War in the Far East: 1941-1942

On 8th December, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress: "Yesterday, 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. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.... Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against 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." (1)

Adolf Hitler had not been told of the proposed attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, in a meeting with Yosuka Matsuoka, the Japanese foreign minister in the spring of 1941, he suggested that Japan should seize Singapore instead of any territories owned by the United States. Although the Japanese rejected his recommendations. he told General Hiroshi Oshima: "You gave the right declaration of war. The method is the only proper one... one should strike - as hard as possible - and not waste time declaring war." (2)

Germany Declares War on the United States

On 11th December, Germany and Italy, in alliance with Japan, declared war on the United States. When Joachim von Ribbentrop pointed out that the Tripartite Pact only bound Germany to assist Japan in the event of an attack on her by some other Power, and that to declare war on the "USA would be to add to the number of Germany's opponents, Hitler dismissed these as unimportant considerations. He seems never to have weighed the possible advantages of deferring an open breach with America as long as possible and allowing the USA to become involved in a war in the Pacific which would reduce the support she was able to give to give to Great Britain". (3)

Hitler completely underestimated America's ability to fight a war and thought it incapable of any sustained military effort. In his speech where he declared war on the United States he raised the issue of social class: "I understand only too well that a world-wide distance separates Roosevelt's ideas and mine. Roosevelt comes from a rich family and belongs to the class whose path is smoothed in the democracies. I was only the child of a small, poor family and had to fight my way to work and industry. When the Great War came, Roosevelt occupied a position where he got to know only its pleasant consequences, enjoyed by those who do business while others bleed. I was only one of those who carried out orders as an ordinary soldier and actually returned from the war just as poor as I was in the autumn of 1914. I shared the fate of millions, and Franklin Roosevelt only the fate of the so-called upper ten thousand." (4)

Declaring war on the United States was a major tactical blunder. As George Ball, a lawyer who worked under Adlai Stevenson, who was a strong supporter of involvement in the Second World War, pointed out: "If Hitler had not made this decision and if he had simply done nothing, there would have been an enormous sentiment in the United States... that the Pacific was now our war and the European war was for the Europeans, and we Americans should concentrate all our efforts on Japan." (5)

With both the Soviet Union and the United States on the side of the British, the Allies now had a massive material superiority over the Axis countries. "The allies together produced five times as much steel as Germany and forty-seven times as much oil. During the war the Axis countries produced 52,000 tanks compared with the allies' 227,000. It was the same picture in artillery (180,000 against 914,000) and in trucks (600,000 against 3 million). The allies produced over five times as many aircraft as the Axis powers. From 1942 the allies relied on the sheer weight of numbers, which could, and often did, successfully compensate for lack of tactical or strategic brilliance, to produce success on the battlefield." (6) As Winston Churchill pointed out it was now a war of attrition: "it pays us anyhow to lose one aircraft for every German machine shot down". (7)

America First Committee

The American First Committee was dissolved on 12th December, 1941. One of its leading figures, Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish, later recalled: "Franklin Roosevelt took us into a war without telling the people anything about it. He served an ultimatum which we knew nothing about. We were forced into the war. It was the biggest cover-up ever perpetrated in the United States of America. But in 1941, December 8, the day after the Japanese. I made the first speech ever made in the halls of Congress over the radio. I'd been speaking every week to keep us out of war. The day after the attack, as ranking member of the rules committee, it was my duty to speak first. I damned the Japs and upheld Roosevelt's day of infamy. I called on all non interventionists to go into the army until we defeated the Japs." (8)

Gerald Nye, another leading figure in the AFC explained that American politicians had no choice in the matter: "The one thing an American can want to do - win the war and win it with the greatest possible dispatch and decisiveness. It is not time to quibble over what might have been done or how we got where we are. We know only that the enemy chose to make war against us. To give our Commander in Chief unqualified and unprejudicial backing in his prosecution of the war is an obligation which I shall gladly fulfill. Differences over matters of foreign policy up to this hour are abandoned and unity should be accorded in every particular." (9)

