Reviewed by Capt. James C. Hay USN (Ret.)
Professor Boyd and Captain Yoshida have produced a very readable and informative account of the Submarine Force that faced the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II. They trace the building of Japan’s submarines from the initial five HOLLAND type boats purchased from the Electric Boat Co. in 1904 to the three gigantic 1-400 class submarines of 6500 tons submerged displacement. In all they describe over thirty classes of submarines built between the end of World War I and 1945.
With all that known design/build activity, this reader admits to never being sure what was meant by the I-boat label. Helpfully enough, early in the book the authors clear up the point by explaining the method by which the UN designated its submarines:
“‘I’ is a romanization of the first letter in the traditional Japanese syllabary (written as the Greek lambda), ‘RO’ is the second, and ‘HA• the third. Therefore, under three separate classes established in 1924, an I-boat was a first-line Class A submarine, the Ro-type submarine was a somewhat smaller Class B boat, and the HA-type Japanese submarine was a small coastal Class C boat with an appreciably more limited range and displacement. Midget submarines were later listed in the HA series.”
The authors are uniquely able to detail the story of Japanese submarine warfare in the Pacific and put it in context for American readers. Carl Boyd served in U.S.N. submarines in the fifties and is now a professor of history at Old Dominion U Diversity as well as being the author of a number of books and articles relating to the Second World War. Akihito Yoshida is a retired captain in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and it was be who led the bulk of primary research in Japan.
In addition to relating the wartime operational record of Japanese submarines, the book includes a wealth of supporting data about the weapons and equipment carried by the UN boats and the training of their officers and crews. There are also ten very useful appendices ranging from excerpts of the pre-war “UN Instructions for Submarine Warfare and the Decisive Battle”, through descriptions of submarine organization for several of the major operations of the war, to a summary of their losses and short biographies of “Key Members of the UN Submarine Force.”
Doctrine for the employment of submarines also gets important treatment in the setting of the stage for wartime performance. The major emphasis in pre-war Japanese submarine doctrine, of course, was on the immediate support of the main battle fleet rather than on independent logistic interdiction operations. The authors give a very useful background of the philosophy and history of that doctrinal foundation to the design of Japanese submarines and the training of their crews. They also carry throughout the chronology of the war the theme of the naval leadership’s strategic dependence on a Mabanian decisive battle to partially explain the Submarine Force’s undistinguished performance.
For the effect on submarine operations it would have been interesting to compare the Japanese Navy’s too-long-held aim and plan for a mid-Pacific decisive battle and the U.S. Navy’s War Plan Orange to use the same path to victory-but in the opposite direction. In their book Code-Name Downfall about the plan to invade Japan at war’s end, Tom Allen and Norman Polmar hold that War Plan Orange was lowly regarded by Admiral Richardson when he was arguing against President Roosevelt’s desire to base the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. If it was his reasoning which influenced the U.S. to abandon the pre-war strategy, and as a consequence make an immediate declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, perhaps the Japanese could have made the same deduction. Perhaps that comparison could even lead to the conclusion that submarine employment considerations should have driven overall strategic fleet planning on both sides.
In any case the Japanese Navy tried to conduct their early war submarine operations in much the way they had been planned in the ’30s. Boyd and Yoshida split the war itself into five phases: 1937 to mid-1942, titled Successes and Missed Opportunities; New Operational Patterns and Devastation in the Second Half of 1942: The Attrition of War and Submarine Ops; Sub Ops and Plans for the Decisive Battle, 1944; and Submarine Ops near the War’s End. The dispositions of the submarines are well laid out on chartlets for all the major operations and the command structure in place is explained.
As the U.S. Navy incorporates submarines more fully into naval formations perhaps we should look to this World War II experience of the Japanese, the only major maritime combatant of the period to use submarines as a close fleet adjunct. Of particular interest in that regard are the sections of this book on the Pearl Harbor operation with 28 I~boats involved as well as five midget submarines, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In each case it was primarily, but not completely, a failure of high command that led to disappointing submarine results.
Naturally, from the standpoint of a fifty year retrospection, it is the lack of decisive results by Japanese submarines which demands our attention, and the authors treat that issue as their first priority. As one might expect, no one answer serves to bear the full responsibility. After the 1943 campaigns the authors placed a large share of blame on the Japanese Navy’s neglect of ASW, and the consequent lack of countermeasures. They also state that the boats themselves, being designed primarily for offensive operations, and having slow submerged speed and shallow depth capability were not up to fighting fully defended American fleet formations. There should be a lesson in that about building hard-to-change hardware to fit very specific strategic projections.
In describing the Marianas campaign in mid-1944, they concluded that the sinking of six submarines by the ENGLAND (DE 635) group in May and the subsequent loss of eight other boats in June was indicative of big problems. They wrote: “Once again the Japanese submarine force was the· victim of changing orders from the high command, of superior U.S. Navy ASW activities, and of the effectiveness of American intelligence.” The last factor of course was largely a matter of code-breaking and gave the Americans a great advantage.
A high level investigation of submarine employment practices was conducted and its September “44 report is quoted to the effect that “ferocious and thorough” US ASW made “group submarine methods, which are in accord with former tactical concepts” no longer feasible. That report also discredited the picket line disposition of submarines which had been a favorite, but hugely unsuccessful, ploy.
The overarching problem with the Japanese submarine operations during the ’41-’45 war, however, was the strategic rigidity of the Navy’s high command in their overall thinking, and their specific failure to formulate “a comprehensive submarine strategy similar in scope and purpose to those implemented by Vice Admiral Charles A. Loclcwood, Commander of Submarines, Pacific, or German Admiral Karl Donitz in their respective submarine forces. And the Japanese paid dearly for this failure in strategy.”