One of my subscribers recently left a comment talking about Japanese snipers on Guam and other Pacific islands. And I’ve received multiple questions about the history of Japanese snipers and how they were utilised during the Second World War. And those are very fair questions because Japanese snipers have a very surprising history. Both their strategy and conduct during the war, but their origin story as well.
As for their origin story, the Japanese imperial army was perhaps one of the most recent armies to adopt snipers as a tactic. Even more recent than the Chinese. Well, especially more recent than the Chinese. During the Second Sino-Japanese war the Japanese faced German-trained Chinese Kuomintang troops. Military ties between China and Germany were strong before the Axis alliance uprooted it. For example, in 1933 Hans von Seeckt, former chief of the German Army Command, spent two years advising generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in military matters to combat the communists. In fact, Chaing Kai-shek’s son served in the German Wehrmacht and commanded a Panzer unit before the outbreak of the war. These close connections translated to, among many other things, a more intricate understanding of the profession of snipers. In turn, the Japanese troops faced relatively well-trained Chinese troops using modern military tactics. Already facing trouble early on, by the time the Japanese waged war against the Americans, they had adopted several best practices from their war against the Chinese. Although they added some curious own ingredients to the mix.
Most Japanese snipers were commissioned and non-commissioned officers. This became a widespread realisation due to it being easy to identify them by their rank insignia. As the war progressed, Japanese officers began concealing their insignia and on the frontlines, Japanese troops were instructed not to salute their officers. Reason for this was that it was easy for hostile snipers to identify and pick off Japanese officers. Often, snipers trained together with the infantry and every rifle platoon had at least one sniper on hand.
Yet there are some severe contradictory statements by military historians about the usefulness and effectiveness of Japanese snipers. For one, John N. Rentz mentions that he uses the term “sniper”, when referring to Japanese, simply as individual soldiers firing without a unit fire plan. So a sniper was not specifically trained as a sniper. And he could be located anywhere, from a tree to hole in the ground, bushes, or in buildings. As such, any man that fires at another combatant, be it a soldier or unit, immediately becomes a sniper.
That’s a very broad definition, but perhaps for a good reason. Because according to Rentz, many Japanese ‘snipers’ were actually outpost guards or members of small patrols. We’ll get to the tactics these snipers adopted in a minute. But first, the most distinctive and iconic equipment of snipers obviously is their rifle. There were multiple rifles the Japanese army, and in turn, its snipers used. Osprey’s Military Snipers Since 1914 says about this:
“The Japanese were equipped with a number of different types of rifles, the earliest, a 6.5mm Type 38 dating back to 1905. Under the guidance of Colonel Namio Tatsumi, later the 6.5mm Type 97 and 7.7mm Type 99 rifles were developed, being equipped with 2.5 or 4x power telescopic sights. One advantage of the smaller 6.5mm cartridge was that there was almost no smoke from the discharge, and the sound of the rifle – a distinctive high-pitched ‘crack’ – made it very difficult to locate.
Although the Japanese had adequate supplies of sniping rifles, much of their shooting was done at comparatively close range using a wide variety of weapons and open sights. Well equipped and suicidally determined, the Japanese frequently fought the Allies to a standstill, earning the grudging admiration of those who faced them.”
There were common tactics Japanese snipers used. They were outfitted with camouflage helmets adorned with palm fronds and foliage, nets and clothing and were expected to blend in with their surroundings. In addition, the ‘sniper kit’, so to say, consisted of binoculars, map cases and other distinctive equipment. For the most part, they utilised the same tactics as snipers of other armies during that same period, including targeting high-ranking enemy combatants and making sure to wreak havoc in their ranks.
As for real tactics, there was one notable difference. Due to its effectiveness, and the number of casualties it inflicted, it became notorious among the G.Is in Asia. The Japanese prolifically sat high in trees, waiting to take out their targets. This was such a widespread tactic that snipers sometimes even had a specifically fitted chair to make hiding among the branches and leaves more comfortable. Most marksmen were outfitted with primitive pole climbers in order to get into position more easily. An even more primitive method, described by author Adrian Gilbert in Sniper, says that snipers sometimes were tied into position. This was done to prevent the sniper from falling out if he was hit by enemy fire, leaving the counter-sniper guessing if he scored a hit.
