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Pearl Harbor: A Day Which Will Live in Infamy

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

“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.” This immortal quote was proclaimed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8th, 1941, barely a day after the deadliest attack on American soil until September 11th. In only a few short hours, the neutral United States had been thrust into the most destructive war in history. A war that would conclude with 405,000 Americans killed and millions more wounded. But why did the attack occur? Why would Japan attack a nation at peace?

Why would Japan attack a nation at peace?

As with the rest of the Second World War, the events leading to the U.S. entry start at the end of World War One. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formally ending the previous four years of unimaginable carnage. In this treaty, the Empire of Japan was largely ignored and only gained a few new territories scattered throughout the Pacific region. To a large part of the Japanese population, this was unacceptable and further expansion was seen as necessary. In 1931, Japan occupied the Chinese province of Manchuria as a result of a false-flag attack on a Japanese-owned railway. However, this wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy Japan’s imperial desires. Therefore, in 1937, the Japanese military advanced into China through the previously conquered Manchuria. This action was protested by the major powers of the world, including the U.S., but not much was done. It took until July of 1941 when Japan annexed French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) for the United States, United Kingdom, and Dutch East Indies to put an embargo on exports to Japan. This severely restricted the ability of Japan to continue military expansion due to the majority of both rubber and oil coming from these nations. Consequently, the Japanese government decided that war with America was inevitable, and the only way to win would be to strike first.

USS Arizona sinking to the bottom of the harbor after her ammunition detonated; Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

On November 26th, a Japanese fleet containing six aircraft carriers departed their anchorage in the north of Japan. Their target—the United States Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Pacific Fleet was the only naval force on that side of the world that could match the Japanese. In order to achieve the element of surprise as well as maximum destructive potential, the attack was to be carried out entirely by aircraft from the carriers. On December 6th, a group of four Japanese submarines reached a point only fifteen miles from the entrance to the harbor and each deployed a tiny two-man submarine which was to attempt to infiltrate the harbor simultaneously with the air attack. Around 6:00 AM on the 7th, one of the miniature submarines was spotted at the mouth of the harbor by the destroyer USS Ward and was promptly sunk by gunfire forty-five minutes later. This action was inadvertently the first American shot of the war. Meanwhile, the main fleet had arrived in position some 265 miles off of Oahu. At 6:10 the first wave of Japanese attackers took off from the carriers and began heading towards Pearl Harbor. At 7:20 the armada of planes appears on American radar but it is decided that they are the six B-17 bombers that were flying in from California that day. The first strike eventually reached Oahu at 7:50 and began attacking the various military installations scattered across the island. Fortunately for the Pacific Fleet, the two aircraft carriers stationed in the Pacific were not in port at the time. However, there were still plenty of ships in the harbor and many of the crewmen were sleeping in or otherwise enjoying their Sunday morning. Among these ships were seven battleships, six anchored neatly together in a spot known as “Battleship Row” (The seventh, the Pennsylvania, was being repaired at the time). At 8:10 the USS Arizona took a direct hit from a bomb and exploded. The second of the two attack waves arrived at 8:55 and set about continuing the chaos inflicted by the original group. The attack lasted another hour until approximately 10:00 when all of the Japanese attackers began returning to the fleet.

At 7:20 the armada of planes appears on American radar but it is decided that they are the six B-17 bombers that were flying in from California that day. The first strike eventually reached Oahu at 7:50...

The destroyer, USS Shaw, explodes while docked; Photo Credit: Getty Images.

By the time the drone of the last plane’s engine had faded, the level of devastation was unimaginable. Across the island, 2,404 people lay dead or dying (1,177 of which died on the Arizona) with around a thousand more injured. In addition to the human losses, the navy and airforce elements on the island were in shambles. The navy lost two battleships with a further six damaged, three cruisers and three destroyers were also damaged as well as four auxiliaries damaged and one sunk. In addition to the ships, 31 navy planes were damaged and 92 were destroyed. The Army Air Corps had 128 damaged planes and 77 destroyed. In stark contrast, the Japanese suffered only suffered five minisubs and 29 aircraft destroyed plus 74 aircraft damage. The total number of Japanese killed was roughly 100, tiny in comparison (National World War II Museum/National Archives). The ratio between the two sides can aptly be described as one-sided.

Although it is the most memorable event of the time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was just one of the many attacks and invasions launched by the Japanese at the beginning of December 1941. By the spring of 1942, the American controlled Philipines, British Malaya, and Hong Kong, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) had all fallen to the Japanese. Despite this continuous string of losses for America and its allies, the spirit of American heroism and resolve was truly forged in the flames of December 7th, 1941. In all, fifteen Medals of Honor and fifty-one Navy Crosses were awarded to servicemen for courageous actions during the attack (Britannica). As we go through our Tuesday, may we remember the reason the flag is at half-mast and all of those who sacrificed everything to keep the flag flying.

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