Imagine in the early hours of December 8th, 1941, instead of hearing the crowing roosters and soulful songs of morning birds, while fishermen hawk their catch off of their moored boats, you hear the hum of troop transport boats and the sharp report of gunfire. Under the dim light of a waning moon, mostly covered by rain clouds, you can barely make out boatloads of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army coming ashore, under the command of Major Kisoyoshi Utsunomiya. Most would be off to your right from this vantage point, maneuvering around the islands protecting Prachuap and Manao (Lime) Bays, landing in waves since before dawn at the Thai airfield manned by Squadron 5, under Wing Commander Prawat Chumsai.
The picture above was my view of Prachuap Bay, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand, on an early May morning in 2019, enjoying the morning sun as it lit up the bright blue sky, observing fish mongers weighing their catch for customers in the beachside morning market and fishermen tidying up their boats after a long night’s work. The sights and sounds brought me simultaneously back 15 years to my own landing at Prachuap’s airbase, and back even further 78 years, to a dramatic time in history I could only imagine.
2004 was my final year as assistant air attaché to the US Embassy, Thailand, a perfect job of diplomacy and aviation. As the pilot of our Beechcraft SuperKing Air (also known as a C-12) and representative of the US Air Force to the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), I made frequent trips around the country, to both military and civilian destinations. The base at Prachuap wasn’t one of the major units of the RTAF, which is why it took until the third year of my duty in Thailand to visit the quiet base… but I would soon learn about its proud and courageous history in that visit.
The vigilant Wing Commander Prawat had been aware in the latter months of 1941 that tensions were rising with Japan. He had called a conference in November to lay out preparations for a possible attack, and intelligence about Japanese troop buildup and movement in Southeast Asia had put the base on an alert status. Bunkers were being prepared. Mechanics and pilots slept near their planes, which were parked on the runways ready to take off at a moment’s notice.
However, Wg Cdr Prawat hadn’t been aware of a British Royal Air Force seaplane that had been shot down nearly 24 hours earlier—the first Allied casualty of the Pacific War could not outrun Japanese fighters after he discovered the invasion fleet moving up the Malay and Thai coasts, getting ready to strike.
The seaplane Consolidated PBY Catalina was one of the most reliable workhorses in the Pacific theater. Unfortunately, it was the first Allied casualty in the Pacific theater when RAF Warrant Officer William Webb and his crew were shot down on a reconnaissance mission.
Nor was the Thai commander aware of the Japanese spies who had infiltrated strategic spots along the Thai coast for several years, posing as camera shop owners or other types of businessmen or tourists. They scouted the geography, tidal flows, and military routines of the defense points, contributing their information to the grand plan to defend the Empire against the US and Western threat by striking first. These spies were a part of Japan’s plan for a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere with Japan leading their Asian neighbors against the aggressive Western colonizers. It was very likely one of the thorough reconnaissance reports of these spies that informed the invading Japanese force of the high tide in the early morning of December 8th, 1941, which would allow their troops to land safely close to shore.
That morning unsuspecting neighbors in the various attack points along Thailand’s gulf coast would see the Japanese spies emerge from their shops in their military uniforms, ready to join their brothers in the attack. In Prachuap, the assault to the north of the air base focused on the town’s telegraph station, police station, and town hall. An intense and deadly fight broke out when the twenty sleepy and surprised policemen woke up to the sound of being attacked, but after twenty minutes, several grenades hit their mark inside the station and silenced their opposition. The Japanese intention to cut off communications and control the town area was going as planned.
The strong resistance they were meeting from the air base, however, wasn’t going exactly to plan. The small base offered a brave fight with only a few heavy and light machine guns. Several pilots attempted to take off in the imported Curtiss Hawk III aircraft… three sacrificing their lives and planes to Japanese ground fire. The one surviving Hawk wasn’t going to do too much damage with only four 50-kg bombs, but it was a moot point as Flying Officer Man Prasongdi, flying with a bullet in his back, couldn’t find the transports under cloud cover, and ended up in a forced landing about one hundred kilometers north in Hua Hin. Even if he had tried to return to the Squadron’s airstrip, the control tower would have been abandoned, instruments smashed, and the place burned to give no advantage to occupying Japanese, who quickly secured most of the airfield.
Meanwhile, another brave pair of aviators, a pilot and a tailgunner of a modified Vought V-93S Corsair biplane, weren’t able to get off the ground, but used the tail gun to pin down advancing Japanese troops for a half hour, before their ammunition ran out. In their run to escape, the pilot, Flying Officer Suan, was shot twice in the back. His loyal gunner Somphong ran back to help, only to have his left arm severed by a Japanese sword.
The intrepid Thai soldiers tactically retreated to a new perimeter of resistance under cover of a single machine gun position at the base’s tennis court. Panicked families were evacuated to a guest housing area, while their loved ones fought the ever-increasing strength of the Japanese military, who had already managed to land ten tanks and artillery on the established beachhead. They fought through the evening, barely keeping the enemy at bay. The next morning a Thai postman delivered a telegram, apparently after swimming in Manao Bay to evade the Japanese line. The message was allegedly from the Ministry of the Interior, announcing that the Thai government had already capitulated and negotiated an armistice, but the commander suspected a ruse and fought on. The infuriated Japanese fought with renewed vigor against this act of defiance.
