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- The Pacific War (1937–1945) is not to be confused with the War of the Pacific.
The Pacific War, which is known in Japan as the Greater East Asia War and in China as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (kang-Ri zhanzheng, lit. "resist-Jap. war"), occurred in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in Asia. The conflict took place between 1937 and 1945. However, the most decisive actions took place after December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the United States as well as territories controlled by the United Kingdom and many other countries.
The war both preceded World War II and also included some of its major campaigns and events. It was fought between Japan on one side and the Allied powers, including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand on the other. The Soviet Union repulsed its Japanese attackers in 1939, then remained neutral until 1945, when it played an important role on the Allied side in the closing weeks of the war.
Thailand, after being invaded in 1941, was coerced into joining the Japanese side. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were also allies of Japan, and their naval forces operated in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean between 1940 and 1945.
Between 1942 and 1945, there were four main Allied theaters/commands in the war against Japan: China, the Pacific Ocean Areas, the South East Asia Command and the South West Pacific Area. US sources often refer to two major theaters within the Pacific War: the Pacific Theater and the South-East Asian Theater. However, for most of the war, the US military divided operational control of its forces between the commanders of the Pacific Ocean Areas, the South West Pacific Area, and the China Burma India Theater (CBI). (US forces in the CBI were technically under the operational command of either the Allied South East Asia Command or that of China's generalissimo, Chiang Kai Shek.) US strategic bomber forces in the Pacific reported directly to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. For brief periods in both 1939 and 1945, there was another theater: Mongolia and north-east China, where Soviet forces also engaged Japan.
Conflict between Japan and China
The roots of the war began in the late 19th century with China in political chaos and Japan rapidly modernizing. Over the course of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Japan intervened and finally annexed Korea and expanded its political and economic influence into China, particularly Manchuria. This expansion of power was aided by the fact that by the 1920s, China had fragmented into warlordism with only a weak and ineffective central government.
However, the situation of a weak China unable to resist Japanese demands appeared to be changing toward the end of the 1920's. In 1927, Chiang Kai-Shek and the National Revolutionary Army of the Kuomintang led the Northern Expedition. Chiang was able to defeat the warlords in southern and central China, and was in the process of securing the nominal allegiance of the warlords in northern China. Fearing that Zhang Xueliang (the warlord controlling Manchuria) was about to declare his allegiance for Chiang, the Japanese intervened and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The nominal Emperor of this puppet state is better known as Henry Pu Yi of the Qing Dynasty.
There is no evidence that Japan ever intended to directly administer China or that Japan's actions in China were part of a program of world domination. Rather, Japan's goals in China were strongly influenced by 19th century European colonialism and were to maintain a secure supply of natural resources and to have friendly and pliable governments in China that would not act against Japanese interests. Although Japanese actions would not have seemed out of place among European colonial powers in the 19th century, by 1930, notions of Wilsonian self-determination meant that raw military force in support of colonialism was no longer seen as appropriate behavior by the international community.
Japanese actions were therefore roundly criticized and led to Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations. During the 1930s, China and Japan reached a stalemate with Chiang focusing his efforts at eliminating the Communists whom Chiang considered to be a more fundamental danger than the Japanese. The influence of Chinese nationalism on opinion both in the political elite and the general population rendered this strategy increasingly untenable.
Meanwhile in Japan, a policy of assassination by secret societies and the effects of the Great Depression had caused the civilian government to lose control of the military. In addition, the military high command had limited control over the field armies who acted on their own interest, often in contradiction to the overall national interest. There was also an upsurge in nationalism and anti-European feeling and the belief that Japanese policies in China could be justified by racial theories. One popular belief with similarities to the Identity movement was that Japan and not China was the true heir of classical Chinese civilization.
The Sino-Japanese War
See the full article on the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
In 1937, Chiang was kidnapped by Zhang Xueliang in the Xian Incident. As condition of his release, Chiang promised to unite with the Communists and fight the Japanese. In response to this, officers of the Japanese Kwantung Army, without the knowledge of their high command in Tokyo, manufactured the Battle of Lugou Bridge (also known as the "Incident at Marco Polo Bridge") on July 8, 1937, which succeeded in provoking a conflict between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan, the Sino-Japanese War.
In 1939 Japanese forces tried to push into the Soviet Far East from Manchuria. They were soundly defeated Battle of Halhin Gol by a mixed Soviet and Mongolian force led by Georgy Zhukov. This stopped Japanese expansion to the North and Japan and the Soviet Union kept uneasy peace until 1945.
