World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped

The Allies on the Defensive

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US Navy SBD dive bombers at the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command
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The Rising Sun Victorious

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and other Allied possessions around the Pacific, Japan swiftly moved to expand its empire. In Malaya, Japanese forces under General Tomoyuki Yamashita executed a lightening campaign down the peninsula, forcing superior British forces to retreat to Singapore.

Landing on the island on February 8, 1942, Japanese troops compelled General Arthur Percival to surrender six days later. With the fall of Singapore, 80,000 British and Indian troops were captured, joining the 50,000 taken earlier in the campaign.

In the Netherlands East Indies, Allied naval forces attempted make a stand at the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27. In the main battle and in actions over the next two days, the Allies lost five cruisers and five destroyers, effectively ending their naval presence in the region. Following the victory, Japanese forces occupied the islands, seizing their rich supplies of oil and rubber.

Fall of the Philippines

To the north, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, the Japanese drove US and Filipino forces, under General Douglas MacArthur, back to the Bataan Peninsula and captured Manila. In early January, the Japanese began attacking the Allied line across Bataan.

Though stubbornly defending the peninsula and inflicting heavy casualties, US and Filipino forces were slowly pushed back and supplies and ammunition began to dwindle. With the US position in the Pacific crumbling, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave his headquarters on the fortress island of Corregidor and relocate to Australia.

Departing on March 12, MacArthur turned over command of the Philippines to General Jonathan Wainwright. Arriving in Australia, MacArthur made a famous radio broadcast to the people of the Philippines in which he promised "I Shall Return."

On April 3, the Japanese launched a major offensive against the Allied lines on Bataan. Trapped and with his lines shattered, Major General Edward P. King surrendered his remaining 75,000 men to the Japanese on April 9. These prisoners endured the "Bataan Death March" which saw approximately 20,000 die (or in some cases escape) en route to POW camps elsewhere on Luzon. With Bataan secure, the Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, focused his attention on the remaining US forces on Corregidor. A small fortress island in Manila Bay, Corregidor served as the Allied headquarters in the Philippines. Japanese troops landed on the island on the night of May 5/6 and met fierce resistance. Establishing a beachhead, they were quickly reinforced and pushed the American defenders back. Later that day Wainwright asked Homma for terms and by May 8 the surrender of the Philippines was complete. Though a defeat, the valiant defense of Bataan and Corregidor bought valuable time for Allied forces in the Pacific to regroup.

Bombers from Shangri-La

In an effort to boost public morale, Roosevelt authorized a daring raid on the home islands of Japan. Conceived by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and Navy Captain Francis Low, the plan called for the raiders to fly B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, bomb their targets, and then continue on to friendly bases in China. Unfortunately on April 18, 1942, Hornet was sighted by a Japanese picket boat, forcing Doolittle to launch 170 miles from the intended take-off point. As a result, the planes lacked the fuel to reach their bases in China, forcing the crews to bail out or crash their aircraft.

While the damage inflicted was minimal, the raid achieved the desired morale boost. Also, it stunned the Japanese, who had believed the home islands to be invulnerable to attack.

As a result, several fighter units were recalled for defensive use, preventing them from fighting at the front. When asked where the bombers took off from, President Roosevelt stated that "They came from our secret base at Shangri-La."

The Battle of the Coral Sea

With the Philippines secured, the Japanese sought to complete their conquest of New Guinea by capturing Port Moresby. In doing so they hoped to bring the US Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers into battle so that they could be destroyed. Alerted to the impending threat by decoded Japanese radio intercepts, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, dispatched the carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington to the Coral Sea to intercept the invasion force. Led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, this force was soon to encounter Admiral Takeo Takagi's covering force consisting of the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, as well as the light carrier Shoho.

On May 4, Yorktown launched three strikes against the Japanese seaplane base at Tulagi, crippling its reconnaissance capabilities and sinking a destroyer. Two days later, land-based B-17 bombers spotted and unsuccessfully attacked the Japanese invasion fleet. Later that day, both carrier forces began actively searching for each other. The next day, both fleets launched all of their aircraft, and succeeded in finding and attacking secondary units of the enemy. The Japanese heavily damaged the oiler Neosho and sunk the destroyer USS Sims. American aircraft located and sunk Shoho.

Fighting resumed on May 8, with both fleets launching massive strikes against the other. Dropping out of the sky, US pilots hit Shokaku with three bombs, setting it on fire and putting it out of action.

Meanwhile, the Japanese attacked Lexington, hitting it with bombs and torpedoes. Though stricken, Lexington's crew had the ship stabilized until fire reached an aviation fuel storage area causing a massive explosion. The ship was soon abandoned and sunk to prevent capture. Yorktown was also damaged in the attack. With Shoho sunk and Shokaku badly damaged, Takagi decided to retreat, ending the threat of invasion. A strategic victory for the Allies, the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never saw one another.

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The Tide Turns: The Battle of Midway

Following the Battle of Coral Sea, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, devised a plan to draw the remaining ships of the US Pacific Fleet into a battle where they could be destroyed. To do this, he planned to invade the island of Midway, 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii.

Critical to Pearl Harbor's defense, Yamamoto knew the Americans would send their remaining carriers to protect the island. Believing the US to only have two carriers operational, he sailed with four, plus a large fleet of battleships and cruisers. Through the efforts of US Navy cryptanalysts, who had broken the Japanese JN-25 naval code, Nimitz was aware of the Japanese plan and dispatched the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, under Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, as well as the hastily repaired USS Yorktown, under Fletcher, to the waters north of Midway to intercept the Japanese.

At 4:30 AM on June 4, the commander of the Japanese carrier force, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, launched a series of strikes against Midway Island. Overwhelming the island's small air force, the Japanese pounded the American base. While returning to the carriers, Nagumo's pilots recommended a second strike on the island.

