Japan Strikes, The Fall of Malaya and Singapore



As promised, Episode 37 of the podcast is now available!  In the last episode you heard about Japan invading China, occupying French Indochina, and bombing Pearl Harbor.  Now this episode covers the 1941 Japanese invasion of Thailand, Malaya, and Singapore.  Are you ready?



(Transcript, added 07/26/2020.)


Episode 37: Japan Strikes, The Fall of Malaya and Singapore

Greetings, dear listeners! This episode went online on January 16, 2018, so if you are listening then, happy National Nothing Day! Yes, that is a real holiday, or at least an attempt to make one. Back in the 1970s, nobody could find an event that happened on January 16, so someone suggested celebrating it as the day when nothing happened. It’s the same kind of thinking as that behind the “Unbirthdays” celebrated by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, in “Alice In Wonderland.” Can we give National Nothing Day a hand?


All right, I hope you’re more enthusiastic at this time next year. Anyway, on January 16, 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi left Iran, saying he was feeling tired and needed to rest, though everyone knew he was fleeing the revolution that had swept his country. Nobody could talk about National Nothing Day after that, because January 16 was now the anniversary of the date when the Shah of Iran’s reign ended. Three weeks after the last National Nothing Day, Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and Iran has been controlled by a theocracy for the thirty-nine years since then. Now as I record this, it looks like another revolution is spreading like wildfire in Iran, this time led by young people yearning for lower prices, jobs, freedom, and a government that is not corrupt.

But I know you’re not here expecting a talk about what’s happening in the Middle East. Maybe someday I will do a podcast about the Middle East, and since I don’t want to record two podcasts simultaneously, by the time I get done with Southeast Asia, we should know how the current events in Iran turned out.

Now where were we when we last talked about Southeast Asia? Oh yes, last time we started a series of episodes about World War II, by listing the events that motivated Japan to begin the Pacific War. We ended the episode with the battle of Pearl Harbor, and because this podcast has been moving in chronological order from the start, we are now going to chronicle the first battles after December 7, 1941. It is too early to tell how long it will take to cover the war until its end, but I’m sure you will enjoy the trip.

Now I don’t know how bookstores are organized where you live. Here in the United States, whenever I have entered a bookstore, I have found the history books arranged in three groups or shelves: one shelf for American history, one shelf for military history, and one shelf for the history of everything else. So far in this podcast series, if you wanted to find books that had the content I have been giving you, you would find most of it on the third shelf, the “miscellaneous history.” Add to that a little bit from the American history shelf, for Episodes 29 through 31 and Episode 36. But for World War II, and later for the Vietnam War, you will have to go to the military history shelf to read about what I will cover here. No doubt the podcast will now attract some of the military history buffs who browse that shelf in the bookstores, and weren’t interested in this podcast before.

Okay, Japan has crippled the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Now what? To find out, let’s get back into the narrative:

<Tora3 soundfile>

Japan assigned the job of conquering all of Southeast Asia to ten army divisions. If you know anything about World War II, this will sound like a trivial force. On the Russian front, by contrast, both the German and Soviet armies each had more than a hundred divisions, and for the ongoing war in China, Japan committed forty divisions, three of them armored. What’s more, nearly all of the units sent to Southeast Asia were infantry; the jungles and mountains of the region made most of the land unsuitable for tanks.

Nevertheless, this force would be enough for the job, because the Allies were overextended. The French in Indochina and the Dutch in the Indies could not resist any invader, because Germany had conquered their homelands in 1940. And though the British were alive and kicking, as long as the German navy was active in the Atlantic, they could not get enough ships and planes to the Far East to defend their colonies. As for the Americans, their supply lines were simply too long; the Philippines are four times as far away from the US mainland as Hawaii is. Indeed, except for an optimist named Douglas MacArthur, most American generals and admirals thought that if Japan invaded, the Philippines were indefensible. That is why the Americans recruited Filipino soldiers, as soon as they could be trusted; while it showed that the Americans, unlike the other colonial powers, did not have to worry about the native population turning on them, it was mainly done as a cost-cutting measure, because establishing a native defense force was cheaper and less controversial than sending more American servicemen to the archipelago.

Within a few hours of the Pearl Harbor raid, Japanese forces attacked several other targets. They struck Thailand, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island. This is not obvious because the International Date Line runs through the middle of the Pacific. Pearl Harbor and Midway are east of the International Date Line, where it was December 7 at the time, while the other places are west of the line, so it was December 8 there. For example, the first Japanese troops to land in Malaya did so at 1:30 AM on December 8, but in real time that was less than an hour after the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Keep that in mind if you do independent research on the war, besides what you are listening to here.

The attack on Midway was merely a bombardment by two destroyers, which the Americans easily drove off. Japan would not make an effort to capture the Midway atoll until June 1942. The other attacks were all-out invasions. Guam was the first to fall, because the defenders were outnumbered, and because the Japanese already ruled the rest of the Mariana Islands, so here their supply lines were short. The defenders were roughly 700 Marines and native Chamorros, armed with nothing larger than .30-caliber machine guns. Against them the Japanese sent 6,000 troops, and they conquered Guam by December 10. On the same day the British-ruled Gilbert Islands were taken; these islands make up the present-day nation of Kiribati, pronounced Kiri-bas if you live there.

