Allied offensives in the Pacific during 1943-44
Allied advances in the Pacific
author Paul Boșcu, March 2019
After the victories at Midway and Guadalcanal in 1942 the US forces gained the initiative over the japanese. Over the next 2 years carefully staged offensives in various island groups in the Pacific were initiated. The American forces and their allies slowly but steadily pushed back the Japanese towards Japan's home islands.
After the American victories at Midway and Guadalcanal, the tides of war in the Pacific turned against Japan. Due to America’s overwhelming military and industrial capabilities, the Allied forces gained the upper hand. Over the next two years the Japanese suffered a series of military setbacks, losing many of the islands they had conquered. The Allied military leaders often adopted a policy of ‘island hopping’, bypassing Japanese strongholds that had a strong presence, but were isolated and could not be reinforced. This strategy was adopted so that the Allied soldiers could be rested for the islands that the Japanese could reinforce.

There was no scope for strategic deception, because the only credible objectives for American assault were a handful of island air bases. The US Navy and Marine Corps advanced from one foothold to the next, knowing that the Japanese had fortified them all in anticipation of their coming.

US dominance of air and sea had become so great that Japanese forces in the southwest Pacific were incapable of transporting enough troops to threaten Allied strategic purposes. In late 1943 US submarines, decisive contributors to victory, began to wreak havoc upon Japan’s supply links to its over-extended empire. Many Japanese island garrisons were starved of weapons and ammunition as well as food.

How that ultimate defeat was to be achieved was certainly not yet obvious in 1943. The offensives were pushed, nevertheless, not only because the commanders on the spot were insistent on doing so but because there were excellent reasons for believing it was essential to keep the Japanese on the defensive lest they so fortify the islands and build up the air bases on them as to make a deferred assault horrendously costly or even impossible. It would all prove difficult enough as it was.

The broad outlines of American strategy in the Pacific had been agreed upon at the Quadrant Conference in Quebec in August 1943. There it had been formally decided that the Central Pacific thrust would head for the Marianas, while in the Southwest Pacific the aim was the Vogelkop peninsula, the northwest corner of New Guinea. From these positions, an invasion of the Philippines as well as other alternatives would be open.

At the January 1943 Casablanca summit conference, the Western Allied leaderships reasserted the priority of defeating Germany, but agreed to devote sufficient resources to the war against Japan to maintain the initiative. The US Navy and Marine Corps were unfailingly sceptical about southwest Pacific operations, directed towards ultimate recapture of the Philippines. The admirals preferred instead to thrust across the central Pacific through the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana islands, the shortest route to Japan. A decision was taken to undertake both simultaneously. The British, meanwhile, addressed themselves once more to Burma.

The USAAF was unwilling even to allocate long range bombers to conduct a major air offensive against Japan’s key base in the south-west Pacific, Rabaul, before 1944. The chiefs of staff thus agreed that in 1943 Allied forces would pursue modest objectives: advancing up the Solomons to Bougainville, while MacArthur’s forces addressed the north coast of New Guinea. The latter was an exclusive US Army and Australian operation, though dependent on naval support.

The Americans in looking toward 1943 in the Pacific concentrated on projects to improve their position for action in subsequent years when more force would be available. As much Japanese shipping as possible was to be sunk by Allied submarines and planes, and steps would be taken to seize bases closer to Japan from which that country itself could be bombed, and also its shipping routes. The issue of a landing assault on the Japanese home islands was at this time left open, but the same operations which brought them within land-based airplane range would in any case be needed for such an assault.

Nothing could alter the campaign’s fundamentals: to defeat Japan, US forces must seize strongly defended Pacific air and naval bases. No application of superior technology and firepower could avert the need for American soldiers and Marines to expose their bodies to a skilful and stubborn foe. Even though it was plain that the Allies would win the war, Japan’s commitment remained unshaken.

Implementation of the plan for the central Pacific thrust would be enormously aided by the fact that the warships ordered under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 were coming out of the construction yards into the navy during 1943. In this regard, the hopes of the Americans and the apprehensions of the Japanese concerning that great program proved to be well founded.

It has been argued that the double thrust, which was designed partly by default to accommodate the army-navy rivalry of MacArthur and Nimitz, should have been replaced by one single thrust regardless of the problems posed by the personalities involved. However there was also much to be said for allocating the steadily growing American forces to two axes of advance, which would be able to assist each other. The advantage was seen when the Japanese, struggling already with shrinking resources, were unable to block one of the thrusts without taking troops from the other, leaving a gap for the Allied forces to push through.

The expansion of the US Navy made possible a growing Pacific buildup in the course of 1943. Four huge Essex-class fleet carriers and five light carriers provided the core of fast task forces which included battleships and cruisers for shore bombardment, destroyers for radar picket and anti-submarine escort duties. A vast fleet train of oilers and supply vessels enabled the fighting ships to sustain up to seventy days of continuous operations, far beyond the Royal Navy’s capabilities. There were also escort carriers to provide close support for the amphibious armadas, and hundreds of PT-boats for inshore work, together with repair and hospital vessels.

Though these ships were overwhelmingly manned by landsmen without previous seagoing experience, officers and crews displayed skills of navigation, gunnery and seamanship which entirely outclassed those of their enemies. The steep decline in the Japanese Combined Fleet’s operational performance, from high professionalism in December 1941 to faltering ineptitude a year or two later, was one of the strangest and most notable phenomena of the war.

Those Japanese pilots who got close enough to see an American task force below them were awed by its size, covering hundreds of square miles of ocean. The US Navy in the last two years of the war projected long-range power such as the world had never seen, and grew larger than all the other combatant navies put together. Substantial elements of this fleet were deployed in support of each of the island assault operations that dominated the latter phase of the eastern war.

