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Japan Strikes: 1941

June 2024
18min read

Sixteen years before Pearl Harbor an English naval expert uncannily prophesied in detail the war in the Pacific. Now comes evidence that the Japanese heeded his theories—but not his warnings

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.


Simultaneously with the destruction of the U.S. fleet and the invasion of Guam—in Bywater’s projection as in actual history—the Philippines come under siege. With the United States Navy out of commission, “the chief danger, the [Japanese] perceived,” said Bywater, “would come from the American aircraft.” Moreover, “thirty machines of a new and powerful type,” he declared, would just have arrived from the United States (in reality thirty-five new 6-17 Flying Fortresses did arrive by late November, 1941). Consequently, Bywater prophesied, hostilities in the Philippines would commence when Japanese planes “heavily bombed the aerodrome at Dagupan.” (Actually Clark Field, which had replaced nearby Dagupan, was attacked.) Bywater further predicted that the Japanese would have long scrutinized the topography of the Philippines. Provided with complete intelligence about the defenses of the islands, he reasoned, the Japanese invasion plan would give a wide berth to the fortress at Corregidor guarding Manila Bay as well as to the other heavily fortified base not far to the north at Olongapo guarding Subie Bay, both of which, in fact, the Japanese did avoid.

To confuse the island’s defenders, Bywater went on, the Japanese would try a diversionary bombardment at Santa Cruz on the west coast of Luzon. However, this stratagem was “so obviously a ruse to draw the [Americans] away from other parts of the coast that it failed in its purpose.” Here, the historical parallel is the actual diversionary Japanese landings on Luzon at Aparri and Vigan in the north and at Legaspi in the south, which General Jonathan M. Wainwright, the Northern Luzon Force commander, who was not fooled, believed to be feints. The major landings, Bywater wrote, would take place at Lingayen Gulf, northwest of Manila, and in “Lamon Bay between Cabalete and Alabat Islands,” southeast of Manila. The two forces would then converge on Manila “simultaneously from north and south.” The second largest island of the Philippine archipelago, Mindanao, would be invaded with a landing at Sindangan Bay, Bywater declared. The total invading force, he estimated, would consist of “an approximate strength of 100,000 men.”

Here again it was almost as if Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, who commanded the Fourteenth Army, which invaded the Philippines in December, 1941, had done so with a copy of Bywater tucked in his pocket. Homma’s forces consisted of one hundred thousand men. Moreover, there were two main landings on the island of Luzon—one at Lingayen Gulf and the other at Lamon Bay, precisely between Cabalete and Alabat islands. Finally, a third major landing party attacked the island of Mindanao, also as Bywater foretold, although coming ashore at Davao Gulf on the southeast coast rather than at Sindangan on the northwest. Given the fact that there are over seven thousand islands in the Philippines and innumerable invasion routes with an almost infinite variety of combinations for simultaneous diversions and landings, the coincidences between Bywater’s book and the course of history are startling.

The first American attempt to carry the war into Japanese waters, Bywater imagined, would consist of a bold, indeed a reckless, stab at the Bonin or Ogasawara islands, which lie some five hundred miles southeast of Yokohama, not far from Iwo Jima, and which, if captured, might lead to a speedy conclusion of the war. In the attempt, however, United States forces would overextend themselves and be beaten back with heavy losses. It would then become apparent to the American commanders that the only practicable way to strike at Japan would be by means of cautious and deliberate pouncing from island to island all the way across the Pacific, carefully retrenching at each new base and pausing to bring up the rear. Three such routes across the ocean vastness are considered, and Bywater has the Americans select the same course that would actually be travelled by U.S. forces in the early 1940’s—across the stepping stones of the South Pacific— although the zigzag path of island hops that he described is slightly to the north of that actually followed, since Bywater did not expect the British Solomons or Dutch New Guinea to be included in the war zone. Nevertheless, there is a remarkable correspondence between Bywater’s campaign and the one later fought by General Douglas MacArthur. Moreover, once the Americans are within striking distance of the Philippines, the Imperial Navy is brought to bear en masse, and there follows a tremendous naval engagement destined, like the Battle of Midway, to become the turning point of the war.

It is at the Battle of Yap, as Bywater called it, that his account contains its most serious lapse: Bywater failed to foresee great naval duels, such as those later to be fought at the Coral Sea and Midway, in which the opposing surface vessels never fired a shot at each other, while trading devastating blows by means of their aircraft. Writing two years before Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Bywater understandably did not appreciate the might of air power.

Nevertheless, he did make a few redeemingly accurate prophecies about the war in the air. First, he anticipated the kamikazes. The desperation of the Japanese after having seen their defensive rings of islands smashed, combined with their fanatical Emperor-worship, he said, would result injapanese aviators “never hesitating to ram when otherwise balked of their prey, preferring to immolate themselves. …” Second, Bywater foresaw that the torpedo plane would demonstrate its “complete superiority” over the bomber as an instrument of naval combat, since the six-hundred-pounders, which he judged to be the heaviest bombs that planes would be able to lift in the short take-off space provided by carriers, were simply not big enough -barring a down-the-stack freak hit—to sink a modern warship. As it turned out, except at the Battle of Midway, the Douglass “Dauntless” dive bomber, which carried a five-hundred-pound bomb, could not compare in effectiveness with the Grumman “Avenger” torpedo plane; the huge “tin fish” accounted for the great majority of heavy Japanese ships sent to the bottom by aircraft during the war. The rule was borne out by Japanese experience, too; enemy successes at Pearl Harbor as well as a few days later off the east coast of Malaya against the British dreadnoughts Repulse and Prince of Wales were the work of torpedo planes.

Bywater did not foresee the atomic bomb. And yet, curiously, he did perceive that something out of the ordinary would be attempted by the United States to spare both itself and its adversaries the horror of an invasion of the Japanese home islands. This coup de grâce , he guessed, would be a “demonstration” air raid on Tokyo in which the “bombs” contain leaflets urging the Japanese to petition their government to come to terms rather than “waste more lives.” American planes did indeed drop millions of leaflets over Japan urging the citizenry to petition Emperor Hirohito to end the war. In Bywater’s account the surrender is duly arranged after the “demonstration,” a treaty of peace is signed, and the former German islands mandated to Japan by the League of Nations are turned over to the United States “for their future administration.”

Needless to say, Hector Bywater was no ordinary fabricator of les guerres imaginaires ; he was right much too often. Not only did he predict a great many details of the coming war, but, more significantly, he spelled out in advance the daring, unorthodox strategy with which Japan would burst her confines in the Pacific. This strategy, based on the concept of the surprise destruction of the American fleet and simultaneous invasions throughout the southwestern Pacific, was novel; it leaned heavily on the elements of surprise and exact timing, which are always difficult to achieve in a tactical situation. It also violated the cardinal military rule of the concentration of an overwhelming force at a single point, positing instead the dispersion of already fairly weak forces throughout a far-flung theater of operations. Furthermore, the Bywater plan ran counter to the accepted war-contingency strategy that had been rehearsed at the Imperial Staff College in Tokyo since at least 1918. In the event of war with the United States, this rather conventional battle plan called for employment of the full might of the Imperial Navy in a crushing attack to capture the Dutch East Indies, on which Japan would depend for oil in time of war. Once these oil-producing islands were safely under Japanese control, the fleet was to be redeployed to lie in wait for the expected American counterattack somewhere in Japanese waters, against which the Imperial Navy would fight a defensive war. The majority of top Japanese Navy officials, led by Admiral Osami Nagano, chief of the Naval General Staff, favored this strategy until the very outbreak of war. Even Captain W. D. Puleston, the foremost American naval strategist of the period, wrote in 1941 that the American commander in the Pacific ought to be “grateful” if, in the event of war, “Japan should obligingly scatter her light [naval] forces, submarine and aircraft.” Influenced by this line of thinking, American planners did not take Bywater’s prophecies seriously.


However, Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the supreme commander of Japanese forces in the Pacific, harkened to a different drummer. It was Yamamoto who devised the plan for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor together with simultaneous invasions throughout the southwestern Pacific—in essence the Bywater plan—and he was so ardent in his commitment to this strategy that he once threatened to resign unless it was adopted and put to the test. But how did Yamamoto come upon this remarkable plan for conquest? Could it be that he was influenced by Bywater? Could it be that in writing The Great Pacific War Hector Bywater had unwittingly composed the Mem Kampf of Imperial Japan?

Yamamoto was killed in 1943 when the plane in which he was travelling was shot down by an American fighter. Unfortunately he left no memoirs, and there is no mention of Bywater’s name in his biography. Most of Yamamoto’s colleagues are today no longer living, and the memories of the few still alive have been dimmed by the years. I wrote, for example, to Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, who was Yamamoto’s chief of staff at the time he conceived of the Pearl Harbor attack, to ask if he knew whether the Admiral had been influenced by Bywater. Fukudome replied that although he recalled Bywater’s name as a “world-renowned naval journalist,” he could not say if my suspicions were correct.

It seemed I had run into a blank wall, so I tried to learn what I could about Bywater himself. The British Who’s Who listed Bywater as having been naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph . The librarian of that newspaper informed me that Bywater had died in August, 1940—only sixteen months before his imaginings were confirmed by world events. Just two weeks after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, an abridged version of The Great Pacific War was published in Life magazine, billed as “the most current book of the week.” Soon after, the complete text was republished as a hardcover book with the subtitle “A Historic Prophecy Now Being Fulfilled” and an introduction by Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor of the New “fork Times, who described the book as “deeply prophetic.” Despite this flurry of interest in his work when the war in the Pacific broke out, Bywater remained a prophet without due honor, for his name is otherwise ignored in the literature of the Japanese-American war. Indeed, because both the Life condensation and Baldwin’s introduction to The Great Pacific War went to press so soon (Baldwin was writing just six days after the attack at Pearl Harbor), all either could say about Bywater was that he appeared to have been correct in guessing that the Japanese would strike without warning. Even after Japanese records became available, no one checked to see how prophetic many of his other guesses were.

Bywater had shipped around the world in his youth, visiting ports of call throughout Europe, Africa, and the United States. His ramblings, however, were not so romantically aimless as were those of some of the other journalists of the time, for between about 1909 and the end of World War I he was an undercover agent for British naval intelligence—at first posing as a young blade seeking his fortune in distant lands and later carrying out his missions while doubling as a naval correspondent for the British Naval and Military Record, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the London Daily Graphic. He probably became engaged in intelligence work through the connections of his father, a Welshman who had immigrated to the United States a few years before the Civil War and become a federal secret agent, rising to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. (The elder Bywater later returned to England, where his son was born in the Chelsea section of London.) Young Bywater’s experience and contacts gained while sleuthing about foreign shipyards and anchorages for the Royal Navy (and also, briefly, for the United Statesjust prior to this nation’s entry into World War I) doubtless stood him in good stead when he became a full-time naval reporter after the war.

It was in 1921, shortly after the United States acquiesced in the League of Nations’ mandating to Japan the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Marshalls—formerly German islands—that Bywater turned his attention to the Pacific, recognizing that the balance of power in this quarter of the globe had suddenly shifted. In that year he wrote an exhaustive strategic study called Sea Power in the Pacific, in which he described and analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese and American positions. Bywater pointed out that Guam, which he regarded as the Malta of the Pacific, had been effectively “surround[ed] … with a cordon of potential Japanese strongholds and naval bases,” adding that the notion that Japan “would forego the use of such invaluable bases in case of emergency is not to be believed.” At the end of the book he appended a twenty-eight-page chapter entitled “Possible Features of a War in the Pacific,” in which he groped over the chart of the ocean in an effort to foresee the shape that a future conflict in this vast area might take. Over the next four years he expanded this chapter to book length and finally published it in 1925 as The Great Pacific War. His purpose, as he explained in the preface, was “to develop the theme … in a previous volume … further,” not because he wished to usher that theme into reality but because he hoped to demonstrate in graphic detail the truth of the statement that “war is never a paying proposition from any national point of view.” To accomplish this task, he wrote, “it was necessary to have recourse to the medium of fiction.”

