*** war and social upheaval: World War II Pacific Theater -- South Pacific

World War II: The South Pacific

World War II South Pacific boys
Figure 1.--Here boys on an unidentied South Pacific Island pile into an Ameican jeep. One of the interesting aspects of the fighting for the south Pacific is what the natives made of it. New Guinea and the solomonswere perhaps the most isolate places on earth. Many of the people had nver seen Europens let alone Japanese. And suddenly the most destrctive warin history was being fought on their islands. Now these people knew about war, but they could not understnd why the americans and Japnese cme to their islnds to fight the war. Mny of these people were leading very primitive, stone ge lives. And suddenly, along with the americans came plnesm ships, jeeps, taks nd incredible outpouring of moden technology and food, including lrgely unknown canned food. It could have not been more amazing than if aliens had landed on time square. A single American soldier carred more modern eqipment than whole villages had ever seen.

The fighting in the South Pacific began after the American Naval victory at Midway. It meant that America could deploy and supply supply infantry forces on Pacific islands to stop and then push back the Japanese. The 1st Marine Division began the campaign on Guadalcanal. Army divisions would join the Marines. The close-quaters fighting in the South Pacific after Guadalcanal is one of the most neglected campaign of the Pacific War. The battles for Buna, Shaggy Ridge, and the Duriniumor River were as hard fought as many better known Pacific battlefields. Other hazzards included the Japanese sunmarines operating around New Georgia, as well as the Zeros protecting Rabaul and Wewak. [Rems] The intense fighting on Guadalcanal was accompanied with naval and air battles and at first against numerically superior, but badly led Japanese ground forces. The rest of the South Pacific campaign were different. The Japanese withdrew their fleet and new Ameican aircraft won aerial dominance as well. The various island campaigns were fought by Allied forces which not only outnumbered the Japanese, but were better equipped and supplied. While Japanese commanders on Guadalcanal showed astonishing incompetence. Their defensively tactics on the other islands was more competently conducted. Even though casualties because of their fight to the dath ethnic were much heavier than thise suffered by the Allied assault forces. Normally attacking forces suffer more casulties then fighting behind prepared defenses. The Australians participated in the fighting, especially on New Guinea, but America would be largely on its own when the fighting moved morth to the Central Pacific.

Japanese Offensive (December 1941-May 1942)

With the American fleet immobilized at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were able to sweep through the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. Guam was quickly taken. Resistance at Wake Island surprised the Japanese, but after the initial assault was repulsed, a second assault took the island. MacArthur's defense of the Philippines was compromised when most of his planes were destroyed on the ground at Clarke Field. General MacArthur commanded the most important American military force west of Pearl. His handling of the defense of the Philippines was disappointing at best, bordering on incompetence. He failed to strike back at the Japanese in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Japanese bases in Formosa. He also allowed much of the available aircraft to be destroyed on the ground. [Schom] The horror of the Bataan Death March created an image of the Japanese military in the American mind that fueled a hatred for the Japanese. [Schom] Hong Kong quickly fell. The Japanese also seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). Allied naval forces fought a series of engagements to stop the Japanese, but could not match the powerful Japanese naval forces. Japanese air superiority also played a major role in their early victories. Nimitz and Halsey tried to distract the Japanese with hit and run carrier raids. The Japanese moved south from Indochina, seizing Malaya and then the bastion at Singapore. The Repulse and Prince of Wales are lost in the defense of Singapore. Then they moved west through Thailand and defeating the British in Burma. Within a few months the Japanese had carved out the huge empire with enormous resources that they had long coveted. The Japanese then targeted New Guinea in preparation for a move south to Australia. All that remained to stop them were four American carriers.

Japanese Operation MO

Japan launched Operation MO (early-May 1942). It was possible because most of the British Royal Navy had been withdrawn from the Pacific to fight the Battle of Atlantic with the German U-boats. And the primary British bastion, Singapore, fell to the Japanese (April 1942). The next month, Japanese amphibious forces embarked to seize Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea and Tulagi Island in the southern Solomons.The Japanese Navy executed its plan for the the New Guinea Campaign (air strikes against Lae and Salamaua, disembarkation in Huon Gulf, New Britain (Rabaul), New Ireland (Kavieng), Finch Harbor (also called Finschhafen), and the capture of Morobe and Buna). This was achieved with little or no opposition by the Australians--the Mandate country. Japanese strategists envisioned those territories as support points to implement the most important objective--the seizure of Port Moresby. The executiom of these operations was assigned to the Japanese Naval task force led by Admiral Chūichi Nagumo who had led the Pearl Harbor strike. After completing the seizure of the Dutch East Indies with their vital oil resources. The Japanese and Adm. Nagumo shifted the focus to New Guinea. The Japanese seized Christmas Island (March 1942). The Japanese were able to seize the Island without a fight because the Indian garrison mutinied against their British officers. The American submarine Seawolf damaged the Japanese cruiser Naka. The Japanese Navy General Staff conceptualized Operation Mo (1938). Seizure of Port Moresby would provide important air bases to bomb Austrralia and would support the next step--Operation FS to isolate Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately for Adm. Yamaoto, MO did not go well. American code breakers revealed the effort and the American Pacifiic Fleet carriers egaged the Japanese carriers in the Coral Sea. For the first time in the Pacific War, a major Japanese invasuipn force was forced to withdraw. Port Moresby remined in Australin hands. While the Lexington was sunk and Yorktown heavily damaged, a Jpanese light carrier was sunk--the battle report 'scrarch one flkt top' electified Americ. More importantly, two of the mainline Japanese carriers which Yamamoto had planned to use at Midway were out of commission. Adm Yamamoto's decision to go ahead with only four carriers at Midway would lead to disaster.

