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A Brief History of WWII

Twin Drives to American Victory

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As late as 1943 the American Joint Chiefs of Staff had not adopted a clear strategy for winning the war in the Pacific. Early in the war they assumed that the burden of the land fighting against Japan would fall on Chinese forces. The bulk of Japan's army was deployed in China, and Chinese leaders had an immense manpower pool to draw on. But supplying and training the Chinese Army proved to be an impossible task. Moreover, fighting in China did not lead to any strategic objective.

Instead, the hard-won successes in the Solomons and Papua and the growing strength of MacArthur's and Nimitz's forces gave the Joint Chiefs the means to strike at the Japanese in the Pacific. They decided to launch two converging offensives toward the Japanese islands. Using Army ground forces, land-based air power, and a fleet of old battleships and cruisers, MacArthur would leapfrog across the northern coast of New Guinea toward the Philippines. Nimitz, using carrier-based planes and Marine and Army ground forces, would island-hop across the central Pacific. The strategy was frankly opportunistic, and it left unanswered the questions of priorities and final objectives.

At the heart of the strategy were the developing techniques of amphibious warfare and tactical air power. Putting troops ashore in the face of a determined enemy had always been one of war's most dangerous and complicated maneuvers. World War II proved that the assault force needed air and sea supremacy and overwhelming combat power to be successful. Even then, dug-in defenders could take a heavy toll of infantry coming over the beaches. Special landing craft had to be built to bring tanks and artillery ashore with the infantry, and both direct air support and effective naval gunfire were essential. MacArthur's leaps up the northern coast of New Guinea were measured precisely by the range of his fighter-bombers. The primary task of Nimitz's carriers was to support and defend the landing forces. As soon as possible after the landings, land-based planes were brought in to free the carriers for other operations.

The islands of the central Pacific had little resemblance to the fetid jungles of Guadalcanal and New Guinea. Atolls like Tarawa or Kwajalein were necklaces of hard coral surrounding lagoons of sheltered water. Where the coral rose above water, small narrow islands took form. These bits of sand furnished little room for maneuver and frequently had to be assaulted frontally. Larger islands like Guam and Saipan were volcanic in origin, with rocky ridges to aid the defense; the shrapnel effect of shell bursts was multiplied by bits of shattered rock.

In November 1943 Nimitz's island-hopping campaign began with his assaults on Betio in the Tarawa Atoll and at Makin a hundred miles north. It was a costly beginning. Elements of the Army's 27th Infantry Division secured Makin with relative ease, but at Betio the 2d Marine Division encountered stubborn and deadly resistance. Naval gunfire and air attacks had failed to eliminate the deeply dug-in defenders, and landing craft grounded on reefs offshore, where they were destroyed by Japanese artillery. As costly as it was, the lessons learned there proved useful in future amphibious operations. Like MacArthur, Nimitz determined to bypass strongly held islands and strike at the enemy's weak points.

During January 1944 landings were made in the Marshalls at Kwajalein and Eniwetok followed by Guam and Saipan in the Marianas during June and July. Because the Marianas were only 1,500 miles from Tokyo, the remaining Japanese carriers came out to fight. The resulting Battle of the Philippine Sea was a disaster for the Japanese. In what U.S. Navy pilots called "the great Marianas turkey shoot," Japanese carrier power was effectively eliminated.

Almost as soon as the Marianas were cleared, the air forces began to prepare airfields to receive new heavy bombers, the B-29s. With a range exceeding 3,000 miles, B-29s could reach most Japanese cities, including Tokyo. In November 1944 the Twentieth Air Force began a strategic bombing campaign against Japan, which indirectly led to one of the bitterest island fights of the war. Tiny Iwo Jima, lying 750 miles southeast of Tokyo, was needed both as an auxiliary base for crippled B-29s returning from their bombing raids over Japan and as a base for long-range escort fighters. The fight for the five-mile-long island lasted five weeks, during February and March 1945, and cost more than 25,000 dead -- almost 6,000 Americans of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and 20,000 Japanese.

