On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Just one day later, the U.S. declared war in the Pacific, launching a campaign that would span four devastating years until the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. Although imperialist Japan had been involved in a bloody struggle to capture China since 1937, this declaration marked the first formal U.S. involvement in the war. America had already provided aid to Britain through the Lend-Lease agreement of 1941, an act through which they supplied supplies to the Allied powers, including the Soviet Union and France. The United States had also been building up its troops for a year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, the country engaged in a large-scale offensive, pushing westward across the Pacific Ocean island by island with the ultimate goal of reaching Rabaul, New Guinea, an important strategic outpost for providing supplies to Australia, whose large land mass offered necessary space for naval, air, and land bases. Thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, and marines shipped off to islands with unpronounceable names to engage an unknown enemy. The unimaginable conditions endured by the infantry in this brutal ground war would leave an indelible mark on all who fought there.
“Fury in the Pacific” – A 1945 documentary co-produced by the U.S. Armed Forces that features footage from Peleliu and Angaur:
In August 1942, just two months after the U.S. Navy achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway, the Allied troops launched their first major offensive attack against Japan. In August 1942, American forces landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida islands in the Solomon Islands chain.
This was the first in a series of attacks intended to prevent the Japanese from cutting off American supply routes to Australia. Admiral Nagano, the Chief of Staff of the Japanese Navy, would later tell U.S. Navy officials that he viewed the Guadalcanal and Tulagi operations as the turning point in Japan’s strategy from offense to defense. It would also mark the first of many brutal struggles the U.S. Marines to win and maintain control of each island.
On the transport ships, most marines had little conception of the horrors that awaited them. Some, commonly called the “Old Breed,” had served in the First World War and knew what to expect. Most, however, were young men who had been conscripted into service after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still others had enlisted in a fit of patriotism, eager to serve their country and see action before the war ended. Richard Tregaskis, a reporter for the International News Service who accompanied the 1st Marine Division on the Guadalcanal campaign, observed a generally jovial attitude amongst the marines he traveled with. Since they would not be told where they were heading until well underway – and few had real understanding of where the islands were anyway – there was little to do but practice drills, sharpen bayonets, watch movies, and wait.
The basic tactic of an amphibious (land and water) assault had been established: the Navy would launch an artillery attack on the beach, then send in waves of infantry. However, the wheeled boats used to transport the infantry were still in their experimental stages at the beginning of the war. Infantry marines also received new weapons only after everyone in the Army had been outfitted. With these limitations, marines hunched low in 36-person amphibious tractors and raced to shore, unsure if they would be greeted by steady machine gun fire or an empty beach.
Once they had taken the shore, the troops had to deal with the treacherous physical conditions of the Pacific islands, which would become as formidable an opponent as the enemy troops. Some battlegrounds on Guadalcanal were covered in high grass and thick brush, which provided natural cover. Other islands, such as Peleliu, were composed entirely of rocky coral, making the marines’ entrenching tools virtually useless. In these instances, it became difficult to find adequate cover from enemy fire. Many parts of the islands were uninhabited, making them wild and formidable to the marines who were expected to survive there. One coconut grove where Tregaskis, the U.S. reporter accompanying the marines, encamped for the night was piled with decaying palm fronds and rotting coconuts. Even moving from one part of the island to another could prove difficult — in one section of Tulagi, the jungle bush was so thick it took a patrol three hours to get a mile and a half. Sometimes the troops would be forced to stop in a place with no fresh water, either because of the natural terrain or because the Japanese had purposefully poisoned the water. At other times, continuous rain made conditions treacherous and trails would become muddy and slippery from the downpour.
Constant tropical rainfall also worsened the already unsanitary conditions. Although the Americans at least attempted to bury their dead, rocky terrain or constantly moving troop positions sometimes made it difficult to do so. Both Japanese and American corpses were left to rot, often bloating grotesquely before being infested by maggots. Continuous shelling by the Japanese sometimes made it necessary for marines to sleep in their clothes, since they were never sure when they would be moving out. Tregaskis did his best to sleep most comfortably on the hard ground each night. He would put on his poncho, cover his helmet with his mosquito net, and brace the helmet between two rocks to keep it from rocking back and forth. This would provide a sort of inclined “bed” in lieu of comfortable sheets and a pillow. Combined with a frequent lack of fresh water, these unsanitary conditions could result in jungle rot, a fungal infection that plagued troops in the Pacific who were forced to keep their boots on day and night, literally rotting the skin of their feet.
While the naval ships stationed around the islands were supposed to provide food, medical supplies, spare parts, and ammunition to the grounded infantry, oftentimes Japanese submarines or warplanes would make it difficult to transport supplies to shore. Living on only one or two meals a day — one of which might be as little as a chocolate bar — infantry troops fell prey to a variety of tropical diseases that doctors knew little about and were too busy to investigate due to the pressing nature of battle wounds. Malaria, gastroenteritis, enuresis, sunstroke, and fever were among the many maladies that U.S. marines faced. Often, debilitating diseases were just as formidable an enemy as the ruthless Japanese soldiers.
Marines who wrote about their experiences in the Pacific theater made special note of the Japanese soldiers’ skill and tenacity. Known as a particularly cruel and relentless enemy, young Japanese men were indoctrinated differently than were Americans: many were slapped and pushed around by superior officers during training, which perhaps contributed to their attitude towards American troops, whom they viewed as inferior. Eugene Sledge, a U.S. Marine who fought on Peleliu and Okinawa, noted the way Japanese soldiers desecrated the corpses of their American enemies. Americans also found it difficult to understand their enemies’ suicidal tactics. Japanese soldiers were instructed not to surrender and be taken captive, but instead to die fighting. Tregaskis notes one instance in which three Japanese soldiers were cornered with only one pistol amongst them. They fired on the advancing Americans until there were only three shots left; then, the one with the pistol shot his two fellows and killed himself.
The Japanese were also noted for their trickery and evasive tactics. Although U.S. soldiers and marines could march for days without encountering a single enemy, they had to remain constantly on guard against disguised Japanese snipers who could be stationed in trees. Some snipers would wait silently until an unsuspecting American passed by before shooting him in the back. Too often a Japanese soldier would “play dead,” waiting for an enemy to come strip him of his weapon and valuables, before pulling the trigger on a hidden grenade and killing them both. Due to Japanese strategy, it often required a tremendous amount of effort to capture and keep an island. Japanese soldiers entrenched themselves in a complex network of dugout caves, or “dungeons,” all over the Guadalcanal. The only way to weed them out was to throw a grenade or stick of dynamite down in the cave entrance and then finish off any survivors. The intricacy of the underground networks – combined with the stubborn unwillingness of most Japanese soldiers to surrender – often made marines feel that the only way to capture an island was to find and kill every individual Japanese soldier, one by one.
Worst of all to many U.S. troops, was the psychological damage inflicted by engaging such a tenacious enemy. Both Sledge and Tregaskis noted that one of the most harrowing aspects of combat in the Pacific was the near-constant artillery barrage.
Tregaskis writes how amazed he was that so many rounds of ammunition could do so little physical damage to a camp because they hit so sporadically, but Sledge emphasizes that shelling was the worst part of the war for him. “To me,” Sledge writes in his memoir, “artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up anger. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man.” Laying on the hard ground at night, trying to sleep through the constant boom of cannon fire, Tregaskis wrote that he truly felt “the terror and power and magnificence of man-made thunder and lightning…one had the feeling of being at the mercy of great accumulated forces far more powerful than anything human.” Combined with the unsanitary conditions, ruthless enemy, and often inadequate rations, the stress and shock of artillery could put a huge strain on men. In the HBO miniseries The Pacific, Private First Class Ronnie Gibson quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth to describe the effect of the Japanese shellings: “They murdered sleep.” For many men, it was this constant barrage of shelling that contributed most to combat fatigue.
In the face of the tremendously difficult conditions they faced, the esprit de corps of the infantry troops kept them united and gave them reason to fight. Although Sledge considers war “brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste,” the only redeeming factors of his time in the Pacific were “[his] comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.” The Marine Corps taught him and his fellow troops loyalty and love, and, Sledge says, “that esprit de corps sustained us.”
The soldiers and marines who served in the Pacific endured unimaginable physical and psychological suffering at the hands of the enemy and because of the environmental conditions on the Pacific islands.
Many suffered lasting effects from the shock and trauma and had trouble readjusting to life back home after facing the horrors of combat. The 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, which depicts three U.S. servicemen returning to the same small town after the war, captured the difficulties these men faced in finding work, reuniting with their families, and assimilating into their communities. As Sledge writes in his concluding statements, “If the country’s good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” The men who were called on to fight would return to their country bearing marks of war, both tangible and intangible, for the rest of their lives.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene Reading list for World War II