Winston Churchill arrived in Washington on 22nd December, 1941. Robert E. Sherwood later commented that the purpose of his visit was to persuade Roosevelt to become involved in the European war: "When Churchill and his staff came to Washington in December of 1941, they were prepared for the possibility of an announcement by Roosevelt that due to the rage of the American people against Japan and the imperiled position of American forces in the Philippines and other islands, the war in the Pacific must be given precedence." (10)

Winston Churchill with Franklin D. Roosevelt
Winston Churchill with Franklin D. Roosevelt

After four days of discussion Roosevelt agreed to join forces with Churchill. The plan was the Pacific War would be run out of Washington, and the European war out of London. Churchill and Roosevelt also agreed that the two countries would share intelligence. "The Americans, however, remained decidedly junior, even limited partners, since the British questioned their ability to guard secrets. Though the Americans had given a Purple machine to Bletchley, the British did not turn over an Enigma machine to Arlington Hall. The Americans saw of Ultra decrypts only what the British chose to share." (11)

A few weeks later Churchill sent a cable to Roosevelt admitting that he had discovered that British intelligence had broken the American code used to send diplomatic messages: "From the moment we became Allies, I gave instructions that this work should cease." In fact, the British had been reading U.S. State Department codes for over twenty years. Churchill made the point that if an ally was breaking America's codes, the "danger of our enemies having achieved a measure of success, cannot, I am advised, be dismissed. I shall be grateful if you will handle this matter entirely yourself, and if possible burn this letter when you have read it. The whole subject is secret in degree which affects the safety of both our countries. The fewest possible people should know." The cable, however, was not burned. (12)

British War in the Far East

In 1939, when Winston Churchill, was First Lord of the Admiralty, he told his naval commanders "there could be no question of moving powerful naval forces to the Far East on the mere threat of a Japanese attack", and it was "out of the question" to send seven battleships to Singapore if war did break out. He thought that war with Japan would not involve an attack on Singapore or the white dominions. By the autumn of 1940, the British Far Eastern Empire was virtually defenceless. Malaya and Singapore were "defended" by three brigades and 88 obsolescent aircraft and the fleet in the Far East consisted of three modern and four ancient cruisers together with five old destroyers. The chiefs of staff advised the Cabinet that these forces were "entirely inadequate" for war with Japan. (13)

Churchill always underestimated Japanese power because of his convictions about white superiority. He believed that only if Britain had been beaten by Germany, would they attack our Far East empire. Churchill told Neville Chamberlain: "Consider how vain is the menace that Japan will send a fleet and army to conquer Singapore... It will never commend itself to them until England has been decisively beaten... You may be sure that provided Singapore is fully armed, garrisoned and supplied, there will be no attack in any period which our foresight can measure." (14)

Antony Beevor has claimed: "The appalling complacency of colonial society had produced a self-deception largely based on arrogance. A fatal underestimation of their attackers included the idea that all Japanese soldiers were very short-sighted and inherently inferior to western troops. In fact they were immeasurably tougher and had been brainwashed into believing that there was no greater glory than to give their lives for their Emperor. Their commanders, imbued with a sense of racial superiority and convinced of Japan's right to rule over East Asia, remained impervious to the fundamental contradiction that their war was supposed to free the region from western tyranny." (15)

Malaya was an important part of the British Empire. It supplied nearly half the world's natural rubber, and more than half its tin ore. Throughout 1940, new airfields along the Malayan coast were constantly under construction, although only 150 RAF aircraft could in the end be spared for reinforcement. Apart from this, Malaya's defence rested on 88,000 troops (Malayan, Indian, Australian and British) under General Arthur Percival, most of whom were poorly trained and equipped, and the historic fortress at Singapore, with its new naval base, though lacking a fleet to protect it. (16)

On 7th December, 1941, General Tomoyuki Yamashita and three divisions (5,500 men) invaded Malaya. The Japanese soldiers were supported by over 200 tanks and 500 aircraft. By the end of the first day, the British and Australian squadrons in Malaya were reduced to just fifty aircraft. Percival's deployment of his troops to guard airfields as a first priority proved a grave mistake. General Lewis Heath, to Percival's anger, began a retreat the next day from the north-east. (17)

