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The Pearl Harbor Attack

Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 - History and Significance

The December 7, 1941 Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor was one of the great defining moments in history. A single carefully planned and well executed surprise attack that removed the United States Navy's battleship force as a possible threat to the Japanese Empire's southward expansion. America, unprepared and now considerably weakened, was abruptly brought into the Second World War as a full combatant.

Pearl Habor before being attackedEighteen months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred the United States Fleet to Pearl Harbor as a presumed deterrent to Japanese aggression. The Japanese military, deeply engaged in the seemingly endless war it had started against China in mid-1937, badly needed oil and other raw materials. Commercial access to these was gradually curtailed as the conquests continued. In July of 1941 the Western powers effectively halted trade with Japan. From then on, as the desperate Japanese schemed to seize the oil and mineral-rich East Indies and Southeast Asia, a Pacific war was virtually inevitable.

Pearl Harbor before being bombed By late November 1941, with peace negotiations clearly approaching an end, informed U.S. officials (and they were pretty well informed through an ability to read Japan's diplomatic codes to a large extent) fully expected a Japanese attack into the Indies, Malaya and possibly the Philippines. Completely unanticipated was the prospect that Japan would also attack east at Pearl Harbor, on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii.

The U.S, fleet's Pearl Harbor base was reachable by an aircraft carrier force, and the Japanese Navy secretly sent one across the Pacific with greater aerial striking power than had ever been seen on the world's oceans. It consisted of six aircraft carriers with 360 planes and 25 support vessels. Pearl Harbor being bombedAt 5 A.M., December 7, 1941, Japanese reconnaissance planes surveyed Pearl Harbor and reported that the Fleet was in. One hour later 190 of the 360 attack planes took off to hit the American airfields and the primary target, the Fleet. A second wave of 170 took off 45 minutes later to mop up. We must understand that Radar as we know it today was not developed at that time, although there was first generation Radar available. There was no TV either, just radio. There were no Satellites in space then; therefore, early warning was primarily ground based watchers or airborne aircraft and since we did not suspect the Japanese Fleet to be approaching Hawaii there were no aircraft out looking for it. The attacks on the airfields started at 7:55 A.M. and the lined up ships of the Fleet in the harbor were hit for 30 minutes starting at 8 AM on December 7, 1941 (Hawaii Time). Within a short time five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk, sinking, or totally disabled with at least the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes were also knocked out. The second wave arrived about 15 minutes later. Battleships Arizona (remains there as a memorial today), California, and West Virginia were sunk. The Oklahoma capsized and the Nevada was severely damaged. The Pennsylvania, the Tennessee, and the Maryland were crippled, but not sunk or completely disabled. Three cruisers, three destroyers, and a seaplane tender were also severely damaged. 96 Army aircraft and 92 Navy aircraft were destroyed and 159 more damaged. During the attack only six Army fighters and 36 Navy fighters got into the air. Note: The Air Force was not a separate service, but part of the Army at this time. The Japanese lost 28 planes and a total of 64 men in the raid. The staggering loss of life to US forces was over 2,400 with more than 2,000 others wounded. Indeed the largest total killed in one day/one engagement with an enemy force until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Japanese had inflicted the worst defeat in American military history upon our forces. Hawaii was a US territory at the time and not yet a state. Another big difference from 9/11 to note is that most of these casualties were members of the armed services and not civilians.

This “sneak” attack on Pearl Harbor was labeled by President Roosevelt as “a Day of Infamy” and the battle cry of the American people became “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Later Japanese Admiral Yamamoto who was in command of the Japanese Fleet said “It seems all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant.” How true that was!

The only bright spot in the bombing of Pearl Harbor was that the Japanese had hoped also to destroy the four aircraft carriers of the American Fleet in the Pacific. They were operating at sea and not in port when the attack occurred.

Because of the treaties between Japan, Germany, and Italy, the attack against Pearl Harbor brought the United States into war against all three axis powers (there were four other smaller nations with the Axis). On December 8, 1941 the US declared war on all three and joined Great Britain, France, the USSR, and China (and 19 other smaller nations) as the Allied powers.

Germany had started World War II by occupying Austria in March of 1938 and followed three days later by taking over Czechoslovakia, also by invasion without opposition. Great Britain and France did not rise up in defense. However, when on September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland, they met armed opposition and the German blitzkrieg (lightening war) began. This date marks the beginning of armed conflict in World War II. The blitzkrieg was a coordinated infantry, armor, and air; fast moving armed military overrun of a country. Even though Poland had the fifth largest army in Europe, the Germans won in only twenty days. Germany conquered all of Europe, including France which fell in only six weeks, that was not aligned with the Axis powers except Great Britain by June 22, 1940.

For some reason Hitler decided to bomb Great Britain into submission rather than invade across the channel and he underestimated the resolve of the British people and British air power. Great Britain held on through “The Battle of Britain” until the United States entered the war as a result of Pearl Harbor. In the meantime, on the eastern front, Hitler tried his blitzkrieg on the USSR where the huge land mass, cruel winter, and sheer numbers and defiant resistance turned the tables on blitzkrieg.

The Japanese continued on after Pearl Harbor and eliminated much of America's air power in the Philippines and the Japanese Army was ashore in Malaya. However, Admiral Yamamoto was correct, these Japanese successes beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor, all achieved without prior diplomatic formalities, shocked and enraged the previously divided American people to a level of purposeful unity hardly seen before or since. YES, THE SLEEPING GIANT HAD BEEN A WAKENED!

America immediately went to a total war footing by implementing the draft which was established by the Selective Service Act of 1940. Even though volunteers came in by the thousands, the draft ensured that all able bodied men from 18 to 45 had an equal chance to serve. Next, just about everything was rationed at home so that the war effort would have the most and best of everything. Gasoline & all petroleum products, sugar, butter, rubber (synthetic rubber came from this necessity), nylon products, coffee, tea, .-any foodstuff or raw material that we used. We had to be self sufficient because we were not sure we could import anything from anybody. The automobile industry came to a complete stop and all such factories started building vehicles and planes for the war effort. There were no new cars or new motor vehicles of any kind available for those at home, period. Women by the droves went to work in factories and all industry to fill positions that men had filled because they were all off to war. Women, too, enlisted as auxiliaries for each service. They were not drafted. There were thousands of Nurses and several hundred WASP pilots who already knew how to fly that ferried aircraft of all types to where they were needed. No women were assigned as combatants and they made up about 2.5% of the force. The military strength of the United States grew from 458,365 in 1941 to 12,056,884 in 1945. There were over 16,000,000 total personnel who served in the armed forces during World War II. The United States produced 300,000 aircraft in the 62 months between July 1940 and August 1945. The aircraft industry which utilized considerable of the automobile industry went from producing less than 100 planes a year to a peak production of 9,113 in one month, March of 1944. By March 1, 1943 there were 22 new carriers, 11 new fast battleships, and too numerous to count small vessels and amphibious craft that were not in existence at the beginning of the war. There were hundreds of thousands of army vehicles such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and jeeps not to mention new and improved personal weapons for the millions of troops. This came from an economy that was hard pressed to equip a 450,000 man military at the beginning of the war.

The surge of the unified will of the people and unprecedented transfer from civil industry to producing war materials, plus the miraculous absence of the carrier fleet at Pearl Harbor, led to the regrouping of the US Fleet, now called the Pacific Fleet and a small victory in the Coral Sea versus the Japanese Fleet on May 7 & 8, 1942 which was the first Naval engagement where the firepower was aircraft from each of the fleet's carriers and not battleships. Both sides lost carriers, the Japanese two and the US one and both sides lost 50 to 100 aircraft, but the US served notice that the “sleeping giant” was awakening. Our production lines were humming and the people were totally into the effort. This battle provided evidence that the US was ready, able, and willing to contest the Japanese. Then in early June 1942 at the battle of Midway the US Pacific Fleet eliminated much of Japan's striking power with those carriers that had not been in port at Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941. They now had a boatload of attack aircraft from that wonderfully producing aircraft industry and well trained and determined crews from an apparently unlimited supply of manpower. The Pacific Fleet achieved a decisive victory by sinking four Japanese carriers, three battleships, several destroyers and cruisers and destroying 275 Japanese aircraft while losing one carrier and 150 planes.

It was far from over, but at least the tide had turned to a more equal footing in the Pacific so that the US could focus on Europe first as promised and with Great Britain, Canada (and Australia & New Zealand in the Pacific), and the USSR defeat Hitler and then come back and finish off Japan. There would be much more sacrifice in lives in combat actions and sacrifice on the home front as the masses continued to be devoted to production of war materials. We have recently been reminded of the Normandy Invasion (D-Day) on June 6, 1944 which was the largest invasion in history and the sacrifice in lives was great. Pearl Harbor being attackedThat came after the Axis powers were driven from or defeated in North Africa and Italy and led to a push on Germany from the west by US & British forces primarily (Canadians, too) and the Soviets from the east. On May 7,1945 Germany surrendered. In the meantime US forces were Island hopping toward Japan at a great cost of many lives. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo from carriers on April 18, 1942 was a notice to the Japanese that they were not invulnerable to attack. But it was not until June 15, 1944 that the US really had taken staging bases close enough to Japan to begin launching effective land based air attack such as those that had been flown for over three years against Germany. Primarily, carrier based airpower gained air superiority throughout the Pacific and the US Pacific fleet took control of the sea and supported the bitterly and costly Island conquests by ground forces. During the latter stages of the war, Japanese kamikaze attacks took a tremendous toll on the US fleet. American land based airpower, operating from these conquered islands, consolidated the control of the air and took the war to the Japanese homeland. It appeared that an invasion of Japan would be necessary and probably at the cost of at least a million Allied lives. Then, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan and another on Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945.

Pearl Harbor ships being destroyedThere were Twenty Million people killed in World War II. At least 4 million were civilians. There were at least 3 times as many injured as killed. There were almost 406,000 Americans killed and over 671,000 wounded. This ought to tell us that FREEDOM is not FREE. Itought to tell us that war on a global scale is a means to destruction of the human race. It ought to tell us that we must be ever vigilant and stop aggression before it spreads. This ought to tell us that in today's world of speed and instant communication we don't have time to power up from next to nothing in order to meet a threat.

World War II saved the world. The war could not have been won without the sacrifices of people to produce the technical and wartime production capabilities that we never dreamed possible, nor did our enemies. This combined manpower and materials effort of the United States produced the greatest manufacturing effort in history. The unity of purpose on the home front combined with a well trained, fierce and heroic armed service of epic proportions did produce the greatest fighting force ever seen by mankind.

AND IT ALL STARTED WITH PEARL HARBOR -a dastardly act which unified our country like never before or since. The Sleeping Giant was awakened!

William T. Stanley
Chairman, Pearl Harbor Day Commemorative Committee, Henderson County

Sources:
Aerospace the Challenge, AFROTC Text, 1979
Bull Halsey, a Biography by E.B. Potter, 1985
Department of the Navy -Naval Historical Center, “Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941” Overview and Special Image Selection, 7/8/2004
World Book: Attack on Pearl Harbor, 7/8/2004
Pearl Harbor Remembered, 7/8/2004
Personal accounts, from some of those who were at the front and some who were at home

When is Pearl Harbor Day?

December 7 of each year. The original attack was Sunday, December 7, 1941.

 

Where is Pearl Harbor?

 


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