War in the Pacific
Military Campaigns in the Pacific, 1942–1943
Japan followed the attack on Pearl Harbor with similar attacks on U.S. naval bases in the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, and other places. After the onslaught on the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur led a U.S. retreat to Australia. The Japanese took thousands of American and Filipino prisoners at Bataan and forced them on a death march through the jungle on the way to the prison camps. Close to 10,000 of the prisoners died.
By 1942, Japan was planning to invade the Pacific Coast of the United States. In the Battle of the Coral Sea, British and American forces fought back the Japanese advance. In the Battle of Midway, the United States again defeated the Japanese air force and navy. In the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the U.S. fleet once again battled the Japanese fleet and won a major victory.
The United States had one major advantage over the Japanese. While U.S. interceptors were able to decode Japanese radio messages, the Japanese had no similar luck with the U.S. codes. The United States had established a special signal corps of Navajo Indians, who broadcast coded messages in their own language. Since the Japanese had no knowledge of Navajo, they were never able to decipher these messages, which would have given them advance warning of American troop movements and other plans.
The U.S. Marines in the Pacific Islands
A long string of islands lay like the beads on a necklace along the Pacific Ocean between Japan and Australia. (See the map on the following page.) The Allied plan was to use the U.S. Marines, who had the reputation of being the toughest branch of the armed forces, to take over certain key islands and use them as power bases as they made their way north toward Japan. This strategy was put into place in November 1943 in the Gilbert Islands. American troops quickly took over Makin Island, but Tarawa was heavily fortified and also protected by a surrounding coral reef. Nearly 3,000 Marines were killed or wounded in the assault on Tarawa, but in the end the United States won the battle.
The Marines moved on to secure the Marshall Islands, then moved north toward the Marianas. Thousands on both sides died in the battles for Saipan and Guam. The Japanese were trained to give no quarter; their commanders had decreed that capture or surrender was the ultimate dishonor, and that it would be better to commit suicide than to allow oneself to be captured. Therefore, the Japanese felt they had nothing to lose by continuing to fight, everything to lose by giving in. American Marines had not been prepared for this attitude or for the brutality it entailed. They soon became equally brutal in response.
By August 1944, the United States had taken control of the Marianas and their valuable airstrips. In October, the troops were ready to take back the Philippine Islands. The Battle of Leyte Gulf became the decisive battle in the war between Japan and the United States. In February 1945, U.S. troops finally invaded the capital city of Manila, and the battle was over.
The United States used the Pacific islands as air bases from which to send out bombing raids on Japan. The planes bombed most of Japan’s major cit- ies, causing heavy damage. Still the Japanese refused to surrender. In February 1945, the Marines met the Japanese again on the island of Iwo Jima, only 650 miles from the coast of Japan’s main island. In one of the most brutal battles of the war, in which thousands on both sides were killed, the United States finally gained a victory after six weeks of fighting. Loud cheers broke out among the American troops when they saw their flag go up atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Surabachi. The flag was taken down within a few minutes, to be preserved as a souvenir for the battalion, and a replacement was put up. Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who had scaled a nearby hill too late to catch the real flag-raising on film, snapped a photograph of six Marines raising the replacement flag. Ironically, this photograph became one of the most famous images in American military history, although in truth it depicts only a reenactment of the actual event.
One more battle remained in the Pacific, since Iwo Jima had not brought about a surrender. The U.S. forces invaded Okinawa unchallenged. Five days later, the Japanese opened fire on them. About 150,000 soldiers, two-thirds of them Japanese, were killed in the fighting.
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