Paul W. Barada
In just a couple of days, on Dec. 7, we will be commemorating the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was that single event which brought the United States into World War II. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech before a joint session of the Congress, portions of which are worth remembering.
He said, in part, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…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, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
For those Americans born since about 1960, the attack on Pearl Harbor is remembered only as an event briefly studied in school. Like so many historic events, there is very little reality about the attack. How quickly world-changing events are relegated to the pages of history and become little more than a date that needs to be remembered only because what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, might be a question asked on a quiz. Yet, there are still a few people alive today who vividly remember that Sunday morning so long ago. Some are even survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Altogether, the Japanese attack force consisted of six aircraft carriers and 423 planes along with approximately 30 other support ships. The main targets were the battleships moored inside the harbor. In all, eight of our battleships were damaged. All but two, the Arizona and the Oklahoma, were repaired and put back into service. The Japanese had hoped to attack America’s three aircraft carries in the Pacific (the Lexington, Enterprise, and Saratoga), but they were not in port at the time and escaped the attack. Over 180 American aircraft were destroyed on the ground during the attack.
Total American casualties were 2,335 service men and approximately 68 civilians, with an additional 1,178 people wounded in the attack, which lasted less than two hours, from approximately 7:55 to 9:45 a.m. A significant part of the total American losses were the 1,100 men who were killed aboard the USS Arizona. The Japanese lost only 65 men in the attack.
The attack was a total surprise to the Americans. The island’s defenses were completely unmanned, and no measures had been taken to put Pearl Harbor on high alert, despite the fact that an attack was expected (although no one knew when to expect it). As a result of the failure to take even basic precautions, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short were both relieved of duty.
The net effect was to unify the American people as few other events could have at the time. The sneak attack, as it was called, brought the American people together in a concerted effort to defeat the Japanese and, ultimately, end the war with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
The commander of the Japanese fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who, upon hearing of the success of the Japanese attack purportedly said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” Whether Yamamoto actually uttered that quote is a matter of speculation, although it may have reflected his real feelings about the attack. What Yamamoto actually did say was, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. We would have to march into Washington and sign the treaty in the White House.”
Just a few days later, on Dec. 11, 1941, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy both declared war on the United States, which expanded the conflict into a truly world war, the second such conflict in less than 25 years. When Hitler was told about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he reportedly said, “We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years.” Well, there is a first time for everything, and the Japanese eventually did lose the war and became the first nation in history to feel the full effects of the dawn of the Nuclear Age.
Perhaps Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it best in his account of Pearl Harbor, that “there were some in England who feared the consequences of that fateful blow and doubted the ability of the Americans to stand up to the test of modern war. But I had studied the American Civil War,” he said, “fought out to the last desperate inch, and I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
The “boys,” most of whom are gone now, who were at Pearl Harbor 71 years ago were as alive and full of anticipation of what life held in store for them as any young man today. It’s good, therefore, to be reminded of those times and the sacrifice that was made by so many all those years ago.