This prompted Nagumo to order his reserve aircraft, which had been armed with torpedoes, to be rearmed with bombs. As this process was underway, one of his scout planes reported locating the US carriers. Hearing this, Nagumo reversed his rearmament command in order to attack the ships. As the torpedoes were being put back on Nagumo's aircraft, American planes appeared over his fleet.

Using reports from their own scout planes, Fletcher and Spruance began launching aircraft around 7:00 AM. The first squadrons to reach the Japanese were the TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from Hornet and Enterprise. Attacking at low level, they did not score a hit and suffered heavy casualties. Though unsuccessful, the torpedo planes pulled down the Japanese fighter cover, which cleared the way for the American SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Striking at 10:22, they scored multiple hits, sinking the carriers Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga. In response, the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, launched a counterstrike that twice disabled Yorktown. That afternoon, US dive bombers returned and sunk Hiryu to seal the victory. His carriers lost, Yamamoto abandoned the operation. Disabled, Yorktown was taken under tow, but was sunk by the submarine I-168 en route to Pearl Harbor.

Allies on the Offensive: Landing at Guadalcanal

With the Japanese thrust in the central Pacific blocked, the Allies devised a plan to prevent the enemy from occupying the southern Solomon Islands and using them as bases for attacking Allied supply lines to Australia. To accomplish this goal, it was decided to land on the small islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tamambogo, as well as on Guadalcanal where the Japanese were building an airfield.

Securing these islands would also be the first step towards isolating the main Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain. The task of securing the islands largely fell to the 1st Marine Division led by Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift. The Marines would be supported at sea by a task force centered on the carrier USS Saratoga, led by Fletcher, and an amphibious transport force commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner.

On August 7, the Marines landed on all four islands. They met fierce resistance on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tamambogo, but were able to overwhelm the 886 defenders who fought to the last man. On Guadalcanal, the landings went largely unopposed with 11,000 Marines coming ashore. Pressing inland, they secured the airfield the next day, renaming it Henderson Field. On August 7 and 8, Japanese aircraft from Rabaul attacked the landing operations.

These attacks were beaten off by aircraft from Saratoga. Due to low fuel and concerned about further loss of aircraft, Fletcher decided to withdraw his task force on the night of the 8th. With his air cover removed, Turner had no choice but follow, despite the fact that less than half of the Marines' equipment and supplies had been landed. That night the situation worsened when Japanese surface forces defeated and sank four Allied (3 US, 1 Australian) cruisers at the Battle of Savo Island.

The Fight for Guadalcanal

After consolidating their position, the Marines completed Henderson Field and established a defensive perimeter around their beachhead. On August 20, the first aircraft arrived flying in from the escort carrier USS Long Island. Dubbed the "Cactus Air Force," the aircraft at Henderson would prove vital in the coming campaign. In Rabaul, Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake was tasked with retaking the island from the Americans and Japanese ground forces were routed to Guadalcanal, with Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi taking command at the front. Soon the Japanese were launching probing attacks against the Marines' lines. With the Japanese bringing reinforcements to the area, the two fleets met at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24-25. An American victory, the Japanese lost the light carrier Ryujo and were unable to bring their transports to Guadalcanal.

On Guadalcanal, Vandegrift's Marines worked on strengthening their defenses and benefited from the arrival of additional supplies.

Overhead, the aircraft of the Cactus Air Force flew daily to defend the field from Japanese bombers. Prevented from bringing transports to Guadalcanal, the Japanese began delivering troops at night using destroyers. Dubbed the "Tokyo Express," this approach worked, but deprived the soldiers of all their heavy equipment. Beginning on September 7, the Japanese began attacking the Marines' position in earnest. Ravaged by disease and hunger, the Marines heroically repulsed every Japanese assault.

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Securing Guadalcanal

Reinforced in mid-September, Vandegrift expanded and completed his defenses. Over the next several weeks, the Japanese and Marines battled back and forth, with neither side gaining an advantage. On the night of October 11/12, US ships under, Rear Admiral Norman Scott defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Cape Esperance, sinking a cruiser and three destroyers.

The fighting covered the landing of US Army troops on the island and prevented reinforcements from reaching the Japanese. Two nights later, the Japanese dispatched a squadron centered on the battleships Kongo and Haruna, to cover transports heading to Guadalcanal and to bombard Henderson Field. Opening fire at 1:33 AM, the battleships fired on the airfield for nearly an hour and half, destroying 48 aircraft and killing 41. On the 15th, the Cactus Air Force struck at the Japanese convoy as it unloaded, sinking three cargo ships.

Beginning on October 23, Kawaguchi launched a major offensive against Henderson Field from the south. Two nights later, they nearly broke through Marines' line, but were repulsed by Allied reserves. As the fighting was raging around Henderson Field, the fleets collided at the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 25-27. Though a tactical victory for the Japanese, having sunk the carrier USS Hornet, they suffered high losses among their air crews and were forced to retreat.

The tide on Guadalcanal finally turned in the Allies' favor following the naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 12-15. In a series of aerial and naval engagements, US forces sank two battleships, a cruiser, three destroyers, and eleven transports in exchange for two cruisers and seven destroyers. The battle gave the Allies naval superiority in the waters around Guadalcanal, allowing for massive reinforcements to land and the beginning of offensive operations.

In December, the battered 1st Marine Division was withdrawn and replaced by the XIV Corps. Attacking the Japanese on January 10, 1943, the XIV Corps forced the enemy to evacuate the island by February 8. The six month campaign to take the island was one of the longest of the Pacific war and was the first step in pushing back the Japanese.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-japanese-stopped-2361458. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, August 29). World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-japanese-stopped-2361458 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-japanese-stopped-2361458 (accessed December 14, 2017).