The New Guinea Campaign, Part 1



Though I am out of town this week, Episode 45 is now available for your listening pleasure.  This is another World War II episode that is not set in Southeast Asia, but next to it.  Today we begin the long jungle war in New Guinea, as the Japanese stage their first invasions of the world’s second largest island.  Meanwhile to the southeast, in the Coral Sea, Japanese and American aircraft carriers meet.  The result is a crucial battle, halting the Japanese advance toward Australia from the sea.


(Transcript, added 09/01/2020.)

Episode 45: The New Guinea Campaign, Part 1

or, The Battle of the Coral Sea

Greetings, dear listeners! Today our narrative is still in the middle of World War II, but we are done talking about the campaigns that were astonishingly successful for Japan. If you want to hear about those, go to the episodes of this podcast recorded in early 2018: Episodes 36 through 39, and 41 through 43. The Allies are not able to take back the Japanese conquests yet, so instead of concentrating our attention on Southeast Asia itself, we will look at an area on the periphery where the battles will affect what happens in Southeast Asia later on. This area is New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, and the islands and seas to the east of New Guinea, especially the Coral Sea.

Back when I described Southeast Asia in the introductory episode to this podcast, I said I did not really consider New Guinea a part of Southeast Asia. One reason why I said that comes from the fact that the local wildlife is more like the animals of Australia than the animals of the Asian mainland, causing biologists to draw the so-called “Wallace Line” across eastern Indonesia. The other reason is that the indigenous population of New Guinea is a black-skinned race, the Melanesians, which you can also find in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji – but in Southeast Asia you can only find Melanesians on the nearest Indonesian islands, like Halmahera and Timor. The only thing Melanesians have in common with the major ethnic groups of Southeast Asia, like the Burmese and Filipinos, is that they are all people.

Nevertheless, New Guinea has been mentioned a few times in our narrative so far, partly because the Europeans who explored Southeast Asia’s islands stumbled on it, and partly because the rulers of Indonesia claimed at least part of New Guinea too, whether they were Dutch, Japanese, or today’s government in Jakarta. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pacific War will spill over into an area both sides had not given much thought to before the war. As was the case in Burma, the two sides will be drawn into a jungle conflict that will last until the end of World War II, and it happened in both places for nearly the same reasons.

At the date when the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia was finished, May 1942, they started looking at how to defend all their gains. Because the British, Americans and Australians were still resisting elsewhere, if not in Southeast Asia, the Japanese felt they would have to keep hitting them hard until they would accept peace at any price. In other words, the best defense is a good offense, so at this stage they would defend what they had by conquering even more territory.

Let’s give the Japanese armed forces a morale check. Are they eager to fight some more?


Yes they are. Expect a tough struggle ahead. However, the Japanese war machine was now reaching its limits, and in today’s narrative, the most important battle would not be a victory or a defeat, but a draw. And when the Japanese offensive runs out of steam, their leaders won’t know what to do next; they will learn that it’s more difficult to lead armies and navies when you are not winning.

Because we haven’t talked much about New Guinea in the podcast, I will begin with a few words to bring you up to date on that huge island. Back in Episode 22 we learned that the Dutch claimed the western half of New Guinea in the early nineteenth century. Everything about New Guinea told outsiders to stay away: the climate, diseases, difficult terrain, isolation, unfriendly natives, and risk all around. Still, a few folks figured that any landmass that big had to have resources worth exploiting. Besides the Dutch, in the early nineteenth century some British, French and American whalers and traders came to New Guinea, seeking the same commodities that had attracted them to other parts of the Pacific: whales, sandalwood and sea cucumbers. They sold the sandalwood and sea cucumbers in Chinese ports, where those items were hot commodities, while the whales hunted were processed into commodities that were useful in Europe and North America. One baleen whale could provide more than a ton of whalebone for corsets and hoop skirts; in London you could sell that for enough money to pay for the ship that caught the whale in the first place. Even more valuable was whale oil, which was used to light lamps until it was discovered that kerosene burned cleaner. You could get more than two tons of whale oil from a single sperm whale. Eventually the visitors got the natives of New Guinea, the Papuans, to help them gather the sandalwood and sea cucumbers, and in return they gave the natives iron and steel tools, calico and fish hooks. The tools caused a population explosion, because they made more efficient farming possible (meaning larger harvests). Unfortunately the traders also introduced devastating European diseases, and when the natives acquired guns, the result was an explosion of warfare and head-hunting.

More outsiders came to New Guinea after 1870: German merchants looking for coconuts and laborers for their plantations in Samoa, prospectors to the southeast coast, where gold had been discovered in 1877, and missionaries. At first these foreigners all managed to stay out of each other’s way, but in 1882 some Australian labor recruiters wandered to the northeast coast, the area where the Germans were most active. One year later the premier of Queensland, the nearest Australian territory, called for the annexation of all of eastern New Guinea and the nearby islands; he sent a petition requesting that the British government do this. London didn’t want to get involved in New Guinea, but because Australia was one of their colonies, and New Guinea was next to Australia, they had to. Germany and Britain sent representatives to the negotiating table; first they accused each other of acting in bad faith, then they reached an agreement in late 1884, and signed it in April 1885. Henceforth New Guineas would be divided three ways. The southeastern quarter of New Guinea, renamed Papua, went to the British. In 1906, five years after the British gave Australia its independence, they would transfer Papua to the Australians. Germany got the northeastern quarter, along with the nearest islands to the east like New Britain and New Ireland. Back in Germany the rulers in the mid-1880s were Kaiser Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck, so their part of New Guinea was renamed Kaiser Wilhelm Land, and the islands became the Bismarck Archipelago. Finally, the Dutch returned to western New Guinea near the end of the century, and began to build Dutch settlements.

