Battles in the HBO Miniseries ‘The Pacific’ – A Synopsis
The Pacific, the much-anticipated miniseries from HBO that follows the stories of several US Marines through some of the heaviest fighting in some of the worst conditions of World War II, debuts March 14 at 9:00 p.m Eastern Time. To give viewers historical background on the five military campaigns covered in this 10-part miniseries—Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa— Armchair General presents the following synopses. Comments on scenes from the miniseries are based on a screener HBO provided to Armchair General.
In the spring of 1942, Imperial Japanese forces extended their operations into the southern part of the Solomon Islands, establishing a seaplane base on Tulagi in May and landing troops on Guadalcanal, a large island less than 20 miles south, on June 8. On July 6, work began on an airfield near Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. From there, Japanese aircraft could interdict the American supply route to Australia and New Zealand.
In response, the US First Marine Division invaded on Aug. 7, surprising the Japanese garrisons on Tulagi, Florida, Tanambogo, Gavutu and Guadalcanal islands—Operation WATCHTOWER. By the following day, both Tulagi’s harbor and the incomplete airstrip on Guadalcanal were in the Marines’ possession. Supplies began coming ashore, but Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher pulled his fleet back before the offloading of troops and supplies was finished, citing a lack of fuel and the risk of keeping his carriers in their offshore position for more than two days. The decision to evacuate the naval force was reinforced on the night of Aug. 8–9 when Japanese ships inflicted a stinging defeat on Fletcher’s cruisers off nearby Savo Island. In the miniseries, the Marines are shown staring in bewilderment when they awake to find the ocean empty of friendly ships.
The departure of the American fleet opened a door for the Japanese to heavily reinforce Guadalcanal, but they failed to exploit it sufficiently, although some additional troops and supplies were landed at night during the campaign.
The Marines ashore lived on two meals daily for six weeks; captured Japanese fish and rice helped extend their rations. They also made use of captured Japanese equipment to supplement what they had managed to offload and finished the airfield, which they named Henderson Field after a Marine aviator killed in the Battle of Midway.
Japanese counterattacks centered on recapturing the airfield, and their nighttime banzai charges were terrifying but ineffective and costly. On the following mornings, Marines would find bodies thick in front of their defensive lines.
On Sept. 18, the first American supply convoy arrived, along with the 7th Marine Regiment and other elements of the division. On October 13, the 164th Division, US Army, came ashore. Strategy switched from defensive to offensive operations. At sea, the Navy got revenge for Savo Island during the four-day naval battle of Guadalcanal and kept 60 percent of a large Japanese reinforcement force from reaching the island. The long, bloody battle for Guadalcanal ended when, between Feb. 1–7, 1943, Japanese destroyers evacuated 10,630 land troops.
A combined total of nearly 2,000 US Marine and Army warriors lost their lives in the jungles of Guadalcanal; the Japanese lost around 10,000. Actions at sea and in the air claimed nearly 5,000 more US sailors and Marines; Japanese losses were at least 3,200. The Allied victory at Guadalcanal marked a turning point in the Pacific War.
New Britain (Cape Gloucester)
As part of Operation CARTWHEEL to neutralize the major Japanese airbase at Rabaul, New Guinea, the Allies advanced through the Solomon Islands and the northern coast of New Guinea. On Dec. 15, 1943, the 112th Cavalry Regiment landed at Arawe on New Britain and met little resistance, though they would have to beat back a strong counterattack that began the day after Christmas.
That same day, Dec. 26, US Marines landed near Cape Gloucester, New Britain, and captured that town on Dec. 30. Securing what they had gained required them to expand their perimeter by taking two fortified hills west of Borgen Bay. The next three weeks saw hard fighting in heavy rains, through swamps and dense jungle. The last of the hills fell on Jan. 14, 1944. In The Pacific, this jungle fighting is depicted in short, lethal clashes as the opposing sides meet in situations where visibility is only a few feet; scenes of night fighting show the Marines repulsing banzai charges in rain, darkness and near-zero visibility.
Overall, the New Britain campaign, including later actions by the Australian 5th Division, cost 2,000 Allied casualties killed and wounded. Japanese dead was 10 times that number.
In hindsight, Allied air superiority had largely neutralized Rabaul before the New Britain landings occurred, diminishing the value of the campaign to the Allied war effort.
Tiny Peleliu is a seven-square-mile coral island covered in tropical forest less than 1,800 nautical miles from Tokyo within the Paluas (Pelews), westernmost of the Caroline Islands. When the US 1st Marine Division went ashore there on September 15, 1944, after a three-day air-and-naval bombardment, the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. William H. Rupertus, predicted that major fighting would be over in four days.
