World War II in the Pacific After defeating mighty China in battle in 1895, Japan annexed Taiwan and took their first step towards a Western style imperialistic expansion.Japan then joined the allies in WWI and was awarded most of the Micronesian Islands as a spoil of war from the League of Nations in 1919.After commandeering the Korean peninsula in the 1920’s, the Japanese military took over Manchuria and subsequently considered the area Japanese territory.The United States finally protested this imperialistic rise after Japan waltzed into French-Indochina after the Nazis defeated France.Denied the precious oil and steel they’d previously imported from the U.S., Prime Minister Tojo decided that Japan would eliminate America and they threat the U.S. posed to Japanese expansion.
On December 7, 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. bases at Pearl Harbor.Having achieved complete surprise, the carrier based attack planes laid waste to the pride of America’s Pacific fleet.Pearl Harbor was simply the spark that led to a wildfire of Japanese Pacific victories over the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands.Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, and much of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands would fall in humiliating fashion to the Japanese military machine in just six months.
General Douglas MacArthur had vowed “I Shall Return” after abandoning over 80,000 troops in the Philippine Islands and escaping to Australia.The U.S. Navy was fighting a battle for survival after Pearl Harbor and finally won a key victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea, though lost the critical aircraft carrier Lexington in return.The turning point came for the United States at the Battle of Midway to the NW of Hawaii.Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to assault the island, rebuild the runway, and bomb Hawaii unmercifully in the months to come.Yamamoto’s American counterpart, Admiral Nimitz had anticipated the move and caught the Japanese fleet by surprise sinking four of Yamamoto’s irreplaceable aircraft carriers.
This underdog victory bought precious time for the U.S. , whose massive military industrial machine was now mass producing an arsenal of war. Yamamoto’s haunting post Pearl Harbor quote had after only six months come to fruition:“I Fear That We Have Done Nothing But Awoken a Sleeping Giant.”By June of1942 US 1st Marine Division had storm landed the shores of Guadalcanal and fought an epic battle to provide America with a strategic airbase.By November of 1943the 2nd Marine Division fought viciously for 72 hours of non-stop combat on Tarawa and continued the allied advance.By 1944, the U.S. 58th Carrier was steaming with impunity through the Pacific and unleashed hell over the skies of Japanese bases in Truk sinking valuable supply ships and wiping out entire air squadrons.
This paved the way for Nimitz drive through the Marianas Islands.During the Battle of the Philippine Sea U.S. pilots achieved unprecedented success shooting down 396 planes losing only a handful of aircraft in return.The Marines recaptured Guam and fought off Banzai charges in the former mandate islands of Saipan and Tinian.With the advent of the long range B-29 Super Fortress Bomber, a Marianas based fire bombing campaign began on military and civilian populations in the home islands of Japan.
Meanwhile General MacArthur was brilliantly outmaneuvering his opposition through Papua New Guinea in an inexorable drive to re-conquer the Philippines.The tiny island of Peleliu in Palau was to be the last stepping stone before MacArthur’s triumphant return to Leyte Island.The veteran 1st Marine Division expected a short but brutal campaign as they were told the island was a flat atoll and would be taken in just 3 to 7 days.Hiding within 250 foot limestone ridges, Colonel Kunio Nakawa had a very different opinion of how this struggle would ensue.Having spent six months tunneling through the islands with civilian mining engineers, Nakawa was about to enact a radically different battle plan.Rather than wasting his brave soldiers lives in suicidal charges he devised a “Battle of Attrition” where he planned to make the Marines pay for every yard.
U.S. Navy Frogmen cleared the beach heads of mines under the cover of darkness.U.S. Battleships punished Peleliu with 2000 lb rounds fired from 16 inch guns.Just prior to the landing, Navy pilots strafed the beaches with a lethal torrent of .50 caliber shells from their wing mounted machine guns.The Japanese soldiers protected by limestone, concrete, and steel simply dusted themselves off and unleashed deadly barrages of their own from carefully concealed mortars, machine guns, and cannons.The Marines suffered unprecedented casualties but still managed to secure the precarious beach heads before moving on to the airfield.Nakagawa then pulled the “ace from his sleeve” and mounted a counterattack from a fleet of Mitsubishi Type 95 Light Tanks that had been stored in a subterranean concrete vault.The Marines met the counter attack head on with Sherman Tanks, Heavy Machine Guns, Bazookas, and steely determination.Nakagawa’s Tanks and over 1000 Japanese support troops were over run in less than one hour of combat.
The Battle for the Marines had just begun.After securing the airfield in only three days of fighting, the 1st Marine Division faced the perilous maze of the Umerbrogel Mountains, where Nakagawa and 10,000 troops waited for the showdown.Cave by cave, day after day the Marines measured their successes a handful of yards at a time.Combat veteran Eugene Sledge later described the action as “Putting two scorpions in a bottle, with the only result being the annihilation of one of the forces or both of them.”The battle raged on with increasing ferocity and unacceptable casualty rates.The Japanese soldiers honored their emperor by refusing to surrender and simply dug deeper into their limestone fortress.The Marines resorted to back and LVT-A mounted flamethrowers and simply incinerated their desperate opponents.The coup de grace came all to often at the bow of a Sherman Tank when cave entrances were simply bulldozed shut and forever sealed.
Peleliu Island was not secured until the middle of November, 1944.MacArthur had long since made his celebrated return to the Philippines, thus nullifying the strategic importance of Peleliu.Lest it be said that the Marines lives were wasted, its important to consider the holistic achievements of the 1st Marine Division:1.Their victory on Peleliu isolated 25,000 additional troops on Koror & Babeldaob.2.Tactical lessons in cave warfare were carried on to the battles of Iwo Jima & Okinawa.Thin skinned flame throwing LVT-A’s were upgraded to “Ronson” Sherman Tanks for the epic battle of Iwo Jima.3.The survivors of the fateful voyage of the heavy cruiser the USS Indianopolis can thank the Marines of Peleliu as they were spotted by a Peleliu based reconnaissance aircraft.
The last of the Japanese Navy was laid to waste in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in late October of 1944 in the largest Naval engagement in global history.Three Marine Divisions storm landed the black sands of Iwo Jima in February of 1945under the ominous eye of Mt. Surabachi.After a month of inhumane combat the US now had a fighter airbase to support the B-29 raids on Tokyo.US Navy ships in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa suffered horrific assaults from Japanese kamikaze pilots bent on saving their motherland at all costs.Okinawa fell in June of 1945 providing the final stepping stone to the home islands of Japan.
The scheduled amphibious invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall) would be led by 39 allied divisions.U.S. strategic planners estimated the potential for over 1 million allied casualties.This inevitability was averted on August 6, 1945 when the B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay dropped the first of two atomic weapons. Even after the bombing of Nagasaki, the many members of the Japanese cabinet voted to continue the fight.It took the voice of the revered Emperor Hirohito to finally end hostilities:“I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer… The time has come when we must bear the unbearable.I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the the Allied proclamation…”The official unconditional surrender was signed on-board the battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945 ending four and a half years of brutal combat and ushering in a new era of peace and friendship.