By Dick Martin
The Japanese had a much more difficult situation fueling their war machine in the Pacific Theatre than the Germans did in the Atlantic Theatre. The distances were much greater between military objectives and sources of fuel. You could fit ten Atlantic Theatres into one Pacific Theatre.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was indirectly caused by the Japanese thirst for oil. We had been the primary source of oil for the Japanese before the war. Because of their military actions and atrocities in China and Manchuria, the US cut them off as their source of oil. Consequently, they felt that to realize their desires for dominating what they called, “The Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere” (most of the Pacific west of Hawaii) they needed oil from SE Asia and they felt that the 7th Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, was all that stood between them and oil independence. Consequently, on December 7, 1941, “a day that would live in infamy,” their Naval Armada conducted a sneak air attack on the 7th Fleet and other US military institutions located in Hawaii. Luckily for the US, all of their carriers were absent as they were out to sea hunting submarines. Still they sank most of the ships still anchored at Pearl Harbor and killed over 2000 US military personel.
Not given as much attention as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but perhaps even more important, was what happened thousands of miles away. Japanese planes destroyed most of MacArthur’s planes in the Philippines. Incredibly, they were caught on the ground even after he had been alerted by the Pearl Harbor fiasco. At this point, the Japanese had a clear route to oil in SE Asia and Indonesia. Realizing that the Japanese were after oil in the area, most of the wells were blown up or plugged with cement. Neither action was much more than an inconvenience to the Japanese and it took them little time to get the wells producing again.
The overconfident Japanese saw a hookup with Germany, its ally, as a next step in their successes. Destroying America’s interest at Midway Island and a knockout blow to the Hawaiian Islands would destroy the 7th Fleet as an effective fighting force. However, they did not realize how quickly Pearl Harbor had recovered from their attack and did not realize the Americans had cracked their code. Consequently, the US knew their objective was Midway and had the resources there waiting for them and delivered a decisive blow by sinking four aircraft carriers while losing only one of their own. About the same time, the American Marines were delivering a decisive blow to the Japanese at Guadalcanal.
These defeats and the success of US submarines sinking oil tankers in what the Japanese called “The Southern Zone,” were influencing strategic planning and were making it very difficult for the Japanese to get oil out of Indonesia and SE Asia. By mid-1945, all of their tankers attempting to bring oil out of SE Asia were sunk by US submarines. Japan’s shortage caused rationing in Japan, wild ideas for producing oil, and failed attempts at synthesizing oil. None worked or produced enough oil to be strategically worthwhile. The shortage of oil eventually caused the Japanese Navy’s final defeat as an effective fighting force in the Leyte Gulf. Like the Wehrmacht’s inability to fuel its war machine in Europe being a major factor in its demise, the Japanese were unable to fuel their planes and ships in the Pacific signaled their demise.
For a much more thorough discussion of the effect of oil shortages on the Japanese, please see “The Prize” by Daniel Yergen pages 351 to 367.