However, on Wake Island, a remote atoll between Guam and Hawaii, 400 US Marines surprised everyone by throwing the first Japanese invasion back into the sea. Morale among the Americans was so high at this point that when Pearl Harbor sent a radio message to Wake Island that asked, quote, “Is there anything we can provide?”, unquote, the beleaguered defenders replied, quote, “Send us more Japs!” Unquote. Pardon my use of a politically incorrect term here. Sure, it’s an ethnic slur that shouldn’t be used today, but while the Pacific War was going on, it is hard to find anything American servicemen said or wrote that did not refer to the Japanese as “Japs.” Anyway, the American success prompted Japan to send two of the aircraft carriers returning from Pearl Harbor, to support a second invasion. On the second try the defenders were overrun; Wake Island surrendered on December 23. Still, 700 Japanese were killed before it was all over; obviously the Japanese had suffered more casualties than the Americans did. Meanwhile on the Asian mainland, Hong Kong surrendered on December 25.

You probably guessed from the title of this episode that we are going to concentrate our attention on the invasion of Malaya, and that is correct. In the last episode we introduced the force sent to do this job, three divisions of the Japanese XXV Army, riding on troop transports. They were commanded by Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, an officer we will be hearing from again when the podcast gets to the war in the Philippines. Some cruisers and destroyers escorted the troopships, but no aircraft carriers went with them; instead, fighters and bombers took off from Saigon to give the force air cover. On December 7, Japan sent an ultimatum to Bangkok, demanding that Japanese forces be allowed to pass through Thailand; the Thais were given two hours to respond. No response came before the deadline, so the Japanese began their invasion the next day.

Of the three divisions mentioned, one landed at Kota Baharu, the northernmost port on Malaya’s east coast, while the other two landed at Singora and Patani in southernmost Thailand. Japanese planes staged an air raid on Singapore on the same day, letting the British know they were in a heap of trouble. Meanwhile two divisions of the Japanese XV Army invaded central Thailand from Cambodia, and individual battalions of the XV Army landed at four points on the Kra Isthmus, the very narrow stretch of land in southern Thailand that separates the Gulf of Thailand from the Bay of Bengal. Another battalion landed at the mouth of the Menam River, to be used for a march on Bangkok if the Thais did not give in to Japanese demands. Finally, in an air raid over Bangkok, one bomb was dropped on the main post office, but it did not explode.

In Episode 27 we met the strongman who was running Thailand at this date, Field Marshall Phibun Songgram; we also saw that he admired the Japanese. In the weeks before the invasion, Phibun had been in communication with both the Japanese and the British, but he did not commit Thailand to either side, because it was not clear who could do more for him. Now with the Japanese on their doorstep, the Thais resisted for five hours, and then Phibun surrendered, announcing at the same time that Thailand was joining the Axis. The biggest battle in the Japanese-Thai conflict was in the northernmost part of the Kra Isthmus, where the Japanese attacked the airfield of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Phibun gave up before this battle had a clear winner; after it ended Thailand reported 42 of its soldiers had been killed, and 27 wounded. The Japanese death toll reported was 115, but it really may have been as high as 417. So if you want to believe the Thais won that battle, go ahead.

Thailand’s entry into the war on Japan’s side did not have the expected effect. The king of Thailand, Rama VIII, did not endorse Phibun’s actions, because he was only sixteen years old, and attending school in Switzerland. The regent acting for the king was Phibun’s civilian rival, Pridi Phanomyong, and he declared himself on the side of the Allies, forming an anti-Japanese political party called the Seri Thai, meaning Free Thai. The Thai embassy in Washington recognized the Free Thai as the legitimate government of Thailand. On January 25, 1942, in response to British air raids on Japanese military positions in Thailand, Phibun declared war on both Britain and the United States. However, the Thai ambassador in Washington refused to deliver the war declaration to the Americans, and the Americans likewise ignored the declaration and recognized the Free Thai as the government they would deal with. Thus, the Thai government split in two, with a pro-Axis military government in Bangkok, and a pro-Allied civilian government in exile. Still, the Japanese XV army quickly passed through the country, instead of sticking around in Bangkok, and that was precisely what Phibun wanted. On Thailand’s western border the XV Army assembled, but instead of invading Burma immediately they waited, to see if the army invading Malaya would need reinforcements.

For at least a month before the Japanese invasion the British knew that their colonies were likely to become targets, and a squadron was sent from the Atlantic to defend Singapore if that happened. This squadron, called “Force Z,” was led by the pride of the Royal Navy, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Earlier in 1941 the Prince of Wales had fought Germany’s super-battleship, the Bismarck, and survived despite suffering heavy damage. Then later in the same year Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ridden across the Atlantic on the Prince of Wales, for his first meeting with US President Franklin Roosevelt. The other ships in Force Z were a battle cruiser, the HMS Repulse, and four destroyers. A carrier, the HMS Indomitable, was also supposed to go, but she ran aground on a coral reef near Jamaica, and thus was being repaired when the other ships went on their mission. The decision to leave the Indomitable behind probably decided the battle you will hear about shortly. The commander of Force Z, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, knew that traveling without a carrier was risky, but he was also confident that land-based planes in Malaya could provide air cover in place of the carrier.

