UNIT 1: The War In the Pacific (Final Draft Only)


Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 began what would evolve into a campaign to take control over East Asia and the Western Pacific, creating a new empire that would later be called the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Japanese expansionism was marked by naked aggression and extreme brutality. The slaughter of 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese in Nanking in December 1937 shocked the world. Civilians, forced laborers, and prisoners of war were subject to brutal mistreatment, biological experiments, and execution.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an attempt to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet and open the road to further conquests. By the spring of 1943, the Japanese empire encompassed the Gilbert Islands to the east, most of New Guinea to the southeast, the Netherlands East Indies, Indochina, Thailand, and parts of Burma.

Following hard-fought battles in 1942 between Allied and Japanese naval forces, the Allies took the initiative. It began a dual advance through the central and southwest Pacific, converging on the Philippines. With the opening of the Philippine campaign in October 1944, the stage was set for two of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific war: the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.

A New Order in Asia

Already in control of Manchuria, Japan mid-1937 escalated a minor incident into a major war, launching a full-scale attack on China. Japanese troops captured the capital of Nanking in December 1937, and by March 1940, they controlled most major Chinese cities.

By July 1941, the Japanese had occupied Indochina. At that time, President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States and placed an embargo on the shipment of steel and oil to Japan, effectively creating an economic blockade. Soon the Japanese military began to feel the embargo’s effect and realized that to keep expanding, they had to capture the oil fields of the East Indies. The stage was set for the start of the Pacific War.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught U.S. forces there and elsewhere in the Pacific unprepared. The Japanese army and navy swept through the Philippines, South Asia, and the Pacific, and it appeared that the Japanese empire might soon extend to Australia.

The Rape of Nanking

The Chines capital of Nanking fell on December 13, 1937. Surprised and irritated by the strong resistance of the Chinese, Japanese soldiers went on an unprecedented rampage. 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered (more than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined), and 20,000 women of all ages were raped. The staff of the German Embassy in Nanking reported on the atrocities and described the Japanese army as “bestial machinery.”

Pearl Harbor

“A date which Will live in infamy”
–President Franklin D. Roosevelt

At 7:55 a.m. in Hawaii, Sunday, December 7, 1941, while Japanese diplomats in Washington were negotiating with the State Department, the first planes from a Japanese carrier task force attacked the U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor and other points on the island of Oahu.

The 363 planes, flying in two waves, caught the Americans by surprise and inflicted severe damage. The Japanese sank five of eight battleships and severely damaged the others. Eleven other ships were also destroyed or damaged. The U.S. suffered casualties–2,330 killed and 1,347 wounded–while the Japanese lost only 29 planes and about 100 men. The Pearl Harbor attack plunged the United States into a just war against Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

The World at War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a conflict that was to include nearly half the world’s population. England joined the United States in declaring war on Japan, and on December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

The U.S. leadership had earlier decided to prioritize the war in Europe. In the Pacific, the Allies fought a delaying action until enough men and equipment became available for a limited offensive in the fall of 1942.

War Spreads Throughout Asia

As Japan’s navy attacked Pearl Harbor, its forces also began to overrun most of Southeast Asia. Thailand, Burma, and Malaya quickly fell. By January 2, 1942, Manila, the Philippines’ capital, had been occupied. On February 15, the British surrendered Singapore in Malaya, the worst military disaster a European nation in the Far East had ever suffered. The Japanese continued moving through the Dutch East Indies toward Australia. The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales crews transfer from their sinking ship to a destroyer. Japanese bombers sank the Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse in the Gulf of Siam on December 10, 1941, causing a loss of 840 officers and men.

The Fall of the Philippines

The Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands almost simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The American garrison and the Philippine army were woefully unprepared to defend against the Japanese onslaught. Manila had fallen by January 2, 1942, and the American and Philippine defenders were retreating to the Bataan Peninsula. By April 8, most of the Bataan defenders had surrendered, while some had fled to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. On May 6, Corregidor also surrendered.

The Japanese were brutal toward the American and Filipino soldiers captured at Bataan. Already short of rations and given little or no food and water, the prisoners were forced to march 104 kilometers (65 miles) to an internment camp, which took up to two weeks. More than 600 Americans and 5,000 to 10,000 Filipinos perished during what became known as the March of Death. Of almost 20,000 Americans captured during the fall of the Philippines, over 40 percent would never return.

The Allies Strike Back

Even in the desperate early days of the Pacific War, they offered reasons for hope. A small group of American volunteer airmen under Col. Claire Chennault provided support for the Chinese. Another group of Army Air Forces airmen, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, conducted a B-25 raid from the carrier Hornet and bombed four Japanese cities, including Tokyo, demonstrating that Japanese cities were not immune to attack.

While the Philippines and Burma were falling, a new era in naval warfare began in the Coral Sea, where a sea battle was fought solely by aircraft for the first time. In June 1942, near Midway Island, Japanese naval forces, attempting to eradicate the U.S. Navy, suffered a significant defeat, losing four aircraft carriers in an action that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.

The Approaches to Rabaul

The U.S. victory at Midway in June 1942 allowed the Allies to launch a limited offensive to block the Japanese advance in the south and southwest Pacific. The growing Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain, a likely starting point for future enemy offensives, became the objective.

The Allies advanced against Japanese positions along two lines converging at Rabaul. One offensive began at Guadalcanal and moved up the Solomon chain toward the Bismarck Archipelago. The other moved along the north coasts of Papua and New Guinea, isolating Rabaul.

The Dual Advance Toward the Philippines

The Allied plan for defeating Japan developed in May 1943 called for ejecting Japanese forces from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska (occupied during the Midway campaign) and executing a two-pronged campaign through the Pacific.

