Photos of World War II in the Pacific

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World War II in Asia Photos - Japan Rising

Japanese troops, 1941. Hulton Archive /Getty Images

By 1941, early in the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Army numbered 51 divisions totaling more than 1,700,000 men.  With this large force, Japan went on the offensive, seizing territory across Asia.  After bombing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to reduce American military capabilities in the Pacific, Japan initiated the "Southern Expansion."  This lightning advance grabbed Allied nations' colonies including the Philippines (then a US possession), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), British Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore), French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), and British Burma (Myanmar).  The Japanese also occupied independent Thailand.

In a single year, the Japanese Empire had seized most of East and Southeast Asia.  Its momentum looked unstoppable.

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World War II in Asia Photos - China Brutalized but Undefeated

Japanese soldiers taunt young Chinese POWs before executing them, 1939. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The prelude to World War II in Asia was Japan's 1910 annexation of Korea, followed by its establishment of a puppet state in Manchuria in 1932, and its invasion of China proper in 1937.  This Second Sino-Japanese War would continue for the duration of World War II, resulting in the deaths of approximately 2,000,000 Chinese soldiers and a horrifying 20,000,000 Chinese civilians.  Many of Japan's worst atrocities and war crimes took place in China, its traditional rival in East Asia, including the Rape of Nanking.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Indian Troops in France

Troops from British India deployed to France, 1940. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Although Japan's advance into Burma posed a clear and immediate threat to British India, the British government's first priority was the war in Europe.  As a result, Indian troops ended up fighting in far-off Europe rather than defending their own homes.  Britain also deployed many of India's 2.5 million troops to the Middle East, as well as North, West, and East Africa.

Indian troops comprised the third largest force in the 1944 invasion of Italy, outnumbered only by the Americans and British.  At the same time, the Japanese had advanced into northern India from Burma.  They were finally stopped at the Battle of Kohima in June of 1944, and the Battle of Imphal in July.

Negotiations between the British home government and Indian nationalists resulted in a deal: in exchange for India's contribution of 2.5 million men to the Allied war effort, India would get its independence.  Although Britain tried to stall after the war was over, India and Pakistan became independent in August of 1947.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Britain Surrenders Singapore

Percival, carrying British flag, surrenders Singapore to the Japanese, Feb. 1942. UK National Archives via Wikimedia

Great Britain called Singapore the "Gibraltar of the East," and it was the UK's major military base in Southeast Asia.  British and colonial troops fought hard to hang on to the strategic city between February 8 and 15, 1942, but were unable to hold it against a major Japanese onslaught.  The Fall of Singapore ended with 100,000 to 120,000 Indian, Australian, and British troops becoming prisoners of war; these poor souls would face horrific conditions in Japanese POW camps.  British commander Lieutenant General Arthur Percival was forced to hand over Britain's flag to the Japanese.  He would survive three and a half years as a POW, living to see the Allied victory.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Bataan Death March

Bodies of Filipino annd American POWs on the Bataan Death March. US National Archives

After Japan beat American and Filipino defenders in the Battle of Bataan, which lasted from January to April of 1942, the Japanese took approximately 72,000 prisoners of war.  The starving men were force-marched through the jungle for 70 miles in a week; an estimated 20,000 of them died along the way of hunger or maltreatment by their captors.  This Bataan Death March counts among the most terrible atrocities of World War II in Asia - but those who survived the march, including the US commander of forces in the Philippines, Lieutenant Jonathan Wainwright, faced more than three years in hellish Japanese POW camps.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Japan Ascendant

Japanese sailors drill under the rising sun flag. Fotosearch / Getty Images

By the middle of 1942, it seemed that the Japanese were poised to achieve their goal of creating a greater Japanese Empire across much of Asia.  Initially greeted with enthusiasm by people in some of the colonized lands of Southeast Asia, the Japanese soon sparked resentment and armed opposition with their mistreatment of local people. 

Unbeknownst to the war planners in Tokyo, the strike on Pearl Harbor had also galvanized the United States into the most impressive rearming effort ever undertaken.  Rather than being demoralized by the "sneak attack," Americans reacted with fury and a new determination to fight and win the war.  Before long, war material was pouring from American factories, and the Pacific Fleet was back in action much more quickly than the Japanese anticipated.  

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World War II in Asia Photos - Pivot at Midway

The USS Yorktown gets torpedoed at the Battle of Midway as anti-aircraft flak fills the sky. US Navy / Wikimedia

On June 4-7, the Japanese Navy launched an attack on the US-held island of Midway, a strategically located stepping stone to Hawaii.  Japanese officers were not aware that the US had broken their codes, and knew about the planned attack in advance.  The US Navy was able to bring in a third aircraft carrier group, to the Japanese admiral's surprise.  In the end, the Battle of Midway cost the US one carrier - the USS Yorktown, pictured above - but the Japanese lost four carriers and more than 3,000 men.

