Contrary to its subtitle, “The Elusive Enemy: U.S. Naval Intelligence and the Imperial Japanese Fleet” is less about naval intelligence than it is about how the American fighting forces in the Pacific had to decipher for themselves the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese fleet. It was up to the forces in contact with the enemy to discern Japanese capabilities and tactics and report up the chain of command.
Once they did that, the Office of Naval Intelligence and its subordinate network compiled the information into publications to be used by those same fighting forces in preparing for battle. Curiously, the book has next to nothing on discerning enemy intentions and, contrary to more recent popular literature and television, there was little or no clandestine information-gathering but a lot of learning on the fly.
To be sure, gathering intelligence on the pre-World War II Japanese was difficult. The excellent security precautions taken by the Japanese military and the reclusiveness of prewar Japanese society made that so. This was exacerbated by the racist prewar American attitude toward things Japanese in general: supposed lack of ingenuity, “unfitted for any mechanical pursuit,” great copiers and flimsy manufacturers as exemplified by paper lanterns and Cracker Jack toys.
There also was a decided tendency to attribute to the Japanese the American view of the world, although not nearly so advanced a society or military. Even those rare reports from attaches or other intelligence sources hinting at capabilities exceeding our own were downplayed because “the Japanese couldn’t possibly do that.” Any high-performance aircraft or other equipment that happened to be seen were “obviously copies from someone else.” Evidence of Japanese naval emphasis on nighttime operations was dismissed as being “too complicated.”
Written combat narratives from the fleet not only formed the basis for “intelligence” but compiled important lessons learned as well. Among them, the surface fleet learned that radar was not enough to sustain a force against determined Japanese night actions, Japanese torpedoes had a much longer range than prewar estimates, and aviators learned that Japanese pilots were at least as skillful and determined as they were.
Such knowledge led to new tactics, most often developed ad hoc on-scene and, eventually, new equipment as the intelligence services processed and distributed combat reports. Generally, it wasn’t until the end of the Guadalcanal campaign that American forces began to take steps to apply weaponry and concepts of warfare in ways that worked.
Eventually, only through experience, by adaptation and with the development of new procedures and the advent of new equipment such as better radar, better communications and better aircraft in unprecedented quantities did the American forces prevail. The author writes, “Instead of intelligence shaping ideas on how Japanese were to be defeated, personnel used the material secured through wartime experiences to apply their tactical doctrines and weapons technologies in a way that worked to neutralize the particular challenges their enemy put up.”
Though a good treatise on how knowledge about the enemy was developed during the Navy’s war in the Pacific, this is not an easy read. In fact, it is more for researchers than for the average amateur historian. The 51 pages of notes are herculean in dimension, and the 15 pages of bibliography together with comprehensive charts and the list of abbreviations make it a researcher’s gold mine; however, it might prove tedious to the less scholarly. Add to that the back-and-forth of the narrative in a nonchronological sequence, sometimes lapsing into a recitation of battle reports, and it is a hard go for the average reader.
Interspersed with the well-researched detail are frequent lapses into elementary statements guaranteed to turn off the even barely knowledgeable reader. For example: “The aim was to shoot down Japanese aircraft whenever possible.” “In instances where enemy ships were able to deliver large amounts of flak, the idea was to minimize the time in which planes were exposed.” “Fighter crews were commended for providing a ‘valuable service’ in intercepting formations heading for U.S. task forces.”
Also, the descriptions of the advent and development of fighter direction have tremendous importance even in today’s Navy, but they come across as merely incidental in the narrative. There is one serious omission as well: Next to nothing is included about code-breaking, essential to victory at Midway and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the book has its merits - the section on the gradual development of defenses against the kamikaze is outstanding.
Bottom line: good for researchers and afficionados, tough going for amateurs.
Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn is the president of the Naval Historical Foundation.
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