Attack on Pearl Harbor
Editor’s Note: This story was first published Dec. 1, 1991, as part of a special Stars and Stripes supplement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As we remember the Dec. 7, 1941 attack again this year, we decided to republish it because of the way it puts the events of that terrible day into perspective.
Fifty years ago, Japan struck the great American fleet anchorage at Pearl Harbor, blackening an azure Hawaiian sky with the blood of blasted battleships.
In little more than two and