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz commanded one force to advance westward from Pearl Harbor through the Central Pacific. Another, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, would continue its offensive through the south and southwest Pacific and drive westward along the coast of New Guinea. The two forces would join in the western Pacific in 1944 to invade the Philippines.

The drive through the hundreds of small islands and atolls of the Central Pacific was considered vital to the plan for defeating Japan. The main combat arm of the Central Pacific drive was the U.S. Fifth Fleet, spearheaded by the Fast Carrier Task Force, whose mission was to support amphibious operations with long-range strikes by carrier-based aircraft.

The Gilberts and the Marshalls–the Opening Moves

The invasion of the Gilbert Islands, the first objective of the central Pacific drive, began in November 1943 with an assault by Marines and Army troops on Makin Atoll and heavily fortified Tarawa Atoll. The bloody attack on Tarawa revealed severe flaws in U.S. amphibious warfare planning. After that, prolonged aerial bombing and bombardment with armor-piercing shells would be used to knock out enemy positions before launching an amphibious assault.

After the Gilberts fell, U.S. forces focused on the Marshall Islands. Army and Marine troops invaded and secured Kwajalein and Eniwetok atolls in February 1944. After the shock of Tarawa, the nearly perfect assault on Kwajalein set the pattern for the rest of the central Pacific invasions.

The Japanese withdrew to the Marianas, leaving the island of Truk as an outpost in the Carolines. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was supposedly impregnable to attack but was revealed to be a hollow fortress. During two days in February 1944, carrier-based planes hit Truk repeatedly, destroying about 200 aircraft and sinking or damaging many ships.

The Thousand-Mile Leap

With the Gilberts and Marshalls secure, the Allies bypassed Truk and the Carolines and converged on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas. Some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the nearest U.S. anchorage, Allied forces stormed ashore on Saipan on June 15, 1944.

By mid-July, organized resistance on Saipan had ended; Tinian and Guam soon fell. At the cost of more than 5,000 lives, the U.S. gained bases allowing increased submarine operations against Japanese commerce and the launching of B-29 raids against Japan.

As a prelude to the invasion of the Philippines, Adm. William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet assaulted the islands of Angour and Peleliu in the Palaus. The assault on the 6.5-kilometer (4-mile) long Peleliu, heavily fortified and honeycombed with hundreds of caves, cost the U.S. the highest combat casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American history.

The Japanese Attitude Toward Surrender

The battle for Saipan marked the first time Americans invaded an island inhabited by Japanese civilians. During the bitter fighting, the refusal of enemy troops to surrender resulted in the loss of almost 30,000 Japanese.

The reasons for such behavior could be traced to the Japanese belief in the ideals of Bushido, an ancient code of conduct that Prime Minister Hideki Tojo had incorporated into the Japanese military code in 1941. The new code stated that the Japanese should resist being taken prisoner and kill themselves if captured. As the tide of the war turned against Japan, Tojo commanded Japanese troops to “die but never surrender” and to accept “death before dishonor.” Wounded Japanese soldiers often killed themselves and the Allies who tried to help them.

This code of conduct made it difficult for the Japanese to understand the more lenient American attitude toward surrender and affected how they treated prisoners of war. It also explains why so few Japanese were captured during the war.

The Philippines

“Our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”
General Douglas MacArthur

By the end of summer 1944, with General MacArthur’s conquest of New Guinea and Admiral Nimitz’s central Pacific drive essentially complete, the two forces prepared for the invasion of the Philippines. From air bases in the south and central Pacific, western China, and New Guinea, and from the Third Fleet at sea, Allied air and sea power pounded Japanese installations and shipping to isolate the island of Leyte in the central Philippines. On October 20, 1944, 60,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Leyte.

Meanwhile, at sea, three separate Japanese naval forces converged on the area, and in October 1944, the largest sea battle of all time ensued –the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese suffered a crushing defeat.

The Liberation of the Philippines

The defeat of the Japanese navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf did not alter the basic Japanese plan to fight to the finish in the Philippines. But despite fierce resistance on land and the onslaught of kamikazes against U.S. warships at sea, General MacArthur declared on Christmas day 1944 that all organized resistance on Leyte had ended.

The Hellcat in Combat

Although shooting down enemy airplanes was the Hellcat’s principal mission, other duties evolved as its capabilities were tested in battle and Japanese aerial warfare tactics changed. Hellcat pilots escorted mass formations of carrier bombers in attacks against targets heavily defended by enemy fighters, often without losing a single bomber.

Other missions included fighter sweeps to catch enemy aircraft on the ground, patrols to spot approaching enemy aircraft, long-range searches for Japanese ships, ground-support operations against invasion beaches, and night fighting and photo reconnaissance.

“Today Is V-E Day”

May 8, 1945, was “Victory in Europe Day.” Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen had brought the European war to a close by forcing complete and unconditional surrender on the Nazi Reich. They had won total victory in a just cause.

For one moment, the Allies could celebrate–the war was not over. In the Pacific, the battle with Japan was becoming increasingly bitter. Allied losses continued to mount. It seemed entirely possible that the fighting could go on into 1946. Unbeknownst to all but a small number of decision-makers and scientists. However, the Western Allies were preparing a revolutionary new weapon: the atomic bomb. To this day, controversy has raged about whether dropping this weapon on Japan was necessary to end the war quickly. But one thing is clear. The Pacific War would end in a way that few could anticipate on V-E Day.

Source: The entire first draft of the script can be found in Judgement at the Smithsonian (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1995)