World War II Pacific Naval Campaign: The Central Pacific (1943-44)

Figure 1.--.

While MacArthur and the Army drove fowad in New Guiena, the Navy achieved most of its objectives in the South Pacific/Solomons. Rabaul was not taken as had been planned with Operatioin Cartwheel, but it was neutralized. And the Imperial Navy's pilot forcehad been drained to support air operationd from Rabaul. The Navy next began a new offensive drive in the Central Pacific. Amercan industrial strength by now was producing ships and planes that enabled America to build a naval force capable of leap froging from island to island. The Japanese had gambled when they struck Pearl Harbor. They believed that Americans were morally weak and would not fight. Guadacanal and Tarawa showed that they were very wrong. And now they faced the most powerful industrial power in the World which they had roused to a nation demanding retribution. Worse still there German allies were falling back on all fronts. Japan would be left to fight both American and Britain alone. Unlike the Solomons campign, the Imperial Navy did not contest the American advance cross the Central Pacific. The Combined Fleet even withdrew from Truk, its primarit Central Pcific bastion. Only when the Americans assalted the Marianas did the Imperial Navy sally forth. The Marianas were the key to the War. The new American B-29 could reach the Japanese Home Islands from the Marianas and the Japanese knew it. The result would be the epic Battle of the Phillipnes Sea. The Imperial Navy had been preparing for the battle for 2 years. The result shcked the Empire to its core.

The Gilberts: Tarawa (November 1943)

The success of operations in the Solomons and New Guinea and the arrival of more men and ships allowed Admiral Nimitz to initiate operations in a new frontb of the Pacific War--the Central Pacific. This meant asaulting the outer shell of Japanese-held island defenses in the Central Pacific. The Japanese throughhout 1943 reinforced their island bastions and strenghtening their defenses. The first major American offensive after Guadacanal was the amphibious assault on the Gilbert Islands. New carriers and planes, especially the new F4F Hellcat, were beginning to reach the fleet. This meant for the first time that the Americans had a fighter that outclassed the Zero. The two main targets were Tarawa and Makin Atol. Tarawa was the most heavily dfended. The Japanese defender of Tarawa bragged that the island could not be taken. The Imperial Navy chose not to oppose the invasion. It had taken substantial losses in the Solomons which had been only partially replaced. Powerful Navy task forces including a refurbished Enterprisese, new carriers, and battleships made up the American invasion force. The Japanese hoped that the islands were so heavily defended that they could hold without naval support. The Marines assaulted Tarawa (November 20). This was the first Americam amphibious assault on a heavily fortified beachhead. Japanese air strikeson the naval task force from the Marshalls proved ineffective, in largevmeasure because of the new Hellcats. The Marines did take Tarawa, but the losses were shocking. Tiny Tarawa was a tough fight and a blood bath. Makin was less heavily defended. President Roosevelt did not hide the losses on Tarawa from the American people. Combat photography from Tarawa was shown in American movie theaters. Nothing like this was ever shown to the Japanese people. The Navy learned valuable lessons for the island campaign to come. The U.S. victories at Tarawa and Makin had an important strategic role. The Giberts was an entirely naval operation. U.S. aircraft could now conduct combat and reconisance missions to the next target--the Marshalls.

The Marshalls: Kwajalein (February 1944)

The next American assault in the Central Pacific was on the Marshalls--Operation Flintlock. There was an intense debate as to how to take the Marshalls. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) War Plans Committee recommended first seizing Wotje and Maloelap. These were ialands on the northern edge of the Marshalls. They could then be used as logistical bases to support further attacks on other important islands in the Marshalls. There was widespread support for this approach. It was supported by Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner (commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force) and Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith (commander of the Marine V Amphibious Corps). Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, the Fifth Fleet commander, also supported it. Admiral Nimitz, however, did not. He advocated an attack on Kwajalein, in the center of the Marshalls. Simultaneous air attacks on Kwajalein, Wotje, and Maloelap would neutralize Japanese air defenses. He argued that a bold attack focusing on Kwajalein would not only surprise the Japanese, but give America a centrally located base from which the other occupied of importance could be taken or neutralized. For Nimitz, concentrating available resources on one decisive landing was a lesson that he drew from Tarawa.

