OIL, RAW MATERIALS, AND LOGISTICS: ‘JUST START SWINGING’
December 1941 to August 1945
Logistics of Oil in the Asia Pacific War: America’s T-2 Tanker: Japan’s Oil Tanker Fleet: Raw Materials Issues of the US Economy: Liberty Ships ‘to go’: Attack Cargo Ships, LSTs and Higgins Boats: Japan’s Cargo Ship Problems: Japan’s Air Force Logistics: US Supply Logistics in the Asia Pacific Region: Operation Olympic and Japan’s Logistical Denouement
Logistics of Oil in the Pacific War: General MacArthur noted that “The great problem of warfare in the Pacific is to move forces into contact and maintain them. Victory is dependent upon the solution of the logistical problem.”1
As early as 1924, President Coolidge had written that “the supremacy of nations may be determined by the possession of available petroleum and its products.”2 It was not an argument that would have been gainsaid by the military leaders for whom logistics have always been the most important pre-condition of success in war. As war became increasingly mechanized in the era of industrialization, as the tank, the airplane and the battleship became the key weapons that defined a nation’s ability to wage war, oil became the all-important lubricant of power. With regards to World War I, Earl Curzon (British Foreign Secretary 1919-1924) noted, “…the Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”3
If oil was important in World War I, the requirement for this commodity had increased at an exponential rate over the succeeding 20 years. A US infantry division in World War I needed 3,500 horsepower to keep it moving; by 1941 a division half the size needed over a 100 times more power (400,000 horsepower) to sustain itself.
The rapid increase in the mechanization of armed forces after World War I had a concomitant impact on the demand for oil. It was a demand that was mirrored in the important strategic objectives set by the ‘aggressor’ Axis powers. Just as Japan’s primary objective at the start of the Pacific War was the seizure of oil rich Dutch East Indies, so Nazi Germany targeted the oil fields of the Middle East in General Rommel’s North African campaign. Even more famously General Paulus’s advance on Stalingrad, ending with the destruction of the German 6th Army, was a thrust toward the oil rich Caucasus region. Indeed Germany was so bereft of fuel oil by April 1945 that its large reserve of airplanes was grounded and tanks and armored vehicles were being taken to the battle front by oxen.
Harold Ickes, appointed by Roosevelt to the role of Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense, went so far as to observe “Had there been no such thing as oil, I doubt if there would have been a global war.”4 By 1941 oil had become an essential prop of the modern economy. Even in a period of depression, US consumption of oil grew rapidly. Oil powered ship, planes, factories and it started to become the main source of home heating. With the growth of the automobile sector, oil became the new gold. Between 1927 and 1940, annual commercial usage rose from 15.8m barrels to 44.8m barrels. Perhaps more significantly oil increasingly powered the engines of war.
For America the great bonus was that it was self-sufficient and more in oil. The oil bonanza supplied by Texas and Oklahoma was added to by California, and then Illinois. By May 1940, the United States was awash with over 102m barrels of oil, a 44 percent increase on a year earlier; in California and Texas there were no regulations to limit production. However there were extreme logistical problems with dislocation that made the distribution of oil problematic around America let alone the world. Another looming problem brought to the attention of the President by Ickes was that America’s known oil reserves had been falling since 1928. In 1943, with America’s oil wells pumping at their maximum, the government along with Standard Oil of California and the Texas Company started discussions on the development of a 160m-acre concession that Standard Oil had purchased in 1933. It was largely thanks to the joint work of Ickes and Ralph Davies, a Vice-President of Standard Oil, that, during the course of the war, America was able to supply 90 percent of all Allied petroleum requirements.
The nub of the problem of oil distribution to the Allies was that the oil-poor east coast had to import oil while Standard Oil in California exported oil to Japan. Supplying Britain with oil and tankers meant that America’s east coast was liable to run short. Ickes launched himself into the problem at a cabinet meeting in June 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor; referring to a clutch of newspaper editorials Ickes raised hell, “about continuing to ship oil to Japan while talking of rationing our own people on the Atlantic coast.”5 Roosevelt however had good reason for holding Ickes in check.
The problem was not one-dimensional. In his memoirs Secretary of State Cordell Hull recalled that “Japan’s willingness to make war plus her far greater state of military preparedness, provide full explanations for holding off as long as we did on applying embargoes on the shipment of petroleum, scrap iron, and other strategic materials to Japan.”6 Nevertheless in July the State Department required all exports of oil from American ports to be licensed. On 1 August FDR banned all exports of aviation gasoline entirely. In the same month with a winter shortage of oil threatening on the east coast, raising the grim possibility of rationing, Ickes managed to push through the Cole Bill that authorized the government to underwrite a US$80m project to build a pipeline up from the Gulf of Mexico through Georgia to the refineries of New Jersey.
American policy makers in the late 1930s had been completely aware of the role of oil in war and global politics. In July 1941, the ban on Californian oil exports to Japan, which accounted for some 90 percent of their consumption, was specifically targeted to rein in the military occupation of China, and to warn off Japan from any advance into South East Asia that might threaten America’s possession of the Philippines and to sustain its dominant position in the region. As was explained in Chapter 3, the US Oil embargo on Japan was an act of war in all but name. Given the importance of oil it is all but inexplicable that in his planned attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto made no plans to destroy the US oil installations on the island. Situated over-ground just adjacent to ‘Battleship Row,’ was the storage center that had just been replenished to its full capacity of 4.5m barrels. Destruction of this installation, more easily achievable than the sinking of US battleships, would have been significantly more devastating in immobilizing the US Navy. Given that its Pacific tanker fleet had a capacity of 760,000 barrels of oil, arguably the entire US Navy could have been forced back to the west coast of America. It was failure on Yamamoto’s part that can only be explained by the predisposition of Japan’s armed forces to focus on the winning of wars by the winning of major tactical battles rather than focusing on the logistical requirements of long drawn out war. Yamamoto’s strategy was even harder to understand given Japan’s own well-understood need to capture the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies.
If the failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s oil facilities was a major strategic error, Yamamoto compounded it by failing to use his submarine force to interdict US oil supply in the Pacific. Whereas in the Western Atlantic, German U-boats accounted for the sinking of 141 tankers, some 25 percent of US tanker capacity, Japanese submarines made just 19 attacks on US merchantmen in the first year of the Pacific War. Apart from the slightly fantastical plans to bomb the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal at the end of the war, which would not have disrupted oil supply that came primarily from the abundant wells of Standard Oil in California, Japan’s war commanders made no concerted effort to disrupt America’s supply logistics.
America’s T-2 Tanker: Whereas the US was fortunate in Japan’s strategic oversight with regard to oil, American war planners were quick to understand the importance of oil supply if they were to sustain their Pacific fleet in its advance toward Japan. With the importance of oil already in the forefront of their strategic thinking, in the late 1930s the US Maritime Commission (MarCom) formalized a design known as T-2 that could be used as America’s medium sized ‘National Defense Tanker’. The design was based on two ships, SS Mobilfuel and SS Mobilube, built in 1938-9 by Bethlehem Steel for Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, (the merged name of Standard Oil and Vacuum Oil that changed its name to Mobil in the mid-1960s and is now known as ExxonMobil).
MarCom approved the design that differed from previous Mobil ships by incorporating more powerful steam turbine engines to produce a top speed of 16 knots. As the T-2s were planned as ships that could be ‘militarized’ to serve as fleet auxiliaries in the event of war, Marcom underwrote any additional costs of the T-2s naval features over and above normal commercial specifications. 501ft long with a beam of 68ft, T-2s had a dead weight of 15,850 tons. Built by Bethlehem-Sparrows Shipyard in Maryland, the first six T-2s were taken over by the US Navy after Pearl Harbor and were named as the Kennebec Class.
An upgrade to the T-2 design, the T-2A, was made prior to the order of five tankers in 1940 from Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock of Chester. 25ft was added to the length and deadweight was increased by 450 tons. The Navy at the outbreak of the war requisitioned the five tankers in this Mattaponi Class.
The next iteration of the T-2, the T2-SE-AI, (523ft, 68ft beam, 16,613 tons deadweight) became the standard model of the class with 444 built out of a total of 525 tankers. Its nine sets of tanks could carry 141,200 barrels of oil product. The T2-SE-AI was the ship that kept the American advance moving during the Pacific War. As the war with Japan began, MarCom placed huge orders with Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. of Mobile (97), the Kaiser Company’s shipyard in Portland Oregon (136), the Marinship Corp. of Sausalito (across the bay from San Francisco) (27), and Sun Shipbuilding (184). Over the cause of the war production time from the laying down of a keel to fitting out and launch was reduced from 70 days to a record 33 for the SS Huntington Hills built by Marinship.
Japan’s Oil and Tanker Logistics: If the US had been in the process of preparing for the oil logistics of the Pacific War, the Japanese government was completely unprepared. At the outbreak of war, Japan had just 49 tankers with an aggregate 587,000 tons. By contrast Britain had 425 tankers (3m tons) and the US had 389 tankers (2.8m tons). The problem for Japan was not one of capacity. In 1937 Japan had double the amount of the shipbuilding capacity of the United States.
However by 1941 the war with China and the build up of Japanese naval capability squeezed its commercial shipbuilding capacity. In 1936 Japan built 442,000 tons of merchant shipping and 55,000 tons of warships; four years later the tonnage of commercial ships built had fallen to 237,000 tons while the tonnage of naval vessels built had increased 400 percent to 225,000 tons. Moreover 33 percent of all Japanese imports and an even higher percentage of its oil imports were transported in foreign ships. Japan could never build enough tankers to keep up with its empire’s ability to produce oil. This should have been evident to Japan’s leaders long before Vice-Admiral Lockwood’s Submarine Force started to make huge inroads into Japan’s commercial fleet in mid-1943. Although the Ministry of Communication worked with the Navy to produce standardized designs, Japan did not have the ability to expand shipbuilding capacity to meet its commercial needs nor to match the United States, which was able to expand its shipbuilding capacity exponentially. ITL Class tankers and their successor 2TL Class, with a deadweight of 15,600 tons, 526ft length and 65ft beam, most closely resembled America’s T-2; just 14 were built in 1943. Although Japan managed to build 27 in 1944 and 18 in 1945 it was too little too late. In addition to the ITL and 2TL Classes, Japan also produced a smaller ocean tanker, the ITM Class with 10,435 tons deadweight, 416ft length and 24ft beam; six were produced in 1942 and the final run of 26 were produced in 1943.
During the course of the entire war Japan managed to produce just 1.2m tons (DWT) of new front line tanker capacity. By comparison the United States, already possessed of the world’s second largest tanker fleet to Britain’s first position, was able to build 0.5m tons (DWT) in 1942, 2.2m tons in 1943, 3.7m tons in 1944 and 2.5m tons in 1945.
The only Japanese tanker produced in quantities comparable to America was the 2TEd Class tanker which was a purely coastal vessel one-fifteenth the size of the ITL and 2TL Classes. Nine were produced in 1943, a further 112 in 1944 and 17 in 1945. Some 62 percent of Japan’s internal trade was carried by coastal vessels, a lot of it by 18,800 Kihansen (junks). The need for coast vessel capacity was inevitable given Japan’s limited railway network and mountainous geography. With 12,700 miles of line, Japan had about half the capacity of the UK though its population was 55 percent larger. Such was the shortage of Japanese rail capacity during the war that Japanese citizens had to apply for permits to make train journeys.
Having pinned its entire war strategy on the acquisition of oil wells in the Dutch East Indies and to a less extent in British Borneo and Burma, whose aggregate output could in theory have replaced oil imports from California, Japan never had enough oil tankers to sustain the required supply. As a result, within two years of the start of the Pacific War Japan needed to base the combined fleet in southern waters around Singapore, thereby obviating its greatest theoretical advantage over the United States, namely its shorter internal lines of communication and supply.
Furthermore domestic production fell far short of the projections of the Synthetic Oil Industry Law of 1937 that set down a plan to produce 18.2m barrels per annum by 1941. In reality production reached less than 8.3 percent of target. Domestic crude synthetic oil production never reached more than 15 percent of consumption. Remarkably Japan’s logistic planning was such that the country went to war with the United States in order to be able to sustain a supply of oil to continue to make war with China, but never even managed to achieve its primary objective of replacing its imports of oil from California. Thus by March 1945, Japan’s reserves of oil which had stood at 20m barrels in December 1941 had fallen to 200,000 barrels.
Raw Materials Issues of the US Economy: At the start of the war, a US general commented that “The ultimate bottleneck is raw materials. In the final analysis, that is what will decide how much munitions we can produce.”7 In the 1930s, as a result of the Great Depression raw materials had been cheap and plentiful but by 1938 the scramble for resources had become a global issue. Indeed to some extent the idea for Japan’s Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere emerged from the need to ensure supply of raw materials. Also although America was a resource rich country, there were some materials, which were extremely scarce. To a large extent the availability or non-availability of raw materials would determine whether or not munitions could be supplied.
Oil (mainly Californian) and iron ore America had in abundance. However shortages were apparent in aluminum, antimony, chromium, coconut shell char (for gas masks), high grade manganese (steel manufacture), manila fiber, mica, nickel, optical glass (aeronautical and sighting equipment), quartz crystal, quicksilver, quinine (for anti malaria tablets), rubber (airplane and truck tires), silk (parachutes), tin (can, solder, bronze, bearings), tungsten (steel alloys) and wood. Canada could supply nickel and Mexico antimony. South Africa could supply manganese. However rubber and tin came from British Malaya and the Philippines supplied chromium. Silk came from Japan. In May 1940 Harry Hopkins alarmed the cabinet when he told them that the United States had only six months stock of rubber and tin. It was an alarm that turned to near panic when, within six months of Pearl Harbor, Japan had conquered Malaya and Indonesia, which provided 95% of the world’s supply.
In a democracy even acute fears took time to turn into action. Only in June 1941, had Congress been finally persuaded to pass a Strategic Materials Act that authorized the government to begin to stockpile materials. Agencies such as the Reconstruction Finance Company (RFC) were set up to purchase US$300m worth of materials. Such was the importance of these agencies that their heads, such as the tall, over-sized Texan, Jesse Jones, during the course of the war became important power brokers in the Washington firmament. Samuel Lubell, a former Washington Post reporter who was recruited to the Office of War Information by Bernard Baruch, wrote that ‘So vast are Jesse’s powers, so tricky the techniques of financial control that it is virtually impossible for anyone short of a congressional investigating committee to check the RFC’s operations. That, perhaps, is the most important fact about the RFC.’8
The supply of rubber was problematic. Although Henry Ford started a rubber plantation in Brazil and Firestone one in Liberia, these projects failed; as did an attempt to grow rubber trees in Florida. Standard Oil, Dupont and B.F. Goodrich had developed technologies for the production of synthetic rubber but production was limited. Jesse Jones used funds from the RFC to invest in increasing synthetic capacity while at the same time scouring the world for supplies. Even the stockpile of 533,344 tons accumulated by December 1941, according to Jones, ‘the largest stock of rubber that had ever been accumulated at any time in any country’9 was only the equivalent of a year’s peacetime consumption in the United States. At least by then four US companies had broken ground on new plants to produce synthetic rubber. Eventually these new technologies would prove a life-saver with regard to the supply of a product whose limited availability after 1942 could have brought catastrophe to the US war effort. The man who made the essential supply of synthetic rubber possible was Bill Jeffers who was appointed ‘Rubber Czar’; the President of the Union Pacific Railroad was a formidable and fear inducing businessman who brooked no opposition in his determination to provide the military with the rubber it needed.
The politically unambitious Jeffers occupied a suite at the Mayflower Hotel. Famously during his years in Washington, he only left the premises twice for social activities, once to see Blossom Time and once to watch the Washington Senators play baseball. He worked from 8am to 9pm and only left his office to attend the occasional outside meeting. It was a Spartan life that, unusually in Washington, earned him the respect of the media. Almost uniquely among the new men who crowded the Board and Committees of the war, Jeffers shunned the spotlight and never caught ‘Potomac fever’. Under his guidance the government spent US$700m to build fifty-one new plants and increased production from 22,434 tons in 1942 to 753,111 tons in 1944. Once he had done his job, Jeffers returned quietly back to Omaha and his beloved railroad.
Steel was in plentiful supply but was generally low grade from open hearth furnaces. Only 2 percent of capacity was electric furnace that could produce the higher grades needed by the aeronautical industry. Tom Girdler’s Republic Steel, the leader in electric furnaces quickly sought to raise its capacity by 50 percent through the construction of two new electrical furnaces. Bethlehem Steel meanwhile sought to increase production capacity of armor plate that was a product that could only be supplied by four furnaces in the United States.
The supply of each raw material had to be solved individually. With the need for silken parachutes seemingly insoluble, the US Air Force turned to Dupont who had recently developed nylon which had proved to be a smash hit with the development of nylon stocking. Pilots got their parachutes but American women had, for a while to cope without stockings.
As for aluminum there was a basic problem. Not even the aircraft manufacturers knew how much aluminum was used in any given airplane. Thus when Roosevelt issued a call to build 50,000 aircraft it was impossible to estimate how much aluminum would be needed. Availability of supply was also problematic. In 1939 Alcoa produced a record 327m lbs of aluminum that was mainly used in the commercial sector. From where would the additional military demand be supplied? The virtually monopolistic company had little incentive to increase capacity to keep prices low. After much haggling, even consideration of setting up a rival (Kaiser) as a producer, the government agreed a deal in August 1941 whereby Alcoa would build three government owned plants.
Materials sourced from overseas such as chromite from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and New Caledonia, were held up by a shortage of ships to transport it. Stocks of chromite, used in special steels, built up on the wharves. Cork and kapok supply from the Philippines was similarly delayed. With raw materials in short supply, US industry desperately sought substitutes in the manufacture of consumer products. Thus fridge door edges were fitted with plastic strips instead of rubber. By necessity, manufacturers sought ways to decrease the amount of metal used in any design. A side benefit to US industry was an explosion in new materials and manufacturing processes all designed to save weight and money. One report called it “the most radical innovation in metallurgy since the Bronze Age.”10 Needless to add, the dearth of raw materials and the rocketing prices brought droves of speculators to California, Arizona and Nevada. ‘Old Hand’ prospectors as well as bank clerks, cowboys and petrol attendants out to make their fortune made their way west along with officials from the Bureau of Metallurgy. The new ‘non-precious metal’ rush sprouted new towns such as Tungsten City, reminiscent of the days of the Great Gold Rush.
The sudden boom in defense spending also caught America short of the electrical power it needed. In 1941 the US was not helped by drought conditions that left the Tennessee Valley Dam complex 60 percent short of water. To make up the shortfall Leland Olds, Chairman of the Federal Power Commission, set about raising funds for private utilities to increase capacity by 13.44m kilowatts over five years at a cost of US2.3bn.
While there was an abundance of oil, the same did not apply to aviation fuel. In the mid-1930s it had been shown that high octane fuels produced by a combination of hydrogenation and the addition of Tetraethyl Lead enabled aircraft to operate at much higher compression ratios without incurring ‘knocking’ that reduced power, top speeds and range. More power enabled military aircraft to make shorter takeoffs and gave them greater maneuverability. In 1935 Jersey Standard built the first refineries in New Jersey and Texas dedicated to the production of 100-octane aviation fuel. As Britain fought the Germans in the Battle of Britain, aviation fuel imported from America became the standard drink of Allied fighter planes. It proved a decisive factor in enabling British Hurricanes and Spitfires to outfight their German opponents who did not possess the refining ability to process 100-octane fuel.
In 1940 however, there were only 15 plants in the US that could produce aviation fuel. In addition aviation fuel plants had to compete for oil and investment with the production needs of synthetic rubber plants. As orders and production of planes started to grow exponentially, concerns grew as to where the aviation fuel would come from given that it took 12-14 months to build a new refining plant. Ickes ordered that the production of aviation fuel should take precedence over any other product. The larger oil companies moved ahead with investment even before contracts with government had been signed and in an unprecedented move the refiners cooperated to maximize their plant to produce as much aviation fuel as possible.
By this smorgasbord of measures, Jersey Standard alone managed to increase its output of aviation fuel to 42,700 barrels a day by the end of 1943, a figure that exceeded aggregate capacity for the whole of the United States in 1940. Nevertheless demand increased to such an extent that, in the spring of 1943, there was a cut to allocations both to the US military as well as her Allies. Well might Ralph Davies, the Standard Oil man who had become Ickes deputy, assure the military that ‘everything else will have to be regarded as decidedly secondary…’11
Remembering the collapse in cereal and meat prices in the early 1930s, it had not been expected that food would become a major issue at the start of the war. Shipments to Britain and Russia seemed to show that America was blessed with oversupply; it was something of a shock therefore when food supply verged on collapse during the winter of 1942-3. Although much blame was put on the lack of agricultural machinery and labor, the real reason for the crisis was increased prosperity in the US as well as rising demand from a military, which needed to provide its physically hard working troops with an increased calorific intake. ‘Everywhere Americans saw the specters of food shortages,’12 warned Time magazine at the end of June 1943.
In response Roosevelt set up the War Food Administration (WFA) headed by the president of the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis, Chester Davis, a former Iowa farm boy who had become a highly respected commissioner of agriculture in Montana. Complaining of interference from other agencies, he resigned after three months and was replaced by a Texan, Judge Marvin Jones. Meat rationing was introduced. By the end of the year the fears of food shortages had largely abated. Sporadic and localized shortages of certain foods and indeed consumer products in general became commonplace for the remainder of the war. But while the ‘food crisis’ was wonderful fodder for newspapers and a short-term crisis for the politicians but little impacted the health of the nation. The comparison with the near mass starvation in Japan, Russia and later Germany was stark. In Japan, within a few years of the start of the Pacific War, the population was quickly reduced to a subsistence diet of rice and vegetables. Protein in the form of meat or fish was expunged from the diet of all except the lucky elite.