Churchill had sent the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore in the hope of deterring the Japanese from attacking Malaya. He suggested that they should go "into the ocean wastes and exercise a vague menace". However, on 10th December, they were attacked by 27 bombers of the Japanese Air Force. Twenty minutes later the first torpedo bombers arrived. Without air cover the two ships had little chance of surviving. A total of 840 British sailors were killed in the disaster. This left the Japanese Navy in control of the sea and it was able to provide the Japanese Army with the necessary supplies to win the battle with the Allied forces on Malaya. (18)

The British Army in Malaya did not have any tanks. The Japanese Air Force were also able to carry out a series of air attacks on Allied positions. Unsuccessful attempts were made to halt the advance of General Tomoyuki Yamashita at Perak River, Kampar and the Muar River. On 25th January 1942, General Arthur Percival gave orders for a general retreat across the Johore Strait to the island of Singapore. The island was difficult to defend and on 8th February, 13,000 Japanese troops landed on the northwest corner of the island. The next day another 17,000 arrived in the west. Percival, moved his soldiers to the southern tip of the island but on 15th February he admitted defeat and surrendered his 138,000 soldiers to the Japanese. It was Britain's most humiliating defeat of the war. (19)

The Philippines

The Philippines (consisting of 7,641 islands) had become a colonial territory to the United States in 1898. It was granted independent commonwealth status since 1934, but remained of great strategic importance to US Pacific defence policy. The natural resources of the Philippines include nickel (world’s second-largest producer), copper, timber, nickel, petroleum, silver, gold, cobalt, and salt. The Japanese government was especially jealous of American control of this country. (20)

In October, 1935, Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur was appointed as head of the Philippines Commonwealth Army. His army had less than 4,000 regular troops and 20,000 poorly trained irregulars. MacArthur complained that his equipment and weapons were "more or less obsolete" being mainly American cast offs. On 31st December 1937, MacArthur officially retired from the Army. He ceased to represent the U.S. as military adviser to the government, but remained as adviser to President Manuel L. Quezon, in a civilian capacity. (21)

On 23rd July, 1941, Japanese troops moved into the southern part of Indochina. This put them in a position to threaten Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. Three days later Roosevelt recalled MacArthur, aged 61, to active duty in the U.S. Army as a major general, and named him commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). MacArthur was promoted to lieutenant general the following day, and then to general on 20 December. (22)

Roosevelt's advisers told him that newspaper, public and official opinion was uniformly opposed to any appeasement of Japan. In September, 1941, Roosevelt was told that 67 per cent of the public was ready to risk war with Japan to keep her from becoming more powerful. However, he felt that the country was not quite ready for war and so his main strategy was to string out the negotiations. Roosevelt told the British Ambassador, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, that "very little was going on as regards these talks" but added he was "gaining useful time". (23)

General MacArthur was also provided with $10 million from the President's Emergency Fund in order to mobilize the Philippine Army. He was also promised a large force of over 100 B-17 Flying Fortresses, the long-range heavy bomber. Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, believed that these bombers gave America the ability to "completely damage" Japanese supply lines to the Southwest Pacific, endowing the United States with "a vital power of defense there". The British Ambassador cabled Churchill: "The President had a good deal to say about the great effect that their planting some heavy bombers at the Philippines was expected to have upon the Japs." (24)

By October, 1941, MacArthur felt sufficiently confident of progress to send a triumphant memorandum to Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, describing his 227 assorted fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft (including 35 B-17s) as a "tremendously strong offensive and defensive force" and the Philippines as "the key or base point of the US defence line". In the same month a similarly complacent assessment of US strength in the Philippines was provided by the Joint Chiefs to Roosevelt. (25)

MacArthur commanded roughly 135,000 troops in the US Army Forces Far East. Most were deployed for the defence of the two main islands, Luzon and Mindanao. On 8th December, 1941, Japanese air strikes from Formosa destroyed half of MacArthur's air force (including two squadrons of B-17s) on the ground. The air strikes were followed up on 10th December by air attacks on Manila by the 11th Air Fleet that destroyed Philippine torpedo reserves. At the same time the Japanese Army landed virtually unopposed, to capture air bases at three points in northern Luzon. What was left of the Far East Air Force was all but destroyed over the next few days. (26) Japanese troops seized the American garrisons at Shanghai and Tianjin. Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Guam, Wake Island and Midway Island. (27)

The main 14th Army landing at Lingayen Gulf, north of the capital, Manila, on 22nd December, completely overran the inexperienced Filipino troops deployed around the Luzon coastline. The relatively small Japanese force of 57,000 men made quick advances. Within two days of the Japanese landing, MacArthur had reverted to pre-July 1941 plan of attempting to hold only Bataan while waiting for a relief force to come. Most of the American and some of the Filipino troops were able to retreat back to Bataan, but without most of their supplies, which were abandoned in the confusion. (28)

In February 1942, as Japanese forces tightened their grip on the Philippines, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to relocate to Australia. On the night of 12 March 1942, MacArthur and a select group that included his wife Jean, son Arthur, left the Philippines. His famous speech, in which he said, "I came through and I shall return", was first made on Terowie railway station in South Australia, on 20th March. Washington asked MacArthur to amend his promise to "We shall return". He ignored the request. (29)

The Philippine defense continued until the final surrender of U.S. forces on the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942 and on Corregidor in May. An estimated 76,000 prisoners of war (of whom 12,000 were American), captured by the Japanese at Bataan were forced to undertake what became known as the Bataan Death March, to a prison camp 105 kilometers to the north. "Many of those who died were clubbed or bayoneted to death when, too weak to walk further, they stumbled and fell. Others were ordered out of the ranks, beaten, tortured and killed." (30)

USA poster (1942)
USA poster (1942)

The march resulted in the death of around 650 American soldiers. "Over the days which followed, few of their guards allowed them to rest in the shade or lie down. More than 7,000 American and Filipino soldiers from Bataan died. Some 400 Filipino officers and NCOs of the 91st Division were killed with swords in a massacre on 12 April at Batanga. Of the 63,000 who made it alive to the camp, hundreds more died each day. Also 2,000 of the survivors of Corregidor died from hunger or disease in their first two months of captivity." (31)

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(1) President Franklin D. Roosevelt, address to Congress (8th December, 1941)

(2) Adolf Hitler, message to General Hiroshi Oshima (14th December, 1941)

(3) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 662

(4) Adolf Hitler, speech (11th December, 1941)

(5) George Ball, quoted in William Stevenson's book, A Man Called Intrepid (1976) page 301

(6) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 567

(7) Winston Churchill, memorandum (1st December, 1943)

(8) Studs Terkel interviewed Hamilton Stuyvesan Fish for his book, The Good War (1985) page 320

(9) Gerald Nye, speech (9th December, 1941)

(10) Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (1948) page 952

(11) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001) page 154

(12) David Stafford, Churchill and the Secret Service (1997) pages 199-200

(13) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 470

(14) Winston Churchill, memorandum to Neville Chamberlain (12th September, 1939)

(15) Antony Beevor, The Second World War (2014) page 305

(16) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 289

(17) Antony Beevor, The Second World War (2014) page 307

(18) Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (1991) page 710

(19) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 290

(20) Robert Dallek, Roosevelt and Foreign Policy (1979) page 302

(21) Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (1964) pages 103-105

(22) Paul P. Rogers, The Good Years: MacArthur and Sutherland (1990) page 100

(23) President Franklin D. Roosevelt, memorandum to Edward Wood, Lord Halifax (1st October, 1941)

(24) Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, cable to Winston Churchill (11th October, 1941)

(25) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 366

(26) Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines (1953) page 97

(27) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) page 275

(28) Paul P. Rogers, The Good Years: MacArthur and Sutherland (1990) page 165

(29) Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines (1953) pages 359-360

(30) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) page 316

(31) Antony Beevor, The Second World War (2014) page 367