A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2011 Mar 15, 02:53 -0700
Regarding the Japanese Mandated Islands in the 1930s, you wrote:
"Many people appear to believe that there was a wall around the Japanese Mandated Islands, and large areas of the surrounding seas, through which no ship or plane could travel without being attacked or imprisoned by the Japanese. I think that they get this idea from seeing straight lines drawn on charts, for the convenience of the map maker, to delineate the locations of the Mandated Islands."
Yes, definitely. I agree with you. This is somewhat different from the case of the arbitrary International Date Line since it all comes down to power on the ground, or in this case, on the waves. The Japanese did not patrol every square mile of the seas around the mandated islands, but the risk would be that the Imperial Navy might choose their own interpretation of those lines. Also, unlike the Date Line, I believe that the border around the mandated islands was published by higher authorities than, e.g. Rand McNally. It was a League of Nations mandate, and there may well have been an official chart with lines approximating the ones that were drawn on globes in the 1930s. Naturally, this was not a barrier. There weren't any alarm buoys, but the actual limits of power were indeterminate.
"The territorial seas extended out only three nautical miles from each individual island (or group of closely spaced islands) and outside of that limit was the high sea on which the U.S. Navy could operate anytime it wanted, including conducting air operation."
In theory, yes, but did they? I am not aware of any sorties by the USN testing this theory in the mandated islands back then although, of course, there was naval traffic between the Philippines and Hawaii. And it would have been a big risk testing the limits. Imagine sailing a fleet into the mandated islands to challenge freedom of the seas in 1937. The US Navy feared the Japanese Navy and with good reason. Imperial Japan viewed the US military with contempt at that time. It was less than a century since the US Navy had "opened" Japan with a naval bombardment. It was only eighty years since Nakahama Manjiro had translated Bowditch's "New American Practical Navigator" to begin the long process of beating us at our own game.
On top of the military issues, there were the diplomatic considerations. The US was trying to play along with the League of Nations principles of arms reduction. The US was also trying to work in concert with the UK. And at that time, it was by no means clear that they would support American efforts in the Pacific. The US was openly anti-imperial and anti-colonial --not really the sort of attitude that made friends in London in 1937.
"Japanese installations could have been photographed quite well from aircraft at altitude only three nautical miles offshore."
Yeah, but first of all, that would have been provocative. And if the Japanese had shot down a single aircraft, what next, all out war? From a more practical perspective, how many aircraft could the US Navy and/or Army fly anywhere near any of the mandated islands in that period? The US had, what, three aircraft carriers in 1937 (I count Lexington, Saratoga, and Ranger --Langley was already converted) to cover military contingencies across the entire globe. The navy had a fair number of seaplanes, but they couldn't stray very far. And it's an incredibly long way to go from anywhere. That, in fact, is probably the biggest problem with the fanciful theory that Earhart was supposed to spy on the islands. The distances are enormous, and there are hundreds of islands. The powers that were in Washington (and in other capitals) had little doubt that the Japanese were building naval ports and fortifications in the Mandated Islands, even though the Japanese thoroughly denied it and said their projects were all commercial, civilian development for the betterment of all Pacific peoples. It wasn't as if peeking at one island would provide any genuinely valuable military intelligence. On the other hand, it might have been a great public relations trick. Imagine popular Amelia Earhart standing before the news reel cameras after returning home in triumph describing idyllic Pacific atolls turned into Japanese fortresses. I think fundamentally the whole thing is ludicrous for the simple reason that the flight was damn near impossible in the first place. They had not a drop of fuel to spare for spying adventures.
When I was a kid, the first Latin words I ever learned were "Mare Liberum" or "Free Seas" roughly. Those words flew on a banner above a square-rigged sailing ship as part of the logo on the front page of the local newspaper. For those of you not from the USA, that's how firmly ingrained the idea of freedom of the seas is in American foreign policy. And freedom of the seas really meant "anything beyond three miles from your coast is open to everyone, including us". With changing times, the local newspaper dropped the Latin but kept the pretty sailing ship.
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