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About the Author
A newspaper columnist and a former teacher, John Bell Smithback has published more than fifty books defining English idioms and proverbs for an international audience, with his wife as illustrator and translator, as well as The Lonely Dark, a novel about America in the age of the atomic bomb, and Silent in the Dawn, a collection of poems. For more than thirty years, their educational column has appeared in a number of Asian newspapers, including Ming Pao in Hong Kong and the Star in Malaysia. John's feature column WRITE ON appears in Ming Pao, his fiction in the European journal Spotlight and the Canadian literary magazine Brick. Describing themselves as "literary gypsies" they have lived in various places including Hong Kong, Portugal, Singapore, and France, all the while producing their books and daily newspaper column. Until recently they resided in England where they lived close to Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon.
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Malaya - Singapore - Hong Kong
There are clear signs that Japan does not know which way to turn. Tojo is scratching his head. There are no signs that Japan is going to attack anyone.
Sir Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham Commander-in-Chief Far East, Singapore, December 5, 1941
It was December 1941 and Singapore stood as an intrepid symbol of the greatness of Britain's wandering lion. Even its name in Sanskrit — literally Lion City — seemed to attest to the might of the sprawling Empire that controlled it. To the north, Japan was rattling a mighty saber and the sounds it made created disquieting echoes that reached beyond Asia. But Japan was far away, and Singapore felt secure. In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had spoken proudly of Singapore as "that great bastion of Empire, the Gibraltar of the East," and he and the world seemed convinced that Singapore was, as he said, an invincible fortress.
Certainly, few within Britain's 140,000-strong military force and in her colonies doubted the truth of Churchill's words. They listened to his declarations and were persuaded that Japan would not risk national suicide in a bid to grab land on the Malay Peninsula.
The man in the street was listening too, and though he may have had apprehensions, he was prepared to accept those two eloquent tags of impregnability and invincibility. If he admitted to flashes of doubt about Singapore's ability to resist a Japanese attack, those wavering moments were promptly dismissed when the news assured him that Singapore was beyond the flying range of any Japanese bomber.
The men of Britain's army, navy and air force had been made aware of that too. "We think it unlikely that Japan will enter the war against Great Britain and the USA," Churchill assured his top admirals. "It is still more unlikely that they would attempt any serious land operations in Malaya." In more recent weeks they were doubly assured when their commanders briefed them on recent medical findings that declared that Japanese pilots had remarkably weak eyesight which limited their ability to distinguish distant objects. That, of course, helped to explain why so many Japanese people wore eyeglasses. Of greater significance was a reported fresh discovery by a military medical team in London that the Japanese were unable to see in the dark.
And so, on that mild December night in 1941, the 550,000 citizens of Singapore went to bed believing that they were adequately protected, that their way of life was guarded, and that the probability of war was very low.
The events leading up to that momentous night had begun four-and-a-half years earlier with Japan's contrived excuse for an invasion of China when it used the claim that one of its soldiers was missing and presumably being held captive to begin bombarding the Chinese at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. Japan had already occupied Manchuria in 1932 after staging a phony bomb attack and had installed China's last Emperor, Henry Pu-yi, on an invented throne with a concocted title, effectively annexing China's three northeastern provinces. But in the dead of night on the seventh of July, 1937, Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge launched a full-scale invasion of China in an undeclared war.
That date also marked the moment when a coalition of Japanese military and naval officers swept aside the civilian cabinet in Tokyo and took control of the government. Acting in the name of the Emperor of Japan, it established a unit named the Cabinet Advisory Council to Conduct the Direction of the War. Anyone who dared to voice disagreement with the Council or question the actions of the military — or anyone suspected of liberal tendencies of any kind — was subject to immediate arrest. In a word, Japan had ceased to be a constitutional government and had become a military dictatorship. And as the war with China advanced, Japan began to appear increasingly menacing to her Asian neighbors.
They had every reason to be alarmed. In the event of future hostilities with Japan, a horrifying example of what could be expected occurred after the fall of Nanking in December 1937. From that point on, there was a significant shift in Japanese thinking as it began waging a brutal campaign of national hate against the Chinese, and the appalling acts of violence that followed became part of a deliberate policy established by Lieutenant General Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, an uncle-in-law to Emperor Hirohito. Termed 'Sook Ching' (meaning purge through purification), it was calculated to achieve two ends: to eliminate anyone considered anti-Japanese, and to show what awaited anyone who refused to willingly submit to Japanese domination.
Asaka's order was to kill all prisoners, and in less than six weeks perhaps as many as 350,000 civilians in the city were slaughtered. The exact number will never be known because the Japanese destroyed all records of their butchery. The event, downplayed or totally denied by some in Japan today, has become known as the Rape of Nanking, and it ranks as one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. To General Asaka, however, mass murder was, like bullets, bombs or poison gas, merely another weapon of war.
So, too, was rape, as his frenzied soldiers were allowed to go on a hysterical rampage savaging between 35-40,000 women, many of whom were subsequently killed. Those who escaped death were often forced into sexual slavery as 'Comfort Women' for Japanese soldiers.
Asaka's tactics achieved their desired result, and in Hangchow, Shanghai, Amoy, Canton — and wherever else the Japanese were to set their boots in Asia — the horrors of Nanking were repeated over and over again, though never on such a horrific scale. And in every instance, just as the periods of chaos peaked, Japanese leaders took control, established order, introduced food rationing, printed new money, policed the cities — and blamed the mayhem and carnage on the defeated white colonialists. All of which, they declared, proved that Japan's New Asian Order was right.
Over the next eight years of war, it became increasingly difficult to keep the many atrocities in perspective for, in the Japanese mind, any act of cruelty could be condoned. It was part of the Bushido code, a feudal military ethic which maintained that the Emperor of Japan was a divine being, that Japan was a divine country, and that both had a divine mission to fulfill. For soldier and citizen alike, Bushido taught that life was but a feather, a mere raindrop upon a vast sea. Glory was achieved by dying for the Emperor, and the death of an enemy mattered not at all.
By the beginning of 1940 Japan had, with the exception of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, seized every port on the Chinese coast. But a growing shortage of oil, rubber, tin and other minerals necessary to carry out a policy of expansionism distressed the planners in Japan and they instructed the military to study all aspects of a future move southwards toward the treasure troves of Malaya, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia. At the same time, the Japanese Navy General Staff was at work updating its Gradual Attrition Strategy, a well-developed plan of surveillance and air strikes against the future enemies of Japan.
While those plans were being drafted in Tokyo, Japanese troops that the world might have considered a threat to peace in Southeast Asia were clearly and openly dispatched to China. There, far removed from the prying eyes of unfriendly observers, a large portion of the Japanese land army in China began intensive training for combat in a tropical environment. That included learning the skills of jungle warfare, and in each soldier's hand was a copy of a secret manual entitled Read This Alone And The War Can Be Won.
Then, on the afternoon of June 22, 1940, the unforeseen occurred. Just as the military had completed its program of moving vast numbers of troops for jungle warfare training to the Chinese island of Hainan, a scant 155 miles (250 kilometers) off the coast of French Indochina, far away in Europe the French government gave up the fight and capitulated to the Nazis. For France, the war was over, and with the Germans occupying Paris and controlling two-thirds of the nation, a government sympathetic to the German cause was allowed to move its seat of government south of the French capital to the spa town of Vichy. There, it became known as the Vichy French Government. In Tokyo, the Cabinet Advisory Council realized that Japan was in an extraordinary position to take advantage of a unique situation. The moment was ripe — almost divinely awarded — to make an incisive thrust. Without delay, the Council sent a daring message to the loose and uncoordinated Vichy Government still in the process of being constituted. Its message was a startling demand: because she was Germany's ally, Japan must be given free and unhindered access to all French naval and air bases in French Indochina.
The French collaborationist government, under the control of Marshal Pétain, one of France's great military heroes of the 1914-1918 war, acceded, and within sixty days of the French capitulation the Imperial Japanese Navy was moving south to take control of the magnificent French naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam and Japanese troopships were steaming up the Saigon River with more than 30,000 troops aboard.
The soldiers had barely completed their jungle warfare courses in the tropical heat of Taiwan and Hainan when, without a single bullet being fired, they found themselves walking down the gangplanks of troopships to begin the occupation of Saigon.
With them came a crack battalion of engineers skilled in building roads, airports, landing strips, and military fortifications. Within a matter of weeks, new airfields had been completed and the first contingent of Japanese long-range attack bombers and Zero fighter planes began landing on soil that, only a few months earlier, had been the inviolable territory of a potential enemy, the French.
Virtually overnight, the astonishing surrender of the French — and the new Vichy Government's swift cooperation — had given the Japanese fresh territory for its air force and a modern, well-equipped naval base 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) south of Tokyo to refuel, supply and repair her ships and submarines.
Of significance to Asia was the realization that the Japanese were then only 400 miles (700 kilometers) from Malaya and but 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the American air and naval bases in the Philippines.
It was at this point that Japan resolved to solidify her position as a world power. No sooner had the Imperial Navy moved ships into the ports of French Indochina and the Imperial Army positioned an occupation force in Vietnam than a representation was sent to Rome and Berlin to meet with Mussolini and Hitler, the dictators of Italy and Germany whose armies had conquered most of Europe and were at that very moment steamrolling across North Africa. At the conclusion of the meetings, the delegations from Japan, Italy and Germany signed a ten-year three-power agreement known as the Tripartite Pact that called for "the creation of conditions that will promote and serve the prosperity of all our peoples."
They, the fascists of the West and the militarists from the East, pledged to aid and support each other in the event that either of them became involved in a war "with any country not yet at war with us".
The date was September 1940. Germany and Italy had subdued nearly every nation in Europe, and across the Mediterranean Sea they were in the process of adding Libya and Egypt to their long list of conquests. With the exception of China, Japan was not yet at war with any other nation. From the point of view of her military ambitions, however, it was vital to Japan's long-term plan that support be secured at the outset from the likely winners of the European conflict.
Six months later, a similar Japanese delegation visited Moscow where the two governments agreed "to respect each other's borders". With great ceremony, they solemnly confirmed their intentions by putting their signatures to a joint neutrality pact which declared that neither nation would become involved if one or the other of them became embroiled in a war.
These swift achievements, the acquisition of a noninvolvement pact from the Russians on the one hand, while securing an agreement of collaboration with the Fascists in Germany and Italy on the other, preceded the start of the war in the Pacific by nearly a year.
Yet it was as if hardly anyone in Asia, Washington or London was even remotely aware that, in all but deed, war had already been declared.
In Washington, D.C., fresh estimates prepared by the United States Signal and Intelligence Unit suggested that Japan had, at that moment, approximately 300,000 men under arms in the Southern Region Army that stretched from Hainan Island in the north to French Indochina in the south.
Additionally, in the seas between Southeast Asia and the Japanese homeland sailed a mighty armada of ships that included ten modern aircraft carriers. Including the broad range of aircraft located on the ground and the bombers and fighters on the decks of those carriers, it was calculated in Washington that the Japanese Southern Military Region possessed a staggeringly huge naval air force that alone consisted of 2,274 first-class battle-ready bombers and fighter planes.
Strategically located halfway between the islands of Japan and the continent of Australia, the potentially rich — and certainly inviting in terms of available land, with a land mass nearly twice as big as the islands of Japan but with only twenty percent of Japan's population — the Philippine Islands had in effect been a United States colony since 1899 when, during the Spanish-American War, it had surrendered to a navel fleet from the United States under the command of Admiral Dewey.
In 1940 in its capital of Manila, a retired American general, Douglas MacArthur, was the senior US advisor to the Philippine Commonwealth government which, at that time, was actively seeking independence from the United States. In this position, and with his military experience to direct him, General MacArthur had written letter after letter to the US Army and Navy Departments in Washington warning them of the growing Japanese threat to Asian stability. In each of his letters he laid out what he considered to be the minimum military requirements necessary for the Philippines to resist a Japanese invasion, an invasion he considered extremely likely. "I have every confidence," he stated in the summer of 1941, "that we can defend this place with a force of 125,000 men."
Months passed, and the General's requests for reinforcements were systematically ignored. But on the day that the Japanese Imperial Army began disembarking in Saigon to begin its occupation of French Indochina — coincidentally, the same day the militarists in Tokyo had begun to call to active duty over one million army reservists — a joint Army-Navy board in Washington recommended to President Roosevelt that MacArthur be recalled to military service and be made the US Commander-in-Chief in the Far East.
At the same time, a formal message from the board was sent to MacArthur instructing him to strengthen the fortifications, and in particular to increase the defenses of the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.
"In the unlikely event of a Japanese attack," the board said, "you must be prepared to fight a protracted siege that could last anywhere from one to six months."
In yet another peculiar development in the Far East equation, no one had bothered to notify General MacArthur of his recall to military duty. The first he learned of his presidential appointment was at his breakfast table when he read of it in a note buried at the bottom of a page in a Manila newspaper. After putting a telephone call through to Washington over civilian channels to confirm his appointment, MacArthur's first task was to set about surveying the situation he had inherited in the Philippines.
What he discovered could hardly have been surprising, for he had been warning Washington for ten years that Japan was dangerous, Asia was vulnerable, and that the Philippines was being ignored. Nonetheless, he reviewed the situation anew and grimly noted in his records that he was now the Commander-in-Chief of a garrison consisting of a newly-merged army of 17,000 American and Filipino troops armed with World War I vintage weapons and with no immediate prospect of receiving reinforcements or modern weapons from the United States.
Excerpted from "Asia Betrayed"
Copyright © 2017 John Bell Smithback.
Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Books.
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