The Great Pacific War – Hector Charles Bywater

7th December 1941, Japan attacks the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the heretofore neutral USA enters the war on the side of the Allies, declaring war on Japan on 8th December 1941. On 11th December 1941, Germany and Italy declare war on the USA, drawing it into a two-sided conflict that will last up to 1945.

The Great Pacific War is a fictional work by Hector Charles Bywater. The style is that of an after-action report purportedly written in 1936 that talks of a hypothetical war between Japan and the USA from 1932 to 1935. What makes it different from other books written about the conflict is its prophetic nature; the book was written by Hector in 1925, years before the actual events of the Second World War, and yet accurately predicts a lot of occurrences that took place in the real war.

1930s Japan is a power to be reckoned with in Asia; as one of the victors of the First World War, it has acquired German colonies in southeast Asia as well as vast territories in China and has no intention of ever relinquishing them despite nationalistic upwellings among the Chinese. At the same time, the younger Japanese generation and the traditional labor class are becoming increasingly discontent with their lot, which leads to widespread strikes and riots in the Home Islands and culminates in an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister.

The Imperial Japanese army is mobilized to tackle the homegrown dissenters, but the soldiers refuse to fight their countrymen and are severely disciplined through court-martials and executions for their refusal. This stops the soldiers from mutinying for the time being, but the writing is on the wall for the ruling class; unless the dissent is stamped out, and soon, it will result in a weakened Japan ripe for external attacks. They use the time-tested method of creating the threat of a foreign power seeking to usurp their dominance, escalating non-events and posturing for the benefit of the populace; the trick pays off, with the country closing ranks to face the outsider, their internal strife put on the back burner.

The foreign bogeyman is the USA, which is accused of aiding the Chinese “rebels” undermining Japan’s authority and thus giving Japan the excuse it needs to declare war. The USA, aware of its own unpreparedness to face the better-equipped Japanese forces, seeks to de-escalate the conflict through diplomatic measures, but Japan is having none of it. It tips USA’s hand by preemptively carrying out a pseudo-terrorist attack on the Panama Canal, steering a ship laden with explosives into it and blowing it up so that the narrow canal is effectively blocked by debris that will take weeks if not months to clear. The USA has no option but to declare war after that.

The blocking of the Canal is a strategic opening move, as now the American Atlantic fleet must travel an additional 13,000 kilometers around South America to join the Pacific fleet. It gives the Japanese more time to capture American territories in Asia, which it wastes no time in doing. Installing powerful jammers that prevent the American garrisons from contacting the US government, and making short work of the poorly equipped, out-gunned and obsolete ships that comprise part of the Pacific fleet stationed at the Philippines, the island itself is rapidly attacked and taken over in a textbook pincer movement. It falls in hours, but no one knows their fate.

The island of Guam, another American protectorate in the Pacific and the furthest one after the Philippines, is similarly attacked, but the Naval Commander at Guam puts up a much better defense, costing the Japanese dearly. Fortified by the delivery of coastal guns initially intended for the Philippines, the unaware Japanese walk into a trap, losing a great number of ships and troops before withdrawing. The victory is short-lived, as the Guam Commander is fighting a battle of diminishing returns while the Japanese have open supply lines and a seemingly endless number of soldiers. When they return in greater numbers and with overwhelming air superiority, the commander chooses to surrender rather than sacrifice any more men. The Japanese, respecting and admiring the courage of the 2,000 Marines stationed on the island who took on a force six times larger without hesitation, treat them accordingly. The Commander, while being transported as a prisoner to Japan, is rescued by American submarines and reaches Washington to take control of the Naval forces again.

At the same time, to batter the civilian morale and to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Pacific fleet, the Japanese send a small group of submarines and aircraft carriers to the western coast of the American mainland and to the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. The bold yet stealthy submarines strike up and down the coastline, from California to Washington state, moving quickly after each attack to avoid detection. Civilians who think they are far away from the frontlines are suddenly subjected to aerial bombardment and acts of sabotage. This particular strategy backfires for the Japanese, as it motivates more people to sign up at recruiting booths to “get back at the Japs”.

