World War II: The Pacific Theater

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great perspectives and wonderfully told One of the finest of any of my viewings or readings on World War II. Even as a WWII buff, I still learned much. Prof. Symonds is a masterful lecturer. This is a historical presentation that one can easily 'binge-watch.' Highly recommended! Note: One of his recommended research reads is 'The Fall of Japan" by Craig. I also recommend for an assessment of the Japanese during the last months of the war.
Date published: 2021-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional I took these lectures in order to increase my knowledge of the war in the Pacific theatre, as I have extensive knowledge of the European campaign, but only cursory knowledge of the pacific. I have read several books on the subject, but nothing in any great deal. This series significantly improved my knowledge and awareness of the details of the pacific theatre. Although this wasn't an extensive review of the details of every battle, it provided and excellent summation of all aspects of the war (its origins, the cultures, the political environment, the major leaders of the campaign on both sides) as well as a number of very interesting little known (by me anyway) incidents and events. I also would like to note that I found Prof. Symonds to be passionate and captivating. My intention was to listen to one lecture a day, buy found at times would continue with two or three. Very, very well done!
Date published: 2021-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Smooth transitions from the attack at Pearl Harbor through the major naval battles of WWII. Very well documented with combat films and personal insights to the great admirals and not so great admirals of the war.
Date published: 2021-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from World War II: The Pacific Theatre Relived Having lost two uncles in the Pacific, both Marines at Tarawa & Bougainvillea, I have extensively studied the Pacific war including ground, naval and aerial engagements. I have read hundreds of first hand accounts and novels regarding the fighting and I certainly have a detailed knowledge of war in the Pacific. I will state that I did learn quite a bit of additional information from the series that had not been previously revealed during my studies. Dr. Symonds is an excellent speaker and it was enjoyable to listen to his lectures. I particularly enjoyed the lectures regarding the fighting on Guadalcanal, Tarawa & Iwo Jima. This series was well worth the time, especially for Pacific War historians who wish to expand their knowledge and deepen their appreciation for the young men who served in the Pacific Theatre. The Greatest Generation indeed.
Date published: 2021-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I thought this was an outstanding course. Lectures are extremely well organized and Professor Symonds delivers them brilliantly. I see that one criticism of the course is that this is just an American point of view. To this I would say that this is only a 12 hour course and that since by far most of the resources and fighting in the Pacific War were American this view is understandable. If this were a 24 hour course perhaps then the considerable contributions made by the British, Australian, Chinese, Filipino, etc. could be expected to be included. I have purchased many of The Great Courses and found this to be one of my most favorite Great Courses. Highly recommend this course!
Date published: 2021-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Professor and Content Professor Symonds is one in a million! I have read histories of the Pacific War, and know that it is a sprawling topic with many important details. Professor Symonds pulls it together in presentations that are interesting, entertaining and fascinating. Each lecture conveys an overriding theme or themes that lead to a thorough understanding not only of what happened, but also the development of our Navy and the political and strategic thinking that shaped the conduct of the war in the Pacific theater. Please give us more of this Professor's work.
Date published: 2021-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More like a documentary. While this series was more like a documentary than a classroom lecture in this case it worked well. The Instructor was excellent and the content was thorough covering much that was new to me and I have read a dozen book on WW II.
Date published: 2021-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Compelling and Engrossing I found this course hard to put aside, feeling fortunate in taking it through The Great Course Plus. Professor Symonds is a great presenter, providing just the amount of suspense in the telling of this gripping story…done throughout while sitting down! More than just his delivery is involved, as he employs so many visuals (maps, photos, film clips, etc.). There is less included than, for instance, in NBC’s 1952-1953 series ‘Victory at Sea’, but Professor Symonds’ use of visuals is expertly integrated into his analysis and explanations, making it easy to follow and understand developments. He also provides many useful details to enliven the story and humanizes it with treatment of prominent (and some not so prominent) participants. I came to this course with some knowledge of World War II in the Pacific. Beyond reading about it, three of my uncles served there, and my father, who spent his service in the European Theater, expected to be shipped to the Pacific in the summer of 1945 (finally returning home in October). Professor Symonds not only added to my knowledge, but also corrected/clarified my understanding in several areas, and provided a useful perspective on those terrible events of the War in the Pacific. Professor Symonds makes the point that this was not just a clash of arms, but also a clash of cultures. His contrasting the difference between the American and Japanese training and use of pilots is particularly noteworthy in this regard. Likewise, he spends a good deal of time in dealing with the Japanese, so that we have a good sense of the whole, not just in matters of war, but also politics and society. While much of the course is understandably naval in nature, there is a good deal on the land engagements (themselves dependent on naval transport, artillery, and air support). In this, Professor Symonds brings out the horror of the engagements, the standouts for me being the bookended battles for Tarawa and Okinawa, and that Iwo Jima was likely a useless sacrifice. The deft treatment of General Douglas MacArthur and his relations with the navy are particularly noteworthy, much improving my understanding. Where Professor Symonds really excels is in the naval side of the war, providing a good deal of suspense in detailing communications and movements. We learn a lot about both sides, even down to the nicknames of the commanders and relations with subordinates. We also learn a good deal about the inner workings of the American command and the mistakes as well as the successes. Here I found the treatment of Admiral Halsey well done regarding the criticism of his performance in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and later operational decisions in typhoon conditions. Professor Symonds cannot resist referencing the 1954 movie ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (based on the Herman Wouk novel) in discussing the subsequent investigation. There is a lot more that could be said about this excellent course, but I will finish by noting Professor Symonds’ opinion that, considering the context, dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, represented the “least worst” option. He makes a compelling case, though not all will agree. I know I am with him, as I would not be writing this review had the war not ended when it did, with my father shipped out to the Pacific after his stint in Europe. The 227-page course guidebook is a good companion to the video lectures, with many illustrations, fine lecture summaries, good questions, and a list of essential readings. Notably absent, however, are maps, glossary, and biographical notes. These would greatly enhance the usefulness of the guidebook and course. The lack of these elements is not important enough, however, to warrant a reduction in what to me is a truly five-star course.
Date published: 2021-01-19
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World War II: The Pacific Theater
Course Trailer
The Road to War in the Pacific, 1931–1941
1: The Road to War in the Pacific, 1931–1941

