When the Japanese attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they did so in a coordinated effort that spanned across the Pacific.
Having been weakened by sanctions imposed by the United States, the Japanese sought to deliver a crushing blow to the U.S. and its allies, claiming much of the territory in the East and leaving little means for resistance.
These are the five battles that occurred simultaneously (though on December 8 because they were across the international date line) as the attack on Pearl Harbor, effectively beginning the war in the Pacific:
1. Battle of Guam
Along with the air attacks at Pearl Harbor the Japanese also began air raids against the island of Guam on the morning of December 8, 1941. Two days later an oversized Japanese invasion force landed on the island. After quickly defeating the local Insular Guard force, the Japanese moved on to the under-strength Marine Corps detachment led by Lt. Col. William MacNulty. After a brief resistance, the Marines were ordered to surrender by the islands governor. However, six men from the U.S. Navy fled into the jungle in hopes of evading capture. Five were eventually captured and executed but one, George Ray Tweed, managed to hold out with the help of the local Chamorro tribe for over two and a half years until U.S. forces retook the island in 1944. To the locals he represented the hope of an American return to the island. When the Americans returned he was able to signal a nearby destroyer and pass on valuable targeting information.
2. Battle of Wake Island
When the Japanese first launched their air attacks on Wake Island, they caught the U.S. off guard and managed to destroy precious aircraft on the ground. However, when the Japanese invasion came on Dec. 11, 1941, the Americans were ready and threw back the initial Japanese landing attempt. The Japanese proceeded to lay siege to the island. Aerial bombardment continued but Wake Island became a bright spot in the Pacific as American forces were pushed back elsewhere. The media dubbed it the “Alamo of the Pacific.” Eventually, on Dec. 23, 1941, the Japanese launched another assault on the island. Again the defenders put up a staunch resistance. With no more flyable planes, the Marine aviators — as well as civilians trapped on the island — joined in the fight. Capt. Henry Elrod would become the first Marine aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for his actions there. Despite the intrepid defense, the island was surrendered. The defenders joined the others across the Pacific in their brutal treatment by the Japanese.
3. Battle of the Philippines
When the first Japanese forces hit the islands north of Luzon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, brought out of retirement for just such an occasion, had over 31,000 American and Philippine troops under his command. These forces put up a determined resistance throughout December, but on Christmas Eve MacArthur called for a fighting withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula. Once his forces were consolidated on Bataan and the harbor islands of Manila Bay, they dug in to make a final stand against the Japanese onslaught. For several months they held out until shortages of all necessary war supplies dwindled.
The survivors were rounded up and subjected to the brutal Bataan Death March on their way to POW Camps. A lucky few were able to withdraw to Corregidor. A defensive force centered on the 4th Marine Regiment and, augmented by numerous artillery units numbering 11,000 men, prepared to defend Corregidor from the Japanese. That attack came on May 5, 1942. The next day Gen. Wainwright, in the face of overwhelming odds and no prospects of relief, decided to surrender the American forces in the Philippines.
4. Battle of Hong Kong
The Americans were not the only targets of the Japanese and so at 8:00 a.m. local time, Japanese forces from mainland China attacked the British Commonwealth forces defending Hong Kong. British, Canadian, and Indian troops manned defensive positions but were woefully undermanned.
Initial attempts to stop the Japanese at the Gin Drinker’s Line, a defensive line to the north of Hong Kong island, were unsuccessful due to a lack of manpower. The defenders also lacked the experience of the Japanese troops that were attacking. Within three days, the defenders had withdrawn from the mainland portion of the colony and set up defenses on the island of Hong Kong.
The Japanese quickly followed and, after British refusal to surrender, attacked across Victoria Harbor on Dec. 19. Less than a week later, on Christmas day 1941, the British surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese. The survivors endured numerous atrocities at the hands of the Japanese.
5. Malayan Campaign and the Battle of Singapore
Another British target of the Japanese was Singapore for its important strategic location and because it was a strong base for British resistance. In order to capture Singapore, the Japanese launched the Malayan Campaign on Dec. 8, 1941. On the first day of the campaign the Japanese also launched the first aerial bombardment against Singapore.
In an attempt to intercept the Japanese invasion force, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft. This left very little in the means of naval power for the British fleet in Singapore.
On land the Commonwealth forces fared no better. The Japanese stormed down the peninsula, forcing the defenders back towards Singapore. By the end of January 1942 the entire peninsula had fallen and the British set in to defend Singapore. The Japanese launched their assault on Singapore on Feb. 8, 1942. Some 85,000 troops stood ready to defend the city but could only hold out for a week before capitulating. This ended British resistance in the Pacific area.
The British lost nearly 140,000 men — the vast majority of whom were captured — in the campaign. As with the fighting elsewhere, the campaign was marked by Japanese cruelty.