Operation Starvation

Operation Starvation

B-29_Aerial_mineOperation Starvation was a WW2 American campaign to starve Japan into surrender by dropping 12,000 mines from B-29s into the narrow entrances to the Inland Sea and off Japanese ports. The idea was to deprive industry of coal, oil and raw materials and civilians of food. [see Lessons from an Ariel Mining Campaign. Project RAND. 1974. and
Operation Starvation. G A Mason. 2002.]

It is one of those historical events which I have never seen portrayed in a  book, documentary or movie. Yet it was extremely effective.  The mines sank or damaged 670 ships totalling more than 1,250,000 tons for the loss of only fifteen B-29s. Even more shipping capacity was lost because ships were held in port waiting for mines to be cleared.

Operation Starvation was part of one of three strategic options for ending the war against Japan.

End Game

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified by claiming that the alternative would have been a very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. That was not true. There were three, not two,  strategies by which Japan could have been induced to surrender.

Option 1   InvasionOperation Downfall [the codename for the invasion of the home islands of the Japanese Empire] was scheduled for October 1945. The Japanese knew they could not win the war but hoped to avoid unconditional surrender by making invasion very costly. They had held 10,000 planes in reserve and had a good idea of the likely invasion sites. Downfall would have resulted in enormous casualties for both sides. There were various estimates of  Allied casualties. One was five hundred thousand dead and over one million wounded.  I suspect Downfall’s possible casualties were over estimated to justify the use of atomic weapons.

Option 2    Atomic bombardment

Option 3    Blockade and conventional bombardment by air and sea

Blockade had  proved very effective in cutting Japan off from its overseas possessions.


A glance at a map of the Japanese Empire in 1943 shows the reality of Japan’s strategic position and the actions necessary to ensure Japan’s defeat. The only way to connect the various parts of the Empire was by sea. Supplies had to go by merchant vessel.  If an enemy could destroy its merchant fleet they could defeat Japan.  Supplies would not be able to reach Japan and overseas garrisons would be cut off. The Japanese Navy was irrelevant except to protect the merchant fleet.  Nazi Germany did not need to maintain control of the sea, Japan did.

Mining and submarine attacks had almost destroyed Japan’s shipping.  Japan started the war with 6,500,000 tons of  merchant shipping and 1,200,000  tons of smaller craft. By 1945 it had 1,466,900 tons left.  Allied submarines proved to be very effective in destroying Japanese shipping. So much so that it was submarines, not battleships and aircraft carriers, that destroyed most of the Japanese merchant fleet.

Losses of merchant vessels combined with the capacity loss  due to convoying significantly reduced Japanese economic strength. Imports of 16 key materials fell from 20 million tons in 1941 to 10 million tons in 1944 and 2.7 million tons in the first 6 months of 1945. The specifics were impressive: “Bauxite imports fell off 88% just between the summer and fall of 1944. In 1945, pig iron imports plunged 89%, pulp 90%, raw cotton and wool 91%, fats and oils 92%, iron ore 95%, soda and cement 96%, lumber 98%, fodder 99%, and not one ounce of sugar or raw rubber reached Japan.”  Though the Japanese prioritised food shipments  the average caloric intake fell 12% below the minimum daily requirement for the non-farming population in 1944.

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Japanese oil imports fell from 1.75 million barrels per month in August 1943 to 360,000 barrels per month in July 1944. The Japanese Navy alone required 1.6 million barrels monthly to operate.  After September 1943, only 28% of the petroleum  shipped from the southern regions  reached Japan. In the   last 15 months of the war the figure was 9%.

After the firestorm raid on Tokyo that killed over 100,000 people B-29 raids had continued and had devastated large areas of many Japanese cities.  Napalm proved very effective against Japanese buildings.  Warships had bombarded industrial targets and carrier based aircraft carried out regular attacks on military targets and transport infrastructure.


The US Chiefs of Staff and the Army strongly favoured invasion. Certainly there would have been a bloodbath but what an opportunity for a general to show his mettle and earn a place in the history books.

The air force and the navy opposed invasion and favoured option 3. Both Nimitz and MacArthur, the commanders in the field, strongly favoured option 3. They considered that blockade and bombardment could  make Operation Downfall pointless.

The wrong choice?

The US chose atomic bombardment to force Japan to surrender. Was that the right choice?  Should they have chosen option 1 or option 3?

