Batavia (Jakarta), Dutch East Indies · March 8, 1942

The mineral- and oil-rich Dutch East Indies (today’s Indo­nesia) was Japan’s next colo­nial tar­get in the Pacific Theater—this after Allied resis­tance had col­lapsed in the British Crown colony of Sin­ga­pore (Febru­ary 15, 1942) and all but did so in the Philip­pines with Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s forces holed up on the rocky, jungle-covered Ba­taan Penin­sula opposite Manila, the Philip­pine capital. Darwin in North­ern Aus­tra­lia, an Allied supply and naval base that had the poten­tial of sup­porting opera­tions in the East Indies, was ren­dered use­less on Febru­ary 19, 1942, by two Japa­nese air raids, one from carrier-based planes, the other from land-based planes flying out of Kendari in the Dutch East Indies.

A hastily assembled multi­na­tional flotilla of Amer­i­can, Brit­ish, Dutch, and Aus­tra­lian (ABDA) war­ships, many of World War I vin­tage, con­fronted a supe­rior Japa­nese in­vas­ion force com­prising one light air­craft carrier, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, four­teen de­stroyers, and ten trans­ports. In the seven-hour, on-and-off Battle of the Java Sea on Febru­ary 27, 1942, the Allies lost two heavy cruis­ers, three de­stroyers, and 2,300 men, including 52‑year-old Rear Adm. Karel Door­man, ABDA Strike Force com­man­der, when his light cruiser and flag­ship HNLMS De Ruyter went down. The Japa­nese suffered damage to one destroyer and the loss of four transports.

Japan’s decisive naval victory and follow-up en­gage­ments over the next two days accele­rated its con­quest of the Dutch East Indies, whose civil­ian admin­is­tra­tion sur­ren­dered un­con­di­tionally on this date in 1942. In the week­long land cam­paign Dutch troops, aided by Brit­ish and Amer­i­can rem­nants, fought fiercely, and when it was over the Japa­nese exe­cuted many cap­tured Allied sol­diers and sympa­thizing Indo­ne­sians. Not until later in the year would Japan’s air and naval superiority in the Pacific be tested again.

Two naval en­coun­ters in the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942) and at the Battle of Midway (June 4–7, 1942) restored the balance of power in the Paci­fic that had been lost at Pearl Harbor. Over the next two years, U.S. naval and air power relent­lessly chewed up Japan’s over­seas empire. When the war came to an end, the former Dutch colony uni­lat­erally declared its in­de­pen­dence, and the Repub­lic of Indo­ne­sia was born on August 17, 1945, in a simple flag-raising ceremony in Jakarta.

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Japan’s Takeover of the Dutch East Indies, February and March 1942

Dutch East Indies and Australia under attack, January–February 1942

Above: Map of Japanese assault on the Dutch (or Netherlands) East Indies and Darwin, Australia, January–February 1942. The “Malay Barrier” in the legend (aka “East Indies Barrier”) refers to a notional chain of defenses across South­east Asia and the Paci­fic that the Japa­nese breached in early 1942 by capturing the Malayan Penin­sula and Singa­pore (both British dependencies) and the Dutch East Indies. When the Dutch-held island of Java fell on March 8, 1942, it opened up the Indian Ocean to the Japanese Navy.

Adm. Doorman's flagship HNLMS De RuyterDutch Rear Adm. Karel Doorman

Left: Adm. Karel Doorman’s flagship HNLMS De Ruyter at anchor shortly before it was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of Door­man and 344 of his crew. The aging, vastly out­numbered war­ships of the four regional allies (U.S., Great Britain, the Nether­lands, and Aus­tra­lia) were no match for Japan’s huge fleet of top-of-the-line war­ships, which soundly defeated the ABDA fleet in four sea battles between Feb­ru­ary and March 1942. After the Battle of the Java Sea (Febru­ary 27, 1942), the ABDA effec­tively ceased to exist, along with the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, and Japa­nese land forces rapidly over­ran the Dutch East Indies with little further oppo­si­tion. (The U.S. Asiatic Fleet would be incor­po­rated into the U.S. Seventh Fleet when it was formed on March 15, 1943, in Brisbane, Australia.)

Right: Following navy tradition, Adm. Doorman chose to go down with his ship early on the morning of February 28, 1942.

Victorious Japanese in an Indonesian city, 1942Japanese enter Batavia, Dutch East Indies capital, March 1942

Above: Initially Indonesians wel­comed the Japa­nese as libera­tors and were im­pressed by Japa­nese pro­pa­ganda that stressed Asian sol­i­dar­ity against Euro­pean colo­nial regimes—slo­gans like “Japan—Light of Asia” and the radio roll­out of Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Pros­pe­rity Sphere” in June 1940. Soon, how­ever, the Japa­nese im­posed an oppres­sive occu­pa­tion. They ex­ploited the islands’ fuel sources (pri­marily oil, which the Dutch had cut off the year before), cut down large tracts of forests to plant cash crops for ex­port back to the Home Islands, and forced all able-bodied males to pro­vide free labor for their war effort (romusha labor pro­gram). Hun­dreds of thou­sands were sent over­seas to work on the con­struc­tion of the Thai-Burma rail­way and Japa­nese pro­jects else­where in South­east Asia.

Contemporary Japanese Footage of Japan’s Invasion of the Dutch East Indies