An anonymous author at a website entitled “Thailand and the Second World War” describes the sad end of the affair. “By 10:00, with the Japanese closing in, Wing Commander Prawat ordered the command building to be burned, along with all military documents. As flames engulfed the building, Flying Officer Prayad Kanchonwiroj, the senior medical officer, ordered the hospital building evacuated and set on fire.
Wing Commander Prawat ordered all officers to save a bullet for themselves and said those who wanted to were free to try to break out on their own. The others, including the wounded, were to fall back on Mount Laum Muak.
At noon, a civilian car with a small white flag arrived. It contained a number of Thai government officials, including the provincial undersecretary, Jarunphan Isarangun na Ayutthaya. Jarunphan handed Wing Commander Prawat a direct order from the Prime Minister, Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, telling him to cease resistance immediately. Fighting officially ended at 12:35 on 9 December 1941.”
In their stalwart defense against the Japanese invasion, 42 Thais had sacrificed their lives, killing between 115 to 417 invading Japanese. That the government had capitulated while soldiers fought on must have been a very bitter pill to swallow. The base holds an annual commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the valiant efforts of those who sacrificed so much.
Repercussions. Securing critical airfields along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, including Prachuap, Songkhla, Pattani, and the Malayan coastal town of Kota Bahru gave Japanese air superiority over British naval forces. Japan’s command of the air from these coastal launching points would lead to the British Navy’s most humiliating defeat in its history. The British naval force out of Singapore sent to intercept the invading Japanese flotilla could not find the Japanese forces, and instead had the brand-new, top-of-the-line battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse blown out of the water by attacking torpedo bombers, despite the battleship possessing the most advanced anti-aircraft weaponry available at the time.
Meanwhile, on land, the British forces in Malaya, composed largely of Indian troops, made an ineffective, collapsing defense all down the Malay isthmus until Singapore. By 15 January, the Japanese Twenty-Fifth Army, even though outnumbered, had advanced 400 miles (644 km) in five weeks, driving the remaining Allied forces onto Singapore. Although the legend that Singapore’s defenses “faced the wrong way” is false, they nonetheless had been supplied with ammunition that was not suitable for defending against a troop assault. By 15 February, the British would experience what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history,” when 130,000 British, Indian, Australian and local troops surrendered to a force half of their size. Many of those prisoners would be sent back up to Thailand, to suffer atrocious treatment while building the infamous “Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “railroad of death” from Kanchanaburi, Thailand to Burma.
Lessons. Many lovely, quiet places in this world have stories to tell. Not all of them are joyful, but every story can teach something. I suspect Prachuap Khiri Khan is nearly as quiet a place now as it was 78 years ago. Most weekend or holiday touring traffic from Bangkok stops at Hua Hin, and few make the remaining 100-kilometer drive to enjoy this area and learn from its past. But the effort is worth it.
The story of the defenders demonstrates staunch leadership in the face of a crisis. It appears that Wing Commander Prawat Chumsai adeptly managed a tough situation. Modern US forces often use a 5-step process in crisis leadership:
- Determine the Root of the Crisis
- Establish Your Objective
- Communicate What You Want Done
- Set the Pace and Lead by Example.
The commander was in charge at all times, and the discipline of his troops in following orders, not panicking, and tenaciously sticking to their posts reflected his bold and steady leadership. (Read more about crisis leadership in the stories of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform disaster and heroic Quantas pilots saving a jumbo jet with an exploded engine at this link.)
The story also is a lesson in the intricate web of relationships in history. The scope goes well beyond our story here, but the decisions made by political and military leaders more than a decade before that fateful morning had far-reaching consequences. Thailand’s experience with the French in Indochina, negotiations for the purchase of aircraft and weapons from the US and Japan, the strategic stationing of bases and equipment, and many other circumstances played a role that culminated in a small group of airmen being surrounded by an invading force. And from that critical moment, the fate of 130,000 British troops in Singapore, not to mention their fallen comrades, was determined.
Although the Japanese ultimately lost, their careful preparation and intelligence gathering were incredibly effective. Ever since 1895 against the Chinese navy, then in 1905 against the Russian navy, the Japanese military had shown themselves extremely adept at using innovative technology to overpower superior forces. They had used fast-moving, maneuverable torpedo boats in 1905 to destroy the Russian Pacific fleet in Port Arthur, and now used surprise and torpedo bombers to repeat the lesson that attacks from smaller but lethal weapons could bring down the biggest giants.
The hardest lesson from this story, though, is one that some may not want to face. As the battlefield cleared of chaos, and mothers, fathers, spouses, and friends mourned their dead loved ones, each one must have had anguished thoughts about the meaning of it all. While those soldiers had faced death or disfigurement, politicians in comfortable quarters were making deals and capitulating. In the year leading up to the invasion, those same leaders had implored the population to be ready to resist. But the government officials had been playing all sides, had hedged all their bets, never committing to one side or another. And so the lack of commitment by a few stands starkly in contrast to the ultimate commitment made by several hundred. It was an outstanding act of valor, and a tragedy all the same.