World War II Pacific Campaign: Japanese Conquests (December 1941- May 1942)

Japanese naval victories
Figure 1.--Here is a squadron of U.S. Navy Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers without their torpedoes from CV 6 'USS Enterprise'. They are done up in their pre-War colors and patrolling off Diamond Head in Hawaii. Notice the rear gunner does not have his machine gun in place. At the time this photograph was taken in 1941, The U.S. Government thanks to Magic were fully aware of Japan's aggressive intentions, but not when and where the Japanese would strike. Navy commanders were also still unaware as just how advanced Japanese naval aviation was. The TBD was the U.S. Navy's main torpedo bomber from the late-1930s until 1942. The TBD squadrons from 'Enterprise' and 'Yorktown' were virtually wiped out by Japanese carrier air cover (Mitsubishi A6M Zeros) at Midway. The Hornet TBDs only survived because they were unable to find the Japanese carriers. Even so the TBD squadrons still played a key role in the decisive American victory. The Zeros had to come down to the deck to attack the TBDs. And this was uncoordinated. The entire Combat Air Patrol came down in a rush to get at the TBDs. They actually interfered with each other to get at the TBDs. This meant that when the Enterprise and Yorktown SPD dive bombers arrived, the carriers had no air cover over them. After Midway, the Navy withdrew the TBD Devastator squadrons and replaced them with the new Gruman TBF Avengers. While the torpedo attack plane was the most effective offensive weapon for the Japanese, it was the dive bombers that proved to be the most effective striking force for the American carriers.

With the American fleet immobilized at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were able to sweep through the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia. Guam was quickly taken. Resistance at Wake Island surprised the Japanese, but after the initial assault was repulsed, a second assault took the island. MacArthur's defense of the Philippines was compromised when most of his planes were destroyed on the ground at Clarke Field. General MacArthur commanded the most important American military force west of Pearl. His handling of the defense of the Philippines was disappointing at best, bordering on incompetence. He failed to strike back at the Japanese in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Japanese bases in Formosa. He also allowed much of the available aircraft to be destroyed on the ground. [Schom] The horror of the Bataan Death March created an image of the Japanese military in the American mind that fueled a hatred for the Japanese. [Schom] Hong Kong quickly fell. The Japanese also seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia). Allied naval forces fought a series of engagements to stop the Japanese, but could not match the powerful Japanese naval forces. Japanese air superiority also played a major role in their early victories. Nimitz and Halsey tried to distract the Japanese with hit and run carrier raids. The Japanese moved south from Indochina, seizing Malaya and then the bastion at Singapore. The Repulse and Prince of Wales are lost in the defense of Singapore. Then they moved west through Thailand and defeating the British in Burma. Within a few months the Japanese had carved out the huge empire with enormous resources that they had long coveted. The Japanese then targeted New Guinea in preparation for a move south to Australia. All that remained to stop them were four American carriers.

Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

It was the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into the War. While Pearl Harbor was a stunning tactical victory, it was a strategic blunder by the Japanese of incalculable proportions. It was a stunningly successful military success, brilliantly executed by the Japanese. Eight battle ships, the heart of the American Pacific fleet were sunk. But the three carriers were not at Pearl. Despite the success of the attack, it was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in the history of warfare. The Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor changed everything. A diverse and quarreling nation, strongly pacifistic was instantly changed into a single united people with a burning desire to wage war. The isolationism that President Roosevelt had struggled against for over 7 years instantly disappeared. Even Lindbergh asked for a commission to fight for the United States. With the American fleet immobilized at Pear Harbor, the Japanese were able to sweep through the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Indefensible Outposts

The Japanese moved quickly to seize a series of indefensible positions. The British treaty ports were at the mercy of the large Japanese military force in China. The British withdrew most of their soldiers from Shanghai before the outbreak of hostilities. The garrison on Hong Kong had been strengthened with Canadian infantry. This was a virtually obscene use of the Canadians. And even with the Canadians, Hong Kong managed to resist only a few days. Without a fleet to protect them, the small American Pacific island outposts could not be held. Guam in the Marianas was occupied without a fight. The Marines on Wake Island resisted, but were overcome by irresistible force. These actions were, however, were just the beginning of the Japanese Pacific Offensive which sought to seize what they had long coveted--the Southern Resource Zone.

