War in the Pacific: The First Year
A Guide to
the War in
the Pacific

Allied Pacific Counteroffensives

South & Central Pacific

China-Burma-India, Aleutians

Marines & Rikusentai

Submarines in the Pacific


War in the Pacific: The Pacific Offensive

The Soldier: Marines & Rikusentai

We started to move inland. We had gone only a few yards when an enemy machine gun opened up from a scrub thicket to our right. Japanese 81-mm and 90-mm mortars then opened up on us. Everyone hit the deck, I dove into a shallow crater. The company was completely pinned down. All movement ceased. The shells fell faster, until I couldn't make out individual explosions, just continuous, crashing rumbles with an occasional ripping sound of shrapnel tearing low through the air overhead amid the roar. The air was murky with smoke and dust. Every muscle in my body was as tight as piano wire. I shuddered and shook as though I were having a mild convulsion. Sweat flowed profusely. I prayed, clenched my teeth, squeezed my carbine stock, and cursed the [enemy]. From the meager protection of my shallow crater I pitied anyone out on that flat coral.

—EB. Sledge
With the Old Breed

The American Marine

Frontline soldiers in the Pacific-Japanese, Allied, Pacific Islander-experienced the many horrors of war; words fail to adequately capture the ordeals of those countless soldiers who risked their lives to protect their nation or ideology. Many carried pictures of their wives, sweethearts, parents, or children; many never saw them again. Surviving the Pacific Theater during the Second World War required discipline, good training, and high morale. For the Americans, the Marines were exceptional.

The face of a young Marine reflects the uncertainty and apprehension of those who fought in the Pacific theater.

As Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the world conflagration, men and women volunteered en masse to serve their country. Seven weeks of grueling boot camp, followed by infantry or specialized training at Camps Elliott, Pendleton, or Lejeune, transformed recent high school graduates and dropouts, cowboys, college kids, laborers, and businessmen into disciplined, rugged soldiers. Lectures and demonstrations, dealing with the various weapons in a Marine infantry regiment, were vigorously applied. Marines received an introduction to the 37-mm antitank gun, 81-mm mortar, 60-mm mortar, .50-caliber machine gun, .30-caliber heavy and light machine guns, and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Combat tactics, compass readings, hand-to-hand fighting techniques, and the use of the Kabar knife became daily routine. The last phase of training consisted of swimming tests, due to the Pacific environment and nature of American amphibious assaults.

Once training was over, Marines were assigned to a division-ultimately, the Marine Corps had six divisions that fought with distinction in the Pacific-and then boarded cramped troop transports for various destinations in the South or Central Pacific. Once in the rear islands, such as Samoa or New Caledonia, Marines received training in jungle warfare and landing exercises and practiced firing all small arms assigned to a company: .03 rifle, M1 rifle, BAR, carbine, .45-caliber pistol, Thompson submachine gun, and the flamethrower.

All officers and men dressed in similar fashion, but the web belt style distinguished rank. Marines had to carry up to 70 pounds of gear. Combat packs regularly contained a folded poncho, one pair of socks, a couple cans of C or boxes of K rations; salt; small, bitter bright yellow Atabrine tablets (to combat malaria); extra small arms ammunition; several hand grenades; shelter half (tent), blanket, and mess kit; and various items for personal hygiene. Other equipment and clothing were a steel helmet covered with camouflaged-cloth covering or netting, heavy green dungaree jacket and trousers, light tan canvas leggings (the upper two inches cut off), and ankle high "boondockers" (combat boots). On the outside of the pack, an entrenching tool was hooked in the canvas covering.

Attached to a Marine's cartridge belt containing 80 rounds of ammunition if armed with an M1 or 100 rounds if armed with an .03, were pouches containing combat dressing, two canteens, and a brass compass in a waterproof case. Leather-sheathed Kabars hung from one side, while a grenade or two might be thrust into the jacket's left front pocket.

When orders to move out for their battlefield destinations were communicated from headquarters, Marines boarded assigned AKAs (Attack Cargo Ships), APDs (Amphibious Patrol Destroyers), LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank), or LCTs (Landing Craft, Infantry) for a two- to three-week cruise across the Pacific Ocean. LSTs carried complete companies of men, amtracs that would take the men ashore (also known as LVTs-Landing Vehicles, Tracked- or assault amphibians), and the necessary battle equipment.

Once landing commenced in a battle zone, Marines were confronted with a barrage of mortar and small arms fire, sharp-tipped corals and swirling waters, deafening noise, and the sight of fallen comrades. Inch-by-inch, yard-by-yard, battle-weary and tired Marines assaulted the beaches and inland bunkers with the esprit de corps that has been their trademark since the American Revolution, until their stated objective had been reached.

The Japanese Soldier

Japanese soldier
A typical soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army, with rifle, ammunition pouches, pack, and other personal equipment. He is holding a Type 997.7-mm rifle which replaced the Type 38 rifle.

Historically, a military tradition has long been associated with Japan. The samurai class had a leading social and political role in Japanese society. After the restoration of direct Imperial rule in 1868, the Japanese government stressed the divine rule of the Emperor; hero worship was encouraged. The Emperor was the symbol of Japan. Reverence for authority, especially through the religious dogma of Shintoism, was a dominating factor of life.

According to the Handbook on Japanese Military Forces, published by the United States War Department (1944), the Japanese soldier's psychology was influenced by the home, school, military, and social environment. Individualism was repressed in favor of the collective. Obedience and loyalty were admirable qualities Japanese soldiers emulated; the military code of Bushido, a remnant of samurai days, was to be followed, without question. Spiritual training, seishin kyoiku, would allow the Japanese soldier to endure the hardships of war, even to daring suicidal banzai charges against overwhelming odds. Disciplined soldiers and firm leadership provided the backbone for the initial Pacific conquests at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, as well as during the long retrograde between 1943 and 1945.

During the 1920s, Japan experimented with elite forces that would, two decades later, occupy numerous Pacific islands during the first waves of assault in December 1941. Known as the Special Naval Landing Forces, or Rikusentai, these highly trained units were similar in nature to the U.S. Marines. First used against China in the 1930s, the Rikusentai would later evolve to include various other naval and land organizations: the Tokubetsu Konkyochitai (Base Force); the Keibitai (Guard Force); the Setsuetai (Pioneers); and the Kaigun Kenchiku Shisetsu Butai (Naval Civil Engineering and Construction Units).

The Soldier: Rikusentai

The Rikusentai were employed as mobile striking forces during the initial occupation of Wake Island and the Gilberts, and later in Indonesia and the Melanesian islands. Consisting of groups of between 1,200 and 1,500 men, the Rikusentai had two rifle companies and one or two companies of heavy weapons, such as antitank and antiaircraft guns and tanks. Special tactical troops, in small numbers, were also assigned to complement the Special Naval Landing Forces. However, as the war in the Pacific moved into its second full year, Japan found it necessary to reorganize and reinforce the Special Naval Landing Forces into a new organization known as the Combined Special Naval Landing Force.

During the war in the Pacific, every Japanese male between the ages of 17 and 40 was subject to active military service up to three years, and possibly more given the circumstances. Enlisted reservists were pressed into active duty service as the war was brought to Japan's doorstep, but their training was limited to three months, rather than the three years given to officers in the highly competitive Army schools. Advanced training was provided to air force pilots, usually three to ten months.

Japanese officers
Japanese officers in the Aleutians.

As the Japanese government prepared for the Pacific war, soldiers were outfitted with practical tropical uniforms and carried little equipment compared to their American counterparts. Aside from the standard issue (pack, tents, entrenching tools, ammunition belts and pouches), the differences included tabi footgear and the senninbari, a red sash made with 1,000 stitches and worn around the waist under the uniform. The senninbari was to provide good luck and courage to those who wore it. Individual body nets, complete with foliage, were sometimes used as a form of camouflage to hide the soldier in dense jungles. Water purification kits, mosquito headnets and gloves, and tree climbing spikes were also used in the South Pacific.

M-1 carbine
The M-1 carbine was another weapon used extensively during the war in the Pacific. Several versions were produced, including the M-2, which was capable of full-automatic fire.

Nambu 8mm pistol
The Nambu 8-mm pistol, a semi-automatic weapon, was the standard sidearm of Japanese forces during World War II.

Japanese weapons were numerous and, at times, ingeniously copied from captured caches of American, Dutch, and British weapons. All known Japanese rifles and carbines were of Arisaka design, a 6.5-mm model similar to the Mauser patent. The Nambu 8-mm semi-automatic pistol gained notoriety for its effectiveness and light weight. An 8.8-pound, 38-inch 7.7-mm Model 99 Arisaka rifle was standard issue in the later phases of the war. Although the initial months of Pacific offensive operations were a success, by 1943 the Japanese had assumed a defensive posture. In the Central Pacific, employing the environment of low-lying, coraline atolls, their coastal defenses consisted of camouflaged coconut tree and coral pillboxes constructed over dugouts, hastily constructed concrete bunkers, and pyramidal steel structures used as command posts. Overhead protection and thick, reinforced walls often protected troops during intense Allied naval bombardments.

The Japanese soldiers, trained in the martial etiquette of Bushido, would defend their island outposts with a tenacious determination, until the last man or round of ammunition.

Type 38 Japanese rifle
The Type 38 Japanese rifle used an underpowered 6.5-mm cartridge that was later replaced by the larger 7.7-mm.