After Pearl Harbor: The Battles of the Pacific

August 21, 2017

More than 75 years ago, the United States engaged Japan in a brutal war across the Pacific. It all started on a quiet Sunday morning, at an unsuspecting naval base in Hawaii. December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—marked the start of World War II for the United States as Japanese fighters swooped in on Pearl Harbor. Within 24 hours of the attack, the United States had declared war against the Japanese.

What followed was nearly four years of deadly conflict that left the Pacific Ocean and many of its islands scarred with remnants of the war. At first, for every American victory it seemed like there was a setback. For every island that was wrested from Japan’s control, another one was lost.

Early Battles in the Pacific

British surrender at Singapore

Some of the war's most notable battles were fought in the Pacific Theater, including the Battle of Singapore, where the British unsuccessfully fought to hold Singapore from the Japanese. Though the United States wasn’t engaged in the week-long battle, it was an early turning point in favor of Japan. The British Commonwealth troops surrendered the island to the Japanese forces, resulting in over 60,000 prisoners of war.

The start of the war in the Pacific was not auspicious for the Allies, especially when considering the loss of Singapore or the Battle of the Java Sea. The American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval forces attempted to intercept the Japanese in the Java Sea, hoping to stop them from advancing to what’s known today as Indonesia. By the end of the first day of fighting, there was no doubt the Allied forces were no match for Japan’s.

The Tide Begins to Turn

The first notable victory in the Pacific Theater was won by the American and Australian forces, at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Fought mainly by aircraft, Japan was able to push back the Allies, forcing them to flee. While this may sound like a defeat, the Japanese ultimately gave up their attempt to capture Port Moresby, marking the first time the Allied forces stopped a Japanese advance.

There had been several encounters between the United States and Japan prior to June 4th, 1942, but the Battle of Midway is often considered the first major battle between the two, as well as the first decisive Allied victory. After cracking Japan’s naval code, the Americans knew that the Japanese were moving to capture Midway Atoll. Three days of fighting led to Japan pulling out of Midway and resulted in the loss of four carriers and 250 aircraft.

Beach at Iwo Jima

American forces landing on Iwo Jima

From February 19th to March 26th, 1945, Japan and the United States were locked in what’s become one of the most infamous battles of the war in the Pacific. Japan fought the United States for control of the small island of Iwo Jima, and though both sides suffered heavy losses, the battle was another victory for the Americans.

The last big battle of World War II—thought to be the catalyst that convinced the American leadership to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the Battle of Okinawa was one of the Pacific’s bloodiest battles, resulting in almost 200,000 killed and wounded on both sides combined.

On September 2nd, 1945, three months shy of the four-year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan surrendered to the Allies, signing the official document on the deck of the USS Missouri.

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