Another History Post…

164_6445-4.JPGTonight I mentioned to Joylani that it feels like we’ve been following two historical threads on our journey: European colonial history and WWII history. From Goa to Melaka, we followed Portuguese centers of trade. From India’s major cities to Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore, we’re following the footsteps of the British East India Company. And we’ve seen the legacy of these things (ie Nepali Gurkhas are the elite bodyguards of the Brunei Sultanate, Indians’ are all over Malaysia and Singapore, and it seems we’re following St. Francis Xavier’s body around the world). But we’ve also been working our way towards the center of the Japanese aggression during the 1930s and 1940s. In India, there was a great fear of a Japanese invasion. An interesting anecdote: British authorities killed all the big cats at the zoos in Madras and Calcutta out of fear that they would terrorize the local population in the event of their escape due to Japanese bombing; even more interesting is that they shot a polar bear in the Madras zoo. Anyways, then we went to Thailand which was about as far west as Japan got during the war. Kanchanaburi showed us the horrors of Japanese imprisonment and forced labor. Our first stop in Malaysia was in Kota Bharu, where the Japanese launched their attack down the Malay Peninsula on December 8, 1941 (December 7th in US time zones and in real-time about an hour and a half before Pearl Harbor was hit). Then I heard about two wreck dives near Pulau Tioman, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. And now we’re in Singapore, where those two ships escaped Japanese bombers for a few days before being sunk in present-day Malaysian waters. I also find it interesting how the WWII stuff and colonial stuff intertwine on a human level, beyond the obvious political and philosophical level of WWII’s effects on the colonial age. For instance, Lord Louis Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, fought through the war, accepted the Japanese surrender for the SEA campaign, but then went on to be the last viceroy of India- the man who gave independence to Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, as well as the man responsible for the terror afterwards. I’m kinda off topic, as this post was going to say that we visited the new (2005) Changi Museum today. We heard about Changi in Kanchanaburi, since it was the POW camp that the Japanese drafted their “death railway” workers from. So many of the Australians and Brits that surrendered Singapore, were kept in Changi, and later sent to Thailand and Burma. The museum was pretty interesting, although it was pretty anti-Japanese. Not that the Imperial Japanese shouldn’t be judged incredibly harshly based on their horrific deeds, but most war museums seem to be against war than against the perpetrators (as most war museums acknowledge the horrors of war are the result of mankind’s capability of cruelty rather than a specific group of people’s capability of cruelty). A little off topic, but it just seems that assigning blame isn’t the best way to present the message, no matter how deserved the Imperial Japanese are. Mostly the museum detailed the terrorism of the Japanese conquerors, particularly towards the Chinese. Also like most war museums, it was depressing and I don’t want to think about what I saw, much less what write about it. But it was sick the things the Japanese did, and sadistic in their bullying and hatred of the Chinese. One fascinating part of the museum that I will write about was the story of how Singapore fell. It was established in everybody’s mind that Singapore was impenetrable. Not sure why, but that was its reputation. As Japan worked down the Malay peninsula in December 1941 and January 1942, Churchill and the British high command shrugged off their losses, assuming Singapore would remain standing and they’d have a base to launch a counterattack. Churchill rebuffed Singapore’s commander Percival’s request for more troops, saying that the Nile Valley in Egypt was more in need of troops than Singapore. I forget the Japanese general’s name who was leading the offensive down the Malay peninsula, but he was extremely short on supplies and men. He knew he could not win a sustained fight for Singapore, since he was outnumbered both in troops and firepower. Although his colleagues urged him to wait for reinforcements and for the supply chains to be established, he wanted to attack before British reinforcements arrived. And so he embarked on a huge bluff. February 8th, he bombarded Singapore. His artillery and bombers would not last long, but he wanted to give the impression that he had limitless bombs and shells to assault Singapore with. He also moved his 30,000 troops (and only 18 tanks!) around the front for no reason other than to confuse British intelligence and give them the idea that there were way more than 30,000 troops. Once the Japanese cut off all transport, supplies, and food to the city, Percival surrendered. The bluff paid off: 100,000 Allied soldiers surrendered to an ammo-depleted 30,000 Japanese troops and it only took one week. On a related note, those two ships I mentioned earlier (the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse) escaped Singapore only to be sunk by Japanese bombers near Pulau Tioman. The significance is that some historians mark that as the end of the Age of the Battleship, as two mighty warships were sunk by planes, not other battleships, a fleet, or even a group of carriers, but by two planes. And I’ll try to end this post here. I’m kind of all over the place with this one, but I like history and doesn’t everyone get kind of eccentric when they’re indulging in their hobbies?

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