By "anyone," I mean experts such as military or political leaders contemporaneously, or professional historians in retrospect.

By "wipeout," I mean a scenario in which Japan sinks five carriers and eight battleships of the American Pacific fleet in 1941-1942 with their trained and relatively experienced crews, with the loss of no more than one or two capital ships, then decimates the numerically largely but less experienced fleet that American turns out in 1943.

Admiral Yamamoto was quoted as saying "In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain, I will run wild and win victory after victory, but if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success." I don't consider this scenario out of the question because an analogous thing happened to Russia at Port Arthur and the Tsushima Straits in 1904-05.

Historically, the U.S. could produce six Essex carriers, and several light carriers in each year of 1943, 1944, 1945. Was there any naval doctrine of the time or past experience that said that if Japan could preserve all six fleet carriers in 1942, she could not destroy each U.S. annual "installment" as it arrived without losing more than one carrier a year (that she might be able to build)? That is at the ratio of six to one? Or was such an attrition rate unattainable even allowing for superior Japanese experience.

  • 4
    The Japanese high command envisioned your scenario, but I'm not sure I'd call them "knowledgeable".
    – Mark
    Nov 24, 2022 at 3:54
  • 4
    Please revise to avoid being flagged as a hypothetical question. I think there is a history question in here, but as currently phrased, it reads as outside the scope of history.se
    – MCW
    Nov 24, 2022 at 11:58
  • 2
    I suspect both sides ‘envisioned’ it, and worked to make it so and make it impossible. Ultimately, the US only loses by giving up - the industrial might is just too large.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:32
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    As one data point, history.stackexchange.com/questions/60028/… has the fact that Indonesia, seized for the oil so important to Japan, produced 65 million barrels a year. Domestic US production exceeded 1.3 billion barrels a year. US operations could exhaust the Japanese oil supply, as happened.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:48
  • 1
    There weren't six carriers in the Pacific Fleet until 1943.
    – Mark Olson
    Nov 24, 2022 at 17:03

3 Answers 3


By "wipeout," I mean a scenario in which Japan sinks six carriers and eight battleships of the American Pacific fleet in 1941-1942 with their trained and relatively experienced crews, with the loss of no more than one or two capital ships...

(Note: there were only five US carriers in the Pacific in 1941-1942: Saratoga, Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. Ranger and Wasp were in the Atlantic and considered too vulnerable for the Pacific.)

You've basically described the Japanese naval doctrine of Kantai Kessen or "naval fleet decisive battle". The Japanese would bait the US fleet into crossing the Pacific, either to defend the Philippines or attack Japan. They would whittle the fleet down along the way with air, submarine, and nighttime torpedo attacks. Then, once the US was far away from their bases of supply and repair, the main Japanese fleet would attack and destroy or cripple the US fleet.

...then decimates the numerically largely but less experienced fleet that American turns out in 1943.

This wasn't part of the plan because, up to that point, rebuilding a fleet in wartime was considered an impossibility. The axiom was that you fight with the fleet you have. Replacements of major ships would come from whatever was already under construction when the war started. The US rebuilding their fleet in 2 years was unprecedented, it wasn't considered time enough to build and shake down new major combat ships.

After the US Pacific fleet was crippled, the US was supposed to sue for peace, like the Russians did after Tsushima. Japan did not want to fight the US, it wanted to conquer the South Eastern Pacific for resources; specifically the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies. The US was just in the way; specifically in the Philippines. The Japanese assumed the US wouldn't fight hard to protect other nation's possessions.

It might have worked. The US was planning to act as the Japanese had guessed. Given the pasting the US Navy received early in the Guadalcanal Campaign, and their poor defense against Japanese long range torpedoes, the US might have fared poorly in their first major engagement.

Ironically, their attack on Pearl Harbor likely ruined their own plan.

First, it left the US with no surface fleet to send to a decisive battle. They would instead husband their resources and fight when they had the advantage.

Second, it turned it from a war over what the public would perceive as some distant Pacific possessions, to a surprise attack on American soil. Even if the first US fleet was destroyed, it may not have brought the US to the bargaining table.

Third, it caused the US to invest heavily in a crash building program which resulted in an unprecedented brand new fleet by 1943, and overwhelming superiority by 1944. With an intact fleet, and no infamous surprise attack to spur public outcry, the US may not have fully mobilized for war.

