World War II: The Pacific Theater

In partnership with
Professor Craig L. Symonds, PhD
U.S. Naval War College
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4.6 out of 5
27 Reviews
51% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 8756
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Delve into the strategy and battle plans of the war between the United States and Japan
  • numbers Go inside the head of military leaders, including MacArthur, Nimitz, and Yamamoto
  • numbers Examine the instruments of the naval, air, and land war
  • numbers Travel island by island and battle by battle through the Pacific War
  • numbers Reflect on how the war was a battle of wills and a battle of technology

Course Overview

The Japanese attack on the United States Battle Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, struck most Americans like a bolt from the blue. While the attack was a tactical success for Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, it was also one of the most reckless strategic decisions in the history of warfare, for it awakened a sleeping giant—the US military—and triggered some of the most harrowing and ferocious military actions the world had ever seen.

For the United States, the war started and ended in the Pacific Theater, with the war against Japan. From 1941 to 1945, Japan and the United States waged the largest naval war in history—and in the end, it changed the course of history and re-made the modern world.

World War II: The Pacific Theater takes you inside the sweeping story of the American fight against the Japanese. Taught by Professor Craig L. Symonds, a distinguished military historian at the US Naval War College, and former chairman of the History Department at the US Naval Academy, these 24 vivid lectures chronicle the global trajectory of the war in the Pacific: the epic battles, the military strategy and tactics, the leaders and commanders, the amphibious landings, the air attacks, and the submarine campaigns.

Professor Symonds transports you to the rolling seas of the Pacific, into the jungles of Guadalcanal and the Philippines, and across the black sands of Iwo Jima. You’ll meet fascinating figures such as General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral William Halsey, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the codebreakers at Station Hypo, and countless others, including Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

Produced by The Great Courses in partnership with HISTORY®, World War II: The Pacific Theater gives you an inside look at the strategy of the war on both sides and explores the tactical advantages each nation held, from industrial dynamism to advanced technology to sheer willpower.

Witness the Strategy of War in Action

Besides giving a comprehensive survey of the Pacific War, this course offers a deep dive into military strategy. For instance, though Japan’s primary goal in the 1930s was the conquest of China, Admiral Yamamoto insisted on attacking the American fleet in Pearl Harbor. Why?

Professor Symonds reveals Japan’s complex calculus: how the country needed a supply line of oil from the South Pacific to fuel a war in China, how the United States controlled the Philippines, and why it therefore seemed to make sense to attack the US base in Hawaii.

Yamamoto believed that preemptively taking out a significant portion of the American fleet would cripple the United States and allow Japan free reign of the ocean. Although the “day of infamy” was tactically successful, America maintained its handful of aircraft carriers, which six months later allowed the US Navy to alter the direction of the Pacific War with a furious 10-minute onslaught during the Battle of Midway.

World War II in the Pacific was the largest naval war in history, and throughout this course, Professor Symonds leads you through the evolving nature of naval warfare. Among other topics, Professor Symonds unpacks:

  • The crucial importance of aircraft carriers;
  • The division of command in the Pacific between General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz;
  • The relationship among the Navy, the Marines, the Army, and the Air Force;
  • The grinding campaign in Guadalcanal and the island-hopping campaign in the Central Pacific;
  • The role of codebreakers stationed in Hawaii—and the limits of their intel; and
  • The particular roles of strategic air power and submarine warfare.

Delve into Battles from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa

The Pacific Theater includes some of the most famous (and occasionally infamous) names in modern warfare, inspiring legions of Hollywood films and haunting the halls of military colleges for generations. Strap on your packs and lace up your boots, and travel with Professor Symonds back to some of the most epic battles in history:

  • The Philippines. Reflect on General MacArthur’s missteps early in the war that culminated in the Bataan Death March and MacArthur’s escape to Australia. Then witness his triumphant return three years later.
  • Midway. Find out why the Japanese were so interested in a tiny American base in the middle of the ocean. This story of codebreaking, a surprise attack, and 10 minutes that changed the course of the war is truly breathtaking.
  • Guadalcanal. Delve into the thick jungle and bitter fighting for this critical island outpost in the Solomon Islands.
  • Tarawa. Find out why a little bad luck with the tides turned this battle into one of the most harrowing and costly assaults in the history of the US Marine Corps.
  • Iwo Jima. Look beyond the iconic photograph of Marines hoisting the American flag on Mount Suribachi and examine the tragic consequences of this important battle.
  • Okinawa. See how this bloody battle—known as Operation Iceberg—crushed any prospect for a Japanese victory and watch as kamikaze fighters nonetheless continued to hurl themselves at American ships.

A Dynamic Story

One of the most fascinating aspects of this course is how it reveals the way supply chains and industrial output affected the trajectory of the war. For example, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had more to do with supplies of oil and rubber from South Asia than with any interest in conquering American territory. As these lectures show, only a few years later, the lack of supplies wrecked Japan’s ability to wage war effectively.

Meanwhile, American manufacturing output was truly staggering: millions of tons of new shipping, from destroyers and tank landing ships to cargo ships and aircraft carriers. Thanks to American industry, the military was able to resupply the Navy and the Marines as they hopped from island to island, and battle to battle.

