Operation Starvation, Anti-Civilian Tactic of WWII

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A Brief History

On March 27, 1945, the United States Army Air Forces began Operation Starvation, an extensive program of using naval mines in all the waterways in and around Japan in an effort to greatly inhibit the transportation of food and essentials between Japanese islands.  Initiated at the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, the plan utilized the latest and most modern heavy bombers in the American arsenal, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress to drop the mines from the air.

Digging Deeper

Nimitz, born in Fredericksburg, Texas in 1885, a grandson of a former Texas Ranger and Confederate States of American Army officer, attended the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis) when no positions were available at his first choice, West Point.  Nimitz was a master of all things nautical, including navigation, submarines and surface warfare.  He also demonstrated a keen appreciation for the evolving role of naval aviation and the often overlooked but extremely important role of underway replenishment and supply.  His role during World War II led to an appointment as a 5-Star Fleet Admiral, later becoming the last surviving American to hold that rank.  General Curtiss LeMay would be in charge of the Army Air Forces conduct of the mining campaign.

The B-29 with its pressurized crew quarters was designed to drop up to 20,000 pounds of bombs from high altitude and high speed during daylight, capable of defending itself with 4 remotely controlled turrets of twin .50 caliber machine guns plus a tail gunner position to defend the back of the big bird.  Aiming computers were employed for the first time on the B-29.  Experience with bombing Japan changed the intended tactics of B-29 use to low level night attacks, usually using radar to guide the bombers.  The mining effort also used low level night flights using radar to deliver a variety of mines, including acoustic, pressure sensitive and magnetic types.  These mines were not the stereotypical large round balls of iron sporting contact spikes all over.

Easily guessed at by its name, the idea behind Operation Starvation was to strangle Japanese transport of necessities, including food.  The strategic bombing of Japanese cities, especially massive firebomb raids and the magnificent job done by American submarines had already greatly affected Japanese shipping and transportation, but more was needed.  The mining program eventually tallied 46 missions flown by 1529 sorties of B-29’s dropping a total of 12,135 mines in 26 designated areas.  The operation was over within a few weeks but had lasting consequences.

To illustrate exactly how incredibly effective this mining campaign was, consider that American losses amounted to 15 B-29 bombers.  Japanese losses from the mines deployed included sinking or seriously damaging 670 Japanese ships, totaling about 1,250,000 tons of shipping!  A crippling blow to Japanese transportation on an island nation that was heavily dependent on inter-island shipping.  Another illustration of the effectiveness of the mining is the drop in shipping from Kobe, a major Japanese port.  In March of 1945, Kobe saw about 320,000 tons of cargo shipped in and out of the port, while by July of 1945 the total had dropped to about 44,000 tons, mainly due to the mining, a truly remarkable 85% reduction in shipping at the most important industrial center of Japan.  How many Japanese actually starved because of the loss of food shipments is unknown.  Between the carpet bombing of German and Japanese cities, and the Atomic bombing of Japan, it would seem the United States had no qualms about conducting warfare that would impact and kill civilians.

Operation Starvation was the most effective American operation of World War II to inhibit Japanese transportation, more than the submarine war and more than the strategic bombing war, and Operation Starvation was accomplished at a tiny percentage of the cost in men and equipment than the other campaigns.  The officer in charge of Japanese minesweeping later opined that had the mining operation begun earlier, it alone could have forced the Japanese surrender.

Nimitz went down in history as one of the greatest American naval heroes and served as Chief of Naval Operations after the war.  Nimitz died in 1966, the victim of pneumonia and a stroke.  He is remembered in the names of numerous schools and places, highways, foundations and various other application, and named in his honor is a large US nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

Nimitz trivia: Chester Nimitz never held the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade, skipping from Ensign to Lieutenant.  Nor did he ever hold the rank of Vice (3 Star) Admiral, as he was promoted from Rear Admiral (2 Star) directly to Admiral (4 Star).

Question for students (and subscribers): Was the US justified in taking actions, such as bombing and mining, that could kill large numbers of civilians?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Harris, Brayton. Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Lardas, Mark. Japan 1944–45: LeMay’s B-29 strategic bombing campaign.  Osprey Publishing, 2019.

The featured image in this article, , is in the public domain in Japan, because its copyright has expired according to Article 23 of the 1899 Copyright Act of Japan (English translation) and Article 2 of Supplemental Provisions of Copyright Act of 1970. This is when the photograph meets one of the following conditions:

  1. It was published before January 1, 1957.
  2. It was photographed before January 1, 1947.

It is also in the public domain in the United States, because its copyright in Japan expired by 1970 and was not restored by the Uruguay Round Agreements Act.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.