Japan’s Pacific Blitz

Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only target left in flames when imperial Japan seized power in Asia and the South Pacific in December 1941.

By Brian John Murphy

The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was horrific and crushing. The United States Pacific Fleet was crippled in a matter of two hours. As big as that was, however, it was only the beginning. The Pearl Harbor raid was just one part of the Japanese plan for the day, the centerpiece of a comprehensive assault on the United States and Great Britain.

Bombed out building in Paranque

A building in Paranque in the Philippines burns after a Japanese air raid on December 13, 1941. (Library of Congress)

Japan had planned its day of attacks to address several tactical and strategic goals in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. Japan was going to war because its supply of oil from the United States had been embargoed; the island nation needed to clear the way to replace American petroleum with oil from the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Tactical and strategic threats to that new oil supply, posed by the US Commonwealth of the Philippines, had to be addressed, too. American outposts such as Guam and Wake Island had to be converted into Japanese strongholds to guard the eastern approaches of the expanding empire. The British could not be allowed to hold on to their base at Hong Kong in southern China. The tin and rubber produced in Malaya were required for the war effort, and the threat of the British military base in Singapore had to be eliminated.

This was a lengthy and ambitious list. The Japanese army, navy, and air force would have to be everywhere at once and attack in a coordinated manner so that the enemy powers could not simply shift resources from point to point to meet the emerging crises. The Japanese had to put all the Allied holdings in jeopardy simultaneously, largely by using air power to fix the enemy in place.

The Japanese hardly disguised their intentions as December 7 approached. Planes from Japanese-held Formosa (present-day Taiwan) scanned the Philippine coast and even flew over some strategic locations, drawing no armed response from the US air forces stationed on the island of Luzon. Guam was also the site of curious Japanese air reconnaissance; again there was no response.

Guam got into the war when it was struck by an island-wide Japanese air raid on December 8. (Guam and many other Pacific islands, along with Japan, are on the other side of the International Date Line from Hawaii and the continental United States. Hence, what was December 7 east of the line was the 8th west of it.) The capital city of Agana was hit. Among the places struck was the Pan American hotel at Orote Point, where two workers were killed. The USS Penguin offered anti-aircraft resistance, but to little avail. One ensign was killed and the ship was subsequently scuttled. The Japanese planes returned the next day to hit military targets and the Pan American air terminal.

To completely neutralize the island required an invasion. Fortunately for Japan, US forces on Guam were completely inadequate. There were only 547 sailors, marines, and other guardians, all of whom were lightly armed. On December 10 they were pitted against about 5,900 Japanese army and naval landing force troops commanded by Major General Tomitara Hori. After a brief resistance, Guam surrendered at 7 A.M.

About 10 Filipino divisions with about 100,000 men and about 30,000 Americans defended the Philippines. All were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who divided his forces on Luzon into two major commands. Major General Jonathan Wainwright commanded the northern Luzon force, and Major General George Parker commanded the force that defended the southern and eastern portions of the island.

Major General Lewis Brereton, head of the US Far East Air Force in the Philippines, was warned by a message from US Army Air Forces commander Major General Hap Arnold not to let his force be caught napping if the Japanese attacked. Brereton had under his command the largest force of B-17s outside the United States—35 bombers—and 107 P-40 Warhawk fighter escorts. Even though there was also a large number of obsolete craft, the force as a whole was an invaluable resource if the United States hoped to hold on to the Philippine islands. Brereton was warned specifically not to be caught with planes on the ground. The idea of a preemptive attack on Formosa was proposed, but MacArthur insisted that no attack be launched unless the Japanese fired on the Philippines first, an idea that left Brereton aghast. The Japanese were going to be allowed to strike first.

War came to the Philippines only hours after the Japanese finished with Pearl Harbor. Brereton’s pilots heard rumors about what had happened in Hawaii, but they were never sent on defensive patrols, much less to attack Formosa. Instead, at 12:35 P.M. on Monday, December 8, the Japanese caught the American planes on the ground. They struck with 196 planes. Anti-aircraft defenses were poor, and the Japanese had a field day. The sitting-duck bombers and fighter planes were almost completely wiped out. (Surviving aircraft and crews that escaped to Australia were later organized into the Fifth Air Force).

The Japanese were quick to follow up their victory with ground force landings. They took the island Batan on December 8 and two days later the 14th Japanese army, under General Masaharu Homma, landed on Luzon. The defense forces on Luzon had a preexisting plan to retreat to the Bataan peninsula, north of Manila, and hold out there and on the nearby island of Corregidor until relief forces from the States arrived. Unfortunately, no relief forces were available, and the battleships to escort them were on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Wainwright’s forces on Luzon nonetheless did a superb job holding back Homma’s army while the southern force under Parker marched north to link up with them for the defensive holdout at Bataan. “Again and again, these tactics would be repeated,” MacArthur later wrote. “Stand and fight, slip back and dynamite.” Once inside their Bataan redoubt, the American-Filipino forces gave ground only grudgingly. Not until the end of April 1942 would Bataan fall, and it would be early May before the Japanese took Corregidor. With the fall of Corregidor would come the surrender of US forces in the Philippines, but their prolonged resistance would inspire the Allied war effort.

