The Pacific War and Manufacturing Capacity

Quote of the Day

Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.

— Dr. Kevin Maxwell, teacher. I saw this quote on Dr. Nic's blog, which is one of my favorites.


Figure 1: US Political Cartoon from 1942.

Figure 1: US Political Cartoon from 1942.

I was watched a particularly interesting lecture by Victor Davis Hanson on his new book The Second World Wars. While Hanson is generally thought of as an ancient Greek scholar, he does an excellent job of analyzing WW2 from a novel set of viewpoints: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, and people. One particular emphasis of Hanson is the role of the dominating manufacturing capacity of the Allied powers versus the Axis powers. I have listened to a number of WW2 history lectures recently, and all of them emphasized that  the US WW2 strategy from the beginning was to build massive numbers of medium quality weapons that would overwhelm Japan and Germany by sheer numbers. This approach was based on the belief that quantity can cover up all sorts of shortcomings with quality, personnel, and training.

My focus here will be on the Pacific War because a number of the lectures also focused there. I have never before looked at the relative production levels of the Allies versus Japan. I decided to grab some military production data for the UK, US, and Japan from this web site using Power Query and Excel. I did not look at military production for the Soviet Union because their contributions to the Pacific War were minimal. For those interested in my analysis, the spreadsheet is here. This was a good exercise in basic web scraping and table generation using Excel. I looked at three areas associated with wartime manufacturing: merchant shipping production (tonnage), aircraft production, and warship production.


Merchant Shipping

Merchant shipping is the lifeblood of island nations like the UK and Japan. Figures 2 and 3 show merchant ship production data for the US, UK, and Japan during WW2. Figure 2 shows that the US and UK produced nearly ten times the merchant ship tonnage as did Japan. An order of magnitude advantage in shipping capacity when you are fighting an island war is overwhelming.

Figure 2: Merchant Ship Production Tonnage By Country.

Figure 2: Merchant Ship Production Tonnage By Country.

Figure 3 shows the data of Figure 2 in graphical form.

Figure 2: Merchant Ship Tonnage Versus Time For the US, UK, and Japan.

Figure 3: Merchant Ship Tonnage Versus Time For the US, UK, and Japan.

Aircraft Production

Because the US strategy was focused on island hopping, the production of aircraft was also critical because a single island airbase could secure a region of many tens of thousands of square miles – these island airbases were sometimes referred to as unsinkable aircraft carriers. As is shown in Figure 4, the US and UK dominated in aircraft production as well, though not by as much as seen with merchant ship production.

Figure 4: WW2 Aircraft Production By Type and Country.

Figure 4: WW2 Aircraft Production By Type and Country.

Warship Production

Ultimately, warships were needed because there was a war to win. I looked at the production of six classes of warships: aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, escorts, and submarines. I started my counting in 1942, which is when the US really began warship production in earnest. Figure 5 shows a table of the data and Figure 6 shows a graphical view. The differences in the warship counts again reflect an order of magnitude difference – for example, the US and UK produced 151 aircraft carriers (all types) from 1942 to 1945 while Japan produced 15.

One stark difference between Japan and the UK and US alliance was in the area of escort vessels, which were warships designed to protect merchant convoys from air and submarine attacks. The data source I used for this post claimed that the Japanese had no escort vessels. Some people may argue that one class of Japanese destroyer (Matsu) could be viewed as an escort, but only seventeen were built and these had minimal impact because they were deployed at the very end of the war. In any event, the UK and US built hundreds of escort vessels to protect their supply lines. Japan did not give priority to protecting their supply lines, which meant starvation was a real threat once they were isolated.

Figure M: Warship Production By Nation and Year.

Figure 5: Warship Production By Nation and Year.

Figure 6 provides a visual representation of the warships produced between 1942 and 1945. I used the color green for Japan. You see very little green in Figure 6.

Figure M: Graphical View of Figure M.

Figure 6: Graphical View of Figure 5.


The US gave the European Theater higher priority for resources than the Pacific Theaterhistorians usually talk in terms of 30% to the Pacific and 70% to Europe. This approach was referred to as Europe First. While Japan was only given second priority, the data in this post shows that the US and UK still had more than enough resources to dominate over Japan. Once Germany was defeated, Japan was facing opponents with truly awesome capacity for destruction. I am amazed that they even considered starting a war with the US, let alone the Allies (US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the Soviet Union). I hope modern leaders learn just how easy it is to miscalculate when it comes to military action.

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