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"Japanese Warfare as Seen by U.S. Observers" from Intelligence Bulletin, May 1943

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following comments by U.S. observers on Japanese warfare were originally printed in the Intelligence Bulletin, May 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.]



The comments carried in this section are made by observers who have been in the Southwest Pacific theater of operations, and by officers and enlisted men who have participated in the actual fighting. The comments have been edited to eliminate repetition and, as far as possible, to arrange the information according to subject matter.


In my opinion, the Japanese soldier is a well-trained, well-equipped, and well-disciplined fighting man. He is in good physical condition, is infinitely patient, and shows a sacrificial devotion to duty. The Japanese is only a fair small-arms shot, but is proficient in the use of mortars and artillery. He uses large quantities of hand grenades.

Japanese soldiers have been trained to create fear in the hearts of their opponents, and they exploit to the utmost the advantage gained thereby. Although they prefer to conduct the offensive on a dark night or just at dawn, they have fallen far short of mastering the technique of night fighting.

The individual soldier is an expert camoufleur, well-trained in the most effective use of natural camouflage materials. He does a large amount of close-in fighting, but is not exceptionally proficient in the use of the bayonet or in hand-to-hand combat. He is not endowed with superhuman qualities.

The greatest weakness of the Japanese fighting man is his inability to cope effectively with unexpected situations. Although he is a very efficient cog in a war machine and follows a definite plan even to minute details, he is sorely lacking in resourcefulness and ready adaptability to rapidly changing situations. No amount of training can remedy this defect of the Japanese soldier; it is an inherent weakness which is at least partly the result of having led a closely regimented life in which free thinking and individual initiative have been discouraged. This weakness is apparent both in offensive and defensive situations. When attacking, the Japanese soldier makes extensive use of weird, piercing shrieks and of threatening cries such as "Marine, you die!" The obvious intent of this practice is to demoralize his opponent and also to boost his own morale. The result expected is a disorderly, confused flight to the rear. When, however, the Japanese soldier's opponent holds his ground unwaveringly, even in the face of heavy casualties, the Jap himself becomes disorganized and confused, and is then quite vulnerable to a counterattack. If, after being repulsed in the initial attack, he decides to try again, he will probably employ identical tactics.

The Japanese's well established custom of preparing his evening meal just at dusk and his morning meal at dawn offers an opportunity for catching him in known bivouac areas with concentrated artillery fire.

Our troops should understand that the Japanese is no better able to go without food than we are, that his stamina is no better than our own (provided we have taken the necessary steps to insure top physical condition), that the Jap gets just as wet when it rains, and that he suffers just as much, if not more, from malaria, dysentery, dengue, ringworm, and other forms of tropical ills. This has been amply borne out by the condition of prisoners captured in this area, and by the finding of dead who had literally starved to death.


To the Japanese, machines of war--from the heavy machine guns to the tank--are only incidentals in warfare. We Americans realize that the infantry must perform the tasks of actually taking over the ground and holding it, but we use every available machine of war to prevent unnecessary losses. In contrast, the Japanese do not conceive of substituting the shock action of war machines for the shock action of infantry, and they merely strengthen the shock action of troops by the assistance of the machines. The Japanese Army is an army of men, supported by machines of war; ours is an army using machines of war. This is a fine distinction and perhaps not readily understood, but every statement of Japanese military policy bears this out.

A Japanese who has not tasted defeat will attack with a dash and a magnificent disregard for himself. When he has been set back on his heels, just once, he loses that zip and comes back without confidence and impelled by a morbid feeling toward death that might be worded as "Come on, let's get it over with."

He has found himself up against things he can't understand: For example, the way we use artillery (the Chinese never used it against him like that, and he doesn't know what to do about it); the fact that we prefer to sit back and stop him with well aimed rifle and machine-gun fire, and not fight it out with the bayonet; the fact that when we meet him with a bayonet we don't break and run; and, above all, the fact that his basic idea--that skill, bravery, and cold steel alone will win the war--is wrong.



a. During the Day

On gaining contact along a road or trail in jungle country, Japanese forces in New Guinea usually followed a certain pattern of tactics.

First, the commander rapidly advanced specially selected, trained, and equipped troops, who corresponded to our advance guard.

When these forward troops gained contact with the opposition, they took up a position astride the road or track and endeavored to pin down the opposing forces with the support of machine guns and mortar fire.

Next, these forward troops used various ruses and demonstrations in an attempt to scare the opposition into a withdrawal, or into revealing the strength, extent, and location of their position by premature movement and firing.

If our troops did not withdraw, Japanese elements in rear of their forward group tried to by-pass our positions by infiltrating or stalking around one or both flanks as speedily as possible.

A stalk is carried out by a chain of men moving by a series of sidesteps. The sidesteps are made quickly, and, between steps, bodies are motionless as statues and eyes are glued on the objective. Fire is opened only when a target is seen.

These forward Japanese groups can usually be easily disposed of if our troops withhold their fire until a suitable target presents itself. There are numerous instances when Japanese advance elements were permitted to pass by and the larger rear elements were accounted for by rifle or machine-gun fire.

Upon first contact (in New Guinea), the Japanese would site a machine gun behind cover and fire along the track or road. This gun usually was well protected by riflemen and difficult to dislodge. The primary mission of this group was to protect and aid the advances of their forward group, but they periodically tested the strength and location of their opposition by feints and by deliberate attack.

They made feints and rapid advances, affording just fleeting glimpses, in order to draw the fire of our troops and thus determine our location and strength. By firing at these fleeting targets, our troops would immediately draw a heavy return fire by a group which was placed for that purpose.

To test the possibility of further advance, the Japanese would send men forward along the track or road under cover of fire from rifles, machine guns, and mortars. They placed much confidence in the effect of sound and apparently did considerable firing for this reason.


If the Japanese fail in their first attempt on a position, they seem to bring their forward lines right up to within 50 yards of ours wherever possible. (Hence the importance of being able to dig in.)

In many instances, the Japanese have not hesitated to send troop elements into areas where it was next to impossible to secure their return or even to supply them. As a result, some of the deep infiltrations of their troops have failed because of food shortages.

Unless fields of fire have been cut, it is almost impossible to stop Japanese infiltration through jungle.

If you are assigned to do some sniping, you should first seek concealment and then a field of fire. The Japanese does exactly that. Whenever one of the sniper trees is at the end of a little lane or clear strip in the jungle, look out. The turn of a trail, or the turn of a dry stream bed are ideal spots for snipers.

The Japanese have two favorite maneuvers. The first is an envelopment over "impassable" terrain by which he hopes to force the opposition to withdraw because of threats on one or both flanks. Little actual fighting is anticipated. (Their actual attack is usually made on a very narrow front, and, as a consequence, in great depth; this makes them particularly vulnerable to artillery fire.)

Their second favorite maneuver is what has been called a "filleting" attack. It is like filleting a fish--removing the backbone so that the rest can be cut into convenient pieces. In this type of attack, they rush down an arterial supply route with tanks, followed by a dense mass of infantry, on the assumption that, by holding the road and denying us the use of it, we will be forced to withdraw. If they gain this end without fighting, they are highly successful, but if they have to fight they are at a decided disadvantage--not only are they highly vulnerable to artillery fire (the dense mass, in depth, with no maneuver space) but, if our troops are up to it, the Japs are vulnerable to a single or double envelopment.

All Japanese operations indicate the tendency to follow a set doctrine without the ability to readjust for changing circumstances. Despite a failure which involved terrific losses, they have repeated the same operation over and over again without attempting to figure out something new.

The Japanese bayonet assaults have been reported as a terrifying attack--but all our units on Guadalcanal loved them. The Jap practice of singing his Banzai song for about 5 minutes prior to his assault has simply been a signal for our troops to load a fresh belt of ammunition in the machine guns, put new clips in rifles and BAR's, and to call for the Tommy gunners to get in position.


In their attack on prepared positions the Japanese have used a more or less standard procedure. Prior to the attack they make every effort, by reconnaissance and ruses, to determine our strength and location and a "soft spot."

After the Japanese have selected their point of attack, they persist in attacking this point in an effort to break through. Should these efforts fail, they sometimes shift to another point but usually return to their original point of attack. Thus, as experience along the Kokoda Trail (New Guinea) indicates, we should not appreciably weaken our defense in the sector originally attacked in order to aid in the defense of some point subsequently attacked.


In the Japanese attacks along the Kokoda Trail, the following points were noted:

During their attacks it was not uncommon for the Japanese to replace their forward troops with fresh forces, a few at a time. This was done efficiently and without confusion.

When the Japanese were held up, they immediately dug in for protection. There were slit trenches and foxholes all along their line of retreat on the Kokoda Trail.

b. At Night

The Japanese selected night-attack objectives by observing our dispositions at sunset. If they failed to find these objectives where they expected them to be, they became confused in the dark because they did not know where to look for us. It would take the Japs about an hour or two to reorganize--this interval was the best time to attack them.

