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Although this section focuses on the Pacific War, as part of World War II, the conflict stems from long term instability and war in the Pacific Region.

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Invasion of Manchuria

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Emperor Pu-Yi of China
Pu-Yi, the last emperor of
China, was on the throne
at the age of 3.

In 1931, the Japanese military invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria, declaring their intention to "liberate" it and make it an independent country - Manchukuo. Establishing the overthrown Chinese emperor (Pu-Yi) as head of the area, the Japanese kept control while they drained Manchuria's resources and ran the new "country." At this point, Europe and the Americas, busy battling the Depression and worrying about Germany's developments, simply condemned Japanese aggressions but took no action.




League of Nations
The League of Nations didn't help Manchuria, but
instead, criticized Japan for being aggressive.

On July 7, 1937, there occurred the event that some consider began World War II in Asia or was the start of the second Sino-Japanese War. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident began with the Japanese request to search for a missing soldier, which the Chinese army denied. Shots were exchanged and this event led to large-scale fighting and the Pacific War had begun.

Japan China Battle in Manchuria
The Japanese had better weapons than the Chinese
and quickly took over Manchuria.

Invasion of Nanking

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China Capital moved to Chunking
Nanking was the old capital of China. But when the Japanese invaded,
the capital was moved inland to Chunking.

The Japanese Imperial Army soon gained control of much of the Chinese coast. One of the most infamous episodes of the war is the Japanese invasion of the Chinese capital at that time - Nanking (now Nanjing). As the Japanese neared Nanking, the Chinese continued their retreat. Upon arriving at the capital, the Chinese decided to move their capital closer to the heart of the country, a city called Chunking. Therefore, when the Japanese marched upon the city of Nanking, the Chinese troops there were badly organized and loosely directed. Before long, the Chinese beat a hasty retreat and hid in the city, despite outnumbering the 50,000 Japanese troops. Feeling contemptuous of the weak Chinese surrender, the Japanese troops entered the city victorious and full of fire on the 13th of December. They immediately searched all buildings for any soldiers, killing them on the spot. Innocent residents of the city were taken to the outskirts and made to suffer intense tortures. Soldiers lined up and shot residents and some were burned alive. Regardless of age or gender, Chinese were abused (which was against the rules of war) and then killed to hide evidence. During these six weeks of horror, a time where over 300,000 Chinese were murdered, the Japanese proudly documented all their doings in Nanking as the soldiers were encouraged and often joined by their officers.

Nanking Massacre
The Japanese were proud of their massacre at Nanking,
and documented it well.

One bright light for the Chinese citizens was the establishment of the International Safety Zone which was composed of around 20 Westerners - missionaries, doctors, and businessmen. This group declared a 2.5 mile section of the city for the Red Cross and labeled it "off-limits" to the Japanese. The volunteers in the Safety Zone administered to the wounded and sometimes intervened to save Chinese people in danger of death. Mid-February 1938, the Japanese eased off the unimaginable violence and settled into the city. To soothe the inhabitants of the ravaged city, the Japanese introduced opium and heroin into their homes. Over 50,000 became heroin addicts while many lost their lives to opium. Today, many people deny that the "Rape of Nanking" ever took place.

Invasion of Pearl Harbor

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US Declares War on Japan
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the War
Declaration against Japan in 1941.

The Japanese actions in China stirred up anti-Japanese sentiments in the United States. Though America was neutral at this point in the war, the U.S. press worked actively to keep citizens abreast of the facts. To add more tension between Japan and the United States, America decided to cut off supplies of scrap metal to Japan unless they stopped their aggressions. In December of 1940, America accepted the crucial decision to cut off supplies of oil, a crucial war tool, to Japan in the hopes that the Japanese army would put an end to the war. Instead, what resulted was the notorious attack on Pearl Harbor. Located in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor housed the American Pacific Fleet. Coming in two waves, attacking planes from Japan dropped bombs into the harbor and damaged or destroyed over 300 aircraft, four destroyers, three cruisers, and eight battleships. Around 2,403 people were killed in the attack. As the Japanese bombers went on to attack American bases in the Philippines, the outraged U.S. citizens demanded war against the Japanese. And so, on December 8th of 1941, Britain and the United States of America declared war against the country of Japan. Three days later, Germany declared war on America - the United States had become entangled in the heart of World War II.

