WORLD WAR II IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC
Before World War II, Japan occupied Korea and parts of China. After destroying a good portion of the American navy at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the Japanese captured territory across Southeast Asia and the South Pacific with little resistance until the US started on the offensive in the summer of 1942 beginning first with Midway Island near Hawaii.
The American forces hopscotched across the Pacific fighting well-dug in Japanese forces until they got close enough to Japan to where they could launch air assaults on Japan and finally lead an invasion. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs made the invasion of Japan unnecessary.
The Japanese call the war the Great Asian War or the Pacific War. The period that includes the occupation of China is sometimes called the Showa War, which refers mainly to the wars fought against China and the United States.
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “World War II was the second world-wide war in less than a generation's time. The World War I had erased any romantic illusions about the nature of modern war; World War II saw the complete mobilization of entire populations and economies in the waging of the war. It was fought with grim determination on every side. In such conditions, each side carried out acts of great brutality in the frustration and necessity of achieving victory. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
In the U.S. World War II is widely seen as the “good war” in which do-gooding Americans made the world safe from evil Japanese and Germans, with the war itself playing out like a Hollywood Western or Star Wars movie. Washington Post essayist Jonathan Yardley said that nostalgia of World War II is not centered on the war itself but with “the goodness of ourselves and the our cause.”
Deaths and Casualties in the Pacific War
World War II was the worst war ever. More than 60 million people, including 400,000 American troops, died in Europe and the Pacific.
It is estimated that 24 million people died as a result of the Japanese hostilities during World War II between 1941 and 1945. Perhaps 10 million died in China alone (even more died if you include the Japanese occupation of China before 1941). About 3.1 million Japanese died. Of these about 200,000 soldiers and civilian employees were killed on the mainland and 21,000 were killed on Okinawa and Iwo Jima and overseas. In addition 500,000 Japanese civilians were killed on the mainland Japan and 300,000 were killed overseas.
The United States suffered between 92,000 and 100,000 deaths, including 2,335 during the Pearl Harbor attack, 6,821 on Iwo Jima, 307 in he battle of Midway and 1,252 during the Battle for Okinawa. About 20,000 U.S. soldiers died fighting in the Central Pacific. Britain lost 29,968 and the Dutch lost 27,600 . The Soviet Union recorded 22,694 deaths, including civilians, in fighting in China, including the Changkufeng incident in 1938, the Nomonhan Incident in 1939 and the battles after the its entry into World War II. About 3.5 million died in India through war-related famine. Hundreds of thousands more died in Burma, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.
The Chinese government said in 1995 that 35 million Chinese were killed or wounded during the war with Japan and the Japanese occupation from 1931 to 1945 but failed to provide details on how they came up with that figure. The Japanese government insists this number is way way too high. In 1985 the Chinese government said 12.2 million soldiers and civilians killed and 9.47 million were wounded. The figure sited at the Tokyo Tribunal immediately after the war was 3.2 million military casualties in China, with 1.9 million dead and 1.3 million wounded.
The number of wounded that died in World War II was 1 in 3, compared to 1 in 8 in the second Persian Gulf War. Many that died in World War I and World War II died from loss of blood. Today, soldiers that suffer wounds that would have caused them to bleed to death in previous wars are saved thanks to quick medical care in the battle zones and rapid transportation to field hospital, where they — American soldiers anyway — receive top-notch care.
Many Japanese families never found out what happened to loved ones who didn’t return home from the war. No remains or mementos were brought home and little information was offered as to what happened to them. About 12,000 Japanese are still classified as missing in action on Iwo Jima alone, along with 218 Americans. About 500,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Philippines and the remains of 380,000 have yet to be recovered. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun about 2.2 million Japanese soldiers perished overseas and the remains of about hlaf of them have not been repatriated. In 2011, the Japanese government stopped accepting remains from the Philippines when it was revealed about many of the 4,500 sets of remains collected in the Philippines and kept at a national cemetery in Tokyo were likely from Filipinos not Japanese. [Sources: AP, Yomiuri Shimbun]
Books and Films About World War II
"The War" is an exhaustive $10 million, 15-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns on World War II in Europe and the Pacific. There are a lot of graphic images of dead bodies in an attempt to show what war is really like. “The World at War” is a classic, multi-episode, 1974 documentary narrated by Laurence Olivier. The “Library of Congress Veterans History Project” is an effort to record the oral histories of soldiers before they pass on.
