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World War II

The War in the Pacific

There were two major places where World War II took place. These places are sometimes called theaters of war. One theater of World War II was in Europe, the other was in the Pacific. The Pacific theater of war included Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, and many more islands and countries in Southeast Asia.

WW2 Japanese Battleships

Japanese Battleships - Japan had a powerful navy


Leading up to the War

Japan wanted to become a strong country and a world leader. However, because Japan was a small island country, they had to import many natural resources. Some Japanese leaders felt they needed to gain more land by conquering other countries.

In 1937 Japan invaded China. They wanted to dominate all of Southeast Asia. They joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940 by signing the Tripartite Pact. In 1941 a former General of the Army, Hideki Tojo, became Prime Minister of Japan. He had been a strong supporter of Japan joining the Axis Powers. Now that he was Prime Minister, Tojo wanted Japan to attack the United States.

Pearl Harbor

Although the US was trying to avoid getting involved in World War II, Japan was worried that the US would try and stop them from taking over some countries in Southeast Asia. They decided to attack the US Navy hoping they could sink enough ships to keep the US from ever attacking Japan.

On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. They surprised the US and sunk many ships. However, this attack did not have the effect the Japanese had hoped. The US joined the Allies in World War II the next day. The attack at Pearl Harbor united the Americans with the goal of defeating the Axis powers, and especially Japan.

The War

The Japanese quickly took over much of Southeast Asia and were well on their way to dominance by 1942. However, the US won a critical battle called the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942. Badly outnumbered, the US Navy sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers and forced the Japanese to retreat. Winning this battle gave the Americans cause for hope and was a turning point in the war in the Pacific.

WW2 Guadalcanal American Soldiers
US Troops at Guadalcanal


After the Battle of Midway the United States began to fight back against the Japanese. They fought to take over strategic islands in the Pacific. One of the first major battles was over the island of Guadalcanal. After fierce fighting the US was able to take the island, but they learned that fighting the Japanese was not going to be easy. There were many battles over islands in the South Pacific, these included Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima took 36 days of fighting to take the island. Today a statue of marines raising a flag on the island of Iwo Jima serves as the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington DC.

The Atomic Bomb

Finally in 1945 the Japanese army had been pushed back to Japan. However, the Japanese would not surrender. American leaders felt that the only way to get Japan to surrender would be to invade the main island of Japan. However, they feared this would cost the lives of up to 1 million US soldiers.

Instead of invading, President Harry S. Truman decided to use a new weapon called the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. It completely destroyed the city and killed thousands and thousands of people. Japan did not surrender. Another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. This time the Japanese decided to surrender.

Japan Surrenders

On August 15, 1945 Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would surrender. Later on September 2, 1945 the Japanese signed a surrender treaty with US General Douglas MacArthur aboard the battleship USS Missouri. This day was called V-J Day which means Victory in Japan.

Japanese Surrender in WW2
General Douglas MacArthur signs Japan's treaty of surrender


Other Facts about World War II in the Pacific
  • In order to attack Japan, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle demonstrated that large B-25 bomber planes could take off from air craft carriers.
  • Japanese fighter pilots would purposely crash their planes into US ships in what were called Kamikaze attacks.
  • The Soviet Union had been at peace with Japan during much of World War II. They agreed to attack Japanese forces in Manchuria on August 8, 1945. This also helped in forcing Japan to surrender.
  • The Japanese were guilty of many war crimes during World War II. This includes the killing of up to 20 million Chinese people. They had a policy called "Kill All, Burn All, and Loot All". They used biological weapons and tortured prisoners of war. As a result, many Japanese leaders were executed after the war including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.


Take a ten question quiz at the World War II in the Pacific questions page.

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