This balance lasted almost thirty years, until World War I broke out in Europe. Because Australia was required by treaty to fight on Britain’s side, it invaded German New Guinea. Overall the campaign was quick and nearly bloodless; the fighting both began and ended in September 1914. The only German who escaped was one officer, Lieutenant Hermann Detzner, who hid in the interior with some 20 native policemen until January 1919; by the time he gave up the war was over everywhere else. After the war the former German territory was awarded to Australia as a League of Nations mandate, so New Guinea was now divided evenly down the middle, with the Dutch ruling the west and the Australians ruling the east. That was the situation when World War II began. Then in 1975, thirty years after the war, the Australian half of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, would be merged together and granted independence; today we call that nation Papua New Guinea.


Now on with our narrative. While the Japanese were overrunning Southeast Asia, another Japanese fleet was trying to conquer as many islands in the southwest Pacific as possible. They did this to create a buffer zone around their conquests in Southeast Asia, and because Australia was in the war on Britain’s side again. The Japanese did not think they could conquer Australia — it was too far from Japan and they did not have enough soldiers to occupy a whole continent, for crying out loud — but they could neutralize Australia, by keeping it isolated and unable to receive assistance from the other Allies. If all worked as planned, Australia would make a separate peace with Japan and drop out of the war. Then with Australia gone from the game and the British too far away to strike back, the Japanese could concentrate their efforts on knocking out their two largest opponents, China and the United States.

For the Australians, the Japanese threat couldn’t have come at a worse time than this. As noted in previous episodes, much of the Australian army was overseas, fighting alongside the British in places like North Africa. And in the past they had counted on the Royal Navy to defend their shores, but now when British ships were needed the most, they had either been sunk by the Japanese or were needed elsewhere, especially in the Atlantic. Although the Australians lost far more men in World War I than in World War II, they found the second war more emotionally draining, because they didn’t have to worry about a foreign power invading their homeland in the first war.

Fortunately the Americans were still able to help, and they made the defense of the southwest Pacific their priority, after they failed to hold onto the Philippines. We saw in Episode 41 that US General Douglas MacArthur escaped to Australia in March 1942, and in April he was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. MacArthur got along well enough with the Australian prime minister, John Curtin, but for the Australian people this was a big adjustment. Up until now the only commanders they had served under were Australian or British, and many resented the idea that a general from anywhere else would be leading them in battles. Still, as we shall see, the Australians and Americans worked out their differences eventually. Because the Australians knew that the Americans had saved them, and not the British, their wartime partnership with the Americans marked the end of Australia’s special relationship with Britain. Aussies still get along with the mother country today, but in the decades since the war ended, they have usually seen the United States as their best friend abroad. Likewise, on the other side of the Pacific, it is hard to find a modern-day American who doesn’t like Australia. Fair dinkum, as the Aussies will say.

The United States Pacific Fleet was also placed under one commander; Admiral Chester Nimitz was promoted to that position in December 1941. One of the first things Nimitz did was strengthen the lines of communication between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. To do this he added troops to the garrison on American Samoa, and established new garrisons on New Caledonia, and on two tiny atolls in the mid-Pacific, Christmas and Canton Islands. New Zealand helped in this endeavor by placing its own garrison in Fiji. Now a steady stream of ships and planes would travel between Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, using these islands as stepping stones to cross the Pacific.

This is a good place to mention that there were five Allied nations that ruled islands in the Pacific: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and New Zealand. When France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, French citizens in the overseas colonies had to choose which side to give their allegiance to. We saw in previous episodes that French Indochina went with the Vichy French government, the puppet regime installed by Germany. However, the French colonies in the South Pacific — French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) — backed Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement, so they stayed with the Allies. Because the need for cooperation was more important than all other matters, during the war the borders between the Allied-ruled territories in the Pacific were practically nonexistent.

The southwest Pacific campaign began with the Japanese invading the Bismarck Archipelago. The task force assigned to this job left Truk in the Caroline Islands on January 14, 1942, and began attacking the island of New Britain with bombers on January 20. Between 3,000 and 4,000 troops came ashore next, and they took Rabaul, the Australian capital of New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands, on the 23rd. 1,400 Australian soldiers and 600 civilians were in Rabaul at the time, and Australia was unable to evacuate them; those who weren’t killed or captured fled into the nearby jungle. Australian forces on New Guinea managed to rescue 450 of these personnel, while the rest (more than a thousand), realizing they were likely to starve in the jungle, surrendered over the course of February. Rabaul now became the Japanese base of operations, for activities on New Guinea, the Bismarck and Solomon Islands; it would be their strongest base south of the equator.

For March the Japanese task force split into two groups, one began the conquest of the Solomon Islands and one headed for New Guinea. The main target on New Guinea was Port Moresby, the island’s largest city. Taking Port Moresby would give them a second base to launch attacks on Australia itself; the first was on the Indonesian island of Timor. Moreover, Port Moresby was Australia’s most important advance base, and without it the Australians could do little besides defend their homeland. For the same reasons, General MacArthur would defend Port Moresby with everything they had.

Because Port Moresby was on the southeast coast of New Guinea, and the Japanese fleet was northeast of the island, they couldn’t strike at Port Moresby first. Instead they landed on the northeast coast, taking the communities of Lae and Salamaua on March 8. These troops probably would have marched overland to Port Moresby, but casualties (in landing craft as well as men) were heavier than expected. Although MacArthur did not have ships or planes at this point, American planes were available to help the defenders. These planes came from the Lexington and the Yorktown, two American aircraft carriers in the Coral Sea, and they flew over New Guinea to attack the Japanese troops and ships on the northeastern shore. Since the Japanese had no ships that could deal with the carriers, they had to postpone their plan to march on Port Moresby. The Japanese only knew about the Lexington – they never saw the Yorktown – and thus they assumed all the American planes came from one carrier; make a note of that. Meanwhile the northern half of the Solomon Islands were captured in March and April, and air and naval bases were built on the largest island, Bougainville.

Japan’s next move on New Guinea would be in the west. The campaign to conquer Indonesia, which we covered in Episode 39, saw Dutch defenses collapse so quickly that the Dutch surrendered before Japanese forces got to the Dutch half of New Guinea. With the fighting all but over, some of the troops that had been sent to occupy Java were transferred to western New Guinea; the first of them arrived on March 29 and 30. Only a few hundred Dutch soldiers were there to resist; those that weren’t captured immediately withdrew to the jungle, where they switched to guerrilla warfare. Over the course of April, the Japanese first occupied the western tip of the island, then advanced on the north coast; Hollandia, the largest Dutch town on the north coast, fell to them on April 20. Here they stopped, leaving 500 miles of coastline between them and the force occupying Lae and Salamaua.