Force Z arrived at Singapore on December 2, and they left Singapore on December 8 to intercept the Japanese troopships approaching Malaya. Around this time, the Royal Air Force told Phillips, quote: “Regret fighter protection impossible,” unquote, and Philips remarked to an officer on the bridge, quote, “Well, we must get on without it.” Unquote. The squadron was too slow to intercept the troopships, because as we noted, the Japanese came ashore at Kota Baharu on the same day. By the time Force Z arrived at Kota Baharu, the troopships had withdrawn, and the troops weren’t on the beach anymore. The squadron turned back, and then Phillips heard about another Japanese landing at Kuantan, halfway down Malaya’s east coast, so he decided to stop that. Past experience had taught all Royal Navy officers that capital ships were the key to controlling the sea, and whoever controlled the sea would eventually win on land as well. In his mission to engage the Japanese as soon as possible, Phillips had followed the rules in the book of naval warfare – but the book was out of date.

On the morning of December 10, Force Z reached Kuantan, only to find that no Japanese ships or troops were there; the report of their landing had been false. Japanese planes had spotted the squadron, though, and bombers and torpedo bombers swooped in to attack the ships. The Repulse was sunk after taking bombs for an hour and a half, and another hour of bombing sank the Prince of Wales. Admiral Phillips went down with the flagship; he was the highest ranking Allied officer killed in battle during all of World War II. On the other side, the Japanese only lost three planes. With this battle, a new rule was written for naval warfare:

<Shiphorn sound>

“Even the mightiest warships are vulnerable to attacks from the air if they do not have planes of their own to protect them.”

Cecil Brown, an American war correspondent for CBS, was on the Repulse during the battle, and gave an account of what he experienced. This is a lengthy quote, but you don’t hear from someone who was in the middle of a naval battle every day, so here goes. Quote:

“Stand by for barrage,” comes over the ship’s communication system. One plane is circling around. It’s now at 300 or 400 yards, approaching us from the port side. It’s coming closer head-on, and I see a torpedo drop. A watcher shouts, “Stand by for torpedo”, and the tin fish is streaking directly for us.

Some one says: “This one’s got us.”

The torpedo struck the side on which I was standing, about twenty yards astern of my position. It felt like the ship had crashed into a well-rooted dock. It threw me four feet across the deck, but I did not fall, and I did not feel any explosion—just this very great jar.

Almost immediately, it seemed, we began to list, and less than a minute later there was another jar of the same kind and same force, except that it was almost precisely the same spot on the starboard.

After the first torpedo, the communications system coolly announced: ‘Blow up your lifebelts.’ I was in this process when the second torpedo struck, and the settling ship and crazy angle were so apparent that I didn’t continue blowing the belt.

The communications system announced: “Prepare to abandon ship. May God be with you.”

End quote.

By the way, Cecil Brown fared better than the admiral; he was rescued, and lived to report another day. In London, Winston Churchill told Parliament, quote: “In my whole experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful . . .” Unquote.

On land, the two divisions of the Japanese XXV Army that landed in southernmost Thailand made a beeline for Malaya’s west coast, the side facing the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. The British had stationed two Indian divisions to guard Malaya’s northern frontier, but these were conscripts who had very little equipment and training; the Japanese pushed them back and outflanked them easily. Once the Japanese broke through, their speed and success astonished everybody, including themselves. The foot soldiers were given bicycles; this allowed them to carry more equipment and to move quickly on jungle trails, or through rubber tree plantations. In fact, the foot soldiers outran their supplies of food, fuel, and ammunition. Finally, the Japanese learned during the Malayan campaign how to live and fight in the jungle; this experience would help them a lot for the rest of the war.

As they retreated, British combat engineers blew up more than a hundred bridges, but this did little to slow down the Japanese. Often when they fell back, the British found that Japanese troops had moved faster, and were already behind them. As one officer described their attempts to form a defensive line, quote, “It’s like trying to build a wall out of quicksand.” Unquote. The native Malay population were not hostile to the British – we saw in Episode 23 that they did not oppose the British when they set up a federation over their sultanates – but the Japanese invasion made them restless, so they chose to sit out the fighting and see which side would win.

Check out the map I have posted on the podcast’s Facebook page and the Blubrry.com page, so you can see where the places are that I will be mentioning. On December 16 the British abandoned Penang, the offshore island where they had gained their first foothold in Malaya, more than a century and a half earlier. A radio station on Penang was captured intact, and the Japanese used it to broadcast a cruel message to Singapore. Quote: “Hello, Singapore, this is Penang calling. How do you like our bombing?” Unquote. Then came a wave of looting and killing, like what the Japanese had done in Chinese cities. Halfway down the peninsula’s west coast, the Japanese crossed the Slim River at two points, during the first week of 1942. This means that in just a month they had gotten halfway to Singapore.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, fell to the Japanese on January 11, and so did Malacca, that once-mighty seaport, on January 15. Of the nine Malay sultanates on the peninsula, the Japanese had captured eight by mid-January, only Johore, the southernmost sultanate, was left. By now the British had received some reinforcements, a British and an Australian division, and these tried to defend Johore by forming a line along the Muar River, while one of the Indian divisions was withdrawn into Johore to rest and regroup. In the third week of January, the Australians staged two ambushes that killed 700 Japanese troops and destroyed 15 Japanese tanks – the only Allied success in this campaign. But when the Japanese crossed the river, it was the Allies’ turn to suffer heavy casualties, and those who survived began the retreat to Singapore. On January 31 the British destroyed part of the causeway linking Singapore to the mainland, leaving the whole Malay peninsula in Japanese hands.

