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Pearl Harbor and after: from 1941

Japan enters World War II with a ruthlessness unmatched by any other combatant, and achieves in a few months a blitzkrieg to rival anything achieved by the Germans. Even Hitler is not informed of the secret strike being prepared. It comes, literally, out of a clear sky.

In the early hours of Sunday, 7 December 1941, nearly 400 Japanese planes take off from aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Their target is the American fleet at anchor, with the crews asleep, in Pearl Harbor - the deep-water port stretching inland from Honolulu, in Hawaii. All eight US battleships in the harbour are hit and five are sunk. Eleven other warships sink, 188 planes are destroyed on the ground. More than 2400 Americans die in the sudden attack.

On this same day the Japanese launch air attacks on American and British airfields in the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Hong Kong and Singapore, destroying numerous planes on the tarmac. It is a dramatic beginning to a campaign that for the next few months continues at almost the same intensity, by sea and land as well as air. Within six months the Japanese have captured all the numerous British and American possessions in southeast Asia.

In the summer of 1942 the Japanese turn their attention to Midway Island, a coral atoll some 1300 miles northwest of Honolulu which the US is developing as an air and submarine base. In early June 1942 a large Japanese fleet, including their four largest aircraft carriers, moves towards Midway. The Americans, anticipating the attack, await them with their own carriers. And for the first time, the tide begins to turn.

The assault from both sides is by planes launched at sea. On 4 June US planes succeed in sinking all four of the Japanese heavy aircraft carriers. The Americans have losses too, including one carrier. But the Japanese fleet, suffering a major reverse for the first time in this war, sails for home this same night without even coming close to the mid-Pacific atoll. From this day on, until the end of the war against Japan in August 1945, US forces conduct a persistent assault, one by one, on the many Pacific islands strongly armed by the Japanese as a protective curtain against an attack from the sea. The method of the assault is a new one, combining the actions of the navy, the air force and the army in a concerted operation. It becomes known as amphibious warfare and characterizes this campaign to its very end in 1945.

The US navy has been able to go into action immediately after Pearl Harbor. It inevitably takes longer to get sufficient troops across the Atlantic to make a significant contribution to the battle against Germany in the west. But by November 1942 a US army is ready for a major involvement. An allied army of British, Free French and American troops comes ashore at three locations in northwest Africa to begin a pincer movement against Rommel in Tunisia. The commander of the combined force is the US general Dwight Eisenhower. The Americans, with their far greater resources, are now from a military point of view in charge of the campaign against German forces in Europe and north Africa (at this stage the outstanding effort against the Germans is that of the Red Army in the Soviet Union). Two years later, on the occasion of the Normandy landings on D-Day in June 1944 (by far the biggest push from the west), Eisenhower is again in overall command of the operation. It leads, eventually, to the capture of Berlin in April 1945 and, on May 7, the unconditional surrender of all Germany forces.

Meanwhile the vitally important campaign by sea against the Japanese has been an almost entirely US operation.The first selected target is the island of Guadalcanal, to the northeast of Australia, where the Japanese are building a strong base. From August 1942, just two months after the US victory at Midway, there is continuous fighting here on land, at sea and in the air, until at last in February 1943 US forces secure the island. Large numbers of ships have been destroyed on both sides in this six-month engagement, but in terms of manpower the Japanese losses greatly outnumber those of the Americans. A pattern is set, of painful Allied progress (mainly American, sometimes Australian) through the islands towards Japan, with every step bitterly and bravely contested by the Japanese.

A significant step in the slow move north towards Japan is the US assault, in February 1944, of a strong naval base in the volcanic cluster of the Truk Islands. Eleven Japanese warships and more than 300 planes are destroyed here, in the first radar-guided night attack. After this it is clear that the next target must be the Marianas, a group of islands which the Japanese rightly regard as a crucial line of defence. From here US planes will be within bombing range of Japan herself. On 15 June 1944 American marines land on Saipan, one of the Marianas. 30,000 Japanese defenders are in secure positions in bunkers and caves. After three weeks of fierce fighting the two Japanese commanders commit suicide (an example immediately followed by hundreds of Japanese civilians, some of them by jumping off cliffs).

The capture of Saipan, soon followed by the other Marianas, is of crucial significance. The first large B-29 bombers, developed specifically for this purpose, take off from Saipan on 24 November 1944 on the long trip to bomb Tokyo.

With the process of battering the Japanese people into submission now under way, American attention turns also to a nearer target and one closely involved with American history - the Philippines. The campaign to recover them is close to the heart of the US commander, Douglas MacArthur. It was he who had to relinquish them to the Japanese in 1942, after a heroic struggle against superior forces. This time he has the greater might, but the Japanese resist with their usual tenacity. The first US landing is on Leyte on 20 October 1944. Within days sea and air battles are raging in the area (including the first kamikaze attack. Leyte is not secured until Christmas Day. The capital of the Philippines, Manila, withstands a four-week siege before MacArthur enters it in March 1945.


Six months to Nagasaki: 1945

The final stage in the US advance towards Japan has begun in February 1945. At this time the B-29 bombers heading for targets in Japan are flying a round trip of some 3000 miles from the Marianas. This distance will be halved if the small island of Iwo Jima, midway along the route, can be captured. The island's obvious strategic importance means that it is defended by numerous heavily armed Japanese troops in a network of fortified rock shelters and caves. US marines meet fierce resistance when they land on February 19. With every yard of the US advance hotly contested, more than 20,000 men are dead or injured on each side before the island is finally in US hands on March 16.

On the second day of the engagement a US light carrier is sunk by a desperate new Japanese method of warfare - a suicide attack by pilots flying planes full of explosives into the side of the ship. This technique, called kamikaze from a famous event in Japanese history, has been pioneered in an attack on a US fleet in the Pacific on 25 October 1944. During the intervening four months it has become a familiar danger, with an apparently unlimited supply of Japanese pilots willing to sacrifice their lives. The largest kamikaze attack awaits the Americans as they take the next step towards Japan. With Iwo Jima secure, attention turns to the island of Okinawa - at a distance of only about 300 miles from Japan.

US troops land on Okinawa on 1 April 1945. Five days later no fewer than 355 kamikaze planes are launched against them, while on April 12 the US destroyer Abele is sunk by a further development of the kamikaze weapon. This is the baka, in effect a human guided missile. It takes the form of a glider, packed with explosives and powered by rockets, which is carried by a bomber to near its target. When released, the rockets ignite and the pilot of the baka steers it to the appointed site of his death. Okinawa is in US hands by the end of June, after the most costly battle in the entire Pacific campaign. US deaths are in the region of 12,000, and the Japanese equivalent is possibly more than 100,000.

The intended target for the next wave of invasion has been Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. But Japanese defence of such courage and ferocity at every stage makes it more attractive to contemplate bombing Japan into submission. In this context there have been devastating successes, partly thanks to a new US weapon first used in the assault on Iwo Jima - napalm. On 9 March 1945 napalm is used in a raid on a crowded part of Tokyo where the buildings are of timber. In the resulting fire storm some 80,000 people die and a million are made homeless, with a quarter of Tokyo's buildings burnt. In the next few weeks there are similarly heavy raids on all the major cities of Japan. But as with the Blitz on Britain, there is no sign that these horrors increase the likelihood of Japan surrendering.


Yalta and Potsdam: 1945

During 1945 there are two conferences between the leaders of the three main countries in alliance against Germany. In February Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin meet at Yalta [QMO], a Soviet port on the Black Sea. With future victory over Germany now certain, the discussion is mainly about what to do in Europe after the war. Soviet forces are already occupying Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Reluctantly but inevitably Roosevelt and Churchill accept that eastern Europe will be within the Russian sphere of influence.

The meeting at Potsdam is held in July and August. Harry S. Truman, vice-president at the time of Yalta, now takes the place of Roosevelt as US president; Roosevelt has died in April. The main discussion this time is on hastening the defeat of Japan. Truman confides to the others that the USA has developed, and in the past few days has successfully tested, a new weapon the atom bomb [QNP]. A declaration is sent to Japan, on July 26, demanding immediate unconditional surrender. No response to the declaration is received from Japan (it is later discovered that the emperor, Hirohito, has pressed the case for surrender but has failed to persuade his generals). So President Truman authorizes the dropping of the new bomb.

On 6 August 1945 a specially adapted B-29 takes off from Tinian Island, in the Marianas, with the bomb on board. It explodes over Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m., demolishing some four square miles of the city and bringing instant death to about 80,000 people (many more die later from the effects of radiation). Even this does not bring immediate surrender, partly through the rigidity of the Japanese imperial system and partly because the scale of the horror is not immediately realized in Tokyo. A mere three days later a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. On August 10 Japan announces that the surrender terms specified at Potsdam are accepted. The Second World War is finally over.


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