Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Pacific War was About Oil

In the latter part of his life, U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover predicted that the next wars the United States fought would be over access to oil. His conclusions proved remarkably accurate. The last ten years have seen the U.S. involved in conflicts in the Middle East, source of some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

For several decades, the U.S. has been a net oil importer. As local reserves diminished, it proved too easy to just replace them with foreign purchases. The point that modern industrial society cannot support itself without reliable sources of energy seemed to be forgotten. Then the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s shattered our illusions. The United States had become an an oil “have-not.”

Japan faced an energy crisis in 1941 that led directly to their attack on western colonies in the Far East. Since the opening of Japan to world trade by Admiral Perry in the mid-Nineteenth Century, the country had been striving to become a modern industrialized nation. From an archaic feudal society, the country made a great leap forward into the modern world. Desiring all the trappings of a major power, Japan turned to Germany to build her army and to Great Britain to construct an up-to-date navy. Consultants from all over the world helped develop their heavy industry.

Japan lacked one key ingredient to fulfill their aspirations—a local supply natural resources. Like many nations, they were forced to purchase them abroad. The U.S. was a major player in this trade, becoming Japan’s major source of oil and the scrap iron required to produce steel. While fostering world trade, these imports created a balance of payments problem for the Japanese. They successfully negotiated this situation until the 1920s.

The Great Depression hit Japan particularly hard. The hardships being endured prompted many ultra nationalists in the armed forces to advocate seizing the needed resources from their neighbors. Everything they needed waited just over the horizon. As more and more recruits joined their ranks, these aggressive thoughts were translated into action. The semi-autonomous Kwantung Army in Korea invaded and occupied Manchuria with its rich mineral deposits. When the League of Nations protested, Japan walked out.  Then, in 1937, Japan invaded China itself,

beginning a protracted conflict.

Long committed to its “Open Door” policy concerning China, the U.S. protested. Inspired by Pearl S. Buck’s novels and Hollywood movies, many Americans held romanticized views of China. The Japanese, however, persisted in their conquests. Sentiment built in the Roosevelt administration to impose sanctions on Japan.

When Japan occupied French Indochina (now Vietnam) in 1941, Washington finally acted, freezing Japanese assets in the U.S. This had the immediate effect of shutting off exports to Japan.  The U.S. oil tap was suddenly turned off. The finite reserves of petroleum products within Japan became a wasting asset.  Japan’s civilian government began negotiations with the U.S., attempting to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis. The ultra nationalists in the Army began pushing for a military solution.

One faction advocated invading Siberia. Hitler’s armies were, after all, at the gates of Moscow. The navy argued for a quick strike to the south. The lightly defended Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today) possessed a mammoth oil industry exploiting huge underground reserves.  The oilfields on Tarakan Island yielded crude so pure that it could be burned in boilers without refining. The Royal Dutch Shell refinery at Balikpapan in Borneo was the world’s third largest, producing sufficient product to satisfy the navy’s entire needs.

Two major obstacles fell in the way of the southern plan: The British forces stationed at Fortress Singapore and the U.S. forces in the Philippine Islands. Britain was stretched to the limit in her war with Germany, but the U.S. was not yet a belligerent. Roosevelt had moved the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, where it could respond quicker to trouble in the Philippines.

The brilliant General Tomoyuki Yamashita devised a workable plan to capture Singapore from inland. Navy Admiral Yamamoto’s staff conceived the idea of destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet in port at the outset of hostilities, delaying America’s intervention. Then Washington further shocked Tokyo with a demand that Japan withdraw from China before sanctions would be lifted. The civilian government in Tokyo collapsed, and General Tojo became Prime Minister. Faced with the humiliation of withdrawal or exhaustion of fuel supplies, Tojo argued for war. With the Emperor’s approval, the date for hostilities to commence was set.

For the first six months, Japan ran wild in the Far East, seizing all the territories in their ambitions. Ironically, the Dutch Oil executives adopted a “scorched earth” policy. Nothing was to be left to the invaders. They plugged oil wells, blew up pipelines and set fire to their precious refineries. When the Japanese invaded Balikpapan, they found only burnt, twisted wreckage at the oil facilities. The enraged Japanese commander ordered the massacre of the entire Caucasian population. Some were beheaded. Most were machine gunned in the surf. A similar massacre of Dutch males occurred in Tjepu, Java.

Japan soon had the oilfields back in operation and new refineries constructed. Oil was not a problem again until U.S. submarines sank a large percentage of their tankers later in the war.

