FRENCH POLYNESIA AND WORLD WAR II IN THE PACIFIC

Charles F. Urbanowicz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
California State University, Chico
Chico, CA 95929-0400
csurbanowicz@gmail.com or curbanowicz@csuchico.edu
 
1 May 2015

This page printed from: http://www.csuchico.edu/~curbanowicz/FRENCHPOLYNESIAWWII.html

 

NOTE: I am scheduled to be the Smithsonian Journeys Expert on the February 2016 cruise of the Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia  I have been studying various aspects of Pacific anthropology and history for more than 45 years. Since retiring twelve years ago I have provided lectures on more than 25 Pacific cruises, placing destinations and events into context.  For a complete listing of cruises, please see http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/VariousCruiseMaps.html; for an on-going list of cruise references, please see http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/CruiseReferences.html. For a brief résumé see http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/resume.html. For two specific papers (from 1991 and 2005) dealing with World War II, please see http://www.csuchico.edu/~curbanowicz/OperationHawaii.pdf as well as http://www.csuchico.edu/~curbanowicz/WorldWarIIEnds2005.html (with accompanying vsuals). I have taken all of the photos in this brief article.

 

Toward the end of World War II, Operation Downfall was the overall name for the planned invasions of Japan.  The first invasion was scheduled to begin on November 1, 1945, and was code-named Operation Olympic.  The second invasion, code-named Operation Coronet, was scheduled for March 1, 1946.  Hundreds-of-thousands individuals, in addition to planes, ships, and supplies, would have been involved and casualties on all sides would have been horrific. After American President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Vice-President Harry S Truman became President and it was his decision to use two atomic bombs against Japan.  On August 6 Hiroshima was bombed and on August 9 Nagasaki was bombed. The invasion of Japan never took place.  Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 with the formal ceremony ending World War II occurring on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.

 

Events leading up to September 2 had a lengthy history and logistics played a vital part in all campaigns of World War II.  Operation Bobcat in French Polynesia in 1942 was a wake-up call for United States planners. The coastal defense guns from that operation can still be seen to this day on Bora Bora.

 

As one approaches the harbor of Vaitape, Bora Bora, French Polynesia, two coastal defense guns can be seen.

 

Although Americans usually date the beginning of World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, individuals in Asia date the beginning of the war from September 1931 when the Japanese Kwantung Army invaded three provinces in northeast China, named Manchuria.  For Europeans, the beginning of the war occurred in September 1939 when German forces invaded Poland. The beginning and ending of the war for the United States can be viewed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawai'ian island of O'ahu where one can visit the memorials for the USS Arizona, sunk in the December 7th attack and the USS Missouri where the instrument of surrender was signed between the Allied Powers and Japan.

 

Flying into Honolulu International Airport one sees "Battleship Row" with the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri.

 

 

Located at 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, Hawai'i 96818.

 

 

Interior of the USS Arizona (BB-39) Memorial with the inscription:  "To the memory of the gallant men here entombed and their shipmates who gave their lives in action on December 7, 1941 on the U.S.S. Arizona."

 

 

 

Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i.

 

 

 

 

"Over this spot on 2 September 1945 the instrument of formal surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers was signed thus bringing to a close the Second World War - The ship at that time was at anchor in Tokyo Bay."

 

When the United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941, it was determined that Australia, New Zealand, and the "Far East" had to be supplied with personnel and materiel.  One mistake that the Japanese made was their inability to grasp the immense size of the Pacific Ocean, one-third of the planet or 64,186,300 square miles, and Americans would not make that mistake. Another mistake the Japanese made was to believe that the size of the Pacific made them immune to attacks from the United States of America.  Both mistakes proved to be flawed and fatal for the Japanese.  It was difficult, if not impossible, for various Japanese forces in the Pacific, and on the Asian mainland, to lend mutual support to one another across large areas of land and sea.  The initial successes of the Japanese required their supply lines to become that much longer.  American military personnel were aware of the problems faced by the Japanese and planned accordingly.

United States planners realized that the size of the Pacific Ocean could be a problem in transporting personnel and materiel and they looked at two routes from the United States into the Pacific:  one route would be from the West Coast of the United States, via Hawai'i, and one from the East Coast of the United States, via the Panama Canal. By the end of December 1941, Operation Bobcat was created and put into action and it would be the first joint United States Navy-United States Army effort to send troops and supplies to the Pacific to build a military base.  The plan called for constructing a refueling station for ships crossing the Pacific from the Panama Canal. It would be established in French Oceania on the Polynesia island of Bora Bora.  

