but how to fight, and the best ways to move across the Pacific would all be influenced by the work and planning that had been put into War Plan Orange. We will focus on this last stage of evolution in American plans during this episode, looking primarily at how the plans for war in the Pacific would evolve after war came to Europe in September 1939.
As war around the world seemed to be more and more likely in the last years of the 1930s, in America there were efforts to try and prevent an open confrontation with Japan. In those years the US government decided not to put money into fortifying Pacific islands that were too far west in the Pacific. But this restraint would clearly erode starting in 1939, which aligned with public opinion. There was already clear antagonism during this time, especially due to Japan’s actions in China, which prompted a large percentage of the American public to support embargoes on war materials. After the start of the European war this trend would continue, with American efforts aimed at Japan increasing as the overall situation for those nations opposing Japan and Germany collapsed. In 1941 the important steps would be taken of freezing all Japanese assets in the United States, which was done by executive order, and more importantly enacting an oil embargo on Japan. This oil embargo would force Japan’s hand very quickly, because almost 90% of all oil used in Japan was imported, most of it from the United States. They had stockpiles, but it was maybe enough for a year, less if the pace of military operations in China increased. This forced Japan to a decision point of backing down or going to war with America, those were really the only two choices. This was not unknown to the American President or the American government, and they had been preparing for such an eventuality for years. In May 1940 the main US Fleet base in the Pacific had been moved to Hawaii. During 1940 and 1941 Anglo-American staff talks were held, and while they generally disagreed on what their priorities should be in the Pacific, the British wanted American help in Singapore, and the Americans did not want to give it, just the fact that they happened clearly signaled that the two nations were prepared to work together towards a common goal. On the other side, Japan and Germany had signed the Anti-Comintern pact, although there were disagreements here as well, with German wanting Japan to invade Siberia, and the Japanese Army rejecting this out of hand. What all of these moves, decisions, and agreements meant for the Pacific was that the overall picture was changing in both big and small ways, and American planning had to react.
One of the most important changes to the overall equation was the role that the British and the Commonwealth would play in a war with Japan. Even before the war in Europe began, it seemed clear that the two nations would be allies in a war in the Pacific. This introduced the possibility of shifting the route of the American fleet to the south, and instead of fighting through the Mandate, instead moving through allied British possessions. These were the Gilberts, Fiji, and Solomon islands, but the Navy was, and had always been, hesitant to push the route of the American fleet too far south out of fear that it would cause additional delays. There were some discussions and investigations into involving the Gilbert islands in the Lend Lease deal that would have resulted in it passing into American control. This was not pursued, partially due to the lack of drive that the Navy’s leaders felt in trying to make it happen. The Gilberts, while a group of atolls that could be used as bases, did not have the awesome lagoons that could be found in the Marshalls to their north, and since that was the first target for the Navy in time of war, there seemed little need to open the Gilberts up to Japanese attack by taking possession of them before the start of a war. While the island chains in the South Pacific were being discussed and investigated, there was no denying the fact that having Britain as an ally would completely alter the course of the war in the Western Pacific. Almost the entirety of South East Asia was in some way affiliated with European nations that were involved with the fighting in Europe, mainly Britain, France, and the Netherlands. It seemed likely that their possessions in the region would be a prime target for Japanese aggression due to them providing the Japanese with access to oil. The key question for the American Navy was how much strength would they allocate to help defend these areas, and to support what was known as the Malay Barrier which was roughly placed between Sumatra and Australia. Some of the Rainbow plans that had been drafted previously, had anticipated quick action to secure American possessions in the region, but with the war starting in Europe, should this be extended to help defend allied interests. Naval planners took the opportunity to contemplate a quick move through the South Pacific, because if the Malay barrier was held against Japanese aggression. The path for this advance would have been to make with all speed for Rabaul on New Britain or Darwin in Australia, and then to head north into some area of the barrier from which the American fleet could assist any other fleets in action against Japan. This plan was only valid if the Japanese did not decide to quickly advance south, or across the Central Pacific to threaten Hawaii. But there was some belief that the Japanese might hold back their main strength in defense, and only push south into the barrier or into the Central Pacific with raiding forces, which would not be designed to take a hold islands. The critics of this idea made the somewhat logical argument that moving that far into the Western pacific would deplete the strength of the fleet too much. Detachments would have to be left at various points along the way, even if only to defend against Japanese raiding units. This would have to be done at some point points that by the time the Fleet reached the Malay barrier, it could easily be overmatched by a concentrated Japanese force. After the first month of the war in Europe even the advocates for the quick move through the Southern Pacific began to temper their expectations. The plan was revised down to stop at Rabaul itself, which would theoretically be held by Australian defenders. However, the defenses on the island were incredibly weak, and in fact the Japanese would be able to capture the island with ease.
