The Japanese overran Singapore in mid-February (1942) after a week of air and ground assaults, with incidents of rampaging soldiers against civilians. Around 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war. Then, on 16 February, British diplomats secretly presented Japan with a peace proposal: Britain would recognize Japan's rule in Manchuria and North China in exchange for Japan returning to them the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. Japan rejected it. Hideki Tojo (the Prime Minister and War Minister) was encouraged by Japan's recent successes and favored an advance to Australia.
In Indonesia the Japanese were being welcomed as liberators, and there they took around 30,000 as prisoners of war: Dutch military men and also British, Australian and some Americans who had been sent to help the Dutch. The Japanese were unprepared for the number of prisoners they had to manage, and they were indifferent about supplying their prisoners with adequate food and medical care. Having chosen not to sign the Geneva Convention guidelines for the treatment of prisoners of war, the Japanese believed that their prisoners had no rights. To help keep order, camp commanders had a few men selected from the ranks of the captives and shot in front of the other prisoners — a lesson also for the low-ranking guards about being merciless.
The Japanese began their move against Australian with their aircraft carriers sailing to that country's northern port of Darwin where 242 carrier planes attacked the town, ships in the harbor, two airfields and killed 236.
The Japanese were advancing also in Burma, where they hoped to cut the supply line to China called the Burma Road and to take advantage of Burma's resources. On March 8 the Japanese overran Burma's capital, Rangoon.
On March 11, General MacArthur and a few others, following orders from the Pentagon, left the Philippines and by patrol boat sped to Australia.
In April, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from a US carrier, the Hornet, flew 600 miles to Tokyo where they dropped a few bombs that did little damage — the Doolittle Raid. The planes landed or crashed in China after running out of gas, and one plane landed in the Soviet Union, where its crew was interned. Japan's military leaders were embarrassed, and the military retaliated at what it saw as the evil airmen by beheading three of the eight captured in China and by executing Chinese it believed had helped other US airmen escape.
At Manila Bay, the Japanese were pushing through Bataan Peninsula, and on May 6 they took the little island Corregidor. The 15,000 Americans on Corregidor were put together with other US and Filipino prisoners and marched 65 miles to a camp, creating what later in the war was to be known later the Bataan Death March, reported as killing 5 to 18 thousands Filipinos and 500 to 650 Americas.
Also in May came the Battle of Coral Sea, a major four-day naval battle and a big defeat for Japan — the battle that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of Japan's great new Yamato-class battleships. The Japanese were trying to cut the Allied supply line to Australia, and they were preparing an invasion force to take Port Morseby close to Australia on the coast of New Guinea. If Moresby fell, Japan's control of the seas to the north and west of Australia would leave that country isolated. But to accomplish this the Japanese needed naval and air superiority. And they tried — the first battle with aircraft carriers on both sides and the first naval battle in which the ships involved never sighted each other. Only aircraft were used to attack opposing forces. In the battle, both sides suffered heavy losses in aircraft and carriers damaged or sunk. The US lost 656 killed, the Japanese 966. The Japanese had failed to dominate and gave up on their plan to take Port Moresby.
Next, in early June, was the four days of naval battle near Midway Island. The Japanese wanted to destroy a base from which another raid on Japan could originate, and they wanted to draw the US fleet into battle so they could destroy it. With their failure in the Coral Sea, this was Japan's showdown battle, and for the US it was the war's turning point. The Americans were aided by being able to read Japan's communications. The Japanese lost four of their aircraft carriers and the US lost the carrier Yorktown.
Whether they realized it or not, Japan's game in the Pacific was over. The ships damaged at Pearl Harbor, except for the Arizona, were repaired and returning to the US fleet. War production in the US was humming. Back in 1940, Admiral Yamamoto had estimated that if the war in the Pacific lasted longer six months after it had launched big-day of attacks he had "no expectation of success." But War Minister Tojo was not giving up on the dream of expansion.
In late July a Japanese force of 8,000 landed at Buna in New Guinea. An Australian division (which had fought Rommel successfully at Tobruk) and a US Marine Division were rushed to the scene, where the fighting lasted from mid-November well into January 1943. Historian Stanley Falk would write that the campaign was one of the costliest Allied victories of the Pacific war in terms of casualties per troops committed. Japan's troops are said to have lost something like 4,000 killed in action and 3,000 from disease. Many went into hiding in nearby jungle.
Nearby in the Solomon Islands, US and Australian naval forces (including US Marines) were attacking the Japanese. The Allies had become aware of an airfield that the Japanese were constructing on the island of Guadalcanal. It was the first major Allied offensive against the Japanese. For months the battle at Guadalcanal raged on. The Japanese tried to retake the island. Japanese submarines put the aircraft carrier Saratoga out of action and sank the carrier Wasp, and both sides lost other ships. The Allies made it difficult for the Japanese to supply their troops on Guadalcanal, who were suffering from hunger. During the campaign the US suffered 7,100 dead, 4 captured, 29 ships and 615 aircraft lost. The Japanese lost 8,500 killed in action, more than 10,000 from tropical diseases, 1,000 captured, 3 ships and around 700 aircraft lost, with nothing gained. The US held Guadalcanal, and General Tojo was advised that he should "give up the idea" of retaking the island.
