The Second World War is full of “Where were you when…?” moments. Lots of us have asked our grandparents those questions. Where were you when war was declared? Where were you on V.E. Day? Where were you on V.J. Day? Where were you when Churchill became Prime Minister or when Italy surrendered or when the A. bombs were dropped on Japan? Today is the 7th of December, 2011. It’s 70 years to the day since the events of the date which would live in infamy, took place at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. So, what happened on that day? What caused it? Why did it happen? What was life like before it happened? What was life like after it happened? This was a world-shaking event that shocked almost everyone in the world, but what made the 7th of December such a date of infamy?
Let’s find out together.
What is ‘Pearl Harbor’?
Pearl Harbor is a naval base belonging to the United States Navy. It gets the name ‘Pearl Harbor’ from the Hawaiian words ‘Wai Momi‘, or ‘Pearl Water’, which was the name of the area where the base was eventually built in the late 1800s. ‘Pearl Harbor’ originally went by a number of less poetic names. Among them were “Naval Station, Honolulu”, and “Naval Station, Hawaii”. Originally little more than a coaling-station (the seafaring equivalent of a pit-stop or a roadside diner), serious military interest in the area of the harbor started at the turn of the last century around 1899. By 1903, the base’s name was officially called ‘Pearl Harbor’. A new community to serve the growing naval base (‘Pearl City’) was established nearby in 1911. The naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was, and remains, the United States’ main naval base off its western coast.
The United States, 1941
The contention that America joined the Second World War merely to show off, flex its muscles, beat the Axis, take all the credit for the victory and stiff everyone else is a popular one on internet discussion-forums and YouTube video comments-lists.
But it’s not true.
The United States never had any intention of trying to outperform any other of the allied countries. It never attempted to try and win total victory. It never entered the war at its own convenience just ‘because’. What most people tend to forget, over seventy years after the start of the Second World War, was that the United States actually wanted nothing to do with the European conflict.
In the eyes of American politicians and the American public, and as evidenced by popular opinion polls in the “Why We Fight” 1940s series of documentary films produced by the United States Army, America wanted no part in any future wars. A fact that might amuse, confuse and surprise many people today.
The United States in the 1930s and 40s was initially at least, extremely isolationist. It didn’t join the Great War (now more commonly called World War One) until 1917. And that was a disaster. After surviving the bloody trenches of France, American doughboys were determined not to get themselves mixed up in another European war. As far as they were concerned, the English, the French, the Germans, the Italians and the Russians could play fisticuffs until the cows came home and America was going to pay absolutely no attention at all.
Or at least, that was the plan.
One of the biggest anti-war, anti-involvement and pro-isolationism supporters was a prominent American celebrity of the 1930s, a famous aviator called Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Famous for flying across the Atlantic Ocean nonstop in his airplane ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’, Lindbergh became even more famous as an outspoken supporter of American isolationism. So famous and so outspoken in fact, that when war finally was declared, Lindbergh’s previously almost legendary reputation was severely damaged.
Despite the official stance of neutrality, it’s often said that nobody is ever truly neutral, and the United States supported Great Britain in almost any way that it could apart from giving outright military support. And up until 1941, this remained the fullest extent of American involvement in World War Two.
Southeast Asia, 1941
The Far East was in turmoil in 1941. The Second Sino-Japanese War between the Chinese and the Japanese had been raging since 1937. By now, Japan controlled vast swathes of Chinese land and the Chinese National Revolutionary Army was in full retreat with little hope of foreign aid. Feeling invincible, the Japanese Imperial Army, Navy and Air Force wanted to conquer all of Asia. It would take everything that wasn’t nailed down or defended to the death, but those two small inconveniences wouldn’t stop them, either.
But, to take such enormous amounts of land in the Southwest Pacific, the Japanese required naval superiority. The powerful Royal Navy of Great Britain, which had dominated the seas since the early Georgian era in the 1700s, was elsewhere engaged in 1941, but there was still one force to be reckoned with. The United States Navy. No Japanese actions in the Pacific could go ahead with the United States Navy protecting American holdings in the Pacific. If the Japanese intended to dominate Asia, they first had to neutralise the American threat. They had to destroy Pearl Harbor.
America was under no illusions about the threat of the Japanese. It was one of the fastest growing countries in the world at the time, changing rapidly from a backwards society of feudalism and agriculture, to a powerful modern force that adopted Western teachings and technology with surprising swiftness. With Japanese actions in China in the 1930s, the United States began to fear quite rightly for its own safety. In the years and months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, American-Japanese relations began a serious deterioration. In 1940, America, which had previously supplied Japan with raw resources and military hardware, stopped all such shipments to Japan. It was hoped that, without American aid, the Japanese war-effort in the Pacific would die out and fizzle away. But it didn’t.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. October, 1941
In a show of force, then-president of the U.S.A., the famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ordered the United States fleet then at-anchor in San Diego, to relocate to Pearl Harbor. The purpose of this was to scare and intimidate the Japanese into calling off their attacks. America was now within striking-distance of Japan and if Japan didn’t play nice, the country with a former president who said that one should talk softly and carry a big stick, was going to bring that stick smack-down on Japanese heads. But Japan didn’t listen.
In July, 1941, the Americans stopped exporting oil to Japan in another attempt to starve and coerce the Japanese into ending their conflict, but this too, failed to intimidate the Japanese. The Americans were running out of options.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor
By mid-1941, American patience with the Japanese was wearing out, and Japanese aggression was heating up. The Japanese wanted more and the Americans weren’t giving it. The Japanese would have to take the resources that they needed for their war by force, and for that to happen, America had to be dealt with in the most direct way possible: An open military attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor.
The Naval base at Taranto on the Italian coast, in the 1930s
By this time, the Japanese were planning the attack on Pearl Harbor. To learn about strategic aerial bombardment, the Japanese studied the recent Battle of Taranto, in which the British attacked the Italian naval base of Taranto in the Mediterranean back in November of 1940. The attack was a success for the British, who wreaked significant damaged on the Italian base with only minimal losses.
The Japanese practiced their raids on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor relentlessly. They ‘bombed’ a model of the harbor repeatedly in the months and weeks leading up to the attack until their hit-rate had reached an accuracy of 80%. On the 26th of November, 1941, the Japanese set sail from their home ports. To totally annihilate the Americans, their task-force was equipped with:
Six aircraft-carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, eight tankers for refuelling, twenty-eight submarines (five of which were midgets) and 414 airplanes.
During the journey to Hawaii, the Japanese maintained radio-silence (abstaining from the use of radio in case their signals might be detected by the Americans) to hide their position from the enemy.
December 7th, 1941
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a complete and total surprise.
Although the Japanese had intended to formally declare war on the United States prior to the attack, the declaration never reached the U.S. Government in time and by the time it had, the attack had already started. It commenced at 7:53am on the morning of December 7th, 1941.
Because of radio silence, the Japanese were able to get extremely close to Hawaii and Pearl Harbor before unleashing their attack. The first wave of Japanese airplanes, comprising of ninety bombers armed with torpedoes and bombs, fifty-four dive-bombers, each equipped with 500lb general-purpose bombs, and forty-five of Japan’s famous Mitsubishi ‘Zero’ fighter-planes. Their targets were battleships, airfields, airplanes and aircraft-carriers.
The purpose of the first wave was to attack and destroy as much of the important infrastructure and military equipment as they could which was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Ships. Planes. Airfields. Hangars. Fuel and ammunition-dumps. Shortly after, the second wave took off. Their task was to destroy anything that the first wave had missed.
The second wave comprised of bombers, dive-bombers and fighters. 171 in total. Their targets included aircraft carriers, hangars, cruisers and aircraft, with the fighter-planes (again, Japanese Zeros) providing air-superiority.
U.S.S. Shaw explodes after her forward magazine is hit
The third wave of Japanese planes, which were designed to finish off Pearl Harbor, never took flight. By this time, it was feared that the Americans would have ammassed some sort of defense to intercept the third wave and that the element of surprise had been lost. Indeed, the growing American defense was wreaking havoc on the second wave and sending in additional Japanese reinforcements would’ve proven a waste of manpower and machinery.