In Episode 43 of this podcast we saw two Japanese fleets conduct successful raids in the Indian Ocean. In April 1942 those fleets were recalled, and one reason for that was to provide ships for a second operation in the southwest Pacific. But for this operation to succeed, they would have to get that pesky American carrier out of the Coral Sea. While they were assembling the ships needed, the Japanese got a reminder of how dangerous enemy carriers can be; on April 18, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle led a squadron of bombers from another American carrier, the USS Hornet, to stage the first air raid on Tokyo. To bag the Lexington, two of the fleet carriers returning from the Indian Ocean, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, were sent to the southwest Pacific. The second operation was called Operation Mo, and it consisted of four steps:

1. Tulagi Island in the southern Solomon Islands would be occupied on May 3, 1942. An airfield would be built here to give the Japanese a base in the southern Solomons.
2. The fleet that took Tulagi would split into two parts. The larger part would sail west to New Guinea and take Port Moresby, no more than four days later.
3. The other part of the fleet would sail east and capture Nauru and Ocean Island, two atolls in the central Pacific that had rich phosphate deposits.
4. If the first three steps all succeeded, there would be future actions to take New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, to cut the supply and communications lines between Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The invasion fleet, led by Admiral Aritomo Goto, had eleven troop transports, four heavy cruisers, a destroyer, and a light carrier, the Shoho. The Shoho could give air cover for the troops and other ships, but it would be no match for the Lexington, which was a fleet carrier. Another admiral, Takeo Takagi, brought the Shokaku and Zuikaku, to catch the American forces who came to stop the invasion. Takagi followed a northwest-to-southeast course, passing the Solomons on the north side, and then went around the islands on the south side to enter the Coral Sea. If Takagi did not find any Americans, his orders were to go on to Australia and bombard the Queensland coast.

Before I continue, I should explain the differences between the two types of carriers used here. On both sides the fleet carriers were as big as battleships, and carried anywhere from 70 to 90 aircraft each, while light carriers carried half as many planes, 35 to 45. The three American carriers that escaped the attack on Pearl Harbor were all fleet carriers. The US had no light carriers in the Pacific before the war, and they were basically cruisers with flat tops; this design made them fast enough to keep up with other ships. Japanese light carriers, however, were converted non-warships like tankers: because they were slower, they usually sailed independently. Also, at this stage, Japanese carriers had wooden flight decks, which made it easier to set them on fire than the carriers built later on, which had steel or aluminum flight decks.

The biggest advantage the Americans had was not in ships, but in information. In March Navy codebreakers had cracked the complex JN-25 code, used by the Japanese for their most secret communications. After this achievement, American naval personnel were able to intercept Japanese radio messages and find out when and where they were going to strike. In this way Nimitz learned that the Japanese were next going to make another attempt to take Port Moresby. At the end of April, the Yorktown was refueling in the Tonga islands; now Nimitz ordered the Yorktown to return to the Coral Sea, and put its commander, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, in command over both the Yorktown and the Lexington. With the carriers went 9 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 2 oilers, one seaplane tender, and 128 aircraft.

Remember when I said the Japanese did not know about one of the American carriers in the Coral Sea, the Yorktown? This gave Admiral Fletcher the advantage of surprise. Fletcher couldn’t save Tulagi, which was taken on schedule, but he detected Admiral Goto’s force when it sailed to Port Moresby on May 7, 1942, and launched a strike on it with 93 planes. The onslaught of bombs and torpedoes caught the Shoho and sank it in thirty minutes; Admiral Goto halted the advance on Port Moresby and waited for Admiral Takagi’s fleet carriers to arrive.

The rest of the day continued to work in the Americans’ favor. The Shokaku and Zuikaku were now less than an hour’s flying time to the east, and their planes attacked and sank the two American ships they encountered. One of the ships was a destroyer, the Sims; the other was thought to be a carrier, but it was actually an oiler, the Neosho. Sinking these was not enough to make up for the loss of the Shoho. Finally, on the night on May 7-8, Takagi launched an air attack on the Yorktown and her escort ships; it failed and most of the planes used in the attack were shot down.

The next day was a better one for the Japanese. Fletcher and Takagi located each other at 8 AM and launched their planes. American dive-bombers hit the Shokaku three times, while the Zuikaku sailed into a storm and escaped without damage. The weather was better over the American fleet, allowing the Japanese to hit the Yorktown with one bomb and the Lexington with two bombs and two torpedoes. Fires on the Lexington spread out of control; five hours later she was abandoned and scuttled with torpedoes from an American destroyer. Of the Lexington’s 2,791 crewmen, 216 were lost. And on that note the two fleets broke off. Each side had one carrier left that was able to fight, and the flight crews were exhausted, so they weren’t in the mood to continue the battle any longer. All the fighting had been conducted by aircraft; this was the first naval battle in history where the opposing ships never got close enough to see each other.

Podcast footnote: Last week was the 76th anniversary of this battle, and I found it appropriate that the wreck of the Lexington was found just two months ago, on March 4, 2018. A team led by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has been searching over the past few years for ships sunk during World War II, and they located the Lexington 500 miles from the coast of Australia, in an area where the Coral Sea is two miles deep. Also found were 35 planes that went down with the Lexington when she sank. There won’t be any attempt to salvage or raise the wreck, though, it is considered a war cemetery for the crewmen killed in the battle. End footnote.

