IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS of 1942 the war approached an equilibrium. The Allies were no longer losing it and they now began to have sufficient men and material to consider various options of one kind or another. The Russians, though hard pressed, were obviously surviving; the Japanese advance had slowed and then ground to a stop, and victory was just down the road in North Africa. It was time to get out the maps and look ahead to the future.
For the Western Allies, the next big operation after the clearing of the southern Mediterranean shore had to be an invasion of the European mainland. Where would it be? The German conquests included nearly all of the Continent, so there was a number of possible choices. They could invade France, they could move north to Scandinavia, or they could continue in the Mediterranean. There were advantages and disadvantages wherever they went.
Invading Scandinavia was set aside as essentially fruitless. The recovery of Norway would achieve only a safer route to North Russia, and was probably not worth the effort. Better to let the Germans keep their quarter of a million troops on occupation duties up there, and leave them alone. The invasion of France was clearly the key matter; everyone knew it had to be done, and the only real question was how soon, and what ought to precede it. An invasion of northern France and a drive due east to the Rhine and into Germany was a knife thrust to the heart, one which the Germans could be expected to counter with everything they had. The best estimates were that the Allies were not yet ready, and that therefore operations ought to continue in the Mediterranean. That at least was the way the British thought about it; the Americans were less certain. General Marshall and the American Chiefs of Staff already believed that they had been shunted into the North African operation. They saw themselves the victims of a vicious circle; unable to invade France immediately, they were forced to divert forces elsewhere; the more they diverted forces elsewhere, the more distant the proposed invasion date became. It was with an increasingly ill grace that they listened to the British sing their Mediterranean song. Yet they found themselves undercut by events. After Kasserine Pass and the serious shaking the Americans took in Tunisia, even their field commanders such as Eisenhower were prepared to accept the British view, that the Germans were too tough at the moment for a successful Allied invasion of France. The Mediterranean it had to be.
Within the theater itself there were several possibilities. The whole northern shore of the sea is made up of a series of peninsulas or islands, any one of which might serve as a stepping stone into Europe. First there was Spain. The Allies were not impressed by Franco’s official neutrality and they would have invaded Spain had they seen any real profit in it. But as Henri IV said in the seventeenth century, Spain is a country where small armies are defeated and large armies starve. To invade Spain meant a long fight through the Iberian Peninsula, with the Pyrénées and another long fight through France after that.
Next came the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, the former Italian, the latter French and occupied by the Italians. These possessed very considerable appeal. A landing here would threaten further landings all along the Italian coast and the French Riveria. Large numbers of German troops would be tied down to counter such threats. Additionally, the islands would provide bases for the bomber offensive against southern German targets. To the French, though their influence was not great in Allied councils, Corsica offered the enticement that it was French territory, and could be used as the basis not only for military operations but also for a political offensive to reclaim control of the homeland. Some planners remained convinced that invading the islands would lead to southern France itself, and that a drive up the Rhone Valley and into southern Germany was a more profitable approach than across the Channel and through northern France. Although the idea did not gain sufficient support in late 1942, it came to the surface again later.
Moving east, the next natural target was Sicily. The large island sat like a bone in the throat of the Mediterranean. If Sicily were occupied, the Italian Air Force, or Regia Aeronautica, and the Luftwaffe would lose important air bases from which they had perpetually attacked Malta and the Malta convoys. A clearing of the central Mediterranean would mean an immense saving in shipping, as it would permit the use of Mediterranean routes instead of the long passage around the southern tip of Africa. In early 1943 shipping remained a major problem for the Allies, and eventually it was Sicily on which they agreed as their next target.
The other possibility was the Balkan Peninsula, and it had some attractions, especially for Churchill. The Russians were opposed to this, however, and so were the Americans. Though there was some appeal to a drive through Greece or Yugoslavia to the Danube Basin and the Rumanian oil, neither Russia nor the United States wanted to see the Western Allies involved there. The Soviet Union had its own ambitions, while the Americans had no desire to play what they regarded as imperial games for Britain in the eastern Mediterranean.
Across the world, there were the same kind of choices to be made in the Pacific and in the war against Japan. The offshoot of the Midway operation—the occupation by Japanese troops of Attu and Kiska—opened up the Aleutians as a theater of war. The Aleutians is the shortest route from the United States to Japan. Unfortunately, it also possesses the world’s worst weather, especially for aircraft operations. Though it would not really be a serious contender for priority, the Aleutians nonetheless remained American territory occupied by the enemy, and thereby engendered an emotional reaction that eventually placed several hundred thousand troops up in the north and led to some short but very brutal fighting.
