Incredibly, it’s 75 years since Pearl Harbor and war in the Pacific

It’s 75 years since Japanese aircraft attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbor – triggering the Pacific war that finally ended in August 1945 after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where does the time go?

USS Arizona, 7 December 1941. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg
USS Arizona, 7 December 1941. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg

For all the infamy of the moment, it wasn’t quite a total surprise. Relations between Japan and the west – the US, particularly, but also Britain – had been strained for some time. The cause, largely, was the ongoing war in China which had been raging since 1931 but taken on a new life with the fall of France in May 1940. That opened up a power vacuum in the former French colonies of South East Asia, allowing the Japanese to move in with the aim of tackling the Chinese from the south. That was opposed by the US and Britain.

The fall of France also triggered several  other responses in the US. The prospect of Britain also falling could not be ignored, and despite a policy of isolationism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to organise significant legislative steps authorising a massive military build-up. New aircraft, ships and ground forces were ordered – including a new type of aircraft able to fly to Europe and back from US soil, which eventually emerged as the Boeing B-29. The naval build-up was unprecedented: a two-ocean navy unfettered by earlier inter-war treaty restrictions, designed to deal with the European war and any problems in the Pacific simultaneously.

All of that took time to build, and in their game of brinksmanship with the US, the military junta that effectively ran Japan at the time realised the clock was ticking. Japan could muster about 14 percent of the world’s total industrial capacity. The US had about 48 percent. And so, if Japan was to deal with the confrontation militarily, they had to act before the new US forces came on line, and while Britain – who dominated the Malayan resources that Japan needed – was otherwise occupied.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).
HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).

The possibility of doing so by pre-emptive strike, in peacetime, wasn’t new. Britain did it to the Danes in August-September 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, and a surprise blow was also how Japan opened the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. In 1941, there was a belief in Japanese military circles that a heavy enough blow, followed by a ferocious enough push, would force the US to the negotiating table within a few months. They were, of course, dead wrong.

The other point we forget about that day is that the Japanese simultaneously attacked the British in Malayan waters, shortly sinking the only two heavy ships the British had in the area at the time. The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse was very much Britain’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

Wright_Pacific War 200 pxToday, 75 years on, we know how all this panned out. But at the time the immediate outcome was far from obvious, and for a few desperate months -until forces could be rallied – the Allies were vulnerable.

For the story of New Zealand’s part in that Pacific war, check out my book on that very calamity – available right now, on Kindle.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


4 thoughts on “Incredibly, it’s 75 years since Pearl Harbor and war in the Pacific

  1. Could have been a very much different outcome.

    Both the Brits and the Americans were aware of the Japanese threat and both had plans in place for their own Preemptive strikes, the Brits had Operation Matador to occupy southern Siam to deprive the Japs of bases there, it was bad enough the French caving in to the Japs, best to try and influence Siam to prevent a repeat of that, and the Brits were also undertaking a build up equipment such as Modern Hurricane fighters and Light tanks and an additional Division for Malaya. The Americans had B17 bombers in the Philippines ready to bomb targets in Japanese Formosa, they had mobilised the 100000 strong Philippine Army, deployed armoured units to the Philippians and had additional troops and war material en-route to reinforce their Garrison their.

    What went wrong? despite the Allies almost been on a war footing and ready to counter the Japanese threat they still totally underestimated the Japanese and believed, despite lessons learnt since the Russo/Japanese and their own studies and war plans, that as European powers they were by nature racially superior to the Japanese. Official British manuals even described the Japanese soldier as a buck toothed, shortsighted individual and no match for a western soldier.

    When allied intelligence noticed the Japanese ships missing from the Indochinese Ports, their aircraft carriers unaccounted for and a lot of other signals intelligence pointing to a Japaneses offensive, instead of being proactive and taking the initiative, it was business as usual and they took a ‘lets see what happens’ stance before acting, overconfident in their own strength and ability.

    Within a few days of the first British Catalina being shot down on the 6th of December over the South China Sea, it was all over for the Allies in Asia, the Japs has a foothold in Siam and North East Malaya before the Brits could carry out Operation Matador, the American Air Forces, turned back from bombing Jap Airfields in Formosa were caught on the ground whilst refuelling and destroyed and the both the American and British fleets had had their capital ships incapacitated, both the British and American Commands went into a brief state if shock, long enough for the Japs to gaps to gain the imitative and despite some brief moments of tactical success, the allies would be on the back foot for the next year and as a result would lose all their Asian possessions, Hundreds of tonnes of war material and critically hundreds of thousands of troops, many who would perish in the most inhumane conditions as Japanese slaves.

    As mentioned earlier, if the Allies had been more proactive, the 6/7th of Dec 1941 could have had a very different outcome.

    1. Yes, the ‘what if’ scenario possibilities are fascinating. The way that the Pacific war broke out – with all sides lurching towards a conflict – is studded with such opportunities, but the Allies were reluctant to provoke. Also, Britain was primarily confronting the Nazis, and the Far East took very much second place. It was only on Churchill’s insistence that a modern battleship was sent to Singapore – original thinking had called for older ships to be deployed to Perth or Ceylon (and they actually were, later in 1942). Even then the British were in a position of having to rob Peter to pay Paul in terms of available equipment. The ‘Germany first’ policy subsequently adopted by the Allies virtually ensured that the Pacific war lasted far longer than it might otherwise have, had the US deployed its full might west (as the ‘Rainbow’ war planning of the inter-war period had always envisaged).

  2. Great post! Your comparison to the war Japan began its war with Russia is very apt.

    By coincidence, just this weekend I was reading a newspaper account of a speech that Prime Minister Fraser made, to a Home Guard unit in Wellington, on 30 November 1941. “At the present moment everybody can see that there is a very critical situation in the Far East, in the Pacific, in that part of the world where we are,” he said, and added that if the situation in the Pacific developed more ominously it would be something for those guiding the destinies of the country to feel and know that the people were responding to the call and playing their part.” How right he was!

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