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Military history of the United States during World War II…

Military history of the United States during World War II…

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American B-17 Flying Fortresses in flight over Europe

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Key American military officials in Europe, 1945

The Military history of the United States during World War II covers the involvement of the United States during World War II. The Empire of Japan declared war on the United States of America and the British Empire on 7 December 1941, immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor on the same day. On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States. Until that time, the United States had maintained neutrality, although it had, since March that same year, supplied the British with war materials through the Lend-Lease Act. The British then went on to supply a significant part of that aid to the Soviet Union and its Western Allies. Between the United States entry on 8 December 1941 and the end of the war in 1945, over 16 million Americans served in the United States military. Many others served with the Merchant Marine  and paramilitary civilian units like the WASPs.


Following the Treaty of Versailles, and the refusal of the United States to enter the League of Nations, public sentiment in the United States shifted toward a hesitation to become involved in European affairs. After World War I, the U.S. had withdrawn its forces and had stated that they would never return. The Great Depression had also crippled the economy, forcing the United States to neglect its military and focus on other concerns.


Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.

— Joseph Stalin during a dinner at the Tehran Conference, 1943The year 1940 marked a change in attitude in the United States. The German victories in France, Poland and elsewhere, combined with the Battle of Britain, led many Americans to believe that the United States would be forced to fight soon. On 11 March 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act, which committed much-needed American weapons to the Allied effort against the Axis Powers, since much British heavy equipment had been abandoned during their evacuation of Dunkirk. While not an official declaration of war on the part of the United States, Lend-Lease could be described as a display of US Government sympathies but not US public opinion; after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US official declaration of war on Japan, the US did not immediately declare war on Germany and the Axis powers.

Attack on Pearl Harbor…

Explosion of the battleship USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

Because of Japanese actions in French Indochina and China, the United States imposed numerous sanctions, including an oil and scrap metal embargo. The oil embargo threatened to grind the Japanese military machine to a halt. Fearing a shortage of resources, and that war with the United States was inevitable, the Japanese decided to take action against the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt had months earlier transferred the American fleet there from San Diego in order to present a deterrent to any possible Japanese attack. Shortly after negotiations in Washington broke down, the Japanese launched a full scale surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941. While the attack succeeded in sinking and damaging many battleships, the American aircraft carriers were not present, preserving American force projection capabilities.

Pacific Theater…

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt officially asked for a declaration of war on Japan before a joint session of Congress on 8 December 1941. This notion passed with only one vote against in both chambers.

Battle of the Philippines…

The day after their attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched an offensive into the American occupied Philippines. Much of the U.S. Far East Air Force was destroyed on the ground by the Japanese. Soon, all American and Filipino forces were forced onto the isolated Bataan peninsula, and General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied troops in the Philippines, was ordered to evacuate the area by President Roosevelt. MacArthur finally did in March 1942, fleeing to Australia, where he commanded the defense of that island. His famous words, „I came out of Bataan and I shall return,” would not become true until 1944. Before leaving, MacArthur had placed Major General Jonathan M. Wainwright in command of the defense of the Philippines. After fierce fighting, Wainwright surrendered the combined American and Filipino force to the Japanese on 8 May with the hope that they would be treated fairly as POW’s. They were not, and they suffered greatly through the Bataan Death March and Japanese prison camps.

Battle of Wake Island…

At the same time as the attack on the Philippines, a group of Japanese bombers flown from the Marshall Islands destroyed many of the Marine Corps fighters on the ground at Wake Island in preparation for the Japanese invasion. The first landing attempt was disastrous for the Japanese; the heavily outnumbered and outgunned American Marines and civilians sent the Japanese fleet in retreat with the support of the only four remaining F4F fighters, piloted by Marines. The second attack was far more successful for the Japanese; the outnumbered Americans were forced to surrender after running low on supplies.

Battle of the Coral Sea…

In May 1942, the United States fleet engaged the Japanese fleet during the first battle in history in which neither fleet fired directly on the other, nor did the ships of both fleets actually see each other. It was also the first time that aircraft carriers were used in battle. While indecisive, it was nevertheless a turning point because American commanders learned the tactics that would serve them later in the war.

Battle of the Aleutian Islands…

The Battle of the Aleutian Islands was the last battle between sovereign nations to be fought on American soil. As part of a diversionary plan for the Battle of Midway, the Japanese took control of two of the Aleutian Islands. Their hope was that strong American naval forces would be drawn away from Midway, enabling a Japanese victory. Because their ciphers were broken, the American forces only drove the Japanese out after Midway.