Propaganda films include: “Guadalcanal Diary” and “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) with John Wayne, “Wake Island”, “Battaan” and “The Fighting Seabees”. Good Documentaries: “The Battle of Midway”, by John Ford, which won an academy award in 1943; and “Report from the Aleutians” (1943) and “The Battle of San Pietro” (1945), documentaries by John Huston. “The Were Expendable” (1945) is a John Ford film classic about PT-boat crews.
”The Bridge Over the River Kwai” was based on the Pierre Boulle classic novel, which in turn was based on an account by Colonel Nichols. Directed David Lean and starring David Niven, it won 1957 Oscar for best Film.
“The Eagle and the Rising Sun — the Japanese-American War 1941-1943" by Alam Schom (Norton, 2003).
At 7:55am on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor, the westernmost port of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The final toll: 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,178 wounded, 3 warships destroyed, 21 ships badly damaged, and 169 aircraft lost. The Japanese lost only 64 men, 3 mini-submarines and 29 planes in the attack. Fortunately for the U.S., three aircraft carriers were not in port and the Japanese failed to destroy Hawaii oil tanks. [Source: National Geographic, December 1991]
The Commander of the United States Pacific fleet, Adm. Husband E. Kimel, called raid "one of the most brilliantly planned and executed attacks ever achieved at the start of a war." Kimmel and Gn. Walter C. Short, commander of the Army forces on the islands, were charged with "dereliction of duty" for not preparing American forces for the attack.
The objective if the offensive was not to annihilate the entire American Pacific Fleet in a single attack as is often claimed but rather to discourage the United States from interfering with Japanese expansion into Asia by demonstrating that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with.
Japanese Objectives in the Pacific and the Status of the American Military
With a rapidly expanding population and industrialized economy, Japan needed raw materials, particularly petroleum, minerals and rubber which were found in Pacific and Southeast Asian colonies controlled by Britain, France and the Netherlands.
Japan was particularly interested in oil and other supplies in Dutch-controlled islands of Sumatra, Borneo and Java but needed to take the Philippines and Southeast Asia to secure supply lines and safe passage between the islands and Japan. Japan undertook war with the United States thinking deeply about the outcome or even the chance of winning. Buruma wrote there was “weakness, even paralysis, at the highest levels of Japanese government.”
In the 1930s the United States had the 17th largest army in the world. The Greek and Portuguese armies were larger. United States foreign policy was based on the "Open Door" policy in which counties were encouraged to trade with one another while respecting national integrity.
Japan resented the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the size of Japan's fleet, giving the U.S. and Britain a military advantage. In 1922, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniel declared "Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected blow on our Pacific possessions...radio makes surprise impossible." Early Japanese aggression was applauded by the United States, partly because the Russians were among its victims.
Events Before Pearl Harbor
After Germany defeated France and Holland in May 1940, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) were vulnerable to attack. British Malaya was also vulnerable because Britain had divert resources away from Asia to Europe.
In July, 1940, Japan proclaimed the Pacific and Asian colonies controlled by the Europeans were actually part a Japanese empire called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This declaration, the Japanese said, gave them the right to secure raw materials and oil they needed. In June 1941, the Japanese government decided to station troops in southern French Indochina.
On September 27, 1940 Japan signed the Tripartite Treaty and joined the Axis alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The treaty recognized a "new order" with Europe under the control of Germany and Italy and "Greater East Asia" under the control of Japan.
