Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Turning the Tide in the Pacific, 1941–1943

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


American dive bombers over Midway. The Battle of Midway was crucial to turning  the tide in the Pacific war against Japan.

American dive bombers over Midway. The Battle of Midway was crucial to turning the tide in the Pacific war against Japan.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

In December 1941, Japanese armed forces launched a massive offensive, attacking targets as far East as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and as far West as Burma. The goal was to create what the Japanese called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere—an empire in which Japanese industries would have access to the substantial oil, rubber, and tin resources of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, plus a string of distant island bases from which this far-flung empire could be protected. By the beginning of spring 1942, the Japanese military was close to meeting its objectives. Nevertheless, in a series of engagements during the spring and summer of that year Allied forces succeeded in stopping the Japanese advance, so that by early 1943 it was the Allies who were on the offensive.

This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategies pursued by the Japanese and the Allies in the initial months of World War II in Asia and the Pacific. By examining military documents and consulting an interactive map of the Pacific theater, students will compare what each side hoped to accomplish with what actually happened. Also, students will have an opportunity to read personal accounts by those who fought in the Pacific War, giving them a glimpse of what conditions on the battlefront were actually like.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the Allies manage to turn the tide against the Japanese in World War II?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • Articulate the overall Japanese strategy for 1941–1942, and to assess how successful it was
  • Discuss Allied strategy for 1941–1942, and to assess how successful it was
  • Identify on a map locations that were important to the early war in the Pacific
  • Identify the most important military engagements as well as to explain their significance
  • Discuss anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, and how it affected the way the Pacific War was fought.


The Japanese armed forces in 1941 were some of the best in the world. However, in deciding to take on the United States the Imperial High Command was faced with the reality that their chosen enemy had access to far more natural resources and industrial capacity. The longer the war was allowed to drag on, the more likely it was that the Americans could employ these assets to build a more powerful military machine. The key to victory, therefore, was to strike quickly, with overwhelming force. The U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor would have to be destroyed in a surprise attack. Meanwhile Japanese forces would conduct simultaneous offensives against multiple locations throughout Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. These areas were to be secured quickly and then fortified; the ultimate goal was to build a powerful defensive perimeter before the Americans and their allies could recover from the initial blow.

The Japanese offensive, which began on December 7, 1941 and ran through the early months of 1942, came very close to attaining these goals. The attack on Pearl Harbor put no less than six U.S. battleships out of commission. At the same time, Japanese forces managed to conquer an area spanning the region, from Burma in the West to the Gilbert Islands in the East. Yet the U.S. Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers had not been present at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack, and had thus been spared destruction. Aircraft from those carriers began a campaign of harassment against Japanese forces, and in April 1942 even launched a bombing raid against Japan itself. The Imperial High Command temporarily put further offensive actions on hold while it sought to hunt down and destroy the carriers, but when the Japanese carrier force met the enemy at Midway in early June it suffered a devastating defeat. The way was now open for an Allied counteroffensive, far earlier than Japanese military planners had expected. In August U.S. Marines landed on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal, where the construction of airfields and fortifications had barely begun. The slow process of rolling back the Japanese advance was now underway, and would continue for the next three years.

For more on Japan's strategic planning, see "The Japanese Monographs" and the chapter of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey entitled "Japanese Naval Planning". Both are available at Hyperwar: A Hypertext History of the Second World War, one of the best overall web resources on World War II, which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Naval Historical Center web site. Information on specific military and naval engagements is available by way of the interactive map that accompanies this lesson; clicking on one of the numbered locations will open a pop-up with a brief description, as well as links to more detailed EDSITEment-reviewed resources.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF. Download the blackline masters for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class. Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson (available at: V-Comm.net), and which shows the locations of important events in the Pacific Theater. Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there. In order to help your students to familiarize themselves with the features of the map, you might want them to add an optional "Scavenger Hunt" activity, a set of twenty-one questions based on the first seventeen locations noted on the map. It is included as pages 1–2 of the blackline masters.

Analyzing primary sources:

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Japanese Strategy in 1941–1942

Direct students to the following documents, both of which are available at the Hyperwar site, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site for the Naval Historical Center:

Alternatively, distribute excerpts from these documents, which may be found on This lesson plan's PDF.

Based on their reading of these documents, students should answer the following questions (included as part of a worksheet on the PDF):

  • Why did the Japanese believe that it was better to go to war with the United States sooner rather than later?
  • Why were Japanese military planners pessimistic about their country's chances in a long war against the United States?
  • What actions did the Japanese government take to prepare for a war in the Pacific?
  • According to Japanese military planners, how likely was war against the Soviet Union?
  • What were the three phases of Japan's strategy in the Pacific?

