What Happened on December 8, 1941?

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Podcast Transcript

Most people are probably aware of the events which took place on December 7, 1941. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “it was a day that would live in infamy.”

However, the events of December 7 weren’t limited to Hawaii, and they weren’t even limited to December 7. It was part of a much larger operation, the other elements of which are often overlooked today.

Learn more about the events of December 8, 1941, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


This episode is sponsored by Audible.com

My audiobook recommendation today is Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson.

The America we live in today was born not on July 4, 1776, but on December 7, 1941, when almost 400 Japanese planes attacked the US Pacific Fleet, killing 2,400 men and sinking or damaging 16 ships. 

In Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness, Craig Nelson follows, moment by moment, the sailors, soldiers, pilots, admirals, generals, emperors, and presidents, all starting with a pre-polio assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, attending the laying of the keel of the USS Arizona at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. 

It takes place against the backdrop of the imperial, military, and civilian leaders of Japan lurching into ultranationalist fascism, all culminating in an insanely daring scheme to shock the Allies with a technologically revolutionary mission in one of the boldest military stories ever told – one with consequences that continue to echo in our lives today.

You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.


The date December 7th, 1941, has been burned into the minds of Americans just like how September 1, 1939, has been burned into the minds of many Europeans. 

Most of you have probably heard the story at least at some level. 

Just before 8 am local time, on Sunday, December 7, the US Naval facility at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was the subject of a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy. 

An armada of 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, and 353 airplanes secretly crossed the Pacific in an attempt to knock out the American Pacific fleet. Their hope was to cripple the Americans such that it would take them years to recover. 

This episode is not about that attack. 

This episode is about the rest of the operation surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While the attack of Pearl Harbor was the lynchpin and most important part of the Japanese operation, it was far from the only event and not even the largest. 

This is what brings me to December 8. 

When I talk of the events of December 8, I’m not talking about what the Japanese military did the day after. I’m talking about what they did at the exact same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

So, a discussion of December 8 is really an acknowledgment that the Japanese operation straddled the international dateline. The only part of the operation which was east of the dateline was the attack on Hawaii. Everything else took place west of the dateline on islands in the Pacific and in Asia. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor was just one prong in a multiprong attack on American and British territories. The Japanese strategy was basically the end of every Godfather movie when all the family’s enemies get killed at the same time. 

So, what else was going on while Pearl Harbor was being attacked? Answer: A lot. 

Taking out the American fleet in Hawaii was paramount, but the United States had other assets in the region that Japan sought to eliminate at the same time. 

Going east to west, the next island which housed American forces was Wake Island. 

Wake is a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific. On the island were 450 US Marines, 68 navy personnel,  and approximately 1,200 civilians. Wake Island was a major refueling stop for PanAm flights that crossed the Pacific and most civilians either worked for PanAm or were involved in construction projects on the island. 

The attack on Wake began on Monday morning, December 8, about an hour after the Pearl Harbor attack when they received word by radio. 

Wake was besieged for 15 days before finally falling to the Japanese. 49 Marines and 70 civilians were killed. Everyone else was captured and placed in internment camps. 

Wake remained in Japanese control until their surrender. The US bombed the island, but there was never a concerted effort to retake the island.

The next part of Japan’s December 8 plan was the island of Guam

Guam had been a US territory since the Spanish-American war. While much larger than Wake Island, the military contingent on the island wasn’t much larger with only 547 marines and sailors. However, there was a civilian population of about 23,000 people.

The governor of Guam was notified of the attack on Pearl Harbor at 4:45 am, Monday, December 8. At 8:30 am, a Japanese plane launched from the nearby island of Saipan began attacking military positions on the island. Saipan had been under Japanese control since World War I.

Guam only held out for 2 days. The island was simply too big for the small number of soldiers who had to defend it. American loses were 17 killed and 35 wounded. Again, everyone else was captured and interned. 

Guam was retaken on August 10, 1944. 

The other US territory in Asia was the Philippines

The Philippines was a totally different beast than Wake Island or Guam. The invasion of the Philippines was vastly larger than what happened at Pearl Harbor. 

The Philippines had a population of tens of millions of people, the Japanese saw it as a major element of the Japanese Empire. 

The combined American-Filipino forces numbered about 150,000. 