Liberty Ships ‘to go’: If there was a single symbol that defined the global logistical effort undertaken by the United States in World War II, it was the manufacture of the Liberty Ship. In the mid 1930s the US government had recognized a need to build cargo ships that would be viable as naval auxiliaries in time of war. The American Merchant Act  authorized the subsided construction of merchant vessels, some 200 by 1940. The Maritime Commission’s mandate was to ‘Develop and maintain a merchant marine sufficient to carry a substantial portion of the waterborne export and import foreign commerce of the United States on the best equipped, safest and most suitable type of vessels owned, operated and constructed by citizens of the United States, manned with a trained personnel and capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.’13
The willingness of Congress to vote funds for subsided cargo shipping revealed an understanding of the increasing possibility of war. While the US population may have been psychologically committed to its ‘isolationist’ stance, Congress could not have been unaware of the bellicose noises emerging from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. US politicians with longer memories would also have recalled that 80% of the tonnage ordered in World War I only arrived after the conflict had ended. The Merchant Marine Act  was designed to pre-empt the possibility that America would need auxiliary transports. The new marine legislation barely worked. Only a small proportion of the new cargo auxiliaries were built. Indeed by the end of 1941, of America’s 1,442 ocean going vessels, 92 percent were over 20 years old and were considered obsolete. Shipbuilding capacity was largely in the hands of the ‘big five’ shipyards; Newport News (Navy controlled); Sun (subsidiary of the Pew family’s Sun Oil); Federal (a subsidiary of US Steel); New York (Navy controlled) and Bethlehem (a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel). Noticeably with regard to the logistics of the Pacific War, nearly all the capacity was located on America’s Atlantic East Coast, in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Chesapeake Bay, Maryland.
A vast increase in new slipways was required to increase the productive capacity of the shipbuilding industry. In the first stage of expansion in 1941 some 65 new slipways were commissioned. Although there was a significant increase in capacity on the east coast and the south, for the first time the west coast would also develop a significant shipbuilding capacity. Thus new entrants Kaiser-Bectel added eight new slipways in Los Angeles while Todd Shipyards put on seven slipways in Richmond, California. Richmond Kaiser Shipyards built a record 747 ships during the course of the war. Kaiser also built eight new slipways in Portland, Oregon. Capacity increased further thereafter. In aggregate Kaiser was responsible for the building of 1,490 ships, 27% of the number acquired by the Maritime Commission. In December 1941 the number of slipways was 110 with a Dead Weight Ton manufacturing capacity of 3.0m tons; by the end of 1943 there were 330 slipways with a total capacity of 15.0m tons.
Slipway capacity was only one way in which the output of tonnage was increased. Scarcity of management and skilled worker resources also meant that new methods of production had to be developed.
Change came after the British government ordered 60 ‘tramp’ cargo ships from a Todd-Kaiser joint venture to make up for losses caused by the start of Germany’s U-boat campaign to strangle British trade at the outset of World War II. The resulting Ocean Class cargo ships were a relatively simple design based on the Northern Coast, Open Shelter Deck Steamer produced in Sunderland by JL Thomson & Sons. It was design with modifications that was produced in the UK until 1938. Britain specified that the Ocean Class should be coal powered because of the abundance of coal in the UK. The engine, bridge and accommodation were all located amidships with a cargo hold either side. A long tunnel contained the drive shaft connecting the engine to the propeller.
The design chosen by the United States Maritime Commission for an auxiliary cargo ship of its own, in large measure, copied the British ‘Ocean Class’. However important changes were made to design in terms of using pre-assembled parts to enable rapid mass production. Importantly, assembly was to be speeded up by the use of welding rather than the traditional rivets to hold plates together. The new standard auxiliary would have a length of 441ft 6inches and a beam of nearly 57ft. In the 10,856 DWT (Dead Weight Ton) American version the vessels would be fitted with two oil-fired boilers, a triple expansion steam engine and a single screw. It was designed to carry 10,000 tons of freight. Armament included anti aircraft guns and a four-inch gun mounted on the stern. The US government selected a group of six companies headed by Henry J. Kaiser to build it.
Even President Roosevelt who launched the first of these vessels, the SS Patrick Henry, on 27 September 1941 described it as “a dreadful looking object” but his speech ended with the quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.”14 The Liberty Ship was born. Time magazine called it an ‘ugly duckling’. The SS Patrick Henry took 244 days to build. However rapid assembly techniques reduced the time taken to build a Liberty Ship and the average fell to 52.6 days by January 1943 and eventually to just 42 days. This compared with the 12 to 14 month delivery time for a cargo ship in World War I. The SS Robert E. Peary, as part of a publicity stunt was actually launched within five days of the keel being laid. At the Kaiser yard where the Robert E. Peary was built, shipbuilders jokingly told the story of a woman invited to launch a Liberty ship with a bottle of champagne only to find that down below there was an empty berth: Henry Kaiser assures her ‘Lady, don’t worry. Just start swinging…’15
Denounced by some as a publicity stunt, Kaiser responded by saying that the rivalry between yards brought torrents of suggestions from workers about how ships could be built quicker. Managers from other yards were also able to see for themselves how their operations could be made quicker. Most Americans would have agreed with columnist Raymond Clapper who wrote, ‘If it is a stunt it’s the kind of stunt we can watch without ever becoming tired of it.’16 In any case, Kaiser who insisted on calling the bow of a ship, the ‘front end’, was no shrinking violet when it came to offending the sensitivities of the traditional shipbuilding fraternity.
The ships were named after deceased Americans and naming rights were awarded to any group that raised war bonds of US$2.0m. The man-hours required to build a Liberty Ship also halved over the same period as faster work processes were introduced. At the start of the war the US government could call on eight Navy yards and 24 private yards. By the end of the war 99 new yards appeared, some of them purpose built for the production of Liberty Ships. However it was innovations in mass assembly systems that enabled America to build the volume of cargo shipping that its burgeoning logistical commitments required. Keels were laid in rows of slipways behind which were laid prefabricated parts. There was no production line in the same sense as the auto industry where chassis moved down a production line with pieces being added; in shipbuilding it was huge gantry cranes that provided the mobility, moving up and down the piles of prefabricated parts on parallel rails, to place the appropriate pieces on the keels that had been laid down. Shipbuilders worked in three shifts - morning (8am-4pm), swing (4pm-midnight) and night shifts (midnight to 8am) - 24 hours a day.
Pre-assembly became more sophisticated as the private companies led by entrepreneurs such as Henry Kaiser, who had never built a ship before 1940, as well as Joseph Moore and Warren Bectel, both experienced shipbuilders, strove to increase productivity and profits. Miles of pipes and wiring were pre-assembled in standard ducting. By the end of the war accommodation sections were being delivered with doors and doorknobs attached and kitchens were installed with cooking utensils already packed into the galleys. America’s extensive railway networks could deliver from far afield. Kaiser’s shipyards in San Francisco Bay area brought assembled anchor winches from New York.
