On December 31, 1941, in a ceremony aboard the submarine Grayling in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Admiral Chester Nimitz became Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet. Few men in history had accepted such a difficult charge; all around him on the oil-soaked harbor, the shattered, burned-out remnants of his fleet sat low in the water—the Japanese surprise attack on December 7 had destroyed or heavily damaged eighteen ships, six of them battleships. Morale was low, and as the Japanese advanced across American holdings at Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippine Islands, they seemed invincible. But Admiral Nimitz grimly accepted his new duty and set out to rebuild the fleet and eventually bring the fight to Japan.
Perhaps the one saving grace for the Pacific Fleet that dismal December was the Japanese failed to sink its aircraft carriers. In fact, not a single carrier was at Pearl during the attack, and as fate would have it, they would be the single most important naval vessel of the Second World War. Aircraft were to be the decisive weapon in the Pacific, not the big guns on the battleships and cruisers. This was demonstrated again to great effect on December 10, 1941, when Japanese carrier-based aircraft sank the British capital ships Repulse and Prince of Wales off Singapore. The navy with the most aircraft carriers would reign supreme—loath as the admirals were to admit, their vessels were sitting ducks without adequate air support.
One of the opening American strikes of the Pacific War had very little strategic value. Following Pearl Harbor and their string of victories across the theater, the Japanese were supremely confident. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to shatter that confidence and give the American people a morale boost at the same time—on April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers and their highly-trained crews took off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet off the coast of Japan. Their target was Tokyo. While tactically insignificant, the “Doolittle Raid” (named after the commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle) shook the Japanese people, showing them that they were not beyond America’s reach.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, knew he had failed to destroy the Pacific Fleet in December 1941. He wanted to draw out Nimitz’s carriers and ambush them. To accomplish this, he selected the tiny American outpost on Midway Island as his target for invasion, eleven hundred miles west of Hawaii. The island boasted an airfield, and would serve as a forward base. Yamamoto concentrated the majority of his fleet on the Midway invasion. There was one crucial piece of information that Yamamoto lacked, however: American intelligence officers at Pearl Harbor had broken the Japanese naval code and knew about the planned attack on Midway. Nimitz sent his carrier groups under Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Fletcher to turn the tables, waiting to catch the Japanese unaware. On June 4, 1942, the first Japanese carrier planes attacked Midway, but at the same time, American patrol planes were searching for the Japanese fleet. Before long, they succeeded—the fleet was spotted, and American bombers zeroed-in on the four Japanese carriers. Within minutes, three were ablaze and sinking, and by the next morning all four were on the bottom of the Pacific. Though the American fleet lost one carrier, the Battle of Midway was a major victory: for the first time, the Japanese had been soundly defeated.
That summer, America finally went on the ground offensive. Following Midway, Japan refocused its efforts in the South Pacific, building airfields and sending more troops to combat General Douglas MacArthur’s forces in New Guinea. Operation WATCHTOWER was the amphibious American invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
The Marines hit the beaches of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Unopposed at first, as they advanced inland they encountered fierce Japanese resistance. At sea, the Navy took a beating, as well—so many ships (both American and Japanese) were lost in the waters off Guadalcanal that the area was nicknamed “Iron Bottom Sound.” When the fighting ended and the Japanese evacuated the island in January 1943, they had lost twenty-four thousand men, while the Americans had lost almost eighteen hundred. After Guadalcanal, the Japanese never again went on the offensive.
As MacArthur’s troops advanced across New Guinea toward the Philippines, Nimitz adopted a strategy called “island hopping.” Rather than taking every island the Japanese held, the Navy and Marines would target specific strategically important islands and bypass the others, leaving the defenders trapped and unsupplied behind enemy lines. American strategists had learned well the crucial importance of air superiority in modern warfare, and islands with airfields were priorities. The primary goal was to establish airbases within range of Japan, so that American long-range bombers could commence a campaign of heavy strategic bombing.
Nimitz’s forces pushed through the Solomons toward New Georgia and New Britain and the Japanese forward base at Rabaul in 1943. A steady stream of new American warships entering the theater aided this effort: the home front's “arsenal of democracy” was turning out new vessels each week. This advance continued through 1943 and 1944, and the Navy and Marines pushed through the Gilbert, Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana Island groups. Every drop of blood shed in brutal battles like Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, and Peleliu tightened the noose on Japan.
In October 1944, MacArthur’s forces invaded the Philippine island of Leyte, and Nimitz’s fleets were called upon to provide support. It was here that the Imperial Japanese Navy made its last great stand. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese threw everything they had left into the fray to break up the invasion. The four-day engagement was the largest naval battle in history. For the first time, the desperate defenders employed a terrible new weapon: the kamikaze. Kamikaze pilots suicidally flew their aircraft into American ships to inflict maximum damage. It was an ominous sign of the battles yet to come.
After the Philippines were secured, the Navy and Marines moved on to the volcanic islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Unlike the other islands the Americans had encountered so far, the Japanese considered these islands part of their homeland. They intended to hold them to the last man. On February 19, 1945, the Marines landed on Iwo Jima to encounter one of the fiercest fights of the war. In a single month of fighting, they lost over forty-five hundred men. Staggering as that figure is, the Japanese lost far more—nearly twenty-one thousand killed and only two hundred taken prisoner. But Okinawa was to be far worse. On April 1, 1945, the Marines landed on an island that was teeming with close to one hundred thousand Japanese defenders. Once again, the fighting was intense. At sea, the Japanese poured punishment upon the Navy, with swarms of kamikazes streaking across the sky. More than ten thousand Americans were killed in the Battle of Okinawa.
From airfields on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, long-ranged B-29 Superfortress bombers pounded Japan from late 1944 until the end of the war in August 1945. In March 1945, General Curtis LeMay shifted his bombers into a tactic of mass firebombing. Cities were razed and hundreds of thousands of civilians consumed in the firestorms that followed the raids. Still, it was only with the Soviet declaration of war and the dropping of the two atomic bombs that Japanese Emperor Hirohito forced his government to give up its fight to the death philosophy.
In December 1941, Chester Nimitz took command of a fleet of sunken wrecks. Four years later, as he stood aboard the mighty battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, witness to the signing of the Japanese instrument of surrender, he was the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet: the greatest naval force the world had ever seen.
The Pacific Ocean Areas