More-realistic possibilities lay to the south and west, and through 1942 the Allies divided up the war against Japan in a way that, though it contained certain anomalies, worked pretty well on the whole. The Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia had cut the British off from Australia, which now became a major base for the American buildup. The British therefore accepted that they should have command over the Indian Ocean and operations originating from there, i.e., the campaign in Burma, and eventually, the return to Malaya. Everything east of that, including China and Australia, was to be under American control.
The Americans divided the Pacific into three commands, though only two of them really counted, the South Pacific Area being beyond the reach of the Japanese. The North Pacific was put under the basic direction of the U. S. Navy, and the area was commanded by Admiral Nimitz. His control was extended south for the Solomons campaign. The Southwest Pacific Area, including Australia, the East Indies, and a lump north of the Equator to include the Philippines, went to the U. S. Army and General MacArthur. China was also placed by the Allies under the strategic direction of the United States, though in practice that did not mean a great deal. The Chinese generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, did what he could and got support where he could. The Americans exercised their strategic direction largely through an advisor, General Joseph Stilwell, “Vinegar Joe” behind his back, a brilliant, unpopular eccentric who labored under immense difficulties, not least of which was his own personality.
A nearly isolated China was something of a sideshow as far as the Americans were concerned. More crucial to them were the central and the southwest Pacific areas, where American troops were in contact with the enemy. Yet all the fronts—Aleutians, central, and Southwest Pacific, China, Burma—cried out for troops to fight and matériel to fight with, and decisions on priorities were not solely conditioned by geography or even by strategy, but by politics and interservice rivalries and by personal likes and dislikes. Burma remained a poor relation for the British, and in American planning, MacArthur and Nimitz waged a constant struggle for top billing and allocation of resources. As a soldier, MacArthur ended up with practically his own private navy to support his drive up past New Guinea and into the Philippines. Nimitz on the other hand ended up with his private army, the Marine Corps, as the navy worked its way west through the islands of the central Pacific. The converging strategy eventually proved to be sound, but it was achieved only after a great deal of argument. The Americans haggled among themselves in the Pacific theater almost as much as they did with the British in the European theater.
The one item on which everyone, British and American alike, could agree was the necessity of improving the shipping position. It was this problem that led the Allied leaders at Casablanca in January of 1943 to give priority to defeating the U-boats. This was carried even to the point of disrupting the strategic bombing schedule and diverting it to attacks on U-boat bases and yards, much to the dismay of the bombing planners. It also led to the agreement to invade the island of Sicily. Some things were already happening to improve the situation. The scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon removed a large potential threat, and the return of the remainder of it to the war on the Allied side provided a small boost. Later in 1943 the defection of the Italians from the Axis side had the result of subtracting an important amount of shipping from the enemy, and adding it to the Allied ranks. By then the U-boat menace was being contained, so the whole naval situation improved throughout the year.
Things that were achieved as by-products of other developments in Europe had to be won by battle in the Pacific. Through late 1942 and into 1943 the Americans and the Japanese hammered at each other. The anvil of their operations was an island in the Solomons called Guadalcanal.
In the late spring of 1942, as the Japanese extended eastward to New Guinea and past it to Rabaul, they decided that by ranging a bit farther southeast they could threaten the American supply route to Australia. As part of their Coral SeaPort Moresby venture they sent a small force down into the Solomons to set up a seaplane base at the little island of Tulagi. Across a twenty-mile-wide strait lay the much larger island of Guadalcanal, ninety miles long by nearly fifty wide, and here they began laboriously hacking an airfield out of the scrub and jungle.
After Midway the Americans enjoyed for the first time a marginal superiority over the Japanese. In spite of their official adherence to the Germany-first policy, they had shipped much larger numbers of troops to the Pacific than to Europe and had allocated the even greater proportion of shipping needed to sustain them over the longer Pacific distances. Most of this was the work of Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, something of an Anglophobe, and an absolutely determined pusher of the U. S. Navy and its aims and ambitions. The American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, once wrote that after a visit to the Navy Department he came away feeling that he had been in a place “where Neptune was God, Mahan was his prophet, and the U. S. Navy the one true church.” He might have added that Admiral King was the current Pope.