The other group sent to the South American tip fare no better. The commander of the fleet employs spotter planes specially trained to recognize submarine trails, and the enemy is quickly identified and neutralized with minimal loss to the Americans. As the Japanese ships are captured and interred in Chile, most of the American fleet makes it safely into the Pacific and heads towards Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. The uncovering of the submarines in Chilean waters, which is neutral, creates a diplomatic incident which the Americans capitalize on, garnering international sympathy and support.

Soon after this, the USA decides to go on the offensive instead of waiting for the Japanese to strike. The target is the Bonin Island group; it is only 1,000 kilometers away from Tokyo by air, and if captured successfully will provide a base for staging land, air, and sea operations against the Home Islands directly. This, the planners feel, will be less expensive and time-consuming than taking back captured protectorates one at a time. The assembled fleet is to rendezvous with a group of aircraft carriers that will depart from Wake Island and which will provide air support during the attack. This plan is given the go-ahead despite misgivings from a few quarters regarding the range and lack of established supply lines.

The operation runs into difficulties right from the get-go. The fleet can only travel as fast as the slowest troop transport, which adds to its estimated arrival time. Reaching the replenishment port at Midway Island behind schedule, it sets off for the final leg only to be beset by a storm of hurricane proportions that results in the loss of a few of the older ships and a tenth of the troops even before the battle proper. The Commander takes the decision to continue towards the objective regardless and arrives at the rendezvous point only to find no carriers there; they too have been delayed by the storm. Aware of his vulnerable position, the commander sends a ship in search of the carriers.

The carriers themselves have barely escaped the hurricane and have sent out one of their ships to locate the fleet. This ship gets seen by Japanese submarines, who radio their location to their warships. The objective of the fleet immediately becomes clear, the Bonin Islands being the only logical target in the area and the warships are dispatched to intercept it. Their secret blown, the fleet decides to retreat, supported by the planes from the carriers. Without even reaching their goal, the fleet is engaged in a vicious fight as the warships fall upon them. Though outgunned, the Americans manage to sink a good number of enemy ships and reach Wake Island with only half a fleet.

By now, the economic repercussions of the war are being felt by the Japanese. The vast land at their disposal and the diplomatic connections with Europe and South America enjoyed by the USA make prolonged conflict a viable option for it but is unmanageable for the Japanese. The only landmass under their control is Chinese territories; the Home Islands have long proven to be insufficient for sustaining the populace. Their problems are compounded by unrest in China fomented by stirrings of unification and by Russia deciding to take advantage of the war by laying claim to territories disputed since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. To add to this, ships ferrying materiel from Europe to Japan are coming under increasing attacks in the Atlantic, it being the American playing ground.

As the USA slowly starts inching back from the brink of defeat, it takes a leaf out of Japan’s book; when the Philippines was attacked, the Japanese feinted an attack on one side of the island and when troops were rushed there, it took over the other side with overwhelming force. A similar subterfuge is planned on a larger scale, with Japan being made to believe that the Americans are amassing their forces at Alaska, from where they plan to launch an offensive against Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Home Islands. In reality, the massive fleet is being corralled in the South Pacific, from where it will take over the island groups step by step until it could launch attacks against Guam and the Philippines and retake them.

The Japanese, meanwhile, are increasingly feeling the effects of war. Severe food and materiel rationing are once again causing internal dissent to raise its head. Guerrilla attacks on their Chinese territories have them divert troops desperately needed at the front, stretching their resources to the utmost. A secret mission to have the Japanese population in Hawaii revolt and take charge of the islands fails, but it inspires even more citizens to enlist. Amid all this, the Americans’ ploy works perfectly, and as the Japanese send ships into the Bering Strait to confront the non-existent Alaskan fleet, the first of the islands in the Pacific is taken without any resistance and work starts to convert it into a heavily fortified base.

The Japanese, realizing the trick, rush their fleet back into the Pacific, and in doing so spring the second trap. The American fleet, now bolstered beyond their earlier numbers, is waiting for them. An immense sea battle ensues, with planes, carriers, battleships, destroyers, all thrown into the melee. The decisive encounter goes on for almost two whole days, and at the end, the Japanese fleet is reduced to less than half its former strength, while the American losses, though heavy, are much lesser in proportion, and much more easily replaced. As a fighting force, the Japanese Navy no longer exists, and it signals the beginning of the end for Japanese ambitions.

Without a seafaring defense, the Japanese are helpless against the American juggernaut rolling through the Pacific, reclaiming first Guam, then the Philippines. Regaining its old territories, the USA refuses to invade either China or the Home Islands, choosing instead to implore the Japanese government to surrender and agree to an armistice; facing opposition both within and without, the government capitulates, the treaty signed recognizing China as an independent sovereign and handing over ex-German colonies in the Pacific to the USA.

Though the Pacific Campaign now forms one part of the entirety that the Second World War was, it is historic fact that Japan had expansionist ambitions way before it stirred the hornet’s nest by attacking Pearl Harbor. Hector, who was a naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, makes excellent use of this, extrapolating masterfully from the 1920s to show the logical progression of Japanese intent into full-blown war, even if he does show it as happening almost 10 years before it did. And though not the same in terms of scale, the Alaskan deception is reminiscent of Operation Fortitude, when the Germans were made to believe the Allied offensive would take place at Calais instead of Normandy.

That said, there are places where the book clearly comes across as a product of its time, being written way before some of the pivotal events that shaped the 1930s and 1940s occurred. The Great Depression of 1929 that catapulted most of the world into a global recession hadn’t happened when Hector wrote this and was probably too catastrophic even for him to imagine. Similarly, Hitler in 1925 was just coming to the notice of the German populace, having been jailed after his failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and so Hector, just like many of Hitler’s contemporaries, elected to write him off as a never-was in the arena of global politics. Even Pearl Harbor, though mentioned as an important base of American operations in the Pacific, does not get attacked as the Japanese choose to strike the western coastline of the American continent instead.

Hector’s expertise as a Naval correspondent is evident in the way he describes sea battles, but it also proves to be his Achilles heel, as he inaccurately surmises that the conclusion to the war would be a major face-off between the vast navies of the belligerents. He also downplays the role of aircraft, relegating them to more of an observation platform and fleet support role. This is in keeping with the way they were used during the Great War, but by the 1930s, their importance as a fighting force was being acknowledged by nearly every country.

Another aspect that is hard to stomach is the European powers not only choosing to stay neutral in this conflict but diligently reinforcing that neutrality; a concept made unbelievable by their bloody history. It is as incredible as the description of the Japanese fighting forces treating captured enemy soldiers with respect and in accordance with the Geneva conventions, when during WW2 they did anything but, starving and mistreating hundreds of thousands of POWs.

The Great Pacific War, written when it was, was apparently read by both the Japanese and the Americans, who enjoyed friendly diplomatic and commercial relations then. It is speculated that Admiral Yamamoto himself read it and shared copies of it with his staff. If that is true, it would mean that not only was this book the inspiration for the attack on Pearl Harbor instead of on any other American interests in the Pacific but also that the Japanese learned enough from it to not make the mistakes highlighted here. Instead of being content with bombing Pearl Harbor and capturing the Philippines, they spread out over nearly the whole of the northern Pacific in one fell swoop, occupying every isolated landmass and making the Americans fight island by bloody island.

A last grisly comparison that may be drawn is that the book may well have been the reason Japanese internment camps came to be during the War. The incident where people of Japanese origin revolt in Hawaii may have prompted the US government to uproot and confine the Japanese American population for the duration of the War, making it a dark chapter in the annals of human rights. It may have been fiction in 1925, but by the late 1930s, The Great Pacific War was on its way to being a cautionary tale.

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