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The Pacific Ocean Theater of WWII: Japan vs. The Allies

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  • 1:52 Surrender of the Philippines
  • 2:43 Prisoners of War
  • 4:19 The Doolittle Raid
  • 5:15 The Battle of Midway &…
  • 7:07 The Beginning of the End
  • 8:40 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered WWII. Watch this video to learn about some of the key battles, as well as the general nature, of the Pacific theater of the war.

Japan Goes on the Offensive

Japan opened its doors to the outside world in the mid-1800s, and before the century was over, they had begun to expand. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and prepared to conquer China. Late in 1940, this military powerhouse allied with Germany and Italy, creating the Axis powers of WWII. This gave them the pretext they needed to invade European colonies in the Pacific, beginning with French Indochina.

In response to these and other actions, the United States had imposed an oil embargo against Japan. Running short on fuel, the Japanese decided to simultaneously discourage further U.S. interference in the region and cripple their ability to wage war in the Pacific. The Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, along with several other American possessions and Allied colonies. America declared war the next day, as did Britain.

This was the start of a five-month rampage across the Pacific. By the end of 1942, Japan controlled a maritime empire stretching more than 2.8 million square miles. Throughout the war, they also attacked, but didn't conquer, Canada, Australia, many smaller islands, Alaska and even several spots along the west coast of the United States. Since it's impossible for us to discuss every famous battle, we're going to look at just a few events that were either decisive moments in the war or very good examples of what WWII in the Pacific was like.

Surrender of the Philippines

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese also attacked the Philippines and a collection of islands under U.S. control, and Allied forces steadily lost ground. Three months later, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. Army in the Far East, abandoned the Philippines and escaped to the safety of Australia with his family and 14 staff officers, promising, 'I shall return!'

MacArthur left behind thousands of soldiers, as well as American nurses and civilians. By May 1942, the troops were nearly out of food and ammunition; they surrendered and the foreign civilians were herded into internment camps for the duration of the war. For three years, only small guerilla units were left to fight back. The 'Gateway to Asia' was now in the hands of the enemy.

Prisoners of War

Back in April, Japanese soldiers captured at least 72,000 starving American and Filipino men and sent them in groups on a 63-mile march from the Bataan Peninsula to Camp O'Donnell where they would be held temporarily. The troops were so brutalized that only 54,000 arrived at the holding camp. Historians believe most of those unaccounted for died during the walk, while a few managed to escape. Then, about half of the survivors of the Bataan Death March died after reaching Camp O'Donnell. In the end, nearly 86% of the Americans who surrendered at Bataan lost their lives.

Throughout the Pacific roughly 40% of American POWs died in Japanese custody from exhaustion, malnutrition, exposure, torture, disease and execution; some were even killed in medical experiments. Now by comparison, just over 1% of American prisoners died at the hands of the Nazis. Most POWs, including women, were transported to Japan on intentionally unmarked ships, leading to more than 21,000 American casualties from Allied torpedoes. Those who did reach Japan were generally used as slave labor in Japan's war industry or railroad construction. A few prisoners died in the atomic blasts that ended the war in 1945.

The Doolittle Raid

For a year, the United States reacted to events in the Pacific without a coordinated strategy. In April 1942, they devised a plan to launch bombers off an aircraft carrier, strike Tokyo and then proceed to an unoccupied part of China. But, the bombers, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, didn't have enough fuel to reach their planned airstrip after the attack. They flew until they ran out of fuel and the crews ditched them.

Despite the loss of seven men and all 16 planes, the Doolittle Raid was at once a psychological boost for the Americans and a tremendous blow to the Japanese, who believed their homeland was invincible. Furious, the Japanese planned a secret attack that they believed would keep America from ever launching an air raid against Japan again; they planned to destroy the Allied fleet at Midway Island.

The Battle of Midway and Island Hopping

Two factors doomed the Japanese attack at Midway before it even began. One was the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. The battle was a tactical victory for Japan, but several strategic ships were damaged or lost, keeping them out of the Battle of Midway. Secondly, the Japanese were unaware that the Americans had cracked their coded messages.

So, on June 4, 1942, Allied forces ambushed the Japanese fleet, sinking four aircraft carriers, a cruiser and two destroyers. Other ships were damaged. Though one American carrier was also lost, Japan no longer had naval supremacy. The Battle of Midway is widely considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific, halting the Japanese advance towards Australia and sending them into retreat.

America and its Allies started island hopping, choosing strategic Japanese possessions to attack as they moved closer and closer to Japan. The battles over tiny outposts in the middle of a vast ocean were surprisingly fierce, as invading forces struggled against deeply entrenched Japanese defenses. But, the Allies had gained the upper hand and were on the offensive.

By the summer of 1944, the successful invasion of Saipan put American bombers within range of Japan. And, it was here that the Allies fully grasped the Japanese concept of 'death before surrender;' nearly 97% of their troops fought to the death and as many as 1,000 civilians committed suicide rather than face an unknown fate at the hand of U.S. soldiers.

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