The origins of the war predate December 7, 1941. In this opening lecture, trace the events that led up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Investigate Japan’s interest in taking over China, and the strategic need for oil and other supplies threatened by the US-controlled Philippines.

33 min
Infamy! The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor
2: Infamy! The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success for Japan, in that it destroyed much of the US naval fleet. But it also proved to be one of the most reckless and irresponsible strategic decisions in the history of warfare. Witness the events that occurred on the day of “infamy,” and reflect on how and why the US was caught off guard.

32 min
Japan Moves South, December 1941–May 1942
3: Japan Moves South, December 1941–May 1942

During the first six months of 1942, the Japanese military juggernaut moved from success to success in the Pacific, conquering new territory at a dizzying pace. Learn how the Japanese were able to wreck Allied naval forces in the Java Sea, and examine the invasion of the Philippines, the Bataan Death March, and General Douglas MacArthur’s escape to Australia.

31 min
The Doolittle Raid on Japan, April 1942
4: The Doolittle Raid on Japan, April 1942

In 1942, the United States needed a morale boost, and the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo and other cities was a public relations coup. Here, as elsewhere, many of the operational decisions in the Pacific Theater revolved around logistics and supplies—such as how to equip planes with enough fuel to fly 650 miles over open sea while carrying 500-pound bombs.

29 min
Station HYPO: Breaking the Japanese Code
5: Station HYPO: Breaking the Japanese Code

Codebreaking is one of the most captivating stories in World War II, both in Europe and the Pacific. While the British were breaking German codes, Americans stationed in Hawaii wrestled with Japanese intercepts. See what they were able to decipher, and how even partial codebreaking contributed to success in battle.

