Air Power and World War II in the Pacific

Midway Islands battle map

Midway Island battle map.

Troops landing at Solomon Islands
Landing operations on Rendova Island, Solomon Islands, June 30,1943.
Attacking at the break of day in a heavy rainstorm, the first Americans
ashore huddle behind tree trunks and any other cover they can find.

B-25 bomber
A B-25 bomber built by North American Aviation, Inc. Jimmy Doolittle used this plane in his bombing raid over Tokyo.

Wreckage at Pearl Harbor
Jumbled mass of wreckage of the U.S. destroyers Downes (left) and Cassin (right), Pearl Harbor.

USS California burning
Naval photograph documenting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,
Hawaii, which initiated U.S. participation in World War II. Navy’s
caption: Abandoning ship aboard the USS California after the ship had
been set afire and started to sink from being attacked by the Japanese
in their attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Attack on Pearl Harbor
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Navy fighters at Midway
Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers played a key role in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere throughout the Pacific.

1940, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of Japan’s Imperial Navy informed his government
that if Japan went to war, he would “guarantee to put up a tough fight for the
first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what might happen
if it went on for two or three years.” Yamamoto’s prediction proved correct.
Japan capitalized on careful planning and extensive training to launch an
attack that shocked the United States and the rest of the world long enough to
capture vast amounts of territory across the Pacific and Asia. But Japan lacked
the population, industrial base, and strategic vision to fight the drawn-out
war that the Pacific campaign became. Eventually the United States triumphed,
able to resupply and fight again after each defeat.

The strategy used by the U.S.
in the Pacific was called “island hopping.” The idea was to bypass
strongly fortified bases held by the Japanese. By attacking more
vulnerable locations, the U.S. not only risked fewer battle losses but
also effectively cut off Japanese occupied areas now isolated in the
rear, causing them to “wither on the vine.” Although land-based planes
could be used in the South Pacific, operations in the Central Pacific
characteristically relied on carrier-based air power. As the target
softened, battleships would move in and begin to bombard the objective
from the sea. Combat troops would then stage amphibious landings,
covered by air strikes, and capture the objective, which usually
required a lengthy and intense battle. One secured, the naval
construction battalions would move in and start building airstrips to
provide permanent air cover.

Japanese began the war with an attack on the U.S. naval port of Pearl Harbor in
Hawaii on December 7, 1941. At 7:55 a.m. the first wave of 181 planes attacked;
their mission was to destroy all American aircraft in order to prevent a counterattack.
Therefore, they attacked the fleet that was anchored in the harbor and also the
military airfields on the island. They sent a second wave of bombers 30 minutes
later. By 10 a.m. the U.S. Pacific fleet had lost 21 ships, 188 aircraft had
been destroyed. and 159 more damaged. Eight hours later, the U.S. Army Air
Force base at the Philippines was attacked and its B-17s were destroyed on the ground, allowing
the Japanese to take the island relatively unopposed. The Japanese success was
overwhelming but not complete. The American aircraft
carriers had been sent on missions elsewhere and were safe. And the base
facilities and oil storage tanks were left intact, ensuring that the navy could
recover. Most importantly, Americans were now united in their desire for war
and revenge.

Japanese continued to sweep across the Pacific, leaving the confused Allies
behind. By March of 1942, Japan occupied a quarter of the planet. But it lacked
the resources to retain control of its new empire. The wide area was taxing to
the limited equipment and number of men. And they had moved so quickly that
they did not have a plan for the next stage. Some military leaders wanted to
continue west toward the British Empire in India and meet up with the Germans
in the Middle East. The Imperial Navy wanted to take Australia. There was no
consensus and much bitter inter-service fighting, crippling the overall vision.

United States also made quick work of recovery from the debacle of Pearl
Harbor. In April, navy cryptologists cracked Japan’s most widely used
operational code. The decoding process, nicknamed “Magic” allowed the U.S.
military to figure out what the Japanese were planning next. And on April 18,
USAAF Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a
fleet of carrier-launched B-25s on a bombing raid over Tokyo. The daring raid,
although inflicting only minor damage, raised American spirits. In Japan, the
shocked Imperial Navy began to change its strategy, realizing that the U.S.
fleet was still capable of attack. Yamamoto made a plan to take Midway Island
and to lure the U.S. fleet there to be destroyed in one great battle.

the Japanese were currently moving toward Port Moresby on the island of Papua
in New Guinea, en route to Australia. There, on May 8, 1942, they fought the
Battle of the Coral Sea. This was the first naval battle where the opposing
surface fleets never made visual contact. Japanese aircraft from its carriers,
supplemented by land-based aircraft from Rabaul in New Guinea, spent the day
launching air attacks on the U.S. carriers.
The United States lost the carrier USS Lexington and two other ships, but sank a Japanese carrier.
At the end of the day however, even though the U.S. fleet withdrew,
the Japanese losses of planes and pilots were so severe that the U.S. achieved a crucial strategic victory,
causing the Japanese to cancel their threatening offensive against Australia.