News of the Pearl Harbor invasion reached Manila at 2:20 am on December 8. 

That morning, the invasion began with Japanese ground forces which sailed from the island of Formosa, now known as the Island of Taiwan, which was Japanese territory at the time. They landed on the northern end of the island of Luzon. 

The first American conflict with the Japanese was the USS William B. Preston encountered Japanese vessels in Davo Bay. 

The Philippines Campaign was one of the bloodiest of the war. 25,000 Americans and 100,000 Filipino soldiers were killed, and it is considered by many to be the worst American defeat in history. The Japanese invasion last through May 1942, and the country wasn’t taken back in full until the surrender of Japan in 1945. 

Estimates of the number of civilians killed in the Philippines during the war ranged from 100,000 to 240,000. Many of the stories from the Philippines during the war such as the Batan Death March and the Battle of Manila will be topics in future episodes. 

I should also note that an American military riverboat on the Yangtze River, the USS Wake, was also captured on December 8. 

These December 8th attacks were not the only ones that the Japanese conduction on that date. They were really busy. 

When Japan declared war on the United States, it also declared war on the United Kingdom. Both nations were listed in the same declaration of war. 

This meant that the Japanese also attack British assets in Asia as well. 

In Hong Kong, the British had some advance warning. The Japanese had been assembling across the Sham Chun River, which is the border between Hong Kong and China, for the previous week. The British knew that an invasion was likely, so they had some preparations in place. Notice of hostilities was received at 4:45 am and at 5 am they detonated explosives that were placed on bridges that could be used in invasion routes. 

The land invasion began at 6 am and the bombing of the Hong Kong airport commenced at 8 am. 

The British had approximately 15,000 troops and the Japanese had about 29,000. The British held out for a little over two weeks and surrendered on Christmas Day. 

The Japanese held Hong Kong until their surrender in 1945.

The invasion of Malaya also began on December 8. Malaya was the name given to the British Colony before the independence of Malaysia, and it also included Singapore

The Japanese began the invasion at midnight on December 8, which was actually just ahead of the Pearl Harbor attack. They landed at Kota Bharu, which is in the northeasternmost part of Malaysia, near the Thai border, and on the Gulf of Thailand

The amphibious forces came from the island of Hainan in China. 

At 4 am, Japanese bombers also attacked Singapore. 

They quickly established a beachhead in Kota Bharu and then spent the next several weeks and months working their way down the peninsula until Singapore fell on February 15. The fall of Singapore was the largest surrender of British forces in history. 

The Japanese also invaded Thailand on the 8th, but it lasted only 5 hours before an armistice was signed. Thailand agreed to allow Japanese troops to pass through for the invasion of Burma, and it ended up becoming a quasi-puppet of Japan throughout the war, even declaring war on the US and UK. 

The other interesting thing which happened on a very busy December 8th, 1941, is that the Netherlands preemptively declared war on Japan. The shocking thing about this is that their deceleration of war was announced before they got the news about Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese didn’t return the favor until January 11. 

In hindsight, from a very short-term perspective, the Japanese plan worked amazingly well. Everything they attacked in their Night of the Long Knives was taken. The Americans were unable to respond and assist the defenders on Wake, Guam, and the Philippines. Likewise, the British were too far away and had too much on their plate at home to do anything about their colonies in Asia.

For six months, the Japanese were able to act without much resistance taking the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and many Pacific Islands.  

Of course, from a long-term perspective, the decision to bring the United States into the war was foolish. The US was the world’s largest economy, had the largest industrial capacity of any country, and was the largest producer of most strategic resources needed during that period, in particular oil and iron. 

The Japanese had spread themselves very thin, very quickly. More grandiose plans of invading India, Australia, or Hawaii were impossible given the amount of manpower required to hold what they had, let alone the issue with oil and resources.

The war planners in Tokyo thought it would be years before the United States could fight back. Admiral Yamamoto, the head of the Japanese Combined Fleet who had studied in the US, thought that it would only give them six months.

Yamamoto was almost exactly right. The Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, was in June of 1942.

December 7th is the day that most Americans at least, remember. FDR was right, that December 7 was a day that would live in infamy.

However, we shouldn’t lose sight that the attack on Pearl Harbor was just one part of a much larger campaign, the rest of which all took part on the other side of the international dateline, on December 8th.