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Pacific FrontNovember 1943

Island Hopping

Why was it so hard to retake islands held by the Japanese?
Ever since the fierce battle for Guadalcanal it had been clear that the Japanese would not give up the islands they held lightly. So how difficult was this campaign for the Americans?

Video Transcript

Commentary: Starting on the 20th November 1943, American Marines attempted to dislodge the Japanese from the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.

Words of Michael Witowich (US Marine, Tarawa): I blew a lot of them out of the caves. We put gasoline in the slits of the pill boxes and lit it with a flame thrower and we shot the hell out of them as they were going out. I thought they were very cruel, they were sadistic. They wanted to die for the Emperor, and we had to go out there and help them die for the Emperor.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: There’s no question that the rules of engagement were altogether different in the Pacific than they were in Europe. I mean, US GIs treated German combatants differently from Japanese. And this had again to do with the ferocity of the fighting in the Pacific. And so there was a real hardness that developed in the relations between these two forces.

Words of Michael Witowich (US Marine, Tarawa): You can imagine the smell that was there on Tarawa. It was like cat manure. It was horrible. Makes you want to puke. We sat there eating our rations - a dead Jap here, a dead Marine there.

Commentary: More than one and a half thousand Americans died capturing Tarawa – a place less than a mile long. It was one of the first signs of just how difficult it was going to be to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific. From Tarawa American forces attempted to island hop their way to Japan. Moving through the Marianas in the summer of 1944, and then in February 1945 onto the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. Hidden underground, the Japanese on Iwo Jima held out against the Americans for more than a month – and fought to the last man. But why? Why were they resisting the Americans so fiercely when they knew by now they could not win this war – the Americans had too many men and too many weapons.

Sir Max Hastings: The Japanese fought on because they continued to cling to a belief all the way through, right up to August 1945, that the war was going to end with them talking their way out of it. They thought that they were a much tougher race - the warrior race, the Yamato race. They believed that the Americans would not have the bottle to pay the sort of blood price that would be necessary to take them to absolute defeat. They therefore believed that they had a negotiating hand, which of course they never did.

Commentary: The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, spoke to Congress in February 1945 as the battle raged for Iwo Jima. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt: It’s a long, tough road to Tokyo. It’s longer to go to Tokyo than it is to Berlin, in every sense of the word. The defeat of Germany will not mean the end of the war against Japan. On the contrary, we must be prepared for a long and costly struggle in the Pacific.

Commentary: And the next stage in that long and costly struggle would be an attack on the island of Okinawa, a thousand miles southwest of Tokyo. The Americans landed on Okinawa in April 1945 and, to begin with, met almost no Japanese resistance. But it wasn’t because the Japanese had suddenly decided not to fight, but because they had resolved to make a last stand, inland. 

Words of Hajime Kondo (Japanese soldier, Okinawa): There was never any thought of surrender. I believed that death would be a kind of relief for us at the time.

Professor Akira Iriye: I think you brought dishonour to your family, to your parents, if you were caught prisoner during the war. So for these reasons I think there is a sense that war is never finished until the last man dies.

Traditional Japanese Imperial Army song: I am thinking of the battle we’ve been through. I won’t forget my colleague’s last words: Emperor, banzai! He was in a sea of blood and he died with a contented smile.

Words of Hajime Kondo (Japanese soldier, Okinawa): The Japanese soldier’s last word was usually ‘Mother’. I saw several people die in the war, but nobody cried out ‘Banzai!’ for the Emperor. Americans also muttered ‘Mother’ when they died. When we shot them, we heard them calling ‘Mom’ or ‘Mother’. We talked about it amongst ourselves - that when they were dying they said the same thing as us.

Commentary: But a sense of common humanity was in short supply on Okinawa in the spring of 1945. For in this battle the Americans suffered more than 50,000 casualties, whilst more than 200,000 Japanese – soldiers and civilians – died. But the biggest challenge for the Americans still lay ahead. An attack on the Japanese home islands. And the question now was clear: how many people would die in that epic encounter?