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Pacific War - Victory at Sea

The Pacific War was the largest naval conflict in history. Across the huge expanses of the Pacific, the two most powerful navies in the world (US and Japan) found themselves locked in a death struggle. The war was fought in every possible climate, from Arctic conditions in the Aleutians, to the appalling heat and swelter of the South Pacific. Every conceivable type of naval activity was represented: carrier aviation battles, surface engagements, bitterly fought night-fights, the largest amphibious landings of the entire war, and the stealthy, brutal battles waged by and against submarines.

The United States Navy fought a grueling war in the Pacific against Japan. The Imperial Japanese Navy was a formidable antagonist. At first, the United States Navy was stretched to the breaking point just to contain Japanese expansion. Later, the growth of American naval power enabled a transition from defense to offense against Japan. This powerful American offensive across the Pacific destroyed Japan's imperial ambitions.

While the Army and Army Air Forces played crucial roles in bringing this victory -- especially in the South and Southwest Pacific campaigns, and in the strategic bomber offensive against the home islands -- the Navy undoubtedly played the key role in the war against Japan. This was most clearly demonstrated in the destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy in a series of carrier battles, and in the decisive Central Pacific campaign wherein naval air power was the only air power on which the US could rely for its assaults on Japanese-held island bases. None of this success would have been possible without an immense rise in the quality and numbers of the Navy's aircraft and aircraft carriers.

Pearl Harbor had left the Pacific Fleet crippled, stripped of most of its fighting capacity except for the three major carriers that had been out to sea when the Japanese planes dove from the clouds. By necessity, then, the Navy confined itself to a series of delaying and harassing actions launched from these vessels during the first days of the Pacific war as the Japanese advanced across the Pacific basin in a lighting offensive.

The Japanese raid on December 7, 1941, marked the first of several major victories for Tokyo. The Japanese destroyed much of the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. They attacked American bases in the Philippines, and within days Japan captured the American island of Guam. Japanese troops landed in Thailand, marched into Malaya, and seized Hong Kong. The Japanese moved into Indonesia and Burma. Even Hitler's troops in Europe had not moved so quickly or successfully.

Until the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942, Japan's far-reaching offensives proceeded untroubled by fruitful opposition. American and Allied morale suffered accordingly. Under normal political circumstances, an accomodation might have been considered. Fresh from their successes, the Japanese decided (unwisely) to extend their defensive perimeter outwards from their main forward base of Rabaul, in New Britain. The Japanese put together two invasion forces; one intending to land troops at Port Moresby, on the southern tip of New Guinea, and a second to put troops ashore on the island of Tulagi, in the southern Solomons. Simultaneously, a powerful screening force centered on the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku was dispatched from Truk to prevent any interference from any Allied naval forces that might be in the area. As it turned out, the carriers Lexington and Yorktown were in the Coral Sea, the Americans having been alerted to the likelihood of such a Japanese move by radio intelligence. What followed on May 7-8, 1942 was the first true carrier vs. carrier battle, where neither task force actually came within sight of each other, and the issue was decided entirely by aircraft. The results of the affair was probably a tactical victory for the Japanese, as they managed to sink the heavy carrier Lexington, heavily damage the Yorktown, and sink a destroyer and an oiler.

In the beginning of 1942, gloom was descending over the United States like a winter twilight. On all fronts, the United States and its allies were reeling from the blows of the Axis powers. In the midst of these dark days burst the light of the Doolittle Raid on Japan. The US Navy conceived the raid as a way to raise morale. It entailed launching Army twin-engine B-25B Mitchell bombers from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to bomb selected cities in Japan. It was a way to strike back, to demonstrate that no matter how bleak the future looked, the United States would not give up. Leading the attack was Army Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, an aviation pioneer and daredevil racer. The 16 bombers struck Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya and Yokohama on 18 April 1942. The raid inflicted little physical damage to Japan, but it gave a needed lift to morale in the United States. In Japan, the psychological damage of the attack was more important.