The writer John Dos Passos observed that the “speed of production has reached such a point that you can see a steel ship grow before your eyes as the huge sections are put together. The whole process to a layman seems strangely simple, like putting models together out of children’s construction toys…”17 Similarly the British reporter Alastair Cooke noted that Kaiser’s yards were “absurdly clean and neat. The elements of a ship are divided into separate piles…”; Cooke counted fifty “unvarying automatic processes.”18
The most productive shipyard of the war however was a start-up built in North Carolina in less than a year on a 57-acre riverfront industrial site. A Charlotte company, VP Loftis, and the Wilmington firm of Orrell and Underwood put up the US$5m investment. Starting with only 400 experienced shipworkers the yard employed 21,000 people at its peak. Its initial six slipways increased to nine.
By far the most important contributor to increased productivity however was the development of welding technology. Although riveted hulls were durable, they held significant drawbacks compared to welding. Alignment of plates and the drilling of holes was time consuming and required a far higher skill and experience level than welding. Riveting was labor intensive with 150,000 rivets required for a typical hull. Skilled drillers and reamers were needed before the two riveters got to work - one either side of the plate. Rivets also added 300 tons to a ship’s weight and they acted as a drag on a cargo vessel. The main advantages of welding versus riveting however were production efficiency and manpower. Welding was not only a faster way to put a prefabricate ship together but a new labor force, with no previous experience of shipbuilding could be put to work quickly. While experienced welders worked the difficult welds, novices could work on simpler joints. Training facilities sprang up around the shipyards. For efficiency, workers were trained to do one task repetitively. Although trade unions objected to the new work practices introduced, the needs of the country overcame all obstacles including race and gender issues.
A high percentage of the workers drafted into the welding workforce were women. While the aircraft industry glamorized ‘Rosie the Riveter’ for propaganda purposes, the shipbuilding industry poster-girl was ‘Wendy the Welder’. Female participation in the civilian labor force rose to 35.4 percent during the war from just 25.8 percent in the pre-war period. (Notably female participation in the German labor force rose from 37.4% in the pre-war period to over 50% in 1944). In 1941 six million women entered the US industrial workforce; by 1944 this number had grown to 20m. In shipbuilding, women trained as riveters, welders, shipwrights, machinist and pipefitters. Women came from all backgrounds - housewives, maids, farm workers and secretaries. Katherine Hulme, who became a welder on the ‘swing’ shift for Kaiser in San Francisco, was a leading theosophist and writer who had studied as a member of The Rope under the tutelage of philosopher-spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff in Paris. [After the war Hulme became the best selling author of A Nun’s Story  which became a box office movie sensation starring Audrey Hepburn. She befriended Hulme and employed her as a nurse after a near fatal horse riding accident while filming the epic John Huston Western, The Unforgiven .] Liberty Ladies, temporarily giving up their work overalls for frocks, often featured in the launch ceremonies and attendant publicity photographs. 114 Liberty Ships were also named after famous American women; Liberty ships included the SS Amelia Earhart and SS Annie Oakley.
Alarm spread to Washington when at 2.41am on 24 November 1943, the SS John P. Gaines split in half bound for the west coast after leaving Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. Ensign John E Jurgens reported that “the ship broke in two just forward of the deckhouse. The crews were forced to abandon ship and all were rescued except a lifeboat containing one gun crew member, three ship crew members and seven soldiers.”19 A panic stricken MarCom initially concluded that the poor welding by inexperienced workers was largely to blame until testing done by English woman Constance Fligg Elam Tipper, a researcher in metallurgy and crystallography at Newnham College, Cambridge, proved that the high sulfur content of steel being used in fabrication meant that plates could become brittle and fracture in cold temperatures. The ‘Tipper Test’ became an important part of airframe testing in the post war period. Some 12 Liberty ships broke in half during the war. It was a problem that also afflicted the T-2 tanker. On 16 January the SS Schenectady, a T-2 tanker built by Kaiser, broke in half while fitting out in cold conditions in Portland, Oregon.
Monthly production peaked at 127 in December 1943. During the war some 2,710 Liberty Ships were built out of a total of 4,600 new ships produced by American shipyards; in aggregate it represented some 29m tons (DWT) of cargo shipping. Although other cargo ships were built in America during World War II, the Liberty Ship was the vessel that overwhelmingly enabled the United States to sustain the largest exercise in global logistics that has ever been accomplished.
Liberty Ships became the ubiquitous face of America’s global logistical quest. 117 Liberty Ships were included in the 200 ships supplied by the ‘Lend Lease’ agreement with the UK. Their importance to British survival in World War II cannot be overstated. On 8 December 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to Roosevelt to tell him that “The mortal danger to our country is the steady and increasing diminution of our sea tonnage. We can endure the shattering of our dwellings and the slaughter of our civilian population by air attacks but the decision for 1941 lies upon the sea. Unless we can establish our ability to feed this island, to import the munitions of all kinds that we need, we may fall by the way. It is therefore in shipping and the power to transport it across the oceans, particularly the Atlantic Ocean, that in 1941, the whole crunch of the war will be found.”20
Apart from keeping Britain afloat in its ‘darkest hour’, Liberty Ships carried tanks, aircraft, munitions and supplies from the north of Britain or Iceland to Archangel or Murmansk; some 50 Liberty Ships were lost on the 78 perilous ‘Russian Convoys’ where sinking led to rapid death for the American and British sailors who found themselves in the freezing waters. 70 years after the event, Arctic Star and Ushakov Medals were finally offered to the few remaining survivors of the Russian convoys on 16 June 2013 at Downing Street by Prime Minister David Cameron and President Vladimir Putin; Cameron recalled, “you were responsible for what Winston Churchill called: the toughest journey, the worst journey in the world.”21
Liberty Ships also supplied Russia via Iran. In the Mediterranean Liberty ships were used to support the North African campaigns and the landings in Italy. Troops and matériel were ferried by Liberty Ships to India where Stilwell’s armies were supplied northern Burma, as well as in China over the ‘Hump’. Liberty Ships were also present at the Normandy landings. Above all Liberty Ships carried America’s armies and their supplies across the vast expanses of the Pacific in the longest-range seaborne invasion of a country, Japan, ever attempted.
In spite of their basic design and rapid construction the Liberty Ship proved one of the great successes of war. Just 196 ships were lost and although they were designed to last for just five years, the survivors formed the basis of the great post-war Greek shipping fortunes of Aristotle Onassis, John Theodorcopulos, Stavros Niarchos, George Livanos and the Goulandris family. In case of future need, some 800 others were tied together and moored in the James River off Chesapeake Bay or at Suisan Bay, up the Sacramento River from San Francisco Bay. Here Liberty Ships en masse served as the backdrop to the Sam Pekinpah movie The Killer Elite  starring James Caan, Robert Duvall and Gig Young. Some of the Liberty Ships would serve again in the Korean War. Many continued to operate well into the 1970s often serving under a Panamanian flag of convenience.
In addition to Liberty Ships, US shipyards continued to turn out high volumes (compared with Japan) of conventionally built cargo vessels. During the course of the war, 173 (7,815 DWT) C1s were built. The same number of (8,793 DWT) C2s were launched. 400 even larger C3 cargo ships (12,595 DWT) were completed as well as 65 (DWT 13,418) C4s; 59 of the latter were used as troop transports while six were converted for use as hospital ships. The C4 hospital ships were a luxury that was foreign to the inadequately treated Japanese troops and seamen and showed the degree to which America, by the end of the war, was able to sustain the health and morale of a vast army and navy, some 1.5m strong in Asian operations thousands of miles from home.
Over the course of the war the United States increased its capacity to build ships from just 300 per year in 1942 to 1,500 per year in 1945. Altogether the United States constructed 6,000 ships during World War II.