There certainly were issues with hiding in tree-tops. For one, historian John Miller claims that “anyone who has ever climbed a tree in the jungle can testify to the difficulties a man with a rifle would encounter – lack of visibility, tree limbs in the way and the innumerable little red ants whose bite is like the prick of needles.” Still, there are plenty of sources that support the notion Japanese snipers actually prolifically used this tactic, which made sense since the conditions Japanese soldiers were exposed to by their commanders were notoriously awful. Climbing a tree would not make the list of worst things to happen there. Japanese soldiers were tenacious and dedicated, willing to take significant risks, and were often seasoned veterans of jungle warfare. Most of them considered giving their life for the emperor one of the noblest sacrifices.
As mentioned, thanks to their rifle and its lack of smoke, muzzle flash and hard to locate sound, Japanese snipers could pick off several targets and go undetected. But there’s a very obvious problem with hiding in trees as a sniper. And it’s exactly the reason why instructors of their Soviet, German, British and U.S. counterparts dissuaded them from utilising trees. In the unfortunate, but often inevitable event that you were detected… well, palm trees, or any trees for that matter, literally became a death trap. And that’s exactly what made the Japanese snipers so dangerous: it seemed they didn’t really care about the fact if they were discovered they would die. They simply wanted to take as many as possible enemy combatants with them .
Among the U.S. troops news rapidly spread Japanese hid in trees. In fact, it slowed down the Guadalcanal campaign because infantry soldiers were convinced snipers hid in near every palm tree and entire divisions were held back by one sniper taking them under fire. And the danger of looming snipers influenced most campaigns, from the coral atolls to New Guinea’s forests.
The divisional historian of the US 41st Infantry Division described how the division was plagued by snipers hiding in treetops around nearly their entire perimeter. The sniper’s range often was between 200 and 400 yards, so between around 180 and 365 metres. And of course, thanks to their relatively small powder charge, there was no telltale smoke revealing the sniper. Indiscriminate firing into treetops was the often-preferred method to try and make a breakthrough. But as the war progressed, more structured strategy was required.
The task to eliminate Japanese snipers was a difficult one, and the Americans developed a thorough strategy. Towards the end of the war it was truly taking a toll on the Japanese. The Allies found that teams using a sniper, light machine-gun and spotter did the trick. If an area was suspected of sniper activity, the machine gunner sprayed the tops of trees, which if it didn’t hit the sniper certainly would cause him to move. At the point of moving the Allied sniper most often would pick him off.
Other sources indicate the Allies also employed two-man counter-sniper teams manning forward defences, while another team climbed from tree to tree using climb poles. This way, they meticulously combed out areas with trees, picking off Japanese snipers one by one. If an area was suspected to have a considerable presence of snipers, 37mm anti-tank guns made sure to blast the entire area. The fact Japanese snipers were incredibly immobile in tree-tops led to their ranks rapidly thinning out as the war progressed.
In August 1942 the US’s first major ground offensive, the Guadalcanal Campaign, began. In the famous Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, he describes close calls with Japanese snipers:
“More Jap 6.5mm rifles opened up ahead; a storm of fire broke and filled the jungle. I dived for the nearest tree, which unfortunately stood somewhat alone and was not surrounded by deep foliage. While the firing continued and I could hear the occasional impact of a bullet hitting a nearby tree or snapping off a twig, I debated whether it would be wiser to stay in my exposed spot or to run for a better hole and risk being hit by a sniper en route.
The sniper who had fired at me was still on my track. He had evidently spotted my field-glasses and taken me for a regular officer. I searched the nearby trees, but could see nothing moving, no smoke, no signs of any sniper. Then another 6.5mm cracked again and I heard the bullet pass. I jumped for better cover, behind two trees. Here I began to wish I had a rifle. I had made an ignominious retreat. My dignity had been offended.”
The Japanese army mainly used their snipers to control enemy movement and pick them off at unexpected times. Thomas E. Price, in his Brief History of the 6th Infantry Division, recounts the landings at Milne Bay, New Guinea, that proves just this.
“The division set up camp near the Australian forces in a place that was a palm tree plantation owned by the Palmolive Palm Oil Company. The men were told they would be fined if they cut down the trees. The first Japanese shot was wearing an American uniform. He was assumed to have been a scout or spy. A 6th Division Medic shot him. There were problems with Japanese snipers in the trees. As the trees’ tops and crowns were cropped and pruned with machine guns, there was no more talk of fines for trees.”
When in September 1944 the Battle of Peleliu commenced, a small island in the Pacific, the American commanders expected a quick and easy victory. In reality, over 10.000 Japanese soldiers resigned to their fate, defending the island until their deaths. The battle lasted into November. With its many caves, hills, and scarred ridges and ravines, the island was an ideal setup for a Japanese sniper. I’ve written an entire article about that and created a video of the battle if you’re interested in that.