Shanghai (December 1941)

The British withdrew their garrison from the International Settlement (August 1940). The U.S. Marine contingent was evacuated (November 28, 1941). As part of their offensive begun at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seized the SIS (December 8, 1941). The cruiser Izumo began hostilities by capturing the American gunboat USS Wake and the British gunboat HMS Petrel. the U.S. Navy river gunboat Wake (PR-3) was berthed at the port. The crew attempted to scuttle the boat, but failed. The captain was forced to surrender to the Japanese. Wake was the only United States Navy ship to surrender during the War. Japanese soldiers stormed into the SIS. There was no resistance. Only the small separate French sector was respected. The French Vichy Government was occupied by the Germans, an Axis Ally, and thus not targeted by the Japanese. The British and Dutch were already at war with Germany. Pearl Harbor brought America into the War. The civilians of the Allied nations (primarily British) were not allowed to continue working or to frequent places of entertainment like movie theaters. They had to wear a numbered red arm-band with a letter code indicating their nationality so they could be easily identified. A Chinese tailor was contract to supply the British with clothing, which was a corduroy lumber jacket and trousers in two shades! So the British soon were all dressed alike. The Chinese underground actively shot Japanese soldiers so Japanese set up street barricades all over the city. [Shaw]

Hong Kong (December 1941)

There was no naval defense of Hong Kong. The British Royal Navy did not have strength to defend Singapore, its primary bastion in the East. Thus the Imperial Navy dominated the sea lanes. The Imperial Army had substantial forces in Canton facing the British Crown Colony. The Japanese bombed Hong Kong (December 8). The few British aircraft were quickly destroyed. The British and Canadian battalions on Hong Kong Island were strong enough to prevent the Japanese from just marching in as they did in Shanghai. The British surrendered Hong Kong after an 18-day struggle (December 25). U.S. submarines manage ton prevent the Japanese from using Hong Kong as a staging area for assaults further into East Asia.

Guam (December 1941)

The United States obtained Guam, the southern-most of the Mariana Islands, during the Spanish-American War (1898). It was a link in Pan-American Airways famous China Clipper service, the link between the Philippines and Wake Island. Guam was defended by a small marine garrison and native militia. The island was not fortified and had no heavy weapons. Japanese aircraft based in Saipan attacked Guam (December 8). The attack came hours after the attack on Pearl, but because Guam is west of the international date line, the date is different. The attack damaged facilities and sank the minesweeper USS Penguin in Apra Harbor. This was the only American naval unit involved in the defense of Guam. Japanese aircraft again bombed American installations on Guam (December 9). The Japanese amphibious forces from Saipan in the rest of the Marianasa to the north landed in force (December 10). A force of 1,400 men of the Japanese Navy 5th Defense Force landed on Dungcas Beach. A larger force of 5,500 men of the Japanese South Seas Detached Force landed at Tumon Bay, near Merizo, and at Talafofo Bay. The U.S. military governor, Captain McMillin, conducted a brief resistance. His small garrison could not possibly resist, but he did not want it said that his men surrendered with out attempting to resist. After freed from a Japanese POW camp, McMillin submitted a report to the Secretary of the Navy. He recorded that the native militia bravely "stood their ground in their short action in the Plaza, until they were called back. I consider that these fine natives are entitled to recognition for the showing they made on this occasion." [McMillan] Guam was quickly taken. Captain McMillin was forced to surrendered the island. It was the first American possession to be occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese seized two patrol craft, thirteen lighters, one dredge, three barges, and one auxiliary vessel. The Japanese sent some of the prisoners to Kobe, Japan. McMillin and others were sent to POW camps in Manchuria, China.

Wake Island (December 1941)

