The Pacific Theater
Miracle at Midway
While fires still roiled out of control at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked more targets in the Pacific. Over the next three weeks, they swept across eastern Asia nearly to Australia, and invaded the Philippines. Because the Allies had agreed to give highest priority to defeating Germany and Italy, resources for combating Japan were limited. Still, the Allies began fighting back.
On April 18, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led sixteen B-25 bombers, launched from an aircraft carrier more than 600 miles out to sea, on a daring raid on Tokyo. Most of his planes hit targets in the capital. Although the raid caused modest damage, it embarrassed the Japanese government and greatly boosted U.S. morale.
In June 1942, the Japanese attacked the Midway Islands as a step toward taking Hawaii. But U.S. forces, having broken Japanese codes, lay in wait for their enemy. When the two fleets clashed, the Japanese seemed to be winning, easily destroying two waves of U.S. attack planes. Then a few U.S. dive bombers caught the Japanese carriers with planes refueling and sank three of them. Another was damaged and later sank. Although the United States also lost a carrier, it was easily replaced by U.S. industry. The Japanese never fully recovered.
Across the Pacific
In 1943, the U.S. Army and Navy jointly began a two-pronged attack through the central Pacific and across New Guinea to the Philippines.
In the central Pacific, vast ocean areas separated critical island bases. Fast carrier task forces and army bombers attacked the targeted islands while slower amphibious forces made bloody assaults on island strongholds. Once captured, the islands became airfields and supply hubs for the next attack.
In the south, Allied forces continued west around Rabaul, bound for the Philippines, supported by the Army Air Forces and, at times, the central Pacific Fleet.
Island assaults began with massive bombardments from ships and aircraft against shore positions. Forces landed in specially designed landing craft, many of which could move up on the beach itself before unloading. Once on the beach, the men fought their way inland, attacking enemy troops spread out in caves, bunkers, and fortified heights, often suffering heavy losses. Their weapons included not only mortars, rifles, and machine guns, but also fearsome flamethrowers.
In October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines (he was forced to evacuate in March 1942) and began pushing back the Japanese. The Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa fell in March and June of 1945.
The Final Blows
In March 1945, U.S. Army Air Forces intensified their strategic bombing campaign over Japan. Instead of flying high-altitude daylight runs against industrial targets, they began low-flying nighttime attacks on cities, with incendiary bombs. Firestorms devastated property and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. On the night of March 9–10, for example, U.S. bombers destroyed sixteen square miles of Tokyo and killed close to 100,000 men, women, and children. By mid-June, most of Japans major cities were gutted. Aerial mines were dropped in harbors while the U.S. Navy launched carrier air attacks against coastal targets. Still the Japanese fought on. An invasion of Japan appeared inevitable.
In July 1945, President Truman made his controversial decision to use atomic weapons that had been developed secretly during the war by Manhattan Project scientists. More than one million troops were moving to invade Japan when the first bomb destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. On August 9, a second atomic bomb leveled Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered.
As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, Allied troops liberated American and European civilians who had been interned by the Japanese in occupied Asian countries. Among the internees were nearly 14,000 U.S. businessmen, missionaries, and teachers and their families. Held captive from Manchuria to Indochina, they endured deplorable conditions, and often cruel treatment at the hands of guards. By the time they were rescued, starvation rations had reduced many of them to living skeletons who had to be carried to safety.