Like Hitler, Japan’s military leaders also had dreams of empire and had begun expansion in 1931. That year, Japanese troops took over Manchuria in northeastern China. Six years later, Japanese armies moved into the heartland of China an expected quick victory. But Chinese resistance caused the war to drag on. This placed a strain on Japan’s economy and led them down a course that would eventually lead to American involvement in World War Two. America became the leading nation with major influence in this change of history.
Americans had deciphered one of the codes that the Japanese used for their secret messages around October 1940. So they knew the plans Japan had for Southeast Asia. Japan wanted to conquer European colonies in Southeast Asia, because that meant it could pose a threat to the Philippine Islands and Guam which were under American rule. The U.S. government sent support to Chinese resistance in an effort to prevent their strategy. The Japanese overran French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) in July 1941. Roosevelt decided to cut off oil shipments to Japan to hurt their efforts.
Still the Japanese aimed to catch the European colonial powers and the United States off guard. As a result, they planned extensive attacks on British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and on American outposts in the Pacific at the same time. Isoroku Yamamoto was Japan’s greatest naval strategist, then ordered an attack on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii. It was, he said, “a dagger pointed at [Japan’s] throat” and must be destroyed. Japan was trying to compensate for the economic strain they experienced while fighting China to expand their empire, and looked to the European colonies of Southeast Asia which were abundant in resources.
The Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii early on December 7, 1941 where American sailors were stationed. The U.S. military leaders had deciphered that the Japanese might atack from another coded message. But they did not know when or where it would occur so they were not prepared. Within two hours, the Japanese had sunk or damaged 19 ships, including 8 battleships in Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 Americans were killed and over 1,100 wounded. The following, President Roosevelt addressed Congress. He declared the day of the Pearl Harbor attack “a date which will live in infamy” and requested for a declaration of war on Japan and its allies which Congress supported. About at the same time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese launched bombing raids on the British colony of Hong Kong and American-controlled Guam and Wake Island and also landed an invasion force in Thailand. The Japanese wanted a Pacific empire.
Lightly defended, Guam and Wake Island quickly fell to Japanese forces. The Japanese then turned their attention to the Philippines. After about three months of tough fighting, the Japanese took the Bataan Peninsula in April. Corregidor fell the following month. The Japanese also continued their strikes against British possessions in Asia. After seizing Hong Kong, they invaded Malaya from the sea and overland from Thailand. By February 1942, the Japanese had reached Singapore, strategically located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the colony surrendered fairly easily. Within a month, the Japanese had conquered the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, including the islands of Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Celebes. The Japanese also moved westward, taking Burma. From there, they planned to launch a strike against India, the largest of Great Britain’s colonies.By the time Burma fell, Japan had taken control of more than 1 million square miles of Asian land where about 150 million people lived. Before these conquests, the Japanese had tried to win the support of Asians with ideas against colonization. But after these sucesses, the Japanese quickly quickly were known as conquerors. They often treated their new colonies with harshly.
The United States in particular wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor. In April 1942, 16 B-25 bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle bombed Tokyo and several other Japanese cities. The bombs did little damage. The raid, however, made an important psychological point to both Americans and Japanese: Japan was vulnerable to attack. Early in May 1942, an American fleet with Australian support intercepted a Japanese strike force headed for Port Moresby in New Guinea. This city housed a critical Allied air base. Control of the air base would put the Japanese in easy striking distance of Australia.
In the Battle of the Coral Sea that followed, both sides used a new naval warfare. The opposing ships did not fire a single shot and they often could not see one another. Instead, airplanes taking off from huge aircraft carriers attacked the ships. The Allies suffered more losses in ships and troops than did the Japanese. However, the Battle of the Coral Sea was something of a victory, for the Allies had stopped Japan’s southward advance.
Japan next targeted Midway Island, as it was the location of a key American airfield. Allied code breakers, the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was aware of Japanese forces heading toward Midway under admiral Yamamoto’s command. He hoped that the attack on Midway would draw the whole of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbor to defend the island.
On June 4, with American forces hidden beyond the horizon theJapanese to begin their assault on the island. As the first Japanese planes got into the air, American planes flew in to attack the Japanese fleet. Many Japanese planes were still on the decks of the aircraft carriers. The strategy was a success. American pilots destroyed 332 Japanese planes, all four aircraft carriers, and one support ship. Yamamoto ordered his fleet to withdraw. By June 7, 1942, the battle was over. The Battle of Midway was a major turning point of war in the Pacific.
The Allies took the offensive after their victory in the Pacific. The war in the Pacific involved vast distances. Japanese troops had dug in on hundreds of islands across the ocean. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the Allied land forces in the Pacific, developed a plan to handle this issue. MacArthur tried to avoid the long, costly effort of storming an island with his plan to “island-hop” past Japanese strongholds instead. He would then seize islands that were not well defended but were closer to Japan.
MacArthur’s first target soon presented itself. U.S. military leaders had learned that the Japanese were building a huge air base on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The Allies had to strike fast before the base was completed and became another Japanese stronghold. At dawn on August 7, 1942, several thousand U.S. Marines, with Australian support, landed on Guadalcanal and the neighboring island of Tulagi.The marines had little trouble seizing Guadalcanal’s airfield. But the battle for control of the island turned into a savage struggle as both sides kept replacing their troops. In February 1943, after six months of fighting on land and at sea, the Battle of Guadalcanal finally ended. After losing more than 24,000 of a force of 36,000 soldiers, the Japanese abandoned “the Island of Death.”