Wake was another American Pacific outpost in the Central Pacific attacked by the Japanese. Wake was much smaller than Guam, but unlike Guam there were some defensive installations. Wake Island was a coral atoll rather than an actual populated island. The atoll consisted of three islets. Wake Island was the largest of the three. Peale and Wilkes Islands extended out from Wake. Wake was a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific. The location in the midst of Japanese dominated Central Pacific lent some importance to this tiny speck in the Pacific. The Japanese controlled Marshal Islands were located to the south and the Marianas islands to the west. They had been in Japanese hands since World War I when they were seized from the Germans. The United States annexed Wake (January 17, 1899). Wake was uninhabited. The United States did not move to occupy the Island until 1935, when Pan American Airways built a small village and a hotel to service their flying boats (1935). Wake became part of Pan Am's China Clipper route, providing a link between Midway and Guam. The United States fears about Japanese intentions were confirmed as a result of Magic which broke into the Japanese diplomatic Purple code (October 1940). The U.S. Navy as a result decided to construct a base on Wake Island. A civilian construction team began work (January 1941). The 1st Marine Defense Battalion with about 400 men were deployed (August 19). The airfield was operational but not complete (December 1941). Twelve Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats from Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-211 arrived (December 4). The civilians were still working on the installations when the Japanese attacked. The airfield was not yet complete. There were no revetments to protect the aircraft. The island’s radar had not yet been delivered. The Marine force was commanded by Commander W.S. Cunningham. Wake was within range of Japanese bombers based in the Marshal Islands. The Japanese did not expect any real resistance at Wake. Air support was land based bombers so as carriers could be used elsewhere. The bombers began strikes (December 8). A small naval force without battleships supported the invasion force of about 500 men. This Japanese sailed from Roi, in the Marshal islands (December (9). The Wake garrison learned of the attack on Pearl (6.50 am) so were expecting a Japanese attack. Without radar, the Marines had to use four of their Wildcats in the air as a patrol. This saved them when the Japanese attacked. Thirty six Mitsubishi G3M medium bombers attacked the airfield (noon). As a result of limited visibility, the air patrol did not spot the raiders and no warning was issued. Seven of the precious eight Wildcats on the airfield ere destroyed. VMF-211 lost 23 men dead and 11 wounded. None of the raiders were hit. This began daily Japanese air attacks, A second raid (December 9) was engaged. The raiders were surprised and two Japanese aircraft were destroyed. The Japanese invasion force commanded by Admiral Kajioka, arrived off Wake Island (December 11). The Japanese were expecting another American surrender. Resistance at Wake surprised Adm. Kajioka, but after the initial assault was repulsed, a second assault more formidable force took the island. The Japanese were outraged that the Marines had the audacity to resist them and almost summarily shot the Americans (Marines and civilians) who surrendered. This was the standard Japanese practice in China. As with Guam, the United States would not learn about what transpired until after the War. U.S.S. Saratoga, had been dispatched from Hawaii. However, its progress was slow. On 22 December the force was still 515 miles from Wake Island, and then had to spend a day refueling. The next day the second Japanese invasion fleet reached Wake. The American relief force was ordered back to Pearl Harbor. It was disappointing, but probably saved the Saratoga, a precious American asset. The Japanese force was much more powerful than the Saratoga task force. Admiral Kajioka had been reinforced with two fleet carriers, the Hiryū and Sōryū . This meant that the attack would have fighter cover. The invasion force was now over 1,500 men strong. Two old destroyers were to be beached on Wake to allow the troops to land. On 22 December the last two Marine Wildcats were lost in combat with Zeros from the carriers (one in combat, one had to crash land due to damage suffered). During the entire battle, the Wildcats had shot down at least 20 Japanese aircraft, mostly land based bombers, but including at least two Zeros. Before dawn on 23 December, the second Japanese attack went in. The two destroyers ran aground, and although one was destroyed by gunfire, by dawn 1,000 Japanese soldiers had landed. They quickly occupied the southern wing of the island, capturing the now-useless airfield. The situation was clearly hopeless. The marine commander, Major James Devereux, was now isolated on the northern part of Wake Island, and outnumbered by at least two to one (probably by more). With no hope of victory, Cunningham was forced to surrender. Wake Island remained in Japanese hands for the rest of the war. The garrison finally surrendered on 4 September 1945. During the war they had been subjected to frequent bombing raids, and had been blockaded since 1944. The first Japanese attack on Wake Island was the only amphibious attack to be repulsed by shore based guns during the World War II. Even if the Japanese had landed, they were at best equal to the Marines in numbers and may well have been repulsed. The second invasion was on a much larger scale, and demonstrated how vulnerable the isolated American islands were in the Pacific. However, the Marine garrison had offered the first sustained resistance to the Japanese whirlwind that swept through the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. They offered a rare example of success, which was a great boost to Allied morale in the dark days of early 1942. >

Naval Action: British Force Z (December 10, 1941)

American and Japanese code breakers has cracked the Japanese diplomatic purple code. They knew the Japanese were preparing to strike, but did not know where. The American response was to keep the Pacific Fleet battle ships safe at Pearl Harbor, ready for action. The British response was to move two capital ships the brand new battleship Prince of Wales (repaired after its encounter with Bismarck and the battle cruiser Repulse to the Pacific to bolster the defenses of Singapore. At the time battleships were still seen a the most powerful naval vessels. The ships and four escorting destroyer were designated Force Z, but deployed without air cover. It attempted to intercept the Japanese landing forces. At this point in the War, the capability of air power was still not fully understood. They were found by Japanese land-based bombers off Kuantanthe along the eastern coast of the peninsula, which ensued multiple attacks. The third attack left both ships sinking (December 10, 1941). This was a notable result as moving ships at sea are not easy targets, especially highly maneuverable high speed war ships. The Luftwaffe found this out even with merchant shipping targeted in the Channel by very accurate Stuka dive bombers in the lead up to the Battle of Britain. We note that the U.S. B-17s and B-26s operating out of Midway a few months later failed to hit a single Japanese carrier, although at the time they claimed hits. They had to attack at high altitude because of the carrier air cover. A reader tells us, "The Japanese attacked from much lower altitudes then the American bombers at Midway. The British only 3 day after Pearl Harbor demonstrated the vulnerability of surface units to air attack. The British battleships, unlike the Japanese carriers at Midway had no air cover and the British main naval AA gun was a multi barrel 1.1 inch machine cannon (any thing larger then 20mm is considered a mc and not a machine gun) with a slow rate of fire and not very accurate. It was easy for the Japanese to know that by watching newsreels of German bombing of coastal convoys near Britain." This was the only creditable Royal Navy force defending Singapore. It would also prove to be the only Royal Navy effort to play an important role in the Pacific War. This action is a sobering indication of what might have happened to the U.S. Pacific fleet had there been a major fleet action at sea. After this disaster off Malaya, Singapore was not only cut off, but the Pacific War would be largely fought by the U.S. Navy.

The Philippines Naval Campaign (December 1941-May 1942)

The Philippines Campaign (1941–42) involved the invasion of the Philippines Islands (PI) by Japan and the defense of the islands by Filipino and United States forces. The defense of the Philippines was based primarily on the Pacific Fleet. American war planning was premised on the Pacific Fleet sailing west from Pearl and fighting a decisive fleet action with the Japanese, probably in the Philippines Sea. Ironically that action would come, but not in 1941-42. The Army was supposed to hold out long enough for the Pacific Fleet to fight through with a relief force. After the devastating Japanese carrier strike on Pearl, this was no longer possible. Thus the Campaign was mostly a land campaign and not an important naval campaign. The only sizeable American garrison west of Pearl Harbor was in the Philippines. The Japanese launched widespread air operations in addition to the Pearl Harbor attack, hitting Guam, Wake, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the PI (December 8). They inflict extensive damage on the American aircraft at Clark Field, Luzon. MacArthur's defense of the Philippines was thus compromised from the beginning as most of his planes were destroyed on the ground at Clarke Field. General MacArthur commanded the most important American military force west of Pearl. His handling of the defense of the Philippines was disappointing at best, bordering on incompetence. He failed to strike back at the Japanese by air in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Japanese bases in Formosa. He also allowed much of the available aircraft to be destroyed on the ground. [Schom] The U.S. Navy did not have significant naval forces in the Philippines to oppose the Japanese landings and without air cover it would have simply meant the losses of any vessels committed. The Striking Force, Asiatic Fleet under Rear Adm. W. A. Glassford departed Iloilo, PI, making for the Makassar Strait, Dutch East Indies to rendezvous with other Allied Pacific naval units. A Japanese air attack damages the Cavite Navy Yard (December 10). Four ships, including two submarines were damaged. Another Japanese air attack hits Subic Bay naval and air bases (December 13). Naval Patrol Wing 10 departs the PI for the DEI (December 15). The Naval local defense forces in the PI under Rear Adm. F. W. Rockwell move their headquarters to Corregidor (December 21). PT-boats remaining in the PI were used to harry the Japanese. Adm. T.C. Hart turned over all remaining naval forces in the PI to Rear Adm. Rockwell. Admiral Hart departs by submarine for Java in the DEI to establish a new headquarters of Asiatic Fleet (December 25) MacArthur declared Manilan open city, but Japanese bombing continues (December 26). The Japanese high command as a result of their early successes concluded that the fighting in the Philippines was largely over. They decided to move forward their timetable in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies a month. The oil there ws their highest priority. As a result they withdrew their most experienced division and the most of their air power (early January 1942).[ At the same time General MacArthur withdraw into a a ideal defensive position in the Bataan Peninsula. Unfortunately there was not enough time to move in needed supplies. The Americans and Filipinos somehow managed to hold out in Bataan and Coregid0r for 4 more months. The Americans and Filipinos after running out of supplies and many sick surrendered (April 9). General Wainwright on Corregidor was forced to surrender (May 6). The horror of the Bataan Death March created an image of the Japanese military in the American mind that fueled a hatred for the Japanese. [Schom]

The Philippines (December 1941-April 1942)

A glance at the map of the Pacific makes it clear that if Japan was to have an empire in Southeast Asia, it also needed the Philippines which sat astride the sea routes, Japan thus only a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor attacked the American forces in the Philippines. Bombers from Formosa (Taiwan) destroying most of the Air Corps planes on the ground at Clark Field, the center of American air power on the Philippines. Even though MacArthur had reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor several hours before the Japanese struck, no measure were taken to prepare for the Japanese attack. The Philippines was considered to be beyond the range of Japanese land-based air craft. As a result, the American and Filipino forces were able to offer little resistance to the Japanese invasion ar Lingayen Gulf to the north of Manila. MacArthur decided to base the defense of the Philippines on Bataan. He declared Manila an open city and concentrated his forces on Bataan. Tragically there was no time to transfer the needed supplies for his forces. The American and Filipino forces in Bataan put up a valiant defense, but ran out of food and ammunition. The devastated Pacific Fleet was unable to resupply them. President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia before General Wainright was finally forced to surrender. America soon learned of Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death, further fueling American hatred of the Japanese.

Malaya (December 1941-April 1942)

One part of the Japanese offensive following Pearl Harbor was the invasion of Malaya. The principal objective was Singapore, a formidable bastion, but whose defenses were based on a sea assault, not a land attack from Malaya. While Singapore was the min objective, Malaya also has important natural resources, especially tin and rubber. The Japanese 25th army commanded by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita launched the invasion of Malaya immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack (December 8, 1941). Yamashita's 25th Army was smaller than the defending British force. Yamashita commanded only 30,000-60,000 men [accounts vary], but they were a fighting force with combat experience from the fighting in China. he had a well throughout campaign, an adequate air cover, and naval support. The III Air Group had 459 aircraft. The Imperial Navy’s Southern Command included a battle cruiser, ten destroyers and five submarines. Yamashita attacked immediately after Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941). Yamashita landed a small force in the north. English commander General Arthur Percival when of the landings was advised to set up a defensive line and famously is said to have worried about the effect on morale. A staff office is said to have replied, "It would be bad for morale when the Japanese start running all over the island." Yamahita moved down the Peninsula in a stunning 8-week campaign. The Japanese proved adept at jungle warfare, adjusting to the environment in a way the British were unwilling to do. This is not fully understood. Because of the Pacific War, it is commonly though hat the Japanese were experienced jungle fighters. Nothing could be further from the case. There are no jungles in Japan, nor was the war in China fought in jungles. The Malay campaign was Japan's first jungle campaign.

Singapore (December 1941-February 1942)

The British Pacific position was based on the naval base of Singapore. But it was a naval bastion without a fleet. The defense of Singapore was based on holding out until the Royal Navy relieved the base. Heavily committed against the German U-0boats in the North Atlantic and supporting the British Army in Egypt, the Royal Navy could not devote the needed forces. The British did send the the Repulse and Prince of Wales. These powerful ships sailing without air cover were lost in an air attack (December 10). As a result of Pearl Harbor and this action, the naval capital ship almost instantly changed from battleships to carriers. Some visionaries had seen this, after this action, the shift was accepted throughout the major combatant navies. The loss left Singapore without naval support or adequate air defenses. The Japanese landed in Malaya from bases in Indochina and rapidly moved south, finaly seizing the bastion at Singapore (February 15, 1942). Divisions involved in the Singapore campaign are shifted to Burma joining up with the forces that had struck from Thailand and drove the British and Chinese out of Burma. The fall of Singapore shocked the British and even more so the Australians who now faced the Japanese with virtually no naval defenses and their army the Western Desert. Even before Singapore surrendered, American army, naval, and air units and material were arriving in Australia.