28 min
Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942
6: Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first naval battle in history fought entirely by carrier-based airplanes, in which opposing fleets never caught sight of each other. Although the Japanese inflicted more tactical damage—including the sinking of the US carrier Lexington—they failed to achieve their objective: Port Moresby in New Guinea.

30 min
Midway: 10 Minutes That Changed the War
7: Midway: 10 Minutes That Changed the War

Why were the Japanese determined to capture an American base on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific? The surprising answer has to do with the changing nature of naval warfare, and recognition of the important role carriers played. Go inside this astonishing battle, minute by minute, and reflect on how critical decisions affected the outcome.

32 min
Guadalcanal: Jungle Warfare
8: Guadalcanal: Jungle Warfare

Even before the improbable victory at Midway, Ernest J. King, the Commander in Chief, US Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, wanted to initiate an offensive. His first target was the island of Guadalcanal, where the Japanese were building an airfield. Meet the dueling personalities in the US command and go ashore with the Marines to seize and hold the airfield.

32 min
Ironbottom Sound, 1942–1943
9: Ironbottom Sound, 1942–1943

The battle for the Solomon Islands—including Guadalcanal—was a grinding and wasting six-month campaign. After multiple bloody engagements on both land and sea, Admiral Yamamoto and the Japanese high command cut their losses. By then, so many ships had been sunk that the waters nearby became known as “Ironbottom Sound.”

31 min
MacArthur, Halsey, and Operation Cartwheel
10: MacArthur, Halsey, and Operation Cartwheel

General MacArthur was a controversial figure, a brilliant but complex commander with a large ego, who found himself sharing command of the Pacific with US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz. Watch these two commanders conduct a dual campaign on both New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands.

33 min
The Big Blue Fleet and American Industry
11: The Big Blue Fleet and American Industry

For all the military planning and hard fighting, much of the American success in World War II was due to the country’s astonishing industrial output. From the Grumman-built F6F Hellcat fighter planes to new Essex-class aircraft carriers, the American industrial juggernaut produced weapons at an unprecedented rate.

31 min
Battle for Tarawa: A Square Mile of Hell
12: Battle for Tarawa: A Square Mile of Hell

By 1944, the American offensive strategy was to island-hop across Micronesia, and the first step was the island of Tarawa, a name that haunts the history of the US Marine Corps. Follow the invaders to see how a tidal anomaly and Japanese defenders led to a bloodbath as 3,000 Marines were killed or wounded in only three days.

32 min
A Three-Front Pacific War, January–May 1944
13: A Three-Front Pacific War, January–May 1944

By 1944, the momentum in the Pacific Theater had shifted decisively in favor of the Americans. Learn the lessons of Tarawa and continue your study of the stepping-stone strategy as the US military advanced from the Gilberts to the Marshalls and beyond. Then consider the Japanese quagmire in China and its effect on the war.

33 min
The US Leaps to the Marianas, June 1944
14: The US Leaps to the Marianas, June 1944

One of the reasons Japan attacked the United States in the first place was because it needed a secure supply of oil to fight China, but by 1944, Japan’s supply lines were failing. The US, too, was stretched in June 1944, with simultaneous campaigns planned for both Normandy and the Marianas. Examine the set up for a decisive confrontation in the Pacific.

32 min
Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 1944
15: Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 1944

Since the 1930s, both the American and Japanese war strategists assumed that any war between the two countries would be decided by a major sea battle in the western Pacific. See why the Battle of the Philippine Sea was nothing like what the planners had imagined, how the battle actually played out, and what impact it had on the war.

30 min
Bombing Japan: Fire from the Sky
16: Bombing Japan: Fire from the Sky

Shift your attention from the sea to the sky, where the US Army Air Forces conducted both tactical and strategic air campaigns. Review the technology and personalities of the air war against Japan and witness the devastation American bombs wrought on the Japanese homeland.

30 min
American Submarines in the Pacific, 1944–1945
17: American Submarines in the Pacific, 1944–1945

American submarines played important roles in some of the biggest battles of the Pacific War, including the Battle of Midway and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Yet the biggest contribution of the submarine force was not in sinking warships, it was in the destruction of Japanese maritime trade. Dive under the sea to explore US submarine warfare.