Attack Cargo Ships, LSTs, and the Higgins: As the Pacific War developed it became clear that the nature of the campaign would ideally require the United States to develop capabilities beyond conventional cargo ships. The amphibious landing, of which there were hundreds during the course of the Pacific War, required specialist equipment. At Guadalcanal where landing were fortunately unopposed, US marines had to clamber down rope netting flung over the side of their troop transports and fling themselves into bobbing boats that had to be lowered into the water - no easy task when carrying 80lbs of food and ammunition.
Thereafter the US Navy moved rapidly to produce equipment appropriate for the unique challenges of the Asia Pacific War. In 1943, as a first stage the Navy converted 16 regular AK cargo ships into ‘Attack Cargo Ships’ that would eventually become known as AKAs. There followed the purpose-built Andromeda Class that was fabricated by the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Kearny, New Jersey and by the Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland, California. At 6,771 tons it was a medium size ship capable of launching landing craft and combat ready equipment and supplies. After landing troops they would return with subsequent cargoes of back-up military equipment and supplies. The 459ft ship was also armed with a 5-inch gun as well as 4 double-mount 40mm anti aircraft guns and 16 single-mount 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Thirty of these vessels were built from 1943 to 1945.
A smaller 4,087-ton cargo attack ship, the Artemis Class, was also designed and the first ships launched in 1944 by the Walsh-Kaiser Co., Inc., of Providence Rhode Island. At the same time North Carolina Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington was starting to build a behemoth cargo-attack ship of the Toland Class, weighing some 13,910 tons. 32 of each of these two classes of cargo-attack ships would be completed.
In addition to the cargo attack vessels, at the initial request of the British government the US Bureau of Ships began work on the design of a vessel capable of loading and disgorging tanks and troops onto beaches. These ‘landing craft’ would need to be able to be large enough to cross the Atlantic and were originally labeled Atlantic Tank Landing Craft; eventually they became known as LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), after the Liberty Ship, perhaps the most ubiquitous of vessel of World War II. Weighing 4,800 tons, the LST 2 had a shallow draft that enabled it to surge directly onto a beach; the LST’s bow would cleave in two and fold backwards. Then a double-hinged ramp would fall on to the beach revealing a cavernous bowel from which 18 30-ton tanks or 33 3-ton trucks could disgorge. In addition there were berths for 217 troops. Armament included one twin mounted 40mm unit and 6 20mm anti-aircraft guns. During the course of the Pacific War, LSTs became the logistical umbilical cord linking the vast armadas of US Navy assets afloat on the Pacific Ocean and the boots on the beaches of countless islands in the Pacific. Numbers of variants would be produced including landing craft repair ships that were essentially floating mechanical workshops; others became troop transport ships built with billets for 40 officers above decks with an additional 196 berths for troops below decks. These so called ‘mother ships’ would add bakeries, refrigeration and additional cooking facilities. Some 35 LSTs were also converted to short haul hospital ships. In a few cases LSTs were provided with landing capability for reconnaissance and observation aircraft. In total about 1,151 LSTs were built of which 113 were supplied to Britain under the terms of Lend Lease.
Designed to stay afloat even if the tank decks flooded on beaching, the LSTs did not live up to their naval sobriquet, Large Slow Target. They proved remarkably robust workhorses of the Pacific War after their first run out in the Solomon Islands campaign in June 1943. Only 26 LSTs were sunk in action with a further 13 lost to storms.
In spite of the ever-present LSTs at every amphibious landing in the Pacific from mid-1943 onwards, it is the Higgins Boat or LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicles, Personnel) that most accurately captures the essence of the famous Marine Corps actions of Nimitz’s Central Pacific thrust. Andrew Higgins, whose lumber business had failed in the 1930s slump, fell back on boat building to support himself. Thrown out of his prep school in Omaha, Nebraska for brawling, Higgins was a rough-hewn autodidact who became a compulsive boat inventor. Having supposedly ‘stayed afloat’ by building boats to run liquor during Prohibition, in 1941 Higgins spotted an opportunity after seeing photographs of Japanese Daihatsu Class landing boats used by the Japanese Army for the invasion of China in 1937. He excitedly called his chief engineer by telephone and verbally sketched out a design. It was ready for him to inspect when he returned to New Orleans a month later.
Having tested a prototype on Lake Pontchartrain in southern Louisiana, Higgins pressed ahead with further versions which moved the fixed twin .30 caliber machine guns to the back of the boat and provided a full width ramp. In its final production iteration the 36ft long Higgins boat could accommodate a platoon of 36 troops or two jeeps or one jeep and 18 troops. It was a design of genius. Shorter, lighter and faster than the Daihatsu Class, the Higgins performed with exception reliability throughout the war. With a steel platform and ramp but with sides and rear made of plywood, the Higgins Boat was a death trap if caught in heavy enemy fire but they were the workhorse that made the Allied amphibious landings of World War II possible.
Higgins Industries and other manufacturers built more than 20,000 units. General Eisenhower would later say that ‘Andrew Higgins... is the man who won the war for us... If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed on an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.’22
Eisenhower’s claim that Higgins won the war was patently absurd as someone else would surely have come up with a design for the much-needed landing craft. However it was the entrepreneurial Higgins who out-performed the flat-footed efforts of the bureaucratic US Bureau of Ships. In one rumbustious meeting with the Navy, Higgins told Admiral ‘Mike’ Robinson, ‘there are no officers, whether present in this room or otherwise in the Navy who know a goddamn thing about small boat design, construction or operation - but, by God, I do.’23 Nevertheless Andrew Higgins’ contribution to the war effort, rewarded by a post-war investigation by the IRS (Inland Revenue Service), did not deserve to be forgotten after his death in 1952 at the age of sixty-six. Today however, a memorial statue of Higgins stands in Columbus, Nebraska, the place of his birth. In many respects Higgins symbolized the energy and flair of a generation of entrepreneurial shipbuilders who seized the opportunity for profit as well as national service to construct the ships that made America’s global mission to defeat totalitarianism possible.
Japan’s Cargo Ship Problems: While the United States had settled on a single, low cost, mass produced prefabricated design to solve its naval transport problems, Japan’s leaders appear to have given little thought to the long term logistical issues. It was only in 1943, when Imperial HQ woke to the looming catastrophe of supply caused by the increasing tonnage lost to US submarines, that Japan turned its attention to the mass production of a large format cargo ship akin to America’s Liberty Ships.
Until 1943 Japan built traditional high spec cargo ships from a plethora of designs. As with their manufacture of warships there were too many variations and not enough focus on quantity and the development of more productive construction techniques. In 1942 and 1943 Japan built 21 B-1 Class (7,336 DWT), 44 C-1 Class (4,476 DWT), 34 D-1 Class (2,850 DWT), 19 E-1 Class (1,265 DWT), 31 F-1 Class (700 DWT) and 32 K-1 Class (6,433 DWT: Specialist ore carriers).
As the Imperial Japanese Navy grew increasingly fearful of the consequences of the mounting rate of cargo ship losses (See Appendix A: Submarines: America Draws Tight the Noose), new techniques of manufacture and assembly were developed. The A-I Class and rapidly updated A-2 Class cargo ship was a standard design authorized by a panic stricken Ministry of Communications working in conjunction with the Imperial Japanese Navy. The vessel, which had a deadweight (DWT) of 10,425 tons, was 455ft long and 58ft wide and could travel at 15 knots; the design notably differed from the Liberty in the setting of the engine room toward the back of ship to reduce the length of shaft required.
