Book Revives Debate Over American's Role in Japan's World War II Strategy

October 20, 1991|By ALBERT SEHLSTEDT, Jr.

Hector Bywater was a British spy, a naval strategist, a correspondent for this newspaper in the 1920s, and the author of novel that described how Japanese warships would attack the United States in World War II.

Bywater's prescience was neither coincidental nor Delphic: Rather, naval leaders in both countries read his novel, entitled "The Great Pacific War," and were so impressed by his specific proposals that they copied many of the tactics and strategies Bywater envisioned 16 years before the Imperial Navy attacked American military bases in the Pacific, devastated "battleship row" at Pearl Harbor and invaded the Philippine Islands.

This is the theme of a new book by William H. Honan entitled "Visions of Infamy," which has already triggered considerable debate among naval historians and others familiar with the events of that war which began 50 years ago this Dec. 7.

"Bywater imagined that Japan would make a surprise attack against American naval forces in the Pacific and launch simultaneous invasions of Guam and the Philippines," Mr. Honan, chief cultural correspondent for The New York Times, writes in the preface to his book. "By taking such bold steps, [Bywater] calculated, Japan could build a nearly invulnerable empire in the Western Pacific. "He also surmised that, given time, the United States would counterattack. The immense ocean distances separating the adversaries after the fall of Guam and the Philippines would be unprecedented. But ultimately, Bywater believed, the United States would be able to reach Japan by pursuing a novel campaign of amphibious island hopping across the Central Pacific."

Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, etc., were the real-life expressions of this Bywater strategy as the rejuvenated American Navy and U. S. Marines painfully made their way across the seemingly endless expanse of the world's largest ocean.

This one-step-at-a-time strategy was a fortuitous alternative to the Navy's earlier plans, Mr. Honan writes.

"A year and a half after Bywater published this plan, the U.S. Navy drastically revised its top-secret 'War Plan Orange' -- the official contingency plan for war against Japan -- discarding the idea of a reckless trans-Pacific lunge that Bywater had shown to be doomed to failure. . ."

In further support of his thesis that Bywater's work influenced naval strategists, Mr. Honan contends that the British author's ideas "powerfully influenced Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and many of Japan's subsequent moves in the war. . . ."

The brilliant Japanese admiral "followed Bywater's plan so assiduously in both overall strategy and specific tactics at Pearl Harbor, Guam, the Philippines, and even the battle of Midway that it is no exaggeration to call Hector Bywater the man who 'invented' the Pacific war," Mr. Honan declares.

(The battle of Midway, in June of 1942, was the decisive naval engagement of World War II, being both an astonishing victory for the still-wounded U. S. Navy and a defeat of lasting consequence for the Japanese.)

Mr. Honan's book has been met with some doubts, including a running debate with critics in letters to the editor of The Washington Post.

Further, at a conference of about 300 naval historians and academics at the Naval Academy in Annapolis last month, "there seemed to be a great deal of skepticism that he [Bywater] was as crucial a figure as Mr. Honan suggests," said Craig L. Symonds, chairman of the department of history at the academy.

On the other hand, Mr. Honan cities other experts who maintain that the Times author is right on the mark.

John Toland, a respected historian of the Pacific war and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Rising Sun," has said that "What makes Honan's book of historical importance is his proof beyond doubt that Yamamoto had not only carefully studied 'The Great Pacific War' but later used it as a model for his own attack on Pearl Harbor."

A leading Japanese historian, Akira Iriye of Harvard University, has told Mr. Honan that "it would seem obvious that no study of Pearl Harbor (as well as of Japanese naval thinking prior to 1941) from now on can ignore the contributions made by Hector Bywater." Hector Charles Bywater was born in London of middle-class parents in 1884. He became interested in naval affairs as a boy and was particularly fascinated with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 -- "the first occasion on which high-speed warships, quick-firing ordnance and smokeless powder had been tested in actual warfare," Bywater wrote.

The son of a nomadic father who held various jobs abroad, including the United States, young Hector clerked for the Union Railway Company in Brooklyn and spent much of his time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mr. Honan recounts.

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