Thursday, October 26, 2006

Oil Logistics Lesson from WWII - 2

Now Let's talk about Japan

In order to be able to achieve oil independence, the Japanese planned to acquire natural petroleum sources in Southeast Asia and at the same time tried to establish a synthetic fuel industry for the conversion of coal to oil.

The Japanese had begun research on synthetic fuel in the 1920s but failed to make a successful transition from small to large-scale production. They derived significant quantities from the technologically simpler coal carbonization and shale oil distillation processes. In the last year of World War II, the Japanese attempted to revive their synthetic fuel industry and entered into an agreement with IG Farben for technical assistance. But Germany's defeat ended this final effort. As a result their high-quality basic scientific research did not translate into large-scale technological success.

Oil played an extremely important role in the Japanese decision to go to war with the US in 1941. When diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the deteriorating political situation with the US, the UK and Netherlands East Indies (due to oil embargo), the future of Japan’s oil supply was in danger.

By September 1941, Japanese oil reserves had dropped to 50 million barrels, and their navy alone was burning 2,900 barrels of oil every hour.

They had to do something. Wait and run out of fuel or go to war for oil. Japan selected the latter and started to make plans to seize and secure as much oil[1] and other resources as possible militarily what it could not achieve diplomatically.

A very long and detailed preparation was undertaken to attack Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. (note that Hitler declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941). The raid at Pearl Harbor was a stepping stone to achieve that overall goal. The plans included the locations of fuel-storage depots lying there.

The damage on Pearl Harbor was not as big as it could have been if commanders were not myopic.

The Japanese strategic disregard of the fragile oil infrastructure was incredible. They simply did not attack oil supply at Pearl Harbor, neither US oilers nor tankers in the Pacific.

On top of that a second strike (originally planned to focus on the dockyards, fuel tanks, and remaining ships) was canceled, which reflected preoccupation of Japanese commanders with tactical rather than logistical targets.

Lit. Col. Patrick Donovan[2] gives an excellent overview of the fuel logistics in the Pacific along with valuable information on Pearl Harbor attack. I just give below some important points, supported with some pictures.

The entire fuel supply for the Pacific Fleet was stored in above-ground tanks on the eastern side of the naval base. The Navy had just finished restocking its tanks in Pearl Harbor to their total capacity of 4.5 million barrels of oil. One single bullet would be enough to blow off the area.

The total capacity of the Pacific Fleet’s oilers was 760,000 barrels of oil. Thus, the fleet was tied to its oil supply at Pearl Harbor. If the Japanese had attacked the oil storage and the associated oilers[3] at Pearl Harbor on 7 December, they would have driven the Pacific Fleet back to the west coast.

Furthermore, Japan didn’t learn from that mistake. From December 1941 to October 1942, Japanese submarines attacked just 19 merchant ships between Hawaii and the west coast; 15 of these were in December 1941. The result? Not even need to be mentioned. Overconfidence, poor tactics, and a mentality that stressed commerce and logistical targets were not worthy of destruction for Japanese.

German submarines, on the contrary, sank 391 ships in the western Atlantic, 141 of which were tankers. One quarter of the US tanker fleet was sunk in 1942. But neither the German nor the Japanese Navy considered mutual cooperation in war planning a matter of much importance when Germany and Japan entered into their alliance with each other.

Whereas, the fuel supplies at Pearl Harbor were crucial for the US Navy to bring the war to the Japanese Navy. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz summed up the situation best, “Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, it would have prolonged the war another two years.”

Aerial view of the Naval Operating Base, Pearl Harbor, looking southwest on 30 October 1941.
Ford Island Naval Air Station is in the center, with the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard just beyond it, across the channel. The airfield in the upper left-center is the Army's Hickam Field

Aerial view of the Submarine Base (right center) with the fuel farm at left, looking south on 13 October 1941.
Among the 16 fuel tanks in the lower group and ten tanks in the upper group are two that have been painted to resemble buildings (topmost tank in upper group, and rightmost tank in lower group). Other tanks appear to be painted to look like terrain features. Alongside the wharf in right center are USS Niagara (PG-52) with seven or eight PT boats alongside (nearest to camera), and USS Holland (AS-3) with seven submarines alongside. About six more submarines are at the piers at the head of the Submarine Base peninsula.

Aerial view of the Submarine Base, with part of the fuel farm in the foreground, looking southwest on 13 October 1941
Note the artfully camouflaged fuel tank in center, painted to resemble a building. Also camouflaged as a building is the most distant fuel tank in the upper left.The building beside the submarine ascent tower (in right center, shaped like a backwards "C") housed the U.S. Fleet Headquarters at the time of the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. Alongside the wharf in right center are USS Niagara (PG-52) with several PT boats alongside (nearest to camera), and USS Holland (AS-3) with seven submarines alongside. About six more submarines are at the piers at the head of the Submarine Base peninsula. USS Wharton (AP-7) is the large ship at left.

Lesson: The old saying “Amateurs talk strategy, and professionals talk logistics,” is still valid.

[1] Read also Byron King on more info about this.
[2] Lieutenant Colonel Patrick H. Donovan, “Oil Logistics in the Pacific War”, Air Force Journal of Logistics, Volume XXVIII, No.1. Spring 2004, p.30-44.
[3] The Navy classified its oil tankers as fleet oilers.

PS: You might also be interested in my two previous posts on the same subject: Oil Logistics Lessons from WWII and Fuel Logistics Lesson from WWII.

PS2: One commentator mentioned (comment to my previous post) allies (Great Britain and France) considered the possibility of bombing oil fields in Caucasus . I will discuss that together with Azerbaijan in my next post.


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father was a merchant marine at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7 1941. He was on an oil tanker and I wondered why he was not hit. This information gives me a new understanding of the reasons why his life was spared!
Thank you,

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous FC said...

You need to read Alan Zimm's book, the oil farm could not be destroyed by a single bullet. This is a myth. The reality is that Japan's carriers did not have the capability to destroy the tank farms. They required large bombs to blow them open. Even then dykes surrounded the farms so the oil would have been recovered anyway.

What is definitely unforgiveable is not attacking the US tanker fleet with submarines. In this the IJN made a terrible mistake. Even operating from PH the Pacific Fleet could not reach very far without its tankers.


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