Blog Updated! December 25, 2012
Story Updated! August 2, 2012

World War II in the Pacific December 1941

December 25, 2012

I think it's not an over-statement to say World War II in December is synonymous with Pearl Harbor. We do, as well we should, remember it. But I think it's a disservice to look at only Pearl Harbor and forget everything else that occurred on and around Dec. 7 and the events that would continue to unfold until Christmas. During this time Americans also fought and died on Guam, Wake Island and alongside Filipinos in the Philippines (resident aliens in an American's complicated) and the British died defending their Far East territories.

In a way the attacks on America and Britain were incidental to the real target: The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia/parts of Malaysia). During the 1930's Japan was involved in a long war in China and it was short the resources needed to continue its war. After Germany invaded France and the collaborator Vichy government was established Japan decided that as they were allies with Germany and Germany was allies with France... they could now peacefully take over French Indochina. For safe-keeping of course. It also happened to put them within reasonable striking distance of the real goal- the oil and resource rich Dutch East Indies.  This spurred on a response from the US (still on the side of non-Nazi France), which was to freeze Japanese assets in America and stopped selling Japan oil. (Fun fact: Pissing off the guy who supplies 75% of your oil and most of your scrap metal is not a good idea)

Japan had two options at this point: Lose face by giving into American demands and un-invading Indochina or...

Since the British, Americans and Dutch supported each other, even though Roosevelt wouldn't secretly sign a mutual defense agreement without the consent of Congress until August 1941 (no really, look it up), an attack on any of the three powers would provoke a response from the others so the only logical option, since losing face isn't one, was to attack everyone at once. To get the resources of the Dutch they'd have to take over or take out all nearby British and American territories and military forces. Then they could get to the real prize and everyone else, now beaten into submission would beg for peace and they could go back to prosecuting the real war they wanted to fight in China, and sometimes Mongolia.

So long story short, in order to continue a war they lacked the resources to win Japan's plan was to start a second war with everyone else to get those resources.

The Americans had two fleets in the Pacific, the Asiatic Fleet based at Cavite Navy Yard in the American Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Pacific Fleet based out of Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. The Asiatic Fleet was a paper dragon composed of outdated four-stack destroyers led by a cruiser, the Yangtze River gunboats, a submarine squadron and a flotilla of unwanted ships sent to the Far East in lieu of the scrap yard. It was in Japan's backyard and at the time the US didn't want to antagonize them by putting a powerful fleet that close to their waters. Also no part of the US mainland was remotely near the Far East so there wasn't a great argument for putting more forces out there. In other words, there was little immediate threat here to the Japanese invasion of everybody at once.

The main muscle of the American Navy and Army Air Corps was in Hawaii. According to War Plan Orange any Japanese attack in Asia would be responded to by this fleet and therefore it had to be neutralized.


December 7th or 8th (depending on your side of the International Dateline) saw strikes at Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya and Hong Kong.

The first attack came at Kota Bharu, Malaya with beach landings and an air attack on the nearby British airfield. Ninety minutes later and an ocean away the attack on Pearl Harbor began. By mid-morning the US Pacific Fleet, save the carriers which were at sea, was taken out of action for the immediate future. 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,177 from USS Arizona alone.

Guam and Wake were also bombed but there were no landings and the Japanese began their invasion of Hong Kong.

In the Philippines, and in a story I've not the space nor inclination to cover here, almost the entire Army Air Corps was destroyed on the ground. USS William B. Preston, a destroyer turned seaplane tender, was the first US Navy vessel attacked in the Far East since Japan sunk Yangtze River gunboat USS Panay in 1937. Japanese bombs also fell on Camp John Hay near Baguio City.

Yangtze river gunboat USS Wake was confiscated at the docks in Shanghai by the Japanese while nearby British gunboat HMS Peterel exchanged fire with Japanese forces and was cut down in short order. Also in Shanghai 204 US Marines awaiting transport to the Philippines were captured on the docks.

In the weeks prior to the attack the Fourth "Shanghai" Marines and most of the Yangtze River gunboats were sent to the Philippines, as the possibility of war increased the US military in the Far East began circling the wagons. Forces were drawn back to the Philippines and military families in the Philippines were sent back to the US.

