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 British defenders of Hong Kong had already surrendered, after a spirited two-week defense that cost them 1,200 dead. But London strategists figured Singapore could endure a siege of six months with its 85,000 soldiers and those 15-in. guns that couldn't turn toward land. Churchill's instructions were explicit: "Singapore must be . . . defended to the death. No surrender can be contemplated." The Allied supreme commander in the southwest Pacific, General Sir Archibald Wavell, was even more explicit: "There must be no thought of sparing troops or the civil population . . . Senior officers must lead their troops and if necessary die with them . . . I look to you and your men to fight to the end to prove that the fighting spirit that won our Empire still exists to enable us to defend it."

Shortly before midnight of Feb. 8, under a heavy bombardment, 13,000 Japanese surged across the strait on a fleet of 300 collapsible plywood boats and landing craft. A battalion of 2,500 Australians fought them off all night, but by dawn the Japanese held their beachhead, and then the tanks started across. Though the Japanese were actually outnumbered about 2 to 1 overall, the martial spirit invoked in London hardly existed in Singapore -- at least not on the British side. At a point when the Japanese had conquered half the island, British staff officers could still be seen sipping drinks at the Raffles, and civilians stood in line to see Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.

On the morning of Feb. 15, nearly out of ammunition, fuel and water, General Arthur Percival hoisted a white flag. The British commander tried to negotiate terms, but Yamashita, low on ammunition himself and worried that his own weakness might be discovered, insisted on an immediate unconditional surrender. "There is no need for all this talk!" he shouted at the exhausted Percival. "We want to hear 'Yes' or 'No' from you! Surrender or fight!"

"Yes, I agree," Percival muttered as he surrendered 85,000 British, Indian and Australian troops into captivity, one of the worst defeats in British history and virtually a death sentence for the enfeebled empire. Yamashita promised that his 30,000 victors would not mistreat their prisoners and civilians, but butchery and rape were becoming an all too common consequence of Japanese conquests. In Singapore, which the Japanese renamed Shonan (Bright South), an estimated 5,000 Chinese were put to death. Hong Kong and Manila fared no better.

In the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur's strange paralysis lasted only that first day -- and remains a mystery still. One theory is that MacArthur misunderstood Washington's orders against risking any military provocation of Japan. Another is that he and Philippines President Manuel Quezon thought the Philippines might somehow remain neutral in the erupting Pacific war. Still another theory is that MacArthur temporarily suffered the kind of breakdown that sometimes afflicts commanders in crisis -- as happened to Stalin when the Germans invaded in June 1941.

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