The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


South Pacific Strategy 1942 Through 1945
AUTHOR Major D. Lovejoy, USMC
CSC 1988
SUBJECT AREA Foreign Policy
I.    Purpose:  To provide a description and analysis of United States
military strategy in the South Pacific during the period from 1942 through
II.   Data:  War with Japan was inevitable, yet the United States was not
prepared to fight.  The losses the U. S. incurred in the South Pacific was
crippling.  Not until the naval battle of Midway in June of 1942, was the
night of the U. S. able to gain the momentum and push the Japanese out of
its acquired territories.  Plans for the invasion of Japan were developed
but never executed because of the use of the atomic bombs in August of
1945, which brought the war to an end.
Thesis:  The purpose of this research is to provide a description and
analysis of the United States Military Strategy in the South Pacific
during the period from 1942 through 1945.
  I  War with Japan inevitable
     A.   U.S. Embargo
     B.   Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
 II  Wake Island
     A.   Build Up
     B.   Japanese Assault
III  Philippines
     A.   MacArthur's withdraw
     B.   Corregidor's capture
 IV  U.S. Strategy restructured in 1942
  V  Naval Battle of Midway
 VI  U.S. Advance across the Pacific
    The purpose of this research is to provide a description and analysis
of the United States military strategy in the South Pacific during the
period from 1942 through 1945.
    The battles between the Japanese and the Americans began with the
December 7, 1941 attack by Japanese torpedo planes on Pearl Harbor.
    Before that attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had been able to
stay out of the war in Europe even though the Americans openly supported
Great Britain in its war with Germany and Italy.
    But the United States could not stay out of the war that erupted in
Hawaii, a major Pacific territory of the United States, when 360 Japanese
planes took off from a half dozen carriers in a task force located several
hundred miles north of Oahu.  The attack brought crippling destruction to
the United States fleet and perhaps helps explain the fortitude with which
the Americans carried the war to the Japanese from that day forward,
across the Pacific, and up to the days of the atomic bomb attacks on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Still, American strategy in the Pacific preceded the Pearl Harbor
attack.  As we read in Bruce Bahrenburg's The Pacific:  Then and Now,
         The war had become inevitable when the United
         States, in an act of cooperative retaliation
         with England and the Netherlands, placed an
         oil embargo against Japan after she had in-
         vaded Indochina.  Earlier Japanese acts of ag-
         gression in Asia, especially against China, had
         forced the United States, somewhat belatedly,
         to impose scrap-iron and steel embargoes.  But
         without oil Japan would be unable to solidify
         her Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
         which was to include, by either military con-
         quest or economic enslavement, her already-
         acquired territories of Korea, Manchuria,
         French Indochina, and parts of China, as well
         as the soon to be annexed East Indies, Burma,
         Malaya, and the Philippines.1
    Japan never considered seriously launching an attack on the American
mainland.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was designed to destroy the American
fleet to the degree that Japan's Sphere would be out of range of American
attack in the Pacific.
    One of the first post-Pearl Harbor testing arenas of Japanese strength
in the Pacific was at Wake Island.  Once Japan had decided that the
Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere had to be safeguarded by a defense
line on the east which extended south and north of the Marshall Islands,
as Bahrenburg puts it, "Wake was doomed since the United States was
already there with her Marines and civilian workers pushing to finish
construction on an airfield and other military installations."2
    In other words, the United States military strategists were fully
aware, long before Pearl Harbor, that war with Japan was probably
inevitable.  The United States had begun to build up its forces in the
Pacific, Japan was aware of that build-up, and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor
to try to stop that build-up in its tracks.
    After Pearl Harbor, it was clear to United States strategists that U.
S. installations of any sort within the proposed Japanese Co-Prosperity
Sphere were in grave danger.
    As Thaddeus V. Tuleja writes in Climax at Midway. in a passage dealing
with the events that preceded the Midway battles, "Wake's importance to
Japan was understood by Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the
Pacific Fleet.  Stationed at Pearl Harbor, and fated to bear a great share
of the responsibility for the December 7 disaster, Kimmel did say eight
months before the attack that "one of the initial operations of the
Japanese navy may be directed at Wake.  If Wake is to be defended, then
for the Japanese to reduce it would require extended operations in an area
where we might be able to get at naval forces with naval forces."3
    In the last months of 1941 Wake began to have the appearance of "the
stationary carrier base Congress envisaged for it when it voted money for
the Navy to build submarine and air facilities there and on Midway.
