“Japan could not be bluffed. It considered the colonial territories of France, Britain, and the Netherlands its legitimate area of expansion. If Japan could seize and hold this vast resource area in Southeast Asia, the political and strategic weights and balances in the Orient would shift in its favor. The whole El Dorado of the South might well fall into Japan’s lap like a ripe plum except for that black-hat villain Uncle Sam, hanging over the orchard gate with a shotgun—his powerful fleet at Hawaii.”
– Gordon Prange, At Dawn We Slept
Sunday, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: the officers and men of the United States Pacific Fleet began another day in tropic paradise. The fleet was in port for the weekend. Seven battleships, pride of the United States Navy, stood moored along Ford Island at the harbor’s center, their crews enjoying light duty or liberty. In peacetime, the mood was as calm as the gentle island breeze. But suddenly, around 8:00 AM, a swarm of aircraft descended on the harbor—on their wings, the fiery red circle of the Japanese flag. The attack was a complete surprise. Before the American sailors and marines could react, torpedoes skimmed across the surface of the water and crashed into their vessels, followed by a hail of bombs. Two horrific hours later, as the last Japanese aircraft faded on the distant horizon, the harbor was a smoking ruin. The following day, the United States Congress almost unanimously declared war on Imperial Japan: the Second World War in the Pacific had begun.
In truth, the war in the Pacific began long before December 1941. For over a decade the United States grew uneasy as Imperial Japan blossomed into a major power in the Far East. Long considered an upstart nation, Japan was not content to remain a secondary power. For half a century it had embarked on a long quest for empire, emulating the mighty nations of the West. By 1941, it had swallowed up Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), Manchuria, and Northern China. Its appetite for conquest knew no bounds.
The American people deeply desired to avoid a war, but President Franklin Roosevelt understood that a confrontation was inevitable. In Europe, the Allies were reaping the fruits of inactivity and appeasement as Nazi hordes flooded across Russia and beat at the doors of Britain. Japan pursued a similarly bellicose path, broadcasting plans for a wide-ranging Asian empire. Roosevelt was not willing to allow the Japanese to ride roughshod over the nations of Asia and the South Pacific. He stationed the powerful Pacific Fleet at Hawaii and bolstered the defense of the Philippine Islands, hoping to discourage further aggression. But when diplomacy proved ineffective he reluctantly placed a shot across their bow, cutting off Japan’s imports of American oil. This forced the Japanese to make a decision: without a source of oil, its war machine would grind to a halt. They must come to the negotiating table or fight.
They chose to fight. The Pearl Harbor attack was a calculated gamble: Japan knew it could not win a long-term war with the United States, but hoped the American people would lack the will to fight after such a devastating attack—history shows they greatly misjudged our national character.
The Pacific Theater of the Second World War spanned half the globe. Allied forces engaged Imperial Japan in the jungles of Southeast Asia, on islands from New Guinea and the Solomons in the South Pacific to the frigid Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in north; though American forces would eventually push to Tokyo, Japanese submarines ranged as far east as the Oregon coast, where one shelled Fort Stevens in 1942. Furthermore, many of the greatest sea battles in history took place on remote stretches of vast, open ocean.
The logistical problem of fighting a war in the Pacific was far more complex than in Europe. At its narrowest point, the English Channel between Britain and France was about twenty miles wide, and from an airfield in the English countryside, Allied bombers could strike the German capital of Berlin. This was not the case in the Pacific, where the distance between Hawaii—America’s forward operating base in 1942—and Tokyo was almost one and a half times the distance between New York and Los Angeles. It was not until 1944, after the capture of the Mariana Islands, that American aircraft in the Pacific could reach Tokyo.
The Japanese were a fearless foe. Their soldiers had been taught that it was better to die than surrender. American soldiers witnessed appalling displays of suicidal behavior, particularly the mass banzai charges and the kamikaze pilots of Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. It was this fanatical belief, engrained even in the minds of the civilian population, which drove President Harry Truman to authorize the first and only usage of atomic bombs in anger against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. After months of conventional firebombing burned dozens of Japanese cities to the ground, their government remained unfazed. Allied leaders reluctantly prepared for Operation DOWNFALL, the full-scale invasion of Japan. Following the brutal scrapping on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it was safe to assume the invasion would be extremely costly: some estimates put American casualties as high as half a million, and the Japanese would potentially fight to the last man, woman, and child. The newly developed atomic bomb, an untested super weapon, provided an alternative. If America could prove that it could accomplish with a single bomb what had previously taken entire squadrons of heavy bombers, perhaps Japan would rethink its suicidal resolve. In the end, the bombs produced the desired effect: after four bloody years of fighting, the war was over on August 15, 1945.
—Quote taken from page 39 of At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor by Gordon W. Prange (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981)
The Pacific Theater