The Battles that Changed the Continent

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Tsushima Strait 1904 It didn't take long for Japan to become a military power: 41 years after Admiral Perry's first visit, it fought China over interests in Korea, gaining control of Taiwan and Manchuria's Kwantung Peninsula. Japan's growing thirst for conquest and international recognition would be one of the significant forces of the first half of the 20th century. In 1904 it declared war on Russia, which had grabbed Kwantung. Russia's only hope was to send its powerful Baltic fleet to clinch the war. The Japanese navy demolished the Russian ships in the Tsushima Strait. Kwantung and Korea were in the Japanese sphere--and the world had a new power with dangerous ambitions. Fall of Singapore 1942 Hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes bombed Singapore, Britain's strategic Asian stronghold. The island was supposedly impregnable, but that myth died hard and fast. After destroying the mighty battleship Prince of Wales, nicknamed HMS Unsinkable, in the South China Sea, Japan poured troops down the Malayan peninsula, attacking from the north. On Jan. 27, the defense of Malaya was abandoned. Then came more than a week of village-by-village fighting. Britain surrendered on Feb. 15, an event Winston Churchill described as the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history. Midway June 4, 1942 After Pearl Harbor, Japan's dominance of the Pacific depended on a further round of damage to the U.S. aircraft carrier fleet. In 1942, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto contrived to lure U.S. ships into a defense of Midway, a U.S. base. The strategy was brilliant, but Yamamoto underestimated the number of carriers he needed for his striking force. Then, on the morning of June 4, Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo fatally mistimed his attack and ended up with all his fighters and bombers on four aircraft carriers at the same time. U.S. bombers destroyed three carriers and all their planes. (The remaining carrier was sunk later in the day.) From that morning on, Japan's war was defensive. Inchon Sept. 15, 1950 Communism took no greater military drubbing in this century than at Inchon. At World War II's end, the Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel. The Soviets established a communist regime above; the U.S. started withdrawing its forces from the South. Sensing weakness, North Korea invaded on June 25, 1950, capturing South Korea's capital, Seoul. United Nations and Korean forces struggled to keep the northerners at bay--until Gen. Douglas MacArthur sailed an invasion force through treacherous tides to land at Inchon, deep behind enemy lines. The North Koreans were routed, although China's October invasion ultimately led to a stalemate and a still-divided Korea. Dien Bien Phu 1954 Ho Chi Minh and his cadres were chipping at French colonial control of Vietnam. So the French deliberately beefed up a small garrison in the northwestern village of Dien Bien Phu, hoping to provoke a communist assault that could be smashed decisively. The French troops totaled 13,000, including 3,000 crack paratroopers flown in for the battle. On the opposing side, the Vietnamese had a force of 49,500. The first attacks occurred on March 13, 1954, and France soon realized it had underestimated the enemy's strength and weaponry, which included heavy artillery. The Dien Bien Phu garrison fell after a 56-day siege--the beginning of the end for France in Vietnam and a tragic precursor of the war with the U.S. still to come.