Battle of Midway…

The Japanese carrier Hiryu under attack during the battle of Midway

Having learned important lessons at Coral Sea, the United States Navy was prepared when the Japanese navy under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto launched an offensive aimed at destroying the American Pacific Fleet at Midway Island. The Japanese hoped to embarrass the Americans after the humiliation of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Midway was a strategic island that both sides wished to use as an air base. Yamamoto hoped to achieve complete surprise and a quick capture of the island, followed by a decisive carrier battle with which he could completely destroy the American carrier fleet. Before the battle began, however, American intelligence intercepted his plan, allowing Admiral Chester Nimitz to formulate an effective defensive ambush of the Japanese fleet. The battle began on 4 June 1942. By the time it was over, the Japanese had lost four carriers, as opposed to one American carrier lost. The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific because the United States had seized the initiative and was on the offensive for the duration of the war.

Island hopping…

Following the resounding victory at Midway, the United States began a major land offensive. The Allies came up with a strategy known as Island hopping, or the bypassing of islands that served little or no strategic importance.[9] Because air power was crucial to any operation, only islands that could support airstrips were targeted by the Allies. The fighting for each island in the Pacific Theater would be savage, as the Americans faced a determined and battle-hardened enemy who had known little defeat on the ground.


The first major step in their campaign was the Japanese occupied island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain. Marines from the 1st Marine Division and soldiers from the Army XIV Corps landed on Guadalcanal near the Tenaru River on 7 August 1942. They quickly captured Henderson Field, and prepared defenses. On what would become known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge, the Americans held off wave after wave of Japanese counterattacks before charging what was left of the Japanese. After more than six months of combat the island was firmly in control of the Allies on 8 February 1943.


An M4 Sherman tank equipped with a flamethrower clearing a Japanese bunker.

Guadalcanal made it clear to the Americans that the Japanese would fight to the bitter end. After brutal fighting in which few prisoners were taken on either side, the United States and the Allies pressed on the offensive. The landings at Tarawa on 20 November 1943, by the Americans became bogged down as armor attempting to break through the Japanese lines of defense either sank, were disabled or took on too much water to be of use. The Americans were eventually able to land a limited number of tanks and drive inland. After days of fighting the Allies took control of Tarawa on 23 November. Of the original 2,600 Japanese soldiers on the island, only 17 were still alive.

Iwo Jima…

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, during The Battle of Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945

The island of Iwo Jima and the critical airstrips there served as the next area of battle. The Japanese had learned from their defeat at the Battle of Saipan and prepared many fortified positions on the island, including pillboxes and underground tunnels. The American attack began on 19 February 1945. Initially the Japanese put up little resistance, letting the Americans mass, creating more targets before the Americans took intense fire from Mount Suribachi and fought throughout the night until the hill was surrounded. Even as the Japanese were pressed into an ever shrinking pocket, they chose to fight to the end, leaving only 1,000 of the original 21,000 alive. The Allies suffered as well, losing 7,000 men, but they were victorious again, however, and reached the summit of Mount Suribachi on 23 February. It was there that five Marines and one Navy Corpsman famously planted the American flag.


Okinawa became the last major battle of the Pacific Theater and the Second World War. The island was to become a staging area for the eventual invasion of Japan since it was just 350 miles (550 km) south of the Japanese mainland. Marines and soldiers landed unopposed on 1 April 1945, to begin an 82-day campaign which became the largest land-sea-air battle in history and was noted for the ferocity of the fighting and the high civilian casualties with over 150,000 Okinawans losing their lives. Japanese kamikaze pilots enacted the largest loss of ships in U.S. naval history with the sinking of 38 and the damaging of another 368. Total U.S. casualties were over 12,500 dead and 38,000 wounded, while the Japanese lost over 110,000 men. The fierce fighting on Okinawa is said to have played a part in President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb and to forsake an invasion of Japan.

Recapture of the Philippines…

General MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines by landing at Leyte on 20 October 1944. The Allied re-capture of the Philippines took place from 1944 to 1945 and included the battles of Leyte, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, and Mindanao.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki…

As victory for the United States slowly approached, casualties mounted. A fear in the American high command was that an invasion of mainland Japan would lead to enormous losses on the part of the Allies, as casualty estimates for the planned Operation Downfall demonstrate. President Harry Truman gave the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, hoping that the destruction of the city would break Japanese resolve and end the war. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August, after it appeared that the Japanese high command was not planning to surrender. Approximately 140,000 people died in Hiroshima from the bomb and its aftereffects by the end of 1945, and approximately 74,000 in Nagasaki, in both cases mostly civilians.

15 August 1945, or V-J Day, marked the end of the United States’ war with the Empire of Japan. Since Japan was the last remaining Axis Power, V-J Day also marked the end of World War II.

Minor American front…

The United States contributed several forces to the China Burma India theater, such as a volunteer air squadron (later incorporated into the Army Air Force), and Merrill’s Marauders, an infantry unit. The U.S. also had an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, Joseph Stillwell.