32 min
MacArthur Returns to the Philippines
18: MacArthur Returns to the Philippines

When General MacArthur left the Philippines at the start of the war, he famously announced, “I shall return.” Go inside MacArthur’s meeting with President Roosevelt and follow the general’s long preparation for his return. Then, travel to the sandy beaches of the island of Leyte, the site of his return to the Philippines.

30 min
Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944
19: Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944

Here, find out why Professor Symonds calls the Battle of Leyte Gulf the greatest naval battle in history. The Japanese had a complex plan, and for several hours, the Americans in Leyte Gulf teetered on the brink of disaster. Find out how and why, despite confusion and misunderstandings, the US Navy was able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

32 min
Admiral Halsey’s Typhoons, 1944–1945
20: Admiral Halsey’s Typhoons, 1944–1945

Meet Admiral William F. Halsey, a fighting admiral and a man of action who led the American carrier forces during the Philippine campaign. In December 1944, he made several command decisions amid a typhoon that led to a naval investigation and inspired the movie The Caine Mutiny. Enter the high seas in a storm and see first-hand what the admiral faced.

30 min
Battle for Iwo Jima, February–March 1945
21: Battle for Iwo Jima, February–March 1945

Iwo Jima is the iconic battle of the US Marine Corps, and a living symbol of the determination and sacrifice of the Marines. Review why Iwo Jima became a strategic target, watch the battle unfurl, and then consider its tragic consequences.

30 min
Battle for Okinawa, April–June 1945
22: Battle for Okinawa, April–June 1945

By spring 1945, the United States sought to cut off Japan’s supply line to the resource-rich islands of the South Pacific. An invasion of the island of Okinawa would achieve this objective. Codenamed “Operation Iceberg,” this bloody battle shattered any remaining prospect of Japanese victory in the war.

31 min
Kamikazes: Japan’s Special Attack Units
23: Kamikazes: Japan’s Special Attack Units

During the bitter fighting for the Japanese island of Okinawa, American sailors confronted a horrifying new peril—Japanese suicide bombers from the sky. Explore both the Japanese justification for this new protocol and the history of this vicious battle tactic and experience the horror of being attacked by human bombs.

31 min
Dropping the Atomic Bomb
24: Dropping the Atomic Bomb

In this final lecture, reflect on a new era in human civilization. Although Japan was essentially defeated, the government refused to surrender. Travel with President Truman to Potsdam, Germany, where he and Churchill issued a declaration calling for “prompt and utter destruction” if Japan refused to surrender. Then deconstruct the justification for the use of the atomic bombs.

34 min
Craig L. Symonds

Luck plays a role in all battles, but in the end, it is the men who win and lose them.


University of Florida


U.S. Naval War College

About Craig L. Symonds

Craig L. Symonds is the Ernest J. King Distinguished Professor of Maritime History at the US Naval War College and Professor Emeritus of History at the US Naval Academy. Professor Symonds received his PhD in History from the University of Florida. He served as Professor of Strategy at the Britannia Royal Naval College from 1994 to 1995.


During a 30-year teaching career at the US Naval Academy, Professor Symonds served a four-year term as department chair and held the Class of 1957 Distinguished Chair of Naval Heritage from 2011 to 2012. He was the first person to win both the Class of 1951 Civilian Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Civilian Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, and he also received the Navy Superior Civilian Service Award on three occasions.


Professor Symonds is the author or editor of 29 books, including prize-winning biographies of Civil War figures Joseph E. Johnston, Patrick Cleburne, and Franklin Buchanan. His book Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize in Naval History. He also wrote Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War, which won the Benjamin Barondess Award, the Daniel M. & Marilyn W. Laney Prize, the John Lyman Book Award, the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award.


More recently, Professor Symonds has focused on World War II naval issues. His books on the subject include The Battle of Midway; Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, which won both the Commodore John Barry Book Award and the RADM Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature; and World War II at Sea: A Global History. Additionally, Professor Symonds received the Nevins-Freeman Award in 2009 and the Commodore Dudley W. Knox Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

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