  • I'm going to push back on a minor (probably unimportant) point in here. "The US was in the way" has been the standard story from US Histories, but after studying a bit of the war's history from the Japanese side the last few years, I think that's a misreading. Japan's foreign policy was in thrall to hypernationalists. The moment the US tried to tell them "no" on something, it became a point of national pride to prove the US had no say in the matter. They had no real military need to attack the US, they just politically had to. It was not a matter of logic.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 25, 2022 at 13:09
  • Japan would have needed to avoid attacking the Philippines, which I’m not sure they would have been comfortable with. They were still US soil as well at that time (well, sure, it was complicated).
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 25, 2022 at 15:12
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    @T.E.D. The Japanese considered war with the US and Britain inevitable. They watched China be dismantled. They did not believe the West would stand by as they continued expanding, continued fighting in China, and attacked Western colonies like the Dutch East Indies. Leaving the Philippines and British Malaya in intact would leave their supply lines from the Dutch East Indies vulnerable to British and US attack, as well as continuing to allow the west to supply China. Rather than allow the West a leisurely military buildup, they chose to eliminate these bases.
    – Schwern
    Nov 25, 2022 at 18:18
  • They certainly believed that after the US imposed their Oil embargo, yes.... because they were going to be forced to start it.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 26, 2022 at 0:32
  • @T.E.D. I strongly disagree that Japan was "forced" into war. The embargos came about to hamper their continuing invasion of China and after their de facto occupation of French Indochina. They always had the option of ceasing hostilities.
    – Schwern
    Nov 26, 2022 at 1:11

Sure, here is an example, and you can find more by Googling for "What if Japan won Midway" or similar.

The end result of the war is likely to be the same, though.

A Japanese victory at Midway definitely would have precluded the Americans’ August 1942 counteroffensive at Guadalcanal. Japanese incursions would have posed a more serious threat to Australia and New Guinea because the U.S. could not have stopped them. “The Japanese certainly would have moved into the South Pacific largely unimpeded, occupying the New Hebrides, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga,” Parshall and Tully maintain. This would have placed Imperial forces squarely athwart the main line of supply between the United States and Australia. The Japanese might conceivably have invaded northern Australia.

But in the end, the authors contend, none of this would have mattered. By 1942 Japan’s industrial capacity had peaked, whereas the American war machine was still growing. By mid-1943, the U.S. was launching an Essex-class carrier at the rate of one ship every two months. By August 1945, 17 Essex-class flattops would enter service, to say nothing of 9 Independence-class light carriers and dozens of small but useful escort carriers. “Since the day the battle was fought, the American victory there has been labeled as ‘decisive,’” Parshall and Tully observe. “But…win or lose at Midway, it was extremely unlikely that the Japanese were going to win. How, then, can such a battle be considered decisive?”


The US navy had a much better program for training new aircraft carrier pilots than the Japanse navy had.

USS Sable (IX-81) was a United States Navy training ship during World War II,[5] originally built as the passenger ship Greater Buffalo, a sidewheel excursion steamboat. She was purchased by the Navy in 1942 and converted to a training aircraft carrier to be used on the Great Lakes. She lacked a hangar deck, elevators, or armament and was not a true warship, but she provided advanced training of naval aviators in carrier takeoffs and landings.

On her first day of service, 59 pilots became qualified within nine hours of operations, with each making eight takeoffs and landings. Pilot training was conducted seven days a week in all types of weather conditions.[6] George H. W. Bush, later president of the United States, was one of the aviators who trained on Sable.[5]

Sable was decommissioned on 7 November 1945. She was sold for scrapping on 7 July 1948 to the H.H. Buncher Company. She and her sister ship USS Wolverine – which together were used for the training of over 17,000 pilots, landing signal officers, and other navy personnel[7][8] – hold the distinction of being the only freshwater, coal-fired, side paddle-wheel aircraft carriers used by the United States Navy.[9][10]


In conjunction with NAS Glenview, the two paddle-wheelers afforded critical training in basic carrier operations to thousands of pilots and also to smaller numbers of Landing Signal Officers (LSOs). Wolverine and Sable enabled the pilots and LSOs to learn to handle take-offs and landings on a real flight deck.[39] Sable and Wolverine were a far cry from front-line carriers, but they accomplished the Navy's purpose: qualifying naval aviators fresh from operational flight training in carrier landings.[40]


So the USa maunufactured thousands of carrier airplanes, and trained thousands of pilots in carrier takeoffs and lands.

By comparison the Jampesne probably had only hundreds of well trained carrier plane pilots at the start of the war, and were unable to replace their lost pilots with equally well trained ones.

Thus the US navy had a greater and greater advantage in skilled carrier pilots as the war went on.

Furthermore, the US Navy had much better progams for damage control aboard their ships. Thus damaged US ships were far more likely to be saved and eventually repared and returned to service.
One time the Japanese learned that US navy officers were being decorated for going to the aide of a damaged ship and saving it. Japanse propaganda made a big deal about how weird was for the Americans to waste their efforts trying to save damaged ships and their crews instad of writing them off.

So with that attitude, the Japanse lost their carriers and their trained aircrews much more rapidly than the US did.

Even if the Japanese fleet managed to sink all the US carriers in the Pacific in 1941 or early 1942 it wouldn't have given Japan much time. So long as the US didn't start up offensive operations in the Pacific until it had about a 1.5 advantage in aircraft carriers it would have had the upper hand in almost all naval battles and would have rapidly depleted the Japanse fleet, much as it did in our history.

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