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"Japanese Warfare as Seen by U.S. Combatants" from Intelligence Bulletin, March 1943

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following comments by United States officers and enlisted men in the Southwest Pacific about Japanese tactics were originally published in the Intelligence Bulletin, March 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department Intelligence Bulletin publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



What United States officers and enlisted men, under fire in the Southwest Pacific, think about Japanese methods of warfare as used against them during the past few months is revealed in individual interviews given below. The names and units of the men are withheld. For the convenience of the reader, the quotations are arranged roughly according to subject matter, and repetition has largely been eliminated.


The Japanese method of fighting is comparable to ju jitsu. They count heavily on surprise and deception, endeavoring to strike suddenly where we do not expect it, and when we are not ready.... They avoid, if at all possible, the slugging match where weight of numbers and fire power count. They stress the principles of surprise and mobility at the expense of the principles of mass. With these tactics, the Japs have been able to use surprisingly small forces throughout the campaigns of this war to gain their objectives.

.... The individual Japanese hates the war and fears death as much as the average Occidental. Faced by a resolute man with a bayonet, Japanese have not stood up as well as their doctrines preach. Units have broken when involved in situations where they were outmaneuvered or outfought.

.... Constant practice has most probably made it possible for the Japanese to omit, in their orders for landing operations, considerable details concerning such things as missions to be carried out immediately after landing, successive objectives, frontages and boundaries between units, security measures, communications, and so on.... The Japanese commanding officer does not commit his forces to a definite plan of action until he has had an opportunity to estimate the situation on the ground as it confronts his troops. Also, this is in keeping with the Japanese policy of allowing subordinates to use full initiative and take independent action as the situation requires.

There are definite advantages in this, and great weaknesses, chiefly those of loss of coordination and breakdown of control, should the commanding officer become a casualty or otherwise fail to exert control. Independent action by subordinates is apt to lead to piecemeal attacks and commitment of the whole unit in a manner not advantageous for the unit, but it does instill in the subordinate the habit of acting without orders when the situation requires. This prevents the breakdown of the entire operation when higher control is lost.

.... One gets the impression that the perfect Japanese solution to a tactical problem is a neatly performed stratagem, followed by an encirclement or a flanking attack driven home with the bayonet. This allows the commanders to demonstrate their ability, and the men to show their courage and ferocity in hand-to-hand fighting. The Japanese plans are a mixture of military artistry and vainglorious audacity.

.... Bulldog tenacity in carrying out a mission, even to annihilation, will very frequently give a most erroneous impression of the Japanese strength and will often result in small forces overcoming larger ones, as their units are not rendered ineffective until they are nearly all casualties....


After the recent Milne Bay action, in which my organization was very actively engaged, I reached the following conclusions:

(a) Any fear or doubt concerning their own ability which our personnel may have developed, as a result of the spectacular Japanese land conquests during the past 9 months, is gone and forgotten now. Especially in anything like open terrain, where the Jap cannot rely on his many "jungle tricks," he is no match for either the United States or Australian soldier.

(b) The fact that the men have now been able to see, in actual combat, the marked superiority of our weapons as compared to those of the Japanese, has of course given them a great deal more confidence, and the feeling that they have a definite advantage over our enemy.

(c) The 50-caliber machine gun proved itself the outstanding single weapon in stopping the Japanese attack. It was very demoralizing to them, and they had nothing with which to meet its fire effectively.

(d) The continuous strafing and bombing attacks to which the Japs were subjected during all daylight hours would have been justified, even if no casualties had resulted. Aside from the damages, the presence of our planes apparently demoralized and disorganized the enemy to a very great extent.


The Japanese approach march on Guadalcanal was almost invariably made in close formation along terrain features, such as ridges....

The enemy usually attacks on a narrow front, rarely over 300 yards--some units have penetrated a gap of only 15 yards in width. The first element or wave of an attack is a silent group armed with bayonets, hand grenades, and wire cutters. This is followed by an echelon which deliberately makes noises for the purpose of confusing our troops.

When the Japanese infiltrate through our lines, they expect and intend that we will then fall back.

The Japanese fire high. Our experience is that only 10 percent of our wounds are below the knee, 20 percent are below the hips, and the balance are body wounds. Bullet sears on trees are mostly 2 1/2 feet above the ground.


When the Japanese met our line of skirmishers (in New Guinea) they fired all their machine guns into the tree tops above our men. As soon as this fire was countered by our machine guns, their mortars opened up on our machine-gun positions.

On several occasions, when our line of skirmishers was met, large numbers of Japanese ran forward and were met by a withering machine-gun fire. They immediately turned and fled. Our men, with the usual cry of "After the -------" rushed after them with fixed bayonets. Immediately, the fleeing Japanese threw themselves on the ground and our fellows ran into machine-gun fire from the Japanese rear.

In the Milne Bay area, the Japanese plan was to advance and attack during the night and then to withdraw during the daytime, leaving dozens of their men at the top of coconut palms, and in the jungle, with machine guns and Tommy guns. As our forces advanced the next day, they were harassed by these remnants. Often the Japanese were tied in the tops of palm trees and remained there after they were shot.