Japanese strategy, such as it was, required extraction of the highest possible blood-price from the Americans for every small gain, to erode their will and persuade them to negotiate. It is often claimed that Japan’s militarists alone insisted on continuing the war, but the generals enjoyed powerful support from conservative politicians, many fervent Japanese nationalists, and from the Emperor.

For the Japanese, the critical point was to hold what remained of their earlier conquests; and although an outside observer could see that the tide had turned decisively against them, this was not fully recognized in Tokyo. There the main concern was to fight hard on the periphery while staving off any entry of the Soviet Union into the circle of Japan's enemies. For most of 1943, that meant a bloody holding operation against her United States and British enemies and an effort at reinsurance with the Soviet Union.

For Japanese Army and Navy planners in Tokyo, the setbacks at the Coral Sea and Midway only accelerated plans to assume a strategic defense along the frontier of the 1942 conquests. Japanese intelligence estimated that the Allies would not undertake offensive operations until 1943, a date determined by the arrival of new carriers and battleships for the US Pacific Fleet. On the Asian mainland, the Soviets would remain neutral as they struggled with the Wehrmacht, while the British-Indian army and the Chinese, with their large but poorly trained and equipped armies and inadequate air support, could not mount a serious challenge.

In November 1943, at the first conference of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in Tokyo, Hirohito was warned that the Solomons were about to fall. His response was to goad his generals: ‘Isn’t there some place where we can strike the United States? When and where are you people ever going to put up a good fight? And when are you ever going to fight a decisive battle?’

Of the five sectors in the defense perimeter of the new Japanese empire, three lay on the line of the Malay barrier (Burma, New Guinea and the Solomons) and one placed Japanese troops on Attu and Kiska Islands, part of the Aleutian chain extending westward from Alaska. The fifth was comprised of the Marshall and Gilbert atolls in the Central Pacific.

Cultural revulsion underpinned the hatred which characterized Allied conduct of the Asian war. Japan’s savagery towards its prisoners and subjects was now well known, and often repaid in kind. Japanese willingness to fight to the death rather than surrender, even in tactically and indeed strategically hopeless circumstances, disgusted Allied troops. The Japanese, who had been merciless in victory, now showed themselves determined to cull every possible human life from their inexorable descent towards defeat.

American and British soldiers were imbued with the European historical tradition, whereby the honorable and civilized response to impending defeat was to abandon the struggle, averting gratuitous bloodshed. Americans in the Pacific, like British soldiers in Burma, felt rage towards an enemy who rejected such logic.

If the Allies had confronted their foe on a major landmass where there was scope for motorized maneuver, they would have achieved victory much more quickly: overwhelming US superiority in tanks, artillery and air power would have smashed the relatively primitive Japanese army, as did the Russians in Manchuria in August 1945. As it was, however, the long series of Pacific battles, miniature in scale by European standards, enabled the Japanese to exploit their defensive skills and sacrificial courage, without suffering much disadvantage from lack of artillery and air support.

The Japanese excelled in camouflage and harassment – ‘jitter tactics’. Even in Japan’s years of defeat, its soldiers retained a remarkable psychological dominance of the battlefield. The US Marine Corps was probably America’s finest fighting ground force except for the army’s airborne divisions, and achieved remarkable things in the Pacific, but Americans never matched the skills of their opponents, or indeed of the Russians, as night fighters. The higher the input of technology to a branch of war, the more emphatic was American excellence: their carrier pilots, for instance, had no superiors. Peasants, however, often make the most stoical riflemen.

In the Pacific, until massive resources reached the theater during 1944, there were long pauses between successive American initiatives. In June 1943, General Douglas MacArthur and South-West Pacific Area Commander Admiral William Halsey began their new campaigns in New Guinea and the Solomons. The seizure of New Georgia took a month of tough fighting. Thereafter, Halsey leapfrogged several Japanese-defended islands to land 4,600 men on Vella Lavella. By January 1944 a major air offensive against Rabaul had rendered the base almost useless to Japanese ships and aircraft.

A powerful competitive element entered US conduct of the struggle. MacArthur became fearful that the New Guinea campaign would become a backwater, and accelerated his own operations. His troops seized the Admiralty Islands three months ahead of schedule, thus encircling Rabaul and forcing the Japanese to withdraw up the north coast of New Guinea. In April 1944, he staged his most daring and dramatic coup of the war, capturing Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea, bypassing 40,000 Japanese troops, and in June he repulsed a strong Japanese counterattack along the Driniumor river.

There is a persuasive argument, advanced by the US Navy at the time and by many historians since, that MacArthur’s campaign became redundant at the end of 1943; that the only purpose of his subsequent bitter and bloody campaign in the Philippines was to fulfil the personal ambitions of its commander. Yet it is characteristic of all wars, and especially of the greatest in human history, that events and personalities acquire a momentum of their own.

MacArthur held a grand title, and had been exalted by propaganda into the most famous of American warlords. His public-relations machine was the most effective branch of his headquarters. The Pacific War’s Supreme Commander had a physical presence, strength of will and personal authority greater than those of the US chiefs of staff. Although MacArthur was never given the massive resources he demanded, he exercised a political and moral influence which sufficed to sustain his campaign and enable him to pursue his chosen personal objectives.

Although President Roosevelt and his associates, together with most of the nation’s military leaders, thought MacArthur a charlatan, when a 1945 poll asked Americans whom they considered their greatest general, 43 percent replied MacArthur against 31 percent for Eisenhower, 17 percent for Patton and 1 percent for Marshall.

The Japanese not only hoped — and failed — to hold their perimeter in the south; they had decided to hold in the north as well. An effort to reinforce the garrison in the Aleutians failed, and the landing forces there faced as best they could an American determination to retake the islands. American troops landed on Attu, bypassing and thus effectively isolating Kiska. In bitter fighting the Japanese force on Attu was destroyed. The Japanese thereupon decided to evacuate their garrison from Kiska, a project they successfully pulled off without the knowledge of the Americans, whose big landing force was as astonished as it was relieved to find the Japanese gone.

