Thailand’s War Against Britain & the United States

Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph48 (2018) digitally cropped from scan of full sheet
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph48 (2018) digitally cropped from scan of full sheet
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph49a (2018) full pane of 15
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph49a (2018) full pane of 15

On January 25, 1942, the government of Thailand formally declared war on the United States of America and Great Britain. The nation had officially adopted a position of neutrality until it was invaded by the Empire of Japan in December 1941 which led to an armistice and, later, the military alliance treaty between Thailand and the Japanese. At the start of the Pacific War, the Empire pressured the Thai government to allow the passage of Japanese troops to invade British-held Malaya and Burma. The Thai government under Plaek Phibunsongkhram (known simply as Phibun) considered it preferable to cooperate with the Japanese rather than fight them, since Japan promised to help Thailand regain some of the Indochinese territories (in today’s Laos and Cambodia) which had been lost to France.

Axis-aligned Thailand declared war on the United States and Britain and annexed territories in neighboring countries, expanding to the north, south, and east, gaining a border with China near Kengtung. Allied bombing raids on the Thai capital city of Bangkok began even before Thailand had declared war, since Japan was using the country as a staging area for its invasions of both Malaya and Burma with the reluctant agreement of the Thai government.

Thai military propaganda poster, circa 1941.
Thai military propaganda image, circa 1941.

Thailand retained control of its armed forces and internal affairs during World War II. The Japanese policy on Thailand differed from their relationship with the puppet state of Manchukuo. Japan intended bilateral relationships similar to those between Nazi Germany and Finland, Bulgaria, and Romania. Meanwhile, the Thai government had split into two factions, the Phibun regime and a well-organized, pro-Allied resistance movement that eventually numbered around 90,000 Thai guerrillas, supported by government officials allied to the regent Pridi Banomyong. The Free-Thai movement (เสรีไทย — Seri Thai) was active from 1942, resisting the Phibun regime and the Japanese. The partisans provided espionage services to the Allies in the region, performed some sabotage activities, and helped engineer Phibun’s downfall in 1944. After the war, Thailand received little punishment for its wartime role under Phibun.

Thailand suffered about 5,569 military dead during the war, almost entirely due to disease. Deaths in combat included 150 in the Shan States, 180 on December 8, 1941 (the day of both the brief Japanese invasion and the failed British assault on the Ledge), and 100 during the brief Franco-Thai War.

Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, Chief of the Thai Army and Prime Minister from 1938 until 1944
Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, Chief of the Thai Army and Prime Minister from 1938 until 1944

After the Siamese revolution of 1932, the Thai military led by Major General Plaek Phibunsongkhram as defense minister, and the civilian liberals led by Pridi Banomyong as foreign minister, worked together harmoniously for several years, but when Phibun became prime minister in December 1938 this cooperation broke down, and military domination became more overt. Phibun was an admirer of Benito Mussolini, and his regime soon developed some fascist characteristics. In early 1939, forty political opponents, both monarchists and democrats, were arrested, and after rigged trials eighteen were executed, the first political executions in Siam in over a century. Many others, among them Prince Damrong and Phraya Songsuradej, were exiled. Phibun launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. Chinese schools and newspapers were closed, and taxes on Chinese businesses increased.

Phibun and Luang Wichitwathakan, the government’s ideological spokesman, copied the propaganda techniques used by Hitler and Mussolini to build up the cult of the leader. Aware of the power of mass media, they used the government’s monopoly on radio broadcasting to shape popular support for the regime. Popular government slogans were constantly aired on the radio and plastered on newspapers and billboards. Phibun’s picture was also to be seen everywhere in society, while portraits of the ex-monarch King Prajadhipok, an outspoken critic of the autocratic regime, were banned. At the same time Phibun passed a number of authoritarian laws which gave the government the power of almost unlimited arrest and complete press censorship. During the Second World War, newspapers were instructed to print only good news emanating from Axis sources, while sarcastic comments about the internal situation were banned.

On June 23, 1939, Phibun changed the country’s name from Siam to Prathet Thai (ประเทศไทย), or Thailand, said to mean “land of the free”. This was directed against the ethnic diversity in the country (Malay, Chinese, Lao, Shan, etc.) and is based on the idea of a “Thai race”, a Pan-Thai nationalism whose policy is the integration of the Shan, the Lao and other Tai peoples, such as Vietnam, Burma and South China, into a “Great Kingdom of Thailand” (มหาอาณาจักรไทย).

Thai poster from the cultural mandate era demonstrating prohibited dress on the left and proper dress on the right.
Thai poster from the cultural mandate era demonstrating prohibited dress on the left and proper dress on the right.

