| Welcome to Global Village Space

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Bombing of Pearl Harbor and Japan’s early conquests 80 years ago

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, just before 08:00, on Sunday, December 7, 1941. In this attack, Japan intended the attack as a preventive action to prevent the United States Pacific Fleet from interfering with its planned military actions in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and those of the United States.

From the outset of World War II, the Franklin Roosevelt administration envisaged that America would emerge from the conflict in a position of global dominance. The United States had boasted the world’s largest economy since 1871, surpassing Britain that year, and the gap increased through the early 20th century and beyond. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, just before 08:00, on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Diplomatic historian Geoffrey Warner summarized, “President Roosevelt was aiming at United States hegemony in the postwar world”. From 1939, high-level US State Department officials highlighted which regions of the globe the US would hold sway over, titled by Washington planners as the Grand Area. In the early 1940s, the Grand Area of US dominion was assigned to consist of the following regions: the Western hemisphere, the Far East, and the former British Empire which contained most crucially of all, the Middle East’s oil sources.

Read more: Operation Barbarossa: An Overview – Part Two

President Roosevelt made significant steps towards war during 1941

On 11 March of that year, he signed into law the Lend-Lease Act which, for the majority, benefited Britain by furnishing her with vast quantities of war matériel, oil and food supplies (amounting to around $30 billion in all for the British); to a lesser extent, US deliveries of such commodities were sent to the Soviet Union from December 1941, months after the Germans invaded, and it would amount to about $10 billion altogether.

The German Army’s high command, on hearing of the Lend-Lease Act, believed in general that it “may be regarded as a declaration of war on Germany”, and Hitler also “agreed that the Americans had given him a reason for war” with the introduction of Lend-Lease, according to Ian Kershaw, the English historian. Through 1941 a state of almost undeclared hostilities existed between America and Nazi Germany, as their vessels dangerously rubbed shoulders with each other on the Atlantic Ocean. War against America was officially declared by Hitler, a few days after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese militarists viewed the Lend-Lease Act with grave misgivings too. Their opinions were strengthened further when, on 26 July 1941, the Roosevelt administration froze all Japanese assets in America, which immediately eradicated 90% of Japan’s oil imports and 75% of its foreign trade. Britain and the Netherlands followed suit. Roosevelt’s decision to freeze Japanese assets, in response to Tokyo’s occupation of southern French Indochina, amounted to a virtual declaration of war on Japan. For a resource-poor nation of 73 million people dependent on food and petroleum imports, Japan had for example only an 18 month supply of oil left.

When the Japanese cabinet thereafter discussed its options, they shifted towards war against America and further conquests. Military author Donald J. Goodspeed wrote, “In the light of the evidence, it seems probable that in the autumn of 1941 Roosevelt wanted war – against Nazi Germany if possible, but if necessary against both Germany and Japan. He maintained the economic stranglehold on Japan, and refused to relax it except on terms he knew Japan would not meet”.

Read more: The 20th anniversary of US military intervention in Afghanistan

What was the US strategy?

Already in November 1940, a US military plan to “bomb Tokyo and other big cities” met the endorsement of Cordell Hull, the US Secretary of State, and Roosevelt himself did not object to the idea. From July 1941 increasing numbers of American B-17 heavy bombers were sent to US airbases, like in the Philippines, just over 1,000 miles south of Japan. The Japanese were of course aware of this military build-up, and we can note there was no Japanese military presence in the Western hemisphere.

On 26 November 1941, just 11 days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt consciously made war with Japan a certainty. Secretary of State Hull told the Japanese envoys, Saburo Kurusu and Kichisaburo Nomura, that a “general peaceful settlement” between America and Japan could only be reached should Tokyo – among other things – withdraw its armies from China and French Indochina, and effectively revoke its membership of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, while recognizing the US-backed Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. These proposals were totally unacceptable to Japan’s administration and the country’s commanders.

Goodspeed wrote of the Roosevelt government’s offer of 26 November that it “made war inevitable and it was intended to do so. For two days after the receipt of the American reply, the Japanese cabinet debated the issue, but on the 29th [of November] it reached a firm decision to go to war”.

Four days before on 25 November 1941 the US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, wrote in his diary that he and colleagues had pondered at a White House meeting on that day “how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot, without allowing too much danger to ourselves”. Stimson continued that Roosevelt “brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [1 December 1941], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do”.

The Japanese Army was itself, artificially inculcated with the extreme samurai traditions of the ancient warrior class. The military wielded a huge influence on Japanese policy. Japan’s army leaders were, on the whole, poorly informed of world affairs, and dismissive of the materialism and supposed softness of America.

Read more: Drawing the Soviet Union into a Vietnam quagmire

The army was also alarmingly overconfident in their armed forces

The Japanese Navy leadership was more realistic because they were regular travelers who had a better understanding of the world before them. The Japanese strategy for war with America was designed by the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, an experienced and popular officer aged in his mid-50s. Admiral Yamamoto knew quite clearly that his country could not decisively defeat America in a conflict.

What Yamamoto proposed for Japan was a limited but still ambitious war aim: the establishment of a defensive perimeter in the Pacific Ocean, stretching out in a giant arc from the north-east to the south-west, from the Kuril Islands to the borders of India. This would enhance Japan’s status as a major power, but could not have prevented America from attaining pre-eminence across much of the remainder of the globe.

Within this final Japanese line lay various countries they would take over or retain, including the Philippines, British Malaya (Malaysia), Myanmar (Burma), Indochina and, of greatest significance, oil-rich Indonesia (Dutch East Indies). If Japan could secure this area in the first three or four months of their war against America, it should be possible to consolidate a powerful defensive barrier the US would dare not breach. Or so that is what Yamamoto hoped. He advocated a surprise attack on the US military, similar to the Japanese assault which had destroyed the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904.

