Western accounts generally consider the war to have started with the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941. Chinese accounts date it from Japan's invasion of central China in July 1937, or even their expansion into Manchuria in 1931. The war ended with Japanese surrender in August, 1945; an important factor was that the first, and so far the only, atomic bombs used in warfare had just been detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
|“||Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.||”|
—US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941
Japan began to expand in the late 19th century, annexing Okinawa in 1879, then defeating China in a short decisive war in 1894/95, annexing Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula, and forcing China to give up its influence over its vassal state Korea. In the same period, the US became more active in the Pacific, taking over the Philippines in 1898 after a war with Spain, and annexing Hawaii and Guam. Various European powers also expanded their holdings or influence in the region.
Japan won a war against the Russian Empire in 1905, the first time in centuries that a non-European power defeated a European one. Once the Russians were out of their way, they annexed Korea outright in 1910. Japan would join the Allies during World War I, and would thus gain more territory from the defeated Central Powers, including the former German concessions in China, following the end of that war in 1918. Japan then staged the Mukden Incident and used it as a pretext to occupy Manchuria in 1931, and invaded central China in 1937. In response to the invasion of the Chinese heartland in 1937, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands imposed economic sanctions on Japan. This prompted natural-resource-poor Japan to further expand in order to secure raw materials needed to sustain its military.
There was a faction fight among the Japanese high command in the late 30s; should they "Strike North", expand into Mongolia and Siberia and fight only the Russians, or "Strike South" which would mean fighting the US and the British Empire. Striking north was tried, but in 1939 the Soviets gave Japanese forces a thorough thrashing at the Battle of Kalkhin Gol in Mongolia; after that, they concentrated on striking south.
During the course of the war, the Japanese managed to occupy much of eastern China, including the then-capital Nanjing. The invasion, however, turned out to be a disaster for both sides.
The Chinese were fighting an invader with far better armament and training, making do with whatever weapons their allies could send (many of them World War I surplus), enduring some spectacularly vicious oppression, and taking enormous numbers of casualties — over ten million military and civilian deaths, far more than any other nation except Russia. Moreover, they were disunited; the Communists and the Nationalists (Kuomintang) were sometimes more interested in their own disputes than in battling Japan.
Despite all that, the Chinese Army (run by the Nationalists with American advisers) managed to give the Japanese a remarkably hard time. Japanese planners thought they could take all of China in three months, leave a small force to hold it, and move most of their armies elsewhere. Actually, it took them three months just to take Shanghai and in eight years of fighting, 1937-1945, they never managed to take more than about half of China. The Chinese Army fought on through the entire war, often retreating but always at a cost to the enemy. Chinese guerrillas and saboteurs — Nationalist, Communist and independent — harassed the Japanese everywhere. Roughly half of the total Japanese ground forces were tied down in China throughout the war, including troops they had planned to use elsewhere. Allied land victories in the Pacific War were partly due to Chinese tenacity and the supplies delivered via the Burma Road.
Japan joins the world war
Meanwhile, World War II in Europe began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and became more complex when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The conflict became global in December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, other US bases in the Pacific, the Philippines, and British possessions such as Hong Kong, Burma and Malaya. The United States and the entire British Empire immediately declared war on Japan, and Germany declared war on the US. The Soviet Union did not declare war on Japan until after the end of the war in Europe. American, British and Dutch sanctions had been imposed on Japan after the invasion of China in 1937; those, in particular restrictions on oil imports, were the main reason Japan gave for going to war with those nations.
After that, Japan proceeded to invade and occupy much of Southeast Asia and parts of Oceania; they even managed to bomb the city of Darwin in Australia. By the middle of 1943, virtually all of Southeast Asia had been conquered by Japan, with the colonial powers of the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United States all having suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese.
The Japanese took effective control of some areas without fighting. The Vichy government in France, essentially a German puppet regime, ordered French administrators in French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) to co-operate with Japan, and most did. Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia not colonized by Western powers, remained nominally independent but was forced to dance to the Japanese tune. Japan was able to establish military bases in these countries and to freely move troops and supplies through them.
Japanese propaganda claimed they were driving out Western imperialists, leading an "Asia for Asians" movement, and this got them some support; countries such as India had both pro-Japanese and pro-Allied movements. In many areas, this was also divided along ethnic lines; in Malaya, at least initially, the Japanese were welcomed by the ethnic Malays and Indians, but opposed by the ethnic Chinese. Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the pro-Japanese Indian National Army (INA), is still widely regarded as a national hero in India. In China both the Kuomintang and the Communists opposed Japan, but they were sometimes more interested in fighting each other. Everywhere, the local political movements were jockeying for control and trying to use the war to gain independence and/or domestic political influence for the time after the war.
In general though, Japanese rule in the occupied territories was brutal, and by the end of the war, the Japanese had lost the support of much of the local population who initially supported them (e.g. Burmese independence hero Aung San). In the occupied areas, Japanese troops engaged in mass rapes, massacres and pillaging, with Nanking Massacre of 1937-38 being the most notorious. Many women from China, Korea and other occupied areas were forced to serve as "comfort women", sex slaves in Japanese military brothels. The Japanese also performed inhumane experiments on captive locals from the occupied territories, the most famous being Unit 731 in Manchuria (listed below), though other similar units existed throughout the occupied territories. They also treated prisoners of war very badly; perhaps the most famous incidents were the "Bataan death march" and the Bridge on the River Kwai, but there were many others.
As retribution for their role in resisting Japanese rule in China, the ethnic Chinese — both in China and in Southeast Asia — were singled out for the harshest treatment; in all the occupied territories, they were rounded up for "screening" by the Japanese, and the unfortunate ones who were identified (often arbitrarily) as anti-Japanese were brought to remote locations and shot.
The tide turns
The Japanese suffered two important naval defeats at the hands of the Americans early in 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June. These were the first naval battles in history fought mainly by aircraft carriers which never came within sight of each other. The Americans were intercepting Japanese communication, and had broken many Japanese codes, which was an advantage in both battles. At Midway they surprised the Japanese by destroying their aircraft carriers when the planes were away on a bombing raid.
Two land campaigns, both hard fought and both starting in mid-1942 and lasting until early 1943, also went badly for Japan. In what is now Papua New Guinea a mainly Australian force gave them their first defeat on land of the war at Milne Bay then drove them back along the Kokoda Track. Meanwhile the Americans took the island of Guadalcanal, allowing them to defend their supply and communication lines to Australia and New Zealand and to create a forward base for island-hopping toward Japan. This marked the turning point in the Pacific War.
After that the Aussies continued the New Guinea campaign while the British re-took Burma with the help of the Chinese, and reopened the Burma Road to supply Chinese forces. The Japanese had spread their forces too thinly in China, and the Chinese were able to counterattack and reclaim some of the occupied territories. The Americans re-took the Philippines and captured a series of islands across the Pacific, including some like Guam that Japan had taken from them in the first months of the war. In early 1945 they won fierce battles in Okinawa and Iwo Jima and occupied the islands, putting them in position to bomb or invade the Japanese mainland.
The invasion never took place. The Americans dropped the first (and to date only) atomic bombs to be used in actual combat on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on 15 August 1945, bringing World War II to an end.
Following the surrender, Japan was forced to give up all its colonies. While the Emperor remained on his throne, many political and military leaders were indicted in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and many were sentenced to death. Taiwan and Manchuria were returned to China, though the Chinese Civil War would resume following the Japanese surrender, eventually resulting in victory for the Communists in the mainland, and the Nationalists being forced to retreat to Taiwan, which continues to be governed separately to this day. Korea regained its independence, but would be split into the communist North Korea and the capitalist South Korea, leading up to the Korean War. Okinawa would be occupied by the Americans, and was only returned to Japan in 1972, though the United States continues to maintain a strong military presence there.
The Western colonial powers also got their colonies back, but the war had galvanised many nationalist movements, which were to come of age in the years to come and eventually lead to the independence of the colonies. The first was the Philippines, where American rule ended in 1946; the largest was the end of the British Raj in 1947, which became the modern countries of India and Pakistan. The Indochina Wars were a brutal example of lingering national and ideological conflict in Asia. Hong Kong and Macau would eventually be given back to China in the 1990s but part of the agreement between China and the former colonial powers stipulates a "one country two systems" arrangement that makes both act like independent countries in some regards.
Many places that were sites of battles, atrocities or other wartime activities can be visited.
- 1 Darwin Military Museum. Darwin was an important staging point for Australian and American forces during the war, and would be the only Australian city that was subject to Japanese bombing raids. The museum houses exhibits about the bombing of Darwin.
- 2 Australian War Memorial. Located in Canberra, the memorial also includes a military museum dedicated to the memory of Australian soldiers who fought in various wars including both world wars.
See Chinese Revolutions for background.
- 3 Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Commemorates the late 1937 slaughter of a huge number of civilians in and around Nanjing by the invading Japanese army.