The period between the start of the war in Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor involved an evolution of American planning that saw a continually increasing focus on defensive operations in the Pacific. In April 1940 this would take the form of limiting the American Fleet’s role in the war to be one of stopping the Japanese expansion and then trying to limit the ability of the Japanese to exploit the oil supplies of Southeast Asia. Just a month later the invasion of France would occur, which would obviously have its effects on the Pacific. The removal of France from the war during the summer of 1940, and the dire straights that Britain would be placed in meant that even in a scenario where the Americans did have allies in the Pacific, it was unlikely that they would be able to make a meaningful contribution to efforts in the Western Pacific. One of the ideas that found its way to the American fleet was to move the bulk of American naval assets into the Western Pacific, to directly threaten any Japanese expansion. This was an idea that came not from American planners, but instead from the Royal navy. They made an offer that they believed was irresistible, when they placed the base at Singapore at the disposal of the American Navy. Singapore was not what over 2 decades of British planning hoped it would be in 1940, but it still was a very capable port, and it had the shore facilities, dry docks, and access to supplies that the American navy so desperately needed if it was to operate in the theater. The British would also claim that it was well defended both from Japanese air attack and from a land attack. The American Naval leaders were less than impressed. The problem was simply that there was not enough American fleet resources to do all the things that needed to be done if it wanted to send a larger fleet to the Western Pacific. At the end of the day, no matter how important Singapore, the Philippines, or anything else in that area of the world war to American strategy, it was not more important than Hawaii, the West Coast, or the Atlantic shipping lanes. The Atlantic was an even more serious concern in the 18 months before the United States entered the war because there was always the possibility that Britain would be defeated and then the Royal Navy might be captured and turned against the Americans. This was felt to be a real enough possibility that capital ships were transferred to the Atlantic Coast, further weakening the ability of the Navy to do anything against Japan.
In October 1940 the director of naval war plans was shifted and the later Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner would be brought in for what would prove to be a very adventurous 2 years. Turner would eventually leave the post in the middle of 1942 at which point he would go on to become the commander of many of the amphibious invasions that would characterize most of the Second world war in the Pacific, Turner would ride those operations to four stars and a dozen victories. Turner would be the Chief of Naval Operations, Harold Stark’s pick for the position at least in part because Turner came into the position with the belief that the Pacific should be an areas of lower priority for the American Navy. He instead strongly advocated for the Germany-first strategy that would eventually be the focus of American war planning, with the Pacific planned for strictly defensive operations. Turner would also reduce the focus on planning for the amphibious attacks that would have to be launched as part of any offensive campaign in the Pacific, which is kind of funny given his later wartime experience. Once these plans were complete, War Plan Orange and its derivatives which had been such a focus of naval planning for over 20 years was officially repealed on December 17th, 1940, with it even being removed from the registry of possible plans in July 1941. Stark would say that it had been “drawn up to guide the prosecution of a war under circumstances which do not now exist” which was, in my opinion completely accurate. While this shift had been a long time coming, and it represented the beliefs of the Naval leaders in 1940, it also had the added benefit of solving many of the problems that the Navy and Army had experienced in the last years of the 1930s. By shifting to a Germany First strategy the Navy had essentially given in to the Army’s desires for exactly that national focus, which did not solve the differences between the two services, but certainly brought them much closer together. It did leave some naval officers in Hawaii a bit less than pleased, but by 1941 there was little that they could do. Some would try to construct a scenario in which the Navy could move to offensive operations quickly, but they had to confront the fact that with all of the ships that had moved to the Atlantic they would always be at a distinct numerical disadvantage. Of even greater concern for attacks into the Pacific was that so much of the naval strength in logistic support ships, troops transports, and landing craft had also been diverted to the European theater, where they were felt to be needed for what was hoped to be quick strikes into German occupied territory. With this math, even if the most offensively minded Admiral had to bow to the fact that there would be no quick strikes against Japanese islands. In and attempt to find something for American naval power to do in the Pacific while the European situation was sorted out the idea was landed on that the main American fleet should try and stage a distraction in the central pacific. If they could divert Japanese naval resources into the central pacific they could achieve two very important goals. The first was to prolong the ability of the naval, land, and air forces along the Malay Barrier to resist Japanese aggression. The second was to allow time for British naval resources to be repositioned to the Pacific. If both of these could be achieved then it would be possible to reduce the ability of Japan to capitalize on and exploit the oil fields of Southeast Asia. The problem was that throughout 1941 achieving both of those goals became more difficult, the biggest problem was that the Royal Navy was in a war already, and it was sapping resources away from any future action in the Pacific. The number one problem throughout the year was that it was experiencing losses in the Mediterranean in its efforts to halt the Italian and German advances in Northern Africa. This not only reduced the number of ships that could be sent to Singapore, it would also delay their arrival. This meant that the existing forces on the Malay Barrier would have to hold out longer, and with less support, which the Americans also could not provide due to the movement of strength away from the Pacific. War Plan Orange: the US strategy to defeat Japan, 1897-1945 by Edward Miller “By the spring of 1941 [Admiral] Kimmel understood that Rainbow Five posed a paradox. His mission was to help save the Malay Barrier, yet his fleet had been scalped for the Atlantic, its amphibious drive postponed, and its radius of action circumscribed.". The one area where American strength was increasing was in the area of Submarines, and over the course of mid 1937 they would grow to 32 in Hawaii. The plan was to launch most of these into areas to attack Japanese shipping, after leaving Hawaii at the start of the war and then a stop over at Midway. But even this effort would be sabotaged before the start of the war with 12 submarines being moved to the Philippines.