The end result was that the Americans had fought the Japanese to a standstill. When it came to ships, the Japanese did better; they had lost a light carrier while the Americans had lost a fleet carrier, and this battle let everyone know that fleet carriers had replaced battleships as the most important naval vessels. However, the Japanese had also lost more planes than the Americans. Because of that, both fleet carriers were sent back to Japan immediately; the Shokaku needed extensive repairs, while the Zuikaku needed to replace the planes and pilots lost in the battle. Neither carrier was battle-ready again before July, and that may have decided the battle for Midway Island, where the Americans won a major victory in early June. Also important, the Americans for the second time had kept Port Moresby from falling into Japanese hands. Most of all, the battle gained time for the Allies, because Japan had lost the initiative. The resources, manpower and industrial output of the United States were still greater than those of Japan, and one of the rules of military history is that the longer the war, the more likely the big contestant (in this case the USA) will win. For all these reasons the battle of the Coral Sea was one of the turning points of the war. Another turning point was the battle of Midway, and in August 1942, the Americans would land on Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands, to begin rolling back the Japanese Empire.

We have one more story to tell before we’re finished for today. On the night of May 31, 1942, three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney’s harbor. They succeeded in sinking a converted ferry, the HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 sailors. In the battle that followed, the crews of the mini-subs scuttled their vessels and committed suicide; one of the mini-subs was not found on the bottom of Sydney harbor until 2006. If you listened to Episode 43, you will remember that other mini-subs like these were used in a raid on Madagascar at the same time. Then in early June, regular-sized Japanese submarines off the coast of New South Wales sank three Allied merchant ships, killing 50 sailors, and bombarded Sydney and Newcastle. By this time, the battle of Midway had taken place near Hawaii, and Japanese losses were so bad at Midway that they no longer had enough ships to conduct raids this far from home, so after June 1942 the Japanese did not threaten Australia from the east anymore. They were still only a threat from New Guinea, and what the Allies did about that will be the topic for the next episode.


Cut! That’s a wrap for today! I said the New Guinea campaign would be a long one, so expect more episodes about it before the narrative moves elsewhere. So far the Japanese have tried and failed twice to take Port Moresby on the side of New Guinea facing Australia. In the next episode they will try again, because they have another trick up their sleeves. Will the third time be the charm, so to speak?

With the previous episode I finished by talking about something I want to do in the middle of 2018. I’ll tell you about it again here, in case you missed it. At some point I would like to take a break from the narrative and record a question and answer session. Originally I was going to do this for the second anniversary episode, which is due to come out on July 1, 2018, but now I will have to play it by ear, because it looks like I may be out of town on a business trip by the time you listen to this, and I don’t know yet if that will interfere with the schedule I have kept to so far, of producing two episodes every month. These questions don’t have to be about World War II events; they can be about anything related to Southeast Asia’s history, especially if it is a question you have from one of the earlier episodes in this podcast. Ask them on the podcast Facebook page, and maybe soon I’ll give you another way to ask them, like my email address. So think of what you would like to ask, and contact me in May or June 2018.

If you would like to support this podcast, the best way to do so is by making a donation through Paypal. Just go to this episode’s page, and click on the Paypal button at the bottom of the page. Donations start at one US dollar, so each of you only has to help a little to keep the figurative lights on. If you don’t have the money for a donation at this time, you can also help by rating the podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to it; maybe you can even write a review while you’re at it. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, because that is still the best place to make announcements or share anything related to the podcast. And finally tell the folks in your life about the podcast the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth. Heck, I do it almost every day with those I meet. Keep spreading the good word, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!

Life Under the Japanese



Today marks a new month, and you know what that means — it’s time for a new episode! This time we have an overview of what life was like for those in Southeast Asia, during the years when Japan ruled the region (hint: most of it is bad.)


(Transcript, added 08/29/2020.)

The episode is dedicated to Wallace D., who made a donation last week. Wallace, thank you for being one of the few who is making sure this podcast continues. We started in the stone age, and currently the narrative is 75 years from the present, so it seems like we are almost done, but one of the things I have learned about history is that when you look at recent periods, there is a whole lot more information that needs to be looked at, information that wasn’t available farther in the past. So thank you also for making sure I don’t leave any stones unturned, as I keep the narrative moving toward its eventual conclusion. Now who wants to be the next to have an episode dedicated to him or her? Well, it’s time to get into today’s episode, so let me know after you’re done listening.

Episode 44: Life Under the Japanese

Greetings, dear listeners! Like in most of the other episodes lately, I am going to talk about World War II in Southeast Asia. However, the tone of the narrative is changing. So far the Japanese have been doing most of the attacking, and most of the winning. But now the Japanese strategy is shifting from conquest to consolidation, and while their leaders don’t know it yet, their armed forces are now overextended. Now the superior resources and industrial output of the Allies will begin to make a difference. And here is what may be the biggest spoiler alert of the entire podcast. You may want to cover the ears of any children listening, turn down the volume, or fast forward half a minute, if you don’t want to hear this spoiler. Go ahead, I’ll give you a few seconds to do it.


Are you still here? Alright, here’s the secret. Japan is going to lose the war!


For this episode, we’re not going to have a blow-by-blow account of movements and battles, like we saw in the other World War II episodes. Instead, we will be mainly looking at the overall trends, between the short period when the Japanese conquered Southeast Asia, and the time when the Allies returned. I said previously that it’s going to take a long time for the Allies to return; except on the Burma-India frontier, the Allies are a very long distance away. While we are waiting for those rematches, let us look at how Southeast Asians fared while they were subjects of the Japanese Empire.


Here’s the soundbite version of World War II’s Pacific theater, as described in the previous episodes. The first five months, from December 1941 to May 1942, had been a roaring success for Japan. Japan had already occupied French Indochina – modern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – before the attack on Pearl Harbor; Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (what we now call Indonesia) were taken easily; Thailand joined Japan with minimal resistance. The only places that took more than three months to conquer were Burma and the Philippines, Burma because it was so large and covered with difficult terrain (meaning jungle-covered mountains), and the Philippines because the Americans and Filipinos put up an unexpectedly strong resistance, at the entrance to Manila Bay.

But wait, there’s more! Outside of Southeast Asia, China was almost finished, and the campaign in the Indian Ocean, which we covered in the previous episode, got off to a good start, though it had to be cancelled when the ships sent to the Indian Ocean were needed in the Pacific. And speaking of the Pacific, Japan had taken enough small islands in the middle of that ocean to give it a wide buffer zone, should the Americans, Australians or British strike back.

Now what did Japan gain besides real estate? The Japanese now found themselves lording over an empire of about 450 million people; this was 19% of the world population in 1942. In terms of resources they were blessed: 95% of the world production of raw rubber, 90% of the quinine, and 70% of the world’s tin and rice were theirs. In Indonesia they had all the oil they needed, and plenty of abundant ores like bauxite and chromium. Finally, they had gotten all of this at minimal cost. The army had suffered an estimated 25,000 casualties, which sounds like a lot until you remember how much of the world they had overrun, and the navy had not lost any ships larger than destroyers; every single cruiser, battleship and aircraft carrier was available and ready for more missions. Now that Japan’s imperialists had the empire they wanted, what would they do to keep it?


Because the Japanese had moved into French Indochina gradually and peacefully, those colonies were run by an elaborate hierarchy. At the bottom, you had the masses of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, surrounded by the minority hill tribes. Above them were the native monarchs: Bao Dai for Vietnam, Norodom Sihanouk for Cambodia, and Sisavang Vong for Laos. Next up the ladder were the French officials, who had been allowed to keep their jobs when the Japanese moved in, and then at the top, outranking everyone else, were the Japanese themselves. Immediately to the west of Indochina, Thailand still had the same government that it had before the war, with the pro-Japanese military commander in chief, Phibun Songram, running the show in Bangkok, while the young king attended school in Switzerland. The rest of Southeast Asia was under direct Japanese rule in mid-1942, though some areas would be granted native puppet rulers later. Like I said in a previous episode, this was the first and only time in history that one nation ran all of Southeast Asia.

At first, many Southeast Asians welcomed the Japanese conquest, seeing it as liberation from Western rule. They also could take racial pride in the Japanese achievement. When Japan defeated Russia in 1905, in the Russo-Japanese War, it showed the world that the white man was not unbeatable, if you learn his technology and system of management. Now Japan had shown it to the world again.

Japanese propaganda tried to get the support of Southeast Asians, using slogans like “Asia for the Asiatics,” and they referred to the Japanese Empire as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” This gave the impression that the empire was really a trade union or confederation run by the Japanese, and they would share power and riches with their non-Japanese subjects. Tragically, that was not the case.

In one case, the propaganda was too much even for a Japanese general. Masaharu Homma, the conqueror of the Philippines, treated Manila and the Filipinos leniently; he ordered his troops to respect Filipino customs, because these people were now friends, not enemies. When Japan produced a propaganda pamphlet that claimed the Americans exploited the Filipinos, Homma refused to distribute it. He said it was untrue; the Americans had governed the Philippines very well, and the challenge for Japan was to do even better. In response, his superiors warned him to get tough, and when he didn’t, he was removed from command and disgraced. Homma’s replacement was the general who had conquered Malaya and Singapore, Tomoyuki Yamashita.

The Japanese promised to give their new subjects modern technology, industrial development, and an end to Western imperialism. In practice, however, the Japanese postponed these projects indefinitely, and continued the colonial economy and plantation system set up by the West. Food and raw materials were diverted to support the war effort, natives were conscripted into forced labor battalions, and the local economies went from bad to worse. To keep up with inflation, the Japanese printed more paper money, but that only made the problem worse; in the Philippines, the wartime currency became so worthless that Filipinos scornfully called it “Mickey Mouse money.” On the episode Facebook page and the page, you can see a picture of a wartime peso note printed by the Japanese for use in the Philippines.


For joining the Axis in 1941, Thailand was rewarded with territorial gains. We saw in Episode 34 that there was a brief war between Thailand and France in late 1940-early 1941 over some provinces France had taken for its Cambodian and Laotian colonies, and Japan settled the conflict by letting Thailand have the disputed provinces. Then after Malaya was conquered, Japan handed over Malaya’s four northern sultanates – Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu – because these states had been in Thailand’s sphere of influence before the British transferred them to their Malayan protectorate in 1909. Likewise in Burma the Thais were given some Burmese territory east of the Salween River, an area that had been part of Burma’s Shan State, because the Thais had ruled this before the British annexed Burma. This area, which the Thais called Saharat Thai Doem, included Kengtung, the last city the Burmese and Thais had fought over in the 1850s, and the transfer of the territory gave Thailand a common frontier with China.

It sounds like Thailand did well as a partner of Japan, but in reality the Thai people suffered almost as much as the natives in the lands Japan conquered outright. The rainy season of 1942 was heavier than normal, causing severe flooding in Thailand, and being on the side of the Japanese meant Bangkok now became a target for Allied bombers. And at any given time there were 150,000 Japanese troops in the country, which must have made the Thais wonder how free they really were. Most of those Japanese were either moving to and from the war zone in Burma, or keeping the supply lines open in that direction.

Those soldiers also oversaw the biggest infrastructure project Japan undertook in Southeast Asia during the war, the Burma Railway. This came about because the Japanese figured that it would be safer to send soldiers to Burma by land than by sea, because their ships could be sunk by Allied submarines. Before the war railroads had been built in both Burma and Thailand, but there was no railroad connecting them. Indeed, when the British surveyed the land around the Burmese-Thai border in 1885, they found hilly jungle and many rivers, and decided it would be too difficult to build a railroad here. The Japanese disagreed, and began construction on the railroad in June 1942. The ultimate goal was to have the railroad run from Bangkok to Rangoon, so the work crews were assembled at Ban Pong, the western terminus of the Thai railroad, and at Thanbyuzayat, near the end of the railroad in southern Burma, and they started working toward each other. The project was completed in only fifteen months; the work crews met on October 17, 1943, 11 miles south of the Three Pagodas Pass, on the Thai side of the border.

