World War II: The Central Pacific Campaign


Figure 1.-The Central Pacific campign brought 20th century war to the tranquil island of the South Pacific. Americans had never heard of most of these islands. And the local people were unaware of the masdive forces being mobilized in far away Japan and America. The Imperial Fleet was withdrawn to recover from losses in the Sollomons. They hoped that a well-armed and entrenched island garrison could repell an mphibious landing. The Marines proved at Tarawa that they could not without naval support. Finally over the Marianas the Japanese committed the Imperial Fleet for the first time since the Sollomons.

Japanese Army planners estimated that the United States would not be able to amass the forces for an offensive until mid-1943. Many Japanese were convinced that America would not have the stomache for fight even then. The Japanese war plan had been premised on a German victory over the Soviet Union which would have forced the United States to use most of its limited military strength in Europe. This of course not only did not occur, but America was able to generate military power more quickly and in greater strength than Japanese planners had antivipated. The fact that a cross-channel invasion was put off until 1944 meant that considerable forces could be directed tob the Pacific. Japan was shocked with the American invasion of Guadacanal and naval forces commited to the Solomins campaign. Here the Imperial Navy did not inform the Army of the full extent of the Midwat debcle. The Imperial Army and Navy was still attempting to stop the American advances in the South Pacific when Admiral Nimitz strengthen by the new Essex Carriers and Hell Cat fighters opened a new front in the Pcific War--the Central Pacific. MacArthur had oposed this being concerned about diversion of resources. In fact, the Central Pacific campaign aided his operations. From this point of theWar, the Japanese were never sure where the Americans woukd strike next. Thus they were never sure where to deploy their limited resources. The Central Pacific campign brought 20th century war to the tranquil island of the South Pacific. Americans had never heard of most of these islands. And the local people were unaware of the masdive forces being mobilized in far away Japan and America. The Imperial Fleet was withdrawn to recover from losses in the Sollomons. They hoped that a well-armed and entrenched island garrison could repell an mphibious landing. The Marines proved at Tarawa that theu could not without naval support. The Marines paid a terrible price, but learned from the experiences. Losses at Kwajelin were a fraction of thoise at Tarawa. Only when the U.S. attacked the Mrianas did the Imperial Fleet intervene. The Marianas brought the Home Islands into the range of the new B-29 Superfots. The Imperial fleet intervened, but after the Marianas Turkey Shoot, the rest if the Imperial fleet withdrew. On Saipan the Americans encountered the first Japanese civilians. The Japanese finally decided to throw all of their remaining naval strength to defending the Phillipines, leading to the greast naval battle in history--the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The American victory at Leyte, meant thst the liberation of the Philippines could proceed, a long and bloody fight.

Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands (November 1943)

The Gilbert Islands had been a British possession. There were 16 islands. Tarawa was the largest atol and Bacio was the largest island in the Tarawa Atol. The Japanese assaulted the Islands the day after Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941) and quickly took the lightly defended islands. American raids on the Gilberts, especially a Marine assault by submarine caused the Japanese to fortify the islands, especially the largest atol--Tarawa. The American carrier victory at Midway forced the Japanese to change strategy. They could no longer rely on naval superority to defend their Pacific islands bases. They were hoping that the island defenses would be sufficient. Instead the Japanese began to heavily fortify the islands believing that the islands could be made impregnable. As the Gilberts were the cornerstone of their outer island defenses, the Japanese correctly assumed that the American blow would fall there. Special attention was given to fortify Tarawa because the airstrip there dominated the Gilberts. Defenses included naval artillery, sand covered concrete bunkers, 500 pillboxes, and concrete and barbed-wire beach defenses. The Japanese garrison consisted of a mixed force. There were 4,800 navy troops on the island, included 2,600 men of the Special Naval Landing Force, commonly referred to as Japanese Marines. The Japanese recognizing the importance of the islands also assigned highly skilled artillery trainers to the island. All this on a area smaller than Central Park in New York City. Tarawa did not have thelrgest garrison in the Pcific, but in relation to the area and fortficatins, it would be the hardest nit to crack until the Marines got to Iwo Jima. The Japanese Commander General Shibasaki boasted that a million Americans could not take Tarawa in a 100 years. Tarawa was the beginning of the American offensive in the Central Pacific. It was the first test of the evolving Japanese strategy of heavily fortifying island bases as a defensive shield. The 2nd Marine Division which had fought on Guadacanal was assigned the task. The Navy subjected the Japanese defenses to withering artillery and air craft strikes. The Imperial Japanese Navy stung by losses in the Coral Sea, Miday, and the Sollomons did not contest the landings. After the naval gunfire ceased, the Marines went ashore (November 20, 1943). The were horrified to find that thed Japanese defenses were largely in tact. The result was what the Marines refer to as 'Bloody Tarawa'. Virtually the entire Japanese garison fought to the death. Only 13 Japanese surrendered in addition to Korean slave laborors. The Marines took Tarawa, but the losses were shocking. About 1,000 Americans died. In terms of casualties per area it was the most expensive American operation of World War II. After Guadalcanal and Rarawa, the Japanese no longer thought that theAmericans were too oft to fight. President Roosevelt had to decide whether or not to release the casualty information and films of the battle. He decided the American people had the right to know and did so. No other country released such graphic images of the War. After Tarawa the American people were undr no illusions as to what the Pacific War would mean in terms of casualties. The Navy learned valuable lessons for the island campaign to come. The Navy studied the Japanese defenses to determine why the naval gunfire had been so ineffective.