US Worried about information to Japan
The U.S. government was always
worried about information slipping
out to the Japanese.
Bombing of Pearl Harbor
The bombing of Pearl Harbor seriously crippled
the American navy.

Other Japanese Invasions

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Other Japanese Invasions
This political cartoon shows Imperial Japan
as an octopus covering the world
because the Japanese had invaded
so many countries at this time.

Meanwhile, the Japanese aircraft decimated American aircraft staying in the Philippines. As the attack had been earlier than expected, all the American planes had been lined up on the open runway to be refueled, leaving them open to the Japanese attack. Having destroyed America's Army Air Force in the Philippines, the Japanese air force continued on to Wake Island, Thailand, and Shanghai. Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a conquering frenzy for the Japanese. By early 1942, they had taken over Borneo, Malaya, Guam, and Indonesia; they had begun fighting in Sumatra, New Guinea, Burma, and Java. In Singapore, British troops had been unprepared and the Japanese siege on Fort Singapore lasted half a month before the British surrender in February. Burma had been important to the troops in China as their capital (now Chungking) was supplied by the Burma Road. By invading Burma, the Japanese army had cut supplies off considerably. Continuing forward, the Japanese advanced on India. The British, Burmese, and Indians, unable to stop the Japanese offensive, changed tactics and decided to stall the Japanese until the monsoons, or heavy Indian rains. This, as well as problems for the Japanese on the Pacific front, resulted in an Allied Victory in India.

The Doolittle Raid

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The Doolittle Raid
During the Doolittle Raid, fighter planes were forced
to take off from small runways on ships.

In early 1942, President Roosevelt decided to air bomb Tokyo, and Colonel Doolittle was assigned the task. Japan outnumbering them 5 to 3 in aircraft carriers, the Americans who volunteered were in for a dangerous mission. On April 2, after much training and a lot of secrecy, the volunteers loaded sixteen B-25's onto the new carrier Hornet. Joined by the Enterprise on April 13, the Doolittle squad planned on attacking April 18th. However, Japanese patrol boats found the party earlier than expected and sent warnings to Japan. In order to maintain the element of surprise in the attack, the aircraft was launched early in the morning, more than 600 miles away from the coast of Japan. Most of the bombers hit their targets and though damage wasn't incredible, it was enough to make an impact upon the Japanese people and government. Eight American airmen were captured, but the raid was considered a success and forced Japan to recall parts of their army to protect their homeland.

Battle of Coral Sea

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Battle of Coral Sea
The Battle of Coral Sea relied heavily on aircraft
carriers, like the one under fire in this drawing.

The Battle of Coral Sea was fought in May of 1942. The Japanese attempted to take over a port in New Guinea (Port Moresby) in order to isolate and conquer Australia. The American fleet decided to meet and prevent the Japanese from obtaining the port. The battle, mostly fought with aircraft carriers, resulted in the Japanese discarding their attack on Port Moresby. However, the U.S. lost an aircraft carrier, an oil ship, a destroyer, and 33 planes along with damage to other ships. The Japanese lost some small ships, 43 planes and received considerable damage to two of their larger aircraft carriers (Shokaku and Zuikaku), which caused them to lose the Battle of Midway one month later. So while the Japanese had "won" by sinking and destroying more American ships, the Battle of Coral Sea benefited America more in the end.

Sinking of the USS Lexington
The U.S.S. Lexington
was sunk in the
Battle of Coral Sea.

Battle of Midway

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Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway was considered the turning
point of the war and was one of the
first victories for the Allies.

After the failure to capture the port at Coral Sea, the Japanese badly wanted a decisive victory against the American fleet. So, the Japanese created a complicated plan using battleships and distractions to keep the U.S. ships busy, while taking over the island of Midway to gain more control of the Pacific. There were two problems with their plans: the aircraft carriers were easier to maneuver and could inflict more damage than battleships, and the American had cracked their code so they already knew where the Japanese would be and how they would attack. On June 4th, 1942, the American fleet scouts located the Japanese fleet and sent out their air carriers out. When the Japanese sent planes to attack Midway, the American planes set out to attack the Japanese ships. At this point, however, the ships were well-protected and few planes hit their targets. But when the Japanese planes attacking the island returned, they needed to be refueled and re-quipped. This left their ships, which were helping the planes re-load, open to attack. It was then that the aircraft carriers sent their planes to bring down the Japanese carriers. Though many planes were shot down or ran out of fuel, a squadron of dive bombers sunk the four important Japanese carriers in a matter of five minutes. America only lost the ship, Yorktown. In addition to the carriers, Japan lost many experienced crewmen in the Battle of Midway. This battle was considered a major turnaround for the Allies in WWII and the Pacific War.