No doubt about it, the Burma Railway was an impressive achievement. I’ll let you hear how an American engineer described the project. Quote: “What makes this an engineering feat is the totality of it, the accumulation of factors. The total length of miles, the total number of bridges — over 600, including six to eight long-span bridges — the total number of people who were involved (one-quarter of a million), the very short time in which they managed to accomplish it, and the extreme conditions they accomplished it under. They had very little transportation to get stuff to and from the workers, they had almost no medication, they couldn’t get food let alone materials, they had no tools to work with except for basic things like spades and hammers, and they worked in extremely difficult conditions — in the jungle with its heat and humidity. All of that makes this railway an extraordinary accomplishment.” End quote.

However, all this came at a terrible cost, and because of it, the Burma Railway has another name – the Death Railway. The Japanese put between 180,000 and 250,000 Southeast Asian civilians to work on the project, and about 61,000 Allied prisoners of war were brought here to work on it as well. About 90,000 civilians and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died from the causes you might suspect: maltreatment, disease and starvation. As a result, building the railroad can be considered one more of the many war crimes committed during World War II.

You have probably heard of the Burma Railroad, because after the war a fictional story was written about it, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and later it was made into a movie, one of the most popular movies of the 1950s. It came under criticism for not showing how brutal the construction of the railroad really was, but I recommend you see it as an extracurricular activity. First, it gives you an idea of how rural Thailand looked in the war years. Second, you will see Sir Alec Guinness play Colonel Nicholson, a British officer obsessed with following military regulations, even when they make him collaborate with the enemy. Today Guinness is mainly remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” but that wasn’t his favorite role; he felt he did the best acting of his career in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Also, I should point out that the bridge in question was on a river called the Khwae Noi or Khwae Sai Yok, and it flowed into the Mae Klong River, which goes to the Gulf of Thailand. The river name has been shortened to Kwai to make it easier for non-Thais to pronounce it; you may remember some other Thai names that got the same treatment, in earlier episodes of this podcast. Today tourists go to that spot on vacations, though some folks are worried that the place might be haunted, by the ghosts of all the people killed during the railroad’s construction. While there is a railroad bridge there now, it isn’t the original one. The original bridge was destroyed by a commando raid in the story, and by British bombers in real life. Although this bridge was rebuilt, other parts of the track were not repaired after the war, and whereas the railroad ran for 258 miles when it was completed, only 81 miles of the track can be used now. The Thais aren’t in a hurry to rebuild the rest because part of the area where the track ran was flooded in 1984, when the Vajiralongkorn Dam was completed. Replacing the track now would require surveying a new path for it – in other words, a whole new project would be needed for the new track.


Everywhere in Southeast Asia, it didn’t take long for the natives to realize that they were not truly free – they had only changed their masters. One nationalist who was not fooled was Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh; he said that driving out the West with Japanese help was like chasing the tiger out of the front door of a house by letting a wolf in the back! Another who was not fooled was the Burmese nationalist leader, General Aung San; he began plotting to rid Burma of the Japanese as soon as the British were gone.

Wherever there was resistance, either real or imagined, the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, responded savagely, behaving very much like the Gestapo in Germany, and making life miserable for conquered peoples. As the economy deteriorated, many natives resorted to black marketing to earn a living, going so far as selling goods stolen from Japanese camps and headquarters. As a result, the Kempeitai also tortured and shot black marketers, and even listening to Allied radio programs could make them pay you a visit.

Gradually resistance to Japanese rule arose in the form of guerrilla movements. In 1943 the Japanese tried to stop the growing unrest with political moves, granting “independence” to puppet governments run by natives. This was a continuation of their policy in China, where they had put the last emperor in charge of Manchukuo, a local prince in charge of Inner Mongolia, and a former associate of Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei, was put in charge of the territory Japan controlled in China Proper. And we saw in the previous episode that they were planning to install a friendly Indian nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose, as ruler of India.

In August 1943 the Japanese started by declaring the independent State of Burma. Since Aung San was no longer on their side, they chose Ba Maw, a former prime minister of British Burma, as its leader. But even he would eventually become disillusioned, because the Japanese promised better times, but instead were more brutal than the British had been. Here is what Ba Maw said about that after the war. Quote: “The brutality, arrogance, and racial pretensions of the Japanese militarists in Burma remain among the deepest Burmese memories of the war years; for a great many people in South-East Asia these are all they remember of the war.” End quote.

Next, in October 1943 Japan declared the independence of the Second Philippine Republic, under Jose Laurel, a former member of the Philippine Supreme Court. Laurel was qualified for the job because he had received an honorary law degree from Tokyo University before the war, and had once lobbied for Japanese business interests in the Philippines. They knew he would be loyal to Japan, because in July 1943 a guerrilla group had shot him four times, in a failed assassination attempt. Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the First Philippine Republic back in Episodes 28 through 30, was also pro-Japanese, since he had no reason to like the Americans, but he was now in his seventies and considered too old to lead. Manuel Roxas, the number three man in the pre-war Philippine government, had been captured in 1942, and to save himself, he accepted the job the Japanese offered him, as chief advisor to Laurel, but he also passed information to the Americans, in effect becoming a double agent. Finally, Benigno Aquino Sr. became the leader of KALIBAPI, the only political party permitted by the Japanese, and Speaker of the National Assembly. I am mentioning Aquino because we will hear from his son and grandson, both of them also named Benigno Aquino, in future podcast episodes. In both Burma and the Philippines, these moves attracted little popular support, and support for the new regimes mainly came from well-to-do natives looking to protect what they had. On the other hand, it was poor people with nothing to lose who were most likely to become anti-Japanese guerrillas.

Because they hated their former Dutch rulers, most of the Indonesian islanders gave the Japanese the loyalty they demanded. They enthusiastically killed Dutch citizens who had avoided capture when the Japanese invaded the islands, or simply told the Japanese where the Dutch were hiding. And the jobs held by the Dutch before the war were now filled by Japanese or Indonesians. One eyewitness to the Japanese occupation was the famous Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and he noted, quote: “With the arrival of the Japanese just about everyone was full of hope, except for those who had worked in the service of the Dutch.” End quote.