It could be argued that the US insistence on retaking Kiska and Attu was almost as unwise as the Japanese insistence on trying to hold on to these indefensible outposts which led nowhere for either side. In the event neither foe had any taste for a serious campaign near the Arctic Circle among bleak islands useful only as weather stations and communications sites for air and naval operations.

Having seized the Russell Islands between Guadalcanal and New Georgia, the Americans now launched a coordinated offensive against New Georgia. The island of Rendova just across a narrow strait from Munda was the scene of a landing; three days later the Americans landed on New Georgia itself. The land fighting was longer and more costly than the Americans had anticipated; but after reinforcements were sent in and the American division commander replaced, a series of drives brought the Americans control of the Munda airfield and then of the rest of New Georgia.

The Japanese fought a bitter defensive battle on the island and repeatedly tried to run in reinforcements, primarily on light cruisers and destroyers. Fierce air, sea and land battles raged all through the month of July. In the air, the Americans inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, in part because the new pilots being sent in were simply not up to the standard of those they replaced. As the Japanese naval air force units were run down, the Americans were increasingly more experienced and their replacements better trained.

At sea, the American and New Zealand warships did much better now than in the fighting off Guadalcanal the preceding year, sinking a series of Japanese destroyers loaded with reinforcements for the loss of one destroyer and a light cruiser.

Of the 9,000 Japanese soldiers, only a few escaped to other islands in the Solomons; and the Munda airfield, quickly expanded by the Seabees, the special engineer construction units, was converted into an important American air base.

The next island in the Solomons was Kolombangara, even more heavily garrisoned and fortified than New Georgia. Taking a leaf from Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid's procedure in the Aleutians, where Kiska had been bypassed for an assault on Attu, Admiral William Halsey now made an almost unopposed landing on Vella Lavella, the large island on the other side of Kolombangara from New Georgia. This jump left the Japanese garrison of 10,000 men to sit on their island while the war passed them by after they had failed to dislodge the Americans from Vella Lavella.

Vella Lavella, although a minor campaign, was notable for being one of the first examples of the Allies’ new adopted strategy of leapfrogging where they would bypass an Japanese-occupied island if it held no significant strategic value, thus isolating it.

The Americans, and the Australian and New Zealand contingents fighting alongside them, could now prepare for the attack on the most important island in the northern Solomons, Bougainville, where they would be on the other side of Rabaul from the Australians and Americans at Finschhafen on New Guinea. Attacks by planes and warships on the Japanese air bases at both ends of the island threw off the defenders, who were totally surprised by the 3rd Marine Division's landing. The fighting continued for months; but without substantial air support and with no prospect of reinforcement, the Japanese soldiers on the island became involuntary bystanders in the war.

The attack on Bougainville had to be prepared with great care. Here was an objective that was obviously menaced by the Allies, had to be defended by the Japanese if Rabaul was not to be outflanked, and simply could not be bypassed if the Americans were to proceed further.

Nimitz’s central Pacific offensive opened in November 1943, with landings on the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. US forces wrecked every local Japanese airfield with bombs and gunfire before the landings. Yet the experience that followed proved one of the most bitter of the US Marine Corps’ war. On Betio, the main islet, less than two miles long and seven hundred yards wide, the Japanese had created bunkers of concrete, steel and felled palm trees which were almost impervious to bombs and shells. Four days of fighting followed, among blasted palm trees and skilfully camouflaged defenses. When the shooting stopped, the Marines had suffered 3,407 casualties and almost all the Japanese defenders were dead – just 17 POW’s were taken.

Admiral Raymond Spruance Gilbert's armada included nineteen carriers, twelve battleships and their support vessels, together with an invasion force of 35,000 Marines and 6,000 vehicles. The Americans at sea that day, contemplating the display of their nation’s power around them, felt invincible.

A wide offshore reef checked the assault boats, so that thousands of Marines were obliged to wade the last few hundred yards to the shoreline with agonising sluggishness, under Japanese fire. Marine Karl Albrecht was shocked by his first sight of the beach as his craft approached: ‘It was lined with amphtracs, all of which appeared to be burning and smoking … The attack appeared to have dissolved in confusion. I was terror-stricken and amazed at the same time. We were Americans and invincible. We had a huge armada of warships and a division of Marines. How could this be happening? I discovered the rows of Marines along the beach weren’t lying there waiting for orders to move. They were dead.’

In spite of a heavy bombardment, the Japanese fought effectively on the beaches and inland. In three days of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War, the Marines first had to wade ashore in the face of enemy fire when the uncertain tides left their landing ships stranded or crippled off the shore, and then had to fight a deeply entrenched defending force without adequate artillery support, which could not be brought in right away for the same reason. By a combination of bravery, numbers and naval gunnery support, they overcame and destroyed a force of 4,500 Japanese.

Every participant in the battle was shocked by its intensity. It was a painful experience for the American people, as well as for the Marines, to discover how hard they must fight to overcome a sacrificial defense. National hubris, the doctrine of American exceptionalism, was affronted by the revelation that a courageous enemy could resist overwhelming firepower, that the path to victory made close-quarter combat and its sacrifices mandatory.

Although American commanders and the American public were shocked at the high percentage of casualties in the Tarawa assault, this was one battle about whose necessity there could be no argument. The Gilberts were needed for the subsequent attacks on the Marshall Islands, but much more important were the technical lessons learned about equipment, tactics, angle of naval fire, and the needed length and nature of bombardment. These lessons were needed time and time again in the following offensives.