The island saw a shift in Japanese tactics. Instead of fanatically defending the beaches or engaging in futile banzai charges, the defenders dug in among the caves in the hills of the interior. After two weeks of bloody slugfests, the Japanese had withdrawn into an area just 90 yards long by 400 yards wide. It would become some of the bloodiest terrain Americans or Japanese have ever fought for. Making conditions even worse, the coral that comprised most of the island made burials impossible, except for a small American cemetery near an airstrip, and decomposing Japanese corpses lay everywhere. The hard, sharp coral precluded even digging latrines. Swarms of bloated flies covered everything. In the miniseries, the paths between jagged coral humps give a claustrophobic feel to the Marines’ advance. Death waits around every turn.
In mid-October, after Peleliu was declared "secure," the badly battered Marines were withdrawn to rest and refit, and the Army’s 81st Infantry Division took over; its 321st Regimental Combat Team had been on the island since Sept. 22. Fighting and mopping-up operations continued until Nov. 27. The island Maj. Gen. Rupertus had predicted would take four days to capture had required over two months.
American casualties exceeded 9,600, some 1,600 of those KIA. Only 33 of the 6,000 Japanese defenders surrendered.
Both Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz wanted Peleliu captured. MacArthur wanted to protect his right flank during the invasion of the Philippines—Peleliu is less than 1,000 nautical miles east of Manila—and Nimitz wanted it as a staging area for the invasion of Leyte. But because of the protracted campaign on Peleliu, the invasion of the Philippines took place while fighting there was still going on, which gave rise to questions about the need to have invaded the little island at all. However, its capture served to neutralize 25,000 Japanese troops on Babelthuap north of it.
By the end of 1944, American B-29 Superfortresses were raining bombs on Japanese cities, flying from bases in the recently captured Marianas Islands. A large Japanese radar facility on the small island of Iwo Jima gave the home islands advanced warning whenever B-29s were on the way. To eliminate that radar station and—at the urging of the US Army Air Forces commanders—to establish an air base in the Bonin Islands, the US launched Operation DETACHMENT. Although it later became a highly touted justification for the invasion of Iwo Jima, the island’s use as an emergency landing strip for damaged or disabled Superfortresses was not one of the justifications cited for the invasion by Navy and Marine Corps commanders and planners prior to the assault on Iwo Jima.
Beginning on Dec. 8, intermittent air strikes against Iwo Jima that had begun in August gave way to daily bombardment. For two straight weeks in January, naval gunfire was added. Some 6,800 tons of bombs and 22,000 naval shells struck the island prior to the invasion that began on Feb. 19, though the final naval bombardment lasted just three days.
Whether a longer shelling would have had significant effect is debatable: 21,000 Japanese soldiers were ensconced in 1,500 interlocking strongpoints. Tunnels connected bunkers and spider-hole ambush sites with the island’s natural caves.
On D-Day, 30,000 men of 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine divisions stormed onto the island, and found themselves struggling through coarse, black volcanic sand that hampered breathing and often immobilized vehicles. All the while, enemy shells burst among them and fire from hidden machine guns cut them down.
Depictions of the landings on Iwo are among the most intense scenes of the entire 10-hour miniseries and leave viewers wondering how anyone survived.
Part of the landing force turned south toward the towering Mt. Suribachi. A photograph of the US flag being raised atop that imminence is among the most iconic of American images.
With bazookas, tanks, flamethrowers and demolition charges, the majority of Marines fought their way north toward the airstrips for 36 days, sometimes measuring their progress in feet per day. Finally, by Mar. 26, they owned the island, although pockets of resistance still had to be cleared. Less than 300 defenders were taken alive. The Marines paid 6,500 dead and 20,000 wounded to take the eight-square-mile, pork-chop-shaped, volcanic island. Many have questioned the cost-to-value ratio, and the issue of “lives expended versus US air crews saved” remains a controversial topic.
For the next five months, B-29 bombers used Iwo as a place to “top off” fuel tanks during their long range bombing raids, while air commanders used the island for hundreds of training missions to prepare bomber crews for the rigors of the long, grueling flights from the Marianas bases to Japan and back. Iwo also became a welcome life saver for some B-29s crippled during raids on Japan, serving as a safe place to land instead of forced ditching in the Pacific. Although some long-range fighter escort missions were attempted by P-51 Mustang fighter squadrons based on Iwo, US Army Air Forces commanders soon discontinued them after practical problems of navigation, pilot exhaustion and the small planes’ difficulties negotiating the miserable North Pacific weather made the flights impractical.
The island of Okinawa, just 350 miles from the southernmost Japanese home island of Kyushu, was the focus of Operation ICEBERG to secure air and naval bases for the planned assault on Japan. As things turned out, two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 ended the need to invade its home islands. Okinawa became the largest and last major battle of the Pacific War and saw the largest commitment of ships in that conflict.
Japan’s Thirty-Second Army was deeply entrenched on the 18 x 60-mile island, in the now-familiar defensive pattern of caves and bunkers. Some 130,000 defenders, which included 20,000 Okinawan Home Guard, were fatalistically determined to exact every drop of blood possible from the invaders. The Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Ushijima, realized that, inevitably, the overwhelming manpower and firepower advantage of the American invaders would guarantee US success. Yet, he stoically resolved to draw out the fighting as long as possible—an objective he certainly achieved.
