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A Brief History of WWII

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Japanese fortunes turned sour in mid-1942. Their uninterrupted string of victories ended with history's first great carrier battles. In May 1942 the Battle of the Coral Sea halted a new Japanese offensive in the south Pacific. A month later the Japanese suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway in the central Pacific. Now American and Australian forces were able to begin two small counteroffensives -- one in the Solomons and the other on New Guinea's Papuan peninsula. The first featured the Marine Corps and the Army; the second, the Army and the Australian Allies.

American resources were indeed slim. When MacArthur arrived in Australia in March 1942, he found, to his dismay, that he had little to command. Australian militia and a few thousand U.S. airmen and service troops were his only resources. The Australian 7th Division soon returned from North Africa, where it had been fighting the Germans, and two U.S. National Guard divisions, the 32d and the 41st, arrived in April and May. MacArthur had enough planes for two bomber squadrons and six fighter squadrons. With only these forces, he set out to take Papua, while Admiral Nimitz, with forces almost equally slim, attacked Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Of all the places where GIs fought in the Second World War, Guadalcanal and the Papuan peninsula may have been the worst. Though separated by 800 miles of ocean, the two were similarly unhealthful in terrain and climate. The weather on both is perpetually hot and wet; rainfall may exceed 200 inches a year, and during the rainy season deluges, sometimes 8 to 10 inches of rain, occur daily. Temperatures in December reach the high eighties, and humidity seldom falls below 80 percent. Terrain and vegetation are equally foreboding -- dark, humid, jungle-covered mountains inland, and evil-smelling swamps along the coasts. Insects abound. The soldiers and marines were never dry; most fought battles while wracked by chills and fever. For every two soldiers lost in battle, five were lost to disease -- especially malaria, dengue, dysentery, or scrub typhus, a dangerous illness carried by jungle mites. Almost all suffered "jungle rot," ulcers caused by skin disease.

Guadalcanal lay at the southeast end of the Solomons, an island chain 600 miles long. Navy carriers and other warships supported the landings, but they could not provide clear air or naval superiority. The marines landed on 7 August 1942, without opposition, and quickly overran an important airfield. That was the last easy action on Guadalcanal. The carriers sailed away almost as soon as the marines went ashore. Then Japanese warships surprised the supporting U.S. naval vessels at the Battle of Savo Island and quickly sank four heavy cruisers and one destroyer. Ashore, the Japanese Army fought furiously to regain the airfield. Through months of fighting the marines barely held on; some American admirals even thought that the beachhead would be lost. But gradually land-based aircraft were ferried in to provide air cover, and the Navy was able to return. As the Japanese continued to pour men into the fight, Guadalcanal became a battle of attrition.

Slowly American resources grew, while the Japanese were increasingly unable to make up their losses. In October soldiers of the Americal Division joined the battle; in November the Navy won a smashing victory in the waters offshore; and in early 1943 the Army's 25th Infantry Division was committed as well. Soldiers now outnumbered marines, and the ground forces were reorganized as the XIV Corps, commanded by Army Mail Gen. Alexander M. Patch. As the Japanese lost the ability to supply their forces, enemy soldiers began to starve in the jungles. But not until February -- six months after the initial landing -- was Guadalcanal finally secured.

Meanwhile, 800 miles to the west on the eastern peninsula of New Guinea, another shoestring offensive began. Even after the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese persisted in their efforts to take Port Moresby, a strategic town on New Guinea's southern coast. In late July 1942 they landed on the north coast of the huge, mountainous island and began to make their way south toward Port Moresby, across the towering Owen Stanley Mountains. Almost impassable in normal circumstances, the trail they followed was a quagmire under constant rain. Supply became impossible; food ran short; fever and dysentery set in. Defeated just short of their goal by Australian defenses, the Japanese retreated. Meanwhile, MacArthur had decided to launch a counteroffensive against the fortified town of Buna and other Japanese-held positions on the northern coast. He sent portions of the Australian 7th and U.S. 32d Divisions over the same mountainous jungle tracks earlier used by the Japanese. The result was the same. By the time his troops reached the northern coast, they were almost too debilitated to fight. Around Buna and the nearby village of Gona the Japanese holed up in coconut-log bunkers that were impervious to small-arms and mortar fire. The Americans lacked artillery, flamethrowers, and tanks. While they struggled to dig the defenders out, malnutrition, fever, and jungle rot ravaged the troops. Like the troops on Guadalcanal, the Aussies and the men of the 32d barely held on.

The Japanese also faced serious problems. Their commanders had to choose between strengthening Guadalcanal or Buna. Choosing Guadalcanal, they withdrew some support from the Buna garrison. Growing American air power made it impossible for the Japanese Navy to resupply their forces ashore, and their troops began to run short of food and ammunition. By December they were on the edge of starvation. Here the battle of attrition lasted longer, and not until January 1943 was the last Japanese resistance eliminated.

Buna was costlier in casualties than Guadalcanal, and in some respects it was an even nastier campaign. The terrain was rougher; men who crossed the Owen Stanleys called that march their toughest experience of the war. The Americans lacked almost everything necessary for success -- weapons, proper clothing, insect repellents, and adequate food. "No more Bunas," MacArthur pledged. For the rest of the war his policy was to bypass Japanese strongpoints. When the battles for Guadalcanal and Buna began, the Americans had insufficient strength to win. American strength increased as the battle went on. Over the next three years it would grow to overwhelming proportions.

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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