Although the British had done a miserable job defending Malaya, they were confident they could hold Singapore. This island had 15-inch guns facing the sea, and was considered an impregnable fortress; in fact, it was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East.” The nearest part of the mainland was covered with jungle and swamps, and the British thought the Japanese could not get their tanks and artillery through that. General Yamashita began the battle for Singapore on February 5, by attacking Pulau Ubin, a small island just east of Singapore. This fooled the Singapore commander, General Arthur Percival, into thinking that the main attack would come from the east, and he moved his major ammunition stores to the east side of the island. But this was only a feint, and when Japanese troops came across the Strait of Johore to attack Singapore on February 8, they landed on the island’s northwest side. Here the infantry came alone, using mostly inflatable boats; the artillery were left behind, while some tanks were brought across the strait later. A week of street fighting followed. The British realized that they had been attacked from the rear, and their big guns could not be turned around to shoot at the attackers. In addition, the British had no tanks of their own, and while they had 158 planes available, most were obsolete and did not last long when they engaged modern Japanese fighter planes. All this meant that the British were too shocked to put up a determined resistance.

On February 13 the city reservoirs were captured, and civilian suffering became intolerable. The next day saw another brutal atrocity, when Japanese troops captured Alexandra Hospital; they bayoneted the medical officer who surrendered with a white flag, and went on to kill 300 more doctors, nurses, and patients, again mostly by bayonets. This was too much even for General Yamashita; he had the Japanese soldiers responsible for the attack executed at the hospital. On February 15, 1942, Percival gave up. At this point there were 80,000 British soldiers left, and they surrendered to 30,000 Japanese. Add to that another 50,000 Allied soldiers that had been captured in Malaya. Throughout the whole campaign, the Japanese had been outnumbered at least 2 to 1 by the Allies.

The fall of Singapore made it questionable whether the Allies would be able to defend Indonesia and Australia, and they knew the Japanese were going to head in those directions next. And because the Japanese had captured the eastern gate of the Indian Ocean, their navy could now enter that body of water, and threaten India, the Middle East and Africa. Part of the Japanese army in Singapore would now go to Burma as reinforcements for Japan’s invasion of that British colony. Malaya and Singapore would stay under Japanese control for the rest of the war, and many of those captured would endure a brutal captivity, doing forced labor for three and a half years in Indochina. Today most historians consider Percival the worst British general in World War II, and that the fall of Singapore was the worst defeat in British history.

This episode wasn’t as long as the last one, but we are at a good point to break off the narrative for today, so let us do so. Because Japan attacked both Malaya and the Philippines on the same day, in the next episode we will go to the Philippines and chronicle what was happening there, in late 1941 and early 1942. For now, I’ll just tell you that the Japanese will meet an opponent who fights with more determination than the soldiers they defeated and captured in Malaya and Singapore. It will also be a longer campaign, so I may need two episodes to finish it – stay tuned!

If you can’t get enough of this podcast and want to hear more, you can support it by making a secure donation through Paypal. Just click on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s Blubrry.com page. If you cannot see the button, or are otherwise having trouble donating, contact me on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page. And speaking of the Facebook page, “like” it so you won’t miss additional content, like pictures. For example, I posted a map of the Malayan campaign a week ago, as mentioned in the middle of today’s narrative. If you haven’t written a review yet, iTunes is a good place for it, and give the podcast some stars before you’re done. And if technology isn’t your forte, you can still spread the word in the real world. I for one tell people about the podcast almost every day, and I know that work isn’t finished, because there are still more listeners in other states than in the one I call home. As always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Prelude to the Pacific War


SAI2000042702- 29 APRIL 1975 -Saigon, South Vietnam: An Air America helicopter crew member helps evacuees up a ladder on the roof of 18 Gia Long Street April 29, 1975 shorly before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. HvE/ Hugh Van Es UPI (Newscom TagID: upiphotos078819.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]


Happy New Year!  To begin 2018, the podcast will cover the course of World War II in Southeast Asia.  For this episode, we will start by looking at the events in the early twentieth century that motivated Japan to conquer most of East Asia and the western Pacific, and we will finish with the event that brought the United States into the war, the attack on Pearl Harbor.



(Transcript, added 07/20/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Mario A. And Jacob T., who recently made donations to the podcast. 2017 was a good year for the podcast, and your contributions show me that the listeners are interested in what is coming next, now that we are entering recent history, with events that some people are old enough to remember. I don’t know if I will finish the narrative in 2018, but thank you for doing your part to make sure it keeps moving toward the present. May you have a great year as well, and enjoy not only this episode, but also those to come.

Episode 36: Prelude to the Pacific War

Greetings, dear listeners! This episode was uploaded on January 1, 2018, so if you are listening near that date, Happy New Year!


OK, OK, that’s enough! I hope your holiday season went well. 2017 had its strange moments, but I think you will agree it wasn’t as crazy a year as 2016 was. Go back to Episode 12 if you want to hear my comments about 2016.

So where is the podcast now? The podcast is now exactly one and a half years old, and in thirty-five episodes it has covered Southeast Asian history across thousands of years, millions if you believe in evolution, from the stone age to the beginning of the 1940s, A.D. The last five episodes finished up coverage of the first four decades of the twentieth century, the relatively peaceful period between the Western conquest of most of the region, and World War II.