Modernization was also an important theme in Phibun’s new Thai nationalism. From 1939 to 1942, he issued a set of twelve Cultural Mandates. In addition to requiring that all Thais salute the flag, sing the national anthem, and speak the national language, the mandates also encouraged Thais to work hard, stay informed on current events, and to dress in a Western fashion. The mandates caused performances of traditional Thai music, dance, theater and culture to be abolished, and changed into Western style.

Meanwhile, all cinemas were instructed to display Phibun’s picture at the end of every performance as if it were the king’s portrait, and the audience were expected to rise and bow. Phibun also called himself Than phu nam (ท่านผู้นำ, “the leader”), in a bid to create a personality cult. He cultivated and intensified militarism and nationalism while simultaneously using modern propaganda techniques.

The regime also revived irredentist claims, stirring up anti-French sentiment and supporting restoration of former Thai territories in Cambodia and Laos. Seeking support against France, Phibun cultivated closer relations with Japan. Faced with American opposition and British hesitancy, Thailand looked to Japan for help in the confrontation with French Indochina. Although the Thais were united in their demand for the return of the lost provinces, Phibun’s enthusiasm for the Japanese was markedly greater than that of Pridi Banomyong, and many old conservatives as well viewed the course of the prime minister’s foreign policy with misgivings.

Thai propaganda poster, circa 1940-1941
Thai propaganda poster, circa 1940-1941

In October 1940, the Franco–Thai War (กรณีพิพาทอินโดจีน in Thai and Guerre franco-thaïlandaise in French) broke out. Several border skirmishes erupted along the Mekong frontier. The superior Royal Thai Air Force then conducted daytime bombing runs over military targets in Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Sisophon, and Battambang with impunity. The French retaliated with their own air attacks, but the damage they caused was less than equal. The activities of the Thai air force, particularly in the field of dive-bombing, was such that Admiral Jean Decoux, the governor of French Indochina, grudgingly remarked that the Thai planes seemed to have been flown by men with plenty of war experience.

On January 5, 1941, following the report of a French attack on the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, the Thai Burapha and Isan Armies launched an offensive on Laos and Cambodia. French response was instantaneous, but many units were simply swept aside by the better-equipped Thai forces. The Thai army swiftly overran Laos, but the French forces in Cambodia managed to rally and offer more resistance.

At dawn on January 16, the French launched a large counterattack on the Thai-held villages of Yang Dang Khum and Phum Preav, initiating the fiercest battle of the war. Due to poor co-ordination and non-existent intelligence against the entrenched and prepared Thai forces, the French operation was stopped and fighting ended with a French retreat from the area. However, the Thais were unable to pursue the retreating French, as their forward tanks were kept in check by the gunnery of French Foreign Legion artillery.

Map of the Battle of Koh Chang (January 17, 1941) from the French viewpoint.
Map of the Battle of Koh Chang (January 17, 1941) from the French viewpoint.
HTMS Thonburi Memorial, Royal Thai Naval Academy, Samut Prakan, Thailand. Photo taken on December 5, 2015.
HTMS Thonburi Memorial, Royal Thai Naval Academy, Samut Prakan, Thailand. Photo taken on December 5, 2015.

With the situation on land rapidly deteriorating for the French, Admiral Decoux ordered all available French naval forces into action in the Gulf of Thailand. In the early morning of January 17, a French naval squadron caught a Thai naval detachment by surprise at anchor off Ko Chang island. The subsequent Battle of Ko Chang was a tactical victory for the French and resulted in the sinking of two Thai torpedo boats and the disabling of a coastal defence ship, with the French suffering only minor casualties. Fearing the war would turn in France’s favor, the Japanese intervened, proposing an armistice be signed.

On January 24, the final air battle took place when Thai bombers raided the French airfield at Angkor, near Siem Reap. The last Thai mission bombing Phnom Penh commenced at 07:10 on January 28, 1941, when the Martins of the 50th Bomber Squadron set out on a raid on Sisophon, escorted by thirteen Hawk 75Ns of the 60th Fighter Squadron.