In spite of King’s power over events and resources, the American superiority, as noted, was only marginal. It was, however, going to grow immensely; the Americans were producing for war, the smaller Japanese industrial base still was not; but in midsummer of 1942 a limited operation with limited resources was all the Americans could manage. MacArthur wished to take over most of the navy and go straight for the main Japanese base at Rabaul. The navy, not wanting to gamble in confined waters, countered with a proposal that they advance step by step up the Solomons, while MacArthur did the same up the northeastern side of New Guinea. Then they would converge on Rabaul. Not until July 1 was the navy’s position adopted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff; they decided on a landing on Guadalcanal a month hence.
Overall direction of the area and the operation went to Admiral R. L. Ghormley in New Caledonia. The business end of the American expedition was the 1st Marine Division, commanded by General A. A. Vandergrift. Admiral R. K. Turner commanded the Amphibious Force. It in turn was protected by a screening force under a British admiral, V. A. C. Crutchley, and all of these were to be covered by a carrier task force under Admiral F. J. Fletcher which would operate southwest of the Solomons. The landing was to go in from the north between Savo Island and the flat Lunga Plain area of Guadalcanal where the airstrip was being constructed.
On the morning of August 7, after a predawn bombardment, the Marines clambered down the nets into their landing boats and made for the black-sand beaches. The Japanese forces did not contest the landing, and by nightfall there were 11,000 Marines ashore, spreading along the beaches and beginning to edge into the tropical jungle. Opposition was sporadic. Though the Americans did not know it, there were only about 2,000 Japanese on the island, most of them laborers. Only a few snipers and machine gunners contested the American advance, and they were soon overrun. For the moment all was well.
What might have happened was shown across the strait on Tulagi and a couple of neighboring islets. Here the small Japanese garrison was dug in and ready to fight. The intensive naval bombardment that preceded the landing achieved nothing, and it eventually took 3,000 Marines to overcome the 750 soldiers protecting the seaplane base.
The Japanese, who were concentrating their efforts and attention on Port Moresby, were initially slow to respond to the threat in the Solomons. But when they did, Guadalcanal and the battles for its approaches became the focal point of the Pacific war. The fight lasted for seven months, and included what one authority has called the most prolonged, intensive, and destructive naval campaign since the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the middle of the seventeenth century.
The key to the island was control of the water around it and the ability to land men and supplies to reinforce the ground troops. On the afternoon of the 7th the first Japanese planes showed up, and the amphibious force was subjected to a series of weak attacks all through the next day. Fletcher’s carrier planes accounted for most of the attackers, but with considerable losses himself, and feeling crowded in the waters off Guadalcanal, Fletcher decided to pull his carriers out late on the 8th; they were too valuable to risk at that stage, he thought. That decision left Turner with no air cover, so he announced he would withdraw his amphibious fleet as well, but he would stay one more day to unload further supplies for the Marines who were now settling into a defensive perimeter.
While Turner was making that decision, a Japanese surface squadron of seven cruisers and a destroyer came racing down “the Slot,” the channel inside the Solomon island chain. Crashing into Crutchley’s screen early in the morning of the 9th, it ran temporarily wild, then turned back, to get away before daylight. In half an hour’s good work the Japanese sank three American cruisers, Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria, and blew the bow off Chicago with a torpedo, and sank as well the Australian cruiser, Canberra. An American sub torpedoed a cruiser as they retreated northward, otherwise they would have gotten away scot-free. As it was, the Battle of Savo Island went down as the most humiliating defeat ever suffered in a fair fight by the United States Navy. Had the Japanese admiral Gunichi Mikawa known of Fletcher’s withdrawal of the carrier planes, he could have hit the transports too and made it a massacre. Turner stayed around the next day, salvaging what he could, landing more supplies, then he sailed away at dark with most of the landing force’s heavy equipment and supplies, and indeed, with 1,400 troops still aboard the transports. On the island, the Marines settled down to short rations, supplemented by captured Japanese rice.
The deadly naval pavane continued as both sides sought to reinforce. In the third week of August the Japanese sent in a small convoy. Fifteen hundred troops sailed from Rabaul, escorted by the entire combined fleet—battleships, carriers, and all. The Americans met them in what was called the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. When it was all over, the Japanese had lost a carrier and a seaplane tender and ninety planes, for American losses of fifteen planes and damage to one carrier.