The Marshalls (January-February 1944)

Japan seized the Marshall Islands during World War I (1914). The League of Nations awarded a mandate to the Japanese after the War. The Japanese set up their administration Jaluit which had been the German administrative center. The penetration of the outer shell of Japanese islands in the south was followed by assauilts on the outer shell of Japanese islasnd defenses in the Central Pacific. The Japanese heavily fortified their island bastionss in preparation. New carriers and planes were beginning to reach the U.S. Pacific fleet. The American plan to defeat Japan was centered on a drive across the Central Pacific. Here the outer perimeter of the Japanese defenses were the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. The Japanese when they launched the war sought to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet. The Imperial Fleet would then protect the expanded Empire. The elite corps of Japanese carrier pilots were lost during a series of naval engagements (Coral Sea, Midway and the Solomons campaign) during 1942. As a result, the Imperial Navy did not oppose the American invasion of the Marshalls, hopeing that well entrrenched and equipped garisons could fend off amphibious invasions. The U.S. Marines and Army forces proved they could not. The Marines and Army supported by the U.S. Navy took both Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls in bloody invasions. Lessons learned at Tarawa were implemented to limit losses. The Marines landed on Kwajalein atoll (January 31, 1944). The United States quickly took control of the islands. They were then turned into gforward bases to target the Carolines and ultimarely the Marianas. The logistics of amfibious operations were greatly aided by nearby land bases for support.

The Carolines (June 1944)

The Carolines were part of the islands possessions that the Japanese intained as aesult of World War I. They built the sleepy German colony into a major central Pacific naval base. The Japanese braced for a major invasion of the Carolines. The centerpiece of their defense was Truk. It was one of the principal Japanese strongpoints in the South Paciofic and a major fleet ancorage defended by airfiekds, anti aircrat positions, and well-equipped ground troops. The Japanese began calling it the Gibraltar of the Pacific. The Japanese decided not to commit the Imperial Navy to its defense. The garrison was strengthened (May 1944). Imperial Navy Fleet elements were ordered out of Truk before the American struck. Nimitz decided that an actual invasion was not necessary. He now had ariwing carrier force and used it to launch devestating air attacks. Ships left in the Lagoon were sunk and the Japanese air defenses were decvestated (June 1944). subsequent air strike left Truk without naval or airforces to imprede the American Central Pacific campaign as it closed in on the Marianas. The Japanese were also unable to supply the large garrison they built up on the islands. The garrison was near starvation wehen the War ended a year later. The garrisons surrendered (September 2).

Naval End Game (June-October 1944)