Though significant tactical lessons were learned from Tarawa, the same infantry experience would be repeated in later island battles. From a global and especially Russian perspective, US losses were small for important strategic gains, but they seemed terrible when the prizes were mere atolls of coral and palm trees.

The initial attack on the Tarawa coral atoll had been on Betio, the main island of under 300 acres with the airport. The other islands in the atoll were taken quickly after Betio was secured, while an army division was able to seize the lightly defended island of Makin. Landing a regimental task force of 6,500 soldiers of all arms, the division took three days to defeat a mere 400 defenders, albeit at a light cost of 200-plus casualties.

General Robert C. Richardson argued that Holland Smith’s operational assumptions and World War I tactics would ruin any landing force, but the performance of the 27th Infantry Division in taking Makin did not make the army’s case. Smith was on hand to watch four infantry battalions endanger almost everybody within range, and he made no friends with his heated commentary on army tactics.

The soldiers’ sloth became more than an irritant when a Japanese submarine sank the escort carrier Liscome Bay. Since the Liscome Bay had a Makin mission that kept it in local waters, the army’s critics did not admit that the carrier went down more than a month after the island fell. The entire affair produced a bad odor around the 27th Infantry Division from which it never recovered. The performance of this one inept army division went on to poison marine-army relations throughout the rest of the war.

With hindsight, it is clear that the United States could have halted its ground operations against Japan in 1944, once the Marianas were secured. From its air bases, the USAAF’s Superfortress bombers could reduce the enemy’s homeland to ashes. Together with the naval blockade, which crippled Japanese industry and above all oil supplies, irresistible air bombardment made eventual Japanese capitulation inevitable. But this is a perspective accessible only to posterity. At the time, it would have seemed unthinkable to halt ground operations.

The US Marine Corps and army divisions deployed in the Pacific expected to keep fighting, and so did their commanders and the nation at home. Once great peoples are committed to the business of killing, there is a bleak inevitability about the manner in which they continue to do so until their enemies are prostrate. In the spring of 1944, the Japanese were still far from acknowledging defeat.

War is prodigiously wasteful, because much of the effort made by rival combatants proves futile, and the price is paid in lives. It is easy for historians to identify not merely battles, but entire campaigns, which need not have been fought, because outcomes were already ordained in consequence of events elsewhere. Much effort and human sacrifice contribute little to final victory. But when great forces have been created and deployed, it is almost inevitable that they will be used.

Campaign by campaign, theater by theater, the Allies mounted limited offensives against the Japanese armed forces and economy, but none of them had paid any large dividends by early 1944. In their accumulated effect, however, especially the attrition of Japanese naval aviation and the fixing of scarce divisions of the Japanese Army in Asia, the Allied war along the Equator and the Malay barrier had stretched the Japanese defense lines almost to the breaking point and had even forced the virtual abandonment of the base system in the northern Solomons.

Although the American and Commonwealth ground forces that were engaged in tropical combat suffered crippling losses, they represented only a fraction of the divisions that became available in 1944; for example, of the 21 US Army divisions that eventually fought the Japanese, only eight fought in New Guinea and the Solomons. For all the beatings the US Navy had to absorb in some 15 battles with the Imperial Japanese Navy in the South Pacific, battles in which it lost 31 warships, the navy could count on its losses being replaced and its damaged warships hastily repaired. The Japanese had no such assurances.

Once US planes could operate from Tarawa, they swiftly destroyed Japanese air capability throughout the Marshall Islands. The Marines were pleasantly surprised by the ease with which they captured Majuro, Kwajalein and Roi-Namur atolls, a personal triumph for Nimitz, who overruled all his subordinates to insist upon attacking the central Marshalls, rather than the heavily defended easternmost islands. They then took Eniwetok, at the extreme north-western end of the Marshall chain, while Spruance’s carrier aircraft devastated the key Japanese base at Truk in the Carolines.

The American naval thrust across the Central Pacific had to include the Marshall Islands as the main intermediate objective on the way to the Marianas. From the latter, the Americans could strike at the Philippines, the Bonin and Ryukyu islands, or Formosa; but whatever they might decide once arrived in the Marianas, they could use these islands as bases for air raids on the Japanese home islands.

The Japanese seized the Marshall Islands from the Germans in World War I and were confirmed as mandate holders for the islands in 1920. They had therefore had plenty of time to prepare and fortify positions, whatever their treaty commitments to the contrary. As the Americans were launching their attack, the Japanese themselves were planning a counterattack with their navy, but this project was halted by the American thrust.

Air and naval bombardment helped the Marines to land and crush the Japanese garrison on Roi and Namur at the northern end of the atoll, while their compatriots found the islands of Kwajalein atoll far easier to take than Attu had been. This portion of the operation went so well so quickly that the force commander, Admiral Spruance, agreed to Nimitz's proposal to move up the Eniwetok landing. In three days the American troops took the main islands of the Eniwetok atoll, thereby giving the Americans effective control of the whole island group.

To protect the Marshalls operation, a major air assault was launched against the Japanese base of Truk. The Imperial navy, it turned out, had already abandoned Truk for the safer Palau islands, but the destruction of planes, ships and installation left a shambles of the ‘Gibraltar of the Pacific’. The disaster of Truk was the last straw for the Japanese Prime minister, General Hideki Tojo; he had the navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, sacked and replaced by Navy Minister Shigetarō Shimada while Tojo himself took over as Chief of Staff of the Japanese army.

It was apparently Tojo's hope that a greater and more direct personal role in command of operations in the Pacific would enable him to coordinate the army and navy more effectively in resisting the American advance. The effect of his action, however, was negligible in the military sense but made his own position far more vulnerable: the next big Japanese defeat was to cost him all his accumulated jobs.