The ships for Operation Bobcat departed the East Coast of the United States in two stages:  some from New York harbor on January 20, 1942 and some from the Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Yard.  The assembled convoy departed Charleston on January 27, 1942 and the five transports and accompanying escort vessels arrived in Bora Bora on February 17.  When they arrived, personnel began to unload the 20,000 tons of supplies necessary to establish the base.  A major problem developed: the equipment, including heavy tractors, trucks and bulldozers necessary for unloading the ships had been loaded first back in the United States and were at the back of the ships when the convoy arrived in Bora Bora.   As a result of this error it took 52 days to get everything unloaded.   A lesson was learned about how to load cargo vessels which gives truth to the fact that "logic" is an important part of the term logistics.  

The Japanese never attacked Bora Bora and the fuel facilities established there proved vital for the ships crossing the Pacific.  Some of the eight coastal defense 155mm guns installed around the island are still visible and somewhat accessible to residents and visitors to Bora Bora. 

 

Location of one of the eight coastal defense guns on Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

 

Any protection that Japan felt because of Pacific distances was shattered by the B-25B bombing raid on the home islands of Japan led by Lieutenant James ("Jimmy") Doolittle on April 18, 1942.  Doolittle's sixteen bombers did wonders for the morale of Americans, coming within five months of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The raid caused Japan to reconsider part of their war plans: they decided they had to invade the Hawai'ian Islands.  First they had to neutralize and occupy Midway Island, en route to Hawai'i.  Over the days of June 4-7, 1942, the Battle of Midway was a disaster for the Japanese.  Although the Americans lost one aircraft carrier and more than a hundred planes, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, more than 200 planes, and many of their best pilots.  Japanese invasion plans for Hawai'i were cancelled.

From the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial.

 

 

From the National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.

 

The next major battle after Midway, and viewed by many as the decisive one that contributed to the ultimate downfall of Japan, occurred on the island of Guadalcanal.  United States Marines landed in the Solomon Islands on August 7, 1942 in order to stop the Japanese from completing an airfield they were building on Guadalcanal and which could prevent American supplies from reaching Australia and New Zealand.   The Marines routed the Japanese and finished the airfield, naming it Henderson Field.  This was in honor of United States Marine Major Lofton R. Henderson (1903-1942) who died on June 4, 1942, at the Battle of Midway.  The victory on Guadalcanal did not come easily and "Bloody Ridge" was the location of a tremendous victory for American forces.  Over the days and nights of September 12-14, 1942, United States Marines defeated Japanese troops who had been successful in almost all of their campaigns to date in Pacific locations and on the Asian mainland.  There would be many more American victories in the Pacific before the war in the Pacific would end in 1945, but it was at Bloody Ridge that American morale received another tremendous boost because of the hard-earned victory.

 

Location of "Bloody Ridge" also known as the "Battle of Edson's Ridge" Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

 

After the 1942-1943 success in Guadalcanal, there were other battles in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere:  Tarawa in 1943, Kwajelein, Eniwtok, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, and Peleliu in 1944, and Iwo Jima in 1945.  The 35-day struggle for Iwo Jima, named Operation Detachment, was one of the bloodiest up to that time, but the worst was yet to come in Operation Iceberg.

The Marine Corps War Memorial (also called the Iwo Jima Memorial) at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.  The sculpture is based on the photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal (1911-2006) on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. One of the inscriptions on the sculpture include the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) who was the Commander-in-Chief, United States Pacific Fleet: "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

 

Operation Iceberg was the invasion of the Ryuku Islands, including Okinawa.  As the war in the Pacific progressed, locations for the personnel and materiel for the invasion of Japan and a staging area had to be secured and prepared and Okinawa was that location. The 82-day battle for Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, with the greatest naval assault ever to take place in the Pacific.  The carnage saw thousands-of-thousands Allied forces, Japanese forces, and civilians on Okinawa killed. While the battle for Okinawa raged, Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945 and the European war was over.  The resistance on both Iwo Jima and Okinawa contributed heavily to the decision of President Truman to use the atomic bombs against Japan to bring the war to a final conclusion. 

 

Peace Memorial Park, Okinawa, Japan, and black granite slabs with more than 230,000 engraved names inscribed in English, Japanese, and Korean.

 

Numerous events had to occur for World War II to formally and finally end with the ceremonies in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.  Operation Bobcat in French Polynesia contributed to the successes in the Pacific.  The Pacific is vast. The war was brutal. Many aspects of the Pacific war are visible to this date as well as the effects on the cultures of the islanders.

 

~1,773 words}            1 May 2015

 

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© Copyright 2015; All Rights Reserved Charles F. Urbanowicz

1 May 2015 by CFU


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