World War II is a huge subject for anyone to tackle, no matter how you slice it. This means you can bet your last dollar that we will need several episodes just to cover the parts of the war that apply to Southeast Asia. It has been called the most destructive conflict of all time, the greatest man-made disaster ever. When it comes to casualties, the latest estimate I have heard for the number of servicemen and civilians killed in the war is 70 million – two and a half percent, or one fortieth, of the world’s population in the 1940s. Part of the reason for all the death and destruction is that the war was really three wars in one. In Europe, North Africa and the Atlantic Ocean you had what most history texts call the main theater of the war, with the so-called “Axis” countries on one side; Germany, Italy and a handful of smaller European states like Hungary and Finland; and on the other side you have the Allies, of which the big four players are Great Britain, France, the United States and Canada. The second war, or second theater if you prefer, is the so-called Russian front, pitting mainly Germany against the Soviet Union. And the third war was in east Asia and the Pacific Ocean, where you have the Allies again, this time fighting Japan. Officially Japan was a member of the Axis from 1940 onwards, but the other Axis countries gave no aid to Japan’s war effort, nor did Japan do anything to help its partners in the West. Also, during the course of the Pacific war, Japan forced Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Thailand to become members of the Axis, but these were puppet states that did nothing to help Japan, except to make the Japanese Empire look more impressive on a map.

Finally, I don’t know how World War II is portrayed where you are listening, but here in the United States it is usually seen as the “last good war.” It was the last war that began with a formal declaration of war, before the Americans jumped into it; nowadays the president usually sends troops somewhere first, and then Congress has to vote on whether to fund their mission. The only US territories attacked were distant islands, and the nearest of those targeted areas was Pearl Harbor, the 48 states on the mainland suffered no damage. And most of the time it was a conventional war; unlike a guerrilla war, you can draw a map that shows the movement of armed forces from all sides, and from that tell who was winning at any given time. It was also a war that is usually portrayed in black and white terms; in most accounts and stories, the Allies are the good guys, and the Axis are the bad guys. Of course we now know about incidents where the Allies were not angels, like the bombing of Dresden and the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans in detention camps, but the above image of the Allies as heroes has not been tarnished completely, since we also know beyond a doubt that the Germans and Japanese were fighting for an evil cause. I am reminded of the sketch from the British comedy show “That Mitchell and Webb Look,” where on the Russian front, an SS officer becomes a reluctant Nazi, once he realizes what emblem he is wearing.

<“Are we the baddies?”>

No wonder the History Channel became the quote-unquote Hitler Channel, where for a few years most of its programs were about World War II. I think they only moved on to other topics because they ran out of World War II-related ideas, and because most of the eyewitnesses they wanted to interview had died of old age.

Of course other podcasters have tried to cover World War II. The official World War II podcast is recorded by Ray Harris Jr., and is called The History of WWII Podcast. At the time of this recording, Mr. Harris has done about 210 episodes, but he’s not even to the war’s halfway point; I don’t think he has yet covered the critical battles where the tide turned against the Axis, like Stalingrad, El Alamein and Midway. Also, most of the episodes so far have discussed Europe, Russia and North Africa; only in the past few months has Mr. Harris given equal time to the Pacific theater, and so far he has mainly talked about the fighting in China in the 1930s. For the Russian front, there is the four-part series Dan Carlin did a few years ago, “Ghosts of the Ostfront.” Until recently I thought Dan said everything that needs to be said about that subject, but now another podcaster, Kristaps Andrejsons of “The Eastern Border,” has said he will talk about the Russian front, to cover what Dan missed. I think he knows what he is talking about, because Kristaps is Latvian, and his homeland saw battles when the Germans attacked in 1941, and when the Russians kicked the Germans out in 1944. What all this means for us is that nobody else has talked about the Southeast Asian battles yet. Though World War II is a hot subject for any type of history program, the part of it we will be covering is virgin territory for us.

For a little while I considered covering the whole Pacific War, because the Southeast Asian battles are concentrated in only two countries, Burma and the Philippines, but then I figured you would think I was filling the narrative with too many digressions into irrelevant topics. Therefore I will stick to just Southeast Asia, with three major exceptions. I will talk a little about the battle of Pearl Harbor today, because it is relevant to any narrative on the Pacific War. And though I told you long ago that I do not consider New Guinea part of Southeast Asia, I will talk about battles on that island because the Dutch ruled half of it before the war, as part of their Indonesian colony, and because General Douglas MacArthur was busy on New Guinea, until he could keep his promise to return to the Philippines. Finally I will cover the Japanese invasion of India in early 1944, because it was launched from Burma. That will leave other Pacific battles like Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima for podcasters like Ray Harris. Now let’s see how far we can go within those parameters.

This episode will simply be the introduction to World War II, the table-setting or stage setting episode, as other podcasts call it. I will talk about what caused the war, and as a result, I expect to talk more about outside nations, especially Japan, than I will talk about Southeast Asia itself. Don’t worry, it will make sense by the end of this episode. As for the fighting, I plan to break off for today when we get to Pearl Harbor, since non-Asians see the Pacific War beginning there. Okay, the introduction to the introduction has gone on long enough, let’s get into it!


To begin our story, we will have to go back . . .

<Troglodyte clip>

No, we’re not going THAT far back. But we’ll go back far enough, to the middle of the nineteenth century, when a squadron of US Navy ships, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, forced Japan to open up for trade. Those of you familiar with Japanese history will know that for two hundred years, Japan wanted nothing to do with the outside world. But when the Japanese realized how far they had fallen behind the Western nations, they rushed to modernize their country, and in one of history’s biggest success stories, they did it in just two generations. And most of the modernization happened in the 45-year reign of a single emperor, Mutsuhito, who ruled from 1867 to 1912. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was one of the world’s five industrial powers, along with Great Britain, France, the United States and Germany.

Yet while Japan was the first Asian nation to modernize in the Western mode, it could be conservative at the same time, like nineteenth-century Germany. For example, education remained the tool of the government, and one of its chief functions was to produce loyal servants of the state. The press was tightly controlled, and the army filled its conscripts with unquestioning obedience to the emperor. Though the samurai disappeared as a social class during Japan’s modernization, the spirit of the samurai was alive and well. Young soldiers were still taught that a noble death was more important than a good life. Unlike the Chinese, who honored scholars more than anyone else, the Japanese admired the soldier — a military career was considered the best vocation. Before long they would show that they had learned another concept from the West: imperialism.

The Japanese demonstrated that they had become a modern, imperialist nation, by picking two fights with larger empires. In 1894 and 1895 they fought and defeated China, in a conflict we now call the First Sino-Japanese War. Then ten years later came the Russo-Japanese War, in which Japan defeated a Western power, Russia – now THAT impressed the world. These successes gave Japan an appetite for more imperialist gains. When World War I broke out, Japan joined the Allies, and attacked and captured Germany’s outpost in China, the port of Kiaochow, modern Qingdao. Because Europe was where most of the action was in this war, the Japanese were done by the end of 1914, and had only lost 300 soldiers, compared with hundreds of thousands, sometimes more than a million, lost by each major European nation. After the war ended, the Treaty of Versailles rewarded Japan not only with Qingdao, but also with the islands formerly occupied by Germany in the north Pacific: Palau, the northern Marianas, Marshall and Caroline Islands.

World War I may have been over, but now there was a civil war going on in Russia, pitting the Bolsheviks, who had seized power in 1917, against everyone who opposed them. American, British and Japanese soldiers landed at Russia’s Pacific port, Vladivostok, and advanced up the Trans-Siberian Railway for several hundred miles, officially to recover Allied equipment that had been shipped to Russia, but actually to help the enemies of the Bolsheviks. At first each country agreed to send 7,000 troops to Siberia, but soon Japan increased its involvement to 72,000 men. The Americans and British realized that the Japanese were looking to make some permanent gains, and they spent most of their time talking Japan out of it. It was not until 1922 that the last Japanese troops departed from east Siberia, and they stayed on the north side of a nearby island, Sakhalin, until 1925; this was long after Communism had triumphed in the rest of Russia.

Siberia wasn’t the only case where the Allies put the brakes on Japanese expansion. The United States wanted to see the world become a place that respected the rule of law, with less of this “might makes right” business. At the Washington conference of 1921 and 1922, pressure from the United States and Britain forced Japan to sign a treaty limiting the size of the navy to a 3-5-5 ratio, three Japanese warships for every five American and five British ships. Also in 1921, a treaty of alliance between Japan and Britain expired, and the British chose not to renew it. Then in 1922 the Americans followed this up by persuading Japan to return Qingdao to China.

These setbacks caused the military to lose influence in the Japanese government to big business and civilian politicians during the 1920s. However, the 1920s were also the decade of isolationism, a time when Americans were tired of playing the world’s policeman, so they avoided any more foreign entanglements. Then when the Great Depression struck, the military offered to jump-start the economy with overseas conquests, and with the United States out of the picture, Japan could now resume empire-building activities.

Most history books will tell you that World War II began with Germany invading Poland in 1939, but the first aggressive act that led to war was committed by Japan, eight years earlier. In September 1931, a covert team of Japanese soldiers planted a bomb near the Manchurian city of Mukden, modern Shenyang, which blew a 31-inch crater next to a railroad track owned by Japan. Damage was minor, and no Chinese faction was blamed for this bit of sabotage, but the Japanese army unit stationed in Mukden used it as an excuse to leave its barracks and occupy the whole city–to restore order, of course. Nor did the Japanese stop with that; next they called for reinforcements from Japanese-ruled Korea, and these fanned out to occupy the whole northeast. This put the Chinese president, Chiang Kai-shek, in an impossible situation; the country was under attack, but he knew that his army was too primitive and disorganized to beat the Japanese army. Therefore instead of declaring war, he chose to look the other way, hoping that Japan was overrunning Manchuria to establish an advance base for an invasion of the Soviet Union.

By March 1932 the Japanese had all of Manchuria. That region became a Japanese puppet state named Manchukuo, and because Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, had Manchu ancestry, he was put in charge of it. Then in 1933 the Japanese occupied Jehol, the province between Manchuria and Beijing, and began political maneuvers to turn Inner Mongolia into another puppet state. To the outside world, Manchukuo was obviously an artificial political creation; there had been no call to give the Manchus their own country, nor had they demanded their emperor back. Only two nations gave Manchukuo diplomatic recognition — Italy and El Salvador. When Japan saw it wasn’t winning friends or influencing governments the right way, it became the first nation to resign from the League of Nations, showing that the organization created to maintain world peace was toothless. However, this did not mean that anyone would fight to put the Japanese back in their place; most nations were too busy struggling to get out of the Great Depression. Thus, in the early 1930s, no government was willing to say stop to Japan.