Japan stepped in to mediate the conflict. A Japanese-sponsored “Conference for the Cessation of Hostilities” was held at Saigon, and preliminary documents for a ceasefire between the governments of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s French State and the Kingdom of Thailand were signed aboard the cruiser Natori on January 31, 1941. A general armistice had been arranged to go into effect at 10:00 on January 28. On May 9, a peace treaty was signed in Tokyo, with the French being coerced by the Japanese to relinquish their hold on the disputed border territories. France ceded the following provinces to Thailand from Cambodia and Laos:

  • Battambang and Pailin, which were reorganized as Phra Tabong Province
  • Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey, which were reorganized as Phibunsongkhram Province
  • Preah Vihear, which was merged with a part of Champassak Province of Laos opposite Pakse to form Nakhon Champassak Province
  • Xaignabouli, including part of Luang Prabang Province, which was renamed Lan Chang Province
The provinces ceded from Cambodia by France to Thailand were regrouped into new Thai provinces, Phra Tabong, Phibunsongram, and Nakhon Champassak.
The provinces ceded from Cambodia by France to Thailand were regrouped into new Thai provinces, Phra Tabong, Phibunsongram, and Nakhon Champassak.

Japan used its influence with Vichy France to obtain concessions for Thailand. As a result, France agreed in March 1941 to cede 20,850 square miles (54,000 km²) of Laotian territory west of the Mekong and most of the Cambodian province of Battambang to Thailand, which reinstated the original name of Phra Tabong Province. The recovery of this lost territory and the regime’s apparent victory over a European colonial power greatly enhanced Phibun’s reputation.

Because Japan wanted to maintain both her working relationship with Vichy and the status quo, the real beneficiaries of the conflict were the Japanese. They were able to expand their influence in both Thailand and Indochina. The Japanese intention was to use Thailand and Indochina as their military base to invade Burma and Malaya in the future.

The Thais were forced to accept only a quarter of the territory that they had lost to the French, in addition to having to pay six million piastres as a concession to the French. Relations between Japan and Thailand subsequently stressed as a disappointed Phibun switched to courting the British and Americans in the hopes of warding off what he saw as an imminent Japanese invasion.

Memorial plaque in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 9, 2006.
Memorial plaque in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 9, 2006.

After the Franco-Thai War, Phibun compromised with Pridi, the Thai government adopted a policy of neutrality. It was sponsored by Pridi himself who produced a Thai historical drama film, The King of the White Elephant. The film carried a propaganda message from anti-war interests in Thailand: Thailand should remain neutral, only going to war to defend its sovereignty against foreign invaders. Phibun and the Thai government were still hesitant to join the Allies or the Japanese.

On December 7 at 03:00, Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa had ordered patrols in the area between the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) Southern Expeditionary Fleet convoy — consisting of a battleship, five cruisers, seven destroyers and 22 transports — and Malaya. The convoy had actually been signed shortly after noon on December 6 by one of three RAAF No 1 Squadron Lockheed Hudsons on a reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea. One of the two merchant seaplane tenders with the convoy, the Kamikawa Maru, launched a Mitsubishi F1M “Pete” floatplane to intercept the Hudson, which eluded it by taking cover in the clouds. A few minutes later, a second Hudson also sighted the convoy.

No. 1 Squadron RAAF Lockheed Hudsons at Kota Bharu in 1941
No. 1 Squadron RAAF Lockheed Hudsons at Kota Bharu in 1941

Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham was advised of the sightings at 14:00. He was not authorized to take any action against the convoy, as Britain was not at war with Japan, the Japanese intentions were still unclear, and no aggressive action had yet been taken against British or Thai territory. He put his forces in Malaya on full alert and ordered continued surveillance of the convoy.

By 03:00 the morning of December 7, the convoy was about 100 nautical miles (190 kilometres) from Kota Bharu. There was heavy rain and zero visibility. The Kamikawa Maru and Sagara Maru launched 11 F1M2’s and six Aichi E13A’s. About 20 nmi (37 km) west northwest of Panjang Island at 08:20, an E13A1 ZI-26 from the Kamikawa Maru, piloted by Ensign Ogata Eiichi, spotted a No. 205 Squadron RAF Consolidated PBY Catalina reconnaissance flying boat (W8417), piloted by Warrant Officer William E Webb. Ogata attacked the Catalina from the rear, damaging it and destroying its radio. Ogata shadowed the Catalina for 25 minutes until five Nakajima Ki-27 “Nate” fighters from the JAAF’s 1st Sentai in Indo-China arrived and shot it down. Webb and his crew were the first casualties of the Pacific War. Unaware of this incident, the British took no action. Ogata would later be killed in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At 23:00 on December 7, the Japanese presented the Thai government with an ultimatum to allow the Japanese military to enter Thailand. The Thais were given two hours to respond. The Japanese invasion of Thailand (การบุกครองไทยของญี่ปุ่น, Kanbuk Khrong Thai Khong Yipun in Thai and 日本軍のタイ進駐, Nihongun no Tai shinchū in Japanese) occurred on December 8, 1941. Japanese troops invaded Thailand from Indochina and with landings south of Bangkok and at various points along the Kra Peninsula several hours after Thailand had not responded to their ultimatum. While the government debated a response, Phibun could not be located and was unaware of the ultimatum until late morning.

