The South Pacific

The South Pacific was coveted by both Japan and the United States who clashed violently on this front during the Second World War. 

 

The confrontation between Japan and the United States

From the end of the 19th Century, both Japan and the United States wanted domination of the Pacific: Japan for natural resources and the United States for a zone of influence in that part of the globe.

In 1931, Japan began a policy of expansion with the invasion of Manchuria, the very rich Chinese province.

In July 1937, the Japanese launched a massive offensive against China. The United States protested and demanded that the troops withdraw but Japan took advantage of the war between the European colonial powers and Germany and invaded new territories such as French Indochina.

On 27th September 1940, Japan signed a ten-year tripartite pact with Germany and Italy, thus integrating into the military alliance known as the Axis.

The Japanese troops advanced as far as the Sino-Soviet borders, where they were met with a wall of resistance from the Red-Army. This failure led to the signing on 13th April 1941 of a five-year USSR-Japan pact of neutrality. The pact incidentally ended Hitler’s hopes of a simultaneous attack by Germany and Japan against the USSR. 

Pearl Harbor

The United States was the sole power able to stand-up to Japan: The United States imposed economic sanctions on Japan, notably an embargo on petroleum.

Japan decided to attack the American forces and launched a surprise attack on 7th December 1941 against the American fleet in the bay of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. American losses were very heavy: 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded. The trauma was immense.

 

Attaque de Pearl Harbor

Attack on Pearl Harbor

The war becomes worldwide

In reply, the President of the United States Roosevelt, declared war on Japan on 8th December 1941. Through the interplay of alliances, the United Kingdom and her colonial empire of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa entered the war against Japan. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy followed and declared war on the United States on 11th December 1941. The war was from then on worldwide. 

After Pearl Harbor Japan went from victory to victory: Guam, Wake island, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma...all fell until the expansion was stopped in May 1942, with the aeronaval battles of the Coral Sea and of Midway.

From 1943 the Americans gained the upper-hand and forced the Japanese to retreat to the island of Guadalcanal. From then on they battled island by island. 

 

In October 1944, the Americans liberated the Philippines. The British re-took Burma. The advantage had finally changed sides, even as the Americans suffered heavy losses during the invasion of Iwo-Jima in February 1945 and the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945.

As a last resort the Japanese sent kamikaze pilots who flew their planes into Allied ships. These were true suicidal attacks.

 The Americans finally took Okinawa in June 1945.

The South Pacific : an aeronaval war

Hiroshima

On 6th August 1945, the American Air-Force dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Tens of thousands died from the initial explosion and from subsequent radiation poisoning. On 9th August 1945, the United States dropped a second bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

 

The city of Nagasaki destroyed after the atomic bombing

 On 8th August 1945, the USSR declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. Japan signed the surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, in the presence of General Douglas MacArthur.

 

With the contribution of Rémy Desquesnes
Historian