Chiang Kai-shek was wrong about Japanese intentions. On July 7, 1937, they began their invasion of the rest of China. As with Manchuria, the invasion began with an act of violence, this time a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops at Marco Polo Bridge, near Beijing. Both sides rushed in more troops, the skirmish became a battle, attempts to defuse the conflict failed, and the Japan army moved to conquer Beijing and the nearest port, Tianjin. From those cities the Japanese fanned out into surrounding areas. Then when the Chinese attacked the Japanese community in Shanghai in August, a second Japanese army landed there, took the city, and opened a new front by advancing up the Yangtze River.

The nearest target to Shanghai was Chiang’s capital, then called Nanking, or as it is called today, Nanjing. Realizing that Nanking was indefensible, Chiang fled upstream to Wuhan on December 1, and after the Japanese took Nanking, they subjected it to six weeks of mass slaughter and atrocities, in an attempt to break Chinese morale. Today we call this notorious event the “Rape of Nanking”; some 20,000 women were raped and between 200,000 and 400,000 civilians were killed. Just a couple of weeks before I recorded this episode, present-day China commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking. But as Nazi Germany found out when it bombed Britain in 1940, atrocities against civilians tend to have the opposite effect; they increase the determination of the survivors to resist until the end.

In the middle of all this, the United States had a gunboat, the USS Panay, to protect American lives and property in China. On December 12, 1937, Japanese warplanes attacked and sank the Panay, in the Yangtze River near Nanking. Two American sailors and a civilian passenger were killed and 11 other crewmen were seriously wounded. Because the United States was a neutral nation at this date, the Panay had been clearly marked, and its position was reported to the Japanese beforehand, as required. Nevertheless, the Japanese declared the attack was unintentional, apologized, and they agreed to pay $2 million in reparations. I am mentioning this incident because if you are a longtime listener to this podcast, you have heard the gunboat’s name before; Panay is also one of the islands in the Philippines.

To the outside world, Japan’s invasion of China looked like a pygmy attacking a giant, but the Japanese armed forces were superior beyond a doubt, and where the two sides clashed, the Japanese usually won. By mid-1938, the Japanese controlled all major northern Chinese cities, and the railway lines in-between. In October 1938 they took Canton and Wuhan, so Chiang moved again, this time to Chungking in Sichuan, farther up the Yangtze and relatively inaccessible behind a protective mountain screen; these mountains are where present-day China built the Three Gorges Dam in the 1990s. The Japanese did not pursue Chiang after this, but by occupying more ports on China’s coast, along with Hainan, the large island in the South China Sea, they cut off most of his links to the outside world. The only way outside nations could get military and civilian supplies to Chiang was by air from Hong Kong, or by roads from French Indochina and British-ruled Burma.

After 1938, the Japanese advance came to a halt. While they had enough troops to garrison the cities they captured, they never had enough to control the countryside, and this allowed the Communist guerrillas of Mao Zedong to infiltrate the Japanese-held areas. Moreover, China still had a vast territory to retreat into, and unlimited manpower reserves. As long as China continued to resist, Japan’s control over the conquered east would be difficult to sustain. Long wars tend to favor the side with the larger army, so Japan needed to win before its armed forces and industry wore themselves out. And to do that the Japanese would need resources that could not be found in either Japan or China, especially steel and oil. So far they had been able to buy the supplies they needed, especially from the United States, but when the Americans began giving aid to the Chinese, Japan knew it could not count on doing business with the Americans much longer. What were they to do?

Well, those resources were available in Siberia; even in present-day Russia, about 90 percent of its mineral wealth comes from the Ural Mountains and the vast, mostly empty territory between the Urals and the Pacific. And Japan had almost gotten away with capturing part of that land twenty years earlier, during the Russian Civil War. The Japanese were also encouraged by the activities of Nazi Germany; Japan’s leaders and Adolf Hitler saw eye to eye on most matters, and because Hitler hated communism, he was likely to go to war against the Soviet Union some day. Whenever that happened, the Japanese would have another chance to grab some Siberian territory.

However, when the Japanese tested the strength of the new Red Army, they found it was tougher than both the Chinese and old Russian armies – mainly because the Red Army was their first opponent that had tanks. They fought two clashes along the Manchurian border; the first was the battle of Lake Khasan, near Vladivostok in 1938, and here the Japanese got the worst of the fighting. Then the other battle was fought at Khalkhin Gol, on a Mongolian river in 1939; again the Red Army won. Japan would not have much of a chance of winning if it struck north of China.

Shortly after Khalkin Gol, Germany signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviets, and that really left the Japanese scratching their heads. But not for long. One week later Hitler started the European phase of World War II by invading Poland, and this meant the nations of Europe would concentrate their forces and attention there, leaving little to spare for their colonies or interests in the Far East. That could only be good for Japan, but what Hitler did in 1940 helped even more. That spring the Germans struck west, and aside from the battle of Dunkirk, where the British army escaped destruction, everything went right for Germany; in two lightning campaigns the Germans crushed Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. Now if the Japanese struck in Southeast Asia instead of Siberia, they would find the French and Dutch colonies easy pickings. French Indochina, modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, was a fertile area for growing rubber and rice, while the Dutch East Indies had tin, bauxite, iron ore, and most important of all, oil. Britain also had valuable colonies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and though the British were still alive and kicking, their home island was under attack from Germany, leaving their most distant outposts nearly as defenseless as the French and Dutch ones. Finally, if Japan took the Philippines, it would get copper, always a useful metal to have, and more iron ore.

