80th Anniversary of the Pacific War
The 7th and 8th of December 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Pacific War in World War II, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This one attack on the American Pacific Fleet in Hawaii on a Sunday morning in early December killed over 2000 people and brought the colossal power of the United States of America into the war. What is less well known is that near simultaneous attacks occurred across the Pacific at Kota Bharu in Malaya, Singapore, Thailand and Clark Field in the Philippines. Some of these attacks even began shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had even started.
It is important to realise that the Japanese High Command had launched not only a surprise attack on the Americans at Hawaii but also the Philippines, on British Empire holdings in Malaya and Singapore and also on the Kingdom of Thailand. In this article, I will explore a few of these less well known events that occurred in the opening hours of the Pacific War.
One important fact should be noted when discussing times and dates of these events is that due to the international date line, while the Pearl Harbor attack took place on the morning of December 7, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean it was already the early hours of the 8th of December.
In the months leading up to December 1941, the tensions between the Japanese Empire and the Allies had been growing steadily. The Japanese had been engaged in a lengthy war in China since 1937 and following the collapse of France to Nazi Germany in June, they had also moved into what was then known as French Indochina. In response to this, the United States had suspended all oil exports to Japan. In order to fulfill their need, the Japanese began to prepare an attack that would eventually lead to the oil rich Dutch East Indies, knowing that such a move would be opposed by both the United States and the British Empire. The date for the launch of the attacks was set for the 7th/8th of December.
The aerial attack on the Pacific Fleet at their base at Pearl Harbor in the morning of Sunday December 7 1941 came as a complete surprise to the United States. As far as the Americans were concerned, the two parties were still negotiating for a solution to the diplomatic standoff. In the attack, 4 battleships were sunk, several more ships were destroyed as well as hundreds of planes. In terms of human life, 2,335 personnel were killed. The attack immediately motivated the once isolationist power to not only seek revenge on the Japanese but to also intervene in the war in Europe against Nazi Germany. As President Roosevelt said while addressing Congress the next day, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”
USS Arizona during the attack.
Although the attacks at Pearl Harbor are well known by the general public, other less known attacks were also occurring on the other side of the Pacific. The beach landings at Kota Bharu, in Malaya began just after midnight on December 8 1941, more than 2 hours before the Japanese planes descended on Hawaii are much less remembered. In reality, by the time the first bombs were landing on Hawaii, the Pacific War had already begun.
At the time, Malaya was a British colonial possession and the city of Kota Bharu, in the north-eastern province of Kelantan was defended by the Royal Air Force's (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) as well as Indian infantry units. Shortly after midnight on 7/8 December, Indian soldiers patrolling the beaches at Kota Bharu spotted three large shadows: the Japanese transport ships Awazisan Maru, Ayatosan Maru, and Sakura Maru, dropping anchor approximately 3 km off the coast. The ships were carrying approximately 5,200 troops. Most of these troops were veterans of the war in China. The invasion began with a bombardment at around 00:30 local time on 8 December. By 00:45 the first wave of landing craft was heading for the beach. A series of skirmishes over the next few hours followed but by dusk the following day it became clear that the British forces had to withdraw. 68 had been killed, 360 wounded and 37 missing. The Malayan campaign would continue until the Japanese captured Singapore on February 15 1942.
The beach at Kota Bharu earlier in 1941.
On the same day as the landings in northern Malaya, the city of Singapore was also bombed. At 4am, several hours after the landings at Kota Bharu and the attack at Hawaii began, 17 Japanese bombers launched their attack. This was the first that those in the city had learnt of the war. Though the bombing caused only minor damage, it stunned the British Far East Command. Despite intelligence reports of Japanese aircraft performance in the Second Sino-Japanese War, the command did not believe Japan's air forces were capable of striking Singapore from airfields more than 600 miles away in Indochina. The raid came as a surprise to Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, who "hardly expected the Japanese to have any very long-range aircraft." 61 people had been killed and a further 133 wounded. The next raid to occur in Singapore was on the 17th of December.
A Singapore air raid shelter.
Even before the previous military actions took place, at 23:00 on 7 December, the Japanese presented the Thai government with an ultimatum to allow the Japanese military to enter Thailand. The Thais were given two hours to respond. The Kingdom of Thailand was one of the few independent countries in south-east Asia and, from the Japanese perspective, was in the way of their planned invasion route of British Malaya. In the end, the fighting only lasted 5 hours before a ceasefire was signed. Thailand then proceeded to form a military alliance with Japan for the remainder of the war.
Map of the Japanese Invasion of Thailand on December 8, 1941
The final interesting event of December 8 1941 that I would like to highlight is the attack on Clark Field in the Philippines. After the morning raid on Pearl Harbour, as dawn moved westward across the Pacific (and the International Date Line), daylight airstrikes followed at mid-day on American forces at Wake Island, at 09:27 on Guam, at 06:00 on Davao, at 09:30 on Baguio and at 12:35 (UTC+8) on Clark Field. Despite nine hours available for preparations following the Pearl Harbor attack; 12 of the 17 B-17 bombers at Clark Field were destroyed and a further 4 were damaged. 34 P-40s were also destroyed. The raid was considered a major military embarrassment.
Wrecked planes at Clark Field.
In conclusion, although we rightly remember the attack on Pearl harbor on December 7 1941 as a turning point in history that brough the United States into the Second World War, it is important to remember that there was a larger picture of what happened that day. The Japanese were intent of seizing the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies but they knew that not only the United States, but also the British Empire, would stand in their way. Knowing this they conceived a plan of near simultaneous attacks across the Pacific. The surprise was not only felt by the leaders in Washington D.C. but also in London, Bangkok and by many accross the Pacific.
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