Rising Sun 1940:
The Story

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2021

In the summer of 1940, the United States Battle Fleet and its Scouting Force (at this point, the Navy had not split its forces into Atlantic and Pacific Fleets) steamed from San Diego to Hawaii, to take part in their annual exercises, labelled Fleet Problem XXI. Afterwards, the fleet command expected to return to California, but instead received orders – from the commander-in-chief himself – to remain at Pearl Harbor to send a message to the Japanese.

That’s the underlying action for our Midway: Rising Sun 1940, a Campaign Study (that is, a scenario booklet) for Midway: Deluxe Edition and Bismarck. It comes with ten new scenarios, all set in the summer of 1940 as the Japanese respond to the American provocation by attacking the U.S. fleet and invading Hawaii.

Fleet commander James O. Richardson argued that his command had moved to Hawaii for training, not as a wartime deployment, and so it lacked everything necessary to carry out the President’s orders. Targets and tugs for gunnery exercises, ammunition stockpiles, spare parts, even the fleet’s shore-bound office personnel and officers’ wives – all of these were still in California. Richardson urged his old friend Harold R. “Betty” Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, to allow the fleet to return to California, outfit itself for war, and then deploy to Pearl Harbor as a battle-ready force. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to allow the move, not wishing to show perceived weakness in the face of Japanese aggression in Asia.

The fleet was not ready for war, yet it had been dangled in the mid-Pacific as an invitation for Japan to strike first. Many personnel would have to be released as their enlistments expired, and rather than take on new crew at their home station, the ships would have to wait in Hawaii as men were shuttled back and forth between Pearl Harbor and San Diego. Richardson eventually sought and gained permission to quietly rotate his battleships to West Coast shipyards for their desperately-needed overhauls, but continued to insist that his fleet was not ready for war. To overcome the material deficiencies, he insisted on a rigorous training schedule, with part of the fleet always at sea, even on Sunday mornings.

While the Japanese definitely read the deployment as intended a threat of war in case of further aggressive steps in Asia, they did not move to attack immediately. Instead, they began long-term preparations for what became the Pearl Harbor operation. In the summer of 1940, the Imperial Navy had not yet developed torpedoes that could strike targets in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, and had not grouped its heavy carriers into the First Air Fleet nor developed doctrines for the use of multiple carrier air groups in a single air strike.

Rising Sun 1940 studies the possibilities of a Japanese strike launched immediately, with the forces, organization and doctrine than available to each side. The Japanese have four heavy carriers available, rather than the six with which they actually attacked Pearl Harbor (Zuikaku and Shokaku had not yet commissioned), but their air groups are the same as a year and a half later – the A6M2 fighter, B5N2 torpedo plane and D3A dive bomber were all in service at the time. Some of their heavy cruisers were still undergoing major overhauls, so the screening forces are also somewhat reduced than in 1941. And the super-battleship Yamato, flagship for the Midway operation, was still under construction. Only one light carrier, the ancient Hosho, was in use at the time.

The Americans have a stronger battle fleet in the summer of 1940 than was present in December 1941; in the interim, a division of three battleships would be detached to join the newly-established Atlantic Fleet along with one aircraft carrier (Yorktown). While they have more carriers in the Pacific (four of them, just like the Japanese), and their flattops operate more planes than those of their enemies, the air groups are decidedly outclassed. Two of the carriers operate the Grumman F3F biplane fighter, one a mix of F3F’s and the only slightly less crapulent Brewster F2A Buffalo, and the fourth has just the F2A Buffalo. The far more capable F4F Wildcat, still not a true match for the A6M2, would not enter service until December 1940 and even a year later the carrier Lexington still had her Buffaloes aboard.

The standard torpedo bomber is the Douglas TBD Devastator, which still equipped American carriers at Midway two years later where its crews were slaughtered in their badly-outclassed planes. The carriers have a mix of dive bombers, as this type is in transition. Two carriers have the SB2U Vindicator, one has the crapulent Northrup BT-1, and the fourth flattop (Enterprise) operates the SBD Dauntless that would destroy the First Air Fleet at Midway.

Our story opens with a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, because we have that wonderful Pearl Harbor display and not a whole lot of opportunities to use it. With Richardson in command instead of Kimmel (Richardson’s cruiser commander at this time), the crews are not sleeping in and the planes are not lined up in pretty rows. There’s much less anti-aircraft protection as the shore-based guns have only started to arrive, and those on the ships have next to no 5-inch ammunition on hand (they shot it all off during Fleet Problem XXI).

But the Japanese don’t have their shallow-water torpedoes, so they can only drop bombs on the battleships. It’s really hard to sink a battleship, even an old one, without torpedoes. And there aren’t nearly as many planes without the two biggest Japanese carrier air groups, and no ability to coordinate massive strikes.

Pearl Harbor won’t be full – Richardson preached the gospel of constant training, which means that at least one division of battleships and one of carriers will be out there in the broad blue somewhere, along with their cruisers and destroyers. How many? The Japanese player won’t know until the attack commences. Pearl might be nearly empty.

That’s not necessarily a good thing. The Japanese can’t use their aerial torpedoes inside Pearl Harbor, but they can use them out in open water, where the battleships have the same lack of anti-aircraft ammunition making them even weaker against air attack than their printed factors show.

If the American player can force a surface battle – and since the Japanese have to come to their objectives, that’s possible despite the low speed of the American battle line – the U.S. Battle Force is a powerful hammer, with twice as many battleships as the Japanese. It’s not going to be easy. At least the Japanese can’t summon up those massive air strikes they can wield in Midway, but even smaller ones can be devastating given their much better airplanes.

Admiral Richardson seems to have been a rather unpleasant individual, and his rough edges assured that his point of view would not be heard. But it looks like he was right – the Battle Fleet and its supports were not in a position to take on the Japanese in the summer of 1940. You can try out that proposition for yourself.

You can order Midway: Rising Sun 1940 right here.

You can order the Rising Sun Package (Midway Deluxe, Bismarck, Rising Sun 1940) here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

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