Both the U.S. Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy had the same basic strategic vision, a massive war winning fleet engagement at sea. Pearl Harbor forced the Pacific Fleet to postpone that engagement. And the Japanese made a huge strateghic blunder. Rather than force the Americans to commit the remnants of their devestated fleet, the Imperial Fleet busied itself in carving out a huge empire and marginal efforts like a foray into the Indian Ocean March-April 1942). Only the Doolitle Raid (April 1942) brought the Japanese to their sences and brought forward Admiral Yamamoto's plan to force the Pacific Fleet in a major fleet action and finally destroy it. That action occurred off Midway and rather than destroy the Americans, the heart was cut out of the Imperial Fleet--four fleet carriers and many of their irreplaceable aircrews. This restored the naval ballance and the two fleets slogged it out in the Solomons until the Imperial Fleet finally withdrew to its secure bases to regroup and add new ships to the fleet. This was another major Japanese blunder. Given the discaprities in the industrial capacity of the two countries. America could build ships and planes much faster than the Japanese. And this include brand new modern ship and advanced plane types--espcially te F6F Hellcat. Thus the longer the Japanese deplayed the major fleet action the stringer the Americans would be--a recipie for disaster. The Japanese delayed the long awaited fleet action a year and a half. And as a result, faced a very different U.S. Pacific Fleet. The fleet actions would could come in a narrow window (June-October 1942). The battles of the Philippines Sea (June 1944) and Leyte Gulf (October 1944) would be the greatest naval battles of all time and fundamentally change the naval ballance in the Pacific. In the Philippines Sea off the Marianas, the Japanese after losing planes and carriers backed away from the planned full fleet engagement. At Leyte they would finally commit the full force of their fleet without naval air cover. At these battles, the Imperial Fleet would be uterly destroyed as a meaningful naval force. Japan became a country locked in a desperate naval war with the United States, but no longer having a navy. And the victories would leave the United States in possession of bases from which Japan could be pounded from the air and Japan cut off from the resources of the Southern Resource Zone. Worst still for an island nation, the Japanese Home Islands were now exposed to the force of the most powerful navy and airforce ever built. This was not only a military disaster, but for a nation dependenton imported food, meant that national starvation loomed. The Japanese war strategy changed from a military strategy to desperate effort to extract the maximum of American blood in a series of hopeless battles. American planners began to see Japan as a nation intent on mass suiside.

The Marianas (June 1944)

The invasion of Saipan was one of the key confrontations of the Pacific War. The Japanese defenses were centered on Saipan and Rota. Earlier Pacific Island invasions were stepping stones. The Marianas were different. With the new B-29 bomber, air bases in the Marianas would bring the Home Islands wihin range of strategic bombardment and destoy Japan's ability to make war. Conquest of the Marianas would breach the Japanese inner defensive line. It was clearly the tipping point of the War. The Americans knew it and so did the Japannse. And unlike the earlier American landings, this one would be opposed by the Imperial Fleet--the first major Japanese fleet action since the naval bloody actions in the Solomons. Just as Midway was designed to force the Pacofic fleet to battle, The Marianas Campaign would force the Imperial Fleet to battle. Previous landings had made it clear that the Japanese soldiers would not surrender no matter how great the forces availed against them. American planners concluded that if the Japanese would fight to the death on isolated Pacific islands, that they would resist to the end in the defense of the Home Islands. The casualties of an invasion of the Home Islands would be horrendous. It was thus important to bring the Japanese Home Islands within the range of American bombers so that the Japanese war making power could be smashed. There was a Japanese civilian population on Saipan. While the Americans expected the military to resist to the bitter end, they expected the civilians to surrender. Japanese authorities, however, urged the civilians to kill their children and commit suiside. Many did just that. After the Americans secured the island, the Japanese civilians were interned, but in realtively comfortable circumstances.

Pacific Strategy Conference (July 1944)

The two American offensives in the Pacific came to a conclusion at the same time. The U.S. Army under Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific had neutrilized Rabaul and defeated or bypassed Japanese forces in the Solomons and northeastern New Guinea. At the same time, the U.S. Navy under Admiral Chester Nimitz after driving through the Central Pacific (the Giberts and Marshalls) and finally seized the Marianas after the great naval victory in the Philippines Sea. But this brought to the fore the still unanwered question of 'where next?' There were two targets on the table. MacArthur was adament about the answer--the Philippines. Since departing Corrigedor he had repeated his goal, 'I shall return.' His argument was largely political and moral--we owed it to the Filipino people as the Philippines at the time was American territory. Admiral Earnest King believed that Formosa (Taiwan) made more strategic sense, largely because it would more more effectively interdict the delivery of raw materials from the Southern Resourse Zone to the Home Islands. A difference of such magnitude between such senior American commanders could only be resolved by President Roosevelt. The President summoned his commanders at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to settle the issue of the direction of the advance on Japan (July 26-27). MacArthur made his and the Army's case. Nimitz made the case for the Navy. The choice would be the Philippines leading to the greatest naval battle in world history--theBattle of Leyte Gulf.

