On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, a naval base located in the American territory of Hawaii. The attack killed more than 2,400 people, injured 1,000, and damaged numerous military ships and aircraft. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, calling the attack “a date that will live in infamy”, used it as a rallying cry for the United States to enter World War II. The day after the bombing, the United States declares war on Japan.
But Hawai’i was not the only US territory targeted by Japan that day. What many Americans remember as the bombing of Pearl Harbor was actually part of a larger coordinated attack by the Japanese Empire on the Asia-Pacific territories of the American and British empires. On the same day as the Pearl Harbor bombing, Japan attacked the US territories of Guam and the Philippines, as well as the British territories of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia (part of present-day Malaysia). He also invaded the independent nation of Thailand.
These attacks were extremely important for the course of the war. Japan never occupied the US territory of Hawai’i (which was not yet a state), but occupied Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, and it succeeded in pushing Thailand to go to war against the Axis. side. In the case of the Philippines, this occupation lasted three years and made the territory central to the peaceful theater of World War II.
WATCH: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor
Expanding the Asia-Pacific Front
World War II was a multi-faceted conflict involving empires competing for territory and resources. The war began in 1939 when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland with the aim of building a German empire, which he intended to create through violent anti-Semitism. The Japanese Empire’s attacks on American and British colonial territories in December 1941 were an attempt to assert its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly after American sanctions drastically reduced Japan’s oil supply.
READ MORE: How imperialism set the stage for World War I
“Oil was crucial at that time,” says Eri Kitada, a doctoral student in history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, who has written about the significance of those attacks. Feeling “cornered” by the United States and Britain, she says Japan “freaked out” and decided to attack their colonial territories.
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On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft bombed several American bases in the Philippines, including Clark Field (due to time zone differences, these attacks took place on December 8 local time). The bombardment destroying almost all of a new fleet of P-40 fighters and B-17 bombers, as well as many other military aircraft. The attack marked the start of a five-month campaign that left thousands dead and injured, including those killed on the Bataan death march in April 1942.
Although FDR did not highlight this attack in his public statements on the Pearl Harbor bombing, the United States took immediate action in the Philippines. In early December, US authorities began imprisoning Japanese living in the Philippines without cause (this was three months before FDR signed an executive order establishing Japanese internment camps). At the end of the month, Japanese military forces freed these civilians.
Fighting between Japanese and American military forces continued until May 1942, when Japan officially began its occupation of the Philippines. By then, Japan had also established the occupation of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Guam, and the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Southeast Asia and the Pacific was now a major front in the war.
Consequences and legacy
The attacks of December 7 and 8 marked the beginning of the massive occupation of Japan during World War II, which briefly extended to French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Most of the territories that Japan invaded and occupied during World War II remained under Japanese control until the last year of the war, and many scholars see this occupation as a catalyzing event for decolonization movements in these territories. .
The United States retook Guam, a colonial territory it had acquired from the Spanish–American War, in July 1944. In October of that year, the United States sent General Douglas MacArthur on the campaign to retake the Philippines, another colony they had acquired during that war.
The American campaign to retake the Philippines lasted until August 1945. A month later, the United States bombarded the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender and the formal end of World War II.
Guam remained a US territory after the war and Hawai’i became a state in 1959. But the Philippines was one of more than 30 colonial territories in Asia and Africa that gained independence in the decade and a half that followed the war. The Philippines officially became independent in July 1946, making it the first colonized territory in Southeast Asia to overthrow its colonial ruler.