On December 10th Japanese forces land on Guam and secured it's surrender in a little over an hour. Japanese forces also landed at Aparri and Vigan, on the main Philippine Island of Luzon.

Meanwhile off the coast of Malaya the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were destroyed by land-based Japanese aircraft. At the time the pair were the most powerful Allied ships in the Far East.

Due to inclement weather the planned air raid of the 9th was pushed back to the 10th and Japanese naval air forces begin an air raid on the Cavite Navy Yard. The Yard itself was completely taken out of action, practically razed and though it's ammunition depot didn't explode  most of the destroyer torpedoes had been lost. Luckily the defective submarine torpedoes had previously been removed to Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay.

Minesweeper turned Submarine Rescue Ship USS Pigeon received the first Presidential Unit Citation of the war for her actions during the air raid. While the Navy Yard literally burned down around Pigeon instead of heading for the relative safety of open water Pigeon towed the damaged submarine USS Seadragon away from the Navy Yard.

Without air cover or Cavite, Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the Asiatic Fleet, decided to move the fighting components of the fleet south to meet up with Dutch and British forces in the East Indies. The Yangtze gunboats, submarine tender USS Canopus and the rest of the fleet's odds and ends remain in place. They were to assist in the defense of the Philippines which according to pre-war planning was supposed to hold out for about six months before help in the form of the US Pacific Fleet and soldiers & Marines from stateside arrived. At present the Japanese had formed a strong defensive perimeter of island strongholds around the Pacific that the  US Pacific Fleet was in no shape to start pushing through and as the US lacked the transport capacity necessary to move the amount of men and materiel to relieve the islands that rescue was to be a few years further off than they realized. Except for those captured and sailing under Japanese flags, none of the ships left behind would survive to the end of the war. (A few of the small boats were a different story...)

By the 14th the Asiatic Fleet realized all communication with Guam, the direct line back to Hawaii and the mainland was broken.

As the fleet moves south on December 16th Japanese forces land on the island of Borneo in the East Indies.

Wake Island surrendered December 23rd. Pan Am's Philippine Clipper was the last flight out of Wake after the battle began and brought with it a load of civilians, 26 bullet holes and the first first-hand accounts of the battle.

On Christmas Eve with the Japanese army drawing closer to Manila the decision was made to destroy Manila's oil supplies; it was enough oil to keep the Asiatic Fleet fueled for two years. The American Standard-Vacuum Oil company manager accepted it and helped with the destruction of his fuel, the British and French company representatives on the other hand flat out refused. Listening to their refusal Admiral Hart's aide Lt. Champlin, who was tasked with the destruction, bought the men a round of drinks and as they finished assured them their oil was already in flames.

General Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an open city. By declaring open city he hoped to spare it's destruction by ordering his forces to leave. Despite this there would be some bombing before the first Japanese ground forces rolled into the Pearl of the Orient in the beginning of January. Hong Kong surrendered Dec. 25.

By Christmas almost all the early objectives had been met. The remaining Allied forces in theatre were inconsequential, the Japanese military had suffered mostly minor losses. Singapore fell in February but the Philippines remained a sticking point. A force of nearly 100,000 troops on Bataan and Corregidor kept fighting. It wasn't until May 6th, at the time the Battle of Coral Sea has all the history books' attention, did  Corregidor finally fall.

For further reading:
Cruise of the Lanikai: Incitement to War by Kemp Tolley
Fighting for MacArthur by John Gordon
The Lonely Ships: The Life and Death of the US Asiatic Fleet by Edwin P. Hoyt
Tora! Tora! Tora! Pearl Harbor 1941 (Osprey Raid Series) by Mark E. Stiles
Wake Island 1941 (Osprey Campaign #144) by Jim Moran
Yangtze Patrol
by Kemp Tolley

Ghosts of Seattle

Mariveles, Bataan Province, Philippines

This metal 'Soldier's Grave' is part of the Death March Memorial at Kilometer 0, where the march began in Mariveles. An identical sculpture is on Corregidor as well. We found this by accident, we were driving to the bancay boats to get to Corregidor when we missed our turn. I noticed the Death March marker we passed said "2 km" on it, so I asked our driver if he could go another two kilometers before turning around. Sure enough two kilometers down the road, across the the beach and nestled in a quiet little park next to a Jollibee fast food restaurant was the Death March Kilometer 0 Memorial Park.

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