As a deterrent against Japanese aggression, in May 1940, Roosevelt ordered the U.S. fleet from southern California to Pearl Harbor. The new 200-ship U.S. Pacific Fleet was placed under the command of Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel.
In July 1940, the United States cut off the supply of two important exports to Japan: top-grade scrap iron, which Japan used to make high-grade steel, and aviation fuel, which Japan’s Air Force was dependent on. The United also States insisted that Japan halt its Chinese offensive and pull its troops out of positions that threatened Dutch and English colonies in Malaya and the East Indies. At this point Japan made the decision to attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl harbor.
War Becomes Likely and Why Japan Went to War
The Japanese felt the economic war against Japan was so severe they had no choice but to strike back militarily. When American are asked who started the war, they say the Japanese started it Pearl harbor. When Japanese are asked the same question many say the United States started it by imposing the crippling sanctions.
James Huffman — a professor emeritus at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio—said: “The decision to go to war was caused by another inward turn. The Great Depression occurred, and the Japanese were hurt badly by the international markets. They found that every country turned inward because of the Depression and looked out for itself. And so there was a decision to develop an empire that's economically self-sufficient. To me, that's probably the most important precipitating event — I think there are other long-range factors — so that, in a sense, is a turn inward, even though on the surface it looks like a turn outward.
Gen. Hideki Tojo became prime minister on October 16, 1941, vastly increasing the chance of a war with the West. In November he sent a special envoy to the United States to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis. The negotiations were primarily a Japanese diversion to keep the American forces preoccupied so the attack would be a surprise.
On November 26 talks between the U.S. and Japan broke off. Secretary of War Henry Stimson recorded that in a meeting around that time, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, asked, "How should we maneuver them [the Japanese] into a position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." On December 6, Roosevelt appealed direct to the Japanese emperor to work for peace.
On the belief that U.S. government had no knowledge of a potential Japanese attack before Dec. 7, Craig Shirley, author of a book about Pearl Harbor, wrote in the Washington Post: “Beyond the obvious signs of Japan’s increasing aggression — including its sinking of an American naval vessel in the Yangtze River and its signing of the Tripartite Pact with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany — various specific war warnings had been sent by Washington to military commanders in the Pacific for some days before Dec. 7. The War Department had been intercepting and analyzing secret cables between Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Washington and thought at one point that the Japanese would attack Hawaii on Sunday, Nov. 30. A Hawaii newspaper even warned, in a blaring headline, of a possible attack. [Source: Craig Shirley, Washington Post, December 2, 2011]
“On Dec. 4, Roosevelt received a 26-page memo marked “Confidential” from the Office of Naval Intelligence detailing Japanese espionage efforts. The possible outbreak of war is mentioned, followed shortly by this paragraph: “The focal point of the Japanese Espionage effort is the determination of the total strength of the United States. In anticipation of possible open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.” These were just general warnings, however, and a huge Japanese armada was able to travel thousands of miles from Japan to Hawaii undetected. The U.S. military and government officials were caught off guard by the attack.
Justification of Japan’s Activity in Asia before World War II
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Nagai Ryūtarō (1881-1944) was born into an impoverished former samurai family in Kanazawa. After working as a journalist and a professor at Waseda University, Nagai (who was a convert to Christianity) became a politician, serving as a member of the House of Representatives from 1920 to 1944. Early in his career, Nagai, a member of the more liberal Minseitō (Democratic) Party, had the reputation as a reformer and social activist. In the 1930s, however, reflecting the trends of the nation as a whole, Nagai retreated from his liberal reformist stands and embraced more conservative (some would say reactionary) nationalist and statist positions. Before his death during World War II, Nagai held a number of significant cabinet appointments, including Minister of Colonial Affairs, Minister of Communications, and Minister of Railways. In this 1939 piece, written in an English-language journal targeted at the international and diplomatic communities, Nagai lays out a justification for Japanese policy toward Asia that was widely accepted in Japan at the time.” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
In “Some Questions for President Roosevelt” (1939), Nagai Ryūtarō wrote: “The world today now faces a great international crisis. This critical condition has developed chiefly from the conflict between those who would maintain the “status quo “and those who would alter it. To be precise, one group is composed of countries which, having followed Imperialism, wish to hold and maintain the lands, material resources, and rights and interests they have conquered or acquired by the pursuit of Imperialism, thus maintaining their present superiority, while the other group is composed of those countries which oppose the bearers of the Imperialist standard and wish to place all lands, material resources, and markets which have been monopolized at the disposal of all mankind, thereby eliminating the causes of friction and conflict between the haves and the have.nots. This latter group aims at the reconstruction of the world upon the basis of international justice and the lofty ideal of co.existence so that the true foundation of a lasting peace may be laid.” [Source: Contemporary Japan, Volume VIII, Number 5 (July 1939): 563-573 ]
“The total land area of the earth is estimated at approximately 50 million square miles, of which some 30 million square miles, or three-fifths, is in the hands of only four great Powers, namely, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Moreover, these four great Powers, following the unsuccessful World Economic Conference of 1932, have veered in the direction of closed economies, closing their doors to outside immigration and raising high tariff walls. America has been very deeply concerned with Japanese activity in Asia, but seems to overlook the fact that Japan has had to follow her present policies for a number of reasons among which not the least important is America’s closed door to Asiatic immigration and her closing of markets to Japanese imports … all these great Powers have always been imposing their will upon Asia. It is their idea that Asia should not only be for the Asiatics but for all the rest of the world. It is likewise their idea that here in Asia the door should be kept open and opportunity made equal for all peoples. By the same token we have the right to say that all Europe and America are not for their peoples alone but for all peoples of the world and that Europe should therefore keep their doors open and respect the principles of equal opportunity.
“If the peoples of Europe and America have the right to make their own resources inaccessible to others and construct their own self.sufficient economic structures, then the peoples of Asia have the same freedom to exploit their own natural wealth and establish their own self-sufficiency.
“If President Roosevelt is truly anxious, as he seems to be, for the peace of East Asia, why will he not co.operate with Japan and eliminate once and for all the menaces to world peace which have arisen from this one.sided attitude of the Powers? Why does he not keep aloof from Britain, France and the Soviet Union who are trying to checkmate Japan in her fight to free the oppressed races of Asia and thus enable them to reconstruct their life on the spirit of justice and the great principle of love and humanity? Japan is animated by the desire to work with other Powers which will respect the independence of all races in Asia and which will work with these races on the principle of equality. With people so disposed, Japan is only too willing to develop the natural wealth of Asia, open up its markets, and construct a new community without oppression or extortion. Japan sincerely believes that it is her duty to build a new Asiatic order in which the peoples of Asia will really enjoy freedom, independence, and peace.
“Chancellor Bismarck once condemned American diplomacy as “brazen.faced and shameless Monroe Doctrine.” If America means to uphold this doctrine, she should not only expect others to respect it, but she herself should be willing to respect its basic principle. If America were to say that while she would not allow countries other than of the American continents to interfere with American continental affairs, she herself would have the right to interfere not only in the affairs of the American continents, but in any part of the world, she would be adopting an Imperialistic course. Then American diplomacy might be true to Bismarck’s characterization. As it is, however, I am of the opinion that the Monroe Doctrine became untenable, morally at least, in consequence of America’s own actions. The first such action took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the United States went forth outside the American continent and thus broke the rule of “Europe by the countries of Europe and America by countries of the American continents.” This happened in 1867 when the American navy took possession of Midway Island which lies some 1,200 miles to the northwest of Hawaii. In 1889, the United States, jointly with Britain and Germany, established a protectorate over the Samoan Islands. The revolutionary outbreak in Hawaii in 1893 furnished the United States with the opportunity to conclude the treaty of annexation with the Hawaiian Government. Then the Philippines and the Island of Guam came under American control as a result of the Spanish War. The last and most complete departure from the Monroe Doctrine was made in 1917, when President Wilson, determined “to make the world safe for democracy,” brought the United States into the World War. By this break with the Monroe Doctrine, America hoped to win a new position in world politics. And now it is evident that President Roosevelt is advancing in the tracks of his predecessor.
“Nevertheless, a new age calls for a new policy. I have no intention to take America to task for her attempt to depart from the Monroe Doctrine or for her attempt to construct for herself a new position in world politics. But when America strongly insists on her right to have a voice in some continent other than her own, and yet tries to close the American continents to any people but their own, is this not a most glaring inconsistency?”
Pearl Harbor, an American Conspiracy?
There have been a number of books written that claimed that Pearl Harbor was the result of carefully planned high-level effort by the United States to bring Japan into the war so that the U.S. could help its allies in Europe.
Among the books that have offered this hypothesis are “The Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor” by Robert Stinnet, “The Pearl Harbor Cover-up” by Frank Schuler and Robin Moore, “Tragic Deception” by Hamilton Fish and “Betrayal at Pearl Harbor” by James Rushbringer, and “Pearl Harbor: Final Judgement” by Henry C. Clausen.
Evidence for these assertions include the interception and deciphering of Japanese messages pertaining to the Pearl Harbor attack that were received months before the attack but inexplicably ignored. In his book Stinnet claimed to have uncovered documents released by the Navy in 2000 that "proved" Roosevelt deliberately provoked war with Japan and there was a "cover-up" to hide the fact.
These documents, he claimed, indicated that the U.S. Navy was reading Japanese coded messages weeks before Pearl Harbor. A closer look at documents from the period showed that yes the U.S. had deciphered some of Japanese codes at that time but not all of them. The information they did pick from Japanese transmissions came in bits and pieces and dribs and drabs and there is no direct evidence that the U.S. government knew of the planned attack or Pearl Harbor. One respected historian called Stinnett's work the "most irrational" book about Pearl Harbor ever written
Spies in Pearl Harbor
One of the most useful spies rings for the Japanese in Pearl Harbor was the Kühn family, who was assigned to Hawaii after the daughter, Ruth Kühn, had a schoolgirl affair the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Ruth obtain information by having affairs with naval officers and opening a beauty parlor that was frequented by the wives of naval officers who were more than happy to gossip about all the military secrets they knew. Ruth's 11-year-old brother Hans asked sailors for tours of their ships and asked technical question he'd been coached by his parents to ask.
The Kühns relayed their messages to the Japanese members of the embassy with flashing lights. These primitive communications methods eventually lead to the Kuhn’s capture but not before they relayed important information about Pearl Harbor that was useful in the Japanese surprise attack.
The spy Takeo Yoshikawa reported that the American ships usually returned from the sea on Friday and stayed in port until Monday or Tuesday, and American military readiness was particularly low on Sunday morning.
Admiral Yamamoto and the Plan to Attack Pearl Harbor
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was the Commander and Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet and Japan's leading naval strategist. He planned the Pearl Harbor attack and was responsible for the operation that led to the June 1942 Battle of Midway. He was also one of the few Japanese leaders who had spent time in the Unites States, where he was a student and a naval attache in Washington in the 1920s.
Yamamoto was initially against the war. He once told the commanding Japanese generals that "we can run wild for six months to a year" but after that "I have no confidence for the second or third year...the oil wells of Texas and the factories of Detroit" would eventually overcome Japan's with a crushing counter offensive. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
In January, 1941 Yamamoto wrote a letter to the Japanese navy minsters voicing his opposition to war with the United States but in the same letter said that was in favor of delivering a "fatal blow" against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor with an aircraft carrier attack. He reasoned that if the Fleet could be wiped out in one bold strike, Japan could seize the resource-rich colonies in Southeast Asia with relatively little opposition, and force the United States to negotiate concessions.
Yamamoto planned the daring surprise attack of Pearl Harbor himself. He once said "if you want the tiger's cubs you must go into the tiger's lair." Many Pearl Harbor officers were opposed to plan to attack Hawaii. They argued that the Japanese military would be better served by devoting attention to an invasion of southern Asia. Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan to attack Pearl Harbor wasn't followed.
White House After the Pearl Harbor Attack
“Within the first thirty or forty minutes a telephone circuit was opened from the White House to Governor Joseph B. Poindexter in Honolulu. The Governor confirmed the disastrous news insofar as he had learned it. In the middle of the conversation he almost shrieked into the phone and the President turned to the group around him to bark grimly:'My God, there's another wave of Jap planes over Hawaii right this minute.'
“Mr. Hull, his face as white as his hair, reported to the Boss that Nomura and Kurusu were waiting to see him at the exact moment the President called to tell him of the bombing. In a tone as cold as ice he repeated what he had told the enemy envoys and there was nothing cold or diplomatic in the words he used. Knox, whose Navy had suffered the worst damage, and Stimson were cross-examined closely on what had happened, on why they believed it could have happened, on what might happen next and on what they could do to repair to some degree the disaster.
“Within the first hour it was evident that the Navy was dangerously crippled, that the Army and Air Force were not fully prepared to guarantee safety from further shattering setbacks in the Pacific. It was easy to speculate that a Jap invasion force might be following their air strike at Hawaii - or that the West Coast itself might' be marked for similar assault. Orders were sent to the full Cabinet to assemble at the White House at 8:30 that evening and for Congressional leaders of both parties to be on hand by 9:00 for a joint conference with the Executive group.
“Shortly before 5:00 o'clock the Boss called me to his study. He was alone, seated before his desk on which were two or three neat piles of notes containing the information of the past two hours. The telephone was close by his hand. He was wearing a gray sack jacket and was lighting a cigarette as I entered the room. He took a deep drag and addressed me calmly: 'Sit down, Grace: I'm going before Congress tomorrow. I'd like to dictate my message. It will be short.' I sat down without a word; it was no time for words other than those to become part of the war effort.
“Once more he inhaled deeply, then he began in the same calm tone in which he dictated his mail. Only his diction was a little different as he spoke each word incisively and slowly, carefully specifying each punctuation mark and paragraph. 'Yesterday comma December 7 comma 1941 dash a day which will live in infamy dash the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan period paragraph.'
“The entire message ran under 500 words, a cold-blooded indictment of Japanese treachery and aggression, delivered to me without hesitation, interruption or second thoughts. 'I ask,' he concluded, 'that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday comma December 7 comma a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire period end.' As soon as I transcribed it, the President called Hull back to the White House and went over the draft. The Secretary brought with him an alternative message drafted by Sumner Welles, longer and more comprehensive in its review of the circumstances leading to the state of war. It was rejected by the Boss and hardly a word of his own historic declaration was altered. Harry Hopkins added the next to the last sentence: 'With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounded determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.' "
War Declarations, Japan and War Readiness After Pearl Harbor Attack
Two and half hours after the attack on Pearl harbor began the Japanese declared war on the United States and Great Britain. A day or so later the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his famous speech in which he said December 7, 1941 "will live in infamy."
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Churchill said "We've won the war" — a reference to the fact that America had finally entered World War II. Roosevelt believed that industrial Europe under Hitler was a far greater threat than Japan as saw Germany as the enemy that had to be defeated first. When most Americans heard the news their first though was "where's Pearl Harbor."
On December 9, China formally declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy. On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States and in response the United States declared war against Germany. A few days later most of the countries in Latin America had also declared war on Japan and Germany.
Craig Shirley, author of a book about Pearl Harbor, wrote in the Washington Post: “The attack persuaded Americans to support entering part of the war, not all of it. Before Pearl Harbor, the United States was largely isolationist, and there was almost no call to get involved in another European war. The America First movement, backed by public figures including Charles Lindbergh and Walt Disney, was growing in popularity. Its supporters had announced plans to participate in every congressional race in 1942 and support the most isolationist candidate, whether Republican or Democrat. After the attack, the America First movement came to a halt. [Source: Craig Shirley, Washington Post, December 2, 2011]
“In the papers of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, archivists discovered a draft declaration of war against Japan, Germany and Italy for Roosevelt to deliver to Congress on Dec. 8. But that was scrapped, and FDR asked for a declaration of war against only Japan.The attack on Pearl Harbor awoke America from its isolationist slumber and bolstered its charge into the Pacific war, but it did not spur entry into the European war. That happened when Nazi Germany and fascist Italy declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, compelling Roosevelt to respond in kind — thus committing the United States to a world war.”
The losses at Pearl Harbor forced the navy to make strategic changes that have lasted to this day. The emphasis was shifted from battleships that bombard shorelines and engage other battleships to aircraft carriers, which transport a mobile fighting force to wherever is needed. The “Saratoga” served in the Pacific campaigns at Wake Island, Guadalcanal and Iowa Jim and survived two torpedoes and five kamikaze attacks.
Other Attacks Around the Time of Pearl Harbor and Early Defeats for the Americans
Shirley wrote in the Washington Post: “Though the attack on Pearl Harbor was the most crippling and caused the most American losses, Japanese forces also struck the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand and Midway that day. In the Philippines, the capital fell to the Japanese in January 1942 and U.S. forces surrendered in May. In the Pacific, Wake Island was shelled by Japanese aircraft and ships until Dec. 11, when the Japanese attempted the first of two invasions before the island finally fell. [Source: Craig Shirley, Washington Post, December 2, 2011]
“Guam was bombed and later invaded on Dec. 10. Malaya (now Malaysia) was invaded and fell early the following year. The invasion of Thailand lasted only a few hours before that country surrendered in December 1941. Other than Hawaii, Midway was the only target on Dec. 7 not to fall under Japanese control. Those days were among the darkest of the Pacific war. Britain lost two huge battleships in a matter of minutes to aerial bombardment, and Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs that their sinking was his lowest point of the entire war. The Japanese actions that day effectively crippled British naval strength in the Pacific.
“For months after Pearl Harbor, the United States suffered defeat after defeat in the Pacific theater. Rumors swept the country on Dec. 8 that the Navy was in pursuit of the attacking Japanese fleet, but these were false. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in command of the Army garrison in the Philippines, sent Roosevelt a telegram pleading for naval assistance, including for U.S. subs to target the Japanese vessels delivering troops, but the requests went unanswered. There was little assistance to offer the beleaguered general, and the Philippines fell. The first significant U.S. offensive did not come until February 1942, when the Pacific fleet began attacks on the Gilbert and Marshall islands.
After Pearl Harbor, Japan was intoxicated with victory. Government propaganda applauded the Japanese population as "100 million hearts beating as one," "100 million as one bullet," and "100 million advancing like a ball of fire." Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the Pearl Harbor air attack and transmitted the famous “Tora, tora, tora,” said he showed photographs from the attack to Emperor Hirohito, who he said was fascinated with theimages and kept saying he wanted to show them to the Empress. In Japan, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood movies and baseball were banned and intellectuals called for the removal of foreign words, mostly Chinese ones, from the Japanese language.
Wake Island, Guam, the Aleutians and Alaska
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese struck at tiny Wake Island, a small U.S. Marine garrison 2,000 miles west on Honolulu. The Marines put up a heroic defense against vastly superior Japanese air force and navy and ultimately lost, surrendering on December 23.
Guam, the first American possession taken by the Japanese, fell on December 11. The only island in Micronesia that didn't belong to the Japanese, Guam, was undefended and surrendered without a fight.
