Japan Strikes: 1941


As soon as Imperial Japan destroyed the Russian Navy in a spectacular sea battle at the Straits of Tsushima in 1905, a rash of would-be Cassandras began to foretell the day when the rays of the Rising Sun would spread eastward across the Pacific, bringing Japan head-on into conflict with the United States. These early prophets of the great war to come were not cautious theorists but, rather, a wildly imaginative, zany lot—characters such as Homer Lea, a hunchback who served as a general under Sun Yat-sen and delighted in terrifying his contemporaries with sanguinary tales of Japanese bounding across the Pacific to lay waste to California, Oregon, and Washington, and men like Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick, a walrusmustachioed poet who took time out from confecting elegant rhymes to picture the Japanese subjugating not only the United States but Mexico, too.

Occasionally in les guerres imaginaires , as this literary genre is known, one comes across a bewitching stroke of prophecy. For example, in Banzai! , an imaginary account of a Japanese-American war written in 1908 by German novelist Ferdinand H. Grautoff, Japanese forces deal a stunning defeat to unprepared American troops, who happen to be under the command of a “General Mac Arthur.” In time, as Grautoff relates the story, MacArthur returns to the fray, rallies his men, and drives the Japanese into the sea.

As a lone-time collector of novels and stories prophesying the war” in the Pacific, I was more delighted than surprised not long ago when in a secondhand bookstore in Manhattan I picked up a copy of The Great Pacific War by Hector C. Bywater. The book had been published in 1925 by Constable & Company of London, and it contained—I discovered as I glanced through the first few pages—a prediction that the war between Japan and the United States would commence with a sneak attack by the Japanese. When I got the book home and examined it carefully, my sense of delight slowly gave way to amazement.

The narrative of the “tremendous conflict” that Bywater described begins with Japan’s seizure of strategic points in Manchuria, Formosa, and Korea. Her motive for war is the Asian mainland’s rich supply of raw materials, which are necessary to support Japan’s burgeoning industrial plants. “But in thus pursuing a policy which aimed at the virtual enslavement of China,” Bywater wrote, “[Japan] had inevitably drawn upon herself the hostility of the Powers.” Accordingly, a series of diplomatic notes are exchanged between Japan and the United States—“bellicose” and “truculent” on the part of the Japanese and “courteously worded” by the Americans, who are “determined to prevent the catastrophe of war.” It is in the midst of these negotiations that Japan strikes bv surprise.


According to Bywater’s account the Japanese catch the American Asiatic Squadron cruising off Manila Bay, not Pearl Harbor, but the result is the same—the complete destruction of the American warships as a fighting force. Bywater recognized that the attack would be heralded by the approach of carrier-based airplanes, although he expected the greatest destruction to be wrought by naval gunnery. In any event it is a onesided contest, both because the Japanese have the advantage of surprise and because the relatively obsolete American warships are no match for the powerful, modern Japanese armada.

By water did not foresee the Japanese strikes against Malaya, Burma, and Hong Kong that followed the Pearl Harbor attack—perhaps because, being an Englishman, it was too much for him to conceive of Japan’s taking on the United States and Great Britain, too. Nevertheless, his description of the assaults on Guam and the Philippines is truly astonishing. He predicted that Guam would come under attack from “a flight of Japanese war planes, evidently from Saipan”—which had been secretly developed by the Japanese as a major air base and that the principal target of this initial assault would be the vital radio tower at Machanao. The air attack, he went on to say, would be followed a few days later by a terrific naval bombardment, including the use of gas shells (his single miscalculation in this campaign), and then the landing of troops on the east and west shores of the island. Bywater even foresaw the use of specially designed landing craft: “Large motor-propelled barges or pontoons were carried on board the Japanese] transports for landing tanks and artillery. … [The infantry made for the shore in] motor barges … [riding] until the keels grounded on the beach, when the little men in khaki tumbled over the side and came plunging through the surf, holding rifles and cartridge pouches above their heads, and uttering staccato war cries.” After fitful skirmishes, Bywater concluded, the American Marines would be compelled to surrender, as was the case on December 10, 1941.