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Year
1941

Japan becomes master of the Pacific and South China Sea

On this day, 4,000 Japanese troops land on the Philippine Islands, while Japanese aircraft sink the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Guam, an American-controlled territory, was also seized. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally exclaims, “We have lost control of the sea.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor was only one step in a larger plan to dominate the Pacific, which entailed knocking out first American, then British, naval opposition. Japanese bombing raids on Guam, Midway Island, and Wake Island followed the attack on the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. American airfields there were destroyed, as were Clark and Iba airfields in the Philippines, wiping out more than half of the United States’ aircraft dedicated to the Far East. These bombing raids were followed up, on December 10, by 2,000 Japanese troops that landed on the Philippine island of Luzon in the north, and another 2,000 that landed at Vigan on the western coast. And in Guam, 700 Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces invaded and occupied the American-controlled military outpost of Guam after only a 25-minute military engagement, resulting in the capture of 500 Americans soldiers.

The United States was not alone in its struggle for the Pacific. Great Britain had also declared war on the Empire of Japan on December 8. The next day, Japan occupied the capital of Thailand and then landed in the Malay Peninsula, which could not be repulsed by the outmatched Australian and Indian troops. Britain responded by dispatching Force Z, their Royal Navy unit dedicated to supporting Singapore, when Japanese bombers spotted Z’s battleship, the Prince of Wales, and its sister ship, the Repulse, sailing for Kuantan on the eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, on the erroneous belief that the Japanese had just put troops ashore there. The bombers rained down torpedo bombs on the British warships, sinking them and killing 840 men. “In all the war, I have never received a more direct shock,” Churchill lamented.

And the Japanese were far from finished: The humiliation of the United States in the Philippines and a more extensive occupation of Indochina and the South Pacific were still to come.

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