Thursday, April 29, 2010

TURNING BACK THE EMPIRE: The Allies First Pacific Land Victories

For five years, from 1937 to 1942, the Japanese Army barely knew defeat. From their Conquest of Eastern China in 1937 to their takeover of the Philippine Islands from the United States in early 1942, it seemed that the Japanese Army and Navy could not be stopped. In their conquest of the Philippine Islands, the Japanese Army defeated and captured a large combined force of American and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan peninsula. After being forced to surrender to the Japanese, the Allied prisoners numbering 76,000 were formed into columns and marched 65 miles North to prison camps. The prisoners were very ill treated, and any stragglers who fell behind or were too slow were executed by the Japanese guards. Of all those who surrendered, over 10,000 of the already starved and exhausted prisoners died on what became known as the "Bataan Death March". With the Philippine Islands in Japanese hands, along with French Indo-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the oil-and mineral-rich nations of Burma and Thailand, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, Australia, China and the United States were well on their way to losing the war in the Pacific. By mid-1942, the Japanese Army had already advanced as far South as the Solomon Islands, just North-East of Australia. After the loss of the Philippine Islands to the Japanese, the Allied Forces decided that the key to preventing Australia's capture was to take over the Japanese-held Island of Guadalcanal, located in the Solomon Islands. Not only was the Island a key location for amphibious operations in the South Pacific, but the Japanese garrison in control of Guadalcanal were near to completing the construction of an airfield on the island. The airfield could then be used for launching air attacks on Australia prior to a military invasion. But if the United States took control of Guadalcanal, the airfield could be a base for further Island operations. Already, fierce fighting was taking place in Papau and New Guinea, where an Allied Force of United States and Australian soldiers were fighting desperately to keep the Japanese from overrunning the Island.
A United States soldier takes cover at the base of a rock formation during the intense struggle to keep New Guinea out of Japanese control.
The conditions were horrible for both sides. Along with the enemy soldiers, the men stationed in the South Pacific also battled overwhelming humidity, soaring temperatures, and scores of jungle diseases.
Here a Japanese soldier, soaking wet from tropical rains in the New Guinea jungle, keeps a keen eye out for enemy movements.
The battles for New Guinea only doubled the importance of the urgent need to wrest Guadalcanal from Japanese hands. And so, the United States attacked the Island on August 7th, 1942 with two divisions of Marines. Totalling 40,000 men, the invasion force consisted of soldiers, tankers, and lots of supplies.
The first U.S. Marines to land on Guadalcanal were surprised when they met no enemy resistance when they landed on the beach from their landing crafts. Instead, what they knew to be a fiercely defended Japanese beachhead was apparently empty. After the first wave of U.S. Marines hit the shore, the larger transports with jeeps and supplies came ashore. Here, a driver works his jeep up the sandy strip of beach as the soldiers come ashore in force. As the Marines moved inland, they kept a wary eye out for the enemy. And then, a discovery is made: The Japanese camp! It had been abandoned when the lookouts on the beach saw the U.S. Ships coming in. Almost all the Japanese soldiers fled the camp, running inland to put up a fight deeper in the jungle rather than near the open beach. At the tables, the U.S. soldiers found that the Japanese left half-eaten breakfast, gear, and weaponry. The weather on Guadalcanal that day was hot, humid, and the sky was mostly sunny but with a few scattered clouds. As the Marines established a beachhead, patrols began to move inland. So far, the only casualty was from a soldier who cut his hand while trying to open a coconut with his bayonet. The Marines were on high alert, since they now knew that the Japanese were preparing to fight to the death farther in the jungle. "No sign of the enemy yet. Keep a good look out". Sure enough, not far ahead were a few Japanese who decided to halt where they were and wait for the attackers to come close before opening fire. When fighting in the jungle, a Japanese would hide as well as he could and wait for the enemy to approach to within 15 feet before opening fire to increase his chances of hitting his target. "Crack, Bang, Crack!" Two Japanese soldiers, isolated from the rest of the army, fire on an approaching U.S. Patrol. One man hit, another is wounded; and a third marine returns fire with his Thompson Sub-Machine gun. After emptying his first magazine, he re-loads his weapon. Both of the Japanese soldiers have been killed in action. He then helps his wounded comrade back to the field hospital that was set up on the beach at the end of the Jungle. The battle of Guadalcanal was the first land victory that the Allies scored against the Japanese Army. And as the Marines battled the Japanese on Guadalcanal, the United States Navy was busy keeping the Japanese Navy from assisting in the quest of the Solomon Islands. Naval fighting even reached near Guadalcanal's coast, but the United States had the upper hand when they learned to fight battles at night, using newly-invented radar to locate Japanese ships in the dark. And the tide turned when the U.S. finally defeated the Japanese Imperial Navy at the battle of Midway.
It was the Beginning of the End for the Japanese Empire.
We will cover the rest of the battle of Guadalcanal in our next Pacific Theatre installment.