The American naval campaign across the Central Pacific sent shock waves through Imperial General Headquarters. The news of Tarawa disheartened the military leadership in Tokyo. In only four months the Americans had penetrated 1,300 miles through the Mandates and had eliminated Truk, just as they had ruined Rabaul, as a forward operating base for air and naval forces.

In February 1944, the senior officers of both Japanese services were locked in mortal combat over an appropriate response for the dual-axis American advance. Prime Minister Tojo raged at the other generals and admirals, who blamed one another for the empire’s disarray and vied for preferential production quotas of aircraft and weapons. As Tojo understood, future plans were irrelevant for the moment. One key adviser, General Sato Kenryo, proposed that they abandon the Marianas, and that the natural defense line should be the Philippines. Tojo assumed command of the Ministry of War himself, replaced the navy’s Chief of Staff, then rejected Sato’s advice.

Even though Tojo hardly dared share his inner doubts, he had already considered whether Japan should sue for peace, perhaps through the Russians, who were still neutral. Although his own informers within the military did not have the full picture, Tojo knew that the late Yamamoto’s disciples in the navy believed that the war was lost and that the only goal was to minimize the damage to Japan. Given the officer corps’ habit of assassinating dissidents, any senior officer who harbored such ‘peace thoughts’ did so in seclusion. Tojo never shared his own doubts.

Although Tojo tried to ignore much of the evidence of Home Front strangulation, he understood Japan’s vulnerability to economic collapse. The effect of maritime losses to American submarines had already reached worrisome proportions, and the Japanese understood American bomber mania, which had led to the costly effort to build and maintain bomber bases in China. If and when the Americans found a place to station the new B-29 Superfortress, the Home Islands would be subjected to horrific bombardment, which would only compound the shortages forced by American submarines.

During 1944, the US Navy gained overwhelming dominance of the Pacific. Blockade rendered inevitable the collapse of an enemy wholly dependent on imported fuel and raw materials; American submarines achieved the strangulation of Japanese commerce which Germany’s U-boats had failed to impose on Britain. Seldom in history has such a small force – 16,000 men – gained such decisive results. In the spring of 1944, it was taken for granted that Allied forces must attack the Japanese wherever possible.

American submarines were responsible for 55 percent of all Japan’s wartime shipping losses, 1,300 vessels totalling over six million tons; their destructive achievement climaxed in October 1944, when they sank 322,265 tons of shipping. Thereafter, Japanese losses diminished only because they had little cargo tonnage left to sink; Japan’s bulk imports fell by 40 percent.

It was rationally unnecessary for the Allies to launch major ground operations in South-East Asia – or, for that matter, the Philippines. If they merely maintained naval blockade and air bombardment, the Japanese people must eventually starve, and their oil-deprived war machine would be reduced to impotence. Given the nature of war, democracies and global geopolitics, however, ‘eventually’ was not soon enough.

In the summer of 1944 a huge accession of resources to the Pacific theater, notably warships and planes, enabled America to close the ring on Japan. While men continued to die and ships to sink, US dominance changed the character of the struggle. Petty Officer Roger Bond of the carrier Saratoga said, ‘If you went out to the Pacific after … January of 1944, you had a completely different experience and viewpoint than those before … I wasn’t part of the one where we truly were losing, getting chased out of the place.’

By 1944, the United States was producing so many ships and planes that it felt able to commit large forces to the Pacific. Fulfilment of the doctrine of ‘Germany First’ had always been compromised by the fact that American popular sentiment was much more strongly roused against the Japanese than against the Germans, and by the US Navy’s determination to be seen to win the war in the east. While Russia’s struggle still hung in the balance, this had been risky. But now it was plain that Stalin’s armies were triumphant, and the Wehrmacht was in eclipse.

It is extraordinary that Hirohito’s nation went to war knowing the importance and vulnerability of its merchant shipping, yet without seriously addressing convoy protection; the Tokyo regime built huge warships for the Combined Fleet, but grossly inadequate numbers of escorts. Japanese island garrisons found themselves isolated, immobilized and starving. American air and naval dominance denied Japan any chance of launching an effective strategic counterstroke. Its soldiers still enjoyed many opportunities to die bravely, but the nation’s fate was sealed.

A soldier on Bougainville wrote on 14 September 1944: ‘Old friendships dissolve when men are starving. Each man is always trying to satisfy his own hunger. It’s much more frightening than meeting the enemy’s assaults. There is a vicious war going on within our ranks. Can spiritual power degenerate to this?’.

The Japanese were still fighting hard, but everywhere they were being forced back. On Bougainville as on many other islands, Hirohito’s soldiers paid the price for staging foolish, futile infantry attacks against well-armed defenders. An American wrote in March 1944: ‘Enemy dead were strewn in piles of mutilated bodies, so badly dismembered in most cases that a physical count was impossible. Here and there was a leg or an arm or a blown-off hand … At one point, Japanese bodies formed a human stairway over the barbed wire. Five enemy dead were piled on top of the other, as each had successively approached the location to use a predecessor as a barricade and then fall on top of him as he in turn was killed. Farther out from the perimeter, where a little stream wound its way parallel to it, Japs killed by the concussion of thousands of mortar shells lay with their heads, ostrich-fashion, stuck under the least protection they could find.’

From the Japanese perspective, the centrality of the Marianas was equally obvious. The Japanese could see how important the islands were to the control of their routes to Southeast Asia, their hold on the Philippines, and the defense of the home islands themselves. They accordingly built up their garrisons on the islands, of which all but Guam had been in their possession since they had seized them from the Germans in World War I.

Since the autumn of 1942, there had been planning for a project to set the forests of the American and Canadian West on fire by balloons carrying incendiary materials blown across the Pacific by the prevailing winds, especially the jet stream. They would come down in the Western Hemisphere, where they were expected to start more fires than the Americans and Canadians could put out. From November 1944 to March 1945, some nine thousand balloons were released, of which well over a thousand landed on or exploded over the United States and Canada.

