War in the Pacific: The Pacific Offensive
Across the Pacific: China-Burma-India, Aleutians
Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, overall commander
of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, was responsible for securing the Central
Pacific. Initially, Admiral King ordered the Fifth Fleet to take the
Marshall Islands, but intelligence reports suggested the Gilberts would
be a more suitable target. Once Tarawa and Makin atolls were secured,
these islands could serve as bases for air attacks on Japanese defenses
in the Marshalls.
Spruance constituted Task Force 50 to complete his
assignment. A complement of six fleet carriers, five light carriers, six
battleships, six cruisers, and 21 destroyers were deployed; 7,000 troops
of the 27th Infantry Division would assault Makin on November 20, 1943.
Makin was considered a pushover by American military strategists due to
a light defense (800 Japanese troops and 500 laborers); but unexpectedly
heavy resistance slowed the American assault. After four days Makin was
Tarawa was different. Betio, the primary island of
Tarawa Atoll, is only two miles long and 600 yards wide, but it had the
only airstrip in the islands and was vigorously defended by elite
Japanese troops. Machine gun positions, concrete bunkers and pillboxes,
mines, and 8-inch coastal gun emplacements (the guns brought to Betio
from Singapore) foretold of formidable Japanese defenses for later
fights in the Pacific. Admiral Keiji Shibasaki, the Japanese commander
on Betio, boasted that a million men could not take Tarawa in a hundred
Two Marines rest on a tank at Red Beach
One, Tarawa, November 20. 1943.
Map of Tarawa Atoll.
"Bloody Tarawa," as it soon was known, took 76 hours
before the final "Banzai" rush of the Japanese signaled the end. Yet,
Tarawa was a primer in what not to do during an amphibious assault
landing. After Betio had been bombarded by naval fire for more than two
hours, first wave Marines disembarked from their LVTs (Landing Vehicles,
Tank) and made it ashore. Subsequent assaults by the flat-bottomed
Higgins boats, however, were caught on the offshore reef in less than
three feet of water 400 yards from the beachhead. As they waded to
shore, hundreds were killed and wounded in a vicious crossfire. While
the Americans inched inland, the 4,500 Japanese defenders slowly and
defiantly gave way. Only 17 Japanese troops, of the original 4,500, made
it out alive. American losses were staggering in the bitter fighting,
and listed nearly 1,000 killed and almost 3,000 wounded of the 5,600
Marines who landed.
The scenes of Tarawa shocked the Allies, but the
experience served as an invaluable lesson for numerous other Allied
island invasions that would take place during the next two years.
One of four 8-inch coastal defense guns
on Tarawa. They were captured from the British at Singapore, and
installed on Betio prior to the American landings.
Leader of the Chinese Communists, Mao
Tse-tung meets with American diplomats. Rival of the Nationalist
Chinese, Communist forces often fought the Kuomintang as well as the
China-Burma-India and the Aleutians
The "Forgotten War" in the China-Burma-India Theater
was so dubbed because it lacked the priority the Southwest and Central
Pacific campaigns received in Washington. Yet this region was important
because of its geographic location. The Indian border represents the
farthest westward expansion of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity
Sphere and the subcontinent, a British colony, contained needed
resources for the Japanese military. China, for centuries, had been
perpetually on the brink of war with Japan; north and central Burma is
nestled between India and China.
During the 1930s, China was invaded by Japan. By
1932, Manchuria, the breadbasket of the Middle Kingdom, was controlled
by the Japanese, ruled by a puppet, and its name changed to Manchukuo.
Early Japanese successes yielded them much of North China. Then it was
Shanghai, Nanking and Canton, and in 1938 Hankow. Although the United
States diplomatically responded in angry tones to the League of Nations'
condemnation of Japan, little was accomplished. The rift between Japan
and the United States grew ever wider as Japan assumed a dominant role
in East Asian affairs. The Marco Polo bridge incident in July 1937 was
followed by all-out war between Japan and China, made easier for the
Japanese as a result of the Chinese civil war, which pitted Chiang
Kai-shek's Kuomintang against Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces.
A soldier and mule cross one of the many
rivers in Burma. Due to its extreme isolation, the China-Burma-India
(CBI) theater was probably the most difficult Allied area to supply
during World War II.
The United States was willing to aid Chiang's
Nationalist forces in the 1930s, but would not provide the 500 aircraft
the Chinese government requested. Instead, 100 durable P-40B Tomahawk
fighters were made available. American volunteers, known as Flying
Tigers, flew the Tomahawks and were commanded by retired Colonel Claire
Chennault, who later helped organize the Chinese Air Force. (In early
1942, after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Flying Tigers expanded and
became the Tenth Air Force.)
An American bomber crew poses in the
frigid conditions of the Aleutian Islands.
When the U.S. declared war on Japan on December 8,
1941, the Japanese were fighting both the Nationalists and Communist
forces. The lifeline to the American-supported Nationalist forces in
1943 following the loss of key bases on the Burma Road was the Lido Road
from India and across northern Burma to China. If the road was severed
by the Japanese, Chinese resistance might collapse and Japan's warlords
could transfer numerous divisions to other war zones. To ensure a proper
flow of supplies and continued resistance by the Chinese, General Joseph
H. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell was sent to China as military advisor to
Stilwell and Chennault were not the only Western
folklore heroes fighting in Asia. British General Orde Charles Wingate
trained and employed several thousand British, Indian, and Burmese
troops in jungle warfare against the Japanese. Wingate also had at his
disposal Gurkhas from Nepal. Skilled at jungle warfare and known for
their incredible endurance and tolerance to pain, the Gurkhas helped
fight back the Japanese.
Chiang Kai-shek and his wife pose with
General Joseph H. Stilwell. Chiang and Stilwell greatly differed on the
conduct of the war in the China-Burma-India theater.
An American volunteer force, the 5307th Provisional
Regiment, led by General Frank Merrill, were similar to Wingate's
Chindits, and as famous as the Flying Tigers. Known as Merrill's
Marauders, these skilled jungle fighters helped defeat the Japanese in
the Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys in northern Burma.
Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands, were seized
by the Japanese in 1942 and became their northernmost conquests. Known
as "The Thousand Mile War" (the approximate distance between American
bases on the Alaskan coast and the westernmost Aleutian Islands), Attu
and Kiska were deemed important by military strategists because of the
proximity of Japanese troops and bases to the American mainland. In
addition, they had important symbolic value because they were American
A joint Canadian and American force of 100,000 troops
was deployed to rout the Japanese from America's northwesternmost
territory. In May 1943, after nearly two weeks of savage fighting under
almost impossible climatic conditions across some of the globe's most
inhospitable terrain, the 2,000 Attu-based Japanese were annihilated by
the American 7th Infantry Division.
Japanese troops still held Kiska, but the activities
in the Southwest and Central Pacific commanded higher priority for
America's still limited but rapidly expanding amphibious capabilities.
On July 28, 1943, four weeks after the landings on New Georgia and at
New Guinea's Nassau Bay and two weeks after the invasion of Sicily, a
fleet of Japanese destroyers and cruisers, under the cover of fog,
evacuated the 5,000-man Kiska garrison without detection. Thirty-four
thousand American and Canadian troops landed without resistance, and
embarrassed military leaders had difficulty explaining how they had been
A Nationalist Chinese soldier guards
"Flying Tiger" P-40 fighters somewhere in the China-Burma-India