Summary of Strategy & Outcome of the WWII Pacific Theater

Tanya Baldwin, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    Tanya Baldwin

    Tanya graduated from Concord University with a Bachelor's degree in Education and a certification in Social Studies 5-12. She holds a Master's degree in Secondary Education from Marshall University. Tanya has over 16 years of experience teaching various social studies subjects.

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

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

Learn about The Pacific Theater in World War II primarily between the United States and Japan. Learn about the Allied strategies, major battles and casualties. Updated: 02/18/2022

The Pacific Theater in World War II

WWII was fought in two main areas: The European theater and the Pacific theater. The Pacific theater involved areas that were largely controlled by Japan. Japan wanted to become a world power and needed to be more self-sufficient to accomplish that goal, so in 1940, Japan teamed up with Italy and Germany and joined the Axis Powers.

The United States had not wanted to get involved in WWII and Japan wanted to make sure that the U.S. stayed out of the war. Therefore, on December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii meant to destroy the U.S. Navy. However, instead of keeping the U.S. out of the war, the attack brought the U.S. into WWII. The Pacific Theater in WWII included the following battles:

Battle Description Results
Battle of the Java Sea-February 1942 The Allied forces of America, British, Dutch, and Australia fought the Japanese in an attempt to prevent Japanese movement into the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese easily defeated the Allied forces and sunk 3 of their destroyers, 2 cruisers, and killed 2300 men.
Battle of Midway-June 1942 As a diversion, Japan attacked the Aleutian Islands, while the true target was the strategic location of the Midway Atoll, which lay halfway between North America and Asia. Americans figured out the Japanese plan thanks to the work of codebreakers. American victory-Japanese naval and air power was significantly hit and Japan was put on the defensive for the rest of the war.
Battle of Guadalcanal-August 1942 America orchestrated an amphibious landing and seized the airfield in the southern Solomon Islands during the six-month ordeal. The Japanese lost and this put an end to the Japanese attempt to disrupt American and Allied supply and communication routes but at a heavy cost. The Allied losses included: Over 600 aircraft, 25 sunken warships, 7500 men killed.
Battle of Saipan-June 1944 U.S. launched this attack in the Mariana islands to have an airbase capable of striking Japan. Losses included nearly 30,000 Japanese troops that committed suicide or were killed. Japanese civilians were also killed or committed suicide. Americans won the battle and gained a secure naval base, but at heavy costs. Americans suffered over 13,000 casualties.
Battle of Leyte-October 1944 This was the largest naval conflict of WWII. Allied forces landed at Leyte in the Philippines. The Allied victory allowed the U.S. to liberate the Philippines. Japan suffered a devastating blow with the loss of aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and over 10,000 Japanese soldiers were killed.
Battle of Iwo Jima-February 1945 The island was invaded by Americans to gain airstrips. It took U.S. troops over a month to achieve victory. This battle is recognized in the famous photo depicting U.S. Marines planting a U.S. flag on the island. This was an American victory with the gain of another airbase, but high casualties were suffered by both sides. Nearly 7,000 American lives were lost and 2400 wounded. 21,000 Japanese defended the land, but only about 1,000 Japanese survived.
Battle of Okinawa-April 1945 Americans attacked the southern tip of Japan in Okinawa to establish an air raid base and go through practice runs for the invasion of mainland Japan. The battle resulted in an American victory with 50,000 U.S. casualties, while the Japanese had over 100,000. There were also approximately 100,000 civilian casualties. The high amount of U.S. casualties led U.S. President Harry Truman to approve the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


This picture portrays the iconic image of the American flag being raised by U.S. marines at Iwo Jima. A few of the marines are shown pushing the flag into place

Iwo Jima


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.

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  • 1:52 Surrender of the Philippines
  • 2:43 Prisoners of War
  • 4:19 The Doolittle Raid
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Allied Strategy in the Pacific

Given the geography of the war in the Pacific in WWII, the United States adopted a strategy of leapfrogging or island-hopping. This strategy called for gaining control of islands that were not well-fortified by the Japanese and then using these islands as staging areas to prepare for the next invasion. The Allied strategy in the Pacific was successful because it allowed for the U.S. to achieve the main goal of an attack on mainland Japan. The Battle of Midway was a critical U.S. victory. Japan lost about 3,000 men, planes, and ships, resulting in Japan giving up the idea of Pacific expansion and from this point on, Japan was placed on the defensive.


This picture shows the USS Yorktown with smoke rising from it, since it was hit by Japanese dive bombers after the initial attack in the Battle of Midway.

Battle of Midway


General MacArthur's Role

American general, Douglas MacArthur, had command of the southwest Pacific theater in WWII. In 1935, MacArthur had helped create armed forces for the Philippines. In December 1941, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to vacate the island, resulting in MacArthur and his staff fleeing the Philippines. MacArthur had stated that the 'Gateway to Asia' was now in the hands of the enemy and he promised, ''I shall return.'' MacArthur was responsible for the operation that freed the Philippines in 1944 and MacArthur went on to lead an island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, returning to the Philippines two and half years later where he landed on Leyte and liberated the Philippines.

Japanese Strategy in the Pacific

The Japanese strategy for winning the Pacific war considered the island geography and perceived weakness of the opponent. The Allied air forces in the Pacific were small and weak. Japan planned to launch attacks from their bases in the Pacific and take out the Allied forces there and then develop those island resources to use as their own. In reaction to the U.S. attempt to conduct island-hopping, the Japanese made use of under-trained Japanese pilots who deliberately crashed into Allied ships, carried out balloon bomb missions, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat determined to fight to the death.

Japan thought a fight would only involve a single enemy. By 1940, the Japanese realized they had been mistaken in this assessment, as they realized they would need to attack the British, Dutch, and Americans. Japan believed they had to launch an assault on America, which had interfered with oil shipments to Japan, to keep the country out of the war. Furthermore, Japan did not have the industrial base and supply routes to battle a sustained war against America and the Allies. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese initiated a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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.

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Video Transcript

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happened in the Pacific Theater during World War 2?

The Pacific Theater during WWII saw both land and sea battles. The opposing sides engaged in island-hopping, as each side tried to secure land to establish additional bases with air strips. Some of the land battles involved hand-to-hand combat and the Japanese utilized kamikaze pilots to destroy battleships and other targets.

Who won the Pacific Theater in World War II?

The Pacific Theater involved many battles. Some won by the Japanese and some by America and Allies. The overall result was Allied victory, which eventually led to a Japanese surrender.

What caused the Pacific Theater in World War II?

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into WWII. America declared war on Japan and engaged the country in battle in the Pacific Theater.

Why was the Pacific Theater Important?

The United States and other Allies fought against the Japanese in the Pacific. The Pacific Theater was important because winning in the Pacific opened up additional bases for the victor and ultimately success.

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