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 the Marianna Islands to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II after they were dropped.
Battle of Peleliu September 15 – November 27, 1944
In support of General MacArthur’s campaign to regain the Philippines, the 1st Marine Division (along with the 81st Infantry) was tasked with taking the Island of Peleliu in the Western Pacific Ocean. Peleliu, a part of the Palau Island chain, was considered a threat to MacArthur’s flank due to the airfield located there and the Japanese aircraft contained on the island. As the 11,000 Japanese soldiers on Peleliu prepared for the imminent Marine assault, new tactics for island defense were initiated. Intricate tunnel systems replaced pillboxes on the beachhead, as banzai charges were considered a waste of resources and discontinued. As the Japanese hid under the safety of their earthworks, the preliminary shelling made by Allied Forces was ineffective. As American forces made their amphibious landing on the stony crags of Peleliu, they would endure what many historians call “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marine Corps.”
Marine high command predicted that the battle would only take three days: the conflict lasted over two months. As the 1st Marine Division stormed the beaches of Peleliu they were bogged down by unrelenting machine gun fire from camouflaged nests. The jagged shoreline came alive with gunfire as Marines searched for cover that wasn’t there. By the first day they held the beach, but little else. Over time they began to push the previously entrenched Japanese deeper into the island, encountering heavy casualties at infamous battlefield locations such as “The Point” and “Bloody Nose Ridge.” For every yard of ground the Marines gained, they paid for it in dead and wounded. Finally, in late November, Japanese command realized defeat was imminent and relinquished Peleliu to the Americans.
Of the Marines who stepped onto the beaches of Peleliu, 1/3 (6,500) were casualties. The 1st Marine Division was devastated, as it required months to refill its ranks and regain its shape. As was becoming a common occurrence, most of the Japanese defenders on Peleliu lost their lives.
The battle has been called controversial by many. The Marines and infantry who fought on Peleliu endured enormous casualties, even though the island had no strategic value to the Allied Forces later in the war. It was a battle many say could have been avoided, but instead it took center stage in the Pacific Theater of War.
Battle of Iwo Jima February 19 – March 26, 1945
Iwo Jima, the Sulfur Island, while small in stature, the island presented a mammoth of a problem for America’s future plans to attack the Empire of Japan. As American bombers flew right over Iwo Jima on their way to Japan, Iwo worked as an early warning system to the mainland, giving Tokyo over 2 hours to prepare for the air raid. If Iwo Jima could be taken, Japan would be blind to bombing runs and America could gain a new stationing area for the eventual invasion of Japan’s mainland. Japan was well aware of the strategic importance of Iwo Jima, but Iwo was also intrinsically valuable to its Japanese defenders. Iwo Jima was not an island that Japan captured during the beginning onslaught of World War II, but an island that was always part of the Empire of Japan. For the Japanese, an attack on Iwo was like an attack on Tokyo itself, so the men on the island were prepared to defend it to the last.
After months of periodic, and largely ineffective, bombing runs over Iwo Jima; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions (80,000 strong) came ashore. They met little resistance at first, as the Japanese (over 20,000 strong) waited for the Marines to bottleneck on the beach. When the Japanese guns opened up, all hell ensued. Mass American casualties were inflicted on the beachhead, as the Marines fired at enemies bunkered underneath the island. Day after day they pushed forward, eventually cutting off and securing Mount Suribachi at the high cost of American lives. The Marine Divisions then moved north, working their way towards the valuable airstrips. Fighting was fierce as Marines cleared bunkers and foxholes that were immediately resupplied with Japanese soldiers from the tunnels below. After a final desperate Japanese assault in late March, Iwo Jima was pronounced secure after 36 days of bitter conflict. The Marines who fought on Iwo suffered 26,000 casualties, including 6,800 dead. Nearly all of the Iwo Jima defenders died in battle. Iwo Jima was the only battle in the Pacific campaign where American casualties outnumbered Japanese dead, just an indication of the utter violence that thrived on Iwo Jima for those 36 days.
Battle of Okinawa April 1 – June 22, 1945
With victory in Europe all but guaranteed, attention turned to the last piece of the puzzle needed to begin the invasion of mainland Japan; Okinawa. Just 350 miles of the coast of Japan, Okinawa was a high level target for American armed forces who committed four infantry and two Marine Divisions into the battle (100,000+ soldiers). Japan, understanding it was their last line of defense, placed over 100,000 soldiers on the island. What came next was the largest, costliest operation of the Pacific War.
Earning the nickname, “Typhoon of Steel,” the Battle for Okinawa raged on for a bloody 82 straight days. American and Japanese forces fought in a costly battle of attrition, warring in dense terrain over strategic points on the island. The American front line advanced an average of 55 yards per day, grinding to a halt due to intense artillery barrages and stiff resistance. Much like at Peleliu and Iwo Jima, the Japanese forces used an intricate tunnel system to traverse the island with speed.
At sea, the American Naval Fleet faced one last ditch effort by Japanese forces in the waters around Okinawa. As Japanese Naval forces attempted desperate attacks on surrounding Allied vessels, close to 2,000 Kamikaze pilots took to the skies in order to wreak as much havoc as possible on Allied ships. The American fleet eventually beat back the Japanese, but suffered heavy losses in the process.
Slowly, but surely, the combined forces of American infantry and Marines pushed through the dense bogs of Okinawa. Beating back counter-offensive after counter-offensive, they drove the Japanese defenders back into the corners of the island. Here, a mixture of desperate final attacks and mass suicides marked the end of Japanese rule on Okinawa. The last large scale battle of World War II had finally come to an end.
Anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 Japanese soldiers perished on Okinawa, giving their lives for a cause that would end in less than two months. American casualties were astronomical. American forces suffered 65,000 casualties, including 14,000 dead (around 3,000 were Marines). Nearly 1/3 of the civilian population on Okinawa was killed.