Despite fierce fighting in Southern Thailand, the fighting lasted only five hours before Thailand acceded to Japanese demands for passage through the country for Japanese forces invading Burma and Malaya. Phibun assured the country that the Japanese action was pre-arranged with a sympathetic Thai government.

Map of the Japanese invasion of Thailand, December 8, 1941
Map of the Japanese invasion of Thailand, December 8, 1941

At dawn the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) 33rd Division under Lieutenant-General Shōzō Sakurai and IJA 55th Division under Lieutenant-General Hiroshi Takeuchi of the 15th Army, and spearheaded by the Imperial Guards Division crossed the border from Indo-China into Thailand’s recently reclaimed Phra Tabong Province at Tambon Savay Donkeo, Athuek Thewadej District (Russei) of Battambang. The Japanese encountered no resistance, and from Sisophon swung north-westwards into Aranyaprathet (then still a district of Prachinburi Province) along the nearly finished railway link between Aranyaprathet and Monkhol Bourei. It opened for traffic on April 11, 1942.

Nakhon Si Thammarat was the site of the Thai Sixth Army Division’s headquarters and the 39th Infantry Battalion. Three Japanese troopships, Zenyo, Miike, and Toho Maru, landed troops at Nakhorn Sri Thammarat, covered by the Shimushu, which had dropped anchor a few miles off the coast during the night of December 7. The ships carried 1,510 men and 50 trucks of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, the 18th Air District Regiment along with an army air force signals unit, the 32nd Anti-Aircraft Battalion, and the 6th Labour Construction Company. Shortly after midnight, they began disembarking their troops at Tha Phae canal (also known as Pak Phoon Canal), north of Camp Vajiravudh. The landing was made adjacent to the main Thai army camp, Camp Vajiravudh. The Thais, notified earlier of the Japanese invasion at Songkhla, immediately went into action. The battle lasted until midday, when the prime minister’s orders for a ceasefire were received.

The Japanese invasion site at Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand. Above the pier is Khao Lummuak hill and the flat land immediately to the right is the airfield and landing site.
The Japanese invasion site at Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand. Above the pier is Khao Lummuak hill and the flat land immediately to the right is the airfield and landing site.

Prachuap Khiri Khan was home to the Royal Thai Air Force’s Fifth Wing, under the command of Wing Commander Mom Luang Prawat Chumsai. The Japanese 2nd Infantry Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment under Major Kisoyoshi Utsunomiya landed at 03:00 from one troopship, and occupied the town after having crushed police resistance there. Further landings took place near the airfield to the south. The Japanese laid siege to the airfield, but the Thai airmen along with Prachuap Khirikhan Provincial Police managed to hold out until noon on the next day, when they too received the ceasefire order. The Japanese lost 115 dead according to Japanese estimates, and 217 dead and 300+ wounded according to Thai estimates. The Thais lost 37 dead and 27 wounded.

A Japanese infantry company from the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment landed from one troopship at the coastal village of Ban Don in the early hours of 8 December. They marched into Surat Thani, where they were opposed by Royal Thai Police and civilian volunteers. The desultory fighting took place amid a rainstorm, and only ended in the afternoon when the hard-pressed Thais received orders to lay down their arms. The Thais lost 17 or 18 dead, but the number of injured was not known.

The Thai Junior Soldier
The Thai Junior Soldier “‘Yuwachon Thahan”, along with the 38th Infantry Battalion and Provincial Police of Chumphon, fought the Imperial Japanese Army at Tha Nang Sang Bridge, Chumphon Province, on December 8, 1941. Diorama at National WWII Memorial in Chumphon, Thailand. Photo taken on July 29, 2018.

The Japanese 1st Infantry Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment (part of the IJA 55th Division) landed at Chumphon on the morning of December 8 from two troop ships. They managed to form a perimeter around their landing areas, but were pinned down by determined resistance by Thai Yuwachon Thahan (‘youth soldier’ cadets of the 52nd Yuwachon Thahan Training Unit from Sriyaphai Secondary School), along with the regular army 38th Infantry Battalion and Provincial Police of Chumphon. Fighting ended in the afternoon when the Thais received orders to cease fire. The Thai had lost Captain Thawin Niyomsen (commanding the 52nd Yuwachon Thahan Unit, posthumously promoted to Lt. Col.), some provincial policemen and a few civilians.

