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An Early Morning Wake-Up Call

Pearl Harbor
Battleship Row taken from a Japanese torpedo aircraft during the Pearl Harbor attack (US Public Domain)

It happened 75 years ago…

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese pilots and crew strapped inside 354 aircraft cockpits--torpedo bombers, dive bombers, fighters, and high-level bombers--were launched from six aircraft carriers strategically situated 200 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. The accompanying force--the largest naval air invasion group ever assembled up to that time--also included two battleships, two heavy cruisers, along with destroyers, support vessels and tankers. The destination: the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and surrounding military bases and airfields.

In two waves of attacks beginning 07:55 hours and lasting one hour and fifteen minutes, the undetected Japanese Imperial Navy fighters and bombers caught the Americans totally by surprise. Very few expected Japan--4,000 miles from Hawaii--to attack that far from their homeland. The Imperial Navy destroyed or damaged 188 US aircraft and 19 ships in the harbor, including eight battleships: 2,403 American personnel lost their lives, 68 of those civilians. An additional 1,178 were treated for wounds and injuries. Twenty-nine Japanese aircraft failed to return, with 74 damaged from anti-aircraft ground fire.

The sinking of the USS Arizona--a 30,000-ton battleship that had taken on 1.4 million gallons of oil the day before the attack--was America’s greatest catastrophe that day. Over 1,000 men were killed instantly, trapped inside the structure, when an 800-kilogram bomb struck from high altitude, exploding the forward magazines. As a result, the concussion from the blast raced across the water and land for miles.

The next day, in Washington, DC, with the USS Arizona still burning thousands of miles away, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood before Congress. Charged with emotion, he opened his address with these strong words:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval forces of the Empire of Japan.” He went on to inform his shocked country on the other Japanese attacks in the Pacific, then ended with a harsh truth. “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

“With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God! I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

And so, the die was cast...

Two years after World War II had begun with Adolf Hitler’s attack on Poland, the Americans were now forced into the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not have been happier. With the American industrial might officially on his side, he reportedly slept well the first night upon hearing the news of the attack; Roosevelt--with the pressure on him now--reportedly slept badly.

Congress had one dissenting vote out of the more than 500 in the House that December 8: sixty-one-year-old Montana Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, and a pacifist. “As a woman,” she informed the press, “I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Once Rankin’s brother heard the news of the vote, he told her: “Montana is 100 percent against you!” In Congress since 1916, she had also voted against America entering World War I. In early 1942, she retired from public office rather than face certain defeat in the coming election for her Montana seat.

USS Arizona burning after the Pearl Harbor attack
The USS Arizona burning after the Pearl Harbor attack (US Public Domain)

In retrospect, the Japanese made two crucial errors during the Pearl Harbor strike. Actually, one of them just happened to be bad luck. Both ended up being their undoing. First off, the man in charge of the attack force, First Air Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, decided against unleashing his third attack wave, despite protests from several of his high-ranking officers, including Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave. The proposed third wave targets were the dry docks, the massive oil storage tanks, repair facilities, large machine shops, and torpedo storage units. By the Japanese not hitting these, the US Navy was able to use the untouched machinery to salvage most of the damaged ships and eventually put them back in use. Had they unleashed the third wave, the Japanese could have knocked the US Pacific Fleet out of the picture for years.

Some of the reasons Nagumo considered for pulling back after two attacks were that the American anti-aircraft ground fire had improved by the second wave (downing 20 aircraft in the second wave, compared to 9 in the first wave), the deteriorating weather north of Hawaii which would make take-offs and landings hazardous, besides having to land them nearer to nightfall combined with refueling aircraft and such. Besides, the First Air Fleet ships would be running low on fuel had they remained in the area another half-day.

Secondly, despite excellent intelligence gathering from Japanese spies on the Hawaiian Islands--especially pertaining to the ships along Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor--the US aircraft carriers, a prime target for the Japanese strike force, were nowhere to be found, another reason for Nagumo to cancel the third wave. Up to that time, the Americans had three carriers assigned to the US Pacific Fleet. They were the USS Saratoga, the USS Lexington, and the USS Enterprise, the same name used in the Star Trek flicks that so many of us love.

The Enterprise had been off to Wake Island, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, delivering Marine squadron VMF-211 personnel and aircraft; and was expected to return to Pearl Harbor on December 6, but was delayed due to bad weather. The Lexington was on a similar mission, experiencing the same meteorological condition while ferrying dive bombers of VSMB-21 Squadron to Midway Island, a distance of 1,500 miles west. The third carrier, USS Saratoga, was still docked at San Diego, California, making arrangements to set sail for Pearl Harbor loaded with men, equipment, and airplanes within days.

The Enterprise arrived at Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 7 to see the carnage the Japanese had left behind from the two attacks. The Lexington never arrived at Midway because she was ordered directly to Pearl on the day of the attack, arriving there a week later. It’s interesting to note that carriers in general up to that time were not considered the air weapon they are today, but were deployed more for battleship support, instead. Overnight, to America’s shock, the Japanese had proven that wrong.

Then, six months later, from June 3-7, 1942, the US Navy took that strategy to the next step, complete with their own carrier force, by surprising the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, in what military historian John Keegan referred to as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”  Four of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor plus a heavy cruiser were sunk, while the US lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and a destroyer. It was the turning point in the Pacific War and US naval carrier power was responsible in a positive way, changing marine warfare forever. Three years later, after the Americans beat the Japanese all the way back to their homeland, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was all over.

For more than 50 years now, a 184-foot-long memorial stands over the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, where oil drops from inside the ship still rise to the Pearl Harbor surface at the rate of more than a gallon per day. While there were many financial contributors, we can also thank rock-n-roll star Elvis Presley for the site because he took the time to give a benefit concert in March 1961 that helped raise $64,000 for the future construction of the memorial--completed in 1962--that honors over 1,100 US Navy sailors still entombed below the water line following the “date which will live in infamy”--December 7, 1941.


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