Key Marine Actions in the Pacific Theater During World War II
Battle of Guadalcanal August 7, 1942 – February 9, 1943
The Battle of Guadalcanal, or the Guadalcanal Campaign, was the first major Allied offensive in the Pacific Theater of War. After a tactical Naval victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the decisive Naval victory at Midway, American high command set its eyes on Guadalcanal, an island in the southern section of the Solomon Islands. While seemingly innocuous from afar, Guadalcanal held high strategic value in the minds of Allied forces. First and foremost, the location of the island led many to believe that the Japanese on Guadalcanal could easily disrupt the supply and communication routes between America and Australia; routes that were critical in the early stages of the war. After capturing Guadalcanal, Allied Forces hoped to use the island as a staging base to support operations deeper in the Pacific.
Led by 10,000+ Marines of the 1st Division, Allied Forces received little resistance when landing on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. They immediately captured a nearly completed airfield, which they named Henderson Airfield, and formed a perimeter around it while engineers finished constructing it. While the Japanese defenders on Guadalcanal initially pulled back due to Allied bombing of the island, they were reinforced and began a vicious counterattack to regain Henderson Airfield. The Battle on Guadalcanal is defined by these vicious firefights to regain the island’s strategic landmarks, whether at the airfield or other key locations such as Edson’s Ridge. For four months, Allied and Japanese reinforcements warred over the island, committing reinforcements into battle when needed. In December, after losing both land and naval battles around the island, Japanese command realized all hopes to hold Guadalcanal were futile. In January and February of 1943, The Empire of Japan pulled its last remaining defendants off of the island, securing victory for the U.S. Marines and the Allied Forces. Victory was not without cost, however, as Allied losses numbered around 7,100 men.
The Marine Divisions continued on the offensive, winning strategic victories in New Guinea and along the Solomon Islands. Allied victories at places such as Cape Gloucester and Bougainville (where Mike Strank fought) brought the Marines to light as a premier fighting force.
Battle of Tarawa November 20 – 23, 1943
The initial move in the now famous “Island Hopping” Campaign was an attack on Tarawa in The Gilbert Islands. Much like Guadalcanal, Tarawa was seen as a strategic location to launch further attacks into the critical central Pacific region. Unlike Guadalcanal, the 4,500 Japanese defenders on Tarawa were ready for U.S. Marines. The Japanese on Tarawa had close to a year to prepare their battlements and were well aware of the amphibious landing techniques being used by Marines. Even with the preliminary Allied bombing of Tarawa, the Japanese remained rigid in their defense, with their guns trained on the coral reef beachhead that U.S. Marines would be forced to ascend.
Around 9:00 a.m. on November 20, 1943, the 2nd Marine Division reached the beachhead. Due to the low tide at the time, their landing crafts were stalled and stopped in the reef 500 yards offshore. Under brutal Japanese fire, the Marines slowly pushed toward the shore, finally capturing the beach three hours after landing. For the following three days, the well-armed and supplied Japanese forces on Tarawa were slowly beaten back by the determined Marines. Japanese banzai attacks slowed progress, but Allied naval support and the introduction of tanks into the battle turned the tide on Tarawa. After four days of intense fighting, Tarawa was declared secure on November 23. The battle may have been short, but the cost was heavy on both sides. Only 17 of the 4,500 Japanese soldiers defending Tarawa were found alive, while 3,166 of the 12,000 Marines on Tarawa became casualties.
Battle of Saipan June 15 – July 9, 1944
After victories in the Solomon, Gilbert, and Marshall Island chains, Allied Forces turned their attention to Saipan. As part of the Marianna Island chain, which is in relatively close distance to mainland Japan, Saipan was a vital target. If they could capture Saipan, they could begin launching attacks directly into the heart of Japan. That was easier said than done, as Saipan was defended by 31,000 Japanese soldiers as well as a radical civilian population sympathetic to the Japanese cause.
The Naval bombardment of Saipan began on June 13, 1944, two days before the attack force led by the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions hit the beaches. Like so many beachheads before, the Marines met resistance immediately. During the onslaught, another battle ensued in the waters surrounding Saipan. Known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Japanese Combined Fleet attacked and was essentially destroyed by the U.S. Fleet surrounding Saipan. The American Fleet beat the Japanese both in the sky and sea, sinking a number of ships while downing close to 600 pieces of Japanese aircraft. With the Japanese fleet retreating, Japanese command on Saipan knew the island was lost. They still fought, however, inflicting mass Marine causalities as they slowly moved deeper into the rocky terrain of the island. By July 7, knowing the end was near, Japanese command ordered a banzai attack that overran two Marine Battalions before it was contained and defeated.
During the final stages of the battle, after being convinced that the Americans were vicious barbarians by their Japanese oppressors; citizens of Saipan began performing mass suicides. In what may be the most gruesome scene of all, 1,000’s of bodies were found at the bottom of Saipan’s jagged cliffs, all of them non-combatant civilians. In the end, American forces suffered over 14,000 casualties, their most to-date. Almost all of the 31,000 Japanese defenders perished on Saipan.
By the middle of August, 1944, American forces captured Tinian and Guam, the last two remaining islands in the Marianna chain. From here, the Japanese mainland was finally accessible to American bombers. A year later, the Enola Gay and Bockscar flew their atomic bomb payloads from t