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.
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.
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.