Eighty Years Ago, Japan Assaulted More Than Pearl HarborRoundup
tags: Imperial Japan, Pearl Harbor, World War 2, Asian History, Asian-Pacific History
Mindy L. Kotler is director and founder of Asia Policy Point, a Washington think tank focused on Northeast Asia. She is also an adviser to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society that represents the American POWs of Japan and their families.
Eighty years ago today, December 7, 1941, critical airfields and ports across Southeast Asia and the Pacific were ablaze and in ruin. In just seven hours, Imperial Japan’s surprise attacks crippled British and American forces in the Far East, exposed the Dutch East Indies to invasion, and pushed Thailand into submission. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was but one of many that day. Casualties of the “Associated Powers,” likely exceeded those in Hawaii. One result of these unprovoked attacks was the creation of alliances that endure to this day.
Japan coordinated attacks on the U.S. territories of the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Howland Island, and Midway and the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Japanese forces invaded and bombed Thailand’s airfields. In Shanghai, Japan took control of the International Settlement after blowing up the last two British and American gunboats on the Yangtze, the HMS Peterel and the USS Wake.
The first attack, seventy minutes before Pearl Harbor, was on British-Indian forces at Kota Bharu, on the eastern side of Malaya. Hours before, a British flying boat was shot down by Japanese aircraft while monitoring the progress of the Japanese fleet. The British Royal Air Force crew and their Royal Australian Air Force observer became the first Allied casualties of the war. The ensuing defense of northeastern Malaya was fierce and savage with high casualties on both sides.
Soon after, Bangkok was bombed, and Japanese troops landed to its south and at various points along the Kra Peninsula on the southeastern coast of Thailand. Again, the invaders met with stiff resistance. Despite determined Thai forces, the fighting lasted only five hours. Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram agreed to a ceasefire and formed an alliance with Japan. The Kota Bharu landings were a prelude to the drive down the eastern side of the Malay peninsula, while the Japanese troops landed in Thailand advanced with Thai soldiers down the western side to seize Singapore and its naval base—the cornerstone of British power in the Indo-Pacific. Japanese planes bombed Singapore that day in warning.
Japan’s early morning attack on Pearl Harbor on Hawaii’s Oahu, was followed by the bombardments of the American airfields on Midway and Howland Island in the equatorial Pacific. Two of the four Hawaii settlers on Howland were killed. For his selfless defense of Midway, First Lieutenant George H. Cannon became the first U.S. Marine in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor.