Dec. 8th through Dec. 12th, 1941
by David H. Lippman

December 8th, 1941...Japanese aircraft attack the Philippines. American planes are on the ground when Japanese planes swarm in. American radar picks off the Japanese, sends the message to Clark Field...and nobody gets it because the teletype operator has gone to lunch, along with the fighter and bomber pilots, who loll on the grass while eating their sandwiches. When the Japanese swoop in at lunchtime, the Americans think they are Navy planes dropping tinfoil until the "tinfoil" explodes. The Japanese destroy 86 out of 160 American aircraft, losing only seven planes. While the top commanders in Pearl Harbor are pilloried for their mistakes, the top airman in the Philippines, Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, is not.

Japanese aircraft also attack Wake Island, defended by 12 F4F Grumman Wildcats of VMF 211. The island is defended by 378 Marines, and 75 Navy Sailors, who are reinforced by civilian construction workers finishing the island's airfield. The Japanese bombs wreck the island's fuel tanks and incinerate nine aircraft. The construction workers take over the island galley and other chores to free Marines and Sailors to fight.

New Zealand declares war on Japan at 11 a.m., local time. Her only Army unit in the Pacific is 8th Infantry Brigade in Fiji. Her two light cruisers, HMS Achilles and HMS Leander, are in the Pacific. Her first-line aircraft at home consist of 36 Hudson patrol bombers, 35 ancient Vincent bombers, and 2 Singapore flying boats. However, two squadrons of Brewster Buffalo F2A fighters are stationed in Malaya. Great things are expected of this plane, which Allied leaders say is superior to Japan's Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

In Malaya, Japanese troops are ashore and moving inland fast, relying on bicycles. British Adm. Tom Phillips takes his two battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, to sea to destroy the Japanese convoys. In China, Claire Chennault, leader of a group of American mercenary fighter pilots flying for Chiang Kai-Shek, moves his three squadrons from their training areas in Burma to Kunming in China.

That afternoon, Franklin D. Roosevelt goes up to the Capitol in a limousine called the Queen Mary, surrounded by Secret Servicemen, and reads a speech to a joint session of Congress from a school notebook. "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy..." he begins. He concludes, "No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory."

The House of Representatives is packed with dignitaries, including Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

The Declaration of War on Japan is passed with one dissenting vote, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who also voted against the Declaration of War on Germany in 1917. The United States enters history's greatest conflict infuriated and unified. That determination enables the US to ultimately win the war.

In Hawaii, heartsick and sore sailors and soldiers struggle to repair damaged ships. Hospitals are packed with wounded men. Trigger-happy troops go on fruitless searches for spies and paratroopers. A "paratrooper" turns out to be a kite hanging in a tree. A "signal light" turns out to be a farmer using a blue light to milk a cow. "Enemy planes" are aircraft from the carrier Enterprise, and "enemy ships" are the cruisers St. Louis and Honolulu. However, as the Americans bury their dead and put out fires, morale remains high. A jukebox by the blazing destroyer Shaw plays "I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire" over and over again. On the battleship Maryland, the ship's band toots military music on the quarterdeck to boost morale. With Hawaii under martial law, National Guardsmen stand sentry over the territory's vital areas. Most are Japanese-Americans. Not one incident of sabotage by Hawaii's large Japanese community is reported.

On the Russian Front, Adolf Hitler takes stern measures, with Directive No. 39. The German Army is to go to the defensive all across the front. If it must withdraw, it must destroy everything. "In the interests of military operations," Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel tells Army Group North by phone, "There is to be no respect whatever for the population's situation."

At the front, the Russians take Tikhvin, and the first 25 T-34 tanks come off the Kharkov Tanks Works production line, which has relocated in the Urals. It has been 10 weeks since the last factory workers have left Kharkov for the East.

In German-occupied France, British and Free French agents are hard at work, setting up resistance circles and escape routes for Allied PoWs. However, on this day, a British deserter from the time of Dunkirk, Sgt. Harold Cole, helps the Germans break one of the principal lines. As a result of Cole's treachery, more than 50 of those who had helped maintain the line are arrested and shot.

December 9th, 1941...Japanese troops occupy Bangkok, Thailand's capital. Thailand promptly signs an alliance with Japan. The Japanese make more landings on the Thai coast, heading into north Malaya, through dense jungles, to Singapore.

The only two confronting nations not at war are Germany and the United States. Adolf Hitler, enroute to Berlin, tells his advisors that Franklin D. Roosevelt will do all he can to avoid a two-ocean war. Even so, he orders Nazi U-Boats to attack American shipping off the East Coast.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, the starving Jewish population finally gets word that the US is in the war. "Most people believe that the war will not last long," notes diarist Mary Berg, "and that the Allied victory is certain." She adds that America's entry into the war "has inspired the hundreds of thousands of dejected Jews in the ghetto with a new breath of hope."

