Pearl Harbor Wasn’t the Only Target on Dec. 7, 1941


Pearl Harbor, photo courtesy of lefatima

Pearl Harbor, photo courtesy of lefatima

For most of my life, I thought the only country the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, was my own, the United States of America.

In my defense, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was an enormous event for the United States. Within the short period of ninety minutes, 2403 Americans were killed and all the battleships in the US Pacific Fleet were either damaged or sunk, along with 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, a training ship, a minelayer, and 188 airplanes.

A day later, as a result of the attack, we declared war on the Empire of Japan, and at the same time we went from supporting the British clandestinely to active support. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and we reciprocated.

Andy Cromarty and his best friend before the siege of Monte Cassino

Andy Cromarty and his best friend before the siege of Monte Cassino

For Americans, everything changed as a result of that attack. We were at war. For me, our entry into World War Two meant that my dad would be in a tent in Italy when I was born.

Our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, famously declared December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”. Until I researched the topic for my novel, I assumed he was speaking only of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But in his December 8th speech to Congress, which was carried to the American people on the radio, he also mentioned the Japanese attacks on the Philippines, American Midway, Wake and Guam Islands, British Hong Kong and Malaya.

All those places, with the exception of Midway Island, lie west of the International Date Line, so even though they were attacked at the same time as Pearl Harbor, it was already December 8th there.

In order to take full advantage of the element of surprise, the Japanese struck all these locations at the same time. Besides the countries and islands mentioned in Roosevelt’s speech, the Japanese also attacked Thailand and the International Settlements in China which they’d previously spared, including those in Shanghai, Tientsin, Hankow, and Kulangsu.

Gulangyu, China

Gulangyu, China

You may never have heard of Kulangsu (now known as Gulangyu), but it was the place that interested me because my late husband was born there. Also, it’s the setting for my novel, Tiger Tail Soup.

When the Japanese landed on Kulangsu on December 8, there was no resistance. They already controlled the surrounding territory. Here’s how a missionary, Dr. Theodore V. Oltman, described the action:

At 4 A.M. Monday morning, December 8, 1941 armed Japanese Marines crossed the narrow harbor from Amoy and landed in the International Settlement of Kulangsu. With the aid of Consular police and Formosan interpreters (they) began to round up all American and European Nationals. They proceeded, first to the American and British Consulates and the residences of the Netherlands Indies and Hongkong Shanghai Bank officials where they arrested the foreign staffs at the point of bayonet or pistol end. Before day break a large number of other Americans and Europeans were similarly routed out of their house by armed Marines and Japanese Consular Police, and as the day wore on, all Americans and Europeans except two or three overlooked or exempted for reasons of health were rounded up. All of these Individuals except the Consuls were taken to a large building — an empty Japanese hospital — the neutrals were registered and released, to return to their homes.

And that was that. The Japanese were in total control of Kulangsu.

At the end of that fateful day, the Japanese command must have been pleased with all they’d accomplished. Only one problem: the American aircraft carriers hadn’t been in Pearl Harbor.

And furthermore … if I can give my personal non-historian point of view … the Japanese bit off more than they could chew. It couldn’t be that easy to conquer and hold onto such a large portion of the world, especially when you make enemies with such actions as the Nanking Massacre and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Hi Nicki. I am 75% into TTS as I write and this is just about the point where the Japanese have invaded Kulangsu. I remember reading somewhere that after the invasion, a prescient Japanese remarked “Now we have awoken the sleeping tiger” referring to the US. (True or not, I don’t know.) And how handsome your father was.

    • It must be true. Someone in Japan must have felt that way. And when you read about how quickly we mobilized and how many planes we built in a short time, it must have seemed like a sleeping giant (tiger) suddenly came alive.

  2. I too thought the only country the Japanese attacked on December 7th was the United States, Nicki. Thanks for sharing this piece of history with us.

  3. Japan bit off more than it could chew.

  4. Although I knew about the other countries attacked by Japan, it’s true that we rarely mention them, so thank you for being more specific. It must have been hard for your mom to be alone when you were born, having her husband so far from home. Wars touch so many lives besides the men who fight.

    • From what I’ve been told, my mom did have a lot of trouble with anxiety. There were so many deaths in that war, and communication was not as good as it is today. I was her first child, and she was naturally kind of a nervous person. You’re so right, Evelyne. Wars touch many lives besides those of the men who fight.

  5. I think it is common to disregard certain happenings in history if they do not directly involve the own country. Pearl Harbour was a huge point in history and is also marked as the point when USA joined the war. Through this all other happenings on the very same day are being pushed to the background until they are nearly forgotten…

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  7. I found this post fascinating Nicki…

    In 1954 we lived in a pink stucco house on the edge of the river at Penghalen Chepa, near Kota Bahru, on the east coast of Malaya, and on the border of Thailand..

    There was a line of machine gun bullet holes stretching horizontally along the walls of the house.
    These bullet holes had been there since an hour before Pearl Harbour, when the Japanese attacked here…and having fought off the British defenders on the beach, broke through and pushed their way up the river shooting at everything and everyone..

    I’ve often thought, how if we had modern communications, the story of that day could have been so different.

    • Most of us had no idea how coordinated the Japanese attack was. I didn’t realize it until I started writing my novel. There are so many historical events we skim over or never hear. Even today, with all our technology, the media focuses on a few interesting stories and ignores the rest. Donald Trump has been the big story for a long time. Last week the selling point for the New York Times magazine was that readers could be assured that Trump wasn’t mentioned once in it.

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