Japan's policies in the 1930s are remarkable for their disastrously self-defeating nature. Japan's grand strategy was based on the premise that it could not survive a war against the European powers without secure sources of natural resources, yet to secure those resources it decided to undertake the war that it knew it could not win in the first place. Moreover actions such as its brutality in China, and its practice of first setting up, and then undermining, puppet governments in China were clearly antithetical to Japan's overall goals, and yet it continued to persist in them anyway. Finally, this march to self-destruction is remarkable in that many individuals within the Japanese political and military elite realized these self-destructive consequences, but were unable to do anything about the situation. Also, there appears to have been no debate over policy alternatives which might have enabled Japan to further its goals in China.
In addition, throughout the 1930's Japan succeeded in alienating public opinion in the West, particularly the United States. During the early 1930's, public opinion in the United States had been moderately pro-Japanese, however reports of Japanese brutality, such as the Nanjing Massacre, written by Protestant missionaries, novelists such as Pearl Buck and reports from Time Magazine caused American public opinion to swing against Japan as did events such as the Panay incident.
War spreads in the east
By 1941, Japan was in a stalemate in China. Although, Japan had occupied much of north and central China, the Kuomintang had retreated to the interior setting up a provisional capital at Chongqing while the Communist Party of China remained in control of base areas in Shanxi. In addition, Japanese control of north and central China was somewhat tenuous, in that Japan was usually able to control railroads and the major cities, but did not have a major military or administrative presence in the vast Chinese countryside.
Japan sponsored several puppet governments, one of which was headed by Wang Jingwei. However, its policies of brutality toward the Chinese population, of not yielding any real power to the governments, and of support to several competing governments failed to make any of them a popular alternative to Chiang government. Japan was also unwilling to negotiate directly with Chiang, nor was it willing to attempt to create splits in united front against it, by offering concessions that would make it a more attractive alternative than Chiang's government to the former warlords in Chiang's government. Although Japan was deeply mired in a quagmire, Japan's reaction to its situation was to turn to increasingly more brutal and depraved actions in the hope that sheer terror would break the will of the Chinese population.
This, however, only had the effect of turning world public opinion against it. In an effort to discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States, United Kingdom, and the government in exile of the Netherlands (still in control of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies) stopped trading oil and steel (both war staples) with Japan. Japan saw this as an act of aggression, as without these resources Japan's military machine would grind to a halt. On December 8, 1941, Japanese forces attacked the British crown colony of Hong Kong, the International Settlement in Shanghai, the Philippines (a United States commonwealth); Japan also used Vichy French bases in French Indochina to invade Thailand and Malaya. At the same time (technically on December 7, due to the difference in time zones), Japanese carrier-based planes launched a massive air attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 people were killed, 3 battleships and 2 destroyers were sunk, among many other losses. Although Japan knew that it could not win a sustained and prolonged war against the United States, it was the Japanese hope that, faced with this sudden and massive defeat, the United States would agree to a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to have free reign in China. This calculated gamble did not pay off; the United States refused to negotiate.
The United States enters the war
Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US had remained out of the Asian and European conflict. The America First Committee, 800,000 members strong, had until that day vehemently opposed any American intervention in the foreign conflict, even as America provided military aid to Britain and Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. Opposition to war in the United States vanished after the attack. Four days after Pearl Harbor, on December 11, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two-theater war. The United States, recognising that Germany had a significant industrial output, quickly decided on a "Germany first" strategy. In 1941, Japan had only a fraction of the manufacturing capacity of the United States, and was therefore perceived as lesser threat than Germany.
British, Indian, Dutch and Australian forces, already drained of personnel and materiel by two years of war with Nazi Germany, and heavily committed in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. The Allies suffered many disastrous defeats in the first six months of the war. Two major British warships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by a Japanese air attack off Malaya on December 10, 1941. The government of Thailand formally allied itself with Japan on December 21. Hong Kong fell on December 25 and US bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time.
Following the Declaration by the United Nations on January 1, 1942, the Allied governments appointed the British General Sir Archibald Wavell as supreme commander of all "American-British-Dutch-Australian" (ABDA) forces in South East Asia. This gave Wavell nominal control of a huge, but thinly-spread force, covering an area from Burma to the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. (Other areas, including India, Australia and Hawaii remained under separate, local commands.) On January 15, Wavell moved to Bandung in Java to assume control of ABDA Command (ABDACOM).
January saw the invasions of Burma, the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the capture of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. After being driven out of Malaya, Allied forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on February 15 1942; about 130,000 Indian, Australian and British troops became prisoners of war. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor also fell in February. The rapid collapse of Allied resistance had left the "ABDA area" split in two. Wavell resigned from ABDACOM on February 25, handing control of the ABDA Area to local commanders and returing to the post of Commander-in-Chief, India.
At the Battle of the Java Sea, in late February and early March, the Japanese Navy inflicted a resounding defeat on the main ABDA naval force, under Admiral Karel Doorman. Allied commanders in Java surrendered.
