World War II: 1939–1952

Key Battles of World War II: Pacific Theater and Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Key Battles in the Pacific Theater

In the Pacific Theater, the United States outmaneuvered Japan by adopting a leapfrog strategy for capturing and defending strategic islands.
General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. and Filipino forces in the Pacific, determined that the best way to defeat Japan was to "leapfrog" across the Pacific, claiming or recapturing and defending strategically important islands, one at a time. The table describes the key battles that ultimately led to Allied control of the Pacific theater.

Key Battles in the Pacific Theater

Battle/Location Date Significance/Outcome
Wake Island December 8–23, 1941 The first major battle took place at a small U.S. naval outpost manned by a few hundred civilians and marines. They held off the Japanese for several weeks before being captured. The battle became a rallying point for the American people.
Luzon December 22, 1941 After Wake Island, the Japanese headed for the Philippines, overtaking U.S. and Filipino forces commanded by General MacArthur and forcing them to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula.
Bataan Peninsula January 1–April 9, 1942 U.S. and Filipino forces held off the Japanese until April 9. Thousands of captured soldiers were forced to walk 66 miles to prisoner-of-war camps in what became known as the Bataan Death March. It is estimated several thousand individuals died en route to the camps. By May 6, 1942, the Japanese controlled the Philippines.
Coral Sea May 4–8, 1942 The battle was conducted by planes launched from aircraft carriers far at sea and resulted in heavy losses for the Japanese. It was a significant win for Allied forces.
Midway June 3–6, 1942 Thanks to U.S. intelligence, the Allies ambushed the Japanese at Midway, an island about 1,000 miles northwest of Hawaii. Japan lost many of its most experienced pilots and several aircraft carriers. A turning point in the conflict, the battle halted Japan's invasion of the Pacific and demonstrated U.S. military strength.
Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands August 1942–February 1943 Guadalcanal was the Allies' first major invasion of a Japanese-held island. After a six-month fight, the Japanese evacuated.
Philippine Sea June 19–20, 1944 Two years after the wrenching defeat at Bataan, the U.S. Fifth Fleet vanquished Japanese naval forces.
Leyte Gulf/Invasion of the Philippines October 20, 1944–December 25, 1944 General MacArthur directed the Allied invasion of the Leyte Gulf. From there, the Allies reclaimed the Philippines.
Iwo Jima February 19–March 26, 1945 The otherwise uninhabited island was a strategically important Japanese air base. The Allies' six-week invasion was characterized by intense fighting. In the capture of Iwo Jima, 6,800 U.S. soldiers died.
Okinawa April 1–June 21, 1945 On the last island the Allies captured before attacks planned for the Japanese mainland, the Battle of Okinawa was the longest and bloodiest invasion since Guadalcanal in 1942.

World War II, Pacific Theater, 1941-45

Japan controlled much of the Pacific Theater. With the empire's defeat came the liberation of territories it had seized in China, Korea, and the Philippines.

Dropping the Atomic Bomb on Japan and V-J Day

After Japan's refusal to surrender, President Truman ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—devastating the empire and convincing its emperor to concede defeat.

Following the Battle of Okinawa, U.S. officials grew concerned over potential costs of invading mainland Japan, the next Allied target. Some experts estimated fighting on the mainland would result in 500,000 or more Allied casualties with a higher toll for the Japanese. U.S. forces had begun bombing Tokyo in March. At least 100,000 Japanese had already been killed, and one million more wounded. If the war continued, many believed casualties would be staggering for both sides. The war needed to end soon, and President Truman had a new weapon to make that happen.

Since 1941 American scientists had been working on the Manhattan Project, the code name of a secret program for the development of atomic weaponry. The resulting A-bomb was more powerful and destructive than anything previously known. A test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, released the explosive power of over 15,000 tons of dynamite. During the Potsdam Conference, President Truman revealed the United States had mastered the technology for making atomic bombs. On July 26 Truman ordered Japan to surrender or it would face "prompt and utter destruction." The Japanese did not respond.

On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber plane called Enola Gay flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Its cargo was an atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy. At 8:15 a.m. the Americans dropped the 5-ton bomb. It incinerated over 4 square miles of the city and instantly killed 70,000 people. Over 30,000 others died of aftereffects.

While Japan considered how to respond to the events in Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and began invading Japanese-held Manchuria the very next day, August 9. That same day, the United States dropped Fat Man, a second atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It killed up to 40,000 people.
Believing Hitler was creating an atomic weapons program, German-born physicist Albert Einstein persuaded President Roosevelt to begin atomic development in 1940. The resulting technology defeated Japan and ended the war.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-05458
Unable to face two powerful enemies at once, Japan sued for peace on August 10, 1945, and Emperor Hirohito accepted the Allies' terms on August 15. The empire's submission to the Allied Powers was formalized on September 2 when Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. This document confirmed the end of the fighting, but it was not an official peace treaty. Writing and ratifying that treaty would take until 1952. Nevertheless, people gladly acknowledged the end of active hostilities. V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day, was celebrated on two different days: August 15, 1945—the day Japan's emperor surrendered—and September 2, 1945—the day the Instrument of Surrender was signed.

However, with the parades and cheering came a sobering accounting. Some 50 to 80 million people had been killed worldwide over the course of the war, including some 20 million who perished from starvation and disease. Roughly half of those deaths were civilians. The United States alone had 292,000 battle deaths and another 114,000 war-related deaths. More Americans died in World War II than in any other foreign war.

Occupation and Reconstruction of Japan

Following Japan's surrender Allied powers occupied the country, enacting a wide variety of political, military, social, and economic reforms under the watchful eye of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

With Japan's official surrender on September 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur immediately took charge of the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP). As supreme commander, MacArthur was principally responsible for overseeing the occupation and reconstruction of Japan. The reforms he instituted resulted in major changes to the nation's military as well as its political, economic, and social systems.

MacArthur's primary goal was to prevent any future militarization of Japan. He began by dismantling Japan's war machine. The armed forces were disarmed and disbanded. All military-related industries were halted, and former wartime leaders were put on trial for war crimes. A new political system was established with the creation of a liberal constitution. Under the Meiji Constitution, Japan became a democracy with a parliamentary system. For the first time, Japanese women had the right to vote. In addition, Japan renounced its right to wage war against other nations. Emperor Hirohito, who had retained his ceremonial title as part of the terms of Japan's surrender, was stripped of his power. He now served only as a figurehead, with no political authority or influence. Former members of the military were prohibited from participating in the political process.

Many social and economic reforms were put in place to help Japan recover and keep it from falling under the influence of Chinese communism. Tax reforms helped control inflation. Land reform enabled more small farmers to own the land they worked. Factory workers were encouraged to join unions. The school system was reformed to make it more like the public education system in the United States.

By 1950 the Allies agreed that Japan was ready to prepare a formal peace treaty. Japan was no longer a military threat in a world that was now preoccupied by the Cold War between the democratic West and the Soviet Union. On September 8, 1951, Japan and 48 Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in San Francisco, California. The document legally ended the state of war between Japan and the Allies. Over the next seven months, the Allies ratified the treaty and it became official on April 28, 1952. With the treaty in effect, the occupation of Japan by Allied forces came to an end.