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Conquering distance: America in the Pacific War

Following a wave of Japanese attacks, the American, British, Canadian, and Dutch forces entered the Pacific War on 8 December 1941. As American forces moved across the Pacific they encountered a determined and desperate enemy and a harsh inhospitable environment. By early 1944, armed with new fast carriers, the Americans stepped up the pace of operations and launched the campaigns that would bring them to the doorstep of the Japanese homeland. But every step closer to Japan was a step farther from the United States.

The Americans confronted a host of obstacles in waging war across the Pacific, but of these, perhaps the most elemental and intractable was distance. The vast expanses of the Pacific mocked American efforts to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. As Hanson Baldwin, the New York Times military analyst noted, “[I]n the Pacific, distance is against us, and the problems of supply are mammoth.” The accompanying map, “Comparative areas of the United States and Southwest Pacific,” vividly illustrates the scope of the problem.

Distance strained American productive capacity and tied up shipping. A round trip voyage from San Francisco to Manila took on average sixteen weeks, three times as long as a circuit from the East Coast to France. That meant that the U.S. needed three ships in the Pacific to do the work of one in the Atlantic.

Hanson Baldwin - Implacable Foes
Hanson Baldwin was the military editor of the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work during WWII. Credit: “Hanson Baldwin” via the US Army Pictoral Center. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Allies launched the invasion of Normandy, they had the advantage of gathering their forces in England, an industrially advanced nation, roughly fifty miles across the channel from their destination. Luzon, from which American forces would stage in preparation for the invasion of Japan, was approximately 1,400 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands.

War in the Pacific was a war of bases, air and naval, but the Americans had to build them as they advanced, bringing with them the necessary construction materials, equipment, and manpower as they moved forward. In the Pacific, once the Allies moved beyond Hawaii and Australia, there were no modern ports capable of handling the large quantities of men and materials needed to sustain an advancing army. Often, supplies had to be shuttled in from ships anchored off the coast of an island and then hauled across the beaches on tracked vehicles. Scarcity of shipping and shortages of trained construction and engineer battalions hampered movement and became increasingly serious as American forces closed in on Japan in the final year of the war.

As Americans broke into the inner ring of Japan’s island defenses they prepared to redeploy millions of men and enormous amounts of equipment from Europe to the Pacific. The Army’s head of the Service of Supply succinctly captured the herculean scope of this effort when he compared the transfer of men and equipment from Europe to the Pacific to “moving all of Philadelphia to the Philippines.”

Comparative Areas of the United States and the Southwest Pacific. Image Credit: Office of the Chief Engineer, General Headquarters, Army Forces Pacific, Engineers of the Southwest Pacific, 1941-1945, vol. 1, Engineers in Theater Operations, Reports of Operations, United States Army Forces in the Far East, Southwest Pacific Area, Army Forces Pacific, Historical Reports (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947).

In the summer of 1944, the war entered a new phase with the capture of the Marianas Islands. In September, only a month past the end of organized resistance in the Marianas, the Navy seized a new fleet anchorage, Ulithi, an atoll in the middle of the Philippine Sea large enough and deep enough to hold over 600 ships. Fleet service vessels—oilers, store ships, water tankers, ammunition ships, vessels for spare parts and temporary repairs—now moved forward to Ulithi from Eniwetok, thereby positioning themselves 1,400 miles closer to the enemy. When the fleet kept at sea, re-fueling took place at rendezvous points on the water just out of range of the enemy. Tankers also transferred mail, and escort carriers transferred replacement planes and pilots. Seagoing tugs were added to tow disabled ships to floating dry docks at Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralties or Guam. With an extended and extending supply system, the fleet had extraordinary reach.

So too did the Army Air Forces, although the limitations imposed by the Pacific’s vast expanses continued to tax American resources. In late November, the first B-29 bombers were attacking Japan from the Marianas. The Marianas were 6,000 miles from San Francisco and 1,500 miles from Tokyo. An enormous effort was required to build airfields and satisfy the B-29’s insatiable appetite for bombs, parts, and fuel. Americans also struggled to provide the crews needed to keep the B-29’s flying. A round trip flight to Japan took twelve hours and crews were expected to fly no more than 75 hours per month. Even after that ceiling was raised to about 100 hours, the shortage of trained crews threatened to limit the effectiveness of the Twentieth Air Force.

Hanson Baldwin rightly described some of the numbers mentioned above as “the dry but eloquent statistics of the Pacific war.” The American war in the Pacific was a matter of establishing a functioning fighting system, of taking hold of all the complex and intricate war components and moving thousands of miles across the Pacific to the shores of Japan. It was all put together and transformed, again and again, in the crucible of battle.

Featured image credit: “US Navy officers at Piva Field, Bougainville c1944” by U.S. Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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