On the island the Japanese put in a premature attack against the Marines’ perimeter. Nearly a thousand men stormed up to the wire and machine guns at the Tenaru River and were wiped out. The Marines suffered just over a hundred casualties. The Americans now had planes on the airstrip, named Henderson Field, and they kept the Japanese ships away from Guadalcanal by day. Each night, therefore, the Japanese crammed troops and supplies aboard destroyers and raced them down the Slot, unloading and scooting back out under cover of darkness. The destroyer runs were nicknamed the Tokyo Express. By early September there were 6,000 Japanese troops on the island, and they were ready for a major attack. They launched it on September 12, trying to clear high ground south of Henderson Field. All night and the next day the Japanese tried to take Bloody Ridge, but the Marines, with heavy machine-guns, howitzers, and mortars, were too strong for them. After a last Banzai charge they gave it up, again with casualties of ten to one, 1,500 Japanese to 150 Americans.
Then it was the navy’s turn again. At the end of August a submarine torpedoed the carrier Saratoga, putting her out of action for the next three months. That left only the Wasp, smallest of the fleet carriers, and she went to the bottom in mid-September after two torpedoes found her. In mid-October both sides moved troop convoys in, and the escorting forces met off Cape Esperance. The superior American force got its revenge for Savo Island, sinking three destroyers and a cruiser, and crippling two more cruisers. This time the Americans had radar, while the Japanese had none. They capped the Japanese “T” and opened with full broadsides, and would have gotten away virtually unscathed had not the cruiser Boise, preferring to do things the old way, switched on her searchlights to find a target. She took six hits immediately, and then her magazine exploded. Still, the honors for the night went to the Americans, who by now badly needed a morale-raising victory.
The Japanese riposted by sending two huge battleships down to bombard Henderson Field, which they did with impunity while more troops were landed. Up till now, Guadalcanal had been a sideshow slowly impinging on their attention while they still were preoccupied with New Guinea and Port Moresby. But if this was where the Americans wanted to fight, so be it. For two days they poured troops in, supported by the battleships, until they slightly outnumbered the Marines, about 23,000 to 20,000. They planned to seize Henderson Field, get land-based planes in, then move in their carriers and take on the U. S. Navy for a fight to the finish.
In the third week of October they launched their main effort to get the field. The Marines were well dug in and ready for them. The Japanese came on with fanatical bravery, but with poor tactics, and ill-timed and poorly coordinated human-wave attacks that left bodies by the hundreds strung along the American wire. With more than 2,000 killed and probably three times as many wounded they finally gave it up. American losses were fewer than 300, and they now began the expansion of their perimeter. From this point on the Marines were on the offensive.
At sea the struggle went on. Ghormley was relieved by Admiral William F. Halsey, and Fletcher by Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid. The Marines had been accused of not attacking, and had replied that they needed better support from the navy than they were getting. Halsey was determined to supply it. While the battle for Henderson Field raged ashore, he sent Kincaid after the Japanese main fleet. Striking each other with carrier aircraft, the Americans damaged two Japanese carriers, while the Japanese damaged the Enterprise and sank the Hornet. Losses were more or less evened by the fact that this battle of the Santa Cruz Islands cost the Japanese more than a hundred carrier planes and pilots, and their pool of trained pilots was now getting dangerously low.
Both sides were convinced that victory was within their grasp, and as long as neither would concede the matter, the fight went on. The Japanese pushed in more troops, until they outnumbered the Americans by several thousands; they also had naval superiority, with battleships and carriers outnumbering their enemies. But Halsey was determined to give the Marines the support they needed and he stripped troops out of areas all over his command. In spite of the impending North African invasion, the Americans sent ships and planes from all over; the problem reached the President, and Roosevelt himself intervened in the allocations and the scheduling of resources. Guadalcanal was to have the highest priority; this was where the fight was.
In mid-November the Japanese mounted yet another reinforcement convoy, scheduled this time to deliver 13,000 men. As in the previous month, they planned to cover it with a battleship bombardment of the American position. They sent two battleships, a cruiser, and fourteen destroyers into the waters north of Guadalcanal, now known, ominously, as Ironbottom Sound. The Americans, also scheduling reinforcements at the same time, could not match that strength, but Turner sent his escort commander, Admiral D. J. Callaghan, into the sound with five cruisers and eight destroyers and orders to break up the bombardment. It was a cast of desperation, but fortunately for the Americans, most of the Japanese magazines were loaded with high explosive for the shore bombardment, rather than the armor-piercing shells that would have wiped out the American squadron.