I doubt if US politicians would have chosen invasion in 1945 without giving option 3 at least another year.  Invasion would have been very costly, in every sense.  In contrast, blockade and bombardment was very cheap in men and material. The US only lost 614 aircraft during its raids on Japan out of a total of 9,949 bombers and 8,420  fighters and other aircraft lost in all theatres [the UK lost a total of 22,010 aircraft].  and would perhaps have not taken much longer to force surrender. There would, however,  have been a lot of civilian casualties with both options..

Atomic bombardment was probably the cheapest and quickest option in the short term. It  probably led to fewer casualties on both sides. In the long term it was a bad choice. The US demonstrated that it had and would use atomic bombs. That led to the Cold War which cost the US trillions of dollars and could have destroyed most life in the northern hemisphere.


How effective is blockading?

The WW2 German  blockade of Britain [mainly by submarine] cost Britain  11,000,000 tons of shipping but did not produce mass starvation or drive it out of the war. In WW1 the British blockade of Germany is estimated to have killed  over 460,000 German civilians through starvation and caused mass disaffection.  Even the German Army was affected. When soldiers captured British trenches in the 1918 Spring Offensive they were astonished at the quality and quantity of the food available to the ‘Tommy’.   [Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918. A Watson]

The little known British naval blockade of Spain [particularly of oil] deterred Franco from entering WW2 on Hitler’s side.

Pointless Battles

The US had to capture some of the Mariana Islands to bring its bombers within range of the Japanese mainland. Fighting anywhere else was pointless because if Japan could be forced to surrender its outposts would have to follow. It is hard to escape the conclusion that much of the land fighting in Japan’s outer empire was unnecessary, particularly the Philippines campaign. The map below shows the Japanese Empire on the day it surrendered. The areas in pink were still under Japanese control.  It it is clear that many parts of the Empire were bypassed and their garrisons  left to wither.  Many were already in dire straits and there were many instances of cannibalism in the Outer Empire garrisons whose supplies had been cut off.  The US drive was to capture islands to use as bases to bomb the Home Islands. The map also makes clear the irrelevance of the Philippines Campaign. That campaign seems to have owed more to MacArthur’s ego than strategic necessity.



Submarine Losses

In addition to the  merchant ships U.S. submarines sank 700,000 tons of naval ships (about 30% of the total lost) including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship and 11 cruisers. Of the total 288 U.S. submarines deployed throughout the war (including those stationed in the Atlantic), 52 submarines were lost with 48 lost in the Pacific. American submariners, who comprised only 1.6% of the Navy, suffered the highest loss rate in the U.S. Armed Forces, with 22% killed. The Germans lost 784 U-Boats and 28,000 men [a 68% loss rate]. The Royal Navy lost 79 submarines.


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5 responses to “Operation Starvation

  1. Woody

    Who wrote this?….unecessary battles?….only lost 614 aircraft?…since bombing campaigns don’t work historically, the Japanese anywhere they were needed to be eliminated. To whatever idiot wrote this, the reason the Philippines had to be liberated from Japanese occupation was that the Japanese were committing massive attrocities against the civilians, and yes I know that upwards of 100,000 Filipinos were killed when MacArthur orderd the shelling of Manila, it was something he agonized over greatly. The Japs were still slaughtering Filipinos even as the fighting was still going on in Manila, the Japs even executed quite a number of preists, they cared nothing for the civilians, THATS WHY the Japanese had to be eliminated from the Philippines. Can you imagine how much worse it would have been had the Japanese been left to just “wither” as you say?….the Japanese could have used food and other supplies in the Philippines for an indefinate period of time….whoever wrote this article is sadly lacking in knowledge of the war in the Pacific…

