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World War II Pacific: Moving Towards War

Japan Attacks the West

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World War II Pacific: Moving Towards War

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48) during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. USS Tennessee (BB-43) is inboard of the sunken battleship.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
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Foreign Reactions to the Second Sino-Japanese War

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, China was heavily supported by Germany (until 1938) and the Soviet Union. The latter readily provided aircraft, military supplies, and advisors seeing China as a buffer against Japan. The United States, Britain, and France limited their support to war contracts prior to the beginning of the larger conflict. Public opinion, while initially on the side of the Japanese, began to shift following reports of atrocities like the Rape of Nanking. It was further swayed by incidents such as the Japanese sinking of the gunboat USS Panay on December 12, 1937, and increasing fears about Japan's policy of expansionism.

US support increased in mid-1941, with the clandestine formation of the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the "Flying Tigers." Equipped with US aircraft and American pilots the 1st AVG, under Colonel Claire Chennault, effectively defended the skies over China and Southeast Asia from late-1941 to mid-1942, downing 300 Japanese aircraft with a loss of only 12 of their own. In addition to military support, the US, Britain, and the Netherlands East Indies initiated oil and steel embargos against Japan in August 1941.

Moving Towards War with the US

The American oil embargo caused a crisis in Japan. Reliant on the US for 80% of its oil, the Japanese were forced to decide between withdrawaling from China, negotiating an end to the conflict, or going to war to obtain the needed resources elsewhere. In an attempt to resolve the situation, Konoe asked US President Franklin Roosevelt for a summit meeting to discuss the issues. Roosevelt replied that Japan needed to leave China before such a meeting could be held. While Konoe was seeking a diplomatic solution, the military was looking south to the Netherlands East Indies and their rich sources of oil and rubber. Believing that an attack in this region would cause the US to declare war, they began planning for such an eventuality.

On October 16, 1941, after unsuccessfully arguing for more time to negotiate, Konoe resigned as prime minister and was replaced by the pro-military General Hideki Tojo. While Konoe had been working for peace, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had developed its war plans. These called for a preemptive strike against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, HI, as well as simultaneous strikes against the Philippines, Netherlands East Indies, and the British colonies in the region. The goal of this plan was to eliminate the American threat, allowing Japanese forces to secure the Dutch and British colonies. The IJN's chief of staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, presented the attack plan to Emperor Hirohito on November 3. Two days later the emperor approved it, ordering the attack to occur in early December if no diplomatic breakthroughs were achieved.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

On November 26, 1941, the Japanese attack force, consisting of six aircraft carriers, sailed with Admiral Chuichi Nagumo in command. After being notified that diplomatic efforts had failed, Nagumo proceeded with the attack. Arriving approximately 200 miles north of Oahu on December 7, Nagumo began launching his 350 aircraft. To support the air attack, the IJN had also dispatched five midget submarines to Pearl Harbor. One of these was spotted by the minesweeper USS Condor at 3:42 AM outside of Pearl Harbor. Alerted by Condor, the destroyer USS Ward moved to intercept and sank it around 6:37 AM.

As Nagumo's aircraft approached, they were detected by the new radar station at Opana Point. This signal was misinterpreted as a flight of B-17 bomber arriving from the US. At 7:48 AM, the Japanese aircraft descended on Pearl Harbor. Using specially modified torpedoes and armor piercing bombs, they caught the US fleet by complete surprise. Attacking in two waves, the Japanese managed to sink four battleships and badly damaged four more. In addition, they damaged three cruisers, sank two destroyers, and destroyed 188 aircraft. Total American casualties were 2,368 killed and 1,174 wounded. The Japanese lost 64 dead, as well as 29 aircraft and all five midget submarines. In response, the United States declared war on Japan on December 8, after President Roosevelt referred to the attack as "a date which will live in infamy."

Japanese Advances

Coinciding with the attack on Pearl Harbor were Japanese moves against the Philippines, British Malaya, the Bismarcks, Java, and Sumatra. In the Philippines, Japanese aircraft attacked US and Philippine positions on December 8, and troops began landing on Luzon two days later. Swiftly pushing back General Douglas MacArthur's Philippine and American forces, the Japanese had captured much of the island by December 23. That same day, far to the east, the Japanese overcame fierce resistance from US Marines to capture Wake Island.

Also on December 8, Japanese troops moved into Malaya and Burma from their bases in French Indochina. To aid British troops fighting on the Malay Peninsula, the Royal Navy dispatched the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse to the east coast. On December 10, both ships were sunk by Japanese air attacks leaving the coast exposed. Farther north, British and Canadian forces were resisting Japanese assaults on Hong Kong. Beginning on December 8, the Japanese launched a series of attacks that forced the defenders back. Outnumbered three-to-one, the British surrendered the colony on December 25.

Previous: The Western Front in Europe | World War II 101 | Next: The Tide Turns in the Pacific
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