Burma (January-May 1942)

The Japanese conquest of Burma was the most important operation of the Pacific War that did not have a naval component. Burma was the scene of vicious fighting between Japan and the Allies. At the time of World War II, it was a British colony. The British hard-pressed in North Africa could not afford either the men or equipment to properly garrison either Burma or Singapore. Japan after the fall of France (June 1940) demanded that French officials in Indochina permit them to occupy the colony. The French delayed the Japanese, but in the end were forced to accede to their demands. The Japanese occupation took place in two stages, first north and then south Indochina. The Japanese had a number of goals in Indochina. The first was close the port of Haiphong which had been a major conduit of supplies to the Chinese Nationalists. Indochina also provided staging areas for planned invasions of of the Southern Resource Area (Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines). For this reason this brought the Japanese into increasing conflict with the United States whose Pacific Fleet was the only force capable of effectively resisting Japan. From Indochina, Japan pressured Thailand to grant them free passage for an invasion of Burma. This was accomplished through both threats and offering a slice of Indochina. The Japanese invaded Burma through Thailand. The Japanese Army rapidly advanced against the poorly prepared British. The American Flying Tigers arrived just before the War, but was too small a force to blunt the Japanese offensive. The British surrender at Singapore (February 1942) and the American surrender in the Philippines (April 1942) allowed the Japanese to strengthen their drive through Burma. The major problem for the Japanese as they moved west was keeping their army supplied. The Japanese defeated both the British Army which included Indian units and the Chinese Army in India (CAI) commanded by an American general, Vinegar Joe Stilwell. The British position was also undermined by the organization of Burmese nationalist forces. The Allied forces had to make a forced retreat into India under terrible conditions. The Japanese not only succeeded in occupying Burma, but in doing so cut the Burma Road, the last remaining route to supplying the Chinese Nationalists. The Japanese then began to plan an invasion of India. For this they needed a way of transporting supplied through Thailand and Burma. The American carrier victory at Midway mean that supplying troops in Burma could not be done by sea. The result was a decision to build a railway through Thailand and Burma using local labor and Allied POWs.

Dutch East Indies

While the United States had embargoed oil, DEI officials complied with Japanese demands that they export oil. Even so the Japanese after the fall of the British bastion at Singapore (February 1942) invaded the DEI (March 1942). The whole purpose of the Pearl Harbor and invasion of the Philippines was to clear the way for Japan to seize the resources of Southeast Asia and none were more important than the DEI oil. The oil-rich Dutch East Indies was for the Japanese the crown jewel of their war policy. The United States had placed embargoes on Japan to dissuade from her war in China and future aggressive moves. The United States cracking of the Japanese Purple diplomatic code (September 1940) made it clear what Japanese goals were despite public statements that they wanted peace. At the time the United States was the principal supplier of oil to Japan. And oil was a major factor in Japanese war planning. The United States held back from the ultimate embargo until Japanese intentions became all too clear. The United States finally implemented an oil embargo (July 1941). It was a fateful step. The previous embargoes were economically and diplomatic painful. The oil embargo forced Japan to decide on peace or war. Japan at the timev had 2 years of oil reserve for normal peace-time needs, but only one year supply for a war economy. Thus Japan had to either make peace in China and cease aggressive moves or go to war and seize the oil it needed to make war. And the Japanese militarists were not about to give up China and back down in the face of American pressure. The Philippines was needed to secure the sea lanes to the Home Islands, but it was the DEI and its invaluable oil resources that the Japanese needed. Thus even before the Philippines had fallen, the Japanese began their conquest of the DEI. This was thus the most important conquest. The DEI along with the British portion of Borneo were absolutely necessary for Japan to wage war.

ABDA Naval Effort to Defend the DEI (February 1942)

The U.S. Pacific Fleet still reeling from Pearl Harbor was unable to effectively resist the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Surviving Allied naval forces rendezvoused in the DEI to make a stand against the Japanese. American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces were combined under the ABDA command. ABDA was a multinational force which at this stage of the War complicated command and control. ABDA naval forces fought a series of engagements to stop the Japanese, but could not match the more modern and better handled Japanese naval forces. U.S. destroyers attempted to stop the Japanese in the Madagascar Straits between Borneo and Celebes (January 24, 1942). . There were naval actions in DEI waters, but the powerful Imperial Fleet inflicted heavy losses on Allied naval forces. The Navy ordered American fleet units out of the Philippines to join up with British, Australian, and Dutch units in the DEI. The Allied forces were woefully inferior to the powerful Imperial Fleet. And it was not just numbers and surprises. The Japanese ships were not only excellent, but their commanders and crews proved more competent than the Allied commanders. In addition, there had been no joint maneuvers before the War. The different navies could not reach each other signal flags so a coordinated action against the well-drilled Imperial Navy was impossible. An Allied naval force engage the Japanese in Bandoeng Straits in an effort to protect Bali (February 19-20, 1942). U.S. destroyers attempted to stop the Japanese in the Madagascar Straits between Borneo and Celebes (January 24, 1942). An Allied naval force engaged the Japanese in Bandoeng Straits in an effort to protect Bali (February 19-20, 1942). The final Allied action to save the DEI was fought in the Java Sea (February 27, 1942). It was a cruiser engagement. There were two notable aspects of the battle. First, in terms of the ships involved the two sides were relatively evenly matched. Second, it was entirely a surface engagement. The disastrous Allied loses exposed the strength of the Imperial Navy. The Japanese successes was not just a matter of air superiority. The Allied losses (a heavy cruiser damaged, two light cruisers sunk, and three destroyers sunk). The Japaneses loses were negligible. The allied losses left them without the strength to mount continued organized naval resistance to the Japanese in the DEI. Following the Java Sea action, the Allies ordered the two surviving heavy cruisers (Houston and Perth) to evacuate and retire to Australia. They refueled at Batavia and sailed south. While moving through the Soenda / Sunda Strait (March 1, 1942) the cruisers found themselves in the middle of a Japanese landing. The last message picked up at Corregidor was 'Enemy forces engaged'. That was the last report on the ships until after the War. [Hornfischer] The details of the battle are largely lost to history. One survivor reports a Japanese destroyer lost, but the Japanese records do not confirm this. Some Japanese naval ships suffered minor damage. Some of the Japanese transports involved in the landing were sunk, most as a result of Japanese friendly fire. The Japanese Army quickly occupied the major DEI islands virtually unopposed. The Japanese seized the Sumatran oil fields intact through a daring parachute operation.

The Solomons (January-July 1942)

Even before the Japanese seized the DEI, they initiated the Battle of Rabaul began with the landing of thousands of troops (January 23, 1942). After taking Rabaul and began turning it into the most formidable forward base in the South Pacific. Rabaul protected their position in the Central Pacific. It was a marvelous natural anchorage and he Japanese surrounded it with airfields. It was to be the primary naval and air base to be used to support the conquest of New Guinea and ultimately Australia. The Solomons were of little intrinsic value, but they prevented a base from which the vital sea lanes between American and Australia could be attacked. The Allies mount a naval attack on the principal Japanese base in the southwest Pacific--Rabal (February 24, 1942). The Japanese seized the rest of the Solomons with virtually no opposition (January-May 1942). No important naval actions were fought at this time. This changed as code breakers at Pearl began to break into the Imperial Navy code--JN25. This set up the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942). The Japanese seized Tulagi as part of the Coral Sea operation and began to establish a seaplane base. Tulagi and Guadalcanal assume much greater significance after the First Air Fleet lost four of its front-line carriers at Midway (June 1942). Without carriers to cut the sea lanes, the Japanese saw Guadalcanal as a y of extending their air power on to the sea lanes between America and Australia. The island was the last rung down the Solomons ladder. The Japanese landed on Guadalcanal and began building an airbase which could be used to project power to the south (July 1942). This set up the first American offensive in the Pacific. Japanese planners estimated that the United States was not capable of an offensive action until mid-1943. They were basically correct, but did not consider the United States Marine Corps.

American Hit and Run Carrier Attacks (February-March 1942)

Nimitz and Halsey tried to distract the Japanese with hit an run carrier raids. American carriers hit Japanese bases on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands (February 1, 1942). The strategy was to distract the Japanese and force them to pull naval assets away from offensive combat operations to protect their island bases. Nimitz also saw the need for the American carrier crews and pilots to have more combat experience before challenging the Japanese in a major fleet engagement. This was very important because the Japanese carrier commanders and air crews were much more experienced and battle ready than the Americans and had superior aircraft making it especially important to develop air tactics to reduce the Japanese advantage. An American naval task force struck Wake Island (February 24, 1942). The American carriers gained needed battle experience during this period. This was in part possible because the Japanese focused on a range of other operations expanding their empire and did not move on Pearl again which would have forced the American carriers what ever their readiness to battle. Failure to destroy the American carriers while they head a dominant position was the fundamental Japanese error of the War. The American operations, however, were individual carrier actions. Even by the time of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and Midway (June 1942), the United States carriers had not yet perfected fleet operations.