Japanese Operation FS

Operation FS is the designation for seizing South Pacific islands east of Australia (Fiji and Samoa), but like Operation MO, the real objective was Australia. Japan launched Operation MO (early-May 1942). It was possible because most of the British Royal Navy had been withdrawn from the Pacific to fight the Battle of Atlantic with the German U-boats. And the primary British bastion, Singapore, fell to the Japanese (April 1942). The next month, Japanese amphibious forces embarked to seize Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea and Tulagi Island in the southern Solomons. The dates for Operation FS to be launched after Port Moresby and Midway were in Japanese hands were set for New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa (July 8, 18, and 21). The First Air Fleet was to be deployed to support the island invasions. The goal was to cut Australian and New Zealand life lines to America. Japanese operations througout the Pacific Wae began with curring off targets from supplies and reinforcement (The Philippines,Mayalya, Singporte, and Burma). This was the srategy adopted for Australia. The Japanese demanded that Australia surrender (January and February 1942). Primeminister Curtin rejected their demands. General MacArthur had escaped from Corredidor and was overseeing the Allied build-up in Australia (March 1942). Men and supplies were streaming out from America. They could not reach the Americans in the Phiilppines, they could reach Australia. The situation was, however, still precarious. The Australian Army was still largely in North Africa fighting the Afrika Korps with the British. General Tojo speaking in the Japanese Diet issued a final warning to Australia (May 28, 1942). One historian explains, "Japan was now tightening the noose on Australia." [Frei, p. 172.] Shortly after Japanese midget submarines staged an attack on Sydney Harbor (May 31). The failure of Operation MI with the First Air Fleet's loss of four fleet carriers at Midway (June 4) radically changed the balance of forces in the Pacific and prospects for FS. Midway meant that Japan's desimated First Air Fleet was no longer had the capability of supporing FS. So the Japanese placed a greter emphasis on seizing islands and building air fields to help sever the all important sea lanes with America. It is at this time that Guadalcanal enters into history. The Japanese chose the southern-most island in the Solomons as the location of a key air base--Guadalcanal. And Japan at the time still had the naval, air, and army forces to seize the FS islands. The issues would be resolved on Guadalcanal by outnumbered and poorly supplied Marines and a series of fierce naval battles fought by the battered U.S. Navy around Guadalcanal -- before the large number of ships underconstruction in American shipyards had begun to reach the Fleet.

Midway (June 1942)

Miday is a tiny islet in the Central Pacific. The major naval battle fought there (June 4, 1942) had a major impact on the fighgting in the South Pacific. Japasnese ducedssess thedre in thde firfst few months of the War were preised on navl dominnce. The mericbns on Bstan were not defeated, but starved out. The British defeat at Singapore was akso influenced by the Imoprtil Fleet isolsting the Britgish foce there. Japanese naval dominance ended t Midwy, althoujgh they still had an edge, but not large enough to dominate as we can see in the titanic naval battles arond Guadalcnal. This bought time for the American arsenl of Democracy to convert to war production. By the end of 1942, the Imperial Fleet had to withdraw from tthe South Pacific. It could not replace the naval losses sustained there while the Americns were not only replacing losses, but expanding the fleet at a rate the Japanese never conceived asossible.