In June 1942, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian islands of Alaska and occupied Kiska and Attu. It was the only land campaign of the war fought on American soil. More than a half million men took part in the fighting. More than 10,000 died.
In May 1943, Japanese fighting on Attu were wiped out in a battle described as an “honorable defeat.” About 2,5000 troops on the island ran out of ammunition. Instead of sending them supplies Japanese military headquarters wired them: “When it comes to the end, we you will gracefully choose honorable deaths with determination to show the flower of the spirit of Imperial military personnel.” U.S. forces appealed to the soldiers to surrender, but the Japanese soldiers ignored the request and chose to charge forward to their death, binding each other’s legs together with rope so no one would chicken out.
To get supplies to Alaska the Alaska-Canada Highway was built almost 1,000 miles across Western Canada in a matter of months — an incredible engineering feat. The efforts to expel the Japanese from the Aleutians was probably more trouble than it was worth. In bitter hand-to-hand combat an entire Japanese garrison was wiped out on Attu in May 1943 (See above). Kiska was taken without opposition on August 15, 1943, ending the Japanese presence in Alaska.
Fate of Contract Workers at Wake Island
T. Christian Miller wrote in the Washington Post: “On the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Japanese forces also attacked the South Pacific outpost of Wake Island. At the time, about 1,200 American construction workers were beefing up the island's defenses. Most were employed by an Idaho construction company, Morrison Knudsen. Aided by the contractors, who manned gun batteries in some cases, U.S. Marines repelled the first attack, but they fell to a second assault on Dec. 23, 1941. [Source: T. Christian Miller, Washington Post, August 16, 2009]
“The Japanese sent both civilians and soldiers to prisoner-of-war camps in China. But a contingent of 98 contract workers was kept on the island as forced labor. They were all men, mostly white, from towns across America. Photos show them with pomaded hair and fedoras. When the U.S. Navy attacked the island in October 1943, the Japanese lined up the workers and executed them, dumping their bodies in a mass grave.
“A single, unknown man escaped, only to be recaptured a few weeks later. In a macabre echo of the fate that would befall several contractors in Iraq, the Japanese commander, Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara, later confessed to personally beheading him, according to an account by Mark Hubbs, a retired Army Reserve officer who researched the incident. All told, more than 150 civilian contractors from Wake Island were killed, executed or died in prison camps.
Attacks on the American Mainland
While smoke was still billowing out of ships in Pearl Harbor planes took off from Oregon, searching for Japanese ships off the West Coast of the United States but didn’t find any. On February 23, 1942 a Japanese submarine shelled an oil field near Santa Barbara, causing $500 worth of damage. The residents of Los Angeles were spooked and thousands of rounds of ammunition was fired at false alarms and non-existent planes.
In September 1942, a plane launched with a catapult from a Japanese submarine dropped a couple of bombs near Portland Oregon. After completing the mission the plane landed on pontoons and was picked up the same submarine that delivered the aircraft. After the plane was folded up and placed on submarine the submarine descended 250 meters below the surface to avoid detection. A couple of weeks later the same pilot flew another mission and dropped two more bombs. No one was hurt in the forest fires created by the incendiary bombs. These attacks were the only time in American history that enemy planes bombed the American mainland.
The Japanese released 6,000 glue-and-paper, bomb-carrying hydrogen balloons, which were carried over the American West Coast by westerly winds. The only fatalities on the American mainland were six people on fishing trip near Bly, Oregon who were killed by one of the five bombs that dangled from each balloon.
After these attacks, Americans were concerned that a Japanese invasion was imminent. Machine gun nests were set up on the Potomac River, the Oregon coast was mined, guerilla units drilled, a 26-acre Boeing factory in Seattle was covered with 53 plywood houses and painted burlap camouflage lawns.
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;
Text Sources: Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987),, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated November 2016