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Posted on Jun 14, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

War in the East – Part Two

By Wild Bill Wilder

Japanese Reaction

Lt. General Renya Mataguchi sent two of his divisions to the hill station at Imphal. 70 miles to the north another Japanese division would attack Kohima. Mataguchi realized such a spoiling attack would slow down any possible Allied offensives into Burma and could cut the rail line to Assam in northeast India. It was over this railway that most of the supplies for Stillwell and the Chinese-American forces were transported.

Even though the British 15th Corps expected such a move, the speed and ferocity of the enemy’s advance stunned the defenders. The Japanese 31st Division hit Kohima and Imphal suffered attacks by the 15th and 33rd Divisions. General Slim had a plan ready to deal with the situation. Even though both centers were cut off, they were continually supplied by airdrops while Allied air power pummeled the Japanese. Slim would then send his 33rd Corps to relieve them and drive the Japanese back into the jungle.

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The siege of these two key points would continue for 88 days before the defenders were relieved and set free by units of the 4th and 33rd Corps. During the engagement it was later estimated that the Japanese had lost over 60,000 troops. It would be the last major attack that the Japanese would mount in Southeast Asia.

The Long Japanese Retreat

The summer of 1944 was marked by a butting of heads between Allied and Japanese forces as the latter was slowly pushed back toward Mandalay. By early December, the British had crossed the Chindwin and Sittaung Rivers and were deep inside Burma. General Slim recognized that the Japanese were setting up in supposed areas of river crossings with the intention of a slaughter. He carefully avoided the trap by leaving a decoy division to hold the Japanese in place while sending his troops across the water in other crossing areas.

The 17th Indian Division raced for the key city of Meiktila and captured it. The new Japanese commander, General Kimura, stripped Mandalay of its defenders and raced to surround the Indians. Fighting for this key city raged for two weeks but the Indian defenders held firm and by March 29th, 1945, General Kimura knew his cause was lost.

He began a general withdrawal toward Rangoon with the Commonwealth forces coming up fast behind him. By the 1st of May, the remaining Japanese troops faced encirclement inside Rangoon as Indian troops of the 26th Division landed to the south of the capital. From that point on, the Japanese had no choice but to constantly retreat back into the heart of southern Burma and await the bitter end.

The fighting in the China-Burma-India Campaign had been some of the fiercest, bloodiest fighting of all of World War II. It never carried the glamour or captured the attention of the world, as did the West Front and the Island campaigns of the US Army and Marine Corps in the Pacific. Still, the retaking of Burma kept vital war materials away from a deadly enemy and contributed greatly toward bring the war in the east to an end.

The Island War in the Pacific

In the vast Pacific Ocean, Japan was moving in many directions at once. It was imperative for the Empire to move as far to the east and south as possible, then to setup concentric defensive rings to protect their newly forming “Greater Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.” Two major anchors for these positions would the islands of Truk and further to the south, Rabaul. These would become impregnable fortresses and major supply links to the Japanese outposts guarding the approaches.

During the first six months of 1942, most of the action of the United States fleet was defensive in nature. Some penetrations were made with swift aircraft carrier task forces on a hit and run basis. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo with Army B-25s flown from the carrier Hornet in April of that year brought a positive moment amid the wave of depressing news.

No real lasting damage against the Japanese occurred until the battle of Midway on June 4th, 1942. In a matter of minutes, two large naval forces confronted one another at a distance of hundreds of miles. They never saw each other. Not one large naval gun was fired against an enemy ship, yet the tide of the war in the Pacific was shifted in favor of the Allies. On that day, four of Japan’s best carriers and a large number of her most experienced pilots came to a dreadful end.

In a surprise maneuver, Admiral Nimitz used his limited resources to deal the Japanese Navy a defeat from which it could never recover. From this point onward, Japan would adapt a defensive posture, seeking to hold on to its earlier gains. There would never be the major aggressive tactics executed on such a scale. Japan’s moment of glory evaporated in the fiery heat of the battle of Midway. It was the turning point in the war in the Pacific.

In developing a strategy for the conquest of the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur demanded, but did not get, preeminence in the planning and priority in the execution of the strategies developed by the Chiefs of Staff. President Roosevelt did not have enough confidence in MacArthur to place within his grasp all Allied forces committed to winning the war in the Pacific. It was also a naval war, and a navy commander would have to be placed on an equal with the General for a well-rounded approach to winning the war in the Pacific.

The man chosen for this task was Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. After great discussion, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed upon a two-fold war effort. Admiral Nimitz would be in charge of the Central Pacific campaign while MacArthur would continue in the Western area of the war zone. Thus the New Guinea campaign would not occupy a pre-eminent place in the war effort in the east. On an equal basis with that campaign would be the one in the Central Pacific. Both leaders and campaigns would work from different directions, aiming at the Philippine Islands and from there to the Japanese home islands.

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