- Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945): Japan’s invasion of China was the primary cause of World War II in East Asia. As early as 1931, Japanese forces occupied Manchuria and set up a puppet state called Manchukuo. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937 resulted in open war between Japan and China. Japanese forces committed notorious atrocities during the invasion of China, including the 1937 massacres known as the Rape of Nanking. The Chinese war effort was hindered by internal conflict between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Kuomintang government and the communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong. Between 1942 and 1945 central China was largely cut off from the outside world due to Japanese conquest of coastal ports; Allied support was limited to air power deployed over the Himalayas from India, including the fighter pilots known as the “Flying Tigers.”
- Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941): Japanese plans for domination of the Pacific called for a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii; wrecking the American Pacific Fleet would allow the Japanese navy to invade southeast Asia with minimal opposition. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the Japanese strike, which sent carrier-based dive bombers and torpedo bombers to Oahu on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Four American battleships, including the USS Arizona, were sunk; the American aircraft carriers were at sea away from Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. The losses sustained at Pearl Harbor shocked the previously neutral United States into entering World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt’s address to Congress described December 7 as a “date which will live in infamy.”
- Battle of Bataan (January to May 1942): Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers struck the Philippine island Luzon, forcing the Americans to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula, where they held out for four months. General Douglas MacArthur vowed “I shall return” before evacuating to Australia and leaving command to Jonathan Wainwright, who retreated to the island of Corregidor and surrendered on May 6. The prisoners from Bataan were sent on a “death march” 80 miles to San Fernando with minimal food, water, and medical supplies; those that fell behind were beaten. Japanese General Masaharu Homma was executed in 1946 for his role in the war crime.
- Fall of Singapore (February 1942): Japan’s offensive in southeast Asia also struck at the British Empire. Japanese aircraft sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and drove obsolete British aircraft from the skies over the Malay Peninsula. Allied troops were driven back toward Singapore, Britain’s major base in the Far East. Reinforcements from Britain and Australia arrived too late to repair the situation, and British general Arthur Percival was forced to surrender in February 1942. The loss of Singapore stunned the British Empire. Many Indian prisoners captured at Singapore switched sides to fight for the Japanese; British and Australian POWs labored in terrible conditions on the Siam-Burma railway depicted in the novel The Bridge over the River Kwai.
- Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942): The Battle of the Coral Sea resulted from Japanese ambitions to invade Port Moresby, an Allied base in New Guinea. Frank Jack Fletcher’s American fleet damaged two Japanese aircraft carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku. The U.S. Navy’s major loss was the carrier Lexington. The battle, a tactical draw, prevented the Japanese from attacking Port Moresby. It is notable for being the first naval battle fought entirely by aircraft — neither fleet was ever in visual range of the other’s ships.
- Battle of Midway (June 1942): Midway is considered the turning point of World War II in the Pacific. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto launched attacks on both Midway Island — an atoll northwest of Hawaii — and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, but the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code and were forewarned. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s American fleet lost the aircraft carrier Yorktown, but American dive-bombers destroyed four Japanese carriers: Soryu, Akagi, Kaga, and Hiryu. The loss of four irreplaceable aircraft carriers and the death of the best-trained Japanese pilots crippled Japanese naval aviation for the duration of the war.
- Guadalcanal Campaign (August 1942 to February 1943): This first Allied counteroffensive in the Pacific targeted Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomons, to secure communications between the U.S. Pacific coast and Australia. “Operation Watchtower” was the codename for the initial U.S. Marine landings, which secured an airbase at Henderson Field and held off a Japanese counterattack on Edson’s Ridge. The naval battle of Savo Island took place between American ships and Japanese forces (the so-called “Tokyo Express”) trying to resupply troops on Guadalcanal. By early 1943, Allied dominance of the seas and skies around Guadalcanal forced Japan to withdraw its remaining troops.
- Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944): The American landings on the island of Leyte in the fall of 1944 fulfilled Douglas MacArthur’s promise to return to the Philippines. Most of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s remaining strength emerged to challenge the Allied landing, setting up one of the largest naval battles in world history. American admiral William “Bull” Halsey was criticized for the poorly-coordinated response to the Japanese attack. Nevertheless, American ships, aircraft, and submarines were able to destroy more than two dozen Japanese vessels, including the giant battleship Musashi. The Japanese position was by now so desperate that Japan began the practice of suicidal kamikaze attacks on Allied naval vessels.
- Battle of Iwo Jima (February to March 1945): Iwo Jima is an isolated volcanic island between the Marianas and Honshu; early in 1945 it was strategically important as a base for American air attacks on the Japanese home islands. The defenders were led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who attempted to prolong the battle indefinitely by digging an elaborate system of tunnels to protect his troops. The U.S Marines who stormed the island starting in February 1945 sustained thousands of casualties. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of Marines raising the flag on Iwo’s Mount Suribachi is one of the best known images of the Second World War.
- Battle of Okinawa (April to June 1945): Codenamed Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa was the last major ground battle in the Pacific theater of World War II. Kakazu Ridge and Shuri Castle were among the positions Japanese troops defended against U.S. Marine and Army units. Okinawa was the high point of Japanese kamikaze attacks; over 1,500 suicide missions were sent against the Allied invasion fleet. The heavy casualties sustained by both sides on Okinawa and the suicidal bravery of the Japanese military encouraged American planners to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of launching Operation Downfall, the projected late-1945 conventional invasion of the Japanese home islands.
You Gotta Know These World War II Campaigns in the Pacific Theater
- Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005)
- Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War 1931–1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1978)
- Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: The Free Press, 1985)
- H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1982)
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Bernard Xie.