Guadalcanal Campaign

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Recruitment Posters
Posters like this encouraged
Americans to participate
in the war.

After the Battle of Midway, America began an offensive. Their first advance was known as the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands. The Japanese had established a seaplane base on Tulagi, an island near Guadalcanal (a 90-mile long island in the South). On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division landed on the islands—the largest marine operation at that time and led to three months of hard fighting. In four months, both sides had lost 23 ships, but only the U.S. could replace them. Therefore, the Japanese retreated from the island in December and the island was secure in February of 1943. Yet, 1500 Americans and 25,000 Japanese died in the course of those many months and more were lost at sea. While fighting in the Solomons continued, the battle at Guadalcanal provided the U.S. with the base to take over the area. In order to save time in their campaign against Japan, the United States adopted the tactic of "island-hopping" where, instead of conquering every island on the way to Tokyo, the U.S. would conquer the main ones and simply isolate the others without actual combat. This way, less men would be unnecessarily lost. Many of the islands that had been skipped continued fighting even after the war was over. The Solomon Islands Campaign continued from February 1943 all the way up to the end of the war in August 1945.

Tarawa: The First Step

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Tarawa Battle
At Tarawa, American soldiers had to take cover
behind piles of sand and rock.

One of the next significant battles fought in the Pacific War was on the island of Tarawa. Since Tarawa was heavily fortified and contained intricate bunkers, it was basically a fortress. In fact, the Japanese commander in charge of Tarawa claimed that "a million men could not take Tarawa in a hundred years." With 35,000 men, America took Tarawa in four days. The Americans made two landings on the island - one at Betio and one at Makin. The Betio landing was bloody, as the Japanese fire caused high casualties for the U.S. The landing at Makin was less troublesome, but still was difficult for the American troops. Once on land, the advance was slow as the Japanese would keep fighting to the last bullet, then commit suicide rather than be captured. By the third day, the army was certain of conquering Tarawa, but didn't know how many more people would die in the process. Most of the Japanese committed suicide, and in the end the remaining Japanese and Korean laborers who stayed in the last positions came in one mass charge and were shot down. In the end, 1500 Americans and 4800 Japanese died in the taking of Tarawa.

Saipan: The Suicide Cliffs

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Saipan Battle
From these cliffs at Saipan, civilians
and soldiers alike committed mass suicide
rather than be captured.

In the Battle of Philippine Sea (June 18-30, 1944), Japan lost 429 planes while only 29 American aircraft were destroyed. This left the Japanese relying on their battleships in a war defined by air warfare. The Marianas Islands Campaign continued, while the Americans met with more and more resistance as they neared Japan. One major battle was fought on the island of Saipan. Guarded by 30,000 troops and civilians who were deathly afraid the American troops would pillage their homes, Saipan was a difficult target. As soon as the U.S. troops landed, they were shot at. Though the island was secured by the end of June, 3000 Japanese charged in a suicide attack on July 7. The Americans won the battle, but 16,525 casualties resulted. On the Japanese side, the entire population of 22,000 and nearly all the soldiers had committed suicide by jumping (or being pushed) off the cliffs of Saipan. This incident showed clearly the Japanese mentality of loyalty to their emperor and their code of death before capture. After Saipan, many Japanese knew they had lost the war and it was only a matter of time before Japan itself was attacked.

Return to Philippines

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Kamikaze Plane
This drawing shows a Japanese
kamikaze plane committing
suicide by crashing into a cliff
labeled "Allied Might".

In September of 1944, the Philippines were liberated along with a bloody battle at Peleliu. Peleliu is not remembered by the public because of the major events in Europe at this time. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese lost much of their fleet and introduced kamikaze fighters. Kamikaze, meaning "Divine Wind" in Japanese, were the pilots who would commit suicide by crashing into ships or aircraft in order to destroy the enemy. The Philippines Campaign, lasting from October 20, 1944 to August 15, 1945, successfully liberated the Philippines from Japanese control. Beginning October 1944, pilots began bombing areas of Japan. However, the explosives used didn't do enough damage to the wood and paper buildings. In January 1945, the bombers switched to fire bombing, where they set fire to Tokyo and other cities. This was remarkably effective and killed nearly 500,000 people over the course of the war.