"Do you mean withdrawal?", Tojo asked? The War Minister answered:
We have no choice. Even now it may be too late. If we go on like this, we have no chance of winning the war.
Japan's military government described the withdrawal as an "advance by turning." The public sardonically called it "advancing backward."
In bitter fighting that lasted through May 1943, US forces aided by Canadian reconnaissance and fighter-bomber support drove the Japanese off of Attu island (US territory in the Aleutian Islands), the US losing another 549 killed, the Japanese 2,351. In July the Japanese had the prudence to evacuate their force of 5,000 men from that other island nearby in the Aleutians: Kiska.
In June 1943, the Allies launched Operation Cartwheel, an offensive strategy aimed at isolating the major Japanese forward base at Rabaul and cutting Japan's supply and communication lines, followed by island-hopping toward Japan.
War in the Solomon Islands would continue through the remainder of the war. It was in the Solomon's on August 3, 1943, that Lieutenant John F. Kennedy's PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. The commander of the destroyer, Kohei Hanami, was to write:
As Americans controlled the air, we were in no more position to attack in daytime and we had to operate in night, attempting in vain to prevent, by destroyer force, the transportation of the American men and munitions.
It was beyond the time for the Japanese to realize their failure, and in September the Emperor and Tojo did agree on their forces pulling back to an "absolute defense line" in the Pacific. They considered abandoning the naval base at Rabaul, but the Navy argued against abandoning their base at Rabaul and the argument was accepted. No matter. The Allies would bypass Rabaul, cut it off from supplies and leave it useless.
The US also had its submarine campaign. Within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt had ordered "unrestricted" submarine warfare against Japan, and by 1943 the submarines were crippling Japan's naval transport. The US Navy's submarine warriors were to take credit for 55 percent of Japan's merchant ship losses during the war, for cutting off nearly all the oil imports essential to weapons production and military operations, for sinking something like 35 Japanese troop ships and for performing island invasion reconnaissance.
In November 1943 landings occurred at Bouganville (an island just north of the Solomons) by US, Australian and New Zealand forces, and there fighting the Japanese was to continue into 1944. Also in November, US Marines went ashore at Tarawa, supported by a huge armada of ships now possible as a result of both US production and a drop in Germany's threat in the Atlantic. At Tarawa, lessons were learned regarding air and naval bombardment support that would make landings easier in the Marshall Islands campaign that would begin in January. But Tojo saw the Battle of Tarawa as somewhat of a victory. There the Japanese lost 4,690 killed and the Americans 1,690, but War Minister Tojo was engaged in wishful thinking, believing that more battles like Tarawa would break US morale. And he looked forward to the US becoming bogged down in the Marshalls, giving Japan time to strengthen its defenses around Saipan.
With support from Emperor Hirohito, Tojo wanted to make peace with China in order to free the two million Japanese soldiers there for the new defense strategy, but it was not to be. At their Conference in Cairo in late November, Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek decided to punish Japan by restoring all territories that Japan had annexed from China, including Manchuria, Taiwan and the Pescadores, and they decided to expel Japan from the Korean Peninsula. The US and Britain had already given up the territorial rights in China they had gained early in the century, and were for a fully sovereign China recognized as one of the Big Four allies.
Japan's government was still pretending that it was winning its war, but the public was becoming suspicious. The government moved to bolster public support with a spirituality campaign. Prime Minister (and War Minister) Tojo drew perhaps at least a little from the philosophy of the Samurai class to which he and his father had belonged. In a speech to students in December 1943, he described combat as a fight employing spirit.
To protect the public's spirit, the government was cutting love scenes from the movies they were permitted to watch. Also censored were some Japanese songs with lyrics that were close to suggestive. And the government forbade "enemy music," including jazz. But some big city tea and coffee shops continued to play some jazz after they discovered that the police could not distinguish between it and classical music. And in 1944 the government banned baseball, electric guitars, the banjo and ukuleles.
Japan's newspapers that were describing Americans as depraved, degenerate, corrupt, and also as inhumane. School posters were distributed that read: "Kill the American devils!" Old students simulated bayonet charges against images of Roosevelt and Churchill.
But the Japanese were tolerant of foreigners they had accepted years before: Jewish refugees, including the people who played classical music and whose concerts German officers in Japan attended. Japan had been flooded with anti-Semitic literature that apparently didn't attract enthusiastic reading. Prime Minister Tojo ignored his ally's anti-Semitic preaching, and during the war a Jewish center in Japan received only one hostile telephone call.
CONTINUE READING: War and the US Homefront
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.