The Carolines: Truk Lagoon (February-May 1944)

The Japanese considered Truk Lagoon in the Caroline Islands to be their Gibraltar in the Central Pacific. It was the most powerful base in the Pacific War with the exception of Pearl Harbor. They considered it to be impregnable. Truk was a magnificent anchorage surrounded by coral reefs which made attack difficult. Truk had been a German colony. The League of Nations after World War I awarded Truck to Japan. As part of the award there were restrictions on fortifying the island. Japan ignored those limitations and during the 1930s illgally fortified it. It was the Imperial Japanese Navy's Fourth Fleet base (November 1939). The powerful Combined Japanese Navy Fleet was based at Truk (July 1942-to February 1944). This included carriers and legendary battleships such as the Yamato. About 37,000 Japanese were based at Truk, overwealming the small local population. Ships based at Truk played an important role in the Japanese offensive that began at Pearl Harbor and swept through the Pacific. The base was defended by five airfieds and seaplane bases. Some were began as civilian facilities, but easily converted for military opertions. Torpedo nets and air fields protected the fleet and made it a very difficult target for the U.S. Navy, especially in 1942 before e arrival of the Hellcat that gave Ameruican carriers an effectve fighter that could compete with the Zero. The base at first did not have substantial repair facilities or fortifications and other defences to oppose an American landing force. As the military situation changed in the Pacific, the Japanese Army was committed in force to defend Truk (January 1944). The Army set about building coastal defence (pillboxes, bunkers, and caves) and augmenting anti-air craft instalions in preparation for an expected amphibious invasion. The Americans did strike in force, but with air attacks. Carrier strike forces began hitting Truk (February 1944). American submarine also made it increasingly difficult for the Japanese to supply Truk. The Navy air assault began with Operation Hailstone (February 17 and 18, 1944). This was followed up with additional attacks (April 30 and May 1, 1944). These attacks were followed with repeat raids by B-24 and B-29 bombers for several months. A British Aircraft Carrier group hit Truk (June 1945). Long before that the pounding by American air attacks forced the Imperial Navy to withdraw the fleet. While the Japanese effectively used Truk as an advanced base in 1941-42, they were because of the air attacks unable to use it to resist the U.S. Navy offensive in the Central Pacific. More than 4,000 Japanese Navy and Army personnel were killed and wounded and over 50 ships (mostly merchant vessels) were sunk in Truk Lagoon and a similar number sunk outside the Lagoon. The number of war ships sunk was limited because the Imperial Fleet withdrew its major assetts just before the American air strikes begun. The air strikes destroyed about 400 aircraft. And by 1944 Japan had no way of replacing that number of planes. The United States never actually invaded Truk, but the withdrawl of the Combined Fleet and the destruction of the planes based there effectively neutalized the island as an important base.

The Marianas: Battle of the Phillipine Sea (June-July 1944)

The next major American campaign was the Marianas and resulted in the Battle of the Phillipine Sea. The major islands were Tinian, Saipan, and Guam. The islands were taken by the Japanese 3 hours after Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941). The Japanese built important defensive positions on the islands, including air fields. General Takashuina commanded a 19,000 man force. The Japanese planned an all-out naval counter attack in the Central Pacific called "Operation Z.” Vice Admiral Fukudome, Chief of Staff, carring the plan was in a plane crash over the southern Philippines. Filipino guerillas found the documents and relsyed it to the Americans. The American offensive to take the islands was Operation Forager. The Marianas was the inner-ring of Japanese defenses. Unlike the earlier Gilbert and Marshall campaigns, the Japane Navy did sally out to oppose the invasions. Saipan and Tinian would bring the Japanese Home Islands within range of new B-29 bombers. In the Philippine Sea. Japanese reconnaissance planes found Task Force 58. The Japanese launched 372 aircraft, in four waves. The American carriers of Task Force 58 have about 950 planes. Radar oprovides advanced waring and the Japanese attacking force is intercepted. Many Japanese planes are shot down and more are sestroyed by fleet anti-aircraft fire. The Japanese attack is ineffective. Only the USS South Dakota is hit by a single bomb. The Americans launch an air strike on Guam and a counter strike at the Japanese carriers requiring the Americans pilots to return in the dark. The Japanese loose about 300 aircraft and their invaluable trained pilots. The Americans lodst only 29 pilots. US submarines Cavalla and Albacore sink the Japanese carriers Taiho and Shokaku. The battle is called the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot (June 19). Task Force 58 Hellcats destroyed over 300 Japanese aircraft. The Japanese losses signaled the extent to which the ballance of power had shifted in the Pacific War. The loses in the Phillipines Sea meant that the Japanese carrier force would not be an important factor in the upcoming battle for the Phillipines


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Created: 5:26 AM 4/18/2008
Last updated: 9:23 PM 4/2/2012