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.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
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.
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.
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.
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):
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:
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):
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:
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.
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:
In addition, direct students to several images available online:
Based on their reading of these documents and images, students should then write an essay in response to the following:
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
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.
Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
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.
3 class periods