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The sinking of the USS Rockefeller by Japanese torpedo boats on September 14, 1924 was the catalyst for the Pacific War, making hostilities between the Allies and the Asian Powers official after months of tense standoffs and minor skirmishes. Three small Japanese torpedo boats ambushed the Rockefeller, which was the flagship of the American fleet, near Fiji and demanded its surrender as it had entered Japanese waters. After two hours, Captain William J. Baldwin attempted to turn the ship around and leave, and it was struck by seven torpedoes in shallow water. Of the crew of 2,144, as many as 1,577 were killed and hundreds more captured by the Japanese. Oceanian radio boats nearby heard Japanese frequencies confirming the sinking of the vessel and Port Moresby was quickly notified of the attacks.
The sinking of the Rockefeller resulted in President Charles E. Hughes of the United States asking Congress for a declaration of war against Japan on the 17th of September, and the full mobilization of all American military interests on November 1st. Within days, the Asian Powers had unanimously elected to go to war against the Allies, and thus the sinking of the Rockefeller is seen as the official start of the conflict (unofficially, an undeclared state of conflict and tension had existed for many months).
Many American historians claim that the sinking of the Rockefeller was a war crime, as survivors reported that they were attacked without warning when complying with Japanese demands to turn around and that Captain Baldwin in fact ordered the guns emptied in case a deck gun were to accidentally misfire during the standoff. In 1974, the Japanese government issued a formal apology to the families of the dead and the survivors for the attack against the Rockefeller, admitting that it was a move of hubris on the part of the torpedo boat commanders.
American Survivors Arrive in Port Moresby
The Hughes Address to Congress
Three days after the attack, President Hughes called a joint session of Congress and delivered his remarks:
"I come before you today with a humble composure, ever aware of the great shadow that now hangs over this Union. For months and years we have stared across the ocean that forms our western frontier to the lands of Asia, where the Empire of Japan and her satellite states dream of a global empire mightier than that of the French. We have been committed to peace, both in our Congress, our government and in our people, and we have been committed to the ideal that a state of war between our Union and the Empire of Japan would be a tragedy too great to wish upon our two nations.
As of yesterday morning, I was made aware that our ship, the Rockefeller of the United States Navy, was with malice and cowardice sunk in peaceful waters by Japanese vessels. Hundreds of American sailors were killed and drowned, innocent and void of responsibility. We here share blame for their deaths - it was we who instructed that ship to make its fateful journey to the Samoas, and it was we who naively believed that we could sail in peace in those foreign waters without reprisal.
The sinking of a United States Naval vessel by the Japanese, after months in which we have made clear our desire for lasting and permanent peace in the islands of the Pacific, constitutes an act of aggression and hostilities between our nations. We cannot afford to believe that the Emperor of Japan and his Shogun have any other desire than the destruction of the American presence in Asia, the Pacific and perhaps even in this Hemisphere. I have spoken no heavier words than these in my life, and it pains me to make such a heavy request in this waning hour of my Presidency. I request of you, the Congress, to legislate and declare that from this day, the Seventeenth of September, 1924, a state of war exists between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan, on grounds of hostilities towards the People and the Navy of the United States of America committed in cowardice. God help us all."