The Japanese 3rd Battalion of the Imperial Guards Regiment landed at Samut Prakan in the early hours of December 8. It was tasked with the capture of Bangkok. The force was met by a small Thai police detachment. Despite a tense confrontation, fighting did not occur and the Japanese subsequently agreed not to enter the Thai capital until formal negotiations were concluded.

The Japanese bombed Bangkok with one bomb falling on the main post office, which failed to explode. The Japanese air force also attacked Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base. The Thais lost six fighter planes to a numerically superior Japanese force. While police rounded up Japanese residents, the Thai cabinet debated its options while they waited for the prime minister to arrive. Some favored continued resistance, including the establishment of a government-in-exile, but when Phibun finally arrived, the decision was made to relent, and the Thais caved into Japan’s demands.  The Japanese then moved into Bangkok, occupying Chinatown (Sampeng) and turning the Chamber of Commerce Building into a command post.

Due to its closeness to the Malayan border, Pattani was the second most important objective of the Japanese 25th Army. Eight IJN destroyers including the Shirakumo and Shinonome provided support for the five troop transports. The landings by the 42nd Infantry Regiment of the IJA 5th Division led by Major Shigeharu Asaeda were made despite the rough seas and on unsuitable landing grounds. The invaders were effectively opposed by the Thai 42nd Infantry Battalion, Pattani Provincial Police, and Thai Yuwachon Thahan units (the 66th Yuwachon Thahan Training Unit from Benjama Rachoothit School), until the battalion was ordered to cease fire at midday. The Thai battalion commander, Khun (ขุน) Inkhayutboriharn, was killed in action along with 23 other ranks, 5 Provincial Police, 4 Yuwachon Thahan members, and 9 civilians.

Japanese Map of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, 1940. It depicts the peninsula in considerable detail noting both physical and political elements and includes air and sea routes around the peninsula and to China and Japan.
Japanese Map of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, 1940. It depicts the peninsula in considerable detail noting both physical and political elements and includes air and sea routes around the peninsula and to China and Japan.

Major Shigeharu Asaeda, when a member of Taiwan Army Unit 82, had been involved with intelligence-gathering in Burma, Thailand, and Malaya prior to the outbreak of war and had selected Pattani as a suitable landing site. Unknown to him, beyond the sandy beach, was a muddy sea bed which caused the invading force considerable difficulty.

The port city of Songkhla was one of the main objectives of Yamashita’s 25th Army. During the early hours of December 8, three regiments of the IJA 5th Division led by Colonel Tsuji under Lieutenant General Matsui Takuro landed there from 10 troop transports. The landing was supported by IJN destroyers Asagiri, Amagiri, Sagiri, and Yūgiri.

The Thai garrison at Khao Khor Hong (the 41st Infantry Battalion and the 13th Artillery battalion) immediately occupied positions alongside the roads leading down to Malaya, but were brushed aside into positions the main Japanese advance could ignore. A further clash occurred at Hat Yai. The Thais lost 15 dead (8 KIA from 41st Inf. Bat. and 7 from the 5th Inf. bat.) and 30-55 wounded.

While these landings were taking place in Thailand, troops from the Japan’s 25th Army also landed further south at Kota Bharu in Malaya.

The fighting ceased at noon when orders for an armistice to be arranged was received. Once Thailand was secured, the 15th Army’s 143rd Regiment moved north to replace the Imperial Guards. The Imperial Guards headed south to join the 25th Army and participate in the invasion of Malaya and Singapore. The 15th Army moved to attack Burma.

Phibun’s decision to sign an armistice with Japan effectively ended Churchill’s hopes of forging an alliance with Thailand. Phibun also granted Japan permission to use Thailand as a base of operations to invade Malaya. Within hours after the armistice came into effect, squadrons of Japanese aircraft had flown into Songkla airfield from Indochina, allowing them to carry out air raids on strategic bases in Malaya and Singapore from a short distance. At the time of the ceasefire, Britain and the United States regarded Thailand as Japanese-occupied territory.

The Royal Thai Police resisted British Commonwealth forces invading Southern Thailand between December 8 and 13 at The Battle for The Ledge, near the town of Kroh at the Perak-Thailand border. Thailand was rewarded for Phibun’s close co-operation with Japan during the early years of war with the return of further territory that had once been under Bangkok’s control, namely the four northernmost Malay states after the Malayan Campaign.