At Pearl Harbor, rescue workers with oxy-acetylene torches cut through USS Oklahoma's capsized hull and 15-inch armor to reach trapped crewmen inside. The last survivor is pulled out this day...QM1 H.S. Kennedy, father of NASU's last commanding officer.

December 10th, 1941...HMS Prince of Wales, Britain's newest battleship, and HMS Repulse, have to abort their mission to attack Japanese shipping off Malaya, thinking they have been spotted. Ironically, had the British held their course a few more minutes, they would have pounced on the Japanese invasion fleet.

On their way back to Singapore, the British are spotted by chance by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. The Japanese hurl 84 Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers at the two battleships, which have no fighter cover. The Japanese quickly cripple Prince of Wales with torpedoes in the propeller flats, which flood the engine room, and slam 10 torpedoes into Repulse, sinking both. In all, 840 officers and men drown, including Phillips, who makes no move to flee. He just asks for his best hat. Saved are 1,285. The Japanese lose only four aircraft. However, the loss of the two warships, Malaya's only serious naval defense, makes the Japanese masters of the South China Sea and the Pacific. It also leaves all of Malaya, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Solomons, and Australia, open to invasion. And it ends the idea that battleships can withstand enemy air attack. From this point on, the Allies will lose no further battleships to air attack, because the battleship will no longer be the queen of the seas, merely an auxiliary to air power.

Japanese troops also storm ashore in the Philippines at Aparri, Gonzaga, and Vigan. Japanese aircraft blast the US Navy base at Cavite, near Manila, pounding it to rubble and sinking the submarine USS Sealion. US Asiatic Fleet commander ADM Thomas C. Hart orders his fleet (one heavy cruiser, two light, 13 destroyers, 29 submarines, and a motley collection of auxiliaries and gunboats) to head for the Dutch East Indies and Singapore.

Early in the morning on that same day, the crack Japanese 38th Division, in rubber-soled boots, attacks the centerpiece of the British defense line in Hong Kong, the Shing Mun Redoubt. This complex of five pillboxes, connected by trenches and underground tunnels, is designed to be held by a battalion for five weeks. It falls in five hours. The defending 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots, is weak from malaria, and can't hold. British Gen. Christopher Maltby orders his troops -- including two battalions of partially-trained Canadians, the first from that nation to see land action in the war -- to retreat to Hong Kong island.

In Guam, 5,400 Japanese attack 430 American Marines and Sailors defending the island. Despite the 10-1 odds, the Americans hold out for nine hours before surrendering, at a cost of 17 Americans and one Japanese.

RM1 George R. Tweed escapes into the mountains, and successfully hides from the Japanese for two-and-a-half years like a modern Robinson Crusoe, accumulating $6,000 in back pay.

Japanese troops storm into Malaya across the Thai frontier, and find no resistance. The British are falling back to the Jitra Line.

In Germany, Heinrich Himmler issues an order that medical boards should visit all concentration camps and "sort out" those who were unfit for work, ill, or "psychopaths." All those selected by the order -- which does not require any physical examination -- are to be taken to the nearest center with a carbon-monoxide gas chamber, and killed.

The 2nd New Zealand Division, except for 5th Brigade, returns to Egypt.

December 11th, 1941...Germany declares war on the United States. Historian Martin Gilbert says it is the "greatest error, and certainly the single most decisive act, of the Second World War. Hitler, by his declaration of war, brought the United States back to Europe as a belligerent; first America's ships, then her warplanes, and finally her armies, would, whatever their Pacific duties, ensure the overthrow of Hitler and his system."

Churchill wires Anthony Eden, enroute to Russia, "The accession of the United States makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give certain victory."

Off the coast of the Philippines, the US tries to strike back, hurling a few surviving B-17s at a Japanese convoy. A B-17 piloted by Lt. Colin Kelly Jr. makes an attack on the light cruiser Jintsu, missing her. Enroute back, Kelly's plane is jumped by Japanese Zeros. Kelly keeps the plane in the air while his crew (including bombardier Meyer Levin, a Jew who will go on to further valor) bails out. Then his B-17 crashes. Kelly's deeds are mistakenly reported as him having flown his bomber down the stack of the Japanese battleship Haruna, sending her to the bottom, and receiving the Medal of Honor. None of these events are true (Kelly actually gets a Distinguish Service Cross), but some publications report it as a fact to this day.

There is no need, however, to inflate the heroics of the US Sailors, Marines, and civilian contractors on Wake Island, however, who face a Japanese invasion. The American defenders (for the only time in World War II) hurl the invaders back into the sea. US aircraft and guns sink the Japanese destroyers Hayate and Kisaragi, killing 5,350 men. Kisaragi is sunk by bombs from an F4F Wildcat piloted by Capt. Henry T. Elrod. It is the first time the Japanese Navy has lost a warship in action since 1905. Elrod receives the Medal of Honor.

In Malaya, under heavy rain, Japanese troops reach the Jitra Line, which the British have been buiding for six months. Barely 500 Japanese troops attack the 11th Indian division amid the downpour, crumpling all but the Leicesters and the 22nd Gurkhas. The 11th Indian Divison flees in panic. 15th Brigade loses a fourth of its men, 28th Brigade more than 700 men. More than 3,000 British and Indian troops surrender. The Japanese capture 50 field guns, 50 heavy machine guns, 300 trucks and armored cars, and three months provisions, ammunition, and fuel, to the great relief of Japanese supply officers. The Japanese lose barely 27 killed and 83 wounded. Historians describe the battle of Jitra as "a major disaster, a disgrace to British arms."

The cause of this debacle is the poor training of the British and Indian troops for jungle warfare, poor equipment (British guns can only fire 12 rounds a day) and weak British leadership. Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, leading the 3rd Corps has a "withdrawal complex." Australian Maj. Gen. Gordon Bennett is only concerned with providing snappy quotes for reporters and his own escape. Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, the army commander, is an unimaginative staff officer who refuses to build entrenchments on Singapore Island because it would be "bad for morale." Sir Shenton Thomas, the senior civilian, refuses to break civilian rules of long lunch breaks and weekends off. And the overall commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, is "near nervous collapse."

In Russia, Soviet forces have recaptured 400 towns and villages in less than six days, and driven the Germans back from the Moscow-Volga canal. Churchill describes this to the House of Commons, and says, "We can already see, after less than six months of fighting, that (Hitler) has made one of the outstanding blunders of history."

The US declares war on Germany, Italy, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria. The resolutions pass without dissent. It is the last time Congress uses its power to declare war.

5th New Zealand Brigade captures a large force of Italians in North Africa.

December 12th, 1941...The highly-touted Brewster Buffalo gets its first taste of combat against Japanese Zeroes, as two New Zealand squadrons go into action in Malaya. In a short time, the Buffalo pilots find out that the Zero, contrary to belief, is faster, more maneuverable, and better armed than the Buffalo, or any other Allied fighter in the Pacific. Incredibly, a full set of plans for the Zero were passed by Americans in China to the United States before the war, but were ignored. However, the Zero has one fatal flaw...no armor, which means that if even a mediocre pilot can get in a shot, the Zero will go down.

Nonetheless, the Zero rules Malayan skies, and an air raid on Penang that day kills 600 civilians. As the Japanese advance, the British retreat.

In Hong Kong, British troops evacuate Kowloon in anything that can move...Star ferries, junks, sampans, the destroyer HMS Thracian, flat-bottomed riverboats, even lifebelts. Royal Engineers destroy anything useful on the north side.

As the war expands in Malaya and the Philippines, the British and Americans discover that their pre-war propaganda about Japan being a nation of incompetent near-sighted men with buck teeth is hopelessly wrong. Japanese troops look like badly- wrapped parcels in their brown, ill-fitting uniforms. But they wear rubber boots that give them a silent approach, and carry up to 75 lbs. of gear with them, including medicine kits so they can prevent malaria. They can go for days on balls of rice and fish, move swiftly on bicycles.

More importantly, Japanese equipment is far superior than believed. The Arisaka rifle can pick off a target 1,000 yards away. The Zero has already proved its value in air combat. The Nell and Betty torpedo bombers prove to be outstanding machines. Japanese warships' lookouts have night vision that outranges American radar. Their ships, including heavy cruisers, carry the Type 95 "Long Lance" torpedo, that cuts the waves at 49 knots.

By comparison, the Allied forces are hopelessly unprepared. Filipino troops lack steel helmets, entrenching tools, blankets, and helmets. Many wear cardboard sneakers instead of boots. Mortars are 25 years old, 70 percent of their shells defective. The 194th Tank Battalion of the Texas National Guard, sent to the Philippines, isn't given 37mm ammunition for its tanks until the Japanese are on top of them.

The British in Malaya don't have a single tank. Many troops have never seen one. Aside from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, most British troops are untrained and ill-equipped for jungle warfare. Lacking anti-tank weapons, the British troops hurl whiskey bottles full of explosives at Japanese T97 tanks.

Allied equipment is generally inferior to Japanese gear. American Mark 14 torpedoes, tested in Long Island Sound, fail to explode even on point-blank direct hits. American cruisers don't carry torpedoes, but are full of wooden furniture and fittings, highly flammable. American airpower in the Philippines includes ancient P-26 open cockpit fighters, while the British in Malaya still operate Vildebeeste biplanes as bombers.

As the Japanese advance from victory to victory, they gain a reputation as Asiatic supermen.

In the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy pounces on an Italian convoy and sinks three Italian cruisers.

In Russia, Hitler purges off his Eastern front generals, firing Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, replacing him with Field Marshal Wilhelm List. Also fired are Generals Heinz Guderian and Gunther Von Kluge. Hitler puts in command the one officer he cannot fire: himself.


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