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War in the Pacific

Page 2 – The war against Japan

United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as 'a date which will live in infamy' — 7 December 1941, the day the Japanese bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This was the opening salvo in the Pacific War. A day later, New Zealand, the United States and Britain declared war on Japan. The conflict ended nearly four years later, on 15 August 1945 when the Japanese signed the Armistice — a week after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

Thousands of New Zealanders from all three of the armed forces served in the Pacific: the Navy, the Air Force, and 3 Division of the Army. It was a war that took young New Zealand men and women to exotic places, many of which they'd probably never heard of: Mono, Nissan, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Okinawa. Sometimes working closely with the United States, New Zealanders fought the Japanese in three main areas — Singapore, the Solomon Islands and in the waters surrounding Japan. New Zealanders were also stationed in other places such as New Caledonia, operating radio and radar stations and medical facilities.

Moving south, and north

At the outbreak of the Pacific War, New Zealand had garrison forces on Fanning Island (part of modern Kiribati) and in Fiji, and there were over 50 coastwatching stations spread between Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tokelau, and Fanning Island.

Guarding the Cooks

As the threat of war in the Pacific increased, the Cook Islands (then a New Zealand territory) requested help to organise and equip a home guard force. In 1941, New Zealand authorities agreed to the formation of the Cook Island Local Defence Force, which was active until 1945. There was also a short-lived home guard unit raised on the island of Aitutaki in 1943.

For more information see Barry O'Sullivan. 'The Cook Islands Local Defence Force 1941–1945', 2019 (pdf) and Barry O'Sullivan. 'The Aitutaki Home Guard: New Zealand's shortest-lived unit?', 2019 (pdf)

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Japanese aircraft arrived over Singapore where the British had a base. At the same time, Japanese troops moved south down the Malayan peninsula. The Japanese forces had Singapore under siege by the end of January 1942, and it fell on 15 February 1942. This was the greatest military defeat for the British in 150 years. Over 130,000 troops surrendered; New Zealand airmen stationed there were evacuated just in time. Four days later, the first of the bombing raids on Darwin occurred, bringing the war very close to New Zealand.

The Japanese moved on into the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) where they captured some of the New Zealanders who had escaped from Singapore. Some spent the next three years in prisoner of war camps in Japan; others stayed in Java.

The events had repercussions throughout the Pacific. New Zealand sent more troops to Fiji to help bolster defences. At home, anti-invasion defences were thrown up and forces mobilised to man them. The war was suddenly very close to home, and for a time, there were fears that New Zealand itself would become a battlefield. Some people wondered whether New Zealand forces in action in North Africa should come home to safeguard the country. An alternative existed, which did not involve ferrying New Zealanders back across the world: American troops arrived here in June 1942, and used the country as a jump-off point for the Pacific War.

How to cite this page

The war against Japan, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated