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A Brief History of WWII

Japan on the Offensive

Japan, largely devoid of natural resources to feed its industries, looked overseas for supplies of strategic materials such as ores and petroleum. Before 1939 the United States was Japan's major supplier. But President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull shut off American supplies in an effort to force the Japanese to end hostilities against China. The Japanese had long coveted the resource-rich British and Dutch colonies of Southeast Asia, and as the U.S. trade embargo tightened, the Japanese increasingly looked southward for raw materials and strategic resources.

Only the United States stood in Japan's path. The U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was the only force capable of challenging Japan's navy, and American bases in the Philippines could threaten lines of communications between the Japanese home islands and the East Indies. Every oil tanker heading for Japan would have to pass by American-held Luzon. From these needs and constraints, Japan's war plans emerged.

First, its navy would neutralize the American fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan would also seize America's central Pacific bases at Guam and Wake islands and invade the Philippines. With American naval power crippled, Japan's military would be free to seize Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies in a series of rapid amphibious operations. Japan would then establish a defensive ring around its newly conquered empire by fortifying islands in the south and the central Pacific.

Japan's leaders were convinced that Americans, once involved in the European war, would be willing to negotiate peace in the Pacific.

To block Japanese ambitions, the United States Army had scant resources. Two small forces constituted the heart of the American land defenses in the Pacific -- the garrison in the Territory of Hawaii and General Douglas MacArthur's command in the Commonwealth of the Philippines. Both were peacetime organizations, whose days were given to rounds of ceremonies, inspections, and languid training. Officers and their wives occupied evenings and weekends with rounds of social activities and golf, while the soldiers enjoyed more earthy pleasures in the bars and brothels of Honolulu or Manila.

Yet these forces would face overwhelming odds in the event of war. The thousands of islands that comprised the Philippines lay 8,000 miles from the American west coast, but only 200 miles from Japanese-held Formosa. To defend them, General MacArthur had the equivalent of two divisions of regular troops -- 16,000 U.S. regulars and 12,000 Philippine Scouts. He could call on additional thousands of Philippine militia, but they were untrained and ill equipped. Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short's Hawaiian command held 43,000 Army troops, including two infantry divisions, coast artillery, air corps, and support troops. Thus, in ground forces, the United States had the equivalent of three divisions in the Pacific to stand in the path of the Imperial Japanese Army.

American strategists had developed two plans to counter possible Japanese aggression -- one for the Navy and another for the Army. The Navy planned to fight across the central Pacific for a climactic and decisive battle with the Japanese fleet. The Army saw no way to save the Philippines and favored a strategic defense along an Alaska-Hawaii-Panama line. Writing off the Philippines, however, was politically impossible, and as war drew closer frantic efforts were made to strengthen the commonwealth's defenses. Both MacArthur and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall overestimated the chances of their own forces and underestimated the strength and ability of the Japanese. In particular, they grossly exaggerated the power of a new weapon, the B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber, a few of which were rushed to the Philippines in the last days of peace.

All of the efforts proved to be too little, too late. The Japanese war plan worked to perfection. On December 7, 1941, Japan paralyzed the Pacific Fleet in its attack on Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines, Japanese fliers destroyed most of MacArthur's air force on the ground. Freed of effective opposition, Japanese forces took Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies in rapid succession. By March 1942 the Japanese had conquered an empire. Only MacArthur's beleaguered American-Filipino army still held out on the main Philippine island of Luzon.

A Japanese army had landed in northern Luzon on December 22, 1941 and began to push southward toward Manila. At first, MacArthur was inclined to meet the Japanese on the beaches. But he had no air force, and the U.S. Navy's tiny Asiatic fleet was in no position to challenge Japan at sea. The U.S. regulars and Philippine Scouts were excellent troops but were outnumbered and without air support. Giving up his initial strategy of defeating the enemy on the beaches, MacArthur decided to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula. There he could pursue a strategy of defense and delay, shortening his lines and using the mountainous, jungle-covered terrain to his advantage. Perhaps he could even hold out long enough for a relief force to be mounted in the United States.

But too many people crowded into Bataan, with too little food and ammunition. By March it was clear that help from the United States was not coming. Nevertheless, the American-Filipino force, wracked by dysentery and malaria, continued to fight. In March President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia. He left his command to Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright and to Maj. Gen. Edward King, who on 9 April was forced to surrender the exhausted and starving Bataan force. Wainwright continued to resist on the small fortified island of Corregidor in Manila Bay until 6 May under constant Japanese artillery and air bombardment. After Japanese troops stormed ashore on the island, Wainwright agreed to surrender Corregidor and all other troops in the islands. By 9 May 1942, the battle for the Philippines had ended, though many Americans and Filipinos took to the hills and continued a guerrilla war against the Japanese.

The courageous defense of Bataan had a sad and ignominious end. Marching their prisoners toward camps in northern Luzon, the Japanese denied food and water to the sick and starving men. When the weakest prisoners began to straggle, guards shot or bayoneted them and threw the bodies to the side of the road. Japanese guards may have killed 600 Americans and 10,000 Filipino prisoners. News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had outraged the American people; news of the "Bataan Death March" filled them with bitter hatred.

By May 1942 the Japanese had succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. A vast new empire had fallen into their hands so quickly, and at so little cost, that they were tempted to go further. If their forces could move into the Solomon Islands and the southern coast of New Guinea, they could threaten Australia and cut the American line of communications to MacArthur's base there. If they could occupy Midway Island, only 1,000 miles from Honolulu, they could force the American fleet to pull back to the west coast. In Japanese overconfidence lay the seeds of Japan's first major defeats.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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