World War II was fought across more land
and involved more men than any other war in the history of human civilization.
Never before or since has there been a war of such vast importance and
of such a large scale. The United States had an absolutely crucial
role in the outcome of this war. The U.S. was faced with the colossal
challenge of waging two wars at the same time on two very different parts
of the planet. The European front was, of course, the more obvious
of the two considering the undeniable atrocities and evils that were being
committed by Adolf Hitler. Involvement on the European front was
inevitable and, generally more accessible for U.S. forces. Less than
thirty years before, the United States had fought in Europe, so we were
familiar with the terrain and appropriate strategy. However, the
Pacific Campaign of World War II presented a unique challenge for United
States Armed Forces. Never before had we fought in the South Pacific
or even on terrain that resembled that of the Pacific islands. With
the Army heavily involved in Europe, in December of 1941 the United States
were forced into a war that it was not familiar with nor knew how to fight.
Luckily, however, for the U.S., the Marine Corps were the perfect outfit
for the kind of fighting need in the Pacific Campaign. Because of
their training in land to sea combat, the Marines were uniquely prepared
for the war that faced them, whereas, the Army could never have successfully
waged war in the Pacific. Without the Marine Corps fighting in the
Pacific, the whole war against Japan would not have succeeded.
From 1939-1941, at the dawn of Adolf Hitler’s
war machine in Europe, the United States seemed above the rest of the world.
Separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. enjoyed an incredible amount
of security. We were almost entirely untouchable from the flames
of war rapidly growing in Europe, and the majority of American citizens
were happy to not be involved. To them, the European conflict was
too far away to have any direct or meaningful impact on their lives. In
fact, public opinion did not think that it was even necessary to enter
the war at all. However, Roosevelt saw otherwise. He knew that
a war in Europe could very well mean a war in the States. Only thirty
years before, in World War I, the same kind situation had evolved into
the “war to end all wars”, where the United States had played a key role.
So, Roosevelt desperately wanted and needed to change the minds of nearly
the nearly the entire American public; this task presented an almost impossible
With war beginning to be fought in Europe,
England was in dire need of any aid they could receive. At the beginning,
this aid came in the form of supplies furnished by the United States.
Ammunition, food, clothing, and weapons of all kinds were being shipped
over to Europe and creating incredible wealth for the American government.
Entering the war meant losing a very profitable trade with the desperate
allies in Europe. Luckily for England and for Roosevelt, the United
States were soon presented with an undeniable reason for entering the war.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed
Pearl Harbor. This act of aggression towards America, provided for
a perfect entrance into the war, and now the people of America were incited
enough to back a full-scale war against Hitler and Japan. However,
one huge problem still existed, and that was the problem of a two front
war. Many were frightened that the U.S. had taken on a task that
was a bit too much for the nation to handle. The Army was the perfect
force for fighting the war in Europe. They were trained for the land
combat they would face, and had knowledge of the land from World War I.
In addition, the Army was already on the move to Europe, so splitting the
Army into two different forces for Europe and the South Pacific was out
of the question. The only option that the U.S. government had for
waging war against Japan was the Marine Corps. Marine units had been
stationed in the South Pacific in Australia and Samoa. They only
needed to be reinforced. Especially convenient for the United States
was the fact that the Marine Corps was perfectly suited for the kind of
warfare that would be faced against Japan. Marines are trained specifically
for land to sea and sea to land operations. In addition, their close
relationship with the Navy insured that the two fighting forces could work
together and be successful.
Both General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral
Chester Williams Nimitz orchestrated the unique strategy used in fighting
the Japanese, known as “Island Hopping”. Both the ground troops and
the Navy were perfectly choreographed to strike at strategic Japanese strongholds
around the Pacific. The goal was to destroy all Japanese dominance
and to move ever closer to the Japanese mainland.
The beginning of the Pacific Campaign
was the Battle of Guadalcanal. At the beginning of the war with Japan
had an empire reaching frighteningly close the Australian coastline.
The Japanese advance had to be brought to a halt if the American forces
hoped to assert dominance in the Pacific. Coming off the recent “win”
at the Battle of Midway, the American troops were filled with increased
vigor and enthusiasm about the war. The Battle of Guadalcanal or
Operation Watchtower was hasty and ill prepared assault. Most, if
not all, intelligence that the Marines had on the island were from outdated
German maps from World War I. “Even its commanders would derisively
refer to it as ‘Operation Shoestring’ (Costello 321). In fact, the
only reason the Marines were able to land so easily was because of a weak
initial defense on the part of the Japanese army. Nevertheless, on
August 6, 1942 at midnight, the Pacific assault campaign began.
Eleven transport ships accompanied by
cruisers made their way towards Lunga Point at the north of the island.
Because of a failure in Japanese intelligence, the enemy had no knowledge
of the creeping American Marines that were so close to their shore.
At 6:13 in the morning, the first shots were fired on the island by a heavy
cruiser called Quincy (Costello). Not long after the shelling commenced,
American aircraft carriers let loose bombers and fighters the further assault
the Japanese held island. The enemy was caught completely
off guard. The actual landing of the island was performed with incredible
ease. “More Marines were injured by sharp coral heads as they waded
up the dun-colored beach than by enemy bullets” (Costello 323).
Soon, however, Japanese cruisers arrived
on the scene and caught the U.S. Navy completely off guard destroying U.S.S.
Chicago and the Australian H.M.A.S. Canberra. Luckily, for the recently
landed Marine Corps, Japanese Admiral Mikawa withdrew and did not attack
the island itself. However, the Marines ashore were now with reinforcements
or provisions. So, the Marines quickly finished the captured airstrip
under constant bombings by the Japanese Air Force. Now, reinforcements
were brought in, and the Marines were strengthened. The following
engagements were primarily offensive on the part of the Marines.
They had to clear the entire island of Japanese soldiers. On August
19, 1942, the Marines engaged the enemy in an awful, bloody battle.
The Japanese had attempted to sneak up on the Marines under the cover of
night, only to be heard and gunned down. However, the ferocious fighting
style of the Japanese proved resilient to Marine machine guns. The
Japanese continued to move forward. However, the effort was in vain.
“One Japanese officer would observe that the scene was ‘like a housefly’s
attacking a tortoise. The odds were all against it'” (Costello 329).
At the Battle of Tenaru River, only thirty-five Americans were killed and
the U.S. claimed its first real victory over the Japanese Imperial Army;
Guadalcanal was a success. All Japanese southward expansion was thus
halted for the rest of the war.
The next primary target of the U.S. Marine
Corps was the island of Tarawa. This island was situated somewhat
outside of the center of main combat zone of the Pacific, however Tarawa
was a key stronghold for the Japanese. It was located in the eastern
Pacific, between Australia and Hawaii, right in the middle of the U.S.
supply line. From their location, the Japanese were able to make
short runs on American reinforcements en route to the battle weary Marines
deeper within enemy territory. As the war sped along, taking the
island of Tarawa became key to the success of the “Island Hopping” Campaign.
The massive assault on the two islands
of Tarawa and Makin was known as Operation Galvanic. On November
20th, at 3:30 AM, Marines of the first wave loaded into a new assault vehicle,
the Amphtrac, which had previously only known combat in North Africa.
Two destroyers began to bombard the tiny island of Tarawa with devastating
artillery. As one Captain Charles J. Moore recalls, “‘Fires were
burning everywhere. The coconut trees were blasted and burned and
it seemed that no living soul could be on the island…the troops approached
the beach and it looked like the whole affair would be a walkover'” (Costello
433). However, despite the initial success of the Naval support,
the invasion was not a “‘walkover'”. In fact, the Marine invasion
of Tarawa was a near disaster. Due to outdated maps and bad intelligence,
the Marine Corps did not have a clear idea of what the island was like
or what kind of forces they would be encountering. Tragedy struck
when landing began. The Amphtracs made their way to the beaches of
Tarawa only to be stopped nearly 1000 yards from the shore on the island’s
protective barrier reef. The Marines could not precede any further
towards the island in their landing vehicles; they were forced to get out
and make the 1000-yard trek in the water towards the Japanese defense.
The Japanese, of course, took full advantage of this military folly and
opened with a barrage of heavy artillery and machine gun fire. The
wading Marines were left to literally dodge for their lives. They
were too far from the island to even attempt to fire any kind of small
arms at the Japanese. Plus, given the fact that they were in waist
to chest deep waters just inside the coral reef, they were having extreme
difficulty just moving towards the shore. The added threat of Japanese
fire only worsened the Marines’ desperate situation. Eventually,
the powerful Amphtracs were able to break through the protective barrier,
but because of the intense firepower of the Japanese, they still could
not deliver their soldiers all the way to the beaches. Many Amphtracs
were stopped by artillery and their crews were forced to abandon them.
“Baird’s Amphtrac, hit by a shell came to a halt. Its eleven survivors
were forced to scramble the last 30 yards to shore. Like hundreds
of others, they made for the only shelter available from the murderous
fire, a 4-foot log wall along the high-tide line” (Costello 434).
The entire lagoon was transformed into a mass killing field. By the
fourth wave of the invasion, the Marines could not even attempt to reach
the shore because the water was littered with abandoned tanks, Amphtracs,
By midday casualties had reached an astonishing
20 percent with only 1,500 Marines of the first wave having reached the
shore. By the end of the day, nearly a third of all the troops who
made the attempt at landing on Tarawa were dead. That does not include
the countless that were wounded.
