Tokyo Express

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Tokyo Express
Japanese troops load onto a warship in preparation for a "Tokyo Express" run sometime in 1942.
ActiveAugust 1942 – November 1943
Country Empire of Japan
AllegianceImperial Japanese Armed Forces
Branch Imperial Japanese Navy
TypeAd hoc military logistics organization
RoleSupply and reinforcement to Japanese Army and Navy units located in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea
Garrison/HQRabaul, New Britain
Shortland Islands and Buin, Solomon Islands
Nickname(s)Cactus Express
"Rat" or "Ant" transportation (Japanese names)
EngagementsBattle of Cape Esperance
Battle of Tassafaronga
Operation Ke
Battle of Blackett Strait
Battle of Kula Gulf
Battle of Kolombangara
Battle of Vella Gulf
Battle off Horaniu
Naval Battle of Vella Lavella
Battle of Cape St. George
Gunichi Mikawa
Raizo Tanaka
Shintarō Hashimoto[1]
Matsuji Ijuin

Coordinates: 9°00′S 159°45′E / 9.000°S 159.750°E / -9.000; 159.750

The Tokyo Express was the name given by Allied forces to the use of Imperial Japanese Navy ships at night to deliver personnel, supplies, and equipment to Japanese forces operating in and around New Guinea and the Solomon Islands during the Pacific campaign of World War II. The operation involved loading personnel or supplies aboard fast warships (mainly destroyers), later submarines, and using the warships' speed to deliver the personnel or supplies to the desired location and return to the originating base all within one night so Allied aircraft could not intercept them by day.


The original name of the resupply missions was "The Cactus Express", coined by Allied forces on Guadalcanal, who used the code name "Cactus" for the island. After the U.S. press began referring to it as the "Tokyo Express," apparently in order to preserve operational security for the code word, Allied forces also began to use the phrase. The Japanese themselves called the night resupply missions "Rat Transportation" (鼠輸送, nezumi yusō), because they took place at night.

Organization and history[edit]

Night transportation was necessary for Japanese forces due to Allied air superiority in the South Pacific, established soon after the Allied landings on Guadalcanal and the subsequent establishment of Henderson Field as a base for the "Cactus Air Force" in August 1942. Delivery of troops and material by slow transport ships to Japanese forces on Guadalcanal and New Guinea soon proved too vulnerable to daytime air attack. The Japanese Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto therefore authorized the use of faster warships to make the deliveries at night when the threat of detection was much less and aerial attack minimal.[2]

The Tokyo Express began soon after the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942 and continued until late in the Solomon Islands campaign when one of the last large Express runs was intercepted and almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Cape St. George on November 26, 1943. Because the destroyers typically used were not configured for cargo handling, many supplies were sealed inside steel drums lashed together and simply pushed into the water without the ships stopping; ideally, the drums would float ashore or were picked up by barge. However, many drums were lost or damaged; a typical night in December 1942 resulted in 1500 drums being rolled into the sea, with only 300 recovered.[3]

Most of the warships used for Tokyo Express missions came from the Eighth Fleet, based at Rabaul and Bougainville, although ships from Combined Fleet units based at Truk were often temporarily attached for use in Express missions. The warship formations assigned to Express missions were often formally designated as the "Reinforcement Unit", but the size and composition of this unit varied from mission to mission.[4]

Strategic Implications[edit]

The Tokyo Express ended up being a costly strategic error by Admiral Yamamoto, because many destroyers were lost during the fifteen months of the Tokyo Express, for no gain. These ships could not be replaced by the stressed Japanese shipyards, and were already in short supply. In addition, they were desperately needed for convoy duty to protect Japanese shipping supplying the Home Islands from the depredations of American submarines.[5]

The Imperial Japanese Navy was caught in a Catch-22 situation, since American airpower from Henderson Field denied the Japanese the use of slow cargo ships (merchantmen). Compared to destroyers, cargo ships were much more economical in fuel usage while having the capacity to carry full loads of troops plus sufficient equipment and supplies, and having efficient cargo loading & unloading equipment. The Navy was in essence forced to "fight as uneconomical a campaign as could possibly be imagined", since in using destroyers they had to "expend much larger quantities of fuel than they wanted" considering Imperial Japan's disadvantage in oil supply, and this "fuel was used to place very valuable (and vulnerable) fleet destroyers in an exposed forward position while delivering an insufficient quantity of men and supplies to the American meatgrinder on the island".[6]

John F. Kennedy and PT-109[edit]

John F. Kennedy's PT-109 was lost on a "poorly planned and uncoordinated" attack on a Tokyo Express run on the night of 1-2 August 1943.[7] Fifteen PT boats with sixty torpedoes did not register a single hit, while PT-109 was rammed and sunk by the destroyer Amagiri, which was returning from her supply run, estimated to be traveling in excess of 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph) with no running lights.

The end of the Tokyo Express on Guadalcanal[edit]

To signify final victory over the Japanese on Guadalcanal, General Alexander Patch, commander of the Allied land forces on the island, messaged his superior, Admiral William F. Halsey on February 9, 1943, "Tokyo Express no longer has terminus on Guadalcanal."[8]



  1. ^ Evans 176
  2. ^ Coombe, Derailing the Tokyo Express, p. 33.
  3. ^ "HyperWar: History of USMC Operations in WWII, Vol. I: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, Part VI [Chapter 9]".
  4. ^ Frank, p. 559.
  5. ^ Parillo
  6. ^ "Oil and Japanese Strategy in the Solomons: A Postulate".
  7. ^ National Geographic Search for the PT-109 DVD
  8. ^ "The Guadalcanal Campaign (David Llewellyn James)".