Categorized | Historical

This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

Dec. 23, 1941: after 15 days of fighting the Imperial Japanese Army occupies Wake Island. Wikimedia.

By: Phil Kohn. Dedicated to the memory of his father, GM3 Walter Kohn, U.S. Navy Armed Guard, USNR, and all men and women who have answered the country’s call in time of need. Phil can be contacted at

On December 19, 1941, Adolf Hitler — blaming his generals for the lack of success in the U.S.S.R. — names himself Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht). The U.S. Naval Academy graduates its “Class of 1942” a semester early so it can induct the graduates as Navy or Marine Corps officers without delay for immediate war assignments. The British light cruiser HMS Neptune enters a newly laid Italian minefield off Tripoli, Libya, hits four mines and quickly capsizes. Only one sailor of the vessel’s complement of 768 survives. Italian “human torpedoes” damage two British battleships — HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant — and an oil tanker in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt.

Japanese forces attack Dutch Borneo, the Celebes and the Moluccas in the Dutch East Indies on December 20. They also capture Davao, Mindanao Island, in the southern Philippines. On Hong Kong Island, counterattacks against the Japanese by the British and Canadian defenders fail with heavy casualties. The 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force (“The Flying Tigers,” comprising volunteer pilots from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps) flies its first combat sorties over Kunming, China. The unit is commanded by Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps captain. In Germany, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Propaganda, appeals for winter coats and warm clothing for soldiers on the Eastern Front. The General Petroleum Corporation tanker SS Emidio is torpedoed and damaged off Cape Mendocino, northern California, by Japanese submarine I-17. Five crewmen are killed. Charles Lindbergh writes to Lt. Gen. Henry Arnold, Commandant of the U.S. Army Air Forces, offering to serve in the military.

In Bangkok, Japan and Thailand agree to a ten-year military alliance on December 21. In the besieged city of Leningrad, Russia, it is estimated that 3,000 citizens per day are dying of starvation or disease.

On December 22, the Arcadia Conference opens in Washington, D.C. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill and their top military aides discuss strategy and make decisions that will guide the Allied war effort in 1942 and 1943 in Europe, Africa and in the Pacific. In the Philippines, the Japanese 48th Division lands at Lingayen Gulf, northern Luzon. Allied troops reach Beda Fomm, Libya, roughly halfway between Benghazi and Al Agheila, but are turned back by German tanks. Axis forces begin evacuating Benghazi by sea.

A second Japanese landing attempt at Wake Island succeeds on December 23, and the garrison of 450 U.S. Marines is overwhelmed and surrenders after a night and morning of fighting. In the Philippines, Gen. Douglas MacArthur declares Manila an open city, thereby stating that all defensive efforts to protect the locality have been abandoned. Despite the declaration, the Japanese bomb and shell the Filipino capital anyway. MacArthur orders U.S. forces on Luzon to withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula as Japanese troops approach Manila from the north. Two Japanese landings south of Manila prevent MacArthur from moving that way.

Elements of the British Eighth Army capture Benghazi, Libya, on December 24. In the Philippines, American and Filipino troops move into the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese bomb Rangoon, Burma. Dutch submarine HMNLS K XVI is the first Allied vessel to destroy a Japanese warship, torpedoing and sinking the destroyer Sagiri near Sarawak, Borneo. (The next day, the Dutch sub is itself torpedoed and sunk with a loss of all hands by Japanese submarine I-66.) The Nazis order authorities in all the Jewish ghettoes of occupied Europe to collect fur coats and other fur items from Jewish residents. The German occupation administration of the Baltic States declares that Romani (gypsies) are to be treated the same as Jews.

The Battle of Hong Kong ends on December 25, after 17 days; the British Crown Colony is surrendered to the Japanese by the defeated British and Canadian garrison. 11,000 troops are taken captive. Japanese soldiers in the city kill two doctors and seven nurses treating wounded soldiers at St. Stephen’s Emergency Hospital, then murder the 50 wounded. Admiral Émile Musilier, commander of Free French naval forces, seizes the archipelago of St. Pierre and Miquelon, a French Overseas Department in the Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland, Canada. The islands are the first part of France to be liberated by Free French forces. In the Philippines, the Japanese 48th Division begins moving southward on Luzon, driving U.S. forces ahead of it. In Bangkok, Thailand declares war on the United States and the United Kingdom.

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