European and North African Theaters…

On 11 December 1941, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, the same day that the United States declared war on Germany and Italy.

Europe first…

The conquests of Nazi Germany.

The established grand strategy of the Allies was to defeat Germany and its allies in Europe first, and then focus could shift towards Japan in the Pacific. This was because two of the Allied capitals (London and Moscow) could be directly threatened by Germany, but none of the major Allied capitals were threatened by Japan.

Operation Torch…

The United States entered the war in the west with Operation Torch on 8 November 1942, after their Russian allies had pushed for a second front against the Germans. General Dwight Eisenhower commanded the assault on North Africa, and Major General George Patton struck at Casablanca.

Allied victory in North Africa…

The United States did not have a smooth entry into the war against Nazi Germany. Early in 1943, the U.S. Army suffered a near-disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in February. The senior Allied leadership was primarily to blame for the loss as internal bickering between American General Lloyd Fredendall and the British led to mistrust and little communication, causing inadequate troop placements. The defeat could be considered a major turning point, however, because General Eisenhower replaced Fredendall with General Patton.

Slowly the Allies stopped the German advance in Tunisia and by March were pushing back. In mid April, under British General Bernard Montgomery, the Allies smashed through the Mareth Line and broke the Axis defense in North Africa. On 13 May 1943, Axis troops in North Africa surrendered, leaving behind 275,000 men. Allied efforts turned towards Sicily and Italy.

Invasion of Sicily and Italy…

The first stepping stone for the Allied liberation of Europe was, in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, the „soft underbelly” of Europe on the Italian island of Sicily. Launched on 9 July 1943, Operation Husky was, at the time, the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken. The operation was a success, and on 17 August the Allies were in control of the island.

Following the Allied victory in Sicily, Italian public sentiment swung against the war and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He was deposed in a coup, and the Allies struck quickly, hoping resistance would be slight. The first American troops landed on the Italian peninsula in September 1943, and Italy surrendered on 8 September. German troops in Italy were prepared, however, and took up the defensive positions. As winter approached, the Allies made slow progress against the heavily defended German Winter Line, until the victory at Monte Cassino. Rome fell to the Allies on 4 June 1944.

Strategic bombing…

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B-17s in flight

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General Eisenhower speaks with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of 5 June 1944

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American troops approaching Omaha Beach


Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland from Omaha

Numerous bombing runs were launched by the United States aimed at the industrial heart of Germany. Using the high altitude B-17, it was necessary for the raids to be conducted in daylight for the drops to be accurate. As adequate fighter escort was rarely available, the bombers would fly in tight, box formations, allowing each bomber to provide overlapping machine-gun fire for defense. The tight formations made it impossible to evade fire from Luftwaffe fighters, however, and American bomber crew losses were high. One such example was the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, which resulted in staggering loses of men and equipment. The introduction of the revered P-51 Mustang, which had enough fuel to make a round trip to Germany’s heartland, helped to reduce losses later in the war.

Operation Overlord…

The second European front that the Soviets had pressed for was finally opened on 6 June 1944, when the Allies attacked the heavily-fortified Atlantic Wall. Supreme Allied commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower had delayed the attack because of bad weather, but finally the largest amphibious assault in history began.

After prolonged bombing runs on the French coast by the U.S. Army Air Force, 225 U.S. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc under intense enemy fire and destroyed the German gun emplacements that could have threatened the amphibious landings.

Also prior to the main amphibious assault, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions dropped behind the beaches into Nazi-occupied France, in an effort to protect the coming landings. Many of the paratroopers had not been dropped on their intended landing zones and were scattered throughout Normandy.

As the paratroops fought their way through the hedgerows, the main amphibious landings began. The Americans came ashore at the beaches codenamed ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’. The landing craft bound for Utah, as with so many other units, went off course, coming ashore two kilometers off target. The 4th Infantry Division faced weak resistance during the landings and by the afternoon were linked up with paratroopers fighting their way towards the coast.

However, at Omaha the Germans had prepared the beaches with land mines, Czech hedgehogs and Belgian Gates in anticipation of the invasion. Intelligence prior to the landings had placed the less experienced German 714th Division in charge of the defense of the beach. However, the highly trained and experienced 352nd moved in days before the invasion. As a result, the soldiers from the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions became pinned down by superior enemy fire immediately after leaving their landing craft. In some instances, entire landing craft full of men were mowed down by the well-positioned German defenses. As the casualties mounted, the soldiers formed impromptu units and advanced inland.

The small units then fought their way through the minefields that were in between the Nazi machine-gun bunkers. After squeezing through, they then attacked the bunkers from the rear, allowing more men to come safely ashore.

By the end of the day, the Americans suffered over 6,000 casualties, including killed and wounded…


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