The philosopher, George Santayana, observed that nations that do not study history are doomed to repeat it. After three wars to assure oil supplies, the U.S. should develop its newly discovered oil reserves and strive for energy independence.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Japanese Response to Chinese Ambassador’s Op-Ed

My blog post last week, “Revisiting Japan’s Conduct in the Pacific War,” received a lot of attention. Many people visited the blog all throughout the week. As you’ll recall, the post was prompted by an op-ed in theWashington Post by the ChineseAmbassador to the U.S.

This morning, the Post Editorial Page published a response entitled, “China’s anti-Japan Campaign,” by Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s ambassador in Washington.  Mr. Sasae basically dismissed the Chinese article as part of an anti-Japanese propaganda campaign. He argues that it is China, not Japan, that threatens the future peace of Asia today.

I found a number of interesting points in Mr. Sasae’s column. This is how he describes the Yasukuni Shrine: 

“a place where the souls of those who sacrificed their lives for the country…have been enshrined. Japanese people visit the shrine to pray for the souls of the war dead—not to glorify war or honor or justify a small number (14) of Class A war criminals.”

This assertion is mostly correct as far as it goes. Honoring war dead as a group is done throughout the world. But it is not necessarily the Shinto shrine but the accompanying museum that sets Asian teeth on edge. Presenting over a dozen Class A war criminals as national heroes is offensive to many of the nations victimized by Japan’s aggression. What would the world think if Germany enshrined Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Admiral Donitz as war gods? Even if the shrine honored all the other German war dead, including these evil men would be an affront to humanity. Men who ordered wholesale atrocities should be roundly condemned, not honored. 

About the war in general, Mr. Sasae reports that, “

“The government of Japan has repeatedly expressed deep remorse and heartfelt apologies regarding the war. So did the prime minister after his recent visit to Yasukuni; he said that ‘Japan must never wage war again’ based on ‘the severe remorse for the past.’”

Japan has apologized for the war in general. However, many of the captives enslaved by Japan had to fight in court for decades to receive an apology and obtain any compensation for their ordeal. The case of the over 200,000 “comfort women” who were sex slaves for the Japanese armed forces is a case in point. In last week’s post, I listed several excellent references on this subject. Half a century elapsed before Japan finally admitted that the “comfort stations” were in fact run by the army. An apology was finally issued. Many politicians still assert that the women became prostitutes voluntarily and were adequately compensated by client fees at the time.  Just Google “comfort women,” and you’ll receive a wealth of information refuting these allegations.

Mr. Sasae’s statement that China is currently much more of a threat than Japan to dominate does resonate.  He bemoans,

“…China’s unparalleled military buildup and its use of military and mercantile coercion against neighboring states. The most recent example of this is Beijing’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone. China has escalated the intrusion of government vessels into the territorial sea of the waters around the Senkaku Islands and in waters claimed by the Philippines.”

Considering the situation in Asia today, Mr. Sasae may be right here. Japan has remained a peaceful nation for over 50 years since World War II. But the acts of Japan’s armed forces during the Pacific War were unquestionably horrific. Their victims may someday be willing to forgive them, but these crimes must never be forgotten.   

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Revisiting Japan’s Conduct During the Pacific War

This morning’s Washington Post contained an editorial entitled Dangerous Tribute by Chu Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States and former ambassador to Japan.  Mr. Tiankai logically argues that the recent visit by Japan’s Prime Minister to the Yasukuni Shrine symbolizes support for the view that Japan was not an aggressor and committed no atrocities in World War II.

Several passages in the editorial caught my attention. Here are a few:

“Established in the 19th century to honor Japan’s war dead, the shrine imparted a spiritual dimension to Japanese militarism and colonial rule…”

“Fourteen Class A War criminals who were tried by the International Military Tribunal are honored at Yasukuni.”

“The shrine includes s…a deliberately revisionist narrative of World War II (that) lauds Japan’s salvage of Asian countries from colonial rule and detains ‘crimes committed by the United States.”

“His (the Prime Minister’s) assertions, when talking about World War II, that the term, ‘aggression’ has yet to be defined and that no evidence exists proving that “comfort women” were forced into sexual servitude…”

I have visited the Yasukuni Shrine, and I can confirm that Mr. Tiankai’s assertions about it are correct. The earlier exhibits, which detail modern Japan’s wars prior to their invasion of China in the 1930s, are all both in English and Japanese. From that point forward, only Japanese texts are presented. But, being a World War II buff, I had no problems identifying the portraits of the deified General Tojo and Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo, who conceived and executed the Pearl Harbor attack. You read that right. In the Shinto religion, these criminals have become war gods.  The Prime Minister’s visit can be construed as worshiping them.

One of the reasons that Japanese soldiers readily obeyed orders to slaughter prisoners and innocent civilians was the provision of their Senjinkun (Field Service Code) that equated an order from a superior as a direct order from the emperor. Hence, an order became a pronouncement from God. Coupled with the Samurai principle that death was better than surrender and that anyone who surrendered had forfeited all honor, the opportunities for abuse became infinite.

A review on Amazon of my novel, Hold Back the Sun, suggested that I was too hard on my Japanese characters. I believe that I may not have been hard enough.  The atrocities I portrayed in my story are all based on actual events of which I learned through exhaustive research. For anyone who remains doubtful, I suggest they read all or some of my following references.  Also look on Google.

1) The Rising Sun by Arthur Zich, Time Life Books, Chapter 3, Under the Conquerors’ Rule. Describes the actual massacres at Balikpapan (in Borneo) and Tjepu(in Java) upon which I based the story of the fall ofZwarte Gouden.

2) The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, Basic Books-Publisher. Describes the fall and systematic terrorizing of Nanking in graphic detail. The last word on the subject. Over 300,000 civilians were massacred and countless women raped.

3) But Not in Shame by John Toland. Random House. Relates the rape and murder of British nurses at Hong Kong (mentioned in Hold Back the Sun) and extensive massacres of Chinese immigrants following the fall of Singapore.

4) Hidden Horrors by Yuki Tanaka, Westview Press. A general compendium of Japanese atrocities during World War II.

5) Kempei Tai by Richard Deacon, Charles Tuttle Company. An extensive description of the deeds of Japans infamous military police, who committednumerious atrocities.

6) Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavan Daws, William Morrow and Company. A detailed account of the inhumane treatment received by Allied POWs at the hands of the Japanese.

7) War Without Mercy by John W. Dower, Pantheon Books. A no-holds-barred description of how racism shaped the Pacific War on both sides. Many Japanese atrocities are detailed.

8) The Comfort Women by George Hicks, W.W. Norton & Company. A well-researched and detailed history of sex slavery in the Japanese Army.

9) True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women Edited by Keith Howard, Casswell. A compendium of memoirs by Korean women forced into sexual slavery

10) 50 Years of Silence by Jan Ruff-O’Herne, Toppan Company (s) PTE Ltd. A compelling memoir of a young Dutchwoman who was kidnapped from an internment camp in Java and enslaved as a prostitute for Japanese officers.

In my view, the Japanese government’s continued denial of the savage conduct by her armed forces in China and the Pacific War remains an affront to humankind.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Shifting My Mind to a Different War

I spent yesterday afternoon polishing the draft of the first chapter of my new novel, Asphalt and Blood. To do so, I had to shift the focus of my mind forward a good twenty years. My first two novels, Fall EagleOne and Hold Back the Sun, take place during the Second World War. Asphalt and Blood tells the story of how the U.S. Navy’s Seabees helped the Marines retake Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

As I worked through my manuscript, I was mentally transported back to Vietnam during the war there. I spent seventeen months “in country” during two tours as the Operations Officer of a Seabee battalion. My second deployment was to Hue/Phu Bai to the north of Danang. We first arrived there less than six months after the Tet battle, and I became very familiar with the area over the next nine months. Talking with people who were there, I learned that Seabees had a significant presence during the fighting. Thus was born the spark that led to my present project.

After over forty years, my memories of Vietnam are still vivid. Most Americans think of that country as one big rain forest. This may be true of the far south, but the areas in which the Seabees mostly worked were quite different. The northern part of the former Republic of Vietnam is more like parts of Southern California, with rolling hills covered with scrub growth. The beaches along the South China Sea are wide bands of fine white sand—a beautiful tourist area waiting to be developed. The coastal plains around Hue are a sea of iridescent green rice fields stretching from the blue mountains inland to the sea. Given the climate and peace, the farmers there can grow three rice crops per year. These wiry people are some of the hardest working in the world. Our problem was that some were carrying AK-47s after dark.

Another reason I wanted to write Asphalt and Blood is to tell the story of the Seabees in popular fiction. Many of us who served there found our experiences far different from what most Americans envision. Reading press reports during the Tet Offensive, we began to wonder what war the reporters were viewing. What those of us there witnessed was akin to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. The VC that came out to fight in big unit battles had some initial successes but were then savaged by American forces. From that point forward, the principal enemy was the North Vietnamese Army. Tactically, the Tet Offensive, launched over the objections of Field Marshall Giap, was a disaster. The media turned it into a political victory for the enemy.

I still hesitate to believe everything I see in press reports. Thirty years later, when members of my family were serving in Iraq, I asked them about their take on reports on that war. Their answers were that media reports bore small resemblance to what was actually happening. Don’t get me wrong. I am a staunch defender of press freedom. I just believe that reporters have a responsibility to “tell it like it is.”

Asphalt and Blood is scheduled for release next Labor Day.  As far as exhaustive research will allow, readers should expect an accurate description of the Battle of Hue City.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.