Carrier actions in the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea dominated the first 6 months of the war, during which time Navy pilots flew the relatively inferior aircraft that were already in service at the beginning of the war. These included the Brewster F2A Buffalo and the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, and the TBD Devastator torpedo bomber. This early phase culminated in the US victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, where the tide of Japanese victories was stemmed for the first time. The Doolittle Raid had convinced Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto, chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, that he had to extend Japan's defensive perimeter. He aimed the extension at Midway Island. If Japan held that strategic mid-Pacific atoll, no carrier task force could approach. The battle of Midway was a decisive victory for the United States.

The turning point came in June 1942 in the central pacific battle of Midway Island. Japan's geographical situation determined that the Pacific war should in large measure be a war for control of the sea, and to insure control of the sea, for control of the air over it. Before the war, American and Japanese naval planners expected that the outcome of a war between their two countries would be decided by major battles fought out by surface ships. Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto wanted to meet and destroy the remaining ships of the American fleet before Washington had time to rebuild them. But the US had broken Japanese naval codes and knew exactly where the Japanese ships would sail. Placing the US Fleet in the best places to stop the Japanese, the US won a great victory. The feared Japanese carrier striking force which had ranged across the Pacific and beaten its foes with near-impunity, had been destroyed at a stroke. For the Japanese Navy, this marked the end of any real strategic offensive capability.

The Allied counter-offensive in the South Pacific began in August 1942 with Marine landings on Tulagi and Guadalcanal, opening stiff fighting for the latter island that would continue for 6 months. At the same time, the Japanese push to conquer New Guinea was effectively turned back, ending the immediate threat to Australia by depriving Japan of air bases on the southern half of the island.

Over the course of 1943, the Army and Navy brought the Solomons campaign to a successful completion and made great strides toward completely ridding New Guinea of its Japanese invaders.

The necessity for relying primarily on support of land-based aircraft curtailed the length of the jumps in the South and Southwest Pacific in 1943. The Navy's limited supply of aircraft carriers could not be employed to best advantage in the narrow waters around New Guinea and the Solomons. By mid-1943, however, new larger and faster carriers of the Essex class (27,000 tons) and lighter carriers of the Independence class (11,000 tons) were joining the Pacific Fleet. Around these new carriers Admiral Nimitz built naval task forces tailored in each case to the particular operation at hand. The task forces consisted of a mix of carriers, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, submarines, minesweepers, and support craft. In the broad expanses of the Central Pacific, these air carrier task forces could provide both air and naval support for far longer leaps forward, while the entire Pacific Fleet stood ready to confront the main Japanese Fleet at any time it chose to give battle.

The Central Pacific drive got under way on November 20, 1943, following victories at Tarawa and Makin. Nimitz sent Army and Marine forces to the Gilbert Islands to seize bases from which to support subsequent jumps into the Marshalls. Here, the Navy relied on its growing fleet of aircraft carriers -- both the immense Essex-class vessels and the smaller carrier vessel escorts (CVEs) -- to provide the air power necessary to seize air superiority from Japanese land-based aircraft and provide floating bases from which Marine Corps and Navy pilots could conduct their devastating close air support missions on behalf of the assaulting ground forces. Also, superior new aircraft that had been on the drawing boards in December 1941 were entering the inven-tory during 1943. These included the F6F Hellcat, the SB2C Helldiver, and the TBF Avenger, as well as the Marines' F4U Corsair.

During 1944, the Central Pacific campaign proceeded apace, with the Marshall Islands falling to the Marines after fighting on Kwajalein and Eniwetok in February 1944. Air assaults on other Japanese bases in the Central Pacific followed immediately thereafter, including attacks on Truk, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. South Pacific operations in New Guinea were completed in April 1944. The Navy then returned to the Central Pacific to seize the Marianas Islands after victory on Saipan, followed by the seizure of Guam in June 1944. These islands were quickly turned into large airbases for the Army's B-29 Superfortresses, which began a devastating bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands.