The A-2 Class (and its A-3 successor of which only one was built) was a ‘prefab’ designed ship for which new dockyards were specifically built. In its construction the A-2 Class was significantly hampered by the lack of large format gantry cranes; Japan did not have cranes that could lift a 50-ton section as was typical for the Liberty.
Nevertheless build time for the A-2 was gradually reduced from 90 days to 36 days. In operation, the A-2’s slow speed, rickety construction and unreliable engines meant that it suffered a poor reputation and was shunned by the Army and Navy who preferred higher quality pre-war designs when they were available. Many of the later A-2s were converted to tankers as US aircraft and submarines increasing focused on sinking oil tankers as a means to cut off Japan’s supply of oil. Out of the 83 A-2 Class ships launched from December 1943, no less than 55 were sunk in the remaining 20 months of the war.
In addition to the larger A-2 Class cargo ships, the Ministry of Communication focused on revamped techniques for smaller vessels E-2 Class (successor to E-1). As with the A-2 Class, new shipyards were constructed to enable rapid fabrication and assembly. In 1943 the new streamlined yards managed to launch 58 E-2 Class; improvements in productivity produced 296 E-2 ships in the following year. Noticeably, as raw material supply suffered a sharp decline, just 54 E-2s were produced. The D Class was also revamped albeit a year later with the development of a modular system for the D-2 Class; in 1944 Japan produced 54 D-Class cargo ships falling to 29 in 1945.
Although the ‘2’ series cargo ships (A-2, D-2, E-2) constructed with new modular systems produced an aggregate 1.67m DWT compared to 0.8m DWT produced by traditional fabrication techniques (Classes: A-1, B-1, C-1, D-1, E-1, F-1, K-1), it was too little too late. By comparison, at the peak of Liberty Ship production, new tonnage was 1.4m DWT in December 1943 alone. At the end of the war gross US merchantman inventory had risen to over 8.0m tons (DWT) compared to just 200,000 operational tons remaining in the Japanese commercial fleet.
If Imperial General HQ was completely unprepared to make good the losses that would be incurred in Japan’s mercantile fleet, it was equally unprepared for the protection of its existing inventory. Not only was there no convoy system to safeguard trade flows to Japan but at the outbreak of the war Japan had just four purpose built escort destroyers. It took until July 1943 for the armed services and civilian authorities to hold monthly conferences to monitor and coordinate shipping resources. Nevertheless shipping coordination was so poor that, in spite of the severe domestic shortages, many cargo ships carried ballast back to Japan. Dedicated armed forces ships, of which the Army had 519 totaling 2.16m tons and the Navy 482 ships (1.7m tons), would often refuse requests to carry goods.
Japan’s Air Force Logistics: The failure of Japanese logistics, its inability to build enough cargo ships and to protect its existing fleet, is relatively well documented. However logistical failures applied across the breadth of Japan’s armed forces as well. Logistical problems became particularly apparent in the Japanese Air Forces, the orphan children of the Japanese armed services. In the Army Air Force, all units were subordinate to ground force commanders while in the Japanese Fleet Air Arm, fliers were commanded by Naval officers. Although the US Navy was divided by tensions between ‘black shoe’ (sailors) and ‘brown shoe’ (fliers) Admirals, Nimitz developed a workable system whereby a ‘black shoe’ Admiral had to have a ‘brown shoe’ deputy and vice versa.
Not only was the Japanese command structure dysfunctional within services; the Japanese Army and Navy were also permanently at loggerheads. Lieutenant Commander Masataka Chihaya recalled that they “almost fought. Exchange of secrets and experienes, the common use of airplanes and other instruments, could not even be thought of.”24 The result was that both services built stand-alone logistics systems controlling their own supply vessels and aircraft service facilities. Thus, during the New Guinea campaign, the Army had to send its aircraft 1,500 miles to Manila rather than sending them to the Navy’s much closer aircraft maintenance center at Rabaul. It is an example of dysfunctional rivalry that existed on a completely different scale to the inter-service rivalry in the US armed forces.
As early as 1936 Admiral Yamamoto had outlined that in any future war, there would be a need for the Navy to occupy islands and build airports to gain air control over the areas in its vicinity. In spite of the Navy’s planning of strategies and aerial tactics for its air arm in any future war, it failed to plan logistics consistent with its imperialistic ambitions. The need to develop techniques for the rapid build of new air bases was completely neglected. In its military advances made in the early months of the Pacific War, the Japanese air forces advanced without adequate heavy equipment to build the piers, docks and roadways needed to construct airfields. Maintenance crews arrived too late and were always too few in number. Japanese commanders may have had clear focus on the development of technically advanced weaponry but completely failed to understand the scale of logistical support required for a mechanized war. Neither did the Japanese Army or Air Force have an equivalent of the US Seabees, a dedicated corps of engineers, builders and military construction workers.
In the first ten months of the war Japan managed to build just a single airfield, at Buin on the southern tip of the island of Bougainville, but even this project was highly inadequate. The concept of mutually supporting airfields may have been developed but in reality Japan never succeeded in this quest. Thus there were no auxiliary airstrips between Rabaul and the airbase that they started to build at Guadalcanal 675 miles away, before the US Marines arrived to dispossess them of their planned forward base in June 1942. Very often officers would have to employ native labor to build facilities; unskilled, often half starved and without bulldozers, power shovels or earthmoving equipment. While building an airfield on the island of Noemfoor, 2,500 Javanese were worked to their deaths. In the last resort, it was Japanese troops who were often called upon to build airfields and airbases. Barracks were often little more than slums without washing facilities, laundries or field kitchens.
Japanese airfields themselves were often little more than battered down mud flats usually without hangars. In wet weather aircraft could get stuck on soft and slippery airstrips while in dry weather clouds of dust would rapidly degrade aircraft engines. A high percentage of Japanese aircraft losses came from having to land on poor airstrips. It was noted that on wet days, as many as ten aircraft a day were damaged. On 8 October, 1942, seven out of the 15 Mitsubishi ‘Zeros’ that landed at Buin required extensive repairs. Commander Chihay complained that “When we compare [our] clumsy result with what our enemy accomplished, building huge airfields in good numbers with inconceivable speed, we ceased to wonder why we were utterly beaten. Our enemy was superior in every respect.”25
There were no airfield tractors. Airplanes had to be manhandled into position. Munitions would be carried to load up airplanes. Turnaround times for missions were inevitably slow. “The maintenance crew are exhausted,’ complained a Navy pilot at Buin, ‘but they drag their weary bodies about the field, heaving and tugging to move planes back into the jungle. They pray for tractors such as the Americans have in abundance, but they know their dreams of such “luxuries” will not be fulfilled.”26
As the Pacific War progressed Japan’s lack of standardized aircraft even within services, let alone between Army and Navy air forces, increasingly exacerbated their logistical problems. By the end of the war Japan had produced 90 basic aircraft types 53 for the Navy and 37 for the Army; with upgrades and changes taken into account there were 164 aircraft types including variations, 112 for the Navy and 52 for the Army. Even basic equipment such as instruments, radios and accessories were not standard between the two services. The Army Air Force used a 24-volt ordering system not used by the Navy. Even mounts for cannon and rocket launchers were different. Ordering, delivery and sorting of parts became a lottery as shipping losses began to create havoc to supply logistics.
