Thursday, December 24, 2015

The War in the Pacific

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With this post, I’m going to go back to the story of my dad’s brothers, Boyd and Everett, during WWII. Sorry for jumping around like this. If you’d like to review Everett’s escape from the sinking Battleship Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, see my post of September 20, 2015.

Both my uncles served in the Pacific Theater. I did some reading about the war, and by knowing that Boyd was in the 161st Infantry Regiment, and that Everett was on the USS San Francisco, I was able to follow them through the war, and also to fit together what I know about their personal experiences. I didn’t get much help from Don’s older brother Boyd. He never talked about his war time memories with Don, and his son, my cousin Tom Gunning, told me that the whole subject of the war was off limits in their house. On the other hand, Don’s younger brother Everett seemed to enjoy recounting his experiences. He told my parents several stories, and while on leave, he was interviewed by the local newspaper and radio station in his home town of Enid, Oklahoma.

To give you a little background, the Japanese rapidly followed up their victory at Pearl Harbor by taking Hong Kong, Guam and Wake Island. Then they marched through French Indochina and Thailand into Burma, and down the Malay peninsula toward Singapore, sweeping British and Dutch troops and naval vessels aside as they went. By mid-March they had taken Singapore, defended by 85,000 British troops, and the Dutch East Indies with their rich oil stores. In April 100,000 American and Philippine troops under General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese on the Philippine island of Luzon. By the time I was born in May, 1942, many began to think the Japanese were invincible. My mother Wenonah was terrified.

After Wainwright’s surrender, the American and Filipino prisoners, exhausted after 4 months of fighting, and suffering from malnutrition, malaria and dysentery, were marched 80 miles up the Bataan Peninsula by their Japanese captors. The stragglers were beaten and even bayoneted if they failed to keep up. 600 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos lost their lives during the ordeal, afterwards known as the “Bataan Death March.” Boyd’s unit, the 161st Infantry Regiment, was on its way to the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack. If he had been there, he would have been among those on the Death March. As it was, he was sent to the island of Guadalcanal instead.

The first American successes in the Pacific war were the result of intelligence efforts.  On April 28, 1942, about the same time as fall of the Philippines, the Japanese sent a fleet of transport ships carrying troops to establish a base at Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea. From there they hoped to launch attacks on Australia, America’s main supply base. Orders for the movement were decrypted by American Intelligence, and the Japanese convoy was met in the Coral Sea by planes from two US aircraft carriers, the Lexington and the Yorktown. Although the Americans were overmatched by superior Japanese planes and torpedoes, they managed to turn back the Japanese troop transports and Port Moresby was never taken.

The next move in Japan’s strategic plan was to take Midway Island, about half way between Japan and Hawaii. It was then held by a small US force, and had the Japanese been able to take it, they could have again  threatened Hawaii, the Americans’ main naval base in the Pacific. Again US naval intelligence deciphered the Japanese orders, and on the day of the attack, June 4, 1942, the Americans took the Japanese by  surprise and sunk four of their six aircraft carriers. The Americans only lost one carrier out of their four, reversing the balance of naval power in the Pacific war in our favor. 

Jonathan M. Wainwright.jpg

General Jonathan Wainwright remained a Japanese prisoner in Manchuria until the end of the war.