Japan vs United States: The Pacific War in WWII

Japan vs United States - the pacific war

Map titled "Allied landings "August 1942 to August 1945", plate #126. It should be noted that while the title of the image is "US Landings" the map also indicates the position of many landings by Australian troops (at least) so should be referred to as "Allied landings". Click Here for a Larger Version of the Map

Before the success of HBO’s mini-series The Pacific, the Pacific ocean theatre of conflict during WWII was still subject to comparatively diminished coverage in terms of its representation in popular media. When people think about the Second World War, they mainly think of Blitzkrieg, of the Nazi Party, Hitler’s rise to power and prominence, and of his conquest of Europe that cost the lives of millions. These are all aspects of WWII that should sit in the consciousness of current and future generations of humans, of course, but it is the comparative underrepresentation of the pacific theatre of conflict that I’m most interested in when I write the article you’ll find below.

Most people are painfully aware of the short-term trigger that led to the opening of the pacific theatre of conflict, as well as the monumental decision and quite literally explosive actions that led to the Japanese surrender in September 1945. The trigger I refer to is of course the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, and the “explosive action”? We all know this as the first and hopefully the last time nuclear weapons were used in the history of human warfare: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So, given the amplitude and significance of these events that bookended the Pacific war, I find it quite remarkable just how little the average person both knows and indeed is interested in, the Pacific War.

This article exists, therefore, to provide some details about the Pacific War. Firstly, I hope for this article’s structure to establish an easily-digestible timeline for people that are looking for general information about the course of the conflict. Secondly, my aim is to cover in detail the crucial aspects of the Pacific War, from the Japanese offensives in 1941 (including the infamous Pearl Harbour offensive) to the emphasis on naval warfare demanded by the make-up of the pacific region itself.

The major land, sea, and air aspects of the conflict will be covered, highlighting the rise and peak of the Japanese empire in 1942, to its rapid decline and eventual surrender. The article shall conclude with a look at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which represented one of the most cataclysmic conclusions to any conflict recorded in the entirety of human history. It is hoped that the outcome of this article is the documentation of the lesser-known details of the Pacific conflict, as well as the introduction of newcomers to this lesser-known theatre of WWII.

The Grand Pacific Theatre

Nearly a century and a half of history between the United States and Japan precedes the day of infamy in 1941, a day that the Japanese made what would eventually prove to be an ill-advised decision: to launch a surprise attack on the United States establishment at Pearl Harbour.

Though this article cannot hope to begin to wrap its teeth around the breadth of this 150 years of build-up, it shall attempt to account for some of the political, economic, and military factors at play in the time immediately preceding the war in the Pacific, as well as the historically fascinating period of 1941-1945, the years in which the allies, but specifically the United States, became embroiled in some of the largest naval battles of history up until that point. They were also engaged in some significant air combat and some immeasurably brutal and bloody land-invasion campaigns, particularly towards the end of the war.

Expansive, Disharmonious, Catastrophic

Due to an overshadowing by the European campaigns of WWII, some can be prone to forgetting the sheer weight of the Pacific Theatre in determining the outcome of the war. The fighting drew in and engulfed many nations into its expansive perimeters, including China, Burma, the East Indies, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and even New Guinea. Another oft-played-down aspect of the war is that the initial Japanese attacks were rather successful, devastating the unprepared US forces and its allies; the surgical nature of the initial attacks and their swiftness dealt a near-crippling blow.

One must also remember that the allied victory was achieved in spite of the divisions between the allies themselves. The victories enjoyed by the United States at Midway are also impressive, as is the sheer scale of the U.S Advance on Japan in the closing stages of the conflict. This latter aspect of the war comprised the largest amphibious operation in history, after all.

The Pacific war is also fascinating, whilst being simultaneously catastrophic for the manner in which it was to be concluded. Its dramatic opening at Pearl Harbour at the hands of the belligerent Japanese ended up being echoed with an attack from the United States in 1945 that echoed the devastation of Pearl Harbour 1000-fold: I’m talking, of course, about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of Japan’s refusal to surrender, even following the allied victory in Europe and the Potsdam Declaration. To this day, humankind still lives in fear of the kind of nuclear weapons used to end the Pacific War, troubled by the very fact that such devastating weapons exist on earth.

Causational Irony

The long-term origins of the Pacific War lay in the 19th century, specifically in the United States’ involvement in planting the seed that eventually grew into a fully-fledged, empire-shaped Japanese flower of relative affluence and success. After all, the U.S had compelled Japan to utilise its own resources in order to become a significant international contender and participant in international trade. The irony here is that as a result of the U.S. driving Japan to open itself up to worldwide trade, it led the Japanese and its empire to the kind of success it felt it had always deserved.

Meanwhile, European powers and the United States still held firm beliefs that Japan was a power that ought to be dominated and controlled. The United States had effectively pushed Japan to become the kind of contender she felt she should be on the international stage, whilst Europe and the U.S had a very different idea of where Japan should fit in terms of international might of empire.

Japan’s Escalation

These clashing ideals came to a head at numerous points between the 19th century and the outbreak of WWII. 1905 saw war between Japan and Russia, where Japan emerged as the decisive victors. This victory served to demonstrate Japan’s military might to the world. Another incident took place following the events of World War I, with Japan being treated with what it saw as very little respect from the participating nations at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Further clashes came when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, motivated by her ever-growing belief (based on the catastrophe of the Great Depression that self-sufficiency was the key to the success of a country.

Japan’s drive for success led to her continuing and indeed escalating her policy of looking to seize resources from other countries in order to establish an empire of greater size and with superior resources.

To compound the international situation between Japan and the United States/Europe, Japanese expansion not only continued, but also remained relatively unchecked and unanswered by the West, which was still crippled from the effects of the Great Economic Depression.

The Worse of Two Options

Significant escalation of Japan’s international aims came in 1939 and 1940, where she was hit with sanctions from the United States as a result of her attempts to seize even more territory for her empire, as well as for engaging in conflict with the Soviet Union at this time. These sanctions, which restricted the items that could be traded with Japan, forced the Japanese to realise that only 2 options remained open to them at this point.

The first option? To return to her status as (what she perceived to be) an inferior, lesser nation on the international stage. This certainly wasn’t an option for the now power-hungry empire with a level of self-believe that had been gradually inflating since the 18th century. The second option – the option that certainly contributed massively to the outbreak of war in the pacific – was the most drastic: to engage in war with the United States.

Though the benefit of hindsight allows us to realise the gravity off Japan’s mistake in bombing Pearl Harbour, we can see that the true short-term motives of the Japanese here was to gain just enough territory in order to bring the U.S to the negotiating table. The stand-off that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbour can also be explained by the combination of Japan’s unwavering nationalism and America’s racism in their view of the Japanese as being an inferior race, underserving of an empire of the scale seen in Europe. This friction between these clashing viewpoints on the international level was only increased by the Japanese belief that the U.S was an arrogant nation. For Japan, war with the U.S was inevitable since she had no intention of surrendering her now-established empire.

Did Roosevelt Know?

Though relegated to the status of conspiracy theory by many, some still argue that Roosevelt and Churchill were aware of an imminent surprise attack from the Japanese prior to the events of Pearl Harbour. A memo surfaced relatively recently that allegedly documented intelligence that suggested Pearl Harbour was a possible location of attack. The argument, and indeed where the potential controversy lies, is the suggestion that the attack was allowed to go ahead by Roosevelt in order to allow him to justify U.S involvement in the war which until this point was marginal – largely in the form of military resources, such as ships and guns, to Churchill – due to the isolationist policy.

Japanese Offensives: A “Limited War” Gone Awry

Though the suggestion that the Pacific War was initially intended to be a short, limited conflict by the Japanese sounds hard to believe considering the colossal scale of the war itself, the evidence certainly leads one to believe that this is in fact true. Her initial aims were the securing of resources in South-East Asia and China in order to establish greater prosperity for her empire.

However, what the Japanese didn’t take in into consideration in her strike on Pearl Harbour, is that the consequences of such a strike on the U.S immediately ruled out the possibility of a short war. Though the initial offensive plan was certainly successful in allowing the Japanese to reach and defend a sizeable perimeter in the Pacific, the unintentional result of bombing Pearl Harbour was a unified America that was prepared to wage a complete and total war – a protracted campaign with no intention of surrender or retreat – as opposed to the limited conflict that the Japanese had miscalculate would occur.

Although Pearl Harbour indeed devastated the U.S. pacific fleet – 8 battleships were lost, over 150 carriers destroyed, and 2, 400 civilians (the distinction between civilian and combatant is key here, too) killed – it had the effect the Japanese did not anticipate. It incensed the U.S, which was until this point still relatively isolationist, into joining the war. Moreover, due to the fact that the U.S, prior to Pearl Harbour, was not engaging in any war in an official capacity, those killed at Pearl Harbour were classed as non-combatants. This, coupled with the fact that the major U.S carriers that could have been lost were at sea at the time of the Pearl Harbour strike, and one can see the magnitude of Japan’s error in judgment in 1941.