The invasion force involved some 1,300 ships, including 18 battlewagons and 40 carriers. The land force of some 180,000 was the US Tenth Army, led by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, son of a Confederate general from Kentucky, and consisted of the III Marine Amphibious Corps and the XXIV Army Corps. On Apr. 1, 1945—Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day—the invaders feinted from the southwest before storming ashore in the main invasion along the central west coast, driving east, north and south. As Ushijima had carefully planned and prepared, the heaviest fighting occurred in the southern part of the island.
Torrential rains seemingly without letup added to the troops’ misery. Muddy slopes caused men to slip and go sliding through maggot-infested soil, a situation depicted in episode nine of the miniseries. The Japanese defenders were well dug in, using caves, tunnels and underground fortifications to deadly effect. Every enemy position had to be taken—some more than once when the original defenders were killed only to be replaced by fresh Japanese troops moving through tunnels to re-occupy the position. American tactics were called “Blowtorch and Corkscrew,” featuring man-portable or tank-mounted flame throwers (blowtorch) and demolition charges (corkscrew). Okinawa was brutal, bloody combat at its worst, with disease and psychological (“combat fatigue”) trauma adding thousands more to the casualty rolls joining the toll dead and wounded.
At sea, kamikaze aircraft slammed into US and British ships, sinking 36 and damaging 368. The brunt of the Japanese kamikaze onslaught was borne by the destroyer screen stationed north of Okinawa, the inexperienced Japanese kamikaze pilots continually mistaking the smaller warships for the main invasion fleet. Still, the nearly 5,000 US sailors who perished from kamikaze attacks made the naval battle of Okinawa the bloodiest encounter in US Navy history.
Okinawa was officially declared secure on July 2. The fighting might have gone on for many more weeks had Ushijima not allowed his fiery second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Cho, to launch an ill-advised banzai attack on the night of May 4 that allowed superior American firepower to kill thousands of Japanese attacking in the open.
Three months of intense fighting had left nearly 3,000 Marines dead and 14,000 wounded. Army casualties totaled 12,500 KIA, 36,600 wounded. Japanese and Okinawan military and civilian casualties topped 107,000, some of them indigenous residents who unnecessarily killed their children and themselves because Imperial propaganda had convinced them death was preferable to what they would face from the Americans. Neither commander survived the battle. Buckner was killed by Japanese anti-tank gun fire on June 18 while observing a Marine attack, and Ushijima committed ritual suicide on June 22 as the last of his defenders were being burned and blasted out of their underground fortifications at the far southern tip of the island.
The battle-weary Allied survivors knew the next fight would be even harder, for it would take place on Japan’s home islands. The terrible fighting on Okinawa made such an impression on President Harry Truman that he was desperate to avoid an invasion of Japan proper and to prevent “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another.” Scientists working on a top-secret project gave him an alternative to invasion—the atomic bombs that Truman authorized to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6 and 9, 1945. When word arrived in mid-August that an invasion of Japan had become unnecessary because the enemy had surrendered instead—due to "some kind of bomb" as the Marines are told in the miniseries—relief was indescribable.
When Japan had drawn America into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor nearly four years earlier, the Imperial High Command hoped to seize and fortify the southwest Pacific before the "sleeping giant" could mount an effective response, in order to make reclaiming the islands there so costly that the Americans would negotiate a peace instead. The fortifications were built, and the cost was indeed high, but the United States and its allies paid the butcher’s bill, liberated the seized lands, and tore down the flag of tyranny that had flown over much of Asia and the Pacific.
The upcoming miniseries does an excellent job of depicting the price paid for victory, not only in terms of physical casualties but also the mental and emotional hell that left scars deep inside those who fought in the Pacific.
CLASSIC EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF “THE PACIFIC” WAR
Those who want to delve deeper into the Pacific War are encouraged to read two “classic” books by Marines who took part in the actions shown in the mini-series, specially republished to coincide with the series premier. Both of the books were used as the basis for the mini-series and each one is an outstanding eyewitness account of what Marines endured in training and brutal combat. The authors are characters featured in The Pacific.
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge (Presidiopress.com). Pvt. “Sledgehammer” Sledge joined the 1st Marine Division during its training and preparation for the Peleliu invasion, then survived the horrific combat on that island and on Okinawa. The “Old Breed” referred to in his title refers to the long-serving veteran Marines who formed the backbone of the 1st Marine Division.
Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific by Robert Leckie (BantamDell.com). Leckie joined the Marines shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then fought with the 1st Marine Division from its opening Pacific combat on Guadalcanal, through New Britain, and during the hellish fighting on the coral rock of Peleliu.
We rate both books “5 STARS” our highest rating. Read these classic accounts for the whole story that the miniseries couldn’t include.