15 March 2010


Sixty-five years ago, the 5th US Marine Amphibious Corps, made up of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, assaulting the heavily fortified volcanic island of Iwo Jima in one of World War II’s most dramatic battles. 

The outcome was a given.   The collapse of Japan’s air force and navy had left the garrison totally isolated, doomed to inevitable defeat in battle or starvation.

Unlike other Japanese-held islands that were simply bypassed, the US wanted Iwo Japan as a base to begin B-29 heavy bomber raids on the Japanese mainland. 

In the ensuing bloody battle, 6,821 Americans and some 33,000 Japanese died or went missing.  Almost half the Japanese garrison was entombed alive or killed in a labyrinth of underground fighting positions and shelters.

My late father, Henry M. Margolis, fought at Iwo as a member of the renowned 5th Marine Amphibious Division. So frightful was the battle, he rarely spoke of his experiences on Iwo.  But he always spoke of Japanese with deep respect and later became an admiring visitor to Japan.  During the early 1950’s he even ferreted out for us the first authentic Japanese restaurant in New York.

In the vast Pacific campaign, the United States military faced a well-armed, courageous Japanese opponent that was, at least in the first year of the war, very much its equal in fighting power and logistical support. 

The war’s initial phases were a close-run thing. In December, 1941, Japan committed a fatal error by not sending its battleships and cruisers to directly bombard Pearl Harbor, and then hunt down the three US carriers in the Pacific that had providentially – or intentionally (say conspiracy theorists)- been at sea when the surprise attack occurred.  Japan’s attacking fleet was only 200 miles from Hawaii.  

Had this been done, Japan’s hopes of winning the war or achieving a favorable peace settlement in one year might have been possible.  But Japan’s failure to destroy America’s three carriers in the Pacific proved decisive.

The US Navy went on to win epic victories at Midway, the Marianas, and Leyte, that rank among history’s most glorious naval battles. 

In those contests, the United States was fighting a foe of equal strength and daring. By contrast, in Europe, the United States, Britain and Canada were fighting a  German army that have been fatally weakened by the Red Army on the Eastern Front, and lacked air cover, fuel and ammunition.    

A leading Japanese newspaper, `Yomiuri Shimbun,’  has been running a fascinating re-examination of Japan’s role in World War II that sharply contradicts the common western image of Japan’s supposedly efficient war machine.

This book and many other new and old sources make clear Japan  blundered into World War II without any real strategy, then made a total mess of its conduct.  

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, predicted in 1941, `we are going to war for oil, and we will lose the war because of oil.’  He warned Japan could only fight for one year, and called for peace talks with the US soon after Pearl Harbor.  Yamamoto had attended Harvard University and understood America’s great power and industrial might.

In 1943, American long-ranged P- 38 fighters shot down Yamamoto’s aircraft off Bougainville, killing the Japanese officer best placed to overthrow the militarist regime.

Former prime minister Fumimaro Konoe also predicted disaster. In 1942, he wisely proposed Japan  should begin planning `how to lose the war.’    

Some Japanese officers plotted to kill war leader Hideki Tojo and other militarists – but, like Hitler’s foes, failed.

The Imperial Japanese Navy did not want war. Japan, which had no oil and few minerals, had only a two-year peacetime national reserve of oil – whose source was the United States, then the world’s leading producer of crude oil and aviation fuel.    

When US President Franklin Roosevelt embargoed American oil, iron ore and scrap metal to Japan to force the Japanese out of China, the Imperial Navy  had no choice but to launch a campaign to conquer the only major alternative sources of oil, the Dutch East Indies (today, Indonesia) and British Malaya, or rust at its moorings.    

Japan’s Imperial Army, imbued with reckless fascist militarism, sought to conquer all of vast China.  The Army refused to talk to the Navy or coordinate grand strategy. Each waged its own separate war.  The cabinet and defense ministry were helpless to coordinate strategy.  The Army was still steeped in 18th century samurai traditions, convinced that courage and sacrifice could overcome all obstacles, be they geographic or technological.

If Japan’s Kwantung Army, based in southern Manchuria, had attacked the Soviet Pacific provinces and the port of Vladivostok, Stalin would have been unable to transfer his Siberian armies in time to save Moscow from the German 1941 winter offensive.  Germany might have stood a chance of defeating the Soviet Union. 

But the Imperial Army’s generals were mesmerized by China. They and the Kemeptai secret police threatened to kill cabinet members and the emperor’s influential council of elder advisors, known as `jushin,’ who wanted to end the war through negotiations. 

Japan’s emperor Hirohito tragically vacillated over the war. He failed to stand up to the militarists and kept issuing ambiguous statements that confused everyone.  Early victories misled Tokyo’s war leaders.  The emperor, government, and military  also feared a communist takeover of Japan if the war was lost.

By June, 1944, Japan was defeated, though the war would continue for another 14 months.  US submarines and mining had cut off 95% of Japan’s imports of oil, food, and raw materials, immobilizing its air force and navy, and shutting down heavy industry.  Massive US fire-bombing raids followed in which 50% of Japan’s major cities were incinerated and huge numbers of civilians died.

So desperate was Japan, it even tried to make aviation fuel by distilling  pine tree roots.    

Japan could have been starved into submission, but Washington feared the Soviets would invade Japan, encouraged by outrageous  concessions made by the dotty President Franklin Roosevelt to Stalin at Yalta.  According to a former KGB general, Pavel Sudoplatov, Roosevelt had at least two Soviet agents in his inner cabinet. 

Washington decided to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to quickly end the war. Allied supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower strongly opposed using nuclear weapons, but was overruled. The desperate Japanese actually asked Stalin to broker a peace deal. 

Like Germany and Italy, Japan went to war without assured supplies of oil and raw materials.  It was a battle in which samurai valor lost to industrial warfare, fueled by endless supplies of US oil, and America’s brilliant military and industrial organization.   



copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2010

This post is in: History, Japan, USA, World War II

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