Americans also took great inspiration from the heroic resistance on Wake Island, another first-day target of the Japanese. Wake was on Japan’s hit list because it would make a good base on the eastern perimeter of the developing Pacific empire and because the US base there threatened Japanese control of the Marshall Islands. Wake was also home to a squadron of F4F Wildcat fighters, marine squadron VMF 211, under the command of Major Paul Putnam—another threat that had to be eliminated.

Anti-Japanese propaganda art

In an early war propaganda piece, a Japanese soldier slashes off the tenacles of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, symbolically cutting the West's hold on Asia and the Pacific islands. (www.georgetownbookshop.com)

It was still early morning on December 8 when word of the Pearl Harbor attack reached the V-shaped atoll. In charge of the defenses there were navy Commander Winfield S. Cunningham and marine Major James P.S. Devereux, commanding officer of the Wake detachment of the marines’ 1st Defense Battalion. On hearing of the Pearl Harbor raid, Devereux called his marines to arms. Batteries were manned and stocked with ammunition, small arms were passed out, and planes took off on patrol. Sailors and marines dug emplacements and beefed up defenses with help from civilian construction workers from the Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) seaplane base, which shared the island. Some of the civilian workers volunteered to serve in combat and were issued small arms. Devereux met with his officers and warned them that Oahu had been attacked and that Wake could expect the same treatment at almost any moment.

The first Japanese attack was launched from an airbase at Roi in the nearby Marshall Islands: 34 Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 land attack planes (known as Nells) took off at 7 A.M. on December 8, approaching the Wake atoll from the south just before noon. The island had no radar and relied on lookouts to either see the enemy or hear his approach. But the roaring surf masked the sound of aircraft engines and, cruising toward Wake at 13,000 feet, the approaching raid was masked by cloud cover. No one spotted the planes until they dropped down to 1,300 feet to make their attack.

The Japanese did not surprise the alert defenders, who opened up on the Nells with everything they had as the planes unloaded their bombs and strafed the marines. Three-inch anti-aircraft guns proved ineffective against the planes, which were attacking at very low altitude. The marines were also plagued by the concussions of some of their big guns collapsing the walls of their emplacements. Still, they damaged eight of the attacking planes during the seven-minute raid.

The Pan Am seaplane facilities were wrecked, though the one seaplane present came through with only a few bullet holes and was evacuated to safety.The Japanese aircrews believed they had destroyed all the US aircraft on Wake. They had succeeded in killing many marines and civilians, and in destroying two 25,000-gallon fuel tanks and all the supplies and spare parts for VMF 211's Wildcats--but not all the Wildcats themselves.

The next two mornings the Nells were back, wreaking more havoc on the island as the marines prepared for what they were sure was a coming invasion. The marines were right: under Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, an invasion squadron had sailed from Kwajalein on December 8 and was approaching Wake from the south. The Japanese intended to land on the atoll’s two southern islands, Wilkes and Wake, with 150 and 300 men, respectively. That the Japanese had underestimated the determination of the 1,500 marines and civilians on Wake Island soon became apparent.

On the morning of December 11 the Japanese fleet was just off Wilkes and Wake. At 5:22 the ships began shelling Wake as they crept closer and closer to shore. The attackers were sure their heavy air raids of the past three days had all but knocked out the American defenses, and the silence on shore seemed to confirm that assumption.

The flagship Yubari came to within 4,500 yards of the shore; still the American batteries of five-inch coastal artillery guns remained quiet, but they tracked the flagship and the other approaching vessels. At 6:10 A.M. the marines suddenly let loose their fire, blowing up the Japanese destroyer Hayate and damaging three others. The assaulting squadron turned south, away from the atoll. Then the surviving Wildcat fighters pounced. A bomb dropped by Captain Henry T. Elrod sank the destroyer Kisaragi, for which Elrod, who would be mortally wounded two weeks later, earned a posthumous Medal of Honor.

The repulse of the Japanese assault captured the imagination of the American public. Newspapers reported that when the marines were asked after the attack whether they needed anything, they replied, “Send us more Japs.”

If the Japanese were discouraged, they remained undaunted. The following days saw continued air raids on Wake as the high command decided to beef up the assault force there. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, sent the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, two heavy cruisers, and two destroyers from the Pearl Harbor strike force.

Meanwhile, a special unit, Task Force 14, was organized around the carrier USS Saratoga and dispatched from Pearl Harbor. It was expected to reach the atoll on the 24th to remove civilians and reinforce the island defenses. Part of that reinforcement was earmarked for VMF 211, in the form of F2A3 Brewster Buffalo fighter planes. The Buffalo was a difficult plane to operate from good facilities, and after the raid, the facilities on Wake were far from good.

While Task Force 14 sailed, time was running out for Wake. On December 21 Kajioka set out for the island from the Marshalls with an augmented naval task force. His squadron included destroyers to replace the two sunk in the original assault and four heavy cruisers that had been used in the invasion of Guam. On each destroyer in the assault force were 250 soldiers, fresh from landing exercises at Kwajalein.

That day, the planes from Hiryu and Soryu attacked Wake at 9 A.M., the Japanese veterans of Pearl Harbor giving the marines below a taste of dive-bombing. They followed up with an air raid by the land-based Nells later in the day. When the Japanese carrier planes returned on the 22nd, the last two working Wildcats left on Wake struck back. The Japanese lost three planes, but the marines lost their only planes and one pilot. There would be no replacements. Task Force 14 had been ordered back by navy higher-ups who feared the ships would be sacrificed without changing the outcome on Wake. So, with no planes left, the personnel of VMF 211 reported for duty as infantrymen.

Under cover of darkness on the 23rd, a Japanese landing force hit the beach near the marines’ airstrip around 2:30 A.M. Heavy fighting continued through the predawn hours and daylight. At 6:52 A.M. the marines radioed Pearl Harbor, “Enemy on island. Several ships plus transport moving in. Two DD [destroyers] aground.” That would be the last transmission from the Americans on Wake. The island surrendered later that morning.

The British were not left off Japan’s agenda for her first hours at war. On December 8, Japanese forces landed on the northern shores of Malaya, then a British colony. They wanted the tin and rubber that the colony offered, but they also wanted to knock out the naval base on the island of Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula.

Fifteen-inch guns defended the seaward approaches to Singapore, and the island housed a garrison of 88,000 soldiers. Air power consisted of 158 planes, many obsolete. The British navy was said to be able to send a relief fleet within six months, but ammunition supplies would be exhausted long before then.

Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Japanese army had only 30,000 men, but his materiel and especially the air forces at his command were superior to those of the British. Yamashita also bested the British strategically. Singapore, called “the Gibraltar of the East,” was ready to handle an attack from the sea, so Yamashita decided to invade Malaya and take Singapore from the landward side, where the fortified 15-inch guns could not be pointed.

The British believed they had an effective counter to the Japanese landing: two ships recently arrived from the Atlantic, the battle cruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales. Designated Force Z, the ships were on hand December 8 when an air raid struck Singapore. Force Z was sent out that afternoon to attack Japanese convoys in the South China Sea and, if possible, destroy the Japanese beachhead.

The ships, under the command of Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, sailed without air cover. Phillips was aware of the losses among the battleships at Pearl Harbor, but was convinced his ships would not be in danger from enemy air attack, because no capital ship had ever been sunk at sea by aircraft.

On December 9, a Japanese submarine sighted Force Z and radioed the British squadron’s position over the next five hours. Recalled to Singapore, Force Z turned to the southeast, but its fate was sealed. At 11:13 A.M. on the 10th, the first of several air attacks struck. Repulse was hit with slight damage by land-based Nell bombers. At 11:40 the Prince of Wales was hit by torpedoes and lost both the ability to steer and the power to operate her turrets. A force of 26 Mitsubishi G4M2 Betty torpedo bombers renewed the attack on the Repulse, which was fatally struck. The World War I–vintage battle cruiser rolled over and sank at 12:23 P.M. Six more torpedoes fatally injured the Prince of Wales, which sank at 1:18 P.M. Air cover for Force Z, Brewster Buffalos of the Australian No. 453 Squadron, arrived just as the Prince of Wales sank. At the cost of only three aircraft shot down by Force Z, the Japanese had sunk the two battleships; 840 British sailors were killed. Singapore itself would fall on February 15, 1942, in the biggest British surrender of the war.

Malaya was not the only troublespot for the British on the first day of the war. Less than eight hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese assaulted the crown colony of Hong Kong on China’s south coast with air and ground forces. By December 13 the defenders had been forced out of the mainland parts of the colony and continued to resist from Hong Kong island. The Japanese were brutal. They massacred one group of 20 gunners after it surrendered, and they murdered the captured medical staff of a Roman Catholic Salesian Mission on Chai Wan Road. The British deemed resistance hopeless by mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, and the surviving forces surrendered.

The ancient kingdom of Siam was also on the Japanese roster of first-day targets. Japan invaded Thailand by land from Cambodia and by sea at seven different points along the coast. Fighting was fierce but brief. The military ruler of the kingdom, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, offered a ceasefire, and the Japanese proceeded to occupy the entire country. Historians suggest that with the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, Phibun concluded that Thailand would benefit from an alliance with the Japanese. On December 14 he made a secret pact with the Japanese to help invade Burma. He announced his alliance with Japan formally on the 21st, and on January 25, 1942, Thailand declared war on the United States and Britain.

The Japanese ran wild in the Pacific through the long winter of 1941–1942, but they would have barely six months of victories before the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway reversed the tide permanently in the Allies’ favor. Before that demise, however, history had never seen an empire so huge established so quickly by force of arms as the one the Japanese began to amass in early December 1941. And never before had such an empire fallen so completely and disastrously as this one would.

Brian Murphy of Fairfield, Connecticut, is a contributing editor to America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of the magazine