The Japanese explosive balloons launched over the US and Canada did little damage and caused only a few casualties, in this way no more effective than the earlier occasional shelling of the coast by Japanese submarines; but they do show that the strategy of making the war as costly as possible for Japan's enemies had an offensive as well as a defensive component until the end.

No one great strategic master plan emerged from Japanese headquarters, but the many sequential and parallel decisions of early 1944 took Japan’s armed forces to catastrophe. Only the China campaign went more or less as planned, since the series of operations in April-October 1944 did indeed drive the Nationalist Army and the American Fourteenth Air Force deeper into western China.

Service in the Pacific was an experience light years away from that of Europe, first because of its geographical isolation. Men obliged to exist for months under open skies in tropical conditions suffered relentlessly from disease and skin disorders, even before enemy action took a bloodier toll. Amphibious operations became a Pacific routine, albeit a hazardous and challenging one.

US Marine pilot Samuel Hynes wrote: ‘Out here the war life was all there was; no history was visible, no monuments of the past, no cities remembered from books. There was nothing here to remind a soldier of his other life; no towns, no bars, nowhere to go, nowhere even to desert to.’ Marine Frazer West described a characteristic problem on Bougainville: ‘It wasn’t dysentery … It was bad rain diarrhea – bad water … you can develop diarrhea real quick … Undoubtedly stress played a real part. We didn’t even know the meaning of the word stress then, but now we do.’

In regards to the attempted amphibious landings, an American soldier wrote: ‘Even under the best conditions, the unloading phase of a landing operation is a hot, rugged chore. With a high surf pounding against a narrow strip of jungle undergrowth, with a set deadline of daylight hours, and under the scorching heat of a South Sea November sun, the job was an exhausting nightmare. Working parties were punching with every last ounce of blood to get ammunition, oil, supplies, vehicles, rations and water out of the boats and above the high-water line. Shore party commanders were frantically trying to find a few square feet of dump space and discovering nothing but swamp all along the beach. Seabees and engineers were racking their brains and bodies in a desperate effort to construct any kind of road to high ground where vehicles could be parked, oil stored and ammunition stacked. But there wasn’t any high ground for thousands of yards – only a few scattered small islands of semi-inundated land surrounded by a stinking, sticky mire. And hour after hour boats roared in to the beach jammed with supplies.’

The ultimate fate of Japan’s war effort in 1944 depended on the naval campaign underway in the Pacific. The surface fleets and carrier task forces had avoided one another for much of 1943. But with the Seventh Fleet escorting MacArthur’s land forces westward and the Fifth Fleet charting a new course across the Central Pacific, the US Navy now held the strategic initiative. The submarine force of the Pacific Fleet had no trouble closing with the enemy. Its operations weakened the defenses of the Philippines and the Marianas as well as accelerating Japan’s economic decline.

In part, the success of the American submarine service was a matter of numbers and experience; as of January 1944 the number of submarines had doubled since the war’s beginning, and it increased again by 50 percent by year’s end. Incremental modification of the submarines’ hulls, engines, deck guns, and radar-sonar systems gave them technical advantages.

Focusing its attacks on military convoys and merchantmen, the submarine force made it difficult for the Japanese Army to redeploy to the Marianas and the Philippines. Guided by navy codebreakers and intelligence analysts, who could decipher most of the Japanese shipping codes, the submarines pounced on any convoy attempting to run the blockade to the Central Pacific. Although the anti-submarine forces of the Japanese increased and improved, they could not contest any of the high seas beyond the immediate approaches to the Home Islands.

The American submarines could operate in groups, attack and retreat with more success, and inflict almost certain destruction upon all but the largest Japanese warships. Moreover, the submarine crews became just the right mix of veterans and ardent newcomers. The force might draw inspiration from its skippers of 1943, but it did not depend on them.

The numbers of 1944 provide a clear picture of Japan’s impending economic collapse. Oil dependency spelled Japan’s defeat, because its industry and armed forces moved on fossil fuels. Coal might compensate for oil in running factories, but not ships and planes. Producing oil in Southeast Asia posed no problem, but getting it to Japan did. The Japanese merchant fleet began the year with 5 million tons of shipping and ended the year with half this amount. Before the end of 1944, American submarine commanders started to complain about how few targets they could find along routes to the Home Islands.

Allied aerial attacks did not contribute to Japan’s economic attrition until 1945. While the submarine force reduced the raw materials and food for Japan’s industrial society, the US Army Air Forces planned to destroy the cities themselves, not just starve the workers and their families. The future of the air war with Japan rested on the development and rapid deployment of the air force’s most expensive and risky project, the B-29 Superfortress. By mid-1944 the army air forces had taken delivery of fewer than 100 B-29s, but General Henry Arnold wanted even this paltry number in action immediately.

Conceived in 1940, the Superfortress depended on advanced, high-risk engineering achievements. Virtually every challenge in meeting the requirements for a very long-range heavy bomber (4,000 miles round-trip range and a ten-ton bomb load) forced the army air forces into uncertain technological fields in metallurgy, avionics, electrical fire-control systems for aerial defense, engine design, airframe structure, and radar-dependent navigation and bombing systems.

Unlike the secrecy of the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb and the advanced research in radar and other electronic-related weapons such as the proximity fuse for artillery and anti-aircraft shells, the B-29 project rolled along with high publicity and high expectations.

The most important Pacific operation of 1944 was the seizure of the Marianas, key to the inner ring of Japan’s defenses. When the US Marine Corps began its assaults on the islands, the Japanese Combined Fleet sailed to meet the invaders, precipitating the greatest carrier encounter of the war. The Japanese hoped to use submarines and land-based aircraft to severely weaken the Americans before the main engagement. Instead, seventeen of twenty-five Japanese submarines were sunk, while their airfields on Guam and Tinian were devastated by US bombing. What followed became known as ‘the great Marianas turkey-shoot’: of 373 planes dispatched, only 130 survived, having failed to inflict significant damage on the US fleet.

Both sides deployed formidable forces, but the Americans outnumbered the Japanese by around two to one at sea and in the air. Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa believed he had gained the advantage when he pinpointed Admiral Raymond Spruance’s ships, and was first to launch air strikes. But these were swiftly detected by American radar, and the report was flashed to Admiral Marc Mitscher: ‘Large bogeys bearing 265 degrees, 125 miles at 24,000.’ His chief of staff, Captain Arleigh Burke, said later, ‘Well that was just what we were waiting for, so we launched all our fighters, the whole blooming works.’

Through the night, Mitscher’s Carrier Task Force 58 steamed hard in pursuit of the retreating Japanese, and the following afternoon US reconnaissance planes pinpointed Ozawa’s squadron. Mitscher took the daring gamble of launching strikes at extreme range, knowing that his aircraft would have to be recovered in darkness. So great were American resources and so high the stakes that the carriers’ air component could be deemed expendable. The Japanese were found by exultant pilots, among them dive-bomber-pilot Don Lewis: ‘The carrier below looked big, tremendous, almost make-believe. I had a moment of real joy. I had often dreamed of something like this. Then I was horrified with myself. What a spot to be in. I must be crazy … From each side of the carrier below seemed to be a mass of flashing red dots … It had been turning slowly to port. It stopped. Who could ask for more? I pulled my bomb release, felt the bomb go away, started my pull-out. My eyes watered, my ears hurt, and my altimeter indicated 1,500 feet. The sky was just a mass of black and white puffs, and in the midst of it planes already hit, burning and crashing into the water below. It is strange how a person can be fascinated even in the midst of horror.’ This sortie sank another carrier, Hiyu, and damaged two others; the Japanese were left with thirty-five planes, having destroyed only twenty American aircraft.

‘[The Japanese] were just devastated,’ said Burke. ‘You could tell that from the radio conversation.’ In the carrier operations room, eavesdroppers were monitoring enemy radio transmissions. When at last the disconsolate Japanese airborne controller asked his commander’s permission to return to the fleet, a listening American officer said, ‘Let’s shoot him down.’ Burke replied with pitying condescension, ‘No, you can’t shoot that man down. He’s done more good for the United States today than any of us. So let him go home.’

US factories could readily replace the lost aircraft, while those of Japan were quite unable to re-arm Ozawa. Spruance incurred criticism for breaking off the battle, allegedly forfeiting a chance to complete the destruction of the fleeing Japanese. But he had inflicted a massive and irretrievable defeat on the enemy fleet. He had no need to hazard his own ships, and perhaps the entire Marianas operation, in dangerous waters.

The action confirmed that American combat skills, as well as naval power, now wholly outclassed those of their enemies. For the rest of the war Japan’s pilots displayed diminishing proficiency, and sometimes even a want of courage. US carrier aircraft, notably the Hellcat fighter, dominated the sky, even when the Japanese deployed some new aircraft supposedly capable of matching them.

The Japanese defenders of the Marianas faced the same challenge as their dead comrades in the Marshalls, which was to make the American landing forces pay a high price for their new aggressiveness. In this case, they had a solid mission: keep the island airfields in Japanese hands as long as they could use them. Saipan had substantial naval personnel ashore—6,000 officers and men commanded by Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi. The Marianas’ defenses, air and ground, depended on the Thirty-First Army under Lieutenant General Obata Hideyoshi, a ground combat force of 59,000 divided among three islands.

The Saipan defense force under Lieutenant General Saito Yoshitsugu was the largest and best armed, with 32,000 officers and men, including a regiment of 48 tanks. Saito also inherited responsibility for a civilian population of 20,000 people who had come to Saipan from Okinawa early in the 1920s as agricultural workers. Saito’s planned complexes of fortifications, designed for an island rich in caves and steep mountains, had not been completed in June 1944.

Victory at sea off the Marianas could not avert bloody fighting ashore. The Marines’ first objective was Saipan; its fourteen-mile length, and some high ground, enabled the Japanese to deploy 32,000 defenders in depth. When 77,000 US Marines waded ashore they met machine-gun and artillery fire which inflicted 4,000 casualties in the first forty-eight hours. The planners had anticipated a three-day battle, but the island’s capture took three weeks: the defenders had to be blasted from their bunkers yard by yard.

An army division was committed in support of the Marines; after failing to take the densely forested position ruefully dubbed Purple Heart Ridge, its commander was sacked. But day by day, even while hundreds of thousands of their compatriots were fighting a similarly brutal battle in Normandy, the invaders slowly battered a path inland.

The massive pre-invasion bombardment had damaged the defenses, and air attacks on air bases in the area had almost eliminated air support for the defenders; but the assaulting Marines were slowed by an energetic and effective defense by the 30,000 man garrison. Here was an island of some size with mountains and dense jungle, not a small coral atoll, and the Marines had to fight their way across it.

On the night of 6-7 July, 3,000 Japanese, sensing that the end was close, launched a futile, sacrificial banzai charge in which they were mown down by US firepower after desperate close-quarter fighting. ‘We had hardly any arms,’ said one of the few survivors, naval paymaster Noda Mitsuharu. ‘Some had only shovels, others had sticks.’ An American officer said: ‘It reminded me of one of those old cattle stampede scenes of the movies. The camera is in a hole in the ground and you see the herd coming and then they leap up and over you and are gone. Only the Japs kept coming and coming. I didn’t think they’d ever stop.’