The story of the Pacific Theater is a dizzying sequence of raids and battles, invasions and onslaughts, all aided by the deadly tools of war. Professor Symonds clarifies the war and offers a remarkable military history of the conflict. World War II: The Pacific Theater is an absolute must for military buffs, history enthusiasts, and anyone wishing to deepen their knowledge of world history. Settle in for a thrilling ride.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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.” x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Video DVD
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  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Craig L. Symonds

About Your Professor

Craig L. Symonds, PhD
U.S. Naval War College
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...
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World War II: The Pacific Theater is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterful Survey Exceptionally well organised, structured and delivered, this is one of the best Great Courses I have seen, on any subject. It makes interesting comparison with its companion course Battlefield Europe: in my opinion, the relative strategic and political simplicity of the war in the Pacific, allows the professor to spend that much more time on filling in technical and operational details, and providing greater depth to the story. I also have Professor Symonds book on World War Two at Sea, and would to recommend this as well. Bravo, this is a real gem.
Date published: 2020-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! One of the Best I am a long time student of the war in the Pacific during World War 2. This is the best explanation of it in it's entirety that I've seen. It is so very well organized and presented I found myself fully engaged in every minute of every lecture. While the narrator appears seated, basically moving very little, for the entire course his narration and facial emphasis hold your attention. And, finally, finally a course that makes use of the medium with many well chosen video excerpts. I couldn't recommend this course more highly to anyone interested in the subject.
Date published: 2020-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb This was riveting. The lecturer was direct, well-informed, and presented everything with commitment and detail.
Date published: 2020-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent This is the best presentation I have ever seen on the Pacific Theater of World War II. Dr. Symonds unfolds the developments of the Pacific Theater of World War II in generally chronologically order. He does it in a way that makes connections with geographically dispersed events and circumstances that one does not see in other presentations. He does not shy from speaking plainly about atrocities by both sides, nor does he shy about criticizing iconic heros. Dr. Symonds is the best presenter of World War II material I have even seen. The video is essential to catch the full value of this course.
Date published: 2020-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from simply awesome! I have 6 or 7 Great Courses, none of which I can seem to complete but this is the best. I have extensively studied WWII in Europe but wanted a study course about the Pacific. It has greatly exceeded my expectations. the professor adds a lot to the course and is captivating. I wanted a course reviewing the chronology of battles and this fit the bill. Really enjoyed the course on the Code Breakers having an uncle who was on the Dayton Code Breaker team. It's perfect!!
Date published: 2020-09-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A 5 for Dr. Symonds. A 3 for I enjoyed the course material provided and presented by Dr. Symonds. What disappointment and dissatisfaction I had with this course lies elsewhere. The series, perhaps inevitably, is too much like installments of a TV series. In hindsight, this is disappointing but not surprising given’s involvement. One result was the repetition of some information at the start of some episodes, since a TV series must allow for viewers who did not hear all earlier episodes. By contrast, the vast majority of Great Courses purchasers most likely go through all episodes in sequence. Visually, the producers have Dr. Symonds in the same position for the entire series. Camera angles change from time-to-time, but it still comes across as though Dr. Symonds was glued to the chair, with the same distracting background. The computer-generated portions of the visual presentation are not always helpful, but the fake, imagined modern sequences add virtually nothing to the presentation, and they clash with the historic film footage. And speaking of the historic film footage, too much of it is repeated over and over. Given the quantity of World War II footage available, this seems just plain lazy. Worst is the way the footage included is at times uncoordinated with Dr/ Symonds’ narration. For example, I noted cases where the footage is a B-17, B-24 or B-29 while the narration is talking about a different aircraft. And at the point where Dr. Symonds is relating the experience of the USS Laffey in the onslaught of kamikazes the video includes a photo of, presumably, the first USS Laffey, a Benson Class destroyer which was sunk at Guadalcanal in November 1942. The ship Dr. Symonds is referring to is the second USS Laffey, a Sumner Class destroyer, which is now preserved at Patriots Point, in South Carolina, a photo of her there is also included. The difference between the two classes is obvious to anyone, as the Benson Class had a single gun in each turret while the Sumner Class has twin-gun turrets. Because Dr. Symonds’ narration is so good, a 5, I only reduced my rating to a 4 for the visual portion of the course.
Date published: 2020-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent review of the war in the Pacific This is both an excellent overview and a detailed history of different battles. The information on the officers involved, including their nicknames, helps to understand the decisions they made. Professor Symonds is an excellent teacher with his "just the facts ma'am" style. One thing that I learned is that the Chinese had a huge portion of the Japanese army tied up in China. The last session is an excellent review of the how the war may have been ended without using the A-bomb. As horrible as it was, the bomb may have been the most humane. I streamed the sessions and on two of the sessions the audio was out of sync with the video.
Date published: 2020-09-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from DVD set has problems • Lecture 19 is missing from DVD #4. Instead, the link just provides the instructor bio. • the DVD case says that DVD #3 has 7 lectures and DVD #4 has 5 lectures. Normally, each DVD has 6 lectures. I have enjoyed the course so far except for this DVD production error. I recommend waiting until this problem is fixed before ordering the DVDs.
Date published: 2020-09-21
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