After dark on November 12 the Americans waited in ambush in Ironbottom Sound. In spite of their radar they were still surprised when the huge Japanese force entered the sound just past midnight. What followed was a melee in which neither side was able to exercise any real control. For about half an hour ships blazed away at each other, sometimes hitting the enemy, sometimes hitting their own comrades, sometimes firing at shadows. Ships loomed up suddenly out of the tropic darkness, fired into each other, and surged apart again. Shell splashes and torpedo wakes churned the confined waters between Savo and Guadalcanal. Losses were extremely heavy on both sides. On the American side, Admiral Callaghan was killed, the cruiser Atlanta was sunk, Portland, another cruiser, was a wreck with no power, and the battered Juneau was sunk by a submarine—700 of her crew went down with her; and four destroyers were lost as well. The Japanese lost two destroyers, and the battleship Hiei was hit more than fifty times, so that she was dead in the water when American planes found her and finished her off next morning.
In spite of the losses, the first phase of this Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was an American victory; Turner got his convoy through, while the Japanese turned back. Over the next two days there were ferocious air battles, the Americans trying to bomb the Japanese convoys as they dithered back and forth in the Slot, and the Japanese tenaciously trying to move in to bombard Henderson Field. This second phase accounted for seven Japanese transports and two cruisers, but the Japanese were still not ready to quit. On the night of the 13th-14th they sent their remaining battleship, Kirishima, four cruisers, and nine destroyers in for another covering bombardment.
The Americans countered with four destroyers and, this time, two battleships of their own, Washington and South Dakota. The latter took a hit that put her temporarily out of action, and for a while it was Washington and the destroyers against fourteen Japanese. With her radar-controlled gunnery she sank Kirishima and a destroyer; then South Dakota came back on the line, and the Japanese had had enough. They fled northward.
The mid-November battles effectively turned the tide in the waters of the Solomons. The Americans were now in superior strength, and the Japanese tacitly acknowledged the fact. The direct challenge was over. They were by no means ready to quit completely, however. At the end of the month when Japanese Admiral Tanaka was caught off Tassafaronga Point with a replenishment squadron, he attacked furiously and, badly outnumbered though he was, he hit three American heavy cruisers and sank a fourth, for the loss of only one of his destroyers.
With naval supremacy, the Americans increased their advantage on the island of Guadalcanal. Japanese reinforcements dwindled, and for supplies they were reduced to running their ships offshore and throwing over oil drums, hoping they would drift to land. The American troop buildup continued, and they gradually outnumbered the enemy. In December, the 1st Marine Division, what was left of it, was finally withdrawn, and the fever-wracked, young-old men came out of the line at last. The Japanese now threw up their own defensive lines east of Henderson Field, and defied all efforts to dislodge them. Wasteful of manpower in a charge, they were indefatigable diggers and burrowers, each foxhole a stronghold containing a man willing to die if he could take an American with him.
By January of 1943 the Americans had 50,000 men on the island. The Japanese were down to about 12,000 half-starved survivors. They had another 50,000 to the northward but could not run them down the Slot in the face of American naval power. Reluctantly, they decided to cut their losses and get out. In early February they ran a series of high-speed destroyers down to their perimeter and, under the Americans’ noses, lifted their troops off the beaches. It was the most successful evacuation of its type since the British pulled out of the Dardanelles in 1915. But evacuations are not victories. Now both at Midway and at Guadalcanal the Americans had started out the weaker and ended up the winners. The Japanese had frittered away their strength and their advantages, committing themselves piecemeal, and losing opportunities while the enemy quickly improved. Yamamoto’s remark about a navy of golfers and bridge-players was coming home to haunt him.
Elsewhere the story was the same. A thousand miles west of Guadalcanal, MacArthur was forging his way up the Papuan coast of New Guinea, past Buna, Gona, Salamaua, Lae. The Australians finally stemmed the Japanese advance through the Owen Stanley Mountains and sent them back from Kokoda, slowly at first, and then routing them triumphantly. The country was horrible: swampy, insect-ridden jungle and sharp mountain ridges where man was not the only, but the most deadly creature.
What began in 1942 continued through 1943. Germany still had priority, but the industrial power of the United States, coupled with that of its allies, was capable of fighting two wars at once. American military and naval commanders were not going to wait for Germany to be defeated before turning on the treacherous enemy who had attacked Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s two-ocean navy could be used only peripherally against Germany, so more and more of the new ships were dispatched to the Pacific. In all the theaters of the Japanese war, the pressure was applied.
China could do little; the ground war there was at a stalemate. Millions of people in China died of famine in 1943, and Chiang Kai-shek could do almost nothing about it. The Japanese undertook local offensives called “rice offensives,” designed to procure supplies for themselves and deny them to the already starving Chinese. Relations between General Stilwell and the generalissimo continued to degenerate, and Stilwell was upstaged by American Air Force General Claire Chennault, whose former Flying Tigers had now become part of the Army Air Force. With Chiang supporting him, and later on with backing from Roosevelt too, Chennault managed to upgrade American air operations over China. By the end of 1943 the United States planes dominated Chinese skies and were striking even at Formosa. Things did not go so well on the ground. The earmarking of supplies for the air forces meant that the Chinese armies did without. Chiang was also increasingly preoccupied with the Communist problem and diverted substantial numbers of divisions to a blockade of the Communist-held territories, further reducing his effectiveness against the Japanese.
The British in 1943 launched two Burmese offensives, though relatively little was achieved in either. The earlier of these was called the First Arakan campaign; General Wavell, anxious to restore his troops’ confidence, attacked before he was really ready for it, in January. The Japanese held hard, then counterattacked brutally, employing their usual encircling and infiltration tactics. The result was that the British took heavy losses, and the troops lost rather than gained confidence; they were more convinced than ever that the Japanese were unbeatable in the brush.
The second attempt was rather different. One of Wavell’s brigadiers was a visionary named Orde Wingate; he believed that the counter to Japanese penetration was for the British to penetrate even more deeply into the enemy lines. Organizing a special raiding force known as “Chindits,” Wingate mounted a long-range penetration of the jungle, hoping to interdict Japanese supplies. One of the dicta of the strategic bombing enthusiasts was that the nearer the front the interruption was, the more immediate the result; the farther back, the more profound. Wingate believed the same thing, but the method he proposed to achieve the interruption was different. The Chindits infiltrated Japanese territory in several small columns, then united for operations. They stirred up a hornet’s nest, and the Japanese quickly chased them back out, and nearly a third of the Chindit force, more than a thousand men, were casualties. The Chindit campaign too was therefore regarded as a failure, though it did serve as something of a morale booster. Later in the year there was some hope of British-Chinese cooperation in northern Burma, but it came to nothing, lost in the morass of internal Chinese problems.
Away up in the far north, the Americans retaliated against the Japanese-held islands of Attu and Kiska. Reaching out through the Aleutian chain, they built air bases nearer and nearer to the islands. Eventually, they isolated them by naval action as well, and, in the small battle of the Komandorski Islands an American and a Japanese squadron fought the last of the old-style naval battles, ships against ships with no aircraft around to interfere. In May soldiers of the U. S. Army landed on Attu. The 2,500-man Japanese garrison fought to the bitter end, then launched a suicide charge that finished in a hand-to-hand struggle in the American line; only twenty-nine of the Emperor’s soldiers survived the battle, and in proportion to the forces involved, Attu was bloodier than any battle in the Pacific except Iwo Jima. Later in the year the Japanese slipped away from Kiska, and the Aleutian chain was secure from then on.
In spite of the war raging in all these areas, the southwest and the central Pacific remained the crucial points of conflict. The Japanese high command was still not entirely unhappy with events. They had expected to shift to a defensive strategy once their perimeter was achieved, and all of their setbacks so far—the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, even Papua in New Guinea—had occurred beyond the perimeter as they originally envisaged it. Most of the losses could be explained away, though the consequences were awkward; they were bothered by the diminution in the number of their trained carrier pilots and they initiated an intensive training program. They could still hope that a few hard defeats on the main line of the perimeter would make the Americans give up. But as 1943 rolled on, the skies began to darken for them.
