AS THE JAPANESE carrier pilots returned triumphantly to their ships on the morning of December 7, exciting vistas of conquest opened before them. Behind them on the mud of Pearl, in the midst of the fires, the wreckage, and the oil, lay the one instrument capable of impeding their advance. With one sudden blow they had altered the balance of power in the Pacific for the foreseeable future. They were now to embark on a string of victories that would carry them to the doorsteps of Australia and India. By the only means worthy of a race of warriors, the Japanese were going to claim their place in the sun.
Coinciding with the Pearl Harbor strike, the Japanese launched simultaneous offensives on all fronts. The first stage of their plan was the taking of the Southern Resources Area. Stage two was to be the establishment of a wide-ranging defensive perimeter. The Japanese high command calculated that it would take the United States at least eighteen months to recover sufficiently to reply. By then the defensive perimeter would be secure. They moved forward confidently to the conquest of the southern regions.
Their initial offensive was composed of two main thrusts, plus several subsidiary ones. The main thrusts were a southwestern one into Southeast Asia, which would advance down the Malayan Peninsula and branch both left and right into Burma and into the Dutch East Indies; and a southeastern one from Formosa down through the Philippines to meet the western thrust in the islands of the Indies. The subsidiary drives would take Guam in the Marianas, Wake Island north of the Marshalls, and would extend Japanese control down into the Gilbert Islands, south of the Marshalls. If successful, these drives would achieve three results: they would destroy Allied power in the western Pacific, they would complete the isolation of China, and they would lay Southeast Asia and the islands open to Japanese exploitation.
They did succeed, even beyond their projections. In the smaller operations, the Japanese moved into the Gilberts with no opposition. The unfortified island of Guam fell on December 10. Wake proved a tougher nut to crack, and its minuscule garrison beat off a landing attempt on the 11th before succumbing to a stronger one on the 23rd. The defense of Wake was looked on as a tiny epic by the American public in that dark December, but it had no effect on the overall course of the war, and the last message, “The issue is in doubt….”, seemed to sum up all too accurately the state of the world as Christmas neared.
In the western drive the main target was Malaya, but there were a couple of side operations also to be wrapped up. The Japanese wanted to take Hong Kong, the last British-held territory on the China coast. As a base it was completely untenable, but the British insisted for prestige reasons that it be held as long as possible. In November they had beefed up its garrison of four battalions by the addition of two Canadian militia battalions. This was regarded by the British as a show of force. They had few guns, fewer naval units, and six old planes to defend the island, but some among the garrison were convinced the island was impregnable, and the Japanese no more than third-rate troops.
The house of cards came tumbling down on December 8, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor on the other side of the International Date Line. The first Japanese air strike wiped out the British aircraft, and in a day they broke through the mainland British defense position, which had been scheduled to hold out for three weeks. The British were pushed off the mainland and back onto the island of Hong Kong by the 11th. After a week of heavy bombardment the Japanese stormed across on the 18th, split the defenders into two parts, isolated them, and drove them to the ends of the island. By Christmas Eve, the British defense was collapsing, and on the 25th, the British commander, General C. M. Maltby, surrendered. The British suffered 12,000 casualties, the Japanese 2,800.
The imperial bastions crumbled like sand castles before the advancing tide. Simultaneously with their attack against the outpost of Hong Kong, the Japanese initiated their major western drive, against Malaya and Singapore. Troops moved direct from Indochina into Thailand and started down the Kra Isthmus toward Malaya. Meanwhile, troop convoys crossed the Gulf of Siam and landed forces just above the Thai-Malay border, and just below it at Khota Bharu.
Singapore is a low-lying island off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. It had been a great trading city back in the Middle Ages, and had then been destroyed by its rivals. In 1819, an enterprising Englishman named Stamford Raffles had leased it from its nominal ruler, the Sultan of Johore, and had established a duty-free port city there. Through the nineteenth century it had flourished and grown, become a naval base as well as a trading port, and gradually became the center of seaborne empire east of Suez. The British undertook extensive fortifications of the island in the 1920’s, but they were never completed, falling prey both to heavy costs and to confusion about the problems of land bases versus air power. The British decided that Singapore would be held as a main base for the navy. If war broke out in the Far East, the army would hold Singapore until the Royal Navy sent out a fleet that would destroy any invaders of Malaya. They failed to fortify the shoreward side of the islands, however, and then in the thirties they decided that air power was the key to control. But when war came they could not afford the aircraft to defend Malaya.
In December of 1941, the area commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, had under command about 80,000 combat troops, generally poorly trained and deficient in artillery and armor; about 150 aircraft—precisely half of what was considered necessary for defense—and a naval force whose mainstays were the newly arrived Prince of Wales and Repulse. In other words, his ground forces lacked material, his air forces were short of planes, and his naval forces had no air cover. All the British really had for comfort when the Japanese landed on the Malay Peninsula was the belief that the enemy could not advance through the jungles. Of that happy ignorance they were swiftly to be disabused.
The Japanese forces under General Tomoyuki Yamashita were well trained and battle tested in China. There were four divisions of them, plus adequate support from air and naval units. Unlike the British, they had a tough, integrated, well-coordinated force. By launching air strikes early on the 8th, the Japanese quickly gained air supremacy. They followed it by winning naval supremacy as well.
The outbreak of war found Repulse and Prince of Wales at Singapore; the fleet commander, Admiral Sir Tom Philips, was in Manila conferring, or commiserating, with his American opposite number. Philips flew back to Singapore immediately, and when news came in of Japanese convoys up the coast, he sailed into the China Sea to intercept them. He asked for air cover from shore-based units, but cooperation broke down between the rapidly changing situation and the inadequacies of the British command and communication structure. Instead of British planes, Philips got Japanese. Scouts picked up his two huge ships at sea, naked to their enemies, and before noon on the 10th the two great ships were attacked by a series of bomber and torpedo aircraft. Both ships went down that afternoon, giants killed by insects. They were the last standard-bearers of Allied naval might in the Pacific, and the first capital ships ever sunk in battle by aircraft alone. When a Japanese patrol plane dropped a wreath over their graves, it acknowledged not only a brave enemy, but the end of the dreadnought era as well.
Air power and naval power gone, the defense of Malaya now rested on the shoulders of the land commander, General A. E. Perceval. He had two divisions scattered about the Malayan Peninsula, and one in reserve holding the approaches to Singapore. Within days the Japanese were all over his forward troops, moving through the supposedly impassable jungle, sending tanks down the tracks and roads to ambush the British, cutting in behind them and setting up roadblocks. Harried, confused, cut off, the British fought a series of rear-guard actions that turned into a shambling retreat. By the first week of January they were pushed out of the Malay States and into Johore, only fifty miles from Singapore. The British hoped to hold there, but once again the Japanese flanked them and levered them out of their positions. By the end of the month, Perceval was off the mainland, his troops pulled back to the island of Singapore itself.
The Strait of Johore, which separates Singapore from the mainland, is shallow and narrow. The British had built some defenses along the island, but had not extensively fortified the area. The great naval guns in their fixed positions were across the island, pointing resolutely out at the empty sea. After a week of intensive bombardment and air attack, Yamashita put three divisions across the strait, and by the morning of February 9 his troops were firmly ashore. The British, Indians, and Australians of the garrison did their best to hold a line through the center of the island, but this went too; the linear defenses and static ideas of 1916 simply could not withstand the Japanese tactics of penetration and infiltration. They lost the reservoirs in the center of the island and by the 15th were back in a tight perimeter around the city of Singapore, while a pall of smoke from burning oil hung over everything, a funeral beacon for empire.
That afternoon British envoys came out of their lines under a flag of truce. Later a humiliated Perceval signed a document of “unconditional surrender,” and at dark the shooting stopped and an uneasy quiet fell over Singapore. The Japanese troops moved into the city the next morning, and the British moved out to three and a half years of captivity. In total casualties, the Japanese had suffered 9,800; the British losses were 138,000. It was the single greatest disaster ever suffered by British arms, and it left the Indian Ocean and the East Indies wide open to conquest.
While the western Japanese forces roared down the Malayan Peninsula toward Singapore and the eastern forces fastened a stranglehold on the Philippines, the Japanese split off a third force that went for the heart of their objective, the East Indies. Navy, army, and air force units crashed into the so-called Malay Barrier and ran riot. The Allies had little with which to resist; they improvised an organization called ABDACOM, for American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, and gave its direction into the hands of General Sir Archibald Wavell, sent out from the desert where he had recently fallen from grace with Churchill.
ABDA was longer on initials than it was on fighting strength. The British and the few available Australian troops were trapped in Malaya, and the Japanese by their drive through Thailand had cut off the hope of reinforcement through India. The Americans were very thin in the Philippines, and Pearl Harbor had forestalled any hope of American relief. The Dutch troops in the East Indies were primarily native levies, armed only for internal security, and not overly friendly to their colonial masters at that. ABDA was left with a few obsolete aircraft, British and the Netherlands East Indies Air Force, and a series of scratch naval units under the command of the ranking Dutch sailor, Admiral K. W. F. M. Doorman; the ships lacked even common codebooks; in fact, they lacked a common language. The Malay Barrier was a myth.
The Japanese hit this myth in four separate but coordinated groups, a carrier striking force to the eastward, then an eastern, central, and western force. All operated the same way. Air bases were isolated by naval air strikes, then landings were put in; local control was quickly consolidated, and the navy and air units moved on to the next target. The separation of forces was unorthodox, but against a weak and ill-organized Allied effort, it was highly successful. The ABDA units were reduced to running back and forth like firemen with a blaze out of control, and the Japanese swept them off the board a few at a time.
Disasters came fast and furious. In mid-December the Japanese landed on British North Borneo, the state of Sarawak, ruled by the descendants of “Rajah” Brooke; the territory was occupied by Christmas. By the second week in January the enemy was in northern Borneo and landing in northern Celebes too. From there they jumped to Kendari in southern Celebes, and Balikpapan, halfway down Makassar Strait on the eastern side of Borneo. Here an American striking force ambushed them. Admiral Glassford started out with two cruisers and four destroyers; one cruiser grounded and had to turn back, the second developed engine trouble; the destroyers, all World War I relics, got in among the Japanese transports on the night of the 23rd-24th, shot them up, and sank five, before fleeing back down the strait.
ABDA could operate only at night. With the dawn came the ubiquitous Japanese search planes, and anything that floated was in trouble during daylight. On February 4, Doorman took four cruisers out of Surabaya, his main base, to make another strike against Balikpapan. Planes caught them and hit two Americans, Houston once and Marblehead twice; the raid finished the latter. After temporary repairs she limped painfully back to the States. Next, Doorman swung west to try to stop the Japanese from reaching Palembang, the great oil refinery on Sumatra. He got as far as Banka Island where Japanese planes bombed his fleet so heavily he had to call his attack off. Another key island was gone, and the Japanese were now closing in from east and west on the central ABDA position of Java.
Their next target was Bali, just east of Java. Doorman decided to hit their transports and sent his forces in in poorly coordinated waves, first mainly Dutch, then mainly Americans, and finally an attack by torpedo boats. There was a great deal of firing, several ships on both sides were hit, but little was accomplished, and soon Bali was gone too. Java was now all but cut off. Some reinforcements were coming in through Darwin in northern Australia and the eastern island of Timor. The Japanese took time out from Java, occupied Timor, and on the 19th their carrier force hit Darwin, catching the city completely by surprise, and destroying virtually all of the port and its military installations.
The Java forces were now substantially reduced. Wavell left for Australia, and naval command devolved on Dutch Admiral Conrad Helfrich. There was a last futile attempt to get air support to the island, and the result was that the American aircraft transport Langley was sunk, loaded with planes, a hundred miles south of Java. Her survivors were transferred to the oiler Pecos; a few days later the Japanese got her too. In two assault convoys totaling well over a hundred ships, the Japanese closed in on Java. Helfrich decided on a last death-or-glory battle, gathered up all the ABDA forces he could find, and went forth to meet them.
Sallying out from Surabaya, Helfrich had nine destroyers and five cruisers, the exhausted remnants of Allied power in the western Pacific. All his ships went into the fight with previous battle damage; on the American cruiser Houston the after main battery turret had been inoperative since her bomb hit early in February. The crew of all the ships were on the point of collapse; ammunition and fuel were low. As dark came on the 27th, they ran into the Japanese covering force, four cruisers—heavier than the Allied five—and fourteen destroyers.
The Battle of the Java Sea was an incredibly confused tangle; the ABDA forces were reduced to following the leader in the dark, ships blundered into each other, gun flashes stabbed briefly out of the blackness. Helfrich made repeated efforts to get in at the Japanese transports, while the Japanese admiral, Nishimura, with his superior tactical control herded him away from them. Badly hit early on, the British cruiser Exeter limped back to Surabaya, followed by the four American destroyers who had spent all their torpedoes defending her and had just enough oil left to get back to port. The other destroyers were hit by gunfire and torpedoes, and one ran on a mine close to shore. Finally, just before midnight, Helfrich made a final desperate dash for the transports with his four remaining cruisers.
Suddenly, the Japanese heavy cruisers appeared on parallel courses and opened up with full broadsides. Both Dutch cruisers, Java and de Ruyter, took torpedo hits. As de Ruyter sank under him, Helfrich signaled wounded Houston and the Australian Perth to run for it. They could not run; they could barely hobble off into the darkness.
The denouement was just as bad. Exeter left Surabaya the evening of the 28th. The Malay Barrier had become a trap, and all the surviving Allies wanted to do now was break through to the south, to get away to fight again. But on the 29th, Exeter and her two destroyers were caught by four heavy cruisers and a destroyer screen. In 1782, an earlier Exeter had been surrounded by six French ships; asked what to do, her captain had said, “Fight her till she sinks.” Now she fought till she sank. One of the destroyers went with her; the other was caught by the merciless carrier aircraft and sank an hour later.
That left only Houston and Perth. Trying to get through Sunda Strait they ran into what they had been searching for for days, a Japanese transport force. They waded in with all guns blazing and sank or drove ashore four loaded transports. The scene abruptly changed when the Japanese covering force arrived, three big cruisers and ten destroyers. Perth took several torpedo hits and sank, Houston fought on alone till she went dead in the water; then, her gunnery controls gone, her sailors loading the shells and training the guns by hand, she lay there while the Japanese pounded her into a shambles, and then she sank beneath her still-fighting crew.
Java was gone by the first week of March. ABDA was gone; the United States Asiatic Fleet was gone. The triumphant Japanese were through the Malay Barrier and ranging into the Indian Ocean.
For the British it was unmitigated disaster. The fall of Singapore was a military defeat of the first rank, and a humiliating one at that. Nothing could be worse, but things almost as bad were still to come. In cutting off Malaya and the East Indies from India, the Japanese moved west through Thailand and north into Burma. Burma had been British territory since 1885, a prosperous, relatively quiescent backwater of empire. It was also an isolated territory, only tenuously connected by land with India; it was rich in rice and oil, and the Japanese decided it would make an ideal buttress for the western bulwark of their new empire.
They moved out of Thailand in December, striking against the weak British forces in southern Burma. The panhandle of Tenasserim was quickly occupied. Rangoon came under heavy air attack. The British tried to hold as far south and east as they could, but they overreached themselves. The Japanese were better in the jungle than they, the enemy had air control, as always, and the British found themselves constantly flanked and driven back. Rangoon fell on the 7th of March, and the litany of retreat began all over again. With help from the Chinese, the British tried to hold at Prome, a hundred miles north of Rangoon; they could not do it, and by the end of April the Japanese were in Mandalay and Lashio. China was cut off for fair, the Burma Road was gone, and the tired, wasted columns of British, Indians, and Chinese were trekking back along the narrow paths to the mountains and the Indian frontier. It looked as if they would do well to hang on there. A Japanese naval force raided into the Bay of Bengal, mounted air strikes at Colombo and hit the naval base at Trincomalee on Ceylon. They caught an aircraft carrier and two cruisers and sank them, as well as 100,000 tons of merchant shipping on the east coast of India. By late April, the only Allied forces left in the Northern Hemisphere between Ceylon and the Hawaiian Islands were the Americans in the Philippines. And they were soon to go.
The Philippine Islands, one of the largest and most beautiful archipelagoes in the world, had been ruled by the United States since Admiral Dewey had steamed into Manila Bay in 1898 for the commencement exercises of the new United States Navy. Among the more benevolent of the area’s unending stream of foreign rulers, the Americans had promised the Filipinos they would receive their independence in 1946, and through the thirties had made moves toward preparing them for self-government. The threat of war increasingly hung over Philippine development, however. As 1941 moved along, General Douglas MacArthur was reinstated in active duty and entitled Commander United States Army Forces Far East. As with ABDACOM, the title was more grandiose than the forces under him. Though there were officially about 130,000 troops in the Philippines, only a fifth of them, one infantry division, and armor, engineer, and support troops were American, and these were the only ones ostensibly fully trained or up to normal establishment. The Filipinos themselves consisted of a large number of training cadres, still in a state of organization, and a few small units fully worked up, such as the Philippine Scouts.
Washington had for practical purposes written off the Philippines anyway, when it made its Germany-first decision. MacArthur, however, was not one to accept decisions made by someone else. He was convinced that he could hold the islands, and even more that, with the new B-17 bombers being stationed there by the Army Air Force, he might well carry out offensive missions. He saw the Philippines not as a hostage to fortune, perched way out on a very thin limb, but as an advanced base that would be the springboard for assaults against Japan.
In spite of this vision, he was reluctant to act when the news of Pearl Harbor came in. His air force people urged an immediate attack on Japanese bases on Formosa, well within range of the B-17. MacArthur hesitated; he had to consider relations with the Philippine government, and he did not want to lose their support by committing the first overt act of war. He did not know that the Japanese had already hit targets here and there in the islands. Later in the morning the big bombers took off, milled around helplessly in the air for a while, and returned to Clark Field. The fighter pilots flying cover over the bare airfields came in for lunch.
Just after noon the Japanese hit them, wave after wave, high-level bombers, dive-bombers, fighters coming low to strafe the neatly parked planes. It was not so much that the Americans were caught napping as that they were psychologically unprepared for what was happening. Up till now they had lived in a fool’s paradise of a world at peace; the reality of war hit them hard. When they could, they fought back with their outclassed fighter planes and their antique anti-aircraft weapons. But when the exuberant Japanese got back to Formosa, they had lost only seven fighters, and no bombers. They had shot down twenty-five fighters and destroyed seventy bombers and fighters on the ground. Mac Arthur no longer had to worry about an “overt act.” All he had to worry about after “little Pearl Harbor” was that he had nothing to hit back with.
The first Japanese landings followed soon after their initial strike. Small detachments landed in the northern part of Luzon. MacArthur’s defense plan called for holding the central part of the island, and then withdrawing into the Bataan Peninsula, where he proposed to hold on until help came. Messages from Washington assured him that help would soon be on the way, though they did not say what it would be or where it would come from. Following his plan, MacArthur refused to be gulled by the first landings. He believed the main landing would come in Lingayen Gulf, and while his smaller units withdrew slowly before the northern advance, he husbanded his main forces for the big battle.
The Japanese came all right. On the morning of the 22nd, 43,000 of them stormed ashore in Lingayen Gulf. Unfortunately, the Americans expected them to land in the south, at the head of the gulf. Instead they landed halfway up it, and met very little serious resistance. They immediately started moving down the central plain that led from Lingayen toward Manila. MacArthur’s commander in the area, General Jonathan Wainwright, had a series of withdrawal positions from which he hoped to inflict successive checks on the Japanese, but none of these held long. Further Japanese troop convoys were sighted converging on Luzon, and MacArthur ordered the Americans and Filipinos to fall back into Bataan in as orderly a fashion as they could manage.
By the day before Christmas the Japanese were landing in Lamon Bay, on the east coast of Luzon, and the American forces were hustling back toward Bataan. Manila was declared an open city, and while the Northern Luzon Force desperately held back the attackers, the southern defenders hurried across their line of communications and into the peninsula. Given the difficulties under which everyone was laboring, it was a very successful movement; its end result was to put the defenders of the islands into a bag, but there was no alternative anyway. By New Year’s the Americans and Filipinos were holding their main battle line on Bataan.
Both sides were now faced with a siege. The Japanese general Homma was actually inferior in numbers to the Americans and Filipinos, but his troops were better trained by far and they also were better supported. They commanded the sea and the air and they could get reinforcements of whatever might be necessary. In Washington, General Marshall still hoped to rescue MacArthur, but the U. S. Navy had already said that was impossible. A convoy en route to the islands with reinforcements and supplies had had to be diverted to Australia; Marshall wanted it fought through to Manila, but the navy was sacrificing all it had in a futile attempt to hold the Malay Barrier, and that was a good thousand miles south of the Philippines. There was no help for it; MacArthur would have to sink or swim with what he had. Yet the general knew the Japanese too were stretched thin; seemingly impervious to the navy’s problems and to disaster all around him, he kept insisting he could win if reinforced.
On the Japanese side, they were actually reducing their forces. With no idea of how many men were opposing them, the Japanese pulled out one of Homma’s divisions for the leap into the East Indies. They were still ready to go, however, and on the 15th of January they opened heavy attacks against the Allied line in the middle of the peninsula. The Americans were pushed back, counterattacked, and after a week’s bitter fighting in the jungle-choked country, held their position. It did them little good; with the troops exhausted and few supplies coming up, they had to fall back and take up another line farther down the peninsula.
They stopped on a line running from Bagac to Orion, and here MacArthur intended to fight it out to the end. In vain the Japanese butted against it for two weeks in late January and early February, then they settled down to regroup and pull themselves together. The Americans and Filipinos did the same, but there was now heavy wastage caused by exhaustion and malnutrition. Their rations were cut to thirty ounces of food a day in early January and to fifteen in April. Supplies were not getting through. MacArthur himself was ordered out late in February and left on March 12, he and his family and staff going south on PT-boats, then flying to Australia. Many of the troops, though they accepted the logic of it all, felt bitterly betrayed, and MacArthur’s famous “I shall return” had a hollow ring to those who were not allowed to leave.
Homma, losing face over the delays, was ready again by April 3. After an intense bombardment he crashed through the center of the Bagac-Orion Line, and found almost nothing ahead of him. The reeling Americans and Filipinos were done; they never again put together a coherent position on Bataan, and on the night of the 8th the Luzon Force surrendered. Homma had gambled on a complete surrender of the entire archipelago, and was furious when he failed to get it. The survivors of the peninsula were sent off to prison camps in what became known as the “Bataan Death March.”
In part, the infamous death march occurred because the Japanese had no idea that 76,000 Americans and Filipinos plus another 26,000 civilians were crowded onto the end of Bataan; they expected about 25,000; what provisions they had made to escort prisoners north the hundred-odd miles to camps were soon swamped by numbers. But that was only part of the cause; the other was the attitude of the Japanese. A Japanese warrior expected to die for his Emperor; surrender, to him, was so shameful that it was virtually inconceivable, and there was no such thing as an honorable capitulation. A man who surrendered was utterly without honor, unworthy of respect or humane treatment. Enemies should not surrender, they should have the grace to die. When they did not, the Japanese often killed them. The route of the march soon became lined with bayoneted, shot, and beheaded men. Those who fell out, suffering from exhaustion, dysentery, malnutrition, wounds, were clubbed or bayoneted. Estimates are that 3,000 to 10,000 of the men who started the Death March died on the way. Japanese soldiers expected little mercy from an enemy; after Bataan they would get little.
There remained a number of scattered forces in the rest of the Philippines, especially on the southern island of Mindanao, and these were still fighting against other Japanese forces. Homma, however, was preoccupied with the island of Corregidor, a rock square in the middle of the mouth of Manila Bay. He bombarded and bombed it for a month, by which time the weakened defenders were reduced to a state of complete collapse, hardly aware that they were by three months and a good thousand miles the last defenders of the great colonial empires. On the night of the 5th-6th of May, a Japanese assault battalion crossed from Bataan and got ashore. The opposition was weak and sporadic, the defenders were utterly worn down. On the afternoon of the 6th, MacArthur’s successor, General Wainwright, opened surrender negotiations. This time Homma was not to be cheated of his prize; he insisted Wainwright surrender all the troops in the Philippines. Under the threat of reprisals Wainwright finally did so, and after agonizing arguments and shifts, the Americans and Filipinos everywhere in the islands laid down their arms.
Many of the Filipinos took off their uniforms and went home; many of the Americans went into the jungles as guerrillas, but the majority, led by Wainwright, went into prison camps, where they remained for the rest of the war. Homma went home in disgrace, for having taken so long to win his campaign. Still, the victory, though belated, was complete. The Japanese were masters all the way to Australia and the islands of the southern Pacific. Now they had what they wanted; now in leisure they could prepare their defensive perimeter. It was the slack high tide of empire.
Yamamoto had guaranteed six months of victory; his masters believed they were going to get eighteen months’ grace. He was right and they were wrong.
In the United States, after the first initial shock, there was an explosion of fury. The Americans might have been extremely dubious about participation in the war, but all that doubt was swept away by Pearl Harbor; if ever a nation leapt to arms, it was the United States in December of 1941. That was little help to the hollow garrisons of the western Pacific, but it seems to be the fate of regular soldiers and sailors to buy time for their carefree civilian masters. While American soldiers in the Philippines and sailors in the Java Sea bought that time, the mightiest—and the luckiest—nation in the world flung itself into the war effort with frantic energy.
The apparently unending stream of Japanese victories only inflamed the American public; the tide must turn. But until it did, there was an increasing public clamor for offensive action. The clamor coincided with the desires of the military leadership; engraved on every soldier’s heart was a cardinal principle of war: it is the offensive which brings victory. Defense only staves off defeat.
The most important thing for the moment was to secure the supply route to Australia. As the Japanese lapped eastward past the Indies and New Guinea and threatened to spill down into the Solomons and the Coral Sea, strategic attention had to go to this area. To the American public, however, strategic maneuvering east of Australia was not very exciting. They wanted dramatic action. The military Chiefs of Staff for once agreed with them and decided that a surprise move would throw the enemy off stride. It could be no more than a pinprick, but it might develop into something. They agreed to bomb Tokyo.
On the morning of April 18, sixteen twin-engined B-25 bombers groaned off the heaving deck of the carrier Hornet. Sighted by a Japanese picket ship, they had to go 150 miles farther than planned. The extra distance meant they would be unable to return to the carrier and would have to fly to the Asian mainland. Led by Colonel James Doolittle, thirteen of the planes roared over Tokyo; the others hit Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. They carried only four bombs apiece; they did almost no damage. Swooping over their targets, they were cheered by civilians who thought they were Japanese planes. Within seconds they were gone, on to China or Russia, where the planes crashed, out of fuel. The few fliers captured by the Japanese were tried as war criminals and some were executed.
The raid, harmless as it was, got banner headlines in the Allied world, but its greatest effect was on the Japanese leaders. They had blithely assumed that the home islands were inviolate. Where had those planes come from? They were army bombers; they were too big to fly off carriers. It was barely possible they had come from the Aleutians, or from Midway, though both seemed pretty far. President Roosevelt would say only that they were from “Shangri-la”; wherever they came from, it was obvious that the vaunted “defensive perimeter” was either too thin, or not far enough out, to be secure. The Japanese began planning a further extension in the northern Pacific.
Three weeks later they ran into trouble off Australia. Here too they had decided to extend a bit farther than originally planned. Everything had gone so well that the Japanese were now wildly overconfident. They had pushed out along the northern coast of New Guinea and taken the Bismarck Islands with the great harbor of Rabaul on the eastern end of New Britain. Rabaul was to be their major base in the area and the southeastern anchor of the defense line before it swung northward. To secure the approaches to Rabaul, they began to push down into the Solomons. They also decided on an end run around New Guinea, to take Port Moresby on the southern side of the island. New Guinea has some of the worst terrain in the world, its central spine formed by a range called the Owen Stanley Mountains. The Japanese had tried to cross this, and been held up by a handful of desperate Australians. The two spearpoints of empire, both racked by malaria and dysentery, had fought each other to a standstill on the track to Kokoda, so the Japanese sought to go by sea and cut the Australians’ base out from under them.
Instead they got ambushed. An American carrier task force was operating in the Coral Sea; the Americans had long broken the Japanese operating codes, and knew something was going on in the area. The resulting battle of the Coral Sea, fought from May 4 to 8, was the first naval action in history in which the surface ships never sighted each other. The aircraft carrier took its place as the dominant element in naval warfare. Both sides flew off a series of air strikes, and traded punches somewhat like prize fighters in the dark. The Japanese, who had three aircraft carriers, lost a small one, Shoho; the Americans, with two, lost a big one, Lexington. Their second carrier, Yorktown, took heavy damage and limped off to Pearl, out of action for the immediate future. When the smoke finally cleared, it was the Americans who were worse hurt, but they won the day: the Japanese turned back, and the threat to Port Moresby and northern Australia was gone, as it turned out, forever. The only positive fruit of the action for Japan was a new holding down in the Solomons, a seaplane base at Tulagi, and the start of an airfield on a larger, all but unknown island called Guadalcanal.