With all of these discussions about plans at a paper level, I thought it might be interesting to see how all of these changes to Naval planning effected the preparations in the Pacific, for while the perfect example is Wake Island. For any American offensive action in the central Pacific, Wake was of crucial importance. It would be the third hope in the chain from the West coast, to Hawaii, then to Midway, then to Wake, before the fleet would go into action against Japan. The next step from Wake, as the later version of War Plan Orange laid out was the island of Eniwetok in the Marshalls, which would be held by the Japanese. It was close enough to Midway that planes could come into Wake directly, and in fact there had been commercial air ports built on both islands during the interwar years for the purpose of allowing for trans Pacific commercial air travel. Wake was so important that in December 1938 one Naval planning board would place Wake at position number three in terms of island priority in the Pacific, behind only Oahu and Midway. The problem was that Wake, given its advanced position, was seen as being very vulnerable to Japanese attacks. The assumption was that the Japanese would recognize that it was critical to American plans and move to take it early in the conflict. Because of this vulnerability it had been placed quite low on the list of projects for the Navy, and in fact in mid 1941 it would be placed at 730 on that list of projects, which were in priority order according to where resources should be provisioned. This would then bump up to number 8, but it would be far too late. Funding had been voted on in congress to bolster Wake’s defenses, particularly in June 1940 where it was included along with many other items on a military expansion bill. But just because the funding had been provided did not meant that work actually started, and nothing had been done for Wake’s defenses as 1940 came to a close. During 1941 progress would be made, but it would prove to be far too late. Just a week before the Japanese attack, addition strength would be earmarked for Wake with the plan being to send B-17s to both Wake and Midway to help bolster defenses against possible Japanese attack. Now, this did not end up happening, and as would be proven during the war it is unlikely that the B-17s would have been very useful as a deterrent against the Japanese navy, but it was seen as a way to quickly pump up their defenses. After the war started, it very quickly became clear that the worst fears of the navy would be realized, including the Japanese attack and occupation of Wake.
When looking back at the interwar evolution of American Naval planning for the war in the Pacific a few things become clear. First, no naval planner ever envisaged that the American Navy would begin at the level of disadvantage that it would be under after December 7th 1941, not just from the Japanese attack, but also from the reprioritization of naval resources that had seen so much naval strength moved to the Atlantic. Second, the specifics of War Plan Orange were probably always an unworkable pipe dream of a concept, even some of the more modest and slow moving plans that would be the focus at various points before 1941. In the beginning they were hampered by the logistical challenges of moving a fleet the distance required at a time when coal power was still used in many capital ships, and when most of the islands across the Pacific would be held by neutral powers. Later, as technology advanced the ability of air power to impact the fleet and to cause attrition on that fleet as it sailed across the Pacific meant that even if logistically the battle line could make it to Manila, there might not have been much battle line left at the end of the line. Third, the time, energy, and effort put into War Plan Orange, and all of its alterations, was probably absolutely and completely worth it for the Navy in the long run. If you look at any of the major campaign plans from the war years, even those that were not related to any of the islands discussed in Orange, you can see the impact of 20 years of trying to find a way to move across the Pacific. And then when those campaigns were aimed at the targets that were already outlined in the Orange Plans, the influence becomes even more clear, as can be seen in the plans for the invasions of the Marshalls, Gilberts, and Marianas from the last 2 years of the war. At times these plans did not just pull concepts and ideas, but just copy and pasted verbiage from the Orange Plans. And so even though the Plan itself was stricken from the list of Naval plans before the war even started, the Orange Plans cast a very long shadow which is essential to understanding how the war in the Pacific would develop after 1941.