The Americans did not give up, and the process of nibbling away at the empire went on with increasing energy. MacArthur and Halsey kept pounding at the approaches to Rabaul. It was the end of 1943 before the Japanese were cleared off the Huon Peninsula of New Guinea, and the Americans leaped to the west end of New Britain, the island on which Rabaul sits. At the same time they worked their way up the Solomons, and the litany of pain, defeat, and victory begun at Guadalcanal went on: Rendova, New Georgia, Kolombangara, Vella Lavella, Bougainville. Flyspecks on the globe became engraved forever on hearts in the United States, in Australia, and in Japan. The constant drainage of men and materials hurt the Japanese more than it did the Americans and the Australians; the Allied forces could afford it better.
In the central Pacific it was an ocean war; the carrier task forces ranged over the great spaces. In March of 1943 the Allied chiefs approved a second approach to the Philippines, due west from Hawaii, and turned the navy loose. Admiral Nimitz wanted to go for the Marshalls, but lacked sufficient troops for that. He decided instead on a landing in the Gilberts, farther east, and picked the island of Tarawa as his target.
Tarawa is an atoll, the top of a submerged mountain forming a circle of islets. The largest of these islets, Betio, was only a few feet above the water, containing a scant 300 acres of sand and coral and palm trees. The Japanese had put 4,700 troops ashore here and they had done their best to make the island a fortress. Betio was ringed by two coral reefs; the inner, unknown to the Americans, rising high enough that landing boats would not be able to get over it. The few breaks in the reef the Japanese mined and wired. On the island itself they brought in eight-inch guns from Singapore, built redoubts, dugouts, pillboxes, and bunkers. They mined and wired again, and set up interlocking zones of fire. Then they sat down to wait it out.
The Americans showed up on November 13. First there were heavy air strikes, followed by a lengthy pre-invasion bombardment from the navy. Neither of these did as much damage as the Americans hoped. Flat-trajectory naval guns had but a limited effectiveness against deeply dug positions, which required plunging fire to reduce them. Then, on the 21st, while the army overran the nearby island of Makin, the Marines went ashore.
Almost everything went wrong. The landing boats grounded on the inner reef, where the Japanese had their guns ranged. Under heavy fire the troops clambered out of the boats and into waist-and chest-deep water and began to wade the several hundred yards to the beach. The Japanese machine guns opened up on them in the water. The amphibious tractors that clambered over the reef immediately became targets for mortars and artillery. Many were hit, some broke down, some made it to the beach, then could not get up over the palm log barricades. With Marines on the beach the navy stopped its shore bombardment for fear of hitting its own people. The Marines were pinned down to a few square yards of sand in front of the barricades; there was no way back across the bloodstained waters of the lagoon, and no way forward. All that long day they clung to their strip of sand; by nightfall, of the 5,000 who had started for the shore, 1,500 were dead or wounded.
Relief came with the dark, and some tanks and artillery got to the beach. By next morning the Marines had enough of a foothold that they could call in carrier support aircraft to make strikes on the Japanese positions. The divisional reserve came ashore that day, though it lost 350 officers and men just reaching dry land. Inch by inch the Marines fought their way forward, the Japanese fighting back for every step. By nightfall on the second day, the Americans had secured the western end of the island. That night the Japanese launched a suicide charge that left their dead piled up in front of the Marine positions, and the next day, the 23rd, the last pockets and pillboxes were cleared out. Tarawa was secured.
The cost, to both sides, had been horrible. Of the 4,700-odd garrison, a hundred Korean laborers were taken prisoner. Only seventeen combat soldiers were taken alive; all the rest fought to the death. In killing them the Marines suffered 985 dead and 2,193 wounded, roughly ten casualties per acre. The ratio mounts even higher if one accepts the estimate that half the Japanese casualties were suffered by the air and naval bombardment.
Tarawa taught the Americans many lessons about the techniques of amphibious landings. They needed better pre-invasion reconnaissance, better and different types of fire-support, better ship-to-shore communications. But it could all be done. After the Dardanelles in 1915-16 military men came to the conclusion that opposed landings were doomed to failure. By 1943 that decision was reversed, and American planners believed that an amphibious assault could get ashore, no matter what the obstacles. The price might seem prohibitively heavy, but improved tactics, weapons, and the new masses of material would remedy that. New ships, new planes, and thousands of trained men were pouring out of the United States. The western Pacific lay ahead: the Marshalls, the Carolines, the Marianas, the Philippines, and at the end—the home islands, Japan itself. At whatever price, the theme begun at Guadalcanal would reach its climax in Tokyo Bay.