Major WWII Battles in the South Pacific

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States engaged the Empire of Japan in several battles across the South Pacific. In particular, the Battle of the Coral Sea (fought in early May 1942) was a turning point that effectively checked the Japanese advance to the south. Admiral Chester Nimitz, privy to decoded enemy messages of the Japanese, tried to thwart their plans to cut off Australia. The USS Lexington was sunk and the USS Yorktown damaged. The Japanese retired from this battle with heavy losses.

Battle of Midway

Attempting to destroy the remaining U.S. Pacific fleet at this important naval outpost, the Japanese hadn't counted on American naval reconnaissance planes observing their armada from a distance. In June 1942, U.S. carriers ambushed Japanese carriers descending on the Midway Islands. Four Japanese carriers were sunk. The U.S. victory at Midway dashed any Japanese hopes to invade Hawaii. Coming on the heels of the Battle of the Coral Sea, it gave the United States supremacy at sea in the South Pacific.

Battle of Guadalcanal

Guadalcanal, the largest island of the Solomon Islands not far from Australia, was the site of heavy fighting as the Japanese occupied the Solomons in January 1942. On August 7, U.S. Marines launched the first of their amphibious assaults on the enemy, fighting in the jungles until February 1943, when they secured the island.

Battle for Saipan

Part of the Northern Mariana Islands, Saipan is an island in the South Pacific. In early 1944, American forces pounded Japanese garrisons, then in June landed army and marine troops, who fought a three-week campaign. Victory here was crucial, as it would put the island of Japan within range of U.S. bombers. The island could accommodate bases for long-range bombers, but an invasion of Japan would have to wait until Germany was defeated.

Battles in the Philippine Seas

General MacArthur had promised the Filipino people in 1942 that he'd return to liberate the Philippine Islands, for which Japan fought aggressively. If the United States took them back, Japan's oil supply in the East Indies would be in great jeopardy. From this position, the United States could target its bombs on Japanese industrial centers.

General MacArthur's troops landed on Biak Island on May 27, 1944. From there U.S. planes could attack the Japanese fleet in the Philippines. The fighting took place in the air and beneath the sea. Several Japanese battleships and three aircraft carriers fell victim to U.S. submarines, including one prize — the Shokaku, which had participated in the Pearl Harbor raid. The invasion of the Philippines brought the Japanese navy out in force for the last time. During the three-day Battle for Leyte Gulf in October, the Japanese lost twenty-six ships, including an enormous battleship, while the Americans only lost seven ships. MacArthur's pledge was fulfilled.

Iwo Jima

Though a tiny volcanic island merely five miles long, its airstrips were vital for American short-range aircraft targeting Japan. Air strikes preceded the U.S. Marines' landing on February 19, 1945. The brutal struggle was unlike anything Europe had seen. More than 6,000 U.S. Marines lost their lives capturing the island from the Japanese (whose losses were estimated at 20,000). The campaign concluded on March 16 of that year.


On April 1, 1945, the United States launched a massive amphibious assault on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The U.S. Navy, protecting the landings, came under kamikaze (suicide air raid) assault. It was a savage land battle with eighty-two days of fighting. U.S. forces suffered more than 72,000 casualties, and the Japanese forces lost more than 66,000. In addition, more than 122,000 Japanese civilians were killed.

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