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Japan and War in 1941

Japan's patriots viewed their nation as one harmonious family under a divine father: the Emperor. They saw the nation as spiritual. They viewed their nation as the one divine nation on earth — a chauvinism that helped serve as a rationale for the domination of others. There was the view that the destiny of Japan had been outlined by the gods and nothing could stop Japan from becoming the greatest empire on earth. The Koreans, they believed, were eaten by vices, the Chinese corrupted by opium and other narcotics and their old enemy the Russians corrupted by vodka.

In December, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the poet Takamura Kotaro wrote the following:

We are standing for justice and life,
while they are standing for profits.
We are defending justice,
while they are attacking for profits.
They raise their heads in arrogance,
while we are constructing the Great East Asia family.
Japan's victories seem to prove her moral superiority.

Japan's Plan from early 1941

Australians, the British, and the Dutch in what today is Indonesia, were alarmed regarding Japan's intentions, and they stopped selling oil, iron ore and steel to Japan, denying the Japanese the raw materials they thought they needed to take care of their business of war in China. The United States government was also concerned. In July 1940 the US placed embargoes on war supplies destined for Japan. It restricted the export of scrap metal and high-octane aviation fuel.

The media in Japan, influenced by military propagandists, spoke of American, British, Chinese, and Dutch hostilities and encirclement. Japan's military elite had their solution. Since April they had been planning for war with the Western powers, seeing war as a better solution than giving in to disrespectful calls in the West for Japan to pull out of China.

In July 1941, the Japanese won permission from Vichy France to expand into Indochina, putting Japanese forces closer to the military objectives in Southeast Asia, including Malaya and that region’s rubber and tin production. The Japanese were planning to seize key objectives, establish a defensive perimeter in Southeast Asia and negotiate a settlement. They were not thinking that to succeed they would need to defeat the United States militarily, and they were considering that the British Empire was busy fighting Germany and Italy.

Meanwhile, Japan's frustration in China continued. Through all of September with 120,000 of its troops they fought the Battle of Changsha (in central China) — a battle according to Japanese estimates cost them 13,000 dead and wounded. The Japanese understood Changsha's strategic importance as a hub of road and rail connections. Unable to break Changsha's 300,000 defenders the Japanese fell back to the Yueyang region a little to the north. (They would wait until the end of December before trying and failing again.)

During the army's failure in Changsha, Admiral Yamamoto and his colleagues were using war games trials to polish their coming offensive. Invading Hawaii with troops (and depriving the US of its base well into the Pacific) was rejected. The strategists reasoned that they could not spare troops for an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands that they needed for their elsewhere. Moreover, they calculated that adding troop transport ships to the strike force against the Hawaiian Islands would slow it to eight knots and increase the chance of it being detected by US forces.

In September, in deference to Emperor Hirohito's continuing hopes for peace, Japan's strategy allowed talks with the United States to continue. But it was decided that if the United States did not become agreeable by the end of October, Japan would then set a date certain for launching its offensives.

With no agreement, on the 5th of November Japan's Imperial Conference set early December as the time for starting its war against the Americans, British, and Dutch. On November 20 the Japanese made a final offer in the interest of peace, promising to withdraw from southern Indochina and not launch any attacks in southeast Asia if the US, Britain and the Netherlands stopped aiding China and lifted their sanctions against Japan.

On the 26th, Japan's naval attack fleet started for the Hawaiian Islands, with instructions to be on the alert for a command to turn around should the government receive a favorable response. Also on the 26th the US responded to Japan's offer by demanding that Japan evacuate all of China without conditions, in effect rejecting Japan's offers.

On the 27th, the US Secretary of War (today's Secretary of Defense), Henry L Stimson, learned that a large Japanese force had sailed from Shanghai. Roosevelt agreed to notify General MacArthur in the Philippines. The next day, Roosevelt met with his war cabinet, and Stimson suggested striking against the Japanese force without warning. Others wanted to warn the Japanese that the US would attack after the force crossed a certain line. Roosevelt agreed and suggested sending a message to Emperor Hirohito asking him to stop the drift toward war. Stimson was opposed, saying the one does not warn an emperor. And Roosevelt agreed again.

The US military command was not sure about an attack on the Hawaiian Islands. It sent orders both to MacArthur in the Philippines and to the military commander in the Hawaiian Islands to be prepared for an attack, to protect service personnel against subversive propaganda and to be on guard against espionage and sabotage. Admiral Kimmel, stationed in Oahu, wanted military personnel denied weekend liberty and the entire fleet sent out to sea in silence after dark. The two operations officers with him objected, and it was agreed to follow the orders of Admiral Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations (in the Pentagon) that nothing be done to alarm the people of Honolulu.