During a banzai charge Noda Mitsuharu, lying in front of the American positions with two bullets in his stomach, saw a group of his comrades crawling towards him. One raised a grenade and said invitingly, ‘Hey, sailor there! Won’t you come with us?’ Then the wounded Japanese heard a voice cry, ‘Long Live the Emperor!’ and there was an explosion. ‘Several men were blown away, dismembered at once into bits of flesh … their heads were all cracked open and smoke was coming out.’ Mitsuharu himself lived to be taken prisoner.

For weeks after organized resistance on the island ended, small parties of Japanese survivors continued to attack Americans. Substantial numbers of soldiers and civilians, some of the latter under duress, killed themselves by leaping from the cliffs at Marpi Point.

Saipan also produced a shocking preview of what the war might hold as it moved into the populated islands of the Western Pacific: the death of innocents. As the Marines and soldiers fought their way north up the island, they discovered the shattered bodies of elders, women, and children who had fallen to air strikes and artillery fire. They also found civilians among the slaughtered of the 7 July banzai charge.

After Saipan the Americans began landing on Guam, a larger island, and a vital objective because it had the only good water supply in the Marianas chain, as well as the best harbor. The protracted resistance on Saipan had given the 19,000-strong Japanese garrison time to construct strong beach defenses, but the Americans preceded the assault with one of the longest and most effective air and naval bombardments of the campaign. This wreaked havoc: organized resistance soon collapsed, though three weeks’ fighting was needed to suppress isolated strong points. In the end the Marines managed to secure the island. However, infantrymen were obliged to maintain patrols and to skirmish with small groups of Japanese on Guam until the end of the war.

To the Americans, the battle for Guam became a poignant reminder of the reasons for fighting a war at such terrible cost. Guam had been American territory before the Japanese invaded, and its recapture, including a flag-raising at the site of the old Marine barracks, made this an emotional campaign.

General Roy Geiger’s scheme of maneuver ashore ensured not only the early capture of Orote Point airfield but the liberation of Guam’s populated areas, including 20,000 Chammorro people, who had been imprisoned and abused by the Japanese for two and a half years. The battle cost some Guamanian lives, but the Guamanians welcomed the Americans back with enthusiasm and joined the battle as scouts and carriers.

The Marines attacked their third Marianas objective, the smaller island of Tinian. Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, commanding the assault, considered this the best-executed amphibious landing of the campaign. Organized opposition was eliminated in twelve days, though once again Japanese survivors refused to surrender.

‘Nowhere have I seen the nature of the Jap better illustrated than it was near the airstrip at dusk,’ wrote Time correspondent Robert Sherrod. ‘I had been digging a foxhole for the night when one man shouted “There is a Jap under those logs!” The command post security officer was dubious, but he handed concussion grenades to a man and told him to blast the Jap out. Then a sharp ping of a Jap bullet whistled out of the hole and from under the logs a skinny little fellow – not much over 5ft tall – jumped out waving a bayonet. An American tossed a grenade and it knocked the Jap down. He struggled up, pointed his bayonet into his stomach and tried to cut himself open in approved hara-kiri fashion. The disembowelling never came off. Someone shot the Jap with a carbine. But, like all Japs, he took a lot of killing. Even after four bullets had thudded into his body he rose to one knee. Then the American shot him through the head.’ A thousand such incidents make it easy to understand why US Marines and soldiers fighting in the Pacific treated their enemies like dangerous beasts.

Crossing the four miles of straits between Saipan and Tinian, the Marines surprised the Japanese by landing across some narrow northern beaches, then attacking south, instead of landing mid-island on a broader front. The rapidity of the attack and the deluge of supporting fires allowed the Marines to take some commanding heights without serious loss.

With about 2,000 total casualties (and only 328 killed), the Marines destroyed the Japanese garrison with methodical daylight advances and stubborn night defenses against the predictable banzai charges. The captured air field at Tinian rapidly became the principal base for the B-29s assigned to bomb the Home Islands.

As an exercise in tactical skill, the Tinian operation made clear that the Japanese could not inflict worrisome casualties unless they changed their defensive tactics. The American commanders did not want to give them time to learn new lessons.

The most dramatic political repercussion of the Pacific fighting culminating in the American victory in the Marianas was the resulting crisis in Tokyo. The Japanese army's victory over Chiang Kai-shek in China could not offset defeats in India, in New Guinea, and on and near the Marianas, the last being an area Japan had held long before the war. The tough-minded general tried hard to hold on to power, but he could not do so. The palace and most leading political and some military figures combined to assure his being dropped from all of his posts; he resigned.

The great power Tojo had gathered into his own hands now made him all the more vulnerable when Japan's armed forces suffered setbacks.

Tojo’s successor, General Koiso Kuniaki, had been governor of Korea; he did not take over the other portfolios, such as War Minister, that Tojo had held, and never attained the commanding position of his predecessor. The public posture of the new government was, however, one of fighting on to victory. And, for the first time in the war, the Japanese army and navy began to plan jointly for the defense of the Philippines which they correctly saw as the next main American objective.

Informed Japanese knew that their home islands now faced an ordeal by air bombardment; the Marianas airfields brought Japan’s cities within range of US bombers. The shore battles showed that Japanese soldiers’ willingness for sacrifice could extract a high price for each American victory, but the invaders’ firepower was irresistible. However, the Japanese government remained committed to fight on: the supremely stubborn military men who dominated Tokyo’s polity believed they could still achieve a negotiated settlement by convincing the Americans that the cost of assaulting the Japanese homeland would be unacceptably high.

While the American armed forces perfected their conventional military operations, the Japanese — in actions fueled by desperation — sought to abandon the traditional definitions of how war should be waged. As the Pacific War approached the Home Islands, no one on either side could know for certain whether modernized or traditional Japanese values would shape the empire’s ultimate opposition to foreign subjugation.