A Dictionary of American History

Author: Thomas L. Purvis  | Date: 1995

World War II

World War II Congress declared war with Japan on 8 December 1941, the day after its attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Italy declared war with the US on 11 December. Japan quickly overran Guam and Wake Island, invaded the Philippines, established bases south to New Guinea, and occupied two of the Aleutian Islands. The US Navy checked the enemy in the Coral Sea, and by June 1942 had blunted Japan’s naval offensive at Midway, which the Japanese attacked to forestall recurrences of the Doolittle Raid. By April 1943, British, US, and Canadian naval forces had won the battle of the Atlantic.

General Douglas MacArthur planned the drive from the south Pacific to the Philippines, while Admiral Chester Nimitz directed operations in the central Pacific aimed at bringing Japan within range of army air force bombers. Chief of Staff George Marshall developed overall strategy and appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower as commander of the European-Mediterranean theater. Lieutenant General Albert Wedemeyer’s US Fourteenth Air Force (including the Flying Tigers) transported over 70 percent of supplies used by British forces in Burma and nearly all arms sent to Chinese troops, but the only US ground unit in the China-Burma theater was Merrill’s Marauders.

The first major US offensive hit the Japanese on Guadalcanal in August 1943. By February 1944, Allied island hopping campaigns in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Britain had isolated Japan’s primary logistical base at Rabaul, and left several large enemy armies trapped behind Allied lines. In October 1944, MacArthur began his second Philippine campaign, during which the US Navy smashed enemy sea power at the battle of Leyte Gulf.

Nimitz meanwhile defeated the Japanese in the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands, and Peleliu. By June 1944, long-range bombers could hit Japan from Saipan. By March 1945, fighter-escorts could fly from Iwo Jima. By June 1945, medium-range bombers could reach Japan from Okinawa. US submarines had sunk two-thirds of Japan’s tankers and half of her merchant ships by January 1945.

Americans landed in November 1942 to assist Britain in clearing Axis forces from North Africa, but saw little action except at Kasserine Pass. By May 1943, Axis forces had retreated to Italy, but left behind 275,000 German and Italian prisoners. Allied leaders at the Casablanca conference ordered an invasion of Italy, so the US Army landed at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio in 1943. Rome fell on 4 June 1944. The last German army in Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945.

The Eighth US Army Air Force began operations against Germany from England in August 1942; from May 1944 to the end of the war, it deployed 1,000 heavy bombers in daytime raids (despite the loss of 2,400 bombers and 120,000 casualties), while Britain’s 1,000 bombers flew night missions. By June 1944, the Allies had 3,000,000 men in Britain for the invasion of Normandy, in France. After breaking through Nazi lines at St Lô in July, allied forces drove toward Germany, which they entered near Trier on 12 September. After being set back in the Hürtgen Forest and the battle of the Bulge, US forces breached the Rhine, Germany’s last natural defense, on 7 March 1945 at Remagen by taking the last bridge still spanning the river.

Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The use of atomic bombs (not perfected in time for use on Germany) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led Japan to surrender on 14 August.

During the war, the army expanded from 1,643,000 to 8,293,766. Military mobilization enrolled 11,260,000 soldiers, 4,183,466 sailors, 669,100 marines, and 241,093 coast guardsmen. There were 41,322 combat deaths in the Pacific and 280,677 in Europe (264,742 army, 36,950 navy, 19,733 marines, 574 coast guard), 115,187 deaths from nonhostile causes (83,400 army, 25,664 navy, 4,778 marines, and 1,345 coast guard), and 671,801 nonfatal wounds (565,861 army, 37,778 navy, 67,207 marines, 955 coast guard). The Germans captured 95,000 US prisoners, of whom 1,140 died, and the Japanese took 25,600 US POWs, of whom 10,650 died. The merchant marine lost another 5,662 men killed at sea. US industry built 296,000 planes, 102,000 tanks, and 88,000 ships or landing craft. Direct war expenses totaled $288 billion and the national debt rose from $56.3 billion in December 1941 to $252.7 billion in December 1945


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Chicago: Thomas L. Purvis, "World War II," A Dictionary of American History in A Dictionary of American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1995), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6DYARYCVTQX3LK2.

MLA: Purvis, Thomas L. "World War II." A Dictionary of American History, in A Dictionary of American History, Cambridge, Mass., Blackwell Reference, 1995, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6DYARYCVTQX3LK2.

Harvard: Purvis, TL, 'World War II' in A Dictionary of American History. cited in 1995, A Dictionary of American History, Blackwell Reference, Cambridge, Mass.. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=6DYARYCVTQX3LK2.