Si Rat Malai, Parts of British Malaya annexed by Thailand (1943-1945)
Si Rat Malai, Parts of British Malaya annexed by Thailand (1943-1945)

On December 14, Phibun signed a secret agreement with the Japanese committing Thai troops in the Malayan Campaign and Burma Campaign. On December 21, a mutual offensive-defensive alliance pact between Thailand and Japan was signed. The agreement, revised on December 30, gave the Japanese full access to Thai weaponry and to Thai railways, roads, airfields, naval bases, warehouses, communications systems, and barracks. To promote greater military and economic co-operation, Pridi was removed from the cabinet and offered a seat on the politically impotent Regency Council of the absent king, which he subsequently accepted. Japan meanwhile stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous Death Railway through Thailand using Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war.

The first Allied bombing raid came on January 7, 1942, when Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft flying from Rangoon, attacked military targets in Bangkok. The American Volunteer Group, together with seven No. 113 Squadron RAF and three No. 45 Squadron RAF Bristol Blenheim bombers, were involved in the first raid. No. 113 Squadron’s planes were piloted by No. 60 Squadron’s air crew. The second night raid was carried out by eight Blenheims on January 24–25 and included No. 60 Squadron RAF aircrew. A final raid was made three days later by four Blenheims. This was the last raid by Blenheims until May or June 1945. The British and American bombings were also aided by the Free Thai Movement, an Allied-aligned, anti-Japanese guerilla movement. Agents of the Free Thai Movement designated targets for Allied planes and locations of Japanese positions.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery for Allied Soldiers and Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 9, 2008.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery for Allied Soldiers and Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo taken by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 9, 2008.

The regime of Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) declared war on the United Kingdom and the United States of America on January 25, 1942. Although the Thai ambassador in London had delivered Phibun’s declaration of war to the British government, Seni Pramoj — the Thai ambassador in Washington, D.C., refused to deliver the declaration to the United States government. Accordingly, the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. In response, however, all Thai assets in the United States were frozen by the federal government.

Seni, a conservative aristocrat whose anti-Japanese credentials were well established, soon organized the Free Thai Movement with American assistance, recruiting Thai students in the United States to work with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS trained Thai personnel for underground activities, and units were readied to infiltrate Thailand. Seni was able to achieve this because the State Department decided to act as if Seni continued to represent Thailand, enabling him to draw on Thai assets frozen by the United States. By the end of the war, more than 50,000 Thai had been trained and armed to resist the Japanese by Free Thai members who had been parachuted into the country.

With Phibun inspired by the Japanese military operation in Malaya and China, Phibun and Luang Wichit Wathakan believed that if Japanese won the war Thailand could gain some territories. Phibun re-adopted the previous “Great Thai Kingdom policy”, but the Japanese had their idea of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Thais, who loathed the idea of being treated on the same level as the two Japanese puppet regimes, — Manchukuo and the Wang Jingwei regime — initially resisted, but ultimately the Japanese had their way. Thai resentment on this issue lasted throughout the war, however, and resulted in Phibun refusing to attend the following year’s Greater East Asia Conference.

93rd Bomb Group formation flight. Near aircraft is Consolidated B-24D-25-CO (S/N 41-24226)
93rd Bomb Group formation flight. Near aircraft is Consolidated B-24D-25-CO (S/N 41-24226) “Joisey Bounce” and second aircraft is (S/N 41-24147) “The Duchess”, circa 1943.

After Rangoon fell to the Japanese on March 7, heavy bombers, such as the RAF and American Tenth Air Force Consolidated B-24 Liberators, based in India and China, attacked Thailand. The raids were carried out because Bangkok by then had become a command centre for the Japanese on the Southeast Asian front. Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers carried out the raids as part of the Pacific campaigns. The bombers targeted installations used by the occupying Japanese military, but the raids were also intended to pressure the government of Thai military strongman Plaek Pibulsongkram to abandon his unpopular alliance with Imperial Japan. The major targets were the newly completed Port of Bangkok and the Thai railway system. Raids by RAF, USAAF, and other Allied air forces continued with growing intensity from India.

Phibun’s alliance with Japan during the early years of war was initially popular. The Royal Thai Army joined Japan’s Burma Campaign with the goal of recovering part of the Shan states previously surrendered to the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Yandabo. The Thai Phayap Army was permitted by the Japanese to invade the part of the Shan States and Karenni States of Burma that was annexed as Saharat Thai Doem. At this point, Phibun wanted to annex more of Burma, including Mandalay. As a result, Thailand sent more troops to support the Japanese conquest of Burma, which later became known as the “Thai Burma Area Army”. The Japanese Southern Expeditionary Army Group didn’t allow the Thai Burma Area Army to really control a part of occupied Burma. They limited the area of the Thai Burma Area Army under their command.

Thailand also gained the return of the four northernmost Malay states lost in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, and with Japanese mediation in the Franco–Thai war they also recovered territory lost in the Franco-Siamese War of 1893.

Map of the Burma front showing the conflict of Japanese-Thai and Allied forces during the Burma Campaign of World War II.
Map of the Burma front showing the conflict of Japanese-Thai and Allied forces during the Burma Campaign of World War II.

In September 1942, there was a long rainy season in the northern, northeastern and central regions of Thailand, causing great floods in many provinces, including Bangkok. In Bangkok, major flooding was recorded as having effects on the city’s infrastructure lasting three months. With the floods, many agricultural areas were flooded especially rice fields, casing serious rice shortages. The Thai government decided to encourage people to eat noodles instead, The famous dish “Pad Thai” was introduced at that time.

Although the majority of Thais were initially “intoxicated” with Japan’s string of brilliant victories in early 1942, by the end of the year there was widespread resentment as a result of arrogant Japanese behavior and war-induced privation. Even during the early stages of the war, there was friction over issues such as the confiscation of Allied property and economic and monetary matters, as well as the treatment of Thailand’s ethnic Chinese community.

Replica of bamboo hut used by prisoners of war on the Death Railway. Photo taken at Kanchanaburi, Thailand, by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 6, 2006.
Replica of bamboo hut used by prisoners of war on the Death Railway. Photo taken at Kanchanaburi, Thailand, by Mark Joseph Jochim on January 6, 2006.

A vicious contest for saw mills and teak forests owned by British companies erupted early on, followed by similar disputes over the control of enemy energy and shipping facilities within the country. Other problems were more severe. For a time, Germany continued actively purchasing Thai products but once shipping difficulties became intractable, Japan became Thailand’s sole significant trading partner. Similarly, Thailand had to rely on the Japanese for consumer goods previously imported from Europe and the United States, which Japan was increasingly unable to provide as the war wore on. A shortage of commodities quickly developed, with inflation soaring and standards of living dropping. Worse still, the Japanese had aggressively claimed the right to import goods duty-free, significantly reducing Thai government revenues.

Japan had stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil, and as the war dragged on, the Japanese increasingly treated Thailand as a conquered country rather than an ally. Although the United States had not officially declared war, on December 26, 1942, U.S. Tenth Army Air Force bombers based in India launched the first major bombing raid, which damaged targets in Bangkok and elsewhere and caused several thousand casualties. Public opinion, and even more importantly the sympathies of the civilian political elite, moved perceptibly against Phibun’s alliance with Japan.

In its first combat mission, the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress was used by the XX Bomber Command’s 58th Air Division to strike targets in Bangkok, before it was deployed against the Japanese home islands. The decision to use the B-29s to bomb Bangkok dated back to 1943 and was mentioned in a communique between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in which Roosevelt suggested that they be used to bomb the port and railways.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight
Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight

On June 5, 1944, 98 B-29s led by the 58th’s commander, General LaVerne Saunders, flew from airfields in India to attack the Makasan railway yards in Bangkok. A 2,261-mile round trip, the raid was the longest mission to date in the war. Only 77 of the B-29s made it to Bangkok, 21 others having had to turn back because of engine problems. Reaching the Thai capital at about 11:00, the bombers found their targets obscured by bad weather. The B-29s were meant to drop their bombs from between 22,000 and 25,000 feet, but instead released their bombs between 17,000 and 27,000 feet. Only 18 bombs hit their intended targets. The others destroyed a Japanese military hospital and damaged the Japanese secret police headquarters. On the return to India, 42 of the B-29s had to divert to other airfields because of a lack of fuel. Five of these crashed on landing. Further raids were carried out by the Superfortresses against strategic targets in Bangkok.

In June 1944, Phibun was forced out of office and replaced by the first predominantly civilian government since the 1932 coup. The new government was headed by Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian linked politically with conservatives such as Seni. The most influential figure in the regime, however, was Pridi Banomyong (who was serving as Regent of Thailand), whose anti-Japanese views were increasingly attractive to the Thais. In the last year of the war, Allied agents were tacitly given free access by Bangkok.

Allied bombing raids continued, and a B-29 raid on Bangkok destroyed the two key power plants on April 14, 1945, leaving the city without power and water. Raids were conducted from Rangoon following the liberation of that city on May 3 until the end of the war in August that year. Blenheim bombers and Mustangs operated out of Rangoon against Bangkok in this later phase of the bombing. Throughout the bombing campaign, the Seri Thai network was effective in broadcasting weather reports to the Allied air forces and in rescuing downed Allied airmen.