Yamamoto picked out the formidable US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii, 3,865 miles from Tokyo and 2,580 miles from the American mainland coast at Los Angeles, California. Yet in his planning, Yamamoto committed two serious errors – he misjudged how a surprise raid on US forces would be viewed in America, which in the event united the US Congress and the American people behind Roosevelt; and Yamamoto underestimated the true potential of US industry which, within two or three years, would easily outstrip that of Japan.

Read more: Operation Barbarossa: Great strategic errors by Hitler that led to Nazis’ failure

What went wrong?

The 54-year-old Vice Admiral, Chuichi Nagumo, commanded the Japanese fleet which would attack Pearl Harbor. His task force set sail on 18 November 1941. Almost three weeks later at 5.30 am on 7 December, a Sunday, Japan’s assault force neared its launch area. Two Japanese reconnaissance planes flew south to observe the Pearl Harbor naval base and reported back that all was quiet.

Despite Washington having cracked Japanese codes in 1940, including Tokyo’s highest diplomatic code, the Purple Cipher, US personnel at Pearl Harbor were not informed of the imminent Japanese attack. This was an incredible occurrence. Neither the direct scramble telephone nor the US naval radio communications were used to contact the American officers at Pearl Harbor. A warning message, not marked urgent, was instead sent through a much slower medium, as Kershaw noted via “Western Union’s commercial telegram service, which had no direct line to Honolulu [Hawaiian capital]. It had still not arrived in Hawaii when the attack began”.

From 230 miles north of their target, the opening wave of Japanese warplanes departed from their aircraft carriers shortly after 7 am. As they reached Pearl Harbor, below them were the US Pacific Fleet warships, lined up neatly and close together, as though the world had never been at war. The Japanese aircraft descended at 7:55 am. They bombed and strafed to their heart’s content for 30 minutes. A mere 25% of the US anti-aircraft guns at Pearl Harbor had crews to fire the weaponry.

Within minutes, the US Pacific Fleet was in tatters

The Japanese bombs had set aflame the battleships, ‘Arizona’, ‘Oklahoma’, ‘California’, and the ‘West Virginia’, all of which were in the process of sinking. Likewise in flames and going under were three US cruisers, three destroyers, and some ships of smaller size. Heavy damage was inflicted upon the American battleships the ‘Nevada’, ‘Maryland’, ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Pennsylvania’.

The second wave of Japanese aircraft arrived over Pearl Harbor at 8:40 am. Along the nearby airfields, Japan’s bombers destroyed 188 US warplanes, most of them on the ground. By the time the Japanese pilots returned to their aircraft carriers at 11:30 am, 2,403 Americans were dead, while the Japanese had lost 29 planes out of 350 and suffered 64 deaths.

Read more: Reasons behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 80 years ago

The Pearl Harbor attack was a severe blow to American pride and naval power, but it was not a deadly one. Pearl Harbor’s installations such as the submarine pens were undamaged, as were the large oil tanks in the dockyard. Of major importance, the three US aircraft carriers were by luck out to sea at the time. Their survival would allow the US military to rapidly launch offensive operations.

The Japanese generals did not rest on their laurels, however, and morale was very high among their soldiers. A few hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor had even started, the Japanese 25th Army (commanded by Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita) landed at British Malaya in southeast Asia. On 8 December 1941, the Japanese 15th Army (Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida) led the way in invading neutral Thailand, just a few hundred miles north of Malaya. Thailand, which until then had escaped colonization, capitulated quickly and signed a formal alliance with Japan.

Four hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ended, the Japanese 14th Army (Lieutenant-General Masaharu Homma) attacked the Philippines, a south-east Asian country taken over by America in the late 19th century. Much to their delight, Japan’s troops destroyed dozens of US aircraft on the ground at Clark Air Base, in the northern Philippines.

An important day for Japan

On 10 December 1941 Japanese soldiers landed at Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and most populous island in the north of the country. On that same day, 10 December, the Japanese 55th Infantry Division (Major-General Tomitaro Horii) captured the strategically important Pacific island of Guam from the Americans, almost 1,500 miles to the east of the Philippines. Another 1,500 miles further east again in the Pacific, on 23 December 1941 a US territorial possession called Wake Island was taken comfortably by Japanese marines from the outnumbered Americans.

On 16 December 1941 Borneo, the world’s third-largest island and less than 1,000 miles south of the Philippines, was attacked by Japanese units comprising mainly of the 35th Infantry Brigade (Major-General Kiyotake Kawaguchi). Landing in north-western Borneo, the Japanese met little resistance from the British, and they swiftly took the coastal towns of Miri and Seria.

Further north, Hong Kong, in south-eastern China, a British possession from the days of London’s opium wars, was assailed by Japan’s forces on the morning of 8 December 1941, led by the Japanese 23rd Army (Lieutenant-General Takashi Sakai). The Battle of Hong Kong turned into a rout, as the Japanese captured at least 10,000 Allied troops, among them British, Free French and Canadians. The myth of the white man’s invincibility was evaporating like mist in a morning breeze.

Read more: Consequences of the Wehrmacht’s November 1941 Orsha meeting

On Christmas Day 1941 Mark Aitchison Young, the British Governor of Hong Kong, surrendered in person to Lieutenant-General Sakai, the victorious commander of the Japanese 23rd Army. Much to Winston Churchill’s disappointment, the Allied soldiers at Hong Kong withstood Japan’s troops for just 18 days. Britain’s century-long rule over Hong Kong was broken.


Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.