War in the Pacific: Midway to Okinawa

War in the Pacific: Midway to Okinawa

1942-43: Allies take the Initiative in the Pacific - Coral Sea to Guadalcanal


In early 1942, the governments of smaller powers began to push for an inter-governmental Asia-Pacific war council, based in Washington, DC. A council was established in London, with a subsidiary body in Washington. However, the smaller powers continued to push for an American-based body. The Pacific War Council was formed in Washington, on 1 April 1942, with representatives from the U.S., Britain, China, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Canada. Representatives from India and the Philippines were later added. The council never had any direct operational control, and any decisions it made were referred to the US-UK Combined Chiefs of Staff, which was also in Washington. Allied resistance, at first symbolic, gradually began to stiffen. Australian and Dutch forces led civilians in a prolonged guerilla campaign in Portuguese Timor.


Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the significance of Pearl Harbor and the early campaigns in the Pacific theater and connect the battles for Okinawa and Iwo Jima with the greater American “island hopping” strategy.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Battle of Midway: 4-7 June 1942 naval battle in which the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and the initiative in the Pacific War. This battle demonstrated the dominance of air power in World War II

Guadalcanal Campaign: Aug 1942-February 1943 campaign between U.S. and Japanese forces for control of this south Pacific island.  U.S. victory ended Japanese offensive operations in the Pacific, and put Japan on the defensive for the rest of the Pacific War.


Having accomplished their objectives during the First Operation Phase with ease, the Japanese now turned to the second. Japan planned the Second Operational Phase to expand Japan's strategic depth by adding eastern New Guinea, New Britain, the Aleutians, Midway, the Fiji Islands, Samoa, and strategic points in the Australian area. However, limited resources and U.S. naval intervention in March 1942 stopped Japanese expansion across the south Pacific toward Australia. This intervention, along with the U.S. Doolittle bombing raid against Tokyo in April 1942, provoked Japanese leaders to try a series of riskier offensives against the U.S. naval presence in the central Pacific, specifically at Midway Island.

Admiral Yamamoto now perceived that it was essential to complete the destruction of the United States Navy, which had begun at Pearl Harbor. He proposed to achieve this by attacking and occupying Midway Atoll—an objective he thought the Americans would be certain to fight for, as Midway was close enough to threaten Hawaii. A month before the June 1942 Battle of Midway U.S. and Japanese naval forces fought the Battle of the Coral Sea. Although the outcome of the Battle of the Coral Sea in the southwest Pacific was not conclusive, U.S. forces did succeed in stopping the Japanese campaign to capture Australia. 


black and white photo
The aircraft carrier USS Lexington
explodes on 8 May 1942,
several hours after being damaged
by a Japanese carrier air attack. 

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle fought in which the ships involved never sighted each other, with attacks solely by aircraft. During this battle, Japan attacked Port Moresby—the capital and largest city of Papua New Guinea. From the Allied point of view, if Port Moresby fell, the Japanese would control the seas to the north and west of Australia and could isolate the country. Although they managed to sink a carrier, the battle was a disaster for the Japanese. Not only was the attack on Port Moresby halted, which constituted the first strategic Japanese setback of the war, but all three Japanese carriers that were committed to the battle would now be unavailable for the operation against Midway.  

After Coral Sea, the Japanese had four operational fleet carriers—Sōryū, Kaga, Akagi, and Hiryū, and they believed that the Americans had a maximum of two—Enterprise and Hornet. Saratoga was out of action, undergoing repair after a torpedo attack, while Yorktown had been damaged at Coral Sea and was believed by Japanese naval intelligence to have been sunk. She would, in fact, sortie for Midway after just three days of repairs to her flight deck, with civilian work crews still aboard, in time to be present for the next decisive engagement. 




black and white photo
Hiryū under attack by B-17
Flying Fortress heavy bombers 

Admiral Yamamoto viewed the operation against Midway as the potentially decisive battle of the war, which could lead to the destruction of American strategic power in the Pacific; this, the Japanese felt, would open the door for a negotiated peace settlement with the United States, favorable to Japan. Through strategic and tactical surprise, the Japanese felt they could knock out Midway's air strength and soften it for a landing by 5,000 troops. After the quick capture of the island, the Combined Fleet would lay the basis for the most important part of the operation. Yamamoto hoped that the attack would lure the Americans into a trap. Midway was to be bait for the US Navy which would depart Pearl Harbor to counterattack after Midway had been captured. When the Americans arrived, he would concentrate his scattered forces to defeat them.

An important aspect of the Japanese scheme was Operation AL, which was the plan to seize two islands in the Aleutians while the attack on Midway was happening. Contradictory to persistent myth, the Aleutian operation was not a diversion to draw American forces from Midway, as the Japanese wanted the Americans to be drawn to Midway, rather than away from it. However, in May, US intelligence codebreakers discovered the planned attack on Midway. At the conclusion of this battle U.S. naval forces had sunk all four Japanese carriers involved in the battle, at a loss of one U.S. carrier. In the aftermath of this battle Japanese forces lost the strategic initiative in the Pacific War, never to regain it. 


New Guinea and the Solomons 


Japanese land forces continued to advance in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. From July 1942, a few Australian reserve battalions, many of them very young and untrained, fought a stubborn rearguard action in New Guinea, against a Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track, towards Port Moresby and over the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges. The militia, worn out and severely depleted by casualties, were relieved in late August by regular troops from the Second Australian Imperial Force, who were returning from action in the Mediterranean theater. In early September 1942 Japanese marines attacked a strategic Royal Australian Air Force base at Milne Bay, near the eastern tip of New Guinea. They were beaten back by Allied forces (primarily Australian Army infantry battalions and Royal Australian Air Force squadrons, with United States Army engineers and an anti-aircraft battery in support). On New Guinea, the Japanese on the Kokoda Track were within sight of the lights of Port Moresby but were ordered to retreat to the northeastern coast. Australian and US forces attacked their fortified positions and after more than two months of fighting in the Buna–Gona area finally captured the key Japanese beachhead in early 1943. This was first on land defeat of Japanese forces in the war. 




black and white photo
US Marines rest in the field during the
 Guadalcanal campaign in November 1942.

At the same time major battles raged in New Guinea, U.S. and Japanese forces fought for control of Guadalcanal, in the Guadalcanal Campaign. With Japanese and U.S. forces occupying various parts of the island, over the following six months both sides poured resources into an escalating battle of attrition on land, at sea, and in the sky. US air cover based at Henderson Field ensured American control of the waters around Guadalcanal during daytime, while superior night-fighting capabilities of the Imperial Japanese Navy gave the Japanese the upper hand at night. By late 1942, Japanese headquarters had decided to make Guadalcanal their priority. Contrarily, the US Navy hoped to use their numerical advantage at Guadalcanal to defeat large numbers of Japanese forces there and progressively drain Japanese manpower. Ultimately nearly 20,000 Japanese died on Guadalcanal compared to just over 7,000 Americans. In February 1943, after a six-month campaign of attrition, the Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal.

1 of 5