- 4 Unit 731 Museum. A museum in Harbin located in a former bio-chemical weapons testing facility built by the Japanese and used to perform experiments on Chinese citizens and POWs. After the war, the Americans agreed to cover up their actions and grant immunity from prosecution to the scientists involved in exchange for being granted exclusive access to the data, as they feared that the data would end up in the hands of the Soviet Union, and many of those scientists ended up having successful careers in academia.
- 5 Changsha. The site of four separate battles between the Chinese and Japanese in 1939, 1941, 1942 and 1944. The first of those was the first significant victory scored by the Chinese over the Japanese during World War II. The Japanese were only able to capture Changsha on their fourth attempt in 1944. One of the battlefields has been preserved at the Yingzhushan War of Resistance Site Park (影珠山抗战遗址公园) about 70km northeast of downtown Changsha. One can also visit war memorials, graves and former military buildings at the Yuelu Mountain National Scenic Area (岳麓山国家重点风景名胜区) in the western part of the city.
- 6 Chongqing. The "temporary capital" of China during World War II, after Nanjing had fallen to the Japanese. Despite numerous attempts by the Japanese to take it, Chinese resistance in the inland areas was much fiercer than the Japanese expected, and though it was heavily bombed, Chongqing managed to avoid Japanese occupation for the duration of the war.
- 7 Kunming Flying Tigers Museum. This commemorates a group of volunteer American fighter pilots who fought in China. Kunming was their main base.
- 8 National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II (国殇墓园) (Tengchong, Yunnan). War cemetery with the graves of thousands of Chinese Nationalist soldiers, as well as 19 American soldiers, who died in a 1944 battle in which the Chinese were victorious and managed to reclaim Tengchong from the occupying Japanese.
- 9 Khalkhin Gol. Site of a battle in 1939 in which the Soviets demolished a large Japanese force. This turned Japanese thinking away from expansion into Mongolia and Siberia; instead they adopted a "strike south" strategy which led directly to Pearl Harbor and their attacks in Southeast Asia.
- 10 Burma Road. This road ran from Western China into Burma (now Myanmar) and connected to Assam in Eastern India as well. It was built by the Chinese in the late 1930s, upgraded by the Americans later, and used throughout the war.
- 11 Reflections at Bukit Chandu, 31K Pepys Road, Singapore 118458, ✉ RBC@nhb.gov.sg. An interpretive centre of the Battle of Pasir Panjang, one of the fiercest battles in the Malayan Campaign that pitted the Malay Regiment (today the Royal Malay Regiment, the most decorated regiment in the Malaysian Army) against the Japanese.
- 12 Ford Motor Factory, 351 Upper Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 588192. A former factory of American automobile manufacturer Ford, and the first motor vehicle factory to be opened in Southeast Asia. This is also the site where the British lieutenant-general Arthur E. Percival surrendered unconditionally to Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita on 15 February 1942, thus ending the Malayan Campaign. It was also used by the Japanese to produce military vehicles during the occupation. It has now been converted to a museum dedicated to life in Singapore during the Japanese occupation. The boardroom in which the surrender took place has also been reconstructed for viewing.
- 13 The Battlebox, 2 Cox Terrace, Singapore 179622. A former British military bunker and command centre which served as the headquarters for the British forces in Malaya during the Malayan Campaign. This was where Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival met with his senior officers and made the decision to surrender to the Japanese. It has been converted to a museum dedicated to the Malayan Campaign, and a re-enactment of how it functioned during the war.
- 14 Changi Museum. A former POW camp-turned-museum has information about the Japanese occupation of Singapore and what life was like in the POW camp. It focuses on the general history and conditions as well as containing personal accounts and artifacts donated by former prisoners.
- 15 Sandakan Memorial Park. This memorial in the Malaysian city of Sandakan was built at the site of a former Japanese POW prison camp with funding from the Australian government to commemorate the Allied POWs who lost their lives during the Sandakan Death Marches. Only 6 people out of several thousand survived the march, and only because those 6 managed to escape. Incidentally, all 6 survivors were Australian.
- 16 Pearl Harbor. Site of the bombing in Western Honolulu that caused the United States to enter the war.
- 17 The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, ☏ . Museum commemorating the American war effort in both theatres of World War II, with interactive displays that aim to re-create the battlefield experience for visitors.
- 18 MacArthur Memorial, 198 Bank St; Norfolk, VA 23510, ☏ , fax: . 10am-5pm Tu-Sa; 11am-5pm Su. Museum dedicated to the life of Douglas MacArthur, the general who led U.S. forces to victory over the Japanese in the Philippines, and was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. His grave is located within the museum. The last non-president to have been granted a U.S. state funeral. Free.
- 19 , ☏ (reservations). Tours available Th-Sa at 12:45PM (allow 1.5 hours). Not all dates and times may be available. No public access Su-We. This memorial honors 320 individuals (including 200 young African American men) who were killed in a munitions accident during World War II while loading munitions and bombs onto ships bound for the Pacific Rim. Following the explosion many of the enlisted men refused to work, resulting in the Navy's largest mutiny trial and eventually helping to push the US Armed Forces to desegregate. The memorial is located on an active military base and as a result reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance and all visitors must be US citizens or permanent residents. Reservations can be made by calling or via an online reservation form. All visitors are shuttled to the memorial from John Muir National Historic Site in nearby Martinez.
- 20 Aleutian World War II National Historic Area (Visitor Center located on the apron of the Dutch Harbor airport), ☏ . Year round, but May-October offer the best access. This site is the remains of one of four WWII era forts constructed to defend Dutch Harbor against a potential Japanese attack. The visitor center is free, however, a Land Use Permit must be obtained to visit the historic site on Mount Ballyhoo. Free.
A number of sites in the US commemorate the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.
- 21 Manzanar Internment Camp. The largest internment camp in the United States where approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals living in the United States during the war were forced to live after being ordered to leave their homes. This museum contains information about the camp, the experiences of those who were forced to live here, and life after the war.
- 22 WWII Japanese American Internment Museum. A former internment camp turned into a museum to educate people about the lives of Japanese-Americans at the Rohwer Relocation Center.
- 23 Topaz Museum. The Topaz Relocation Center (internment camp) housed over 11,000 Japanese-Americans. Because people were moved here before it was finished, internees were actually hired to build the wire fences to pen themselves in.
- 25 Wake Island. This US-controlled island was taken by Japan shortly after Pearl Harbor and held by them throughout the war. There are ruins of Japanese fortifications, a monument for the American defenders who put up a stiff fight despite being badly outnumbered and outgunned, and a monument for a group of 98 POWs executed by the Japanese. Today the island is a US military base, off limits for most visitors.
- 26 Henderson Airfield (HIR IATA). The Japanese began constructing an airfield in May 1942 in Honiara. Knowing that if they completed it, they'd be able to both isolate Australia from its allies and launch potentially devastating attacks, America quickly moved to take control of the airfield. It took six months to secure the airfield, after which the Americans finished construction on it and used it to launch attacks on other islands.
Henderson Airfield was later expanded to become the international airport of the Solomon Islands, so of course it can be visited. Other sites around the airport include Bloody Ridge (where America defended against the Japanese), the Gifu (named after the city by the same name, it was a Japanese post attacked by the US), Mount Austin (used by the Japanese to get a full view of the airfield in their plan to retake it), as well as memorials for both the Americans and Japanese that fought here.
- 27 Betio Island. Within a few days of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese took the Gilbert Islands, then a British colony, now part of the independent nation Kiribati. America's first attack on Japanese forces occurred in Butaritari, in the Gilberts, shortly after that.
In late 1943, the Americans came to oust Japan from the islands, which by then had been heavily fortified. Betio Island in Tarawa was the site of the Battle of Tarawa, considered to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war. While war relics can be found on multiple islands throughout Kiribati, Betio Island is where the main battle took place and also where the most remains. Visitors can see tanks, bunkers, shipwrecks, guns, and memorials built by the Japanese, Americans, and Australians and New Zealanders.
- 28 Kokoda Track. An important battle line in Papua New Guinea, between Australia and Japan, it is now a trekking destination, especially for Australians.
- 29 Darwin. The only Australian city to have been attacked by a Japanese air raid has a memorial monument on its wharf, and a veterans' cemetery nearby.
- 30 Command Ridge (Nauru). During World War II, Nauru was occupied by the Japanese military from August 1942 until their surrender at the tail end of the war in the wake of three years of near-continuous Allied air raids. Today, rusting relics from this era are scattered thoroughout the island — disused Japanese pillboxes line the shore every couple of kilometres, and old cannons can be seen along roadsides barely hidden by forest or even in plain sight between homes. However, for those who want a firsthand look at Nauru's WWII history, Command Ridge (Nauruan: Janor) is the place to go. As the island's highest point, rising to an elevation of 63 m above sea level, it was a natural lookout point for the occupiers — and today you'll find there a bevy of old artillery emplacements (including a pair of six-barrel antiaircraft guns still pointed skyward), the ruins of a prison complex used to hold interned Nauruan natives (who were treated brutally by the Japanese) as well as five members of the Australian military captured during the invasion, and — most impressive of all — the former communications center, now open for any visitors to enter. The interior is not well lit, but bring in a lantern or torch and you'll still be able to make out faded Japanese writing on the walls.