Next ask the students to consult the interactive map which will demonstrate how the offensive played out in reality.

Using the documents and the map, have students make a list of the areas that the Japanese hoped to seize during their offensive. After they have done this, they should click on locations 1–17 on the interactive map.

Based on their examination of these resources, students should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What was the overall Japanese strategy?
  • Why was it adopted?
  • Which strategic goals were met, and which were not?
Activity 2. Allied Strategy in 1941–1942

The second activity is similar to the first, but examines the strategy of the Allied side. Direct students to the following documents, all of which are available at the website of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital Classroom:

Again, excerpts from these documents may be found on pages 8–11 of the PDF.

Based on their reading of these documents, students should answer the following questions (included as part of a worksheet on page 12 of the PDF):

  • Why did U.S. military planners believe that it was so important to defend the Philippines?
  • Why did they not choose immediately to launch a bombing campaign against Japan?
  • What sea and air routes did the Allies believe were most vulnerable, and why?
  • Why did U.S. military planners opt for a largely defensive strategy in the Pacific?

Direct students once again to the interactive map and ask them to identify those areas that Allied strategy sought to hold against the Japanese advance. Here again they should look at locations 1–17, which will give them a sense of the sequence of events in these critical early months of the war.

Based on their examination of these resources, students should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What was the overall Allied strategy in the Pacific?
  • Which of the strategic goals were met, and which were not?

In order to reduce the overall time spent on this lesson, teachers may prefer to divide the class into groups, with half of the groups doing the first activity and the other half doing the second. Each team can then make a presentation of its findings.

Activity 3. Anti-Japanese Sentiment in the United States

Distribute to the students the set of documents in the PDF (pages 13-15 in the PDF) pertaining to anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States after Pearl Harbor. These are excerpts from longer documents that are found online at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters, and include:

  1. an account by a marine who fought in the Battle of Guam
  2. a defense of Japanese-American internment by Milton Eisenhower
  3. Executive Order #9066, in which FDR authorized internment
  4. Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court upheld internment.

In addition, direct students to several images available online:

  1. Cover of the December 1942 issue of Collier's
  2. "How to tell a Chinese from a 'Jap'"
  3. "Japs keep out" (this will bring students to a search engine, where they should enter "japs keep out" as keywords)
  4. "Our Next Boss?" (as above, but using keywords "our next boss");
  5. "I'll Dictate the Terms from the White House" (as above, but using keywords "dictate terms"); and
  6. "Jap Hunting License" (as above, but using keywords "hunting license").

Based on their reading of these documents and images, students should then write an essay in response to the following:

  • "How did the attack on Pearl Harbor affect American attitudes toward the Japanese?
  • How do you think this affected the way the Pacific War was fought?"


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:

  • What was the overall Japanese strategy for winning the war?
  • How did the attack on Pearl Harbor fit within this strategy?
  • What was the Allied plan for the Pacific in 1941-1942?
  • What was the turning point of the Pacific War, and why?
  • How did the Pearl Harbor attack influence American views of the Japanese?

Students should also be able to identify the following locations on a blank map of the Pacific region, available at this site, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters.

  • Aleutian Islands
  • Hawaiian Islands
  • Japan
  • China
  • Philippines
  • Dutch East Indies (Indonesia)
  • Papua-New Guinea
  • Australia

Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku
  • General Douglas MacArthur
  • Admiral Chester Nimitz
  • Midway
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Guadalcanal
  • Doolittle Raid

Extending The Lesson

Any of the engagements listed as locations on the interactive map could be topics for research papers, PowerPoint presentations, etc., as each pop-up includes a wealth of source material on the subject.

A great many movies have been made about the Pacific Theater of World War II—The Thin Red Line (1998), Bataan (1943), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Midway (1976), The Gallant Hours (1960), and Pearl Harbor (2001) are just a few examples. Students could be asked to watch one of these movies and write an essay comparing it to the real events on which the film was based. Here again, the sources linked from the locations on the interactive map will be useful for background.

Students may be interested in getting a sense for what combat in the Pacific was really like. Most of the pop-ups on the interactive map include oral histories by men who participated in these engagements. Students could be assigned to read several of these (or more likely excerpts, since they tend to be quite lengthy) and asked to write their own fictitious oral history, as if they had participated in one of these battles.

In addition, if lesson three of this curriculum unit (Victory in Europe, 1944–1945) is also being used, students might be asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting combat conditions in the Pacific Theater with those of the European Theater. The oral histories linked from the interactive maps—particularly those at the Rutgers Oral History Archives should provide ample sources for such a comparison.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources