The Axis powers in World War II never had plans to invade the continental United States. The Nazis hoped to keep the Americans out of the war altogether. As late as the spring of 1941, Adolf Hitler said a German invasion of the Western Hemisphere would be as fantastic as an invasion of the Moon.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year did prompt the Germans to develop long-range bombers that could reach the East Coast. But although Hitler started speaking grandly of a future contest between America and Germany, no preparations for it were made.
Nor did the Japanese think seriously about conquering the United States. Some advocated seizing Hawaii, and Japan briefly occupied the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, but that was it.
Of course, that’s what we know now. Things looked very different in the winter of 1941, when America unexpectedly found itself at war with both the Empire of Japan and a Nazi Germany that controlled most of Europe.
Shortly after Hitler declared war on the United States, Life magazine, in March 1942, considered several ways in which his armies and Japan’s might attempt an invasion.
One involved a Japanese hop-skip-and-jump across the North Pacific. The invasion would start with a naval attack on Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Then land-based planes would help the carrier planes protect the next sea advance down the West Coast. A fifth column of Axis sympathizers would wreck havoc at home. “The Japs take the West Coast aviation industry, shipyards and oil wells. Then Germans stab at [the] East Coast.”
Other versions of a Japanese-led attack suggested going via Pearl Harbor to San Francisco or across the South Pacific and through Central America.
German-led plans assumed the Nazis would capture the remnants of the French fleet (most capital ships had been sunk by the British at Mers El Kébir in 1940), combine it with the Italian and receive support from the Japanese via the Indian Ocean.
First, they would take Gibraltar, the British mountain fortress that guards the entry to the Mediterranean. From there, the plans diverged.
One suggested going by Dakar, in French West Africa, and crossing the Atlantic to Brazil; take Trinidad, a British colony, and then invade North America up the Mississippi River.
Another option was going by Iceland and Greenland and invading down the Saint Lawrence River and Hudson Bay valleys. “Germans could readily bomb Chicago, Detroit, Akron and rampage through [the] Midwest,” Life wrote.
The catch would be getting past the British fleet. Life suggested German submarines and warplanes could keep the Royal Navy busy around the British Isles, allowing the invading force to sneak by.
All of this, of course, assumed the Germans would get around to building a fleet large enough to mount an invasion to begin with. In the real world, they couldn’t even make it across the Channel to invade England.