Alas, this did not mean the Indonesians would be treated better than other Southeast Asians. Indonesian nationalists were forbidden to fly their red and white flag, which I found a bit surprising since Japan’s flag is red and white, too. Moreover, as in other conquered areas, raw materials and food were confiscated for Japanese use, and thousands of natives were conscripted as forced laborers. After the war, a United Nations report stated that four million Indonesians died while the Japanese ruled the islands, 60 percent of them from a famine in 1944 and 1945.

To manage the territories, the Japanese 25th Army, which was already occupying Malaya and Singapore, also occupied Sumatra, while the 16th Army occupied Java and Madura, and the navy’s 2nd South Fleet ran Borneo and the eastern islands. Eventually a revolt broke out in Sumatra’s Aceh district in November 1942 (no surprise there), and more than one revolt occurred on Borneo in 1943 and 1944. The Dutch had been able to handle uprisings like these before the war, so the Japanese had no trouble putting them down. Still, they did not even begin to talk about setting up a puppet regime in Indonesia until the end of April 1945. By then the end of the war was only four months away, so it was too late to matter. My guess is that the Japanese did not want to give up control of the oilfields, even to a puppet ruler.

In the Philippines, anti-Japanese resistance never really ended; Filipinos looked for ways to keep on fighting, after the last American generals in those islands surrendered in May 1942. When Filipinos looked at what the two sides offered them, they saw that the Americans offered independence, while the Japanese offered membership in their “co-prosperity sphere,” and figured the American deal was better. They organized into guerrilla units, and soon there were so many of them that the United States began smuggling supplies to them on submarines. The United States officially recognized 277 guerrilla units that had 260,715 fighters between them, but these were just the units that wanted to restore the Commonwealth government, led by Manuel Quezon. In reality, there were probably well over one million guerrillas resisting the Japanese. In the southwest corner of the islands, the Moros had been quiet for nearly thirty years after the Americans defeated them, but now they revolted again. My wife tells me that the Moro guerrillas gained such a fearsome reputation that the Japanese avoided going into areas where the Moros lived, unless it was absolutely necessary.

The Moros had the largest guerrilla unit. It claimed 20,000 members, Christians as well as Moslems, and called itself Moro Bolo, combining the name of the ethnic group with its favorite weapon. In the long run, however, the communists would have the biggest impact. A communist guerrilla movement called the Hukbalahap formed in the mountains of northern Luzon in 1942. Their full title was Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon meaning the “People’s Anti-Japanese Army,” but the Americans simply called them the Huks. They started with 500 men, and had 20,000 by the end of the war, with 50,000 more in the reserves. By the way, this was not one of the guerrilla units the Americans supported, and they would go on to fight US forces and the Philippine government after the war ended.

Likewise, in the rest of Southeast Asia, the most successful guerrillas were communist-inspired. When World War II began in Europe, Southeast Asia’s communists, like communists elsewhere, took the Marxist view and tried to ignore it, claiming this was a conflict between imperialists that did not concern them. That point of view changed in 1940-41, first because of Japan’s alliance with Germany, followed by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now the war became a struggle to defend communism, and communists everywhere declared war against the Axis powers, becoming as antifascist as any freedom-loving American or Briton. Back in Episode 35 we saw one of them, Ho Chi Minh, return to Vietnam in 1941, after spending 30 years abroad, and he set up his headquarters in a series of limestone caves north of Hanoi. His guerrilla army, the Viet Minh, offered membership to anyone who was both anti-French and anti-Japanese, though it was communist-controlled from the start. By early 1945 he was doing so well in anti-Japanese activities that the American wartime secret service, the O.S.S., smuggled supplies to him. Two other communist guerilla movements worth remembering were the White Flag Army in Burma, and a Chinese movement in Malaya called the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese army; both of them also got started during the war, and we will be hearing from them again in future episodes.


The most heartwarming story I have to tell today is about a few thousand Jews that escaped the Holocaust in Europe by taking refuge in the Japanese Empire. Therefore I will tell this story in detail. It happened because the Japanese up to this point had not had much experience with Jews, and didn’t understand the concept of anti-Semitism, so Adolf Hitler’s campaign to exterminate Jews made no sense to them. When Jewish refugees left the war zone in Europe, they found few places willing to take them in. In the western hemisphere, for example, only the Dominican Republic welcomed them. Even the United States only accepted a handful, and all their paperwork had to be in order before they were allowed on American soil. The most famous Jews who succeeded in getting into America were two scientists, the celebrated physicist Albert Einstein, and a Freudian psychiatrist, Immanuel Velikovsky.

They were the exception; more often Jewish refugees were turned away. In May 1939 a German liner, the St. Louis, left Germany with 930 refugees and spent three weeks off the east coast of the United States, looking for a port that would accept it. 22 passengers were allowed to disembark in Cuba; the rest applied for entry into the USA, Columbia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Chile–and were accepted by none. They returned to Europe; about one third of them ended up in British detention camps, but at least they survived the war. The rest returned to continental Europe, and they all probably became victims of the Holocaust when the Germans overran the Low Countries and France.

Some European Jews fled east instead of west, and they found the city of Shanghai open to them. This happened because of the odd political situation in that city. Officially Shanghai was a Chinese city, of course – Chiang Kai-shek had claimed it since his Nationalists marched into the city in 1927 – but Japan, Britain, France and the United States all had self-governing “concessions” in parts of the city, and here the laws and influence of the Nationalists meant nothing. After Hitler came to power in Germany, Shanghai’s Jewish community grew quickly, eventually numbering 20,000. But when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Shanghai stopped looking like a safe place. In September 1937, Germany sent a ship to Shanghai to evacuate German nationals from the war zone. Among the Germans it picked up were 28 German Jewish families, and it dropped them off in the nearest city to Shanghai that still looked safe – Manila. Paul V. McNutt, the American High Commissioner in the Philippines, waived the visa requirements and let them in. And that is how the Philippines were drawn into the business of giving shelter to Jewish refugees.

