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Posted on May 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The War in the East – Part One

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Nation of Japan officially went to war in 1932, attacking Manchuria (or Manchuko) and quickly capturing the Capital of Mukden. By the end of that same year, Japan controlled Manchuria and parts of Mongolia. To appease the wrath of the League of Nations, Japan installed a puppet ruler over Manchuria. In reality, it was Japan who now ruled in that part of the eastern world and Manchuria was nothing more than a protectorate. In the face of continued protest from the League of Nations, Japan withdrew from that organization and would never return.

It was also in the same year that Japan bombarded the major Chinese city of Shanghai from the sea and from the air. This was followed by a major assault upon the city by 75,000 Japanese Marines. Thus, a new war had erupted in the east that presented grim forebodings of what lay ahead.


Japan finally officially declared war on China in 1937, as a result of constant feuding over the control of Manchuria or Manchuko. During three years that followed, Japanese forces had occupied only about one-third of China. The larger part of the country remained free of Japanese control, but offered little common resistance. What there was of it came from a new rising Chinese star, General Chang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Army. The immense size of the country alone caused Japan to face a challenge somewhat equal to what the Germans would later encounter when it initiated hostilities against Russia. The Japanese occupation and control in China would however, be enough to keep both China and Russia at bay. It also secured the area to the north of Japan and allowed its leaders to contemplate a bold stroke to the west and south.

Japan could not possibly continue its expansion without the vital raw materials to be found in the islands and countries to her west. To get that prize would mean going to war with the Western powers. Only 11 of its 51 infantry divisions would be available for such conquests. To achieve their goals the Japanese would have to strike quickly and decisively in various directions at once. Malaya and Burma would have to be captured. So would the Philippines and other islands to the south. By so doing, a great protective ring extending for thousands of miles would keep the Empire of Japan out of reach of any retaliatory strikes by her enemies.

In 1937 the first warlike incident between the United States and Japan came with the Japanese Air Force attacking the US gunship Panay in the Yangtze River and sinking it. The loss of US life focused what Japan considered to be undue interest at that time on her activities. The attack was followed by intense apologies and monetary reparations to the families of those who had suffered loss as well as the cost of the naval vessel.

Chinese soldiers marching to the front in 1939

By the year 1940, Japanese intentions began coming much clearer to the western world. America strongly objected to the continued oppression by Japan in China and her bellicose attitude toward the rest of the world. President Roosevelt saw the danger but Isolation lobbyists, the devastating effects of the depression and a greater concern for events in Europe forced him to direct his attention to these areas. The other western powers could do little or nothing as they fought for survival against Germany’s military might. The United States finally acted and froze Japanese assets. Oil shipments to Japan were also cut off completely putting the Japanese long-range plan of conquest in serious jeopardy.

A Daring Plan

With these new embargoes imposed upon her, Japan saw no alternative but to go to war with the United States and her Allies. To be effective, the first blow would belong to Japan and it would have to be decisive. Calling upon the naval genius of Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, a daring plan was drawn up to attack America’s bastion in Hawaii.

The Hawaiian Islands were the halfway point between the west coast of the United States and great expanses of the Pacific. If in one action, Pearl Harbor and the surrounding air bases could be destroyed or at least neutralized for some months, Japan would be free to attack and defensive garrisons such as the Philippines. America would not be able to respond quickly enough. Once these key positions had been taken, the Allies would be faced with the formidable task of breaking one defensive ring after another in a long voyage of thousands of miles to even come within reach of Japan.

Colonial powers in Asia would find themselves also in the same situation. Russia and England, the other two great powers of the world, were now involved in a struggle to survive the German blitzkrieg. There would be little that they could do to stop the soldiers of the Rising Sun in their conquests of Malaya, Burma and perhaps even India. Of course it was a gamble, but the Japanese Empire had no choice. It was either gamble with unprecedented boldness or surely lose.

With the restrictions of shipments of natural resources, including oil, Japan now faced a major crisis. The islands themselves offered little of the materials so vitally needed for a country in the throes of becoming an industrial powerhouse. This refusal of supplies so badly needed was to the Japanese government a direct challenge. Either it would have to withdraw from China and forget its long-term plan or go to the next level and forcefully take what it needed from surrounding areas. Unable to lose face among the nations, Japan chose the latter of the two options. It would go to war and simply take what it needed. No country would stand in the way of this effort, not even the United States of America.

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