The Dark Days of 1942


Both December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 are forever wrapped in infamy. But the relatively quick reaction of overwhelming military force displayed in Afghanistan had no equal sixty years ago. The Pearl Harbor attack served as the first act in a six-month dirge of diastrous war news–the dark days of ’42.

After six decades the surprise and shock of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor overshadows the other events of that infamous day. The carrier raid on the Hawaiian base was only the opening shot in a massive Japanese offensive against the Far Eastern posssesions of the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. In his famous speech of December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt chanted the litany of Japanese aggression: “Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island, this morning Japanese forces attacked Midway Island.” Some of thses attacks, such as Wake Island and the Philippines, were initial air attacks only; ground troops came later, except at Midway.

On December 10, the unfortified American possession of Guam fell to the Japanese after a brief fight. On the same day, 100 miles northeast of Singapore, Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes sent Great Britain’s newest battleship Prince of Wales and the venerable battle cruiser Repulse to the bottom of the South China Sea.

On the following day, the 447 United States Marines defending the tiny mid-Pacific atoll of Wake Island gave the Japanese invasion force a tougher time than they expected. The Marines’ shore battery sank the Japanese destroyer Hayate, and planes from Marine Fighter Squadron 211 sank the destroyer Kisaragi. The rest of the invasion force scurried back to their base in the Marshall Islands. Twelve days later the Japanese returned with an armada containing heavy cruisers and an aircraft carrier; facing annihilation, Wake Island’s commander surrendered after a spirited attempt to repel the Japanese landing. The surrender came two days before Christmas.

The holidays brought more bad news. On Christmas Day the British surrendered Hong Kong. On New Year’s Day 1942, General Douglas MacArthur, American commander in the Philippines, declared Manila an open city. As the Japanese marched into the capital, MacArthur’s force of 65,000 Filipinos and 15,000 Americans retreated into the Bataan Peninsula on the opposite side of Manila Bay for a last-ditch defense.

With the Japanese piling up victories in the Far East, Hitler took the opportunity to unleash his U-boats, ordering them to the American East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Code named Operation Drumbeat, this German undersea offensive took advantage of a glaring American weakness–the lack of destroyers and escort craft. For the next six months German U-boats sank over 400 American merchant ships, often within sight of bathers on beaches from New Jersey to Florida to Texas.

In Washington, a newly promoted brigadier general turned in his recommendations to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall; the chief of staff had ordered the general to analyze the situation in the Philippines. Marshall and most of the War Department’s top people had known for years that relief or reinforcement of a besieged Philippine Islands was impossible without overwhelming American naval and ground forces. The troops for such relief were still being drafted and the ships were still on the drawing boards. Two and a half years would pass before the United States possessed the forces necessary to recapture the Philippines–MacArthur’s command was doomed. The general’s report validated Marshall’s opinion, but added a warning that the Far Eastern nations were closely watching American actions; “They may excuse failure,” the general warned, “but they will not excuse abandonment.” The chief of staff thanked Brigadier General Eisenhower and gave him the futile task of trying to aid MacArthur’s Philippine defense.

As 1942 progressed the Japanese juggernaut continued unabated. Well-trained Japanese troops hacked their way through the impenetrable jungles of the Malaya Peninsula and emerged behind the impregnable British fortress of Singapore. On February 15, Singapore fell. The offensive then continued south towards the oil-rich Netherlands East Indies–Borneo, Sumatra, the Celebes, and Java. The Imperial Japanese Navy bored down on a mixed force of American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships known as ABDAFLOAT. This force included what the United States Navy called the Asiatic Fleet: the heavy cruiser Houston, light cruiser Marblehead, and twelve overage World War I destroyers. In a valiant effort to save the Netherlands East Indies, ABDAFLOAT fought a number of engagements against the larger Japanese fleet, culminating with the disastrous defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27, 1942.

By mid-March the situation on Bataan was critical; unable to save the starving, disease-ridden troops, President Roosevelt decided to save the commanding general by ordering MacArthur to Australia. The general left his Malinta Tunnel headquarters on the fortress island of Corregidor in Manila Bay on March 12. Traveling by PT boat to the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao, MacArthur then boarded a B-17 bomber and arrived in Alice Springs, Australia, where he told newsmen, “I came through and I shall return.”

On Good Friday, April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched their final assault on the desperate Fil-American defenders of Bataan. Five days later the white flag went up signaling the largest surrender of American troops in history. The surrendered troops then began their brutal journey to a prison camp north of Manila–the Bataan Death March. As the defeated men marched away, the Japanese heavy artillery began slamming away at Corregidor Island, the last American bastion in the Philippines.

Through all this defeat, disaster, and despair, the American public’s only relief came from a few U.S. Navy carrier raids on Japanese-held islands in the Central Pacific; nevertheless, these raids provided only slaps in answer to four months of Japanese-inflicted body blows. But then on April 18, the American carriers launched sixteen army twin-engine bombers against Tokyo. Although the Doolittle Raid did little damage to the Japanese capital, the daring attack jolted the long-suffering American morale.

The last piece of bad news came simultaneously with a strategic victory. On May 6, the beleaguered island fortress of Corregidor fell to the Japanese. Before surrendering, Major General Jonathan Wainwright sent a final message to President Roosevelt: “With broken heart and head bowed in sadness but not in shame I report… that today I must arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified islands of Manila Bay…. There is a limit of human endurance and that limit has long since been past…. Please say to the nation that my troops and I have accomplished all that is humanly possible. With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops I go to meet the Japanese commander. Good-bye Mr. President.” As Wainwright made his sorrowful walk to the enemy’s lines, American and Japanese naval forces maneuvered for a face-off in the Battle of the Coral Sea–a strategic victory for the United States because it stemmed the tide of Japaneses conquest just short of Australia.

One month later American naval forces soundly defeated Japan’s carrier fleet at the Battle of Midway. Japan then fell into a defensive posture to protect the gains made since December 7, but over the next three years overwhelming and relentless American forces crushed Japan’s Pacific empire. The later stages of the Pacific war were so one-sided that the early defeats are often forgotten; yet the dark days of ’42 stand as a reminder of the price paid in human suffering for America’s unpreparedness.