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Unique: the Pacific War

By Robert M. Citino
12/3/2012 • Fire for Effect

No historian is supposed to use the word “unique.”

After all, everyone knows that nothing is completely unique. Human beings have been living on planet earth for a long time, and every historical event hearkens back to something that happened a long time ago. Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan (although he called it Bactria) in ancient times; so did the Soviet Union and the United States more than two thousand years later. Both Charles X of Sweden and Napoleon I of France invaded Russia, and both of them came to grief. Hitler tried it too. Both the French and the United States attempted to pacify Vietnam, and both of them failed. Like the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

But from 1941–1945, something happened that I would say was unique. Something unlike anything that had happened before or since.

I am speaking of World War II in the Pacific Ocean. Once Japan had conquered its “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” it set up a defensive perimeter in the Pacific, fortifying hundreds of islands in the Solomons, Gilberts, and Marshalls. Backing the perimeter would be huge naval and air bases on the island of Truk in the Carolines and Rabaul on New Britain. Once established in its perimeter, Japan was certain that the U.S. would have no choice but to accept a fait accompli. After all, no U.S. president in his right mind would sacrifice tens of thousands of young Americans in bloody frontal assaults on one obscure island after another, nor would the American people stand for it. Japan viewed the U.S. as a commercial nation, one that knew how to read a balance sheet, how to weigh costs and benefits. By contrast, Japanese superiority in the spiritual realm, bravery, and willingness to die would make the difference. The spirit of Japan, they called it: Yamato-Damashii.

A sensible strategy? Perhaps. But it fell apart early, on day one in fact, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Intended as a surprise blow by the Japanese leadership, it appeared to be something very different to the American people: a “sneak attack,” a devious stroke carried out at the very moment that Japanese envoys were in Washington to negotiate. The very next day, President Roosevelt gave a short speech to Congress. While it barely stretched beyond the 7-minute mark, it summed up the mood. Pearl Harbor wasn’t just an operational defeat. It was a crime, Roosevelt said, a “date which would live in infamy.”

Americans went from antiwar to rabidly prowar overnight. They were now determined to do the very thing that Japan felt they would refuse to do. They demanded a war to the death against Japan, fighting across the vast Pacific Ocean one island, one atoll, one jungle at a time. And they lived up to that pledge, on places like New Guinea or Tarawa.

Oh…and one little detail. That Japanese raid that smashed the U.S. Pacific Fleet? It missed one little detail. Look at this photograph. Tell me what you see. Tell me what is missing.

More next week.

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11 Responses to Unique: the Pacific War

  1. Guy Nasuti says:

    Our carriers were out at sea at the time, and they were the main targets of the Japanese. But I’m not sure if that is what you meant.

  2. JonS says:

    Carriers? Burning oil tanks? My uncle bunny?

    You are *such* a tease :D

    (AIUI, the *plan* didn’t miss the ‘tiny little detail’ of the carriers. The problem was US Navy was inconsiderate enough as to have them elsewhere at the time of the raid.)


  3. Dave says:

    IIRC, wasn’t the Enterprise enroute to Pearl and would have been there on time for the attack but was delayed. I believe it was a storm or something. It is one of those odd coincidences that makes a study of WWII so fascinating.

  4. Rob Citino says:

    I don’t know the Enterprise story that Dave relates, but clearly you are all correct: no carriers in the photo! –RC

    • Dave says:

      Dr. C,
      A google search found several statements like the one below. This report does not mention the storm, but several others did. I believe I recall this incident from the book, The Admirals, by Walter Borneman.

      The two carriers in the Pacific at the time of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor were the USS Lexington (CV-2) and the USS Enterprise (CV-6). The Lexington was in the process of delivering aircraft to the Marines stationed at Midway when the attack occurred. It was ordered south afterwards and to launch search and patrol aircraft to locate the Japanese fleet before returning to Pearl on December 13. The Enterprise had just delivered a Marine fighter squadron to Wake Island on December 2 and was en route to Pearl, being close enough to have some of her scout bombers involved in the defense during the attack. She re-fueled quickly and left the next morning to continue to search for the Japanese fleet.

  5. JonS says:

    w00t! Cookies all rounds – Prof. Citino’s shout!

  6. Ross says:

    Another aspect of war in the Pacific that was unique was that it was where, for the American’s at least, the first independent strategic air force that held the same status as the deployed land and naval forces was utilized. The formation of the Twentieth Air Force, that was controlled by Arnold direct from Washington, was part of his desire to create an independent air force in the post-war world.


  7. […] Robert Citino has posted that there was a degree of uniqueness about the war in the Pacific. One area where theis was certainly the case was in the conduct of the […]

  8. lyndon says:

    Another unique attribute of Pacific War was that America had such a landmass of Australia and a committed population to use as a base for island hopping to Okinawa.

    Can you imagine U.S.,A. using the Aleutians in such a manner.?

    By the way, why did it take so long for the japanese to be expelled from American territory Kiska and Attu?

    After being fought to a standstill at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942, Japanese never ventured so far south again.

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