Six things to know about World War II after Pearl Harbor

As the US commemorates Pearl Harbor Day, here are the top 6 things that the National World War II Museum's chief historian would like Americans to know.

Mel Evans/AP
Bugler Greg Murphy plays taps on the battleship New Jersey during a commemoration of the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 2015, in Camden, N.J.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans this week opens the Road to Tokyo, the first big exhibit on the Pacific theater campaign from the highly regarded museum that opened in 2000 with a focus on D-Day and the Normandy Invasion.

As the nation commemorates Pearl Harbor Day this week, here are the top 6 things that the museum’s chief historian would like Americans to know about the brutal – and initially unsuccessful – war that the US military was forced to wage against Japanese forces in the wake of what was, at the time, the most devastating attack ever on US soil.

The American public did not support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s key early decision in the war.

The American public was so shocked by what they had seen at Pearl Harbor that they wanted to fight the Japanese first. President Roosevelt was arguing, however, that the Nazis were the greater threat. 

“That’s not what the public wanted to hear. The public wanted revenge on Japan,” says Keith Huxen, senior director of history and research at the museum. “Historically, politically [FDR] was absolutely correct, but from that very first decision there were implications, and one of them was that we didn’t put the resources into the Pacific war that were being pumped into the European theater.” 

As a result, he adds, “It meant that we were basically fighting the Pacific war on a shoestring budget, and [the American troops fighting it] didn’t get all of the help that they were entitled to.” 

The destruction of the fleet at Pearl Harbor inadvertently ushered in a new era of US naval warfare.

After Pearl Harbor, the US Pacific fleet of battleships were hit hard. The primary remaining US resources were primarily in the form of aircraft carriers, submarines, and projection of air power. 

“This is a really new way of fighting that we’re going to have to pioneer and master,” Dr. Huxen says. The new museum exhibit offers a mockup of the USS Enterprise, which ended up being the most successful American aircraft carrier during World War II. “We’re going to try out this new military doctrine, relying on these assets because we don’t have a choice – but at the time the jury was still out.” 

Previously, naval warfare meant battleships (like those that the US lost at Pearl Harbor) pulling up alongside each other and blasting away. In the Pacific, “we’re playing a game of cat and mouse, launching torpedo and dive bombers to locate each others’ fleet and kill that way,” Huxen says. “It’s the first time in history where the opposing fleets never lay eyes on each other.”

The Pacific theater was a very different war than the one Americans waged in Europe.

There is first the matter of vast distances: It is four times the distance from San Francisco to Tokyo than it is, for example, from New York to London. 

Once US troops arrived on the scene, there was far less infrastructure, including, say, docks and port facilities, or cities with roads. 

“You sail thousands of miles to these places like Guadalcanal, and the hardest part of the journey is the last 100 yards,” says Huxen. “You have to get from the boat to the beaches, and when you do we basically have to build all these things: Make hospitals, clean water, food. And we have to do it again and again and again.” 

Victory was not looking good in the early days of the war. 

“When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, they didn’t want to invade California. Their idea was that we would negotiate a peace if they hit us hard enough. Pearl Harbor did allow the Japanese to knock us back on our feet for six or seven months, and during that time they were virtually unstoppable,” Huxen says. 

May 1942 sees the fall of the Pacific corridor to the Japanese – what amounts to the height of the Japanese empire. In the six or seven months since Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had swept through all of Southeast Asia and across the southwestern Pacific. The Japanese had taken the Philippines as well.

“It was very frightening. We don’t have any victories at this point. If you can imagine an event like Pearl Harbor, and then there’s no good news for months on end.”

Against this backdrop comes the Battle of the Coral Sea, which is largely a draw between US and Japanese forces. “Both sides have success, but neither wins total victory,” Huxen says.

Still, though the performance wasn’t a win, it was a relief for the Pentagon. “It is the first time we kind of blunt the Japanese advance,” he adds. “Our military is OK – they’d have like to have seen better, but it wasn’t a disaster.” 

The Battle of Midway was the US turning point in the Pacific.

The World War II Museum singles the battle out for special treatment in its new exhibition. For the Japanese, the island was critical. They wanted to take Midway, where the US had a base, then threaten Hawaii and end the war. 

“On the first morning of the battle, what we want people to understand is that we were losing very badly,” Huxen says. The US military had sent three waves of planes out trying to locate the Japanese, but when they did they were being shot down. 

Then suddenly, in a remarkable moment, two waves of US bomber planes converged on the Japanese fleet, and arrived at the moment when the Japanese fighter planes were at a lower altitude and hit three of the four Japanese carriers. 

“This was a huge turning point in the war, because the Japanese didn’t have the naval resources, or the aircraft carriers, to keep up with us after that,” Huxen says. “Our production comes online and we’re building more and more. The Japanese master plan at Midway fails, and they’re not going to be able to get a negotiated peace that will end the war on favorable terms.”

That has lessons for Americans today, he says. “The result of World War II may seem to be logical, or preordained, but it wasn’t like that at the time. Nothing was written, nothing was preordained,” Huxen adds. “That’s something we wanted to bring out.”

Although the US won the war, veterans still had plenty to grapple with – and overcome – afterward.

Guadalcanal also receives prominent treatment in the exhibition. US troops arrived there in August 1942, the first time Americans went into battle on land during World War II. (US forces hadn’t landed in North Africa yet.)

The battle of Guadalcanal was more akin to a mini-war, lasting six months and including three major land battles, seven major naval battles, and “constant fighting in the air the whole time,” Huxen adds.

The fighting was brutal, and to the death. “The Japanese believed in the martial code – they gave no mercy and expected no mercy.” While less than 1 percent of US troops died in German camps, roughly 40 percent of allied forces died if they were captured and put in Japanese camps. “They basically starved our POWs as a matter of policy,” Huxen says. “And likewise the Japanese on the battlefield would do anything right up to their dying breath to take out our troops,” including pretending to surrender and boobytrapping bodies.

As a result, taking an island often necessitated killing upward of 95 percent of Japanese forces, because they would not quit,” he adds. “The fight was a very hellish experience.”

The troops who came back grappled with these memories. “There’s this idea as well that since we won, everything was OK, but they paid a price,” Huxen says. Even so, “They lived through the Great Depression, fought the war, then built this country into the most prosperous nation on earth.” 

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