In their night attacks, the Japanese sent advance parties through the dense cover of valleys; they reserved the more open terrain of the higher ground for the main body to approach and make the main effort. To cover up the noises made by the advance parties, the main body purposely made noises as it approached.

Frequently the advance parties cleared away jungle growth on terrain over which large units were to approach, spreading luminous paint along the ""blazed" trail as a guide.


a. Enemy Tenacity

It would be impossible to overstress the tenacity with which the Japanese clung to their prepared positions (in the Buna area). Ordinary grenades, gun, and mortar fire were completely ineffective. There were many instances where dugouts were grenaded inside, covered with gasoline and burned, and then sealed with dirt and sand, only to yield--two or three days lateróJapanese, who came out fighting. One souvenir hunter, entering a dugout that had been sealed for 4 days, was chased out by a Japanese officer armed with a sword.


b. Enemy Positions

The enemy bunkers and dugouts were constructed of coconut palm logs, dirt, sand, and sand bags, covered with natural camouflage. In some instances, pieces of armor plate were set up. The log-and-dirt bunker construction was done carefully and strongly. The corner posts were firmly embedded in the ground, and the horizontal logs neatly and strongly attached and interwoven. Several alternate layers of logs and earth were generally used, to give full protection against mortars and light artillery. Roofs were thick; they were made of alternative layers which gave excellent protection. No concrete positions were found.

The bunkers were connected to systems of fire and communication trenches radiating on both sides. In some instances, underground trenches were constructed. These were used by snipers to infiltrate into our midst, even after the enemy units had long been driven from the general ground. Leaves and grass were well used to camouflage all bunkers. The bunkers had been planned and built for just this purpose long before the campaign actually started, and the naturally quick jungle growth, sprouting up over the earthworks, gave first-class natural camouflage.

The enemy dugout positions were well sited and mutually supporting. It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bypass any of the positions, each of which had to be reduced in turn.


c. Enemy Tactics

The Japanese is good at organizing ground with automatic weapons, and usually covers approaches into his position by well placed, mutually supporting fires. They usually hold their fire when the first targets appear--they wait for bigger game. They have allowed platoons, or even companies to infiltrate past their positions--so they could cut them off from the rear. It must be recognized, however, that the Jap will seldom leave his position, even when completely outflanked, and that he must be reached and killed. However, in spite of his cleverness at concealment and covering avenues of approach, he seldom, if ever, traverses or searches with his machine gun, and therein lies the key to his destruction. He is also prone to organize ravines and reverse slopes, in direct contrast to our practice of occupying the military crest of ridge lines.


Imbued with the offensive idea, the Japanese naturally attempts frequent counterattacks, probably based upon some form of mobile reserve. "On one occasion," wrote an Australian officer, "when our attack drove the Jap out, he appeared to become panicky, running from side to side and firing wildly with everything he had; however, a short time later our troops were forced to withdraw by the weight of a counterattack, made by a mobile force in reserve."


An Australian account of Japanese defensive operations in the Owen Stanley Mountains of New Guinea says:

The action fought between Myola and Templeton's Crossing was along a narrow ridge, on the crest of which runs the main track. The whole length of the ridge is covered by dense jungle, which in some parts consist mostly of bamboo.

When first contacted, the enemy withdrew up a ridge on which he had prepared defensive positions. All approaches to the positions were covered by fire and well camouflaged. Circular, one-man pits were used by each individual soldier. These pits were 2 to 3 feet across and afforded good protection, especially from grenades.

It appears that the Japanese keeps his head down and fires burst after burst from his machine gun, blindly spraying the area in front and below his position to create a lot of noise in an attempt to intimidate the attacker.

Machine-gun posts covering the main track were cunningly chosen for position and field of fire. Natural camouflage, such as the butt of a large rotting tree with flanged roots, or a small natural ridge beside the track, were used to advantage. The positions were well sited for all-around protection.

The Japanese used medium and light machine guns as their main defense; a few riflemen moved to points of vantage as our troops went forward. Hand and discharger grenades were used extensively.

The Japanese likes to move his light machine gun or medium machine gun from place to place during the day. One of our officers, after a reconnaissance, was quite certain that there was no automatic weapon in one position, but when we attacked, shortly afterwards a machine gun opened up at the first indication of movement by our troops.

d. On Makin Island

In their raid on Makin Island, U.S. Marine troops encountered a force of about 90 Japanese soldiers plus about 100 Japanese civilians.

