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The Attack at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines

That Americans intercepted and deciphered Japanese messages that signaled the impending attack on Pearl Harbor is a claim that has been discredited – recently by the eminent historian of Pearl Harbor, Gordon Prange, in his detailed, 928-page work, At Dawn We Slept.

Early on Sunday morning, December 7, a radar operator in Hawaii spotted the Japanese attack force and sent a message to Lieutenant Kermit Tyler at the Fighter Control Center about unusual activities to the northwest. Believing that this was caused by a flight of B-17s that were arriving in transit to the Philippines, and due from the mainland, Lieutenant Tyler told the radar station to "forget it," and he did not pass the report on to higher command.

The first wave of 189 aircraft off of the Japanese carriers arrived at their targets around 7:50. The second wave, with 161 aircraft, came an hour later. The attack lasted a total of two hours and twenty minutes and included strikes at Wheeler Field in the middle of the island of Oahu, strikes at the naval air station at Kaneohe on the east side of the island, a strike on an islet in the center of Pearl Harbor and at the air station of Ewa Field up the coast a couple of miles west of Pearl Harbor. Twenty-nine Japanese aircraft were shot down. And, in their eagerness, US gunners mistakenly shot at a few US fighter planes. note69  The attacks killed 2403 Americans and wounded 1178 others. Fourteen ships, including eight battleships, were put out of service, and the battleship Arizona was a total loss. Seventy-seven US aircraft of all types had been destroyed. Three US aircraft carriers, the Saratoga, Lexington and Enterprise, had been away on duties.

The Japanese pilots saw themselves as honorable men. They had attacked only military targets. They were amazed by the lack of preparedness they had found among the Americans – including a lack of torpedo nets. They believed they did the job that had been expected of them. They were exultant, and their task force withdrew.

The Attack on the Philippines

News of the attack at Pearl Harbor arrived at Clark Field, fifty miles northwest of Manila, in the Philippines, at 3 a.m. local time – 8 a.m. Hawaii time – but not to MacArthur or any other army officer. An army radio operator on watch heard of the attack while listening to a California radio station. He called his superior, who called another superior, and within a few minutes MacArthur was awakened by telephone. By 3:40 a.m. he was rushing to get dressed. At 5:30 he received a radio gram notifying him that the United States and Japan were at war.

The Japanese at their base in Formosa (Taiwan) were worried that an air strike from the Philippines would arrive in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but no strike came. MacArthur believed that he was under explicit orders not to initiate hostilities against the Japanese and he denied General Brereton permission to attack with his B-17s.

Arriving that morning at Clark Field was a command from the Commander of the Army Air Forces, General "Hap" Arnold, to avoid the mistake made at Pearl Harbor, an order to disperse aircraft that were on the ground. A report also arrived from a local radar station that unidentified aircraft were headed for Manila and Clark Field. MacArthur's subordinate General Brereton ordered thirty-six P-40 fighter planes into the air and seventeen of his B-17s to cruise out of harm's way. The approaching planes were Japanese, but they changed course. The P-40 pilots could not find them. They thought they had been sent up on a false alarm and returned to base, believing perhaps that the attack on Pearl Harbor had been a hoax and that they were being tested for readiness. The B-17s also returned to base.

Around noon the radar station sent another warning to Clark Field, by teletype, but the teletype operator was out to lunch. The radar station sent a message by radio, but the transmission was made unclear by static. A radar officer telephoned a lieutenant at the base, and the lieutenant promised to pass the word along "at the earliest opportunity." note73

A few minutes later at Clark Field a radio station being listened to during lunch announced "an unconfirmed report" that the base was being bombed. People who heard this news laughed. Then they began to hear a low moaning sound, which grew louder and louder. The Japanese were attacking with 181 Mitsubishi bombers and 84 Zero fighter-bombers. Base personnel had no air raid shelter or slit trenches to dive into. Only four planes managed to get off the ground. Most of the anti-aircraft rounds that ground crews managed to fire were old and exploded from two to four thousand feet short of the Japanese planes. The Japanese bombed and strafed Clark Field for a little more than an hour and then left, leaving the base in total ruin. Most of MacArthur's aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. MacArthur was dismayed and wondered whether it had been Germans flying the Japanese planes.

Wider War

On the same morning that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, they moved against the British at Hong Kong. And on that day they move into Southeast Asia's only independent country, Thailand, and against the British on the Malay Peninsula – Saigon having been a staging area for these two assaults.

Japan had asked Italy and Germany to join them in their war against the United States, and these two powers did so. Hitler was eager to declare war on the United States before the United States declared war on Germany, and he did so on December 9. When he spoke to parliament (the Reichstag) on the 11th, that rubber-stamp body responded with jubilation. The war that Roosevelt is said to have wanted with Germany had arrived – as Germany's doing rather than Roosevelt's.

On December 10, Japanese troops invaded Guam and landed at various points in the Philippines, including Luzon and Mindanao. On December 15 they landed against the British in northern Borneo – important to the Japanese because of its oil. The Japanese in mid-December were fighting to take Hong Kong. On Luzon, meanwhile, the Japanese forces numbered around 50,000 – half the number of those fighting under MacArthur. But they swept MacArthur's force aside, and on the afternoon of the 22nd they pushed MacArthur and company out of Manila. MacArthur's forces – 15,000 Americans and 65,000 Filipinos – withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula, across the bay, twenty miles west of Manila, where they lacked food and the Americans called themselves the Battling Bastards of Bataan.

MacArthur made his headquarters on the island of Corregidor, at the mouth of Manila Bay and three miles from Bataan's coast. He was hoping for relief in the form of the Soviet Union entering the war against Japan. Roosevelt urged this from the Russians, but the Russians were busy enough fighting the Germans and not about to break their non-aggression agreement with Japan.

On December 22, while fighting was still taking place in Borneo, Wake Island fell to the Japanese – Japan's second assault on that island – its first assault repelled by the Marines there. In mid-January, the Americans on Bataan were forced to retreat to Corregidor. By mid-February the Japanese, on bicycles, had advanced to the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. The British at Singapore had not been prepared to defend themselves from an assault by land. They had foreseen a threat only by naval forces. Much of Britain's navy was involved far away against Germany. And they faced Japanese air superiority.

On the 15th of December about 70,000 reinforcements for the British arrived at Singapore – just in time to join others in surrender and captivity, a captivity that included surviving British, Canadian and Indian troops from Hong Kong. And, following their capture of Singapore, the Japanese began to slaughter local Chinese, believed by the Japanese to be either pro-British or Communists. Around 20,000 Chinese from Singapore were rounded up and systematically butchered.


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