A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

*Japan’s ruthless invasion of China demanded an American response, but Americans demanded a response short of war.  Instead, in July 1940, the United States placed an embargo on Japan, outlawing the export to Japan of aviation gasoline and most types of machine tools.  In September, the embargo was extended to scrap metal, which Japan (with few natural resources) depended on.  Shortly afterwards, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy and occupied French Indo-China.  In 1941, the US cut off sales of all oil to Japan (who bought 80% of its oil from the US).  The British and the Dutch put embargoes on trade with Japan as well, and the Japanese grew desperate.


*Encircled by potential enemies and deprived of natural resources, Japan began developing an ‘Eastern Strategy’ in September, 1941 (although both Japanese and American plans for a war in the Pacific had existed since at least the 1920s).


*The United States had cracked the Japanese secret code, and knew an attack was coming somewhere in the Pacific, but did not know where.  The Philippines seemed the most likely target.


*On December 7th, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.


*By 9.45, 2,400 Americans would be dead and 1,200 more wounded.  Some ships were sunk with men trapped inside who took days to die of starvation.


*Of eight battleships in Pearl Harbor that day, the Arizona sank and remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma capsized (and was later raised and sold for scrap), and six others were badly damaged but later repaired and returned to active service.  Other ships and many airplanes were destroyed, but the most important ships in any modern navy, the aircraft carriers, were not touched because they were out on manœuvres that day.


*Upon learning of the carriers’ survival, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku felt that his prediction that he could "run wild considerably for the first six months or a year but... [had] utterly no confidence for the second and third years" would probably come true.


*Shortly afterwards, the Japanese ambassador brought a message that was supposed to have been delivered earlier.  It made demands that the US would have been forced to refuse, after which war would have been declared.  Because it got there late, the Japanese were correctly accused of a sneak attack, and the United States Congress declared war on Japan on 8 December, 1941.  Only one person in the entire Congress was opposed:  Jeannette Rankin of Montana.


*On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy, to help their ally Japan, declared war on the United States.  Over two years after the invasion of Poland, the United States was involved in the Second World War, a war, Roosevelt said, to make the world safe for Democracy.


*The bombing of Pearl Harbor was only the first of several attacks on the United States by the Empire of Japan.  They attacked airbases on Wake Island and on Guam and in the Philippines.  Although the commander of the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, had heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not prepare for an attack in the Philippines.  On 12 December, the Japanese landed on Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, and moved towards the capital, Manila.  MacArthur withdrew his troops to the Bataan Peninsula which he hoped would prove more defensible.  In March, at the President’s orders, MacArthur fled to Australia, but he made a promise:  ‘People of the Philippines, I shall return.’


*The Japanese surrounded the American forces, and starvation forced them to surrender.  The Japanese, who followed bushido, the code of the warrior, considered anyone who surrendered a coward, and unworthy of decent treatment.  A good warrior fought to the death, or committed seppuku, also known as hara-kiri, a form of ritual suicide.  The 76,000 Americans and Filipinos who surrendered were forced to march in small groups 60 miles to a railroad junction, where they were sent on to a prisoner of war camp.  Along the way the starving, dehydrated prisoners were guarded constantly and pushed along as fast as, or faster than, they could march.  If any fell down, stopped for water, or acted disrespectfully towards the captors, they would be beheaded on the spot with one of the swords that were part of the Japanese uniform.  Of 76,000 prisoners, 10,000 died on what has come to be called the Bataan Death March.


*Between these invasions and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans were terrified of a Japanese invasion of America.  Lights were shut off at night to foil air attacks. 


*Fearing sabotage and espionage, the US government imprisoned about 110,000 Issei and Nissei, even citizens, in internment camps in remote areas away from the coast.  Many had to sell most of their property in a hurry, getting poor prices, and many had their assets frozen.  They stayed in the camps until 1945, except for those of draft age who were citizens, who served in the US Army in Europe while their families were held in these prison camps.  They formed the 442nd Regiment, which fought in Italy and France, and became the most decorated unit in the war.    


*As concentration camps go, they were not bad, but Japanese citizens resented the loss of their freedom and this infringement on their rights. 


*Several Japanese-Americans challenged the legality of this, and several cases went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of internment based on national ancestry, although in the 1980s several of these cases were overturned or partially overturned because it was discovered that the attorneys for the United States had altered or suppressed evidence.  Two such cases were Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944), which are significant because they justified an expansion of government’s powers in wartime, and the precedent they set in that area is still considered legally valid.


*In 1988 the US government paid each survivor $20,000 tax-free and apologised for the internment of Japanese Americans.


*America was not the only victim of Japanese aggression.  In December, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong and the Dutch East Indies, and marched from Vichy Indochina, though Siam, to attack British Burma and Malaya.


*On 10 December, the Imperial Japanese Navy sank HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, two of the greatest ships in the Royal Navy.  On Christmas Day, 1941, the Japanese captured Hong Kong.


*On 8 December, the Japanese invaded British Malaya, and by 31 January had captured the whole Malay Peninsula and were ready to invade Singapore.


*In February 1942, Japan captured Singapore in the largest surrender of British forces in history (80,000 British and colonial troops were taken prisoner, many of whom died, as about 27% of POWs in Japanese camps did).  Many Indian soldiers captured in Singapore joined the Japanese army, convinced that they could win India’s independence as part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  Many Indians did not join, though (and were often treated brutally as punishment), and India as a whole rejected Japan’s offer of help in a revolt against Britain in hopes that India could gain its independence peacefully and honourably after the War.


*On 19 February, the Japanese bombed Darwin on Australia’s Northern Territory.  Although it did little militarily significant damage, it had a powerful psychological effect, and Australia even devised a plan to evacuate all its people to South-eastern Australia and just defend Sydney and Melbourne if Japan invaded.


*In January, Japan invaded Burma (with the help of the Thai Army), and by May the British had retreated to the Indian border.


*In February, Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies.  By March the Japanese controlled most of the East Indies, including Portuguese East Timor.  At first, they were supported by local Indonesian nationalists seeking independence under the leadership of Sukarno and others.  However, when they saw that the Japanese were even more oppressive than the Dutch, some nationalists revolted against them as well.  This nationalist movement would keep the Dutch from holding onto the East Indies even after they reclaimed them at the end of World War II.


*At the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy met the main Allied fleet in the Southwest Pacific.  Rear Admiral Karel Doorman’s last words were supposedly ‘I’m attacking, follow me!’  He went down with his ship as the fleet was destroyed.


*In April 1942 the Allies began to re-group and better co-ordinate their commands.  General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz were given command of all Allied forces in the Pacific. 


*On 18 April 16 bombers from the US Army Air Corps under the command of Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo.  Although the damage was minimal and all the planes were shot down, the Doolittle Raid provided a great boost to American morale.


*In May the Allies learned through their codebreakers that the Japanese planned to attack Port Moresby in New Guinea (which would create a base for attacks on Australia) and rushed to defend it.  The resulting Battle of the Coral Sea was the first time the Imperial Japanese Navy was stopped.


*Although the Japanese lost more men, the Allies lost more ships.  However, the Japanese advance was stopped and they failed to capture Port Moresby and Australia was saved. 


*The Battle of the Coral Sea was a turning point in naval warfare:  it was the first battle in which the opposing fleets never sighted one another—all the fighting was done by warplanes attacking the enemy’s ships.


*To try to slow down America (who had just lost two aircraft carriers:  U.S.S.  Lexington destroyed and U.S.S. Yorktown damaged in the Coral Sea) and force the US out of the war, Japan attacked the US Naval Air Station on Midway Atoll on 4 June, 1942.  Had this succeeded, Japan would then have moved on to invade Guam, Samoa, and Hawaii in hopes of forcing America out of the war.


*Instead, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the war in the Pacific.  Again warned by American and British codebreakers, the Allies were ready and even prepared an ambush.  American warplanes surprised the Japanese while they were refuelling their own planes on the carrier decks.  This meant all the planes were in the open, unable to move, and tied to fuel pumps.  When hit, they exploded into terrible fires.  The Japanese lost four heavy carriers, over 300 planes, and most of their best pilots and were not able to train new ones with the same skills quickly enough.  America lost one aircraft carrier and about 100 planes.


*The Battle of Midway ended on 7 June, 1942, exactly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbour.  The Japanese had run wild for six months, and would henceforth be on the defensive.

This page last updated 10 March, 2011.
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