The Japanese set-up consisted of two main positions, a number of lookout points, and a mobile reserve, which moved on bicycles and in a truck.

One of the main positions was along the edge of the beach on the south side. It consisted of a shallow trench with barbed-wire obstacles to the front.

The other main defense position extended across the island, facing the east. It included a fire trench, 2 1/2 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet deep, with the spoil thrown up in front. Along the trench, at intervals across the island, were four machine-gun nests. About 75 yards east of the trench, a barbed-wire fence extended across the island. To block the lone road cutting the defense line, the Japanese used portable barbed-wire "hedgehog" obstacles.

The machine guns and snipers provided the major difficulties for the Marines. The Marines flattened themselves on the ground when the machine guns opened up, but they still were exposed to snipers, who had cleverly camouflaged themselves under the fronds of palm trees off to the flanks of the machine guns. The snipers were dressed in a jungle green uniform; some used individual camouflage nets while others hung coconuts all over their body. They were almost impossible to see until they moved, or the fronds were shot away. One sniper had the tops of two trees tied together, and when spotted he cut the trees loose, making it hard to decide which tree he was in.

These snipers tried to pick out troop leaders and radio men.

The Marines took care of the snipers first and then knocked out the machine-gun nests. The guns were well sited as to fields of fire and were well concealed.

5. DUMMY SNIPERS (New Guinea)

A patrol advancing up the coast was fired on by a tall tree-top sniper. They halted, located him, and apparently shot him down. They then advanced and were fired on again. This happened several times. Thorough investigation revealed that one sniper had been holding up the patrol and dummies had been placed in other trees. These are dropped by a pulley arrangement after the Americans had fired a number of shots. This made them imagine that they had cleared the opposition.

In another case, the sniper's dummy was rigged so that it could be pulled back up into place. The sniper made the mistake of pulling it back up too soon, giving away his ruse. The sniper, incidentally, showed very poor marksmanship.


The Japanese have used the following ruses in the New Guinea fighting:

a. They dragged a dead United Nations soldier close to our lines and propped him up, expecting that a group of our troops would be sent out to "rescue" him.

b. With the same purpose, they placed captured weapons in front of our forces.

c. They fired captured weapons to give the impression that our troops were at the places where the weapons were sited.

d. Over their hats, they wore cut-out circular boards to imitate Australian hats.

e. They scattered cast-off garments and equipment on a trail to give the impression they had fled in disorder--actually it was an attempt to ambush our forces.

f. They shook bushes and talked loudly in an attempt to draw our fire.


The serious supply difficulties which confronted the Japanese on Guadalcanal were brought about, to a large degree, by poor distribution and planning. On the same days, we continually encountered Japanese soldiers who were "round-faced and well fed" and those who were emaciated and starving.

This situation was believed to have been due to Japanese over optimism regarding the outcome of planned attacks. This optimism was transmitted to supply echelons; the Japs had to win a victory on schedule so that their supply operations would continue functioning adequately. One unit that attacked Henderson Field, Sept. 12, 1942, carried only three day's ration, with no reserve in the rear. Consequently, the few who survived the attack were immediately faced with a food shortage.

The Japanese adopted the system of having each company send carriers back for rations, which were then carried forward. Because of the rough terrain and our air operations, this round trip took as long as 2 or 3 days. These efforts did not provide a full ration for the units, so the men were put on reduced rations. This, plus the strain of jungle operations, made the soldiers easy marks for malaria, beri beri, and diarrhea. Eventually the condition became so bad in some units that half-sick men were sent to carry rations and the journey took a correspondingly longer time.

Air transportation of food to these troops was attempted with limited success. Late in January, 25 parachutes of food and supplies were dropped to units in the jungle. The parachutes were strafed by our planes, starting some fires, so it is believed only part of the supplies were received by the troops.

The Japanese used all available types of native foods. Ant nests were reported as very good eating by one Japanese soldier. Their forces in New Guinea turned to horse meat when food supplies became low. The meat was processed and issued under the direction of a high echelon.

Although all varieties of food were used by the enemy on Guadalcanal, the normal issue was field rations and dehydrated foods, including powdered eggs. It is doubtful if perishable food was issued to front-line troops, but some was obtained. In some cases food was buried in the field cemeteries for safekeeping.

Stealing of food became quite common. Ration dumps required extra guards and special precautions. Towards the end, the situation became so bad that an emergency court-martial was appointed to deal with the special cases of stealing rations, and this court had instructions from the appointing officer to inflict drastic punishment. Rations were reported as being frequently stolen from carriers en route to the front.


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