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The U.S. At War: Fort by Fort, Port by Port

6 minute read

The first crashing blows were so widespread that it looked as if the Japanese were trying to realize their “Heavensent,” Hell-patented ambition of dominating the Pacific all at one fell shock. Actually they had no such crazy plan. They had, instead, a pattern of attack for a first move which was brilliant, thorough, audacious, and apparently in its first two days, successfully carried through.

Japan’s gambit had two essentials: 1) strike at the heart of the main U.S. force and split it from the Allied forces to the East; 2) lay the groundwork for the destruction of the latter.

After the assault on Hawaii, Guam, Wake, Midway, the soft little links between Hawaii and the Philippines, were quickly neutralized.

Guam was easy. Captain George Johnson McMillin, whom the 22,000 Chamorros call King of Guam, could see from his 300-year-old palace the heavily fortified Japanese island of Rota. His kingdom had only one natural harbor and only one landing field. It was, thanks to the fact that certain U.S. Congressmen had not been able to see farther than the west bank of the Potomac River, unfortified. When zero hour came, Japanese warships shelled the island, setting fire to the oil reservoir and all the principal buildings. According to Japanese reports, the flag of the Rising Sun rose over Guam after one day of fighting.

On Wake, 1,100 men had recently been working long hours to complete air bases. According to the Japs, their bombers “smashed” Wake in notime flat.

Midway, only 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii, was treated to a bombing to knock out Pan American Airways and military installations.

Two small British islands, Nauru and Ocean, just south of the Japanese-mandated Marshall Islands, were taken.

The Philippines. By the time the morning had pushed westward from Hawaii to the Philippines, Lieut. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East, had been hauled out of bed and told of the attack. Pilots were rushed to ready stations and Admiral Thomas C. Hart’s Asiatic Fleet, which was at sea, prepared for action.

The first Japanese blows at the Philippines were struck, not at Manila, but at Davao in the extreme south, where a great part of the Philippines’ Japanese population (29,000) lives. The aircraft tender Langley was hit. Up north the Japanese bombed the Army’s Fort Stotsenburg, the summer capital Baguio, then dropped leaflets promising the Filipinos that they would be liberated quickly.

Manila snapped to attention. General MacArthur said: “The military is on the alert, and every possible defense measure is being undertaken. My message is one of serenity and confidence.” One Japanese was arrested for snipping telephone wires, one was caught with an old, much-used set of harbor charts, 13 others were found barricaded in the Nippon Bazaar, a few were caught carrying knapsacks packed with tinned goods; but for the most part the Japanese herded docilely into concentration camps.

The capital was spared air attack for a full day, apparently because of the good work of interceptor squadrons which met the Japanese about 40 miles north of Manila. But during the first night the Japanese swept in, set fire to gasoline dumps beside Nichols Field, bombed the fort of Corregidor (but not seriously), socked naval drydocks and repair shops. The Japanese aim was reported to be un canny: few non-military buildings were hit.

This week it was reported that Japanese troops, with the help of fishermen fifth columnists, had landed on Lubang Island right at the mouth of Manila Bay. This suggests that the Japanese might try to invade the Philippines.

North China yielded up 183 U.S. marines in small garrisons at Peiping and Tientsin.

Shanghai, once the very knob of China’s open door, was taken over quickly and finally from U.S.-British hands. In the small of the night, Japanese soldiers poured into the International Settlement and along the famous Bund. A Japanese destroyer eased up to the British river gun boat Peterel, fired three red warning lights, a minute later opened fire and set it burn ing blackly. Then the destroyer proceeded 100 yards downstream and captured the U.S. gunboat Wake, which had been partially dismantled and was being used merely as a consular wireless station. The flag of the Rising Sun was unfurled from its aftermast.

Hong Kong was bombed three times, expected invasion.

North Borneo was reported attacked by landing parties.

The Netherlands East Indies, so far unattacked, declared war in the knowledge that they would be attacked sooner or later. Said Governor General Jonkheer A. W. L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer: “These attacks almost make one think of insanity.”

Malaya was the scene of the most important attack in the Indies. Just as the Japanese struck at U.S. vitals at Pearl Harbor, they stabbed at British vitals at Singapore. The first bombing came at 4:10 a.m., and the British were caught with their pants no worse than unbuckled. Tokyo claimed two cruisers were hit.

The real effort was a third of the way up the Malay Peninsula. There the wary British spotted five Japanese transports landing troops across monsoon-chopped waters in the moonlit night. The British rushed to meet them and repulsed the first assault. But the first assault was just a diversion. Ten miles to the south ten more Japanese transports were disgorging their eager little beach-climbers. Here the Japanese gained a foothold, then filtered through jungles and swamps toward Kota Bhary, site of an airdrome and junction of railways running south to Singapore and north to Thailand.

The R.A.F. went to work on the transports, claimed two. The British also pushed north into Thailand to meet Japanese forces landing there.

Thailand was invaded amphibiously at the neck of the Malay Peninsula. Bangkok was bombed. After five and a half hours’ resistance, the Siamese gave up. They knew their cause was hopeless, since what little equipment their 100,000 soldiers had was second-rate Japanese stuff.

Thailand was perhaps the key to the first phase of Japan’s rape of the Pacific. Its conquest put the attackers in a key spot for two moves — south into Malaya or west into Burma, at the root of China’s supply line.

There were indications that both these operations, and perhaps others directed at Dutch possessions, would develop into the strongest Japanese tries. Most of these indications were in Indo-China. There the Japs had assembled up to 150,000 troops, great piles of rails (many removed from China), huge stocks of cement for airfields, lumber for barracks.

But the British and Australians had been prepared too, and it was likely that the Japanese would have no pushover in Malaya. Britain’s Far Eastern Commander in Chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham accomplished some masterly understatement when he said: “We do not forget the years of patience and forbearance with which we have borne with dignity and discipline petty insults inflicted upon us by the Japanese in the Far East.”

As for the U.S., it now had more than the Maine to remember.

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