Japanese Indian Ocean Forray (March-April 1942)

The Indian Ocean was not a major theater of World War II and the islands played only minor roles in the War. The Indian Ocean was important primarily as providing the sea lanes to supply the British 8th Army during the North African campaign. And to maintain the sea lanes open to India which was an important support for Britain. Both British and American shipping was involved. No major naval battles were fought in he Indian Ocean. The British were attempting to re-establish a naval presence in Asia after the destruction of Force Z off Kuantan, Malaya at the opening of the Pacific War (December 19, 1941). The Royal Navy afyer the loss of Singapore chose Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as their new main navy base, with a smaller base at Addus Atoll in the Maldives some 600 miles southwest of Ceylon. Admiral James Somerville was ordered command the new British Eastern Fleet. The carriers Indomitable, Formidable and Hermes were assigned to the fleet, capable to launching over 90 planes, though most of the planes were still obsolete biplanes. After Pearl Harbor, the British were well aware that their carriers were not in the same class as the Japanese carriers and their modern air craft like the Zero fighters. The British Eastern Fleet boasted five World War I-era battleships, two heavy cruisers, five light cruisers, sixteen destroyers, seven submarines, and various support craft. The primary Royal Navy objective was to support the British forces fighting in Burma and to safeguard Allied shipping carrying Ceylon rubber, Middle Eastern oil, troops, and other military equipment. The Japanese sent a task force into the Indian Ocean (March-April 1942). The Royal Navy wisely declined to do battle. This was a huge mistake by the Japanese. The British had played a major role in building the Imperial Navy and the prestige of the Royal Navy was strong in the mind of many Japanese commanders. The Royal Navy, however, was not a threat. The American Pacific fleet and its surviving carriers were. The pressing need was to destroy the American carriers while Japan had the overwhelming advantage and before American industry could shift the strategic balance. The American carriers had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor and unlike the British carriers had modern aircraft types. The Japanese by dividing their carrier force, failed to track down and engage the American carriers. The Americans used this respite for its air groups to gain experience and for the USS Hornet to reach the Pacific Fleet. After Midway (June 1942), the Japanese with the loss of four carriers no longer had the naval strength to maintain a significant presence in the Indian Ocean beyond limited submarine deployment.

New Guinea

Within a few months the Japanese had carved out the huge empire with enormous resources that they had long coveted. The Japanese began building bases in the Admiralties, especially Rabaul. The Japanese invaded New Guinea and established bases in the west and along the northern coast. American carriers strike at two of these new Japanese bases (Lae and Salamaua) (March 10, 1942). The Japanese then targeted Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. This would have completed the conquest of the Island. It would also provide a needed base in preparation for a move south to Australia. All that remained to stop them were the few American carriers that had not been at Pearl. Code breakers at Pearl had began to break into the Imperial Navy code--JN-25. Admiral Nimitz decided to commit his precious carriers to break up the Japanese invasion force and hopefully catch the escorting carriers unprepared.

Battle of the Coral Sea (May 3-8, 1942)

The first important Allied effort to stop the Japanese sweep through the Pacific occurred in the Coral Sea. The Japanese planned to seize Port Moresby, completing their conquest of New Guinea and a smaller operation in the Solomons at Tulagi. Port Moresby would have provided a launching pad for an invasion of Australia itself. (At the time, most of the Australian Army was in North Africa fighting Rommel's Afrika Korps.) The Japanese landing force was escorted by the front-line carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. The Japanese naval task force en route to seize Port Moresby was intercepted by an American carrier force, alerted by American code breakers. It was the first carrier to carrier engagement in history. The Japanese launched an attack on the Americans, but found only a destroyer and oilier. In the meantime the Americans sank the Japanese light carrier Shoho (May 7). The next day the two carrier forces fought a major engagement. The Japanese succeeded in sinking Lexington and heavily damaging Yorktown (May 8). The Americans heavily damaged Shokaku and devastated the air crew of Zuikaku. The substantial Japanese pilot casualties was very significant. Despite the American losses, the Japanese invasion force turned back, the first major Japanese reversal of the War.

Sources

McMillin Report (September 11, 1945).

Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).

Shaw, Norman Douglas. "Life in Occupied Shanghai - 1941" WW2 People's War (BBC: April 18, 2005).











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Created: 7:18 AM 9/29/2005
Spell checkjed: 12:49 AM 11/28/2018
Last updated: 12:49 AM 11/28/2018