Evidence that Bywater’s strategic plans had been taken to heart by Japanese war lords still seemed agonizingly out of reach, until one day I happened to be in the Library of Congress in Washington and looked up Bywater’s name in the card catalogue. I caught my breath suddenly when I came upon two entries under his name in Japanese. Quickly I copied down the Arabic numerals on the cards and rushed over to the Orientalia Division, asked for the books, and then begged a young JapaneseAmerican librarian to translate the titles for me. W7hen he did, I had my first important clue that Japanese military thinking had been influenced by Bywater. During the next few months I began to correspond with both military and academic scholars in Japan and began to piece together impressive evidence that Hector Bywater had, in effect, originated the plans for Japanese conquest in the Pacific.

Hardly had a month gone by after the publication in 1921 of Bywater’s Sea Power in the Pacific —the book containing the twenty-eight-page chapter that later became The Great Pacific War —when the Office of the Naval General Staff in Tokyo translated it into Japanese and distributed mimeographed copies to top naval officers as “material for strategic studies.” Because of “numerous demands” for additional copies, according to a publication of Suik’f4 Sha, the quasi-official naval officers’ association, Suik’f6 Sha was granted permission by the Imperial government to have Taiheiyo kaiken ran , as Sea Power in the Pacific was titled in Japanese, printed and distributed to a still wider circle of naval officers, although not to the general public.

By the time The Great Pacific War appeared in 1925, Bywater evidently had a wide enough following in Japan so that Hakuh’f4 Sha, a regular commercial publisher, had the book translated and offered for sale as Taiheiyō no Soha-sen . The following year The Great Pacific War was again translated and published by Bunmei Kyokai, the Waseda University Press, under the title Taiheiyō Senso to sono Hihan (“The Pacific War and Comment”) with an introduction by Tola Ishimaru, a lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy. Apparently the Japanese government did not wish to have these translations known about in the West and thus intervened with the publishers so that, contrary to th^e usual practice, Bywater never received a royalty or learned of the pirated editions. Copies of both books are today in the National Diet Library in Tokyo and the library of the Japanese Defense Academy, formerly the Imperial War College, at Yokosuka.

Such widespread publication naturally stirred up a good deal of discussion. In his introduction to The Great Pacific War Commander Ishimaru said that the book possessed “a certain degree of rational probability and practicability” and that while Bywater’s conclusion that Japan would necessarily lose the war was “slander,” it was nevertheless possible that “by making good use of this publication the people of our country may turn a misfortune into a blessing.”

Also illustrative of the impact of The Great Pacific War on Japanese military thought are the many references to Bywater in a book called The Three-Power Alliance and a L’mted States-Japanese War , which was written in 1940 by Kinoaki Matsuo, an intelligence officer in the Imperial Navy and a high official of the influential politico-religious Black Dragon Society. Matsuo began by arguing that war with the United States was “inevitable.” Proceeding from that premise, he suggested that the best place for the “Japanese surprise-attack fleet” to strike would be at Pearl Harbor, that “simultaneous” attacks should be launched against Guam and the Philippines, and that the actual landings on the latter, preceded by a “diversion,” should come ashore on Luzon at Lingayen Gulf and Lamon Bay, precisely according to Bywater’s plan, which the author acknowledged having studied.

Indeed, Matsuo took courage from By water’s conclusion that Japan could achieve a great strategic advantage bystriking first and driving American forces from the southwestern Pacific. “As Bywater has pointed out,” Matsuo declared, “if Guam and the Philippines fall into [Japanese] hands, the United States will be confronted with a serious problem, the solution of which will be almost impossible.” But Matsuo was more a polemicist than a student of strategy, for he seized upon those elements in Bywater’s analysis useful to his thesis—namely, that Japan might hold off the United States indefinitely—while dismissing other considerations that he found distasteful. Bywater’s prophecies that the Imperial Navy would be shattered, the Philippines retaken, and Tokyo bombed were all brushed aside by Matsuo with the argument that Japan would display “a courage a hundred times higher than ordinary,” being possessed of “a burning determination to win.”


There is no doubt that Bywater’s plans were studied and debated at the Imperial War College, too. Mitsuo Fuchida, a leading Japanese military historian, reported to me that as a lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy in 1936 he attended the Japanese Naval War College, the highest school for strategic studies in Japan at the time, and there studied both Taiheiyō kaiken ron and Taheiyō Senso to sono Hihan . Fuchida said that Bywater’s name was “well-known” among top naval officers, that he presumed that the Englishman’s book must have had “a great influence” on Japanese strategy.