The Big Day

and various other PHOTOS

Early on Sunday morning, December 7, a US Army radar operator on the Hawaiian island of Oahu spotted Japan's attack force on his radar screen and notified a lieutenant at the Fighter Control Center. The lieutenant assumed that the operator was seeing an expected flight of B-17s being transferred from the US mainland, and he told the operator to "forget it."

The first wave of 189 aircraft from Japan's six aircraft carriers arrived at their targets at 7:48 a.m. local time. The second wave, with 161 aircraft, came an hour later. Both waves hit only military targets. The US lost 188 aircraft, the Japanese lost 29. The attacks killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178. Eight US battleships were damaged and four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers and one minelayer were destroyed or damaged. But the Navy's three aircraft carriers — the Saratoga, Lexington, and Enterprise, had been performing duties toward Wake Island and were untouched.

That same morning, four hours after the attack in the Hawaiian Islands had begun (December 8 across the international date line), the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, defended by 14,564 British, Canadian and Indian units.

And that day, December 8 in the Philippines, Japanese planes from Taiwan appeared. At Clark Field, personnel had no air raid shelter or slit trenches to dive into. Only four planes managed to get off the ground. Most of the anti-aircraft rounds that ground crews managed to fire were old and exploded from two to four thousand feet short of the Japanese planes. The Japanese bombed and strafed Clark Field for a little more than an hour and then left, leaving the base in total ruin with most of MacArthur's aircraft destroyed. MacArthur was dismayed. Having underestimated the Japanese he wondered whether the Germans were flying the Japanese planes.

And the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese medium bombers from bases in Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands struck at Wake Island (halfway between Japan and Hawaii). They destroyed eight of the 12 US fighter planes there, killed 23 Marine aviation personnel, and left.

On December 8, Japanese troops invaded Thailand from Indochina, landings south of Bangkok and at various points along Thailand's peninsula just north of Malaya. The Japanese wanted passage for Japanese troops through Thai territory and had expressed hope that a clash could be avoided. But when the clash came, it lasted only five hours. Thailand granted Japan the use their territory as a base of operations to invade Malay. With superior air power, light tanks and troops on bicycles, the Japanese would begin moving through what had been British ruled Malaya toward Britain's base at Singapore.

Invasions through December

By December 10, Japanese troops had been landing at various points in the Philippines, and on that day they sent about 400 troops with a naval force from Saipan to the lonely US outpost on the Island Guam. In the two-day Battle of Guam, of the 547 marines and sailors stationed on the island 17 were killed and 406 became prisoners of war.

On December 15, 70,000 reinforcements arrived for a British and Australian (Commonwealth) stand in Singapore. And that same day, Japanese troops began landing against the British in Northern Borneo, important to the Japanese because of its oil.

On December 23, the force that had hit Pearl Harbor returned to Japan. Fighting was still taking place in Borneo, and Japan's navy sent a force to Wake Island, 1,500 of its Marines going ashore. The US garrison surrendered by mid-afternoon. The Japanese made prisoners of all men remaining on the island, including 1,104 civilians the majority of whom were civilian contractors.

It was on December 25th that the British force at Hong Kong surrendered, after having lost 2,113 killed or missing, 2,300 wounded, and 10,000 captured. The Japanese lost 675 killed and 2,079 wounded.

Political Speech

In his Infamy Speech on the day after the attack at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt spoke of negotiations for peace disrupted by a "sudden and deliberate" attack. And thereafter the US media would run with the idea of an attack that was unexpected, an attack that was a surprise, a sneak attack accompanied by misleading statements from the Japanese — treachery.

He added:

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

Japan's General Tojo, the Prime Minister (and also War Minister) must have thought it inappropriate to gloat about his military successes. On New Year's Day, he told his fellow Japanese that the war had just begun, that Britain and the US had just started their "desperate counteraction."

In telling his nation to expect a long war, he was being optimistic. The war in the Pacific was about naval power and Japan had prepared for it with great Yamato-class battleships with guns of great range for fighting other surface ships. But Japan's great new warships were vulnerable to a new kind of naval warfare: strikes against surface ships from the air. With this and with Japan's land forces bogged down in China, plus the production and manpower capacities of the US, what the Japanese poet Takamura Kotaro spoke of as proof of their moral superiority was in jeopardy.

CONTINUE READING: Japan and War to end of 1943

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