There was a lot to worry about in 1942.
How can we understand what it must have been like during the beginning days of World War II, experiencing things as they happened instead of reading a summary of what happened three-quarters of a century later? Most of us haven’t experienced anything we can use to grasp what it was like to live through the dark days of December 1941 and January 1942. The closest we can come would be comparing the shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Pearl Harbor since both were surprise attacks that killed thousands of Americans. But Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network wasn’t powerful enough to sink a good portion of our Pacific fleet while simultaneously conquering most of the Pacific. You also didn’t have Hezbollah, Fatah, and HAMAS controlling most of Europe and threatening to finish off the Soviet Union. That paints a way more ominous picture, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is playing out in real life.
We know now that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had little hope of winning the wars they started, but that is because we can look back three-quarters of a century later and see clearly what we did right and what our enemies did wrong. There are many things that the Allies could have done differently that could have changed the course of the war. For example, what if President Roosevelt died sooner and we ended up with a timid, meddling, or incompetent commander-in-chief? What if Adm. Nimitz’s plane was shot down over the South Pacific instead of Adm. Yamamoto? What if our strategy stunk or if we didn’t effectively mobilize our war economy? What if the Axis nations coordinated their global strategy more effectively than we did? What if instead of mass-producing constantly improving planes, tanks, and ships, we produced jets and rockets like Germany or spectacular dreadnought battleships like Japan, both of which wasted precious manpower and resources that could have been applied to more useful projects that could have turned the tide for the Axis?
It’s easy to take for granted the countless events, big and small, that added up to an Allied victory that, when you think about it, could have gone right for our enemy instead.
This brings us back to the early days of January 1942. Forget what you know and put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the paper. This period would have been very Tolkien-esque for them. Imperial Japan was conquering territories in the Pacific faster than we could keep track of their progress, and only lost a relative handful of planes, ships, and men. We know now that Hitler’s Soviet invasion was doomed at this point, but our reader didn’t know that. Given how easily the Wehrmacht rolled over the Red Army during the initial period of Operation Barbarossa, it’s understandable that the 1942 newspaper reader would feel like that the Soviet counteroffensive could run out of steam and the Germans could resume their progress. Maybe they could even knock the Soviets out of the war so that Sauron would turn his eye to finishing off Britain and then consolidating his massive new empire’s resources towards defeating the United States. If their sons weren’t already fighting Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, they would be. There was a lot to worry about in January 1942.
We mentioned Pearl Harbor, but what about our troops stationed in the Philippines? As weak of a comparison 9/11 was, the closest modern point of reference we have to the developing siege at Corregidor may be the 2012 assault on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya (also carried out on 11 September, which is an important date in Islamic military history). Even though that attack — and more importantly, our government’s decision to do nothing while Americans were being slaughtered — occurred seven years ago, it still inspires rage for many Americans. We had dozens of Americans trapped in Benghazi. There are several thousand trapped Americans on Luzon Island.
Manila is over 5,000 miles from the Pacific Fleet headquarters on Hawaii, but just 1,800 miles from Tokyo. War planners realized this meant there was no way to resupply or relieve the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East if we went to war with Japan. With that in mind, and as war with Japan seemed inevitable, the War Department beefed up Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s defenses just prior to Japan’s surprise attack. Our playbook figured that given the air and artillery assets, plus stockpiled supplies, he could hold out long enough for the Navy to fight their way across the Pacific.
But like the doomed garrison on Wake Island, help wasn’t coming. It couldn’t come. The planes MacArthur’s depended on were essentially eliminated. Originally, the plan was for the defenders to fall back to Corregidor, but war planners recently changed the strategy to halting a Japanese invasion on the beach at all costs. To accommodate this, MacArthur had to cache supplies across the island. When his air force was destroyed and the Philippine Army collapsed, MacArthur realized he had to abandon the new plan and for the original. Unfortunately, this meant the stockpiles of supplies spread across the island had to be abandoned or destroyed while his forces held off the Japanese advance long enough for everyone to reach Corregidor.
In baseball news, Boston Red Sox first baseman Ted Williams receives a 1-A classification, meaning “available for service.” The runner up for American League Most Valuable Player in 1941 and will play the 1942 season before joining the Marine Corps. His New York Yankee counterpart, rookie first baseman Johnny Sturm receives his orders to report to induction into the Army Air Forces. Sturm will hurt himself during the war while operating a tractor (clearing ground for a baseball diamond), requiring part of his index finger to be amputated. After four years in the service, he returns to baseball as a coach in the Yankees’ farm system. While managing the Class C Joplin (Mo.) Miners, Sturm heard about a spectacular young shortstop from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle and recommended the Yankees send a scout to look at him.
Babe Ruth is mentioned on the bottom of the front page, recovering from a car accident in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.. The Sultan of Swat ended his career in 1935 and the following year was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class along with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. Ruth, a former soldier, will participate in numerous war bond events during the course of the war.
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