February 08, 2009

What If...? #2

Outwardly, Warrant Officer Takeo Koyani, pilot of the G4M, looked calm and capable.  On the inside, however, he was cursing everybody involved on sending him on this stupid mission.  "Fly Admiral Yamamoto on an inspection tour of  the Solomons," they had said.  "It'll be easy, and the morale boost will be enormous."  And so it had, these past few days.  Then that airstrip commander at Rabaul had warned of ambushes coming from Guadalcanal, and yet here he was, flying towards Ballale island near Bouganville... in the direction of Starvation Island itself... in a damned "One-shot Lighter."  Still, here he was, and the flight had been uneventful so far.  Buka was nearby, and some additional Zeros would be lifting off right about... now... to provide additional cover.  Then he'd be... well, not safe exactly, but he'd feel a lot better.

Then the tailgunner shouted a warning.  With a curse, Koyani pushed the nose of the G4M down, picking up speed to get closer to Buka as fast as possible.  Tracers shot past the cockpit, but he heard the unmistakable sounds of bullets whipping through the fuselage.  Dammit, where was his escort?  A solid whump drew his attention to the left wing, where he saw a huge plume of smoke pouring from the engine.  Suddenly, the G4M snap-rolled that direction.  Koyani frantically struggled to level the bomber out, an American P-38 flashed by, the jungle below looked very green.  "We're going to crash, brace yourself," Koyani yelled as he hauled back on the stick.  Dammit, why hadn't he been picked for fighters?  Why the hell was he here right now anyway?   

Some miles away, an IJN minesweeper cruised in the Solomon Sea.  The brief aerial struggle had been in clear view, and the captain radioed back to Rabaul that two G4Ms had been shot down by Lightnings.  That task done, he turned as the man next to him spoke quietly.  "No wonder we lost at Midway.  They've been reading our mail."  The captain nodded.  "Take me back to Rabaul, Captain.  I've got a lot of work to do, and the inspection can wait."

As the minesweeper came about, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto strode from the bridge and began calling for his aides.

Like my last "What If...?" post, which dealt with the loss of the Enterprise at Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto surviving Operation Vengeance likely would have no effect on the outcome of the Pacific War: Japan would still lose, crushed under the manufacturing might of the US, and there's nothing could change that.  But what effect would having Yamamoto in command of the Imperial Japanese Navy throughout the war, and knowing the US had broken the Navy's ciphers, have on how they lost? 

Like any good counterfactual, Yamamoto's survival could very well have occurred.  In fact, the local commander at Rabaul had urged the Admiral to take a ship to Ballale, or to cancel the visit altogether.  From there, it's only a very small jump to imagining a plan to discover if the US had cracked the JN-25 code.

In fact, it's quite likely that Yamamoto's plans for the IJN would vary little from what actually occurred, cracked code or no.  After Midway and Guadalcanal, the Japanese were on the defensive anyway, and not knowing the exact disposition of Japan's naval forces would matter little against the US Navy's ability to send six heavy carriers or more to any battlefield.  The only place Yamamoto's leadership could have made a difference was in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Despite his advocacy of the aircraft carrier, at his heart Yamamoto was a devotee of the  "decisive battle", using battleships to face down the US Navy, and the Battle off Samar was the closest Japan ever came to pulling off the "decisive battle."  While Admiral Kurita succeeded in pushing aside the light forces he faced in Taffy 3, he withdrew after doing so.  With Yamamoto in overall command, Kurita may have been driven even harder to push against the landing forces beginning the invasion of the Philippines.  There, Kurita's force of four battleships, nine cruisers and 13 destroyers would have come face to face with Admiral Jesse Oldendorf's bombardment fleet of six old battleships and eight cruisers.  It's anybody's guess what would have occurred then: the Japanese had taken damage from the light forces they had just fought, but Oldendorf's ships were not prepared to fight enemy ships.  Instead, they had been loaded with high-explosive shells for bombardment duty and fewer than normal armor-piercing rounds. 