Marines, sailors and civilian workers converged in mid-August, 1941,
bringing with them heavy machinery to crush coral for the airstrip and
coastal and antiaircraft guns for beach fortifications."4
    Wake was attacked by the Japanese two hours after Pearl Harbor.  Plane
assaults preceded an invasion fleet's attempt to land men four days after
Pearl Harbor.  The Americans on Wake repulsed the first Japanese attempt
to land, and the Americans on the mainland put their patriotic support
behind the attempt to hold the island.  President Roosevelt went on radio
to announce that a "Wake Relief Expedition" would soon leave for the
island.  That expedition was organized in Honolulu on December 13, a week
after Pearl Harbor and two days after the first Japanese effort to land on
Wake.  It was composed of destroyers, cruisers, and the carrier Saratoga.
Leaving three days later, it never reached its destination:  "Heavy seas
prevented refueling of the destroyers at sea, and Rear Admiral Frank Jack
Fletcher decided to abandon the attempt to relieve Wake through a daring
sea operation."5
    The Japanese bombed the island repeatedly, weakening American defenses
until on the night of December 22 a Japanese invasion fleet came out of
the darkness, landing 1000 men the next morning.  After hours of bloody
fighting 1500 Marines and civilians surrendered to the Japanese.
    Bahrenburg summarizes the subsequent involvement of Wake in the war:
         Before the war was over, American ships returned
         often to Wake and reduced the Japanese
         fortifications on it to rubble.  However, it
         was deemed unworthy of a land invasion, and Wake
         Island was bypassed by the island hopping Americans.
         Wake was not recaptrued until September 4,
         1945, when the Japanese on the island surrendered,
         days after their emperor had asked his country-
         men to lay down their arms.  After the Japanese
         captured Wake, they renamed it Bird Island.  One
         of the first things the Americans did in 1945 was
         to change the name back.6
    Wake's role was more symbolic than substantial, then, in the overall
American military strategy in the Pacific. The first hand-to-hand battles
between Americans and Japanese at Wake fired up the American public, if it
hadn't been fired up sufficiently by Pearl Harbor. The relatively easy
victory of the Japanese at Wake, however, gave the Americans a warning
that their preparedness left much to be desired, and that lesson set a
context in which the strategy from that point forward would be established
and developed.
    In the case of the Philippines, the American military strategy was
more developed and specific than it had been at Wake Island, but not
or developed enough.  Perhaps that weakness should have been expected,
considering that the battle of the Philippines got under way shortly after
the loss and shock of Pear Harbor.
    Andrieu D'Albas writes in Death of a Navy that even though the
Americans knew that if war came to the Far East (or so strategic thinking
ran before the inevitability of war brought on by Pearl Harbor) the
Philippines would be a significant battleground because they lay on the
"route of conquest Japan would have to take to reach Malaya and the Dutch
East Indies, the joint American-Filipino force assigned under the command
of General Douglas MacArthur to defend the islands was hardly ready for
the task."7
    The size of the joint force looked good on paper----130,000 men.  The
fact was, however, that most of that number were poorly equipped and
ill-trained natives, supervised as though they were a group of veteran
    In any case, the strategic thinking which saw the necessity of
stopping Japan's advance in the Philippines was not successfully
realized.  The army was unable to stop the Japanese forces which landed on
December 22 at Lingayen Gulf, on the north of Luzon, as well as on beaches
of the southeast coast of Luzon.
    In fact there was little that strategists could have done but put into
operation what Bahrenburg calls "their contingency plan of desperation:
withdrawing their forces into the Bataan Peninsula, hoping to make a stand
there until reinforcements came from the United States."8  Particularly
embarrassing was MacArthur's belief that the Philippines could be saved
from the air.  The Japanese decimated the air power of the American force
quickly in the Philippines.
    Up to the brief battle of the Philippines American military strategy
had been sadly lacking, not having been prepared for the Japanese assault
at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent attacks on Wake Island and Philippines.
    The Japanese marched into Manila on the second day of 1942.  The first
month of the war in the Pacific had seen the American military in the
Philippines at 15,000 American and 65,000 Filipino soldiers on the Bataan
Peninsula, several fighter planes, two dozen submarines, and a few other
smaller vessels.  Not much on which to build a military strategy that
could ever hope to stop the Japanese anywhere in the South Pacific.
    Though the battle of Bataan went on for four months,much longer than
longer than the Japanese might have expected, the result was another loss
for American and Allied forces in the Pacific, the most recent in a string
of losses to the Japanese which were becoming distressingly regular.
However, the brilliance of MacArthur's strategic withdrawal from Manila to
Bataan, which led to the extended defense of that peninsula, signaled the
world of what was to come when America's military strategic thinkers began
to operate successfully and with full preparation in the Pacific.  The
infamous Death March" occurred after Bataan fell, and the famous "I shall
return" declaration of MacArthur came out of that battle as well and later
served as a rallying cry for the Americans throughout the Pacific Theater.
    Corregidor was guaranteed a place in the war by its geographical
location.  It is strategically placed in the way of any invasion of Manila
from the sea, and the city was of course vital as a port facility.
Corregidor accordingly was subjected, by the Japanese, to daily air
attacks from the last days of 1941 through the first week of May, 1942.
The Japanese used barges to move from Bataan to Corregidor and the
island fell on May 9.  Corregidor was not to be recaptured until February,
1945, after an eleven-day battle in which Japanese by the thousands
committed suicide in an underground tunnel on the island.  But the 1942
situation was relatively hopeless from the start, and military strategy
was (aside from the retreat of MacArthur's troops to put up a battle on
Bataan)  basically hold on as long as you can and then surrender.  Without
reinforcements against the Japanese, little more could be hoped for.
    The first six months of the war in the Pacific had been one of defeat
after defeat for the American military.  Strategic thinking was limited by
several factors; the shock of Pearl Harbor and the destruction of ships
there, the lack of reinforcements, superior Japanese planning to that
point, and the condition of unpreparedness which could only be resolved
over a period of time.  Losses included Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island,
Bataan, the Philippines, the Marianas, New Guineau, the Solomon Islands,
and the Gilbert Islands.
    The Japanese losses to that point in 1942 were minimal compared to
Allied losses, both in terms of men and ships, as well as planes.
    Finally, in the summer of 1942, American military strategic planning
began to move forward.  The U. S. reorganized its entire military forces
in the war zone of the Pacific.  MacArthur was named the supreme commander
of the Southwest Pacific area, which included all of the Netherlands East
Indies except for Sumatra; Australia; the Philippines; the Solomon
Islands; and the Bismarch archipelago.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was
appointed commander in chief of the Pacific Ocean area, which included the
rest of the Pacific for all practical purposes, though his command was
divided into the zones of the North Pacific (including the Aleutians); the
Central Pacific (Hawaii, the Marianas, and the Marshall Islands); and the
South Pacific (New Zealand, New Caledonia, the southern Gilberts, Fiji,
and Samoa)
    The hopes of the Japanese had been that the first six months of steady
and shocking defeats in the Pacific would lead the United States to a
quick surrender, or at least to the American recognition of the Japanese
territories acquired by force.
    But instead American military strategy included the launching of a
number of carrier-based attacks against the Marshalls and Wake in the
opening months of 1942.  Besides such an obviously important military
offensive, the strategy of the United States included another effort:
         On April 18, 1942, led by Lieutenant Colonel
         James H. Doolittle (the United States) sent
         sixteen U.S. Army B-25's from the carrier Hor-
         net to bomb Tokyo, a raid with almost no mili-
         tary value but one with incalculable propagan-
         da significance for an American public condi-
         tioned suddenly to be losers in a world war.9
    Additionally, throughout the spring of 1942, the United States built
up its forces in Australia, and the USA signed an agreement with its
allies to take on the responsibility for the defense of the entire Pacific
area including Australia and ew Zealand.
    The Japanese and American fleets were on a collision course in the
first week of May, 1942, as the Japanese moved from the south from Rabaul
and the Americans, with the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, coming from
the southeast after an air strike against Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.
This led to the battle of the Coral Sea, which began on May 7.  Both sides
took heavy losses.  Vice Admiral Forrestel writes in A Study in Command
that : "The Coral Sea was the first major engagement for the U.S. Navy in
the Pacific War, and if the result was not an offensive victory, it did
have benefits for the Allies.  Port Moresby (in New Guinea) was
temporarily saved (and) never again would the Japanese send a fleet to try
to take it from the sea.10  In other words, the Japanese were
sufficiently impressed that the American strategists could for the first
time add Japanese caution to the elements of future strategy.
    After that the Japanese tried to take Midway while at the same time
destroying a spread-out U.S. fleet, thereby forcing a US surrender.
    However, the turning point of the war was the battle of Midway, which
lasted from May 26 to June 7.
    Tuleja writes that "Midway did not end the war.  Savo Island was yet
to come, and Cape Esperance and Santa Cruz and Tassafaronga and Leyte
Gulf.  But it was Midway which profoundly altered the stream of Japanese
history.  The climax had passed . . ."11
    In the final days of May the Japanese gathered an armada of over a
hundred ships, some of which were diverted for an attack on the Aleutian
Islands.  Though Midway is clearly in the North Pacific, its role in the
eventual success of the United States in the Pacific area cannot be
    The primary success of the Americans at Midway was more a technical
matter than strategic.  The success of the Japanese assault depended, as
had the Pearl Harbor attack, on the element of surprise.
    However, "in a small cluttered room at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese
Secret Code was broken.  Knowing the Japanese now planned to invade
Midway, the Navy began a massive buildup of the island's defense.  By June
there were 141 officers and 2886 enlisted men on Midway . . ."12
    Placed in command of the defense of Midway was Rear Admiral Raymond A.
Spurance, after Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey came down with a
disabling body rash.  In his book on Spurance, Forrestel writes that the
importance of Midway was not only in the fact that the United States won
its first battle in the Pacific, but that thousands of
Americans---especially bomber pilots---received their first battle
experience, and that experience served as an important element in later
American strategic planning.
    Making later American strategists' job even easier was the fact that
the Japanese at Midway suffered heavy losses.  As Forrestel writes, the
Japanese "carrier-based air force had been irreparably crippled.  About
250 carrier planes had been shot down and with them Japan's best fighter
pilots.  Never again in the war would Japan's carrier craft be a major
threat to United States armed might in the Pacific."13
    After Midway, Nimitz and MacArthur agreed that a
counter-offensive---the first of the war in the Pacific for the Americans
and the first real opportunity for taking the strategic offensive---should
be instigated at the earliest possible moment, but the two disagreed as to
how or where to launch it.  Forrestel writes:
         Spurance agreed with Nimitz, who advocated a
         step-by-step push through the Solomons to Ra-
         baul, beginning with occupation of Tulagi and
         Santa Cruz by carrier-supported landings of
         the 1st Marine Division . . . MacArthur . . .
         proposed that the fleet, its carriers and the
         1st Marine Division be placed under his com-
         mand to capture Rabaul in a single assault.
         Nimitz was opposed to risking his scarce car-
         riers and amphibious troops in a thrust through
         dangerous waters into a hornets' nest of enemy
         air power.14
    Nimitz was finally directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to proceed
with the capture and occupation of Santa Cruz, Tulagi, and adjacent
positions.  The Chiefs settled the issue by removing the eastern Solomons
from MacArthur's command and placing them under Nimitz, over the
objections of MacArthur and Vice Admiral Ghormley, the commander of the
South Pacific Force.  Guadalcanal was made an added objective after
reconnaissance revealed an airfield being built there by the Japanese.
    Six months of air, sea, and ground battle of the fiercest sort
followed until Guadalcanal was secured by the United States.
    Through late 1942 and 1943 Admiral Spurance favored and argued for a
step-by-step advance across the Pacific to the China coast.  Nimitz backed
this strategy, but MacArthur proposed an Army offensive, supported by the
Navy, which would advance to Japan through Rabaul, New Guinea and the
Philippines to take back what the Japanese had taken from him (in the
early Philippines battle which left such a bitter taste in MacArthur's
proud mouth).
    The backers of the Central Pacific route of attack argued that
strategically it would provide a faster method of assault, it would be
over sea instead of the slower land route of the South, and that it would
deprive the Japanese of time to prepare for each step of the assault.  The
possibility of flank attack would be greater on the South route supported
by MacArthur, and lines of communication on the North route would be more
secure.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff finally favored the more northern
Central Pacific route, MacArthur was put in charge of a supporting
operation along the New Guinea-Philippine axis.  The Joint Chiefs retained
overall command of the operation, in order to prevent rivalry between
Nimitz and MacArthur.
    On July 20, 1943 the commanders in the Pacific were directed to train
forces and plan for the capture of Abemama and Tarawa in the Gilberts, and
Naura, around the middle of November of the same year, and to submit a
strategy for taking the Marshall Islands in early 1944.
    The battles involving the Marianas and finally the Philippines in 1944
were the most devastating Japanese defeats suffered after Midway until the
end of the war in 1945.  The so-called Battle of the Philippine Sea in
June of 1944 is summarized by Forrestel:
         It has been an overwhelming victory for the
         United States but the sense of elation which ran
         through the force was tempered by a feeling that
         the victory might have been greater.  Though in re-
         treat with its air striking arm almost wiped out,
         most of the Japanese fleet had survived without
         coming to grips with the U.S. surface force and
         without having been subjected to full-scale air
Spurance was criticized for the strategic failure to steam westward to
annihilate the Japanese fleet when victory in the Philippine Sea was
assured.  Later, however, it was determined that Spurance's decision was
correct---that all the forces that remained in the Sea were needed---and
that the critics had only been engaged in wishful thinking that the war
would be over sooner than it was destined to be.
    The next step in the American strategy was the securing of the
Marianas.  This was accomplished late in the summer of 1944.  The
strategic purpose of this was to thoroughly penetrate Japanese inner
defenses and to give the United States advanced naval and air bases within
range of the Japanese homeland.
    S.E. Morison, in History of the United States Naval Operations in
World Was II, writes that
         It was the beginning of the end for the Japan-
         ese, and loss of the Marianas was viewed so
         gravely in Tokyo that it caused the fall of
         the Tojo government, which had been in power
         since before the Pearl Harbor attack . . .16
    In October of 1944 seven hundred American ships and 174,000 United
States sailors and soldiers participated in the invasion of the
Philippines as MacArthur made good on his pledge to return.
    The troops there struck "almost simultaneously at four places on an
18-mile section of the Leyte coast . . .17
    Though the battle waged into 1945, the Americans eventually
prevailed.  In the riskiest strategic maneuver of the battle, Admiral
Halsey headed north with his Third Fleet of 65 ships to seek out the
Japanese carriers which had been attacking American ships after the
landing at Leyte.  The Halsey move left other American ships largely
unprotected, but the Japanese had practically no land-based planes to
    By Saint Patrick's Day of 1945 "the mop-up of the Japanese of Leyte
was reasonably complete."18
    Forrestel writes that the Philippine operations were so strategically
vital because they cut off Japanese communications through the South China
Sea.  This also made no longer necessary any American landings in South
China, which had previously been proposed as an alternative strategy in
case the Philippine operations stalled or failed.
    Guam and Iwo Jima were taken by early 1945, as the American military
machine moved inexorably toward final victory.  The battle for Okinawa was
declared over on July 2, 1945.  preliminary planning for the operation to
follow Okinawa proceeded along two lines.  The first was favored by
Spurance and had the Americans driving through to the China coast.  The
second had them going for Japan proper.
    Because of the decisive actions in the South Pacific, and the success
of the strategy calling for Nimitz-MacArthur cooperative efforts, the move
into China was discarded and the invasion plans for Kyushu replaced it.
    The full-scale invasion of Japan, however, never occurred because of
the use of the atmoic bombs in August of 1945, which brought the war to an
1.  Bruce Bahrenburg, The Pacific: Then and Now, 1971, 12.
2.  The Pacific: Then and Now, 39.
3.  Thaddeus Tuleja, Climax at Midway, 1960, 28.
4.  Climax at Midway, 29-30.
5.  The Pacific: Then and Now, 41.
6.  The Pacific: Then and Now, 43.
7.  Andrieu D'Albas, Death of a Navy, 1987, 88.
8.  The Pacific: Then and Now, 63-64.
9.  The Pacific: Then and Now, 95.
10. Vice Admiral E.P. Forrestel, A Study in Command, 1966, 29.
11. Climax at Midway, 207.
12. The Pacific:  Then and Now, 99.
13. A Study in Command, 61.
14. A Study in Command, 63.
15. A Study in Command, 146.
16. S.E. Morrison, History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II,
    1956, 191.
17. The Pacific: Then and Now, 224.
18. The Pacific: Then and Now, 231.
1.  Bahrenburg, Bruce.  The Pacific:  Then and Now.  New York:  G.P.
    Putnam's Sons, 1971.
2.  D'Albas, Andrieu. Death of a Navy.  New York:  Devin-Adair, 1957.
3.  Forrestel, Vice Admiral E.P.  A Study in Command.  Washington:
    Naval History, 1962.
4.  Ito, Masanori.  The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy.  New York:
    W.W.  Norton, 1962.
5.  Morison, S.E.  History of U. S. Naval Operations in World War II.
    Boston:  Little, Brown, 1956.
6.  Roscoe, Theodore. U. S. Submarine Operations in World Was II.
    Annapolis:  U. S. Naval Institute, 1959.
7.  Tuleja, Thaddeus.  Climax at Midway.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1960.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias