On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japan declared war on the United States of America with an attack on the powerful United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Taking the defenders completely by surprise, over a period of two hours Japanese aviators sank or damaged eighteen ships, destroyed nearly two hundred aircraft, and killed 2,403 Americans. In this single, swift assault, the bulk of the United States Pacific Fleet—the chief deterrent against Japanese aggression in the Far East—was thoroughly crippled.
But if Pearl Harbor was the lightning in the Japanese blitzkrieg, the invasion of the Philippine Islands was the thunder. Parallel to the strike against Pearl, Japanese air and ground forces embarked upon a massive campaign of expansion in the Western Pacific. While the oil-rich Dutch East Indies and the Malay Peninsula were the focus of the majority of Japan’s attention, the American-held Philippines represented an obstacle to be toppled. Within eight hours (December 8 across the International Date Line) Japanese bombers destroyed the majority of the American Far East Air Force on the ground. On December 10, the first Japanese landing force hit the north shore of the main island of Luzon. American and Filipino defenders put up a stubborn defense down the Bataan peninsula and across Manila Bay on the fortress island of Corregidor before finally surrendering to the Japanese on May 6, 1942.
The American commander in the Philippines was General Douglas MacArthur. A renowned veteran of the First World War and former Army Chief of Staff, MacArthur was posted to the Philippines in 1935 to build the Philippine defense forces; at the outset of the Second World War, he was in the process of implementing President Franklin Roosevelt’s augmentation of American air and ground forces in the Far East to check against Japanese aggression. The raids on December 8 and after caught his people by surprise. The destruction of the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbor eliminated the possibility of relief by sea: the Americans in the Philippines were on their own.
MacArthur conducted the defense of Bataan and Corregidor, but he was ordered by Roosevelt to leave the Philippines before the islands fell. He did not wish to leave his men behind, but believed he could rally an army and return quickly to aid the defenders. Escaping the bay in a small patrol boat, he flew to Australia where he delivered his famous promise: “I shall return.” For most of the rest of the war, this would be the focus of MacArthur’s strategy.
In April 1942, MacArthur took command of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, which covered all the territory from the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines to Australia, New Guinea, and the Western Solomon Islands. American intelligence officers learned that the Japanese were planning to invade Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea; from this location they could strike Australia. While the United States Navy engaged the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Battle of Coral Sea, denying them access to Port Moresby, MacArthur’s Allied troops fought off Japanese invaders in the north of New Guinea in July 1942. But from their beachheads at Buna and Gona on the northeastern coast, the Japanese pressed ferociously toward Port Moresby. It was not until January 1943 that they were defeated there.
MacArthur pursued a very separate strategy in the Southwest Pacific Area. While the United States Navy and Marines under Admiral Chester Nimitz favored a practice of “island hopping”—invading certain important islands and establishing airfields to attack Japan with long-range bombers—MacArthur intended to honor his promise to liberate the Philippines. On this point, he would not budge, and he was very successful in persuading the American public that it was the right thing to do. For this reason, Roosevelt allowed both strategies to prevail: Nimitz’s United States Navy and Marines island-hopped toward Tokyo, while MacArthur advanced across New Guinea toward Manila.
The main bastion of Japanese strength in the South Pacific was Rabaul on the island of New Britain near New Guinea. It was from Rabaul that they had staged their operations against New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. An American pincer-style campaign was proposed to capture it, with MacArthur attacking from New Guinea and Nimitz’s forces crossing the Solomons. The Japanese tried to reinforce Rabaul from the sea, but their transports were discovered; in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, MacArthur’s Fifth Air Force devastated the Japanese force.
Operation CARTWHEEL, the convergence of the two-pronged pincer assault, came on June 30, 1943. MacArthur’s force advanced across New Guinea by September, and landed on New Britain in December. Though perpetually pounded by American bombers, Rabaul never fell to the Americans but was isolated and bypassed. For the next year, MacArthur’s forces worked northwest up New Guinea toward his Philippines goal.
In October 1944, MacArthur was poised to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines, but he was fighting an uphill battle against the Navy’s “island hopping” strategy. With the capture of the Mariana Islands to the north, American B-29 bombers could strike Japan in relative safety—many voices, including Admiral Nimitz, attempted to convince President Roosevelt that an invasion of the Philippines would be a waste of resources. But MacArthur argued his case to the president during a meeting at Pearl Harbor in July: he believed the United States had a moral obligation to liberate the seventeen million Filipino people living under Japanese rule. It was a point of national honor. Roosevelt agreed.
On October 20, 1944, American troops landed on the Philippine island of Leyte. MacArthur himself waded ashore later in the day, finally making good on his promise. Over the next few days, as the United States Navy engaged the desperate and still formidable Imperial Japanese Navy in the largest naval battle in the history of war at sea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, MacArthur’s forces fought inland alongside Filipino guerillas, slowly marching on to the inevitable victory. The campaign was costly, but in the end the Philippines were liberated.
The focus of the war shifted to the north as B-29 bombers rained fire upon Japan’s cities. While MacArthur’s troops soldiered on through the Philippines and the Asian mainland, thousands of tons of incendiary bombs fell from the sky to consume entire cities. But despite every punishment heaped upon them, the Japanese refused to surrender. In 1945, the Allies steeled themselves for an all-out invasion of the Home Islands. The advent of the Atomic Age changed all that: it was only through the awesome and terrible power of the atomic bombs, combined with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan on August 8, that the Japanese government finally admitted that it could no longer afford to fight. Despite the staggering numbers of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (in truth, no more than were being killed elsewhere by conventional fire bombing), America breathed a sigh of relief.
Thus the Second World War in the Pacific came to a close, and for one man who had been there at the beginning, it had come full circle. On September 2, 1945—four years after he was forced to flee, leaving his men behind in the Philippines—General Douglas MacArthur stood aboard the American battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, a witness to the official Japanese surrender.
The Southwest Pacific Theater