(Comment: The Japanese policy of advancing at night and hiding during the day may have been dictated on the spot by the constant strafing and reconnaissance by our aircraft.)


.... Although the state of Japanese morale (on Guadalcanal) varied a good deal with different units, as a whole they had been softened up in morale and shortened in supply before their withdrawal.... In the early stages at Guadalcanal after Jap reinforcements had landed, they were confident that our forces would surrender. Subsequent events shook them a great deal, and they had a "relapse" as a result of defeats, losses, diseases, poor supply, and failure to properly reorganize broken and defeated units.

.... The Jap soldier is determined and persistent, and especially tough if our forces show any signs of breaking. Whenever the Jap is met with courage and suffers losses, he loses most of his dash, although he will keep trying.

Our Marines do not consider the Jap a particularly tough opponent when met on anything approximating even terms. When cornered and hard put, the Japs very often get into a panic, and show as much fear as any other soldiers under similar circumstances.

There is evidence that some units (Japanese) are practically ostracized if they suffer defeat. Marines have come upon these units, found living apart from the rest of the troops, and apparently not having any contact or supply. It is not known how much of this is due to Jap psychology, and how much is due to the inability of broken units to secure a portion of the limited supplies of more fortunate units. A great many Japs are wandering around in small bands, which are continually being killed off both by our own and native patrols. These broken units apparently do not reorganize well with other units, and within the defeated unit itself there appears to be no organization whatever. Starvation is common among those who are separated from the main forces. They remain deceptive and cunning, however, and many of them will walk into certain death in order to get a shot at our troops.

Japanese prisoners talk freely, as a rule, and are truthful. They know about heavy Japanese losses (in this area); it has affected the air force in particular. For instance, they say that the "left wing" man of a formation rarely returns, and pilots prefer not to fly in this position. Pilots and crews consider Henderson Field a bad place to attack, expect heavy losses, and say that the antiaircraft set-up is tough....


a. Artillery

The Japs on Guadalcanal did not make as good use of their artillery as they might, and they seemed to work upon the principle of the single gun rather than concentrated battery support....

There were a great percentage of duds in the Jap artillery ammunition.... Gun positions were hard to locate because they were well concealed in the jungle....

There have been several puzzling examples of the Japs' apparent disregard for their own artillery. In one case, the Marines captured four new guns and a large quantity of ammunition within 300 yards of Henderson Field. The guns were in position to fire upon the field but had never been fired, and not a Jap was in the vicinity when the guns were taken.

b. Powder

The Japanese powder produces less flash and smoke than ours. (Comment: Recent U.S. Ordnance tests proved that the Japanese powder itself produces as much smoke and flash as ours. However, the Japanese rifle has a smaller caliber, a smaller charge, a longer barrel, and a lower muzzle velocity than ours; these factors, which make combustion more complete, tend to reduce smoke and flash.)


a. General

The Japanese system of defense is based on maneuver, stressing to the limit the necessity of striking back when the attackers are disorganized, even to the extent of hitting them while they are deploying for the attack. It seems remarkable that the Japanese should indicate that the way to cope with our greater fire power is to increase the size of their reserves at the expense of their front-line defenses.

The Japanese counterattacks are not primarily aimed merely at driving the enemy out of areas he has taken, but rather at striking him in such a manner that the initiative passes to the Japanese and decisive results are gained. The Japanese do not intend to whittle down the attacks by a strong defense, until the attack bogs down. They plan on giving with the blow and hitting back suddenly and decisively when the attacker has become disorganized by his own penetration.

To the Japanese military, tactics is an art, with decisions gained by skill, not by sheer power. Their policy for the use of maneuver may appear to lead toward complicated evolutions. Training and the delegation to subordinates of the initiative for independent action are most probably the factors that make such tactics simple.

b. In the Buna Area

The first highly organized Japanese defense positions encountered by U.S. troops in the present war were in the New Guinea area. American observers considered the positions very strong, despite the fact that the area is low and practically level.

The positions consisted of bunkers and trenches, which were never over 3 to 4 feet deep because the water level is approximately 5 feet below the surface of the ground.

Because of the sandy soil, the trenches were only about 1 foot wide at the bottom and 4 1/2 to 5 feet wide at the top. The bunkers were built of logs and dirt. Narrow slits were made for machine-gun fire.

The trench systems, or defense areas, were arranged in sections which permitted excellent fields of fire to the front and both flanks. To facilitate this, the flank trenches were constructed at an angle of about 40 to 45 to the front. Each defense area, accommodating not more than a platoon, had four separate dugouts.

A large portion of the trenches was covered with a mixture of coconut palm logs and dirt which was 8 to 10 inches thick. Coconut logs are tough and do not splinter much. This protective cover was strong enough to resist direct hits of all our weapons of less than 88-mm caliber. (The British 25-pounder gun-howitzer is 88 mm.)

The defensive area consisted of jungle, open spaces covered with high grass, and coconut groves, which had a high grassy undergrowth.

Both light and heavy machine guns were used extensively by the Japanese, who seemed to have plenty of ammunition.


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