The Americans Strike
After World War I, Japan had been rewarded with the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific for fighting against the Central Powers. During the years between the world wars, they had extended their empire by fortifying these islands and creating a string of almost impenetrable fortresses. During 1943 and the first eight months of 1944, the Americans had made significant progress in pushing the Japanese back towards the Home Islands as American Naval forces and Marines took the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. The perimeter of the Japanese Empire had been penetrated and now was dramatically shrinking. The Americans were drawing nearer to the Japanese shipping lanes between the Home Islands and Southeast Asia. The tremendous battles for Tarawa, Kwajalein, and Eniwetok pushed the Japanese back towards their naval base at Truk.
In June 1944, the Japanese Navy suffered a painful defeat in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in which the Japanese lost over 200 planes. The bulk of the Japanese fleet, including its remaining carriers, had, however, escaped serious damage. But the loss of aircraft, and, more importantly, the loss of irreplaceable pilots and crews, left the Japanese Navy crippled, without essential air cover to protect it at Leyte. The Japanese carrier fleet now was but a shell of its former self.
Although the Battle of the Philippine Sea was not the significant strategic naval defeat some American admirals had hoped for, it nonetheless allowed the Americans to capture the Marianas. With this critical island group in their possession, the Americans now had bases located near enough to the Japanese Home Islands so that they could continuously bomb them around the clock. The flying distance to Japan had been reduced by over 1,200 miles. For the first time in the Pacific War, the Japanese people would begin to feel the same sting, agony, and death their citizen counterparts in Nazi Germany had been feeling since 1943.
MacArthur's Southwest Pacific command had its share of successes, too. American and Australian military and naval forces under the general's leadership moved rapidly up New Guinea's northern coast. Using what the Americans called the "hit-them-where-they're-not" strategy, successful landings on New Guinea made possible the capture of the important harbors at Wakde, Biak, Noemfoor and Sansapor. This string of victories along the thousand-mile advance culminated in the capture of Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea and placed MacArthur's forces at New Guinea's westernmost point by mid-1944, ready to invade the Philippines.
This was a heady time for the Allies. So many victories had been won in Europe and the Pacific that rumors ran rampant through all levels of command predicting the war would end by Christmas 1944. Other more sensible people were less optimistic, however. In spite of having sustained severe losses in France, Italy, and the Soviet Union, the Reich was not yet finished.
The Japanese military establishment, for its part, remained a viable fighting force, too, with its primary supply lines between the East Indies and the Home Islands intact, although diminished. But American submarines made their presence felt there by inflicting enormous losses on the Japanese merchant fleet, so that, by August 1944, the Japanese merchant navy had lost over 2,800,000 tons of merchant shipping.
Japan's near-fanatical defense of the Central Pacific islands showed that the Japanese were still ready to fight anyone, anywhere, and ready to die for their Emperor. The Americans' next objective, meanwhile, became a subject of considerable debate. General MacArthur and the Navy could not agree on a target. Where would they strike next? The answer to this question would dictate how, when, and where the Pacific war would go, and how it would end.