Pacific War Pacific War World War II was fought across more land and involved more men than any other war in the history of human civilization. Never before or since has there been a war of such vast importance and of such a large scale. The United States had an absolutely crucial role in the outcome of this war. The U.S. was faced with the colossal challenge of waging two wars at the same time on two very different parts of the planet. The European front was, of course, the more obvious of the two considering the undeniable atrocities and evils that were being committed by Adolf Hitler.
Involvement on the European front was inevitable and, generally more accessible for U.S. forces. Less than thirty years before, the United States had fought in Europe, so we were familiar with the terrain and appropriate strategy. However, the Pacific Campaign of World War II presented a unique challenge for United States Armed Forces. Never before had we fought in the South Pacific or even on terrain that resembled that of the Pacific islands.
With the Army heavily involved in Europe, in December of 1941 the United States were forced into a war that it was not familiar with nor knew how to fight. Luckily, however, for the U.S., the Marine Corps were the perfect outfit for the kind of fighting need in the Pacific Campaign. Because of their training in land to sea combat, the Marines were uniquely prepared for the war that faced them, whereas, the Army could never have successfully waged war in the Pacific. Without the Marine Corps fighting in the Pacific, the whole war against Japan would not have succeeded. From 1939-1941, at the dawn of Adolf Hitler’s war machine in Europe, the United States seemed above the rest of the world. Separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean, the U.S.
enjoyed an incredible amount of security. We were almost entirely untouchable from the flames of war rapidly growing in Europe, and the majority of American citizens were happy to not be involved. To them, the European conflict was too far away to have any direct or meaningful impact on their lives. In fact, public opinion did not think that it was even necessary to enter the war at all. However, Roosevelt saw otherwise.
He knew that a war in Europe could very well mean a war in the States. Only thirty years before, in World War I, the same kind situation had evolved into the “war to end all wars”, where the United States had played a key role. So, Roosevelt desperately wanted and needed to change the minds of nearly the nearly the entire American public; this task presented an almost impossible challenge. With war beginning to be fought in Europe, England was in dire need of any aid they could receive. At the beginning, this aid came in the form of supplies furnished by the United States.
Ammunition, food, clothing, and weapons of all kinds were being shipped over to Europe and creating incredible wealth for the American government. Entering the war meant losing a very profitable trade with the desperate allies in Europe. Luckily for England and for Roosevelt, the United States were soon presented with an undeniable reason for entering the war. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This act of aggression towards America, provided for a perfect entrance into the war, and now the people of America were incited enough to back a full-scale war against Hitler and Japan.
However, one huge problem still existed, and that was the problem of a two front war. Many were frightened that the U.S. had taken on a task that was a bit too much for the nation to handle. The Army was the perfect force for fighting the war in Europe. They were trained for the land combat they would face, and had knowledge of the land from World War I. In addition, the Army was already on the move to Europe, so splitting the Army into two different forces for Europe and the South Pacific was out of the question.
The only option that the U.S. government had for waging war against Japan was the Marine Corps. Marine units had been stationed in the South Pacific in Australia and Samoa. They only needed to be reinforced. Especially convenient for the United States was the fact that the Marine Corps was perfectly suited for the kind of warfare that would be faced against Japan.
Marines are trained specifically for land to sea and sea to land operations. In addition, their close relationship with the Navy insured that the two fighting forces could work together and be successful. Both General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Williams Nimitz orchestrated the unique strategy used in fighting the Japanese, known as “Island Hopping”. Both the ground troops and the Navy were perfectly choreographed to strike at strategic Japanese strongholds around the Pacific. The goal was to destroy all Japanese dominance and to move ever closer to the Japanese mainland.
The beginning of the Pacific Campaign was the Battle of Guadalcanal. At the beginning of the war with Japan had an empire reaching frighteningly close the Australian coastline. The Japanese advance had to be brought to a halt if the American forces hoped to assert dominance in the Pacific. Coming off the recent “win” at the Battle of Midway, the American troops were filled with increased vigor and enthusiasm about the war. The Battle of Guadalcanal or Operation Watchtower was hasty and ill prepared assault.
Most, if not all, intelligence that the Marines had on the island were from outdated German maps from World War I. “Even its commanders would derisively refer to it as ‘Operation Shoestring’ (Costello 321). In fact, the only reason the Marines were able to land so easily was because of a weak initial defense on the part of the Japanese army. Nevertheless, on August 6, 1942 at midnight, the Pacific assault campaign began. Eleven transport ships accompanied by cruisers made their way towards Lunga Point at the north of the island. Because of a failure in Japanese intelligence, the enemy had no knowledge of the creeping American Marines that were so close to their shore.
At 6:13 in the morning, the first shots were fired on the island by a heavy cruiser called Quincy (Costello). Not long after the shelling commenced, American aircraft carriers let loose bombers and fighters the further assault the Japanese held island. The enemy was caught completely off guard. The actual landing of the island was performed with incredible ease. “More Marines were injured by sharp coral heads as they waded up the dun-colored beach than by enemy bullets” (Costello 323).
Soon, however, Japanese cruisers arrived on the scene and caught the U.S. Navy completely off guard destroying U.S.S. Chicago and the Australian H.M.A.S. Canberra. Luckily, for the recently landed Marine Corps, Japanese Admiral Mikawa withdrew and did not attack the island itself. However, the Marines ashore were now with reinforcements or provisions. So, the Marines quickly finished the captured airstrip under constant bombings by the Japanese Air Force. Now, reinforcements were brought in, and the Marines were strengthened. The following engagements were primarily offensive on the part of the Marines.
They had to clear the entire island of Japanese soldiers. On August 19, 1942, the Marines engaged the enemy in an awful, bloody battle. The Japanese had attempted to sneak up on the Marines under the cover of night, only to be heard and gunned down. However, the ferocious fighting style of the Japanese proved resilient to Marine machine guns. The Japanese continued to move forward.
However, the effort was in vain. “One Japanese officer would observe that the scene was ‘like a housefly’s attacking a tortoise. The odds were all against it'” (Costello 329). At the Battle of Tenaru River, only thirty-five Americans were killed and the U.S. claimed its first real victory over the Japanese Imperial Army; Guadalcanal was a success. All Japanese southward expansion was thus halted for the rest of the war. The next primary target of the U.S.
Marine Corps was the island of Tarawa. This island was situated somewhat outside of the center of main combat zone of the Pacific, however Tarawa was a key stronghold for the Japanese. It was located in the eastern Pacific, between Australia and Hawaii, right in the middle of the U.S. supply line. From their location, the Japanese were able to make short runs on American reinforcements en route to the battle weary Marines deeper within enemy territory.
As the war sped along, taking the island of Tarawa became key to the success of the “Island Hopping” Campaign. The massive assault on the two islands of Tarawa and Makin was known as Operation Galvanic. On November 20th, at 3:30 AM, Marines of the first wave loaded into a new assault vehicle, the Amphtrac, which had previously only known combat in North Africa. Two destroyers began to bombard the tiny island of Tarawa with devastating artillery. As one Captain Charles J.
Moore recalls, “‘Fires were burning everywhere. The coconut trees were blasted and burned and it seemed that no living soul could be on the island..the troops approached the beach and it looked like the whole affair would be a walkover'” (Costello 433). However, despite the initial success of the Naval support, the invasion was not a “‘walkover'”. In fact, the Marine invasion of Tarawa was a near disaster. Due to outdated maps and bad intelligence, the Marine Corps did not have a clear idea of what the island was like or what kind of forces they would be encountering.
Tragedy struck when landing began. The Amphtracs made their way to the beaches of Tarawa only to be stopped nearly 1000 yards from the shore on the island’s protective barrier reef. The Marines could not precede any further towards the island in their landing vehicles; they were forced to get out and make the 1000-yard trek in the water towards the Japanese defense. The Japanese, of course, took full advantage of this military folly and opened with a barrage of heavy artillery and machine gun fire. The wading Marines were left to literally dodge for their lives. They were too far from the island to even attempt to fire any kind of small arms at the Japanese. Plus, given the fact that they were in waist to chest deep waters just inside the coral reef, they were having extreme difficulty just moving towards the shore.
The added threat of Japanese fire only worsened the Marines’ desperate situation. Eventually, the powerful Amphtracs were able to break through the protective barrier, but because of the intense firepower of the Japanese, they still could not deliver their soldiers all the way to the beaches. Many Amphtracs were stopped by artillery and their crews were forced to abandon them. “Baird’s Amphtrac, hit by a shell came to a halt. Its eleven survivors were forced to scramble the last 30 yards to shore. Like hundreds of others, they made for the only shelter available from the murderous fire, a 4-foot log wall along the high-tide line” (Costello 434).
The entire lagoon was transformed into a mass killing field. By the fourth wave of the invasion, the Marines could not even attempt to reach the shore because the water was littered with abandoned tanks, Amphtracs, and bodies. By midday casualties had reached an astonis …