Iwo Jima: A Picture of the War

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Iwo Jima Photo becomes a Monument Determination and Victory
This picture, taken at Iwo Jima, became a symbol of
determination and victory for the United States.

One of the most famous battles of the war was the Battle of Iwo Jima. A volcanic island in the Bonin Islands with a mountain top, Iwo Jima was the site of the bloodiest battle in the entire Pacific War. During the war, Iwo Jima had been filled with anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes which had proved problematic to scouting and bomber planes. Therefore, it was decided that Iwo Jima had to be taken if Japan was to be conquered effectively. The Japanese, having realized that they would eventually lose the war, decided to inflict as much damage as possible to the Allied forces. On February 19,1945, the Marines landed on Iwo Jima without interference. However, once on the black sanded beach, the Japanese burst out and began the onslaught. On the beach, there was no way to shield and burrowing was impossible in the black sand, marking the American troops as open targets. The Marines soon made it to the top of the mountain, and on February 23rd, they put up a flag and took one of the best-known pictures from the entire war. Fighting continued until March 21st when, at last, Iwo Jima was declared secure. In the process of conquering Iwo Jima, 6800 Americans and 21000 Japanese were killed.

Okinawa: A Bloody Battle

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Okinawa Battle
The Americans had to cross open terrain on
Okinawa which made them easy targets
for the Japanese defending the island.

The battle later known as "Bloody Okinawa" began on April 1st and ended June 2nd, 1945. This battle claimed the lives of more people than did both the atomic bombs put together! Okinawa was also known as the largest land-and-water campaign, with more weapons and ships used than any other battle, and was the last big campaign of the Pacific war. The island of Okinawa had been stocked with weapons and strengthened with many air bases. It was the first defense in the Japanese islands with 100,000 Japanese soldiers and 2,000 kamikaze planes to protect it. America, naming the invasion "Operation Iceberg," brought in 1,500 ships and 500,000 men in to occupy Okinawa. Though the Americans met most of their goals in the first four days, the kamikaze damaged or sank many ships that slowed the invasion and cost many lives. By the time the battle ended, the results were: - Over 38,000 Americans wounded - 12,000 Americans killed or missing - Over 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan soldiers killed - About 100,000 Okinawan civilians killed in battle After the victory, the Allies turned Okinawa into a base for the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The Secret Weapon

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Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was one of the key
scientists to work on the atomic bomb.

All through the war, both America and Germany had been working to create a weapon that would stop the war in its tracks - the atomic bomb. The American side was code-named the Manhattan Project and was located mainly in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Though it was a race between the two sides as to who could create the nuclear weapons faster, Germany was far behind the United States. In the spring of 1945, American scientists realized that they were nearly done developing this weapon of mass destruction and began to question the necessity of using it. The war with Germany was almost over and the purpose of the bomb had been to wipe Germany out to stop World War II. Now there seemed no point. Yet, work continued. In July, the first bomb, Trinity, was tested. Scientists were amazed by its power and continued to worry about whether they should have made it.

Anti-Japanese Propaganda
Lots of anti-Japanese propaganda
was spread during the war.

Two Bombs End a War

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Nagasaki Atomic Bomb
The mushroom cloud (this one was over Nagasaki)
was a distinctive characteristic of the atomic bomb.

When the Japanese refused to surrender or negotiate, President Truman decided the bombs should be used against Japan. The uranium bomb "Little Boy" was loaded onto the Enola Gay, an airship which was to drop the bomb. On August 6, 1945, a bright flash of light and a mushroom cloud covered Hiroshima; the alarmed Japanese had no idea what had happened. The atomic bomb left 75,000 to 180,000 dead and would kill more because of cancer and radiation poisoning in the future. Despite the horrific stories and high death tolls, the Japanese government did not surrender. So, on August 9th, the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki. Here, 70,000 people were killed, and again radiation would continue to wreak havoc among the people in the area for decades. On August 15, 1945, The Japanese Emperor surrendered unconditionally. World War II was over.

Victory Kiss
This photo is now famous and shows the
celebration that took place at the
end of the war.


Books on World War II

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  • Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan by Ronald H. Spector
  • At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor by Gordon W. Prange
  • The Pacific War Encyclopedia by Albert A. Nofi
  • Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific by Eric M. Bergerud
  • The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland


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