Yamamoto sat back, his face impassive as the reports came in.  Kurita's force was gone, but it took with it three enemy battleships and, more importantly, a number of fully-loaded transports.  Without those, America would have a harder time taking the Philippines.  But they still would.  It was obvious to the Admiral that this war was over, and Japan had lost.  All that was left was when the politicians would realize it.

Assuming Yamamoto survived the rest of the war, the question becomes what would have happened to him during the occupation?  There's no question he would have been jailed by the War Crimes Tribunal for his masterminding the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Would he have been put to death?  From the way the other trials went, there is sufficient evidence to believe the answer is no. 

The followup to that question, though, is what role would Yamamoto play in the reconstruction of Japan?  He was known as being very pro-American before the war, having spent time in the States.  Indeed, in the years before the war he was thought to be too soft on the America question, and was threatened with assassination repeatedly.  That surely would have worked in his favor in the eyes of the Occupation forces.  Further, he already knew many of the American military leaders from his presence at the various arms talks pre-war, and spoke fluent English.  Combined with his status in the Navy, he would have been perfect to work with the Occupation leaders in the rebuilding of his country.  It's telling that the man who became the Prime Minister of Japan in 1956, Tanzan Ishibashi, once said in an interview:

"...to tell the truth, we'd had a vague idea that [Yamamoto] might take things in hand after the war.  You see, if a man with such an illustrious war record took over, the public could be persuaded to put up with their dissatisfactions just by the idea that it was 'Admiral Yamamoto' who was responsible.  The very fact that he had been labelled pro-British and pro-American before the war worked in his favor, as we saw it, in trying to integrate public opinion in the postwar period."

It's anybody's idea how Yamamoto would have done as Prime Minister.  One gets the feeling, however, that he would have done at least as well as what occurred, but with greater respect from the populace and the Occupation, he certainly would have had an easier go of it.

Isoruku settled back in his poolside chair.  He'd served Japan well, and seen his country through the roughest time it could ever have.  Now that his time as Prime Minister was finished, he was due some relaxation, wasn't he?  Maybe he could find a good poker game around here...? 

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:37 AM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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Genda was never prosecuted, even though he was the main one who planned Pearl Harbor. After the war he was instrumental in organizing the JASDF.

So it's completely plausible to me that Yamamoto might have been let off lightly, and maybe even not prosecuted at all, had he lived.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at February 09, 2009 01:18 AM (+rSRq)

2 My favorite "World War II What If?" regards Japan's decision to attack the US in the first place.  As I understand it, the territories Japan wanted to seize for their resources did not include any held by the US.  What if the Japanese diplomats had told the US on December 7th that they were attacking British, French, and Dutch territories in the Pacific and Asia to aid their Axis allies, and to warn the US to maintain their neutrality in that conflict?

Would Roosevelt been able to rally the American people to attack the Japanese solely to protect European colonies?

While deciding to not attack the "weak-willed" US seems out of character for the Tojo government, they had already signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR, even though they had defeated them previously in the Russo-Japanese War.  If the US held no territories that Japan wanted, "what if" they had not attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th?

Posted by: Siergen at February 09, 2009 06:39 PM (syMpe)


Someone asked me about that one, back in the day. (It's the second of the three what-if's in that post.)

I don't buy it as a plausible alternative.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at February 09, 2009 06:55 PM (+rSRq)

4 Keep in mind that the objective of the Japanese fleet in Leyte Gulf was not to "win the war in a day"; they were not operating under the illusion that they could win such a decisive victory as to render further US offensive action untenable.

What they were trying to do, and what they tried to do later on with suicide strikes, was convince the US that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was too costly, and that a negotiated peace treaty would be preferable. And a decisive victory that crushed the transport fleet at Leyte might have done it; not only would the loss of lives have been appalling, but later revelations that the success was partially (mostly?) due to US incompetence would have been a big blow to morale. The world would indeed have wondered, hm?

But then again, probably not... It wouldn't have even set back the date of the end of the war, given that it was prompted by atomic attack and the occupation of the Philippines had very little (i.e. no) affect on actions against the Japanese mainland. We might have nuked Kyoto, maybe...

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at February 09, 2009 10:51 PM (pWQz4)

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