WWII in the Pacific

December 7, 1941 is a date that could be regarded as the beginning of World War II. More accurately, it is the point at which the United States was inextricably pulled into ongoing wars in both Europe and the Asia Pacific region. In Europe the first wave of totalitarianism began in September 1939 with Germany invading Poland. In the Pacific, the simmering conflict between the Empire of Japan and the Republic of China, which began in September 1931 with the Japanese military invasion of Manchuria, boiled over into full-fledged hostilities in July 1937. By 1941, the Japanese Empire had extended well into the far reaches of the Pacific and encompassed the peoples of hundreds of islands from Siberia in the north to Guadalcanal in the south.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, on that sunny December morning, set in motion an inexorable march of conflict across the Asia Pacific that was contested island by island and foot by foot. The loss of life between the major combatants and among the civilian populations was staggering in its breadth and scope.

Taking refuge behind an amphtrack on the Peleliu invasion beach. Norm Hatch Photo Collection courtesy Pacific War Museum

In the mid-1980s, Dr. Toni Carrell, first visited the islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in the Mariana Islands chain. It was there, while working for the National Park Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, that she was exposed to the detritus of war scattered on the seafloor. The NPS team eventually also visited Ponape, Palau, and Truk. These visits resulted in the publication of the Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of Micronesia (Carrell 1991) a baseline report that sought to pull together disparate information on the submerged cultural heritage sites of the region.

Japanese Dihatsu landing craft in Saipan lagoon. Photo Jon Carpenter for Ships of Discovery

 It was not until 2009, now working with Ships of Discovery, that Carrell revisited her earlier work with the publication of Maritime History and Archaeology of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2009, she joined forces with Dr. Jennifer McKinnon (East Carolina University) to begin a long-term, multi-year investigation of the WWII underwater cultural heritage of Saipan, which was supported by NPS American Battlefield Protection Program (NPS-ABPP) grants (2009, 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017). In 2018, Carrell and McKinnon led an interdisciplinary team, funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and NPS-ABPP grants, to Peleliu in the Palau Islands for the first remote sensing survey of that submerged battlefield and the near shore defensive positions to examine the fields of fire that wreaked havoc during the early hours of the amphibious assault. In another first, the team documented the effects of the amphibious invasion on the lagoon’s coral reefs.

Toni Carrell documenting eroding gun from Japanese defensive position. Photo Maddy Roth, Ships of Discovery

In 2019, Carrell, with Jason Burns, and Michael Krivor (Recon Offshore) conducted the first comprehensive remote sensing investigation of US Navy submerged lands in Guam. That survey identified new sites and confirmed the locations of several others in support of the Navy’s obligation to protect cultural heritage sites on their lands.

Jason Burns (Recon Offshore) deploying remote sensing equipment during Navy lands survey in Guam. Photo Michael Krivor for Ships of Discovery

Visit the following pages to learn more about Ships of Discovery’s ongoing research into WWII in the Pacific.