Did Thailand partner with or capitulate to Japan in WWII? The Prachuap Khiri Khan airfield was definitely invaded.
Imperial Japan’s big idea at the time was to bring the whole of Asia – including China, Manchuria, and Southeast Asia – into a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which was free from colonial tyranny under a benevolent leadership of Japan. So fighting back the colonial masters of Southeast Asia was paramount to its strategy.
But in Thailand, there wasn’t any colonial power. Their fight was not with Thailand, but securing Thai ports, railways, and airfields, such as this airfield just to the east of the track, was an important precondition to invading Malaya to the South and Burma to the West. Right here is where it all came together.
The Japanese Prime Minister Tojo had been negotiating with Thailand’s Prime Minister Phibun about a liase passe arrangement through Thai territory. Although Thailand had signed a non-aggression pact the year before with Britain, there was no point anyone pretending that Thailand’s forces could hold Imperial Japan. The Thai had a professional army of around 25,000 men, and an equal number of reservists. Japan had millions, bobbing towards them on state of the art naval fleets and airforce squadrons.
Thailand was instead negotiating for the territory it lost in the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909 and Burma’s Shan State – to be given to Thailand when all the dust settled. But Prime Minister Tojo declared on 1 December 1941 that he was still unsure where Thailand stood on the matter. His intentions were clear, and a buildup of Japanese troops in Java and Indochina was obvious enough.
Britain was not technically at war with Japan at that point. So on 6 December 1941 when a British reconnaissance aircraft spotted a Japanese fleet steaming towards Thailand, Winston Churchill wrote Prime Minister Phibun urging him to defend Thailand against Japan, but the British took no pre-emptive action. On 7 December, the Japanese presented the Thai government with an ultimatem, and were given 2 hours to respond. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Phibun was missing, and presumably unaware.
In the early morning of 8 December, Japan invaded Thailand in 8 places. The Thai government had finally found the Prime Minister, and had surrendered by noon. In only 2 places was there significant Thai resistance: The first was in Chumphon, where a unit of High School cadets held the Japanese off with youthful gusto until the late afternoon when they were ordered to surrender. Only their captain was killed, and posthumously promoted to LT.COL.
The only place that held out longer was just alongside the Thai Southern Line. The Battle of Prachuap Khiri Khan centred on the airport – we travel past the western tip of the still-functioning airstrip – where the local Wing Commander Mom Luang gave orders to resist a Japanese infratry battalion. They had 6 heavy machine guns and two light ones. They held out overnight, and when the telegram to surrender eventually got through to them the next morning, they thought it was a Japanese ploy and continued to fire. At 10am With ammunition running out, the Wing Commander ordered the burning of the control tower and command buildings and then for all hands to flee for lives, but to save one bullet for themselves in case of capture. But at noon, a civilian car with a small white flag arrived containing Thai government officials to hand an order to the Wing Commander from the Prime Minister to surrender immediately.
Altogether, the Thais suffered 27 wounded and 42 dead, including the Wing Commander’s pregnant wife. Japanese officially recorded a loss of 115, but Thai estimates were 417.
Each 8th of December a memorial is held in Prachuap Khiri Khan in honour of the fallen.
Get the audio guide
Download the Window Seater app - your offbeat guide to the world outside your window