As the balance of air power shifted in favor of the United States after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Japan’s air forces would increasingly have to hide planes in diverse locations to evade enemy bombers – further complicating logistics. Minor damage to an aircraft or a missing spare part would often force commanders to abandon easily reparable aircraft. At Clarke Airfield in 1945, the Americans found hundreds of abandoned planes. A US intelligence officer reported, “It is impossible to describe the situation as a whole beyond saying that everywhere is evidence of disorganization and general shambles.”27 Perhaps most shambolic however was the lack of foresight given to the need for pilots. Within six months of the start of the war, the Japanese Army and Navy Air Forces were bedeviled by a shortage of skilled pilots. After the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the Japanese Navy was denuded of a high proportion of its front rank pilots. By the end of the Battle of Guadalcanal, the Navy’s air force had run through two generations of pilots; each generation became less able than the next. Not only were flying training school places limited but experienced pilots were rarely rotated into teaching jobs. General George Kenney, MacArthur’s head of the Allied Air Forces in the South West Pacific Area, reported back to Washington that, “Japan’s originally highly trained crews were superb but they are dead.”28
By the end of 1943, Japan had lost 10,000 pilots and the air force academies could not keep up. Sakai, one of the early Japanese aces, recalled that “We were told to rush men through… to forget the fine points, just teach them how to fly and shoot.”29 In addition, as the war progressed the flying academics were not provided with enough aviation fuel and pilots had to do a large portion of their training watching instruction movies or using gliders.
US Supply Logistics in the Pacific War: Although there was fierce competition between the rival US services, the logistics of shipping, unlike Japan, were largely unified. Pre-war planning had originally allocated the ‘sea supply’ function to the Navy; in the review of operational weaknesses after Pearl Harbor it was decided that the Navy did not have the resources for this task. A War Shipping Administration was therefore eventually set up in February 1943 that allocated ships to the Army and Navy on a voyage-by-voyage basis. In the early years of the Pacific War, when supplies to Asia were limited by the ‘Europe First’ strategy, it was a structure that saved a great deal of argument and wasted energy.
But shared logistical management between the Army and Navy had been more theoretical than real in the first years of the war, not helped by a division of command between MacArthur in the southwest Pacific area and Nimitz in the Central Pacific.
The weakness of US logistical infrastructure came to the attention of all parties at the Battle of Guadalcanal where Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner noted that “Eighty percent of my time was given to logistics during the first four months of the ‘WATCHTOWER Operations’ (Guadalcanal)… we were living from one logistics crisis to the next.”30 The Joint Plan for the Support of United States Bases in the South Pacific had only been agreed in July 1942 and was certainly not in effect when Operation WATCHTOWER was launched. In late September 1942, General ‘Hap’ Arnold the head of the US Army Air Corp visited the region and concluded “So far, the Navy had taken one hell of a beating and… was hanging on by a shoestring. They did not have a logistical setup efficient enough to ensure success.”31
Both Japan and the United States had supply line problems to Guadalcanal but those of the US were 50 percent longer. To a large extent the Marines and the Navy were dug out of their hole by General Patch, commander of the Americal Division based on New Caledonia, who supplied them with his reserve stock.
Ultimately the desperate situation of the Marines on Guadalcanal was relieved because both Army, and Navy, the Joint Chiefs and even the President came to realize that losing was not an option. After briefings from ‘Hap’ Arnold and others, Roosevelt put ‘Europe First’ on hold and insisted that the Joint Chief should “…make sure that every possible weapon gets into the area to hold Guadalcanal, and that having held in this crisis, munitions, planes and crews are on the way to take advantage of our success.”32 After Guadalcanal, significant supply bases were built up there and at Espiritu Santo so as to obviate the need for the long lines of supply to Auckland in New Zealand. Further inter-service disputes over supply were finally resolved in a joint directive from Admiral King and General Marshall in Washington entitled Basic Logistical Plan for Command Areas Involving Joint Army and Navy Operations [8 March 1943] It was just as well that these issues were resolved after Guadalcanal because, as the Japanese had discovered, the supply of forward air bases was critical to the advance through the Pacific and more so because the Japanese forces, unlike the US Army at the start of the war, were expertly dug into their island defenses.
As the US forces approached Japan, the logistical requirements changed. Forward air bases were not enough to support the vast scale of the invasion forces needed for Okinawa and the planned Operation Olympic (Kyushu Island). A floating armada was needed and delivered. Apart from the oil tankers, Liberty Ships, C4 troop transports and hospital ships, LSTs, and Higgins Boats already mentioned, American industry supplied repair ships, tugs, mine sweepers, concrete fuel barges, ammunition lighters and even floating bakeries and ice cream makers. Distances added to the volume of logistics required. A force of 40,000 US troops based in Australia had to be serviced by a commercial fleet as large as one serving 100,000 troops based in Great Britain.
The scale of the late war operations in the Pacific conflict exceed anything that has ever been attempted before or since. The 14 June landings on Guam, Saipan and Tinian in 1944 needed an armada of 535 ships carrying 80,000 Marines and 40,000 Army soldiers who had to be carried and supplied from Enowetok Atoll over 1,000 miles distant. The planning for this operation, which took just three months, was carried out in Hawaii, 3,600 miles away. It used so many landing craft that had been diverted from Europe that it caused the postponement of ‘D-Day’ by one month.
MacArthur’s invasion of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines with a force of 150,000 troops was larger than the US component of the D-Day landings in Normandy. The Okinawa invasion, needing 183,000 troops launched and supplied from Ulithi Atoll, required an even larger logistical support.
Operation Olympic and Japan’s Logistical Denouement: Finally ‘Operation OLYMPIC’ planned to invade the main Japanese home islands with a force of 1.2m troops (400,000 direct from the complete European operations and 800,000 from the US). It was estimated that 10m tons of supplies would be transferred out of Europe with half of that amount being sent on to the Pacific. It would have been a logistical task of staggering proportions.
However given the success up to that date of a combination of unified logistics and/or ad hoc cooperation by willing partners in all the services, there is no reason to think that an invasion of Japan would have been failed by logistics. Success in the war helped the Army and Navy to work together and at least by 1945 the military output of the United States was such that quality and quantity of supply had largely ceased to be an issue. The same sense of unity of purpose was never the same in the Japanese Army and Navy whose strategic aims and purpose were riven from the outset. The Army wanted to secure China and deflect the threat from the Soviets in the north, while the Navy wanted to secure and then preserve an Empire that would provide it with the resources it needed to flourish. From the outset Japan’s twin strands of logistics of the Pacific War were set on mutually antagonistic courses with an economy that was incapable of sustaining both.
Just as the Imperial Japanese Navy had built ships almost solely with offense in mind, so the Japanese economy at the outset of the Pacific War was geared to an offensive mentality. By falling into Roosevelt’s embargo trap and choosing war, Japan had gambled that it could win a short war and then negotiate. In a war that would develop into one of attrition, Japan’s failure to plan for the long term logistical requirements of its ‘go-south’ strategy, doomed it to disaster once America had decided on a war of all out victory without time limit. The only way to make sense of the Japanese gamble is to reflect that they had assumed that the American nation did not have the stomach for a fight. But in the end Americans had stomach and more. Americans were not only prepared to die on the battle field, but on the home front they were prepared to meet any target set for the logistics of war.