Provoked into action by the American landing in the Marianas Islands, the Japanese fleet committed six carriers with some 430 fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes to the First Battle of the Philippine Sea. The air battle on 19 June 1944, now called the Marianas "Turkey Shoot," became one of the US Navy's greatest victories of World War II when the US Navy fighter pilots shot down 369 enemy aircraft. The bulk of Japan's surface strength and naval air power was destroyed in the finest day of combat in the history of US naval aviation. Morotai and Pelau followed in September 1944, and the reconquest of the Philippines commenced at Leyte in October. The hard-fought Battle of Leyte Gulf resulted in the destruction of most of the remainder of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, laying the way for an advance against the Japanese home islands.

Until June 1944, U.S. planners had assumed that south China and Taiwan would be the principal invasion objectives of advancing Allied forces, including the British, and that the war might last into 1948 or longer. In June 1944, however, U.S. planners of the Joint War Plans Committee, subordinate to the Joint Planning Staff (JPS), outlined a new possibility, a rapid advance of U.S. forces by sea, culminating in the early invasion of Japan itself. The Bonins, the Ryukyus, and the China coast near Shanghai were to be intermediate objectives, secured between April and June 1945, with a landing then on Kyushu to take place on 1 October 1945. However, all of this was to begin only after the invasion of Taiwan and the south China coast. These plans, in fact, were titled "Operations Against Japan Subsequent to Formosa [Taiwan]."

In other words, the June 1944 plans represented a hybrid or transition phase that retained major invasions on the China coast but added major invasions of Japan's home islands. A series of American successes caused planners to take the next evolutionary step, which was to eliminate entirely the earlier preoccupation with the China coast and aim American advances solely at Japan, which called for a 1 December landing on Kyushu.

In January 1945 US troops invaded Luzon in the Philippines, and fighting in the Southwest Pacific was largely over by February. Also in that month, the Marines seized Iwo Jima in order to secure the bomber routes to Japan and provide an advanced base from which to stage Air Force fighter escorts. April brought the invasion of Okinawa, and its final capture in late June -- after 2 months of bloody land fighting and costly kamikaze attacks -- eliminated the last impediment to the invasion of the home islands. By the middle of 1945, the two axes of advance had converged at Okinawa, on Japan's doorstep.

Next the Allies began preparations for a bloody invasion of Japan. On 29 March 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff set a tentative schedule for the overall invasion plan, Downfall. By the end of May 1945, planners had shelved the China operations altogether and considered a direct advance on Japan only. To end the war quickly, planners adopted the ambitious, but potentially costly, strategy of invading Japan's heavily defended homeland itself. Olympic and Coronet, America's planned landings on Kyushu and the Tokyo Plain respectively, represented the largest amphibious invasions ever planned.

The Navy began the war with only eight aircraft carriers and about 5,000 aircraft. By mid-1943, just before the start of the Central Pacific campaign, it operated 12 large aircraft carriers -- including the first of the huge Essex-class vessels and 17 escort carriers, with 16 more due off the ways by the end of the year. The number of aircraft in service had risen to over 16,000. By the end of 1944, 25 major carriers and 65 escort carriers had come to dominate the seas, operating more than 36,000 aircraft. By the end of the war, these figures had risen to 28 large carriers, 71 escort carriers (as well as dozens of the even smaller "jeep" carriers used for ferrying aircraft across the Pacific), and more than 41,000 aircraft.

The war against Japan that spanned the Pacific Ocean dominated the Navy's attention and most directly shape its development. It was, in fact, the war for which the Navy and the Marine Corps had been preparing over the previous decades. It was a conflict in which naval power, especially naval air power and amphibious assault operations, played the decisive role. In the vast expanses of the Pacific, the possession of strategic island bases and the actions of carrier task forces would shape the course of the war. The massed might of the Army and Army Air Forces would play important roles in the South and Southwest Pacific, where land masses were more closely spaced, but even there the Navy and Marine Corps could be the deciding factor. In the Central Pacific, however, the immense distances between isolated island chains meant that the only air power available to support attacking US Marines was that based on Navy carriers. Here, then, was where the Navy fought its war and where naval aviation played its most decisive role.

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Page last modified: 16-06-2019 18:59:40 ZULU