Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

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The first actual loss of U.S. territory was a small but symbolic one. Some 400 Japanese naval troops swarmed onto Guam at dawn on Dec. 10 and soon swept into the capital of Agana. After half an hour of gunfire, Guam's Governor, U.S. Navy Captain George McMillin, learned that an additional 5,000 Japanese were landing. He sounded three blasts on an auto horn to signal surrender. McMillin attempted negotiations in sign language, but he and his men finally had to strip to their undershorts and stand in embarrassed silence while the Rising Sun replaced the Stars and Stripes atop Guam's Government House.

More heroic but no less doomed was Wake Island, a tiny atoll between Hawaii and Guam. A Japanese fleet closed in to start landing troops at dawn on Dec. 11. U.S. Marines under Major James Devereux scored four direct hits on the flagship Yubari and sank two destroyers. The force withdrew -- the first small U.S. victory in World War II and the only time in the war that defenders beat back an invasion fleet. In reporting this small triumph to Pearl Harbor, according to a story that may be apocryphal, one of Devereux's men added a bit of bravado that became a popular propaganda slogan: "Send us more Japs."

The Japanese took the Wake garrison at its word. Reinforced by two carriers homeward bound from Pearl Harbor, they struck again before dawn on Dec. 23. Devereux's Marines fought hand to hand on the beaches for more than five hours. The Stars and Stripes was shot down, then hoisted again on a water tower, but at about 8 a.m. a white bedsheet was raised next to it. Devereux's defenders had killed about 800 Japanese at a loss of 120; of the 400 Marine survivors, a couple were beheaded and the rest shipped into captivity.

The most important of the first Japanese assaults was the invasion of Malaya. The target there was not only the peninsula's wealth of tin and rubber but also the strategic citadel of Singapore. Built in the 1920s and '30s among the mangrove swamps of Johore Strait, at the then enormous cost of $270 million, Singapore stood as the theoretically impregnable naval headquarters of the whole British empire east of Suez. One symbol of the island's true strength, however, was its array of 15-in. guns that could not turn and fire into the supposedly impenetrable jungle behind them. Another was the 2,000 tennis courts built for the British, along with plenty of polo grounds and cricket pitches. There were also regiments of native servants to polish the boots and serve the pink gin.

The Japanese officer assigned to organize the overthrow of all this Blimpism was Colonel Masanobu Tsuji. A hard-eyed veteran of the Kwantung Army who made an intense study of jungle warfare, he tested what he had learned by training his troops in fierce heat, with little food or water. When they were crammed onto transport vessels for the stormy southward voyage, they carried pamphlets that said their mission was to free "100 million Asians tyrannized by 300,000 whites." To military headquarters in Tokyo, Tsuji confidently -- and pretty accurately -- predicted that if the war started on Nov. 3, "we will be able to capture Manila by the New Year, Singapore by Feb. 11, Java on Army Commemoration Day ((March 10)), and Rangoon on the Emperor's birthday ((April 29))."

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