While Nimitz crossed the central Pacific, MacArthur pushed along the New Guinea coast, preparing for his return to the Philippines. Without carriers, his progress was slower but less costly than Nimitz's. After clearing the Buna area in January 1943, MacArthur spent the next year conquering northeastern New Guinea and the eight months that followed moving across the northern coast of Netherlands New Guinea to the island of Morotai. Because he had to cover his landings with land-based planes, he was limited to bounds of 200 miles or less on a line of advance almost 2,000 miles long. Furthermore, he had to build airfields as he went. By October 1944 MacArthur was ready for a leap to the Philippines, but this objective was beyond the range of his planes. Nimitz loaned him Admiral William F. Halsey's heavy carriers, and, on 20 October 1944, MacArthur's Sixth Army landed on Leyte Island in the central Philippines.

The Japanese reacted vigorously. For the first time in the war they employed Kamikaze attacks, suicide missions flown by young, half-trained pilots. And they used their last carriers as decoys to draw Halsey's carriers away from the beachheads. With Halsey out of the battle and the landing forces without air cover, the Japanese planned to use conventional warships to brush aside the remaining American warships and destroy the support vessels anchored off the beaches. They almost succeeded. In the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf, the big guns of the big ships, not carrier planes, decided the battle. The Japanese naval forces were decimated. Japan no longer had an effective navy.

As violent as they were, most island fights involved small units and were mercifully short. However, the last two major campaigns of the Pacific war -- Luzon and Okinawa -- took on some of the character of the war in Europe. They were long fights on larger land masses, with entire armies in sustained combat over the course of several months. Japanese defenders on Luzon numbered 262,000 under Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, perhaps the best field commander in the Japanese Army. Yamashita refused an open battle, knowing that superior firepower and command of the air would favor the Americans. Instead, he prepared defensive positions where his forces could deny the Americans strategic points like roads and airfields. He wanted to force the Americans to attack Japanese positions in a new battle of attrition.

His plan worked. MacArthur's Sixth Army under Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger landed on Luzon on 9 January 1945 and began the Army's longest land campaign in the Pacific. MacArthur's forces fought for almost seven months and took nearly 40,000 casualties before finally subduing the Japanese.

The largest landings of Nimitz's central Pacific drive were carried out on Okinawa, only 300 miles from Japan, on 1 April 1945. Before the fight was over three months later, the entire Tenth Field Army -- four Army infantry divisions and two Marine divisions -- had been deployed there. Like his counterpart on Luzon, the Japanese commander on Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, refused to fight on the beaches and instead withdrew into the rocky hills to force a battle of attrition. Again the strategy worked. U.S. casualties were staggering, the largest of the Pacific war. Over 12,000 American soldiers, sailors, and marines died during the struggle. At Okinawa the Japanese launched the greatest Kamikaze raids of the war, and the results were frightening -- 26 ships sunk and 168 damaged. Almost 40 percent of the American dead were sailors lost to Kamikaze attacks.

When the Luzon and Okinawa battles ended in July, the invasion of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu had already been ordered by the Joint Chiefs. The date was set for 1 November 1945. Kyushu would furnish air and naval bases to intensify the air bombardment and strengthen the naval blockade around Honshu, the main island of Japan. A massive invasion in the Tokyo area was scheduled for 1 March 1946 if Japanese resistance continued. With the Okinawa experience fresh in their minds, many planners feared that the invasion of Japan would produce a bloodbath.

In fact, Japan was already beaten. It was defenseless on the seas; its air force was gone; and its cities were being burned out by incendiary bombs. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August and the Soviet declaration of war on 8 August forced the leaders of Japan to recognize the inevitable. On 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender to the Japanese people and ordered Japanese forces to lay down their arms. Despite their earlier suicidal resistance, they immediately did so. With V-J Day -- 2 September 1945 -- the greatest war in human history came to an end.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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