- 31 War in the Pacific National Historical Park. On Guam, but part of the US national park system since Guam is an American territory. The park honors all those who fought in the Pacific, not just on Guam and not just Americans. Guam was taken by the Japanese early in the war and retaken by the US in 1944.
- 32 Corregidor Island. Established as an American fort to defend Manila from naval attacks, it fell to the Japanese in 1942, and liberated in 1945. This is where General MacArthur left and uttered his most famous line "I shall return", a promise he fulfilled in 1944.
- 33 Capas. A largely rural municipality housing Camp O'Donnell, an American military camp turned into a POW camp where the infamous Bataan Death March in 1942 ended. Two memorial shrines dedicated to the American and Filipino prisoners of war who suffered and died under the hands of the Japanese are erected here, and two abandoned railroad stations where the prisoners are unloaded are turned to museums and memorials. The exact number of prisoners who joined the march are unknown, but is estimated to be from 6,000 to 18,000 according to historians.
- 34 Coron. This town in Palawan Province has excellent wreck diving; the US Navy sank about a dozen Japanese ships in shallow water nearby in 1944.
- 35 MacArthur Landing Memorial National Park. This is where General McArthur landed on his return to the country in 1944; it is in Palo municipality on Leyte Island, near Tacloban.
- 36 Camp Pangatian. A former American military camp turned into a POW camp by the Japanese, it is the site of the raid at Cabanatuan, a major engagement of the liberation of the Philippines in 1945. The camp, now a shrine, is northeast of Cabanatuan city (then a rural area) in Nueva Ecija province.
- 37 Okinawa Peace Park and Himeyuri Monument. Considered to be the site of one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the war, Okinawa island has many war remnants and memorials. Outside of Japan, Okinawa is often viewed as the first battle on Japanese soil however, like the other Pacific Islands, Okinawa was also colonized territory so the local population was not fully trusted by the Japanese and often treated as expendable. With the Americans being obvious enemies and the Japanese not being complete allies, the question on many Okinawans' minds was not "How am I going to survive?" but "How do I want to die?". The museums here show the war from a uniquely Okinawan perspective, including life for citizens, students and military. It also depicts well how they were mistreated by both the Japanese and the Americans during and after the war. The Peace Park and the Himeyuri Monument in Itoman are the best places to learn about the battle, but remnants and reminders of the war can be found throughout the island.
- 38 Iwo Jima. Another group of islands close to Japan, scene of some extremely fierce fighting. An image of victorious US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes there is quite famous. US Military Tours has exclusive rights to the island and only US citizens who are members of the Iwo Jima Association of America, WWII veterans, or WWII prisoners of war are eligible to join the tours.
- 39 Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots. As the war approached the home islands, the desperate Japanese began sending out young men to fly aircraft packed with explosives into American ships. The museum is located in Minamikyushu over the former spot where the tokko pilots (known abroad as kamikaze pilots) were trained and flew from. The museum contains information about the pilots, artifacts and letters from them, and recovered kamikaze planes.
- 40 Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial Museum. Hiroshima was the first place in the world to be attacked with an atomic bomb. The museum shows how devastating the bomb was to the city and the effects it had on the people from the immediate aftermath to the present day.
- 41 [dead link] Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Memorial Hall. Museums that are on the site where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945. The Nagasaki bombing led to Japanese surrender and is also noted as the last place to have an atomic bomb dropped on it.
There are also many other sites that commemorate parts of the war.
- The 42 US Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington, Virginia, depicts the famous scene of the raising of the (American) flag on Iwo Jima, whose history is told by the movie Flags of our Fathers directed by Clint Eastwood. One of the soldiers involved, Ira Hayes, is commemorated in a fine song by Johnny Cash.
- 43 US National Museum of the Pacific War. In Fredericksburg (Texas), home town of Admiral Chester Nimitz who commanded US forces in part of the Pacific, this is a large museum complex with many exhibits.
- Bank Kerapu. There is a small war memorial and museum in the former Bank Kerapu building in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, which served as a secret police station during the Japanese occupation; it might not merit a special trip but is worth visiting if you are in Kota Bharu
- There are Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Taukkyan, Thanbyuzayat, Kranji, Taiping, Labuan, Sai Wan, Kanchanaburi, Imphal, Chennai and Yokohama as well as an American War Cemetery in Manila, in which many of the Allied war dead are buried.
- World War I
- Holocaust remembrance
- World War II in Europe
- Industrialization of the United States for non-military US history of the 1930s and 40s
- Long March
- Nuclear tourism