This shocking loss set the Japanese Navy back on its heels for the following three years.  It did not give up the fight, but momentum had shifted to the Americans and their allies in the Pacific.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Holding the Line in Burma

Joint patrol in Burma, March 1944. Kachen soldiers patrol with one American and one Briton. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Burma played a key role in World War II in Asia - a role that is often overlooked.  To Japan, it represented a launching point for assaults on the ultimate prize in Asian empire-building: India, at that time colonized by the British.  In May of 1942, the Japanese swept north from Rangoon, cutting the Burma Road.

This mountain road was the other aspect of Burma's vital importance in the war.  It was the only route by which the Allies could get necessary supplies to the Chinese Nationalists, who were desperately fighting off the Japanese from the mountains of southwest China.  Food, ammunition, and medical supplies flowed along the switchbacks of the Burma Road to Chiang Kai-shek's embattled troops, until Japan cut the route.

The Allies were able to retake parts of northern Burma in August 1944, thanks in large part to the exploits of the Kachin Raiders.  These guerrilla soldiers from Burma's Kachin ethnic group were experts at jungle warfare, and served as the backbone of the Allied fighting effort.  After more than six months of bloody fighting, the Allies were able to push back the Japanese and reopen the vital supply lines to China.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Kamikaze

Kamikaze pilots prepare to attack US ships, 1945. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

With the tide of war running against them, the desperate Japanese began to launch suicide flights against US Navy ships in the Pacific.  Called kamikaze or "divine winds," these attacks inflicted significant damage on a number of US ships, but could not reverse the momentum of the war.  Kamikaze pilots were hailed as heroes, and held up as exemplars of bushido or the "samurai spirit."  Even if the young men had second thoughts about their missions, they could not turn back - the planes only had enough fuel for a one-way trip to their targets.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Iwo Jima

US Marines raise the flag on day 5 at Iwo Jima, Feb. 1945. Lou Lowery/US Navy

As 1945 began, the United States decided to take the war to the doorstep of Japan's home islands.  The US launched an assault on Iwo Jima, roughly 700 miles southeast of Japan proper.

The attack began on February 19, 1945, and soon turned in to a bloody grind.  Japanese soldiers with their backs against the wall, figuratively speaking, refused to surrender, launching suicide attacks instead.  The Battle of Iwo Jima took more than a month, ending only on March 26, 1945.  An estimated 20,000 Japanese soldiers died in the vicious fighting, as did nearly 7,000 Americans. 

War planners in Washington D.C. viewed Iwo Jima as a preview of what they could expect if the US launched a land assault on Japan itself.  They feared that if American soldiers set foot on Japan, the Japanese population would rise up and fight to the death to defend their homes, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.  The Americans began to consider other alternatives for ending the war...

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World War II in Asia Photos - Hiroshima

A ruined bus amid the devastation of Hiroshima, August 1945. Keystone Archive / Getty Images

On August 6, 1945, the US Air Force dropped an atomic weapon the Japanese city of Hiroshima, obliterating the city center in an instant and killing 70-80,000 people.  Three days later, the US punctuated its point by dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki, killing about 75,000 more people, mostly civilians.

American officials justified the use of these horrendous weapons by pointing out the likely toll in Japanese and American lives if the US had had to launch a ground assault on Japan itself.  The war-weary American public also wanted a quick end to the war in the Pacific, three months after V-E Day.

Japan announced its unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Japan Surrenders

Japanese officials formally surrender aboard the USS Missouri, August 1945. MPI / Getty Images

On September 2, 1945, Japanese officials boarded the USS Missouri and signed the "Japanese Instrument of Surrender."  Emperor Hirohito, on August 10, had stated that "I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer... The time has come to bear the unbearable.  I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation (of victory)." 

The emperor himself was spared the indignity of having to sign the surrender document.  The Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army Staff, General Yoshijiro Umezu, signed on behalf of the Japanese armed forces.  Foreign Affairs Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed in the name of the civilian government of Japan.

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World War II in Asia Photos - Reunited

MacArthur (center) with Generals Percival and Wainwright, who were held in a Japanese POW camp. Percival is also in slide 4, surrendering Singapore. Keystone Archive / Getty Images

General Douglas MacArthur, who escaped Corregidor in the Fall of the Philippines, is reunited with General Wainwright (on the right) who remained behind to command US troops at Bataan.  On the left is General Percival, the British commander who surrendered to the Japanese during the Fall of Singapore.  Percival and Wainwright show signs of more than three years of starvation and toil as Japanese POWs.  MacArthur, in contrast, looks well-fed and perhaps a bit guilty.