The key question, of course, is whether or not Bywater influenced the man responsible for Japan’s strategy—Yamamoto. Like a great many other officers, the admiral probably encountered at least the rudiments of the Bywater plan as early as 1921, when the Office of the Naval General Staff first distributed Taiheiyō kaiken ron . He could have easily read Taiheiyō no Soha-sen or Taiheiyō Senso to sono Hihan after they were published several years later. The chances are, however, that Yamamoto’s first exposure to The Great Pacific War was to the American edition of the book. After two years as a graduate student at Harvard, Yamamoto could read English perfectly, and in 1925—the year The Great Pacific War was published in the United States as well as in Great Britain—he was serving as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. That September The Great Pacific War was discussed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review under a one-inch-high banner headline—“ IF WAR COMES IN THE PACIFIC ”—and a large, spectacular photograph of destroyers laying a smoke screen on maneuvers off Hawaii. Indeed, the Japanese government registered an official protest in Washington, denouncing Bywater’s book as provocative and destined to arouse ill feeling between the two countries.

It should not be surprising to think that a Japanese naval officer would be strongly influenced by the work of a British naval authority, since the Japanese Navy was, from its infancy, virtually a creation of Great Britain. When the Japanese decided to build a modern navy in the i86o’s, replacing their old coast-defense ironclads with modern ocean-going warships, they purchased British ships and sent their most promising young officers to train aboard British men-of-war. By the time Japan was ready to deal a resounding naval defeat to Czarist Russia at the Straits of Tsushima in 1905, the majority of her ships were of British construction, and many of her commanders, including the famous Admiral Togo, had tied their first clove hitches aboard British warships. It would therefore be natural for Yamamoto—who had been with Togo at Tsushima and lost a couple of fingers in the engagement—to study the ideas promulgated by the leading British authority of his day on naval theory and practice.

On the other hand it would be reckless to conclude that the Japanese simply stole their design for conquest from a British writer. In the thirty-seven years between Tsushima and Pearl Harbor, Japan had built her own fighting ships and developed her own doctrines of naval combat. Furthermore, numerous influences must have played upon Yamamoto’s mind as he created the strategy of 1941. There were, for example, the highly publicized American war games off Hawaii in 1932, in which it was demonstrated that a flight of planes, taking off in a predawn attack from aircraft carriers, was able to reach Pearl Harbor without being detected and to “sink” all of the heavy naval vessels in the harbor. There were also Yamamoto’s own war games at Kagoshima Bay in May, 1940, at the conclusion of which he remarked to a colleague: “Well, it appears that a crushing blow could be struck [by torpedo planes] against an enemy surface fleet.”

Bywater was merely the first to put all of the pieces together, the first to show in detail how the strategic confines that had held Japanese ambitions in check for a generation could be overcome with a daring coup de main .

His failing perhaps was that his narrative of the action was more compelling than the warning in his conclusion. “Unfortunately,” one reviewer of The Great Pacific War wrote in 1925, “the dramatic side of the tactical excitement of war so overshadows the horrors of the losses sustained on both sides that one would almost wish to see Mr. Bywater’s drama acted.”

In 1924, three years after Hector Bywater’s Sea Power in the Pacific appeared, the air-power enthusiast General Billy Mitchell returned from a tour of the Far East with a report predicting the possibility of a Japanese air attack against Pearl Harbor itself. Bywater also ultimately took cognizance of the increasing role of air power, and in a revised edition of Sea Power in the Pacific published in 1934 he noted the “marked superiority of the United States Navy over the Japanese in numbers of ship-borne aircraft.” In a few years, he continued, “the first-line aircraft at the disposal of the United States Navy will number 2000, a total which could be multiplied indefinitely in a national emergency. … If, then, the air weapon is to prove a preponderating element in a Far Eastern naval campaign, the dice will be loaded against Japan, whether her opponent is the United States or the British Commonwealth.” In this case, also, Bywater’s warning was not heeded by the Japanese.

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