Military History Campaigns in South West Pacific, 1941–1945
Kevin C. Holzimmer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0162


While the US Navy and US Marine Corps receive most of the attention for their push through the Central Pacific Area during the Second World War, another campaign unfolded—one that was just as savage and brutal—in the South West Pacific. The Japanese began the war in the region soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor and had gained the Philippine Archipelago, Borneo, Celebes, Java, Timor, New Ireland, New Britain, New Guinea, and Bougainville all by early March 1942. These actions threatened the vital lines of communication between the United States and Australia. To combat the Japanese, the United States divided the Pacific Ocean into two commands. General Douglas MacArthur’s area of responsibility—the South West Pacific Area—covered the Philippines, Papua, New Guinea, Australia, the Bismarck Archipelago, the western Solomon Islands (to 159th Parallel East Longitude) and the Netherlands East Indies (less Sumatra). The US Navy commanded the other areas of the Pacific under the leadership of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Once in place, MacArthur’s mission was to blunt the Japanese offensives and begin offensive operations to roll back the Japanese gains as soon as possible, which eventually led to the planned invasion of Japan. The historiography is noteworthy for two reasons. The first are the many indispensable official histories, which tend to follow the tactical and operational level events in a strict chronological order and provide the necessary and often detailed narrative of operations. Second, the literature is particularly rich in biographies. Because MacArthur has so long dominated the field, many of his key lieutenants spent years in relative obscurity. Fortunately, this trend is shifting with an impressive array of biographies of those who toiled in the South West Pacific. This article includes references to work on all four primary belligerents in the region: Australia, the Dutch East Indies, Japan, and the United States.

General Overviews

Despite the scope and complexity of the Pacific theater during World War II, there exist several general histories, all of which include general introductions to the campaigns of the South West Pacific. Furthermore, the literature includes different national perspectives: American, Australian, Dutch, British, and Japanese. Weinberg 1994 is a magisterial account of the Second World War and places the war in the Pacific generally and the struggle in the South West Pacific specifically into a global context. Gailey 1995 eschews the land war on the Asian continent in order to examine the war in the Pacific Ocean Areas. A classic in the literature of the Pacific War is Spector 1985. Toland 1971 analyzes the Pacific War from the Japanese perspective, while Long 1973 provides an often underappreciated look at the Australian contribution to the defeat of Japan. Meanwhile, Costello 1981 attempts to weave in its narrative newly (as of 1981) declassified documents about the war in the Pacific and Asia.

  • Costello, John. The Pacific War, 1941–1945. New York: Rawson, Wade, 1981.

    Drawing upon declassified documents, Costello’s book analyzes the part played by each major belligerent—American, British, and Japanese—and is comprehensive in scope.

  • Gailey, Harry A. The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1995.

    Purposefully omitting the war on the Asian mainland, Gailey presents a popular account of the war in both the South West Pacific and the Central Pacific, focusing primarily on the American role in the war.

  • Long, Gavin. The Six Years War: Australia in the 1939–45 War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial and Australian Government, 1973.

    An Australian official historian, Long puts his skills to good use by synthesizing much of the official histories into a one-volume account of the Australian contribution to defeating the Axis, including the war in the South West Pacific. It remains the starting point for the Australian role in World War II.

  • Spector, Ronald H. The Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Free Press, 1985.

    Although published in 1985, Spector’s account remains the best single treatment of the American fight against Japan.

  • Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945. New York: Bantam, 1971.

    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Toland tells the story of the Pacific War from the point of view of the Japanese.

  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    A masterful historian of World War II, Weinberg places the war in the Pacific in the context of the global struggle for hegemony.

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