Yamamoto had planned a brilliant attack for Midway–first he would send light
carriers to the Aleutians Islands to serve as a distraction. Then his main
carrier force, consisting of four large carriers, would capture Midway. The
U.S. fleet would come to rescue the island and there, be defeated in a final
great battle. By using Magic, however, the United States learned of the plan
and was able to reinforce the island. The Japanese arrived on June 4, 1942,
assuming that they were catching the Americans by surprise. Instead, the
Americans surprised them with a vigorous attack. When the first wave of
American Douglass SBD
Dauntless torpedo planes attacked, the Japanese fought back with all they
had, unaware that more was to follow. They used up valuable ammunition and fuel
and sent their air cover out to fight, leaving the fleet unprotected. Much to
their shock, a follow-up wave of Grumman F4F Wildcats and
dive-bombers then arrived. By the time Admiral Chuichi Nagumo realized that the
attackers came from a carrier fleet, he had lost three of his four carriers;
the fourth was destroyed by the end of the day. He also lost 250 planes that
day and many of his best pilots.

Battle of Midway in June 1942 marked a major reversal in the tide of the war.
Japan had lost almost all of its aircraft carriers. The Pacific campaigns had
become carrier-based, and a battleship without air cover was destined to be
sunk. And to add to Japan’s woes, the results of the mobilization of American
industry had begun to appear as new aircraft carriers and planes arrived. By
the end of 1943, the navy was receiving an average of a new carrier per month,
and by the following fall, the Pacific Fleet was bigger than the rest of the
world’s navies combined. The planes that were arriving– U.S Army P-38 Lightnings and U.S. Navy F6F
Hellcats–were finally equal to Japan’s Mitsubishi Zero.
Additional U.S. Army planes like the four-engine B-24 heavy bombers as
well as twin-engine medium bombers also arrived in quantity. And the
United States could provide sufficiently trained pilots to fly the new
planes, whereas Japan, which had begun the war with the best-trained
pilots in the world, could not replace lost pilots quickly enough and
was increasingly sending novice pilots. Another serious blow came in
April of 1943, when using intelligence from a Magic intercept, P-38s
ambushed the plane on which Admiral Yamamoto was flying, killing
Japan’s top strategist.

Midway, Japan focused on the Solomon Islands. This island chain consisted of
parallel lines of islands. The center area became the most highly contested
area of water in the world. With the Americans based off the island of
Guadalcanal, the war had become one of attrition. Japanese ground troops were
stranded on some of the islands in desperate need of supplies, and their supply
convoys became easy targets for Allied pilots. Destroying their only source of
food led to starvation among the Japanese ground soldiers, helping the Marines
conquer the islands.

1944, the United States captured the Northern Marianas Islands and was able to
set up an air base for B-29s to launch bombing raids on Japan under the command
of Curtiss LeMay. Japan was hit with both
explosive and incendiary bombs, which were
especially dangerous in the Japanese cities that were made of paper and wood
and lacked adequate fire protection. Still, the Japanese did not surrender; in
fact by late spring of 1945, they had begun building up a force to repel any
invasion of the country. The force grew to 200,000 men by August. Not ready to
face the prospect of heavy casualties if they were to invade Japan, the
Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan: one on August 6 on Hiroshima, and
the other three days later on Nagasaki. This was the first and only use of
nuclear weapons in the war. Although there is no “official” count of the number
who died, many agree that approximately 78,000 people were killed
instantaneously in Hiroshima and another 70,000 by the end of 1945.
Approximately 65,000 died in Nagasaki, either instantaneously by the bomb or by
its effects by the end of the year.

August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito of Japan announced his country’s surrender.

augmented by the nuclear bomb, industry, and the code-breakers, the navy knew
that air power had been instrumental in winning the Pacific Campaign. Soon
after Japan’s surrender, the head of naval aviation, Admiral Marc Mitscher
declared, “Japan is beaten and carrier supremacy defeated her.”


used for essay

Gunston, Bill. History of Military Aviation. London:
Hamlyn, 2000.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Carrier Wars: Naval Aviation from World War
II to the Persian Gulf. New York: McGraw Hill, 1989.

Murray, Williamson. War in the Air 1914-1945. London:
Cassell Publishing, 1999.

Spector, Ronald. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with
Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Wragg, David. Wings Over the Sea. New York: Arco
Publishing, 1979.

Air War over the Pacific:

of the Coral Sea:

Prop Project:

of Significant Events in Naval Aviation:

“The Story of the Atomic
Bomb.” Air Force History Support Office.

U.S. Air
Force Museum: World War II in the Pacific:

Navy Historical Center:

U.S. Navy Historical Center:
Isoroku Yamamoto.

Additional Reading:

Agawa, Hiroyuki. The Reluctant Admiral : Yamamoto and the
Imperial Navy. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2000.

Eric. Fire in the Sky : The Air War in
the South Pacific. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 2000.

Peattie, Mark R. Sunburst : The Rise of the Japanese Naval
Air Power, 1909-1941. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Institute, 2001.