    • William Bjornson

      Given our behavior in the ETO (mass bombing and firebombing of civilians, avoidance of corporate assets), our atrocities in the PTO including Tokyo and the twin absolute and unforgivable war crimes, our establishment of numerous brutal regimes and outright slaughterous wars since then and you believe our great leaders invaded the Philippines for humanitarian reasons? I know that WWII Koolaid is/was a potent mix that oozes down the years but humanitarianism does not exist in it, particularly on our side. The Typhus didn’t begin in the Death Camps until the ‘Allies’ cut off all Red Cross aid to the camps including food, medicine, and fuel to force the Germans to use what they didn’t have to service the camps. The irony is that they ran out of Zyklon B, the only thing they had to kill the lice which came to infest every resident of the camps. Whatever ‘genocide’ machine the NAZIs may have set up to kill the Poles and Russians and Germans and Jews, there is no mass murderer of humans like Typhus with a death rate up to 60% in previously healthy victims. And starvation was in Berlin as well as Auschwitz. A few weeks in the cold without food, lumped together and sharing Typhus bearing lice, an entire football stadium of people might be gone in an additional week. All of this was known to the ‘Allies’ and our responsibility suppressed with the story we have all heard over and over and over again, perfectly in line with the teachings of Edward Bernays, the Saint of Propaganda. Humanitarianism has played no part in the strategic decisions of the United States then or at any time since. This writer provides data and intelligent discussion and you provide delusion. I suppose you also believe that the British were somehow morally superior to the Germans with no knowledge of the Raj or any of the thousand other reasons they were known as “the bloody British” and it wasn’t for red uniforms. Oh, but those were brown people… just sayin’…

    • Gambeir

      It is important that historical events be reassessed. Revisionism is certainly the duty of every generation of historians, but dangerous undercurrents have their own agenda’s and history is, as any good historian knows, is the first weapon reached for in a conflict. It is a tool for the ruling powers.

      War has three primary purposes for the ruling powers that be. Steal wealth, produce wealth, and control people with terror, death and jobs. War is never accidental, nor ever a consequence of uncontrolled events. The Great Depression had it’s beginnings in 1929, but it really didn’t hit hard until 1933, and it wasn’t until 1953 that the economy itself resumed where it had left off. War is about economy more than it is about any other thing. In fact, Catherine Austin Fitts is credited with labeling this economy as the Central Bank and Warfare Model. It’s what we are still living with today in the Nato Alliance. World War II, like all wars before or since, have to be taken into view with an understanding of this economic model and human considerations aren’t humanly considered, quite the reverse.

      However, I do agree with Woody: Siege Warfare wasn’t an option, and I don’t think it would have been considered even if it would have been better. Economy in warfare doesn’t apply to human life, or equipment, unless the political and economic rulers lives are endangered by such losses, as they began to be with the increasing disasters Japan suffered, but again it wasn’t a consideration for the lives of their own people, oh no, only the consideration of losses of skilled labor, soldiers, and equipment.

      I’m no fan of Douglas but his job was to kill the enemy and to capture the Philippines as quickly as possible. He may or may not have given consideration to doing this task with some amount of economy on human life. We here really cannot know I don’t think, but we do know that he was a political creature and had designs, or delusions about becoming a President later on after the war.

      I’m sure Douglas kept in mind that Joe Stalin had some designs of his own on Japan, as did many others would be rulers. From the communists in China, and all the rest of Southeast Asia, to the Nationalists fighting in China, to other powers like the French and British whom wanted to once more resume the old world order once it was all said and done.

      Whatever the choices made we have to realize that there were important objectives which entailed curtailing or heading off land grabs by these forces.

      I enjoyed reading your work and criticisms aren’t to be seen as failures, after all, most of us blathering here are probably twice your age. Hell, I even know a WWII Vet who’s still alive at 94 years old. He fought in the Battle of the Budge. I’ve known four WWII combat vets, two were sad sacks, both ground pounders in Europe, another one was a squid on a minesweeper in the Pacific Theater, and a fourth was a bomber pilot in Europe. He was shot down twice and became a one star. Once in a B-17 and once in a liberator.

      War is hell. I can’t even imagine going through what those guys went through. I don’t think I would. I’d runaway to the hills and eat worms before I’d pack an M-1 Garand through Europe in Winter, or be strafed and bombed, or have to land a bomber shot to hell with half the crew dead and dying, and another one trapped in the belly turret. Not thank you.

  2. p266

    You conclude that the use of atomic bombs was a mistake because it demonstrated the will of USA to actually use them, thus causing the cold war’s preparedness of the Soviet Union to defend itself against USA in Europe.

    I don’t agree with this. The desire to possess the most effective weapons has been a paradigm of warfare throughout human history and the desire to have the most effective weapon ever – the nuclear bomb would lead to its deployment whether it was used against Japan or not. The cold war would have develop anyway.

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