As the war came to an end, Thailand repudiated its wartime agreements with Japan. When Japan surrendered to the Allies, Pridi immediately issued a declaration stating that Phibun’s 1942 declaration of war was unconstitutional and legally void, thereby dispensing any need for Thailand to surrender. The Thai armed forces initially attempted to disarm the Japanese garrison, but Nakamura refused, arguing that the matter was for the Allies to decide. Khuang meanwhile resigned, citing his previous association with the Japanese as a possible obstacle to Thailand’s rapprochement with the Allies. A caretaker premier was found in the person of Thawi Bunyaket, a Pridi loyalist.

A British officer of a Gurkha battalion gives the order, through an interpreter, for Japanese prisoners to hand over all sharp objects such as knives, needles and razors before boarding trains that will carry them to prisoner of war camps outside the city of Bangkok, September 1945.
A British officer of a Gurkha battalion gives the order, through an interpreter, for Japanese prisoners to hand over all sharp objects such as knives, needles and razors before boarding trains that will carry them to prisoner of war camps outside the city of Bangkok, September 1945.

At the end of the hostilities, British and Indian military forces arrived in Bangkok to disarm and repatriate the surrendered Japanese. On September 9, 1945, the RAF set up its headquarters under Group Captain Don Finlay of the RAF’s 909 Wing at Bangkok’s Don Muang airfield. Three RAF squadrons were represented in Siam during the brief occupation: No. 20 Squadron RAF with Spitfire VIII aircraft, No. 211 Squadron RAF with de Havilland Mosquito VI aircraft, and a detachment of No. 685 Squadron RAF with Mosquito photo-reconnaissance aircraft. The airfield was defended by No. 2945 Squadron, RAF Regiment. Almost all the RAF units had left by January 1946.

Unfortunately, the civilian leaders were unable to achieve unity. After falling-out with Pridi, Khuang was replaced as prime minister by the regent’s nominee, Seni, who had returned to Thailand from his post as leader of the Free Thai movement in Washington. The scramble for power among factions in late 1945 created political divisions among the civilian leaders that destroyed their potential for making a common stand against the resurgent political force of the Thai military in the immediate postwar years.

King Ananda Mahidol and Lord Louis Mountbatten in Bangkok, January 19, 1946. รัชกาลที่ 8 (อานันทมหิดล) ในปี ค.ศ. 1938
King Ananda Mahidol and Lord Louis Mountbatten in Bangkok, January 19, 1946. รัชกาลที่ 8 (อานันทมหิดล) ในปี ค.ศ. 1938

As a result of the contributions made to the Allied war efforts by the Free Thai Movement, the United States refrained from dealing with Thailand as an enemy country in post-war peace negotiations. Before signing a peace treaty, however, Britain demanded war reparations in the form of rice shipments to Malaya. An Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty was signed on January 1, 1946, and an Australian–Thai Peace Treaty on April 3. France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned. The Soviet Union insisted on the repeal of anti-communist legislation.

In April 2014, at least eight people died and 18 others were injured today when an bomb dropped by the Allies during World War II exploded at a scrap metal warehouse in Bangkok as workers tried to cut it open.

Republica Phuketia - MPLP #Ph47-49 (2018)
Republica Phuketia – MPLP #Ph47-49 (2018)

As far as I can determine, there have not been any stamps released to mark Thailand’s participation in the Second World War.  Thus, today’s featured stamp comes from a set of three that I designed last year for my personal micronation and local post, Republica Phuketia (formerly the Muang Phuket Local Post). These were “issued” on December 12, 2018 (Thailand’s holiday of Constitution Day, despite not having had a constitution since the most recent junta took power via a military coup in May 2004), marking the 200th anniversary of Thai-U.S. friendship. It was on June 24, 1818, that the first American ship sailed up the Chao Phraya River and docked at the newly established capital city of Krung Sri Ayudhya (soon to be more commonly known as Bangkok). More on this, and other early American contact in Siam, can be found in my Philatelic Pursuits article announcing this issue.

Phuketia MPLP #Ph48 is one of a set of three horizontally-oriented stamps (MPLP #Ph47-49) printed in sheets of 15, perofrated 13¼ x 13½. There is a red Statue of Liberty stamp with the denomination of 50 farang, the white 75-farang Asian elephant facing American bison stamp, and a blue stamp valued at 2 eth picturing the kind of auto-rickshaw known locally as a tuk-tuk. These were printed by yoursetamps in Germany using high-resolution laser printing technology. Republica Phuketia has previously been featured on A Stamp A Day using an issue commemorating the rather bloody and extremely loud Phuket Vegetarian Fesitval.

One thought on “Thailand’s War Against Britain & the United States

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