Though Hawaii wasn’t yet a state, it was one of the most important sites for the United States during the course of World War II in the Pacific. Located between the continental United States and the nation of Japan, Hawaii became the target of Japan’s aggression after the US Pacific Fleet was moved from the west coast to the Pearl Harbor naval base on Oahu.
Where It Began
On December 7th, 1941, Hawaii became the first American territory to be directly impacted when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, hoping to cripple the Pacific Fleet. The intention was to keep the United States from interfering in Japanese expansionism, but it ended up only sealing Japan’s defeat.
United States involvement in World War II began in Hawaii with the loss of 2,403 Americans, but its role in the brutal conflict stretched well beyond being a bombing target for the Imperial aggressors.
The Beginning of the End
One of the island chain’s greatest contributions to World War II, and arguably a vital part in the downfall of Japan, came at the end of 1943. The United States had already decimated Japan’s navy at the Battle of Midway, but the road to the war’s end still seemed like a long one. So in December of 1943, Camp Tarawa in Waimea on the Big Island was used as a training ground for over 50,000 men. Over a two year period, Marines used Camp Tarawa as preparation for the Saipan and Tinian invasions and later, for the Battle of Iwo Jima.
According to Jim Browne, commandant of Camp Tarawa Detachment No. 1255, Waimea was chosen not just for its proximity to the Pacific but because of its size and the physical similarities it shared with the islands that the Marines would be invading. The training facility was located on the enormous Parker Ranch, allowing over 20,000 men to train at the same time.
The small town started with a population of just under 400 residents, but the arrival of the Marines led to a build-up of the local infrastructure, including paved roads and water and power systems.
Hawaii played a role in both the beginning and ending of the war. The 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu was the catalyst for the United States entering the war. Then, beginning in late 1943, it was the site of the camp where men who would be shipped to Iwo Jima trained for what would be the bloodiest battle of World War II in the Pacific. The Battle of Iwo Jima was such a devastating conflict that it’s credited with being the reason the United States decided to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, as American leaders feared a rising death toll if the two nations continued fighting island to island.