How a lack of oil lost Japan the war

The history of war shows that fuel supplies are key to victory, says Byron W. King, as Japan's 1945 defeat demonstrates.

He was a frail old fellow, dressed in loose-fitting clothes, working in his garden. Less than a year before, in 1945, he had been in command of one of the largest fleets in the world. His name was Takeo Kurita vice-admiral of the former Imperial Japanese Navy.

A young US naval officer named Thomas Moorer approached Kurita. He explained to the admiral that they were working for a historical study group, gathering information about the war that had recently ended for Japan on such unfavorable terms. He asked Kurita if he would agree to discuss his experiences. Kurita held nothing back. "What happened?" asked the American officer. "We ran out of oil," replied the old admiral.

Again and again during his interviews with Moorer and others, Kurita referred to a lack of fuel as the key reason why the Japanese forces were defeated. He reflected on why his fleet was all but annihilated at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Kurita explained that he brought his ships into that action without knowing whether there was sufficient fuel to bring them out of the zone of combat. Thus the fleet sailed slowly to their doom: because the Japanese commanders were attempting to conserve enough fuel to return home, they conceded the vital element of surprise to the Americans.

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Kurita explained that during the Leyte Gulf battle, he deployed his ships on a dangerous night passage through the San Bernardino Straits. "I was low on fuel," he said. Kurita's fleet tankers had been sunk or dispersed. The only fuel available to the Japanese ships was whatever was in their own tanks. "Fuel was an important consideration, the basic one," said

Kurita. There was not enough fuel for his ships to sail around the adjacent land masses, so they were forced by necessity to transit the relatively narrow straits.

Several months after the Japanese disaster at Leyte Gulf, in February 1945, the US Navy and Marine Corps met with no naval resistance during the invasion of Iwo Jima. The Japanese had conceded the sea and airspace around the island to the US attackers. The reason was that the Imperial Navy had elected to conserve fuel for the final defence of Japan.

By early 1945, almost all ships of the Japanese fleet had been deactivated for lack of fuel. Japan's basic military decision-making process was not how to defend against American attacks on many fronts its main effort was simply to struggle to preserve its dwindling levels of oil reserves.

By mid-1944, Japan's economy and its military was being starved of energy supplies, the result of an ever-tightening noose applied by US and allied air and naval forces. US submarines sank hundreds of tankers full of oil. The American submarine campaign against Japanese sea power all but cut off the sea lines of communication between Japan and its so-called "Southern Resource Area".

In desperation, Japanese war planners tried every possible means to convert available resources into fuel substitutes. They manufactured alcohol from confiscated food supplies, such as potatoes, sugar and rice, forcing direct competition between human stomachs and mechanical gas tanks. But alcohol has an energy content of about 65,000 British thermal units (BTUs) per gallon, whereas aviation gasoline delivers about 130,000 BTUs per gallon. So on the best of days, Japanese aircraft took off with half the energy-equivalent of their American counterparts in their fuel tanks. And aerial combat proved the disparity, with American aircraft utterly dominating the skies. Other projects, such as distilling pine roots, were even less successful the liquid simply gummed up aero engines. There was no effective substitute for conventional oil.

Many years later, a retired Thomas Moorer gave a interview reflecting on his conversations with Kurita. What was the main lesson he learned? "The way to lose a war is to run out of oil."

Attorney, geologist, historian and energy writer Byron W. King is contributing editor to financial newsletter Whiskey & Gunpowder; see