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Island Hopping

The United States envisioned at least three approaches to the Japanese home islands. The first approach envisioned moving overland, from Burma up through China, where airfields could be built to bombard Japan. This approach, under US General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell eventually petered out in the face of innumerable difficulties. The second approach, under General Douglas MacArthur, called for moving toward Japan along the larger island chains, from New Guinea to the Phillipines. The third approach, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, called for moving across the smaller Pacific islands. This "island hopping" strategy proved decisive.

In May 1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea the first naval engagement in history in which all the fighting was done by carrier-based planes a Japanese naval invasion fleet sent to strike at southern New Guinea and Australia was turned back by a U.S. task force in a close battle. A few weeks later, the naval Battle of Midway in the central Pacific resulted in the first major defeat of the Japanese Navy, which lost four aircraft carriers. Ending the Japanese advance across the central Pacific, Midway was the turning point.

Other battles also contributed to Allied success. The six-month land and sea battle for the island of Guadalcanal (August 1942-February 1943) was the first major U.S. ground victory in the Pacific. Once the Allies secured the key Pacific island of Guadalcanal in February 1943, they began to look for another place to strike the Japanese.

In May 1943, at the Trident Conference, the Allies hammered out European strategy but also decided to begin a central Pacific campaign. Boldly the Allies chose to mount two simultaneous advances in the Pacific. One operation in the southwest Pacific would move northwest from Guadalcanal up the Solomon Island chain thrusting toward the Japanese bastion of Rabaul. Termed Operation "Cartwheel", this operation was the responsibility of the Army and General Douglas MacArthur. The other operation in the central Pacific under the command of ADM Chester Nimitz targeted the capture of the Gilbert Islands. This two-division invasion of the Gilbert Islands was nicknamed Operation "Galvanic."

Allied Pacific strategy called for an "island hopping" campaign whereby strongly held but widely separated Japanese positions were bypassed in favor of more weakly guarded ones. This allowed the armed forces to keep momentum, to cut off communications and logistical connections of Japanese strongholds, and to eventually reduce them.

For most of the next two years, American and Australian troops fought their way northward from the South Pacific and westward from the Central Pacific, capturing the Solomons, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and the Marianas in a series of amphibious assaults. The operations in the Pacific normally required a hig degree of coordination due to the great distances between the staging areas and the landings. Coordination helped insure that all the units of the assault would arrive at the same time. Training and rehearsal for these enterprises gave the Allies the experience to make the operations go smoothly.

In the central Pacific, the role of the Hawaii-based 7th Air Force had been primarily a defensive one and after the Battle of Midway, the enemy had made no serious effort to advance in that theater. But, by late 1943 as growing U.S. naval strength permitted a more aggressive strategy in the central Pacific, the 7th's aircraft regularly were sent to "soften up" those islands scheduled for amphibious assault or to neutralize enemy forces on those islands of little strategic value which were to be bypassed by Allied forces island-hopping through the Gilbert and Marshall islands. Missions often were flown against targets more than a thousand miles away and operational difficulties proved more of a hazard than enemy opposition. When bases and targets were mere pinpoints in a vast ocean, any appreciable error in navigation meant ditching at sea with a good chance of never being rescued.

The final battles in the Pacific were among the wars bloodiest. In June 1944, the Battle of the Philippine Sea effectively destroyed Japanese naval air power, forcing the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Tojo. General Douglas MacArthur who had reluctantly left the Philippines two years before to escape Japanese capture returned to the islands in October. The accompanying Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval engagement ever fought, was the final decisive defeat of the Japanese Navy. By February 1945, U.S. forces had taken Manila.

Next, the United States set its sight on the strategic island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin Islands, about halfway between the Marianas and Japan. The Japanese, trained to die fighting for the Emperor, made suicidal use of natural caves and rocky terrain. U.S. forces took the island by mid-March, but not before losing the lives of some 6,000 U.S. Marines. Nearly all the Japanese defenders perished. By now the United States was undertaking extensive air attacks on Japanese shipping and airfields and wave after wave of incendiary bombing attacks against Japanese cities.

At Okinawa (April 1-June 21, 1945), the Americans met even fiercer resistance. With few of the defenders surrendering, the U.S. Army and Marines were forced to wage a war of annihilation. Waves of Kamikaze suicide planes pounded the offshore Allied fleet, inflicting more damage than at Leyte Gulf. Japan lost 90-100,000 troops and probably as many Okinawan civilians. U.S. losses were more than 11,000 killed and nearly 34,000 wounded. Most Americans saw the fighting as a preview of what they would face in a planned invasion of Japan.

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Page last modified: 19-09-2017 12:00:16 ZULU