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World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped

The Allies on the Defensive


World War II Pacific: The Japanese Advance Stopped

US Navy SBD divebombers during the Battle of Midway

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
Previous: Causes of the War in the Pacific | World War II 101 | Next: New Guinea, Burma & China

The Rising Sun Victorious

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and other Allied possessions around the Pacific, Japan swiftly moved to expand its empire. In Malaya, Japanese forces under General Tomoyuki Yamashita executed a lightening campaign down the peninsula, forcing superior British forces to retreat to Singapore. Landing on the island on February 8, 1942, Japanese troops compelled General Arthur Percival to surrender six days later. With the fall of Singapore, 80,000 British and Indian troops were captured, joining the 50,000 taken earlier in the campaign.

In the Netherlands East Indies, Allied naval forces attempted make a stand at the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27. In the main battle and in actions over the next two days, the Allies lost five cruisers and five destroyers, effectively ending their naval presence in the region. Following the victory, Japanese forces occupied the islands, seizing their rich supplies of oil and rubber.

Fall of the Philippines

To the north, on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, the Japanese drove US and Filipino forces, under General Douglas MacArthur, back to the Bataan Peninsula and captured Manila. In early January, the Japanese began attacking the Allied line across Bataan. Though stubbornly defending the peninsula and inflicting heavy casualties, US and Filipino forces were slowly pushed back and supplies and ammunition began to dwindle. With the US position in the Pacific crumbling, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave his headquarters on the fortress island of Corregidor and relocate to Australia. Departing on March 12, MacArthur turned over command of the Philippines to General Jonathan Wainwright. Arriving in Australia, MacArthur made a famous radio broadcast to the people of the Philippines in which he promised "I Shall Return."

On April 3, the Japanese launched a major offensive against the Allied lines on Bataan. Trapped and with his lines shattered, Major General Edward P. King surrendered his remaining 75,000 men to the Japanese on April 9. These prisoners endured the "Bataan Death March" which saw approximately 20,000 die (or in some cases escape) en route to POW camps elsewhere on Luzon. With Bataan secure, the Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, focused his attention on the remaining US forces on Corregidor. A small fortress island in Manila Bay, Corregidor served as the Allied headquarters in the Philippines. Japanese troops landed on the island on the night of May 5/6 and met fierce resistance. Establishing a beachhead, they were quickly reinforced and pushed the American defenders back. Later that day Wainwright asked Homma for terms and by May 8 the surrender of the Philippines was complete. Though a defeat, the valiant defense of Bataan and Corregidor bought valuable time for Allied forces in the Pacific to regroup.

Bombers from Shangri-La

In an effort to boost public morale, Roosevelt authorized a daring raid on the home islands of Japan. Conceived by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and Navy Captain Francis Low, the plan called for the raiders to fly B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, bomb their targets, and then continue on to friendly bases in China. Unfortunately on April 18, 1942, Hornet was sighted by a Japanese picket boat, forcing Doolittle to launch 170 miles from the intended take-off point. As a result, the planes lacked the fuel to reach their bases in China, forcing the crews to bail out or crash their aircraft.

While the damage inflicted was minimal, the raid achieved the desired morale boost. Also, it stunned the Japanese, who had believed the home islands to be invulnerable to attack. As a result, several fighter units were recalled for defensive use, preventing them from fighting at the front. When asked where the bombers took off from, President Roosevelt stated that "They came from our secret base at Shangri-La."

The Battle of the Coral Sea

With the Philippines secured, the Japanese sought to complete their conquest of New Guinea by capturing Port Moresby. In doing so they hoped to bring the US Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers into battle so that they could be destroyed. Alerted to the impending threat by decoded Japanese radio intercepts, the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, dispatched the carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington to the Coral Sea to intercept the invasion force. Led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, this force was soon to encounter Admiral Takeo Takagi's covering force consisting of the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, as well as the light carrier Shoho.

On May 4, Yorktown launched three strikes against the Japanese seaplane base at Tulagi, crippling its reconnaissance capabilities and sinking a destroyer. Two days later, land-based B-17 bombers spotted and unsuccessfully attacked the Japanese invasion fleet. Later that day, both carrier forces began actively searching for each other. The next day, both fleets launched all of their aircraft, and succeeded in finding and attacking secondary units of the enemy. The Japanese heavily damaged the oiler Neosho and sunk the destroyer USS Sims. American aircraft located and sunk Shoho. Fighting resumed on May 8, with both fleets launching massive strikes against the other. Dropping out of the sky, US pilots hit Shokaku with three bombs, setting it on fire and putting it out of action.

Meanwhile, the Japanese attacked Lexington, hitting it with bombs and torpedoes. Though stricken, Lexington's crew had the ship stabilized until fire reached an aviation fuel storage area causing a massive explosion. The ship was soon abandoned and sunk to prevent capture. Yorktown was also damaged in the attack. With Shoho sunk and Shokaku badly damaged, Takagi decided to retreat, ending the threat of invasion. A strategic victory for the Allies, the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never saw one another.

Previous: Causes of the War in the Pacific | World War II 101 | Next: New Guinea, Burma & China
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