New Guinea (1942-45)

New Guinea was the longest campaign of the Pacific War. The Japanese took Western News Guina and much of the northern coast without seriou opposition. The Japanese were twarted in their effort to complete the conquest of New Guinea by American carriers in the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942). The Japanese landed along the northern coast of New Guinea. After seizing Buna, Gona, and Sananda (July 21-29, 1942) they controlled the northern coast. As an an amphibious operation was no longer possible after the Miday losses (June). Still attmpting to take Port Moresby, the Japanese embarkened on one of the most incredible offensives of the war. They launched an attack of over 1,000 miles over the Kokoda Trail (July 30).. Major General Tomitaro Horii led a force of 8,500 men from the 144th Regiment of the South Seas Detachment. The Japanese achieved the impossible in 4 week epic trek. This meant that by the time the Japanese reached Port Moresby tey were exhausted, low on supplies and lightlyv armed. They were stopped 30 miles from Port Moresby by the well supplied. Incresiby despit the fact that the Japanese were near starvation and no expecting to dind Australian opposition, they made a fight of it. Eventually they had to fall bac (September 24). This proved to be the first land victory over the Japanese of the War. Before that the Japanese landed at Milne Bay at the eastern tip of New Guinea (August 25), but were forced to withdraw when the Australians held and thr Japanese withdrew (September 5). The Japanese Army's focus on New Guinea was one reason they did not react more immediately to the American landings on Guadacanal. After the American victory in the Solomons, MacArthur launched a series of attacks along the northern coast of New Guinea, bypassing and isolating many Japanese bases. Buna was the first New Guinea base taken (January 2, 1943).

Guadalcanal (August 1942)

The first America land offensive in the Pacific occurred on the virtually unknown island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. The Japanese built aeaplane base atvTulagi. Allied coast watchers reported the Japanese were building an air strip on Guadacanal which was cinfirmed by aerial reconisabnce. From that base, the Japanese could threaten the sea lanes to Australia. A marine invasion force was rapidly assembled. It was a risky operation from the onset. Although dealt a serious blow at Midway, the Imperial Navy still was thecstringer if no longer dominantb naval force in the Pacific and outnumbered the American Pacfic fleet in virtually every class of warship--including carriers. The Japanese did not expect an American iffensuve until mid-1943. Given Japanese naval superority and air power, the Japanese should have won the battle, especially as they managed to land more men on the Island than the Americans had. An almost incredible lack of military competence on the part of the Japanese commanders led to their defeat. Incredibly, the entire Pacific War would turn on this virtually unknown island. Americans and Japanese would fight both on the island and in a series of ferocious sea battles around the island.

Yamamoto Shoot Down (April 1943)

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, was for Americans only below Tojo znd the Emperor on the list of villans responsible for the war. Yamaoto had planned the Pearl Harbor attack. He actually had been against going to war with the United States, understanding more than most of his colleague America's vast indistrial power. Once the decesion was taken, he threw his considerable energy into planning and execuring Japan's war policy. After the First Air Fleet was devestated at Midway, however, there was little he could do to reverse America's application of its the military power generated by its industrial and technological superiority. When code breakers picked up transmissions about a fact-finding tour of front-line bases, Admiral Nimitz ordered a shoot down. The chances were slim of sctully encountering his plane, but long range P-38 lightings from Guadacanal did just that. They shot down just before it landed at Kahili airfield at the southern tip of Bougainville (April 18, 1943). This of course was another clue that JN-25 had been broken, but the Japanese did not conclude that their codes had been penetrated. The Japanese cintinued to use JN-25 with only minor changes throughout the War. His death ws a shock to the Japanese people who continued to be told that their country was winning the War.

Bougenville (November 1943)

After securing Gudalcanal and notheaster New Guinea, the Marines began hearing about astrange sounding new iland--Bougenville. The primary Allied objective became the Japnese stronghold at Rabaul. Gen. MacArthur at forsr intended to assault Rabaul itself--Operation Cartwheel. Gradually it became clear the same objective could be recived by isolating rather than actualy asalting the sprawling Japanese base. The first target as the Americans moved up the Slot was Bouginville. On Bouginville the Americans first faced the strong defensive positions they would have to assault as they fought their way across the Pacific. One historian writes anout the fighting on Bouginville, "Robert A Owens, a sergeant in A Company, resolved to silence the 75mm gun. While others brought fire on two machine guns protecting the weapon, Owns charged through the bunker's fire port, chasing the occupants out the rear door where they were shot down. Killed by fire from supporting enmy trenches as he emerged from the bunker, Owns eared th campaign;s first Medal of Honor. The other pillboxes were all knocked out by afternoon using a technique developed from earlier experince. BR fire was poured into pillbox embrasures, enabling troops to close in and drop grenades into the ventikators or attack th pillboxes from the rear. Some of the most brutal action occurred durung hand-to-hand fighting in the supporting trenches." [Rems]

Rabaul (1942-45)

After Guadallcanal and Bougenville, many more islands were taken as the Allies began to buld rings around Rabaul to both cut off supplies and to launch air strikes from multiple new air fields on the islands surrounding Rabaul.


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Created: 1:31 PM 9/29/2015
Last updated: 6:02 PM 3/22/2018