To take advantage of the opportunity Hitler gave them, the Japanese made the following moves:

In August 1940, Japan’s generals forced the French to let them move troops into the northern third of Indochina. This was the Tonkin district of Vietnam, and most of Laos. Because France was now under the pro-German Vichy government, the Japanese let French officials in Indochina keep their jobs for the time being, but Japan was clearly giving the orders now.

In September 1940 the Japanese foreign minister went to Europe to create a formal alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This was called the Three Powers Pact, or the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. Soon other Japanese diplomats began putting pressure on the only independent country in Southeast Asia, Thailand, to join their side.

And just as the Germans had done, Japan signed a neutrality agreement with the Soviet Union in April 1941, to keep the Soviets out of the war in Asia.

There was one nation left that could stop Japanese expansion – the United States. The Americans had grown increasingly angry with the Japanese as the war with China went on. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began applying pressure by building up the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, because it was two thousand miles closer to Japan than the US bases on the west coast of North America. The pressure got worse when the Roosevelt administration canceled the trade agreements that allowed Japan to buy American scrap iron for Japanese steel mills. Worst of all, Roosevelt also made it clear that the United States would cut off the oil supply if Japanese aggression continued. Despite this threat, Japan moved to occupy the rest of French Indochina in July 1941, so Roosevelt kept his word. He ordered the Japanese to get out of Indochina immediately and begin negotiations to get out of China too; otherwise, they would only be allowed to buy enough oil to supply Japan’s needs for one month at a time.

The Japanese prime minister at this time was Fumimaro Konoye, and he got that job because he came from the Fujiwara, the second most important family in Japan; only the imperial family enjoyed a higher status. But while his family connection made Konoye acceptable to everybody, it did not make dealing with the Americans any easier. He saw three ways to respond to the American sanctions:

1. Agree to American demands, which would defuse the crisis but humiliate Japan.
2. Negotiate with the US for easier terms.
3. War with the Americans.

Option #2 was the least objectionable of these choices, so Konoye tried that, but could not reach an agreement. In October 1941 he resigned, and the emperor chose General Hideki Tojo to take his place. Tojo was a senior member of the government because he had stayed loyal to the emperor during a coup attempt in 1936, but he was also an aggressive militarist. There was no turning back from here, as all political parties were dissolved and replaced by an authoritarian cabinet. Immediately Tojo began to prepare the country for war with the United States and Britain.

By the end of November Japan was ready to strike. On December 4, 1941, Japanese transports sailed south from the island of Hainan, carrying the troops that would be used to invade southern Thailand and British-ruled Malaya. A British search plane spotted this force, Britain correctly guessed it was coming to attack, and the British passed the news to the US government. In Washington the Secretary of the Navy asked, quote: “Are they going to hit us?” Unquote. The nearest admiral reassured him. Quote: “No, they are going to hit the British. They aren’t ready for us yet.” Unquote.

Only half of the admiral’s statement was correct. What he did not know was that Japan was also sending all six of its aircraft carriers to take out the largest US naval base in the Pacific — Pearl Harbor. On November 26 they left the Kurile Islands, the long arc of islands northeast of Japan, in absolute secrecy, escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers and 28 submarines. The Japanese also concealed their intentions by having their ambassador continue negotiations in Washington, right until the day of the attack. On top of all that, the Americans were thinking that if war broke out, the Japanese would first attack a target in Southeast Asia, either Malaya or the Philippines.

At dawn on December 7 the task force was close enough to begin launching their 356 planes for the air strike. Because it was a sleepy Sunday morning and they had managed to approach Hawaii undetected, surprise was complete. The planes attacked in two waves, lasting two hours; in the part of the harbor called “Battleship Row” they sank four of the eight battleships anchored there, and disabled the rest. They also destroyed 200 American aircraft, catching most of them before they could take off. In return, the Americans shot down 29 Japanese planes, mostly in the second wave. This was a devastating blow to the US Navy, but not a permanently crippling one. The good news for the Americans was that the three aircraft carriers in the US Pacific Fleet – the Enterprise, the Lexington and the Saratoga – were all out to sea, so they escaped the attack. The naval battles of 1942 would prove that carriers had replaced battleships as the most important vessels in any fleet.

The next day, Roosevelt went to Congress, gave his famous speech where he called December 7, quote, “A date which will live in infamy,” unquote, and urged Congress to declare war on Japan. Congress voted almost unanimously to do so, and Britain declared war on the same day, ensuring the Americans would not be fighting Japan alone. Thus, the Pacific War was now officially underway. But wait, there’s more! Over in Europe, when Adolf Hitler heard about all this, he was so delighted that he declared the Japanese “honorary Aryans” and declared war on the United States. That was a foolish move. It looks like Hitler forgot that Germany lost World War I because the Americans got involved in it, and since the Americans had been giving aid to Britain for the past year, they probably would have entered this European war, too; now Hitler had speeded up the day when this would happen. For the British, this made Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s job easier; now the United States would not concentrate all its efforts against the Japanese.

My, oh my. I promised earlier that I would end this episode with Pearl Harbor, so I am leaving you with a cliffhanger; I’m sure you will want to join me to hear what happens next. The Japanese struck in many places on the same day as Pearl Harbor, and in the next episode I plan to start with a look at the campaign launched against Thailand, Malaya and Singapore. And if I can take care of that in less than half an hour, we’ll see what other campaigns we can cover from the end of 1941.

<Same Bat-Time>

Actually, I’ll be back a little more than two weeks after this episode was uploaded, but you get the idea.

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