The Japanese believed they had a clearcut material victory; they thought they sank both American carriers. They knew the remaining two were last seen in the north Pacific—these were Doolittle’s “bases,” though they did not know that—and therefore the central Pacific was wide open. Still supremely confident, the Japanese now launched the extension of their perimeter; they aimed operations at the Aleutians, and at Midway, the western end of the Hawaiian chain.
They planned to use virtually the entire Imperial Fleet in this, and they scattered ships all over the map. As a battle, Midway was fairly simple in broad outline, extremely complex in detail. As a human drama it conformed to most of the dictates of great literature in plot, scene, and characters, and a great deal has been written about it.
Using their by now standard eccentric strategy, the Japanese planned a diversion that eventually took the unmanned Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. The effort diverted more of their forces than it did of the Americans, so although the gain in territory was a positive benefit of the campaign, it was quite possibly achieved at the cost of the larger battle.
Their main fleet was directed on Midway, a tiny sandspit a thousand miles from Hawaii—famous as the home of the gooney bird—of some small value as an advanced outpost for either side. To take this the Japanese used a fleet of six aircraft carriers, eleven battleships, thirteen cruisers, and forty-five destroyers, plus submarines, minesweepers, transports, and assorted other craft. The whole armada was under the direction of Admiral Yamamoto himself, though in practice the fleet was divided up into packets, at one time as many as ten, spread all over the central Pacific. The heart of it was Admiral Nagumo’s Mobile Force, with four carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu.
In Hawaii, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz mustered his forces to meet the onslaught. They were thin enough. He had the aircraft based on Midway itself, but afloat there were only three carriers, eight cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. Hornet and Enterprise were battle-ready; the third carrier was Yorktown, just back from the Coral Sea. Estimates were that she required three months in the dockyard to make her ready for sea. She staggered into Pearl on May 27. Three days later she put to sea again, patched rather than fixed, but ready to fight. Nimitz ordered his commanders afloat, Admirals Fletcher and Spruance, to be governed by the principle of the calculated risk, do as much damage as possible, suffer as little as possible. On June 4, the American carrier force, northeast of Midway, surprised the Japanese carrier force northwest of the island.
The battle was a series of air strikes, the Japanese hitting Midway, then being hit by a succession of American attack waves, from both Midway and the carriers, then striking back at the carriers. The climax came at mid-morning. The Japanese had been under attack by planes from Midway and by torpedo planes from the carriers. Virtually every one of the latter—slow, lumbering, obsolete—had been shot down with no damage to the enemy. But they served the purpose of drawing the Japanese fighter aircraft down low, and when the American dive-bombers appeared on the scene the sky was clear. Streaking down they dropped their bombs right in the midst of the Japanese flight decks, covered with planes busy refueling and rearming. Within a matter of minutes three of the big carriers, Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, were blazing infernos. The fourth was slightly out of position, and was untouched. She in turn launched a strike that put two torpedoes in Yorktown. Late in the afternoon the Americans came back and caught Hiryu and wrecked her too. The submarine Nautilus fired three torpedoes at the already sinking Kaga, with one dud hit, and the Americans almost saved Yorktown, but a Japanese sub got her in turn. The Japanese fleet pulled back, the Americans followed and caught a cruiser, Mikuma, before they gave it up and turned away, wary of an ambush.
In a war involving millions of men and thousands of ships and aircraft, the loss of four carriers on one side, and one on another, may not seem of immeasurable consequence. But it was. For the first time the Americans had emerged the clearcut victors in a battle with the Imperial Navy, and that victory was counted in the one indispensable currency: aircraft carriers. In one short day the balance in the Pacific was restored. Midway was the great crisis and the climax of the Pacific. The Americans were not going to give up, and the fundamental assumption of the Japanese war planners, that it would be a short war, was proved wrong. From now on it would be American expertise and productive capacity against Japanese staying power. The long road from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay had reached its turning point, just six months after December 7. For the first time the strategic initiative lay with the Americans. Now they had to decide what to do with it.