The next morning, more landing craft moved
in to bring more troops. However, enemy snipers had moved out into
the lagoon in the cover of night. They were now waiting in burnt
out tanks and Amphtracs. This added firepower of the Japanese brought
casualties to higher levels than the first day’s landing operation.
At noon, however, five U.S. destroyers began to deliver horrifying blows
to the Japanese batteries and pillboxes. Troops could now raid the
beaches with relative ease. The fight inland still remained a slow
and stubborn one. Marines armed with flamethrowers or sometimes just
riding bulldozers tore into the Japanese pillboxes. After three grueling
days, the Marines finally succeeded in taking Tarawa. Of the enemy
survivors were only 1 Japanese officer, 16 soldiers, and some 129 Koreans
who were used for labor. Many more committed suicide rather than
be taken captive by American forces. What had bee planned as a simple
one day takeover, had turned into an 18,000 man, three day operation.
The Marines had proved victorious but at no small expense; it was “‘the
bitterest fighting in the history of the Marine Corps'” (Costello 438).
The reason the Marines were successful
in the face of such a dire situation on Tarawa was the fact that the Marines
never quit. They fought on and on until the last Japanese soldier
was dead or captured. They displayed tenacity unmatched by any other
fighting force in the war, except maybe the Japanese themselves.
Had Tarawa been in the hands of any other part of the U.S. military force,
it would never have been taken.
With a string of victories under their
belts, the U.S. Marine Corps began a push towards the Japanese mainland.
Key to posing a real threat the Japan’s center was the taking of the islands
of Saipan and Tinian. The U.S. Army Air Corps needed a landing field
closer to the Japan in order to launch bombing raids with their newly acquire
B-29’s. Saipan-Tinian was close enough to frighten the Japanese people
and government and to make them see the potential seriousness of their
situation. In order to take Saipan-Tinian, the Army Air Corps asked
the Marines to move in.
Alongside the Marines, the U.S. Army was
to play a small role in the invasion. Throughout the whole “Island
Hopping” Campaign thus far, the Army had played a small role in the several
battles. Their involvement was limited because they were simply not
adequately trained for the constant land to sea combat that ensued.
On Saipan-Tinian, the Army held a rather important role, however.
In taking Tinian, the U.S. forces would
move in three waves. In the center there was an Army division under
the command of Ralph Smith. He was flanked on both sides by Marine
divisions. The plan was to move forward, all three units at the same
time, and sweep the island clean of any Japanese threat. However,
the advance did not happy quite as planned. At the operation’s commencement
both of the Marine divisions moved forward successfully. But, Smith’s
Army units moved nearly an hour late. They moved forward a little
and were stopped in their tracks. Since the Marines continued to
advance steadily, the operation took to a horseshoe shape with the Army
sagging in the middle. The Army simply would not budge. Holland
Smith of the Marines said to Admirals Turner and Spruance, “‘Ralph Smith
has shown that he lacks aggressive spirit, and his division is slowing
down our advance. He should be relieved'” (Manchester 314).
Dismissed he was, and his Army division was reinforced with Marines from
the Eighth. This gave the battle new life and the Marines began to
overrun the island, destroying all Japanese presence and taking over the
airfields for the Army Air Corps. The Japanese commander, Saito,
committed hara-kiri and left his troops without leadership. They
resorted to one last desperate banzai mission that was put down without
much of a struggle. However, much of the island’s inhabitants were
Japanese. At the fall of their army, they gathered together on Banzai
Cliff. Children threw grenades back and forth until they exploded,
parents killed their own babies, and people jumped from the cliffs.
Emperor Tojo had convinced them through anti-U.S. propaganda that the Americans
were evil and that they should avoid all contact with the enemy troops.
Despite the sad ending, the battles for Saipan-Tinian proved without a
doubt that the Pacific War belonged to the Marines and the Army should
stay at the European front.
The next big battle for the Marines was
perhaps their most famous, Iwo Jima. The reasons for the battle for
Iwo Jima were once again because of the necessity of the Army Air Corps.
While Saipan-Tinian had provided the U.S. with key airfields close to Japan,
the Air Corps wanted to be even closer to Japan in order to cut down on
casualties and expense. Iwo Jima was very attractively seated halfway
between Saipan-Tinian and the Japanese mainland. The Army Air Corps
could launch daily B-29 raids from new airstrips on Iwo.
The battle itself was expected to be huge.
Admiral Kelly Turner and General Holland Smith both thought that it would
be the largest battle yet and would have an estimated 20,000 casualties.
The brunt of the work was given to the 4th and 5th Divisions under Major
Clifton B. Cates and Major Kelly E. Rockey. The 3rd Division was
to wait in reserve. The primary goal of the battle was to capture
Mount Suribachi, the most heavily fortified part of the island. By
February of 1945, nearly a quarter of a million U.S. troops were set for
The Navy bombarded the island fiercely.