The American Response
To say that America was caught off-guard by the Japanese attack is an understatement. They had absolutely no idea that any such attack was imminent. While American radar-stations on Hawaii had picked up on Japanese airplanes (scouts which had been sent ahead of the main attack-force), they were presumed to be American fighter-planes returning from a scheduled training-exercise. No significance was attached to their presence in the area.
At the time, American sailors and airmen were asleep in their barracks and bunks, blissfully unaware of everything that was going on. It wasn’t until the first bombs dropped and the sounding of a general alarm that the base realised it was under attack. And in the meantime, Pearl Harbor was a sitting duck.
Warships in Pearl Harbor were set up in neat rows alongside the docks. The famous “Battleship Row”. Clustering ships together like this made them a big, fat red target to the Japanese. It was impossible to miss them. In addition, few of the artillery pieces and machine-guns on Pearl Harbor were loaded or manned at the time of the attack. Ammunition was stored in locked ammunition-cages and lockers which the defending Americans had trouble accessing during the raid, delaying the speed of any counter-attack.
For fears of sabotage if their airplanes were kept locked in their hangars (“out of sight, out of mind”), American airplanes were instead parked on the tarmacs, outside their hangars in rows, where they would be easily visible (to deter tampering by enemy agents). This clustering of airplanes, just like with the ships, merely presented a big fat target to the Japanese, who decimated American airfields.
American battleships were woefully unprepared for any enemy attack. With guns unloaded and ammunition stored in locked bunkers and lockers far from their guns, much time was wasted in attempting to load guns with the correct ammunition to launch a successful response to the Japanese.
At the time, the Americans had 402 aircraft stationed on Hawaii. Of those, nearly half (188) were destroyed outright by the Japanese. Another 159 were damaged beyond immediate use. This left a mere 55 planes available to fight off a Japanese airborn force of 353 out of a total of 414 airplanes. Of those, only eight managed to get into the air.
The attack was surprisingly swift. From when it started at 7:53am, it was all over in about two hours, ending at 9:55. The damage wrought by the Japanese was significant.
Eight battleships (Arizona, Oklahoma, California, West Virginia, Nevada, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania) were targeted. Three were sunk, one capsized, one beached. The rest sustained relatively minor damage. The biggest disaster was the U.S.S. Arizona. When it sank, it took 1,177 men with it. Today, it is the Arizona Memorial. Along with the eight battleships, one training ship was struck along with three destroyers and three cruisers, which received relatively minor damage. A minelayer, a repair-ship and a seaplane tender were also hit during the attack but also received only minor damage.
The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,402 Americans, against 64 Japanese killed. Nearly half of the 2,402 Americans who died (1,177) were killed when the U.S.S. Arizona was hit, exploded and sunk.
December 7th, 1941 is a big date in history. Not just because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but because of the huge Japanese offensive that happened soon afterwards. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked almost every other country in the southeast Asia region. The countries that the Japanese attacked included British Malaya, Hong Kong, Wake Island, the Philippines, Guam and the International Settlement in Shanghai, China.
However, the biggest impact of December 7th was, undoubtedly, the entry of the United States of America into the Second World War, a conflict which it had previously attempted to remain out of, and only supporting its ally, Great Britain through economic aid. Overnight, public feeling in the United States swung the other way and by the next afternoon, America was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy.
The Infamy Speech
On the afternoon of December 8th, 1941, one of the most historic and important speeches of the 20th century was broadcast across the United States, live. It was the address to the United States Congress given by then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, it’s best known as the “Infamy Speech”. The name of the speech (and the title of this posting) comes from the speech’s opening lines.
The speech was delivered at 12:30pm (a half-hour after midday) on the 8th of December, 1941 by the President of the United States. Within a half-hour of the speech being given, the U.S. Congress voted ‘YES’ to going to war with Japan.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan
The text of the Infamy Speech is transcribed below, from the original broadcast:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
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.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
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, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.