In the 1930s, there were about 500 Jews living in the Philippines, who had come either from Spain in the late 1800s, from the United States after 1898, or from Russia after World War I. They opened a synagogue in Manila in 1922, and named it Temple Emil, after its founder, Emil Bachrach. Other prominent members of the community were four brothers from Cincinnati: Alex, Phillip, Herbert, and Morris Frieder. The Frieder brothers had owned a cigar factory in New York City, and moved it to Manila in 1918 because manufacturing costs were much less in the Philippines. They took turns living in Manila to oversee the factory; each would stay in Manila for two years before returning to Cincinnati, and then another brother would take his place.

Both the Jews of Manila and their Filipino neighbors knew that the Jews in Europe were in a desperate situation. The American official I mentioned previously, Paul McNutt, regularly played poker with Alex and Phillip Frieder, and during their card games they also planned how to rescue more German Jews. Two other poker buddies of theirs had the power to get it done, Philippine President Manuel Quezon and an American army colonel named Dwight David Eisenhower, who we saw in previous episodes served in the Philippines before the war as General Douglas MacArthur’s second-in-command. Eisenhower explained his part in the rescue in his diary, where he wrote that, quote, “Hitler’s record with the Jews is as black as any barbarian of the Dark Ages.” End quote. Keep in mind that he wrote this before the full horror of the Holocaust had been revealed to the outside world. In the 1930s the Nazis were content if all they did was drive the Jews out of Germany, in effect saying, “You shall not live here at all.” But after they built death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz, for the purpose of exterminating as many Jews as possible, the last statement would be shortened to “You shall not live.”

Technically the Philippines were not independent from the United States yet, so Quezon announced in 1938 that he would issue 10,000 US visas to German and Austrian Jews. McNutt put his own job on the line by asking the US State Department for permission to issue the visas; we saw that Washington was reluctant to let refugees into the United States, even if they were going to an autonomous overseas territory. The plan they put into action had to respect US immigration laws.

Afterwards, when Quezon was asked why he acted to save Jews, since he wasn’t a Jew himself, all he said was, quote, “It’s the right thing to do.” Unquote. Under both Spanish and American rule, the Filipinos had been targets of racial discrimination, and Quezon saw the Jews as another group of people being picked on, a group he could help. Hundreds of Filipinos showed they agreed with this policy on November 17, 1938, when they held a rally in Manila to denounce the most notorious of the early acts of persecution in Nazi Germany, Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Germans committed vandalism against Jewish homes and shops.

By the end of 1941, between 1,200 and 1,300 Jewish refugees had arrived in Manila – my sources disagree on the exact number. Quezon made sure there were enough houses available in Manila for the refugees – he even gave up an estate he owned so the Jews would have a community center – and he also made sure that their children could go to the local schools, while the Frieder brothers offered jobs in their cigar factory to the refugees.

On the podcast’s Facebook page and page, I posted a picture showing a crowd of smiling Jews after the Philippines took them in. This was taken at the home of Alex Frieder, in Manila on April 30, 1940.

Because the plan was going so well, Quezon had another idea; he would declare part of Mindanao a haven for 10,000 more refugees. Unfortunately, this did not come to pass, because the Japanese invaded first and forced everyone to forget about the project.

When the Japanese captured Manila, the American and British citizens in the city were moved to the University of Santo Tomas barracks, which were turned into a makeshift prison. This included American-born Jews, but German and Austrian Jews were left alone. The Japanese paid more attention to nationality than to religion, and these Jews carried passports with swastikas on them, so the Japanese assumed they were on their side! One of them was a boy named Max Weissler, who celebrated his Bar Mitzva in the Manila synagogue in 1943. More than sixty years later, in 2006, he described what it was like when the Japanese were in charge. Quote: “The Japanese did not molest us. They actually treated us pretty well. For example, a lot of things were scarce. But the Japanese saw to it that the community had wheat flour on Passover to bake matzot. They even used to bring the American and English Jews by bus from their barracks at Santo Tomas to the synagogue to celebrate holidays with the rest of the Jewish community.” End quote.

For the Jews, the worst part came in early 1945, when the Americans returned to the Philippines and nearly all of Manila was destroyed in the battle to take back that city. At this point, the Japanese who had most recently arrived in the neighborhood did not give the Jews special treatment; they assumed that any white person was automatically an enemy. Although the Manila synagogue was destroyed, most of the refugees survived, and after the war, when both the Philippines and Israel became independent, most of them emigrated to Israel; there are only about 100 Jews in the Philippines today. One of my sources, a news article written in 2015, stated that 40 of the former refugees were still alive at the time, and today around the world there are an estimated 8,000 descendants of the refugees, who are alive because of an act of kindness during one of the world’s cruelest times.

Only in recent years was the part the Philippines played in rescuing Jews revealed to the rest of the world. In 2009 Israel thanked the Philippines by setting up a monument, shaped like three open doors, in a park at Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv. One door stands for the Philippines becoming a refuge during the war years, one door stands for the Philippines voting for Israel’s creation at the United Nations in 1947, and the third door stands for the 30,000 Filipinos, mostly caregivers, working in Israel now. Then in 2015 Israel awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation Medal to Manuel Quezon for his “life-saving plan” and for “reaching out to the victims of the Nazi murderous machine.” Since Quezon had been dead for seventy-one years, his daughter, Zeneida Quezon Avanceña, stood in to receive the medal at the ceremony. Finally, when the eastern Philippines was devastated by a terrible typhoon in 2013, Israeli soldiers and doctors came to help with rescue work in the hardest-hit areas.


That’s a wrap, we are done for today! We’re going to have to wait some more, because the Allies aren’t ready to return yet. I know, General MacArthur promised to return, so have patience! Therefore, for the next episode we will go to another area on Southeast Asia’s periphery, New Guinea and the Coral Sea, and see how the Allies, namely the Americans and Australians, halted the Japanese advance in that direction. The New Guinea campaign will last almost as long as the Burma campaign, because that was another jungle where neither side wanted to be, but they felt they had to be there, so I will probably need more than one episode to cover all of that campaign. Now I am playing this by ear; after New Guinea I believe I will go back to Burma for a look at what was happening there in late 1942, 1943 and 1944. Don’t miss an episode! Log in again, same bat-time, same bat-website!

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