General Smith had wanted ten days of shelling prior to landing in order
to break up all Japanese defenses; the operation was that huge. When
the first wave of Marines landed, Japanese troops seemed unfazed by the
shelling and rained fire down upon the 9,000 Marines advancing on their
beaches. The 28th Regiment made their way through 1,000 yards of
defense and to the base of Mount Suribachi, the 27th was stuck by enemy
firepower, and the men of the 5th Division were struggling on the beaches
on “15-foot sand ridges, which made it ‘like trying to fight in a bin of
loose wheat'” (Costello 544).
By nighttime, thirty thousand Marines were
ashore on Iwo Jima and 2,000 had been killed. The next day the Marines
began their push towards the two airstrips on the island. U.S. troops
were only moving 400 yards a day on Mount Suribachi (Costello). By
February 23, however, Marines were at the base of the volcanic peak.
On the 24th, Marines planted an American flag on a crater of the volcano;
it was the first sign of victory. Away from Mount Suribachi, Marines
were slowly wearing down the Japanese defenses by never resting.
They fought their enemy’s war by pushing relentlessly and with extreme
force. After a week or so, the Japanese line was no longer a line,
but scattered groups of resistance. After nearly six weeks of fighting
only 216 Japanese were taken captive of the 20,000 originally on the island.
Nearly 25,000 Marines were wounded and 6,000 were dead (Costello).
The invasion was a success and the B-29’s began their bombings of the Japanese
mainland thanks to the Marine Corps.
Okinawa was the last big battle of the
Marine Corps in the Pacific War. This battle was to be the last draw
for Japan. Okinawa was frighteningly close to Japan and was very
heavily fortified. If captured, Japanese power and control would
The Fifth Fleet of the Navy provided the
main support of the 1,200 ships used in the invasion. The 3rd Marine
Corps under Major General Roy S. Geiger would do the fighting. The
U.S. expected that a force of 154,000 would be enough to defeat the Japanese
defense of 70,000.
On March 26, 1945 the invasion began on
a scale similar to that of D-Day’s in Europe. The 77th Infantry Division
moved ashore and secured a place to set up long-range guns and a headquarters
for the entire operation. On April 1, 1,300 American transports and
ships moved around the island. The Marines landed with surprising
ease as the Japanese were luring them inland to move them away from their
Naval support. They continued moving inland with little opposition,
however, after a week, U.S. forces began to encounter heavy defense.
The Japanese held the Marines and fought viciously while Kamikazes rained
down upon the Navy. However, a greater blow was about to occur.
On April 13, the troops received word the Roosevelt was dead. The
Japanese took full advantage of this and launched an awful propaganda war
on the Americans. Pamphlets fell from Japanese planes reading, “‘The
dreadful loss that led your late leader to death will make orphans on this
island. The Japanese Special Assault Corps will sink your vessels
to the last destroyer. You will witness it realized in the near future'”
(Costello 560). The Japanese commander, Ushijima then launched a
massive assault to back up his threat that resulted in nearly 5,000 Japanese
casualties and a stalemate. Kamikaze pilots continued to decimate
the U.S. Navy and they were growing weary of waiting for victory.
The U.S. situation grew even dimmer as time passed.
The 27th Infantry had to be replaced by
the 1st Marine Division. All was in disarray. But, then Marines
began to slowly crack through the Japanese defenses. Soon, the Japanese
were in desperation as the Marines began to win. The victory on Okinawa
left Japan devastated. Their armed forces were crippled and the country’s
morale was vastly deflated. Although the battle of Okinawa was won
a great cost to the Americans, the Marines were victorious because they
were able to fight to the end and put the Japanese opposition down.
Through their persistence and tenacity, the U.S. Marine Corps were able
to achieve victory against all odds and win the Pacific War where no one
else could have.
“General Eisenhower once said that he doubted
Marines were better fighters than his own army Rangers. In a sense
he was probably right; if you tell picked men they are crack troops, they
are likely to fight like an elite. They difference is that Ike’s
Rangers were small bands of commandos, while the Marine Corps, a corps
d’elite, fielded six divisions in the Pacific–three corps, a whole army”
(Manchester 298). The United States Marine Corps gave an entire fighting
force of the most “elite” troops to the Pacific Campaign. They fought
some of the most ugly and most horrific battles in all of World War II.
Their training in land to sea combat gave them an edge over the U.S. Army’s
land-only combat training. In sending the Marine Corps into the Pacific
Campaign, the United States proved it’s military dominance and resourcefulness
and shocked the enemy by showing that we could actually fight a two front
war and win. Without the determination, strength, and aggressiveness
of the Marine Corps in World War II, the Pacific “Island Hopping” Campaign
very well could have been lost to the Japanese. There was no other
outfit in all the worlds’ armies more capable of fighting in the Pacific
than the Marines.