The Palaus (September 1944)

The Palaus became important in World War II because of its location off the Philippines. After the American victory in the Marianas (June-July 1944), it became clear that the next American offensive would be to retake the Philippines. The United States in preparation for the invasion of the Philippines wanted a secure logistical base. Peleliu (September 1944). Peleliu was one of the Palau Islands acquired by Japan during Wotld War I. Admiral Nimitz with growing naval power had the advantage of selecting the islands to invade. Some islands like Saipan were obvious. Others less so. The Japanese were forced to heavily garison large numbers of islands which they then had trouble supplying. Peleliu was one of those islands. A Japanese research team developed new island defense tactivs. They decided to end the beach-based defense and the reckless Banzai attacks. Instead they adopted a "honeycomb" system of fortified fefensive positions. And Peleliu ws pefect for this. The Japanese military began to build defenses beginning with the Panay incident (1937). Using both soldiers and Korean slave labor had built defensive positions throughout the island. Gaves were outfitted with stell doors and protected by inter-locking fire. The Japanese by 1944 had garrisoned the Palau Islands with 30,000 men, including 11,000 men on Peleliu. The primary force was the 14th division commanded by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa. Given its position north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines, it was seen as necessary to take. Nimitz for the most part chose well, making judicious assessments about which islnds were needed to advance across the vast ocean streaches toward Japan. Peleliu was one of the bloodiest of the Central Pacific island invasions. And historians have come to view it as unecessary. The pre-invasion intelligence on Peleliu was probably the worst of any of the island invasions. Operation Stalemaste was initially seen as needed for a staging area for the invasion of the Philippines. Later planners had second thoughts, but Admiral Nimitz decided that the planning had gone too far. The 1st Marine Division was told before going ashore that there would be a tough fight, but it would be over in 3 days. The Marines landed (September 15). The Navy pounded the island for 3 days, but the the carefully prepared Japanese cave positions and underground bunkers were left largely untouched. The result ws a fierce battle which went on for weeks. [McEnery] The Japanese based on previous invasions, decided not to oppose the initial beach landings, but fight on in depth from prepared positions. [Camp] The only running tank fight confucted by the Masrines occurred over the airfield. The Japanese fought the Marines for 6 weeks in prepared defenses and then caves. All but 200 of the 11,000 Japanese defenders were killed. [Sloan] The 1st Marines suffered 6,500 casualties, 1,300 killed. The Army 81st Division which followed the Marines suffered 3,300 casuaties, over 500 killed. Incredibly, 34 Japanese soldiers held out for 2 years after the battle. Japanese civilians wre reptrited after the War.

The Philippines (October 1944)

The Philippino people suffered greviously under Japanese occupation. This helped fuel an effective Resistance campaigns carried out by guerillas which had achieved control of substantial areas. The Japanese, gowever, controlled the population centers, especially on Leyte and Luzaon. The Navy preferred targetting Formosa (Taiwan), but MacArthur eventually prevailed with his insistence that America must retun to the Philippines. He considered his vow to return a pledge to the Philippinp people that had to be honored. Some how his vow, "I shall return." sems less appropriate than "We shall return", but it was pure MacArthur and he convinced President Roosevelt. Reports from resistance fighters and American pilots revealed that the Japanese were not heavily defending large areas of the Islands. The invasion of Mindanao was considered unecessary and the decession was made to strike first further north at Leyte. It was in this engagement that the Kamakazis first appeared, although still in relatively small numbers. MacArthur President Sergio Osmeņa waded ashore with the invasion force at Leyte Gulf (October 20, 1944). The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Japanese resisted, but could not match American fire power. The most serious Japanese resistence occurred at sea. The resulting naval engaement following on Battle of the Philippines Sea is commonly referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the largest sea battle ever fought and resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet as an effective fighting force. This opened the way for the land campaign. Further landings occurred at Ormoc (December 7, 1944).

Sources

McEnery, Jim with Bill Sloan. Hell in the Pacific: A MArine Riflemn's Journey from Gudalcanal to Peleliu (2012), 320p.

Sloan, Bill. Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944--The Blodiest Battle of the Pacific War (Simon & Schuster, 2005).







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Created: 6:12 AM 11/4/2011
Last updated: 4:56 AM 9/19/2016