A Tide Turned: Events at Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway

Japan’s initial attacks allowed her to advance on a vast portion of the area between the Indian Ocean and the Central Pacific, but her limited resources and might meant that she could not defend this territory. This was a period of re-grouping for the allied forces, including the United States.

Codebreaking efforts further swung the advantage in favour of the allies, and now Japan no longer had the element of surprise in their plans to attack Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The U.S. carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington were deployed, in a battle that became known as “The Battle of Coral Sea”: this was the Pacific’s first major naval battle. The losses suffered by the allies at Coral Sea were significant, but damage to the Japanese fleet resulted in major vessels being absent from the battle that followed: Midway.

The battle of Midway took place from 4th to the 7th June 1942. The intention of the Japanese was to invade Midway, but yet again the allied codebreaking efforts resulted in the U.S fleet lying in wait for the Japanese at Midway. Japan lost four carriers in the Battle of Midway, while the U.S lost just one. The last effect of Midway was the redressing of naval balance in the Pacific – the allies now possessed the strategic initiative here. You can follow this link to learn more about the  pivotal battle of Midway, which effectively set the Japanese naval forces on the back foot for the remainder of the conflict, where she struggled to defend her poorly-established positions.

Attrition, Advances, and Stalemates

Before the allied offensives of 1943 and 1944 and the rapid escalation of submarine warfare in said period, the post-Midway landscape was, in contrast, one of attrition and stalemate. Battles continued to be fought in New Guinea, with Japan’s advances returned by the allies. Guadalcanal also became a gruelling battle of attrition involving land, air, and naval forces. Japan eventually withdrew from Guadalcanal, but not until 1943. This year saw operation Cartwheel, which took place in June, laying the ground work for what was to become a rather famous strategy: island-hopping with view to advancing on mainland Japan.

Perhaps most significantly for the long-term course of the war, the 2 years following Midway saw the U.S utilise their significant industrial capabilities to produce greater numbers of ships and aircraft, as well as using the time to train skilled air crew. Conversely, Japan lacked the technological and industrial capacity to match the progress of the United States.

The Closing Stages of the Pacific War

A number of military campaigns took place in 1944 and 1945, representing what is now documented as the final push of the allies that resulted in these months being the closing ones of the war.


The months of June and July 1944 saw one of the Pacific’s most significant battles between aircraft carriers. This was the Battle of the Philippines sea, and it resulted in the destruction of 3 Japanese carriers as well as 300 of their aircraft. At this time, the allied landings in Saipan saw a staggering 29,000 Japanese killed. Most shocking, however, were the civilian casualties here, a result of them committing suicide due to the fear of capture. The bloody Battle of Saipan was significant because it allowed the U.S to station B29s in close proximity to the major Japanese islands.

The battle for the once-lost island of Leyte in December 1944 market the largest naval encounter seen up until that point in history. It resulted in the complete destruction of the effectiveness of the Japanese Navy. This battle also marked the first time that the U.S forces witnessed Kamikaze tactics first-hand.

1945: A Dramatic, Costly End to WWII in the Pacific

From January to March 1945, the allied Philippines campaign saw the U.S deploy the biggest army it was prepared to contribute to any single battle in the war. It saw the invasion of Luzon and a clash with 280,000 Japanese troops here. These troops dug in, continuing to fight even after the official end of the war.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa

In February 1945, the U.S invaded Iwo Jima with the purpose of securing more positions for future B29 bomber launches. The U.S faced 21,000 Japanese in a costly and bloody battle that was comprised largely of guerrilla warfare tactics. Of the initial 21,000, only 1,000 Japanese soldiers were captured alive.

Though WWII in Europe had already swung towards allied victory, the battle of Okinawa was yet to furnish history with an extremely bloody battle, lasting 82 days and involving some of the most brutal and bloody combat yet seen.

Enola Gay and Bockscar: the B-29s that shook history

One of Truman’s first major acts as U.S president in 1945 was to authorise the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man, the nuclear bombs flown and dropped by B-29 bombers Enola Gay and Bockscar over Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

The ferocity of Japanese resistance at Okinawa and the lengthy, devastating war of attrition that took place was a major factor in Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. After all, the Japanese refused to surrender even following the Potsdam Declaration, which should have been the official statement of surrender for the Japanese.

The necessity of dropping the nuclear bombs has been debated by historians ever since, and has been the subject of many WWII Hiroshima and Nagasaki articles. However, many scholars have asserted that the 240,000 death toll that resulted served to shock the Japanese into surrendering. What is certain is that soon after the dropping of the bombs, the official surrender of the Japanese was forthcoming, drawing to a close one of the most interesting battles of naval, air, and land combat ever seen in human history.