Japan’s WWII war machine did not have enough machines

It is not a stirring description of valor in battle, but the following passage from Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944the sequel to his excellent Pacific Crucible, nonetheless stayed with me for a while:

Japanese war planners had hoped to produce 40,000 new military aircraft in 1944, but the production rate was barely half that level in the fall of 1943. Aviation plants were straining under the pressure of material shortages, maladroit logistics, and a paucity of trained machinists and engineers. Shipping losses bit deeply into deliveries of Malaysian and Jakartan bauxite, the industry’s chief source of aluminum alloys. The Mitsubishi complex in Nagoya had expanded steadily, employing 43,000 workers by the end of 1943, but it had turned out only 1,029 new Zeros in 1943, fewer than half the number demanded by the military services. The Japanese aircraft industry had relied to a disproportionate extent on a small, overworked coterie of talented craftsmen and technicians, and was never optimized for mass production. Belated efforts to introduce standard production-line techniques brought some improvement, but neither Mitsubishi nor the other major aircraft suppliers (Nakajima, Aichi, Kawasaki, Tachikawa, Yokosuka) managed to ramp up output fast enough to fill the military’s ballooning wartime orders.

When a government inspector passed through the Nagoya works in late 1943, he was surprised to learn that newly manufactured Zeros were still being hauled away from the plant by teams of oxen. There was no airfield adjoining the Mitsubishi plant. The new units had to be transported overland to Kagamigahara, twenty-four miles away, where the navy would accept delivery. The aircraft were too delicate to transport on trucks, and the railheads were not convenient. Twenty oxen had died, and the remaining thirty were verging on complete exhaustion. Feed had been obtained on the black market, but the supply was not reliable. Essential wartime deliveries of replacement aircraft thus hung on the fate of a diminishing herd of underfed beasts. Mitsubishi engineers at length discovered that Percheron horses could haul the aircraft to Kagamigahara faster and required less to eat. These ludicrous exertions, when compared at a glance to the arrangements at Boeing, Douglas, or Grumman, tell most of the story of Japan’s defeat.  …

Writing years after the war, Jiro Horikoshi observed that his country could not draw from the deep wellsprings of engineering and technical expertise that existed in the United States. There was nothing in Japan to compare with America’s sprawling complex of universities, research laboratories, design firms, and heavy industries. Japan had a small circle of gifted engineers employed by the navy, the army, and about a dozen industrial firms. Owing to rivalries between the army and the navy and between rival companies and cartels (zaibatsu), much of their work was duplicative and wasteful. All too often their talents were squandered on impractical, profligate, stop-and-start projects that never got off the ground (in some cases, literally). They were resourceful and dedicated, but there were not enough of them. Horikoshi and his colleagues drove themselves to the verge of complete exhaustion and collapse, until the doctors and bosses ordered them to rest. “Such poor management of technical policy created the situation where we had no other choice but to rely on the Zeros [a lightweight plane that US pilots were shooting down in increasing numbers] from the beginning of the war until its end,” Horikoshi wrote, “and this, in turn accelerated Japan’s defeat.”

The image of the starving oxen pulling planes indeed captures so much of the tragic waste that was Japan’s attack on the US.

Toll’s book is really a narrative history of key military engagements, not primarily an economic or social history–but it’s nuggets like this, along with digressions on topics like Hawaiian social history and shore leave in Australia, that help make the book continuously interesting and far from narrowly focused. It’s vividly written and a marvel in clarity, no simple task given the mass of names and the obscure and complicated geography it covers.

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