The British under intense pressure made a fighting retreat from Rangoon to the Indo-Burmese border. This cut the Burma Road which was the western Allies' supply line to the Chinese National army commanded by Chiang Kai-shek. Filipino and US forces put up a fierce resistance in the Philippines until May 8 1942 when more than 80,000 of them surrendered. By this time, General Douglas MacArthur, who had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander South West Pacific, had relocated his headquarters to Australia. The US Navy, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, had responsibility for the rest of the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated Allied air power in South-East Asia and were making many air raids on northern Australia, beginning with a disproportionately large and psychologically devastating attack on February 19, which killed hundreds of people in Darwin. Japanese air power had also driven the British fleet out of Ceylon. (Air attacks on the US mainland were insignificant, comprising balloon-based materials and a submarine-based seaplane fire-bombing a forest in Oregon, September 9 1942.)
Allied resistance, at first shambolic, gradually began to stiffen. The Doolittle Raid in April was a token but morale-boosting air attack on Japan, and although the Allied navies were narrowly defeated in tactical terms at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it still managed to derail a Japanese naval attack on Port Moresby, New Guinea. The crucial Battle of Midway followed in June: the fortunes of war could easily have given either side the victory, but Japanese naval aviation suffered a devastating defeat from which it never recovered. Midway was the turning-point of the naval war in the Pacific theatre.
Nevertheless, Japanese land forces continued to advance. A few Australian Militia (reserve) battalions, many of them of very young and untrained, fought a stubborn rearguard action in New Guinea, against a Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track, towards Port Moresby, over the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges. The Militia, worn out and severely depleted by casualties, were relieved in late August by regular troops from the Second Australian Imperial Force, returning from action in the Middle East.
In early September 1942, at Milne Bay, near the eastern tip of New Guinea, Japan suffered its first outright defeat since 1939. Japanese marines attacked a strategic Royal Australian Air Force base, defended mostly by the Australian Army, as well as some US forces. Simultaneously, US and Japanese forces were both attempting to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Both sides poured resources into Guadalcanal over the following six months, in an escalating battle of attrition, with eventual victory going to the United States. From this time on the Japanese forces were decidedly on the defensive. The constant need to reinforce Guadalcanal weakened the Japanese effort in other theatres, leading to a successful Australian-US thrust through New Guinea, which culminated in the capture of Buna-Gona in early 1943. This prepared the way for Nimitz's island-hopping campaign towards Japan.
In late 1942 and during 1943, British, Indian and West African forces were counter-attacking in Burma, albeit with limited success. In August 1943 the western Allies formed a new South East Asian Command to take over stratigic responsibilities for the theatre from general Wavell the Commander-in-Chief, India. The reorganisation of the theatre command took about two months and in October 1943 Winston Churchill appointed Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command (SEAC). Working closely with General William Slim Mountbatten directed the liberation of Burma and Singapore in the Burma Campaign. General Stilwell in the CBI under SEAC, supplied aided to the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek and helped to co-ordinate the Chinese attacks on the Japanese which supported the British Fourteenth Army in Burma.
Hard-fought battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides, but finally produced a Japanese retreat. Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted to kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the US advance.
Towards the end of the war as the role of strategic bombing became more important, a new command for the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific was created to oversee all US strategic bombing in the hemisphere, under USAAF General Carl Spaatz. Japanese cities suffered greatly from air attacks by US bombers. On March 9-10 1945 alone, about 100,000 people were killed in a fire storm caused by an attack on Tokyo.
On February 3 1945, Japan's long-time enemy the Soviet Union agreed in principle to enter the Pacific conflict (although its declaration of war did not occur until August 8). In a devastating blow to Japanese morale, the US attacked two cities with nuclear weapons; these were a well-kept secret until August 6, when Hiroshima was destroyed with a single atomic bomb, as was Nagasaki on August 9. More than 200,000 people died as a direct result of these two bombings.
On August 9 the Soviet Union engaged into the war with Japan. A battle-hardened, one million-strong Soviet force, transferred from Europe quickly attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria and defeated their Kwantung Army (Guandong Army). The Soviet attack worried Emperor Hirohito, who pleaded with the war council to reconsider surrender.
In Japan, August 14 is considered to be the day that the Pacific War ended. However, Imperial Japan actually surrendered on August 15 and this day became known in the English-speaking countries as "V-J Day" (Victory in Japan). The order to surrender was not immediately sent to Japanese forces in Manchuria, who continued to fight the Soviets until August 19. Small-scale combat continued to occur throughout the Pacific, in some cases for many years. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed on September 2, 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender was accepted by General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander, with representatives of each Allied nation, from a Japanese delegation led by Mamoru Shigemitsu.
Following this period, MacArthur established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country. This period in Japanese history is known as the occupation. U.S. President Harry Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities on December 31 1946.
Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia
- 1941-12-07 Attack on Pearl Harbor
- 1941-12-08 Japanese invasion of Thailand
- 1941-12-08 – 1941-12-25 Battle of Hong Kong
- 1941-12-10 Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse
- 1941-12-22 – 1942-05-06 Battle of the Philippines
- 1942-01-11 – 1942-01-12 Battle of Tarakan
- 1942-01-24 Naval Battle of Balikpapan
- 1942-01-25 Thailand declares war on the Allies
- 1942-01-30 – 1942-02-15 Siege of Singapore
- 1942-02-02 Japanese invasion of Java
- 1942-02-04 Battle of Makassar Strait
- 1942-02-04 Battle of Balikpapan
- 1942-02-14 Japanese invasion of Sumatra
- 1942-02-19 Air raids on Darwin
- 1942-02-19 – 1942-02-20 Battle of Badung Strait
- 1942-02-27 – 1942-03-01 Battle of the Java Sea
- 1942-03-01 Battle of Sunda Strait
- 1942-04-09 Bataan Death March begins
- 1942-04-18 Doolittle Raid
- 1942-05-03 Japanese invasion of Tulagi
- 1942-06-04 – 1942-06-06 Battle of Midway
New Guinea campaign
- 1942-01-23 Battle of Rabaul
- 1942-03-07 Japanese invasion of mainland New Guinea
- 1942-05-04 – 1942-05-08 Battle of the Coral Sea
- 1942-07-01 – 1943-01-31 Kokoda Track
- 1942-08-25 – 1942-09-05 Battle of Milne Bay
- 1942-11-19 – 1942-01-23 Battle of Buna-Gona
- 1943-03-02 – 1943-03-04 Battle of the Bismarck Sea
- 1943-09-04 – 1943-09-16 Battle of Lae
- 1943-11-05 Attack on Rabaul
Aleutian Islands campaign
- 1942-08-07 – 1943-02-09 Battle of Guadalcanal
- 1942-08-09 Battle of Savo Island
- 1942-08-24 – 1942-08-25 Battle of the Eastern Solomons
- 1942-10-11 – 1942-10-12 Battle of Cape Esperance
- 1942-10-25 – 1942-10-27 Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
- 1942-11-13 – 1942-11-15 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal
- 1942-11-30 Battle of Tassafaronga
Solomon Islands campaign
- 1943-01-29 – 1943-01-30 Battle of Rennell Island
- 1943-03-06 Battle of Blackett Strait
- 1943-06-10 – 1943-08-25 Battle of New Georgia
- 1943-07-06 Battle of Kula Gulf
- 1943-07-12 – 1943-07-13 Battle of Kolombangara
- 1943-08-06 – 1943-08-07 Battle of Vella Gulf
- 1943-08-17 – 1943-08-18 Battle off Horaniu
- 1943-10-07 Battle of Vella Lavella
- 1943-11-01 – 1944-11-01 Battle of Bougainville
- 1943-11-01 – 1943-11-02 Battle of Empress Augusta Bay
- 1943-11-26 Battle of Cape St. George
Gilbert Islands campaign
Marshall Islands campaign
- 1944-01-31 – 1944-02-07 Battle of Kwajalein
- 1944-02-16 – 1944-02-17 Attack on Truk
- 1944-02-16 – 1944-02-23 Battle of Eniwetok
Mariana Islands campaign
- 1944-06-15 – 1944-07-09 Battle of Saipan
- 1944-06-19 – 1944-06-20 Battle of the Philippine Sea
- 1944-07-21 – 1944-08-10 Battle of Guam
- 1944-07-24 – 1944-08-01 Battle of Tinian
Palau Islands campaign
- 1944-10-20 – 1944-12-10 Battle of Leyte
- 1944-10-24 – 1944-10-25 Battle of Leyte Gulf
- 1944-11-11 First Battle of Ormoc Bay
- 1944-12-03 Second Battle of Ormoc Bay
- 1944-12-15 – 1945-07-04 Battle of Luzon
- 1945-02-27 – 1945-07-04 Southern Philippines campaign
Ryukyu Islands campaign
- 1945-02-16 – 1945-03-26 Battle of Iwo Jima
- 1945-04-01 – 1945-06-21 Battle of Okinawa
- 1945-04-07 Operation Ten-Go
- 1945-05-01 – 1945-05-25 Battle of Tarakan
- 1945-06-10 – 1945-06-15 Battle of Brunei
- 1945-06-10 – 1945-06-22 Battle of Labuan
- 1945-06-17 – 1945-08-15 Battle of North Borneo
- 1945-07-07 – 1945-07-21 Battle of Balikpapan
- Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
- Operation Downfall
- Pacific Theater of Operations
- Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
- South-East Asian Theatre
- Timeline WW II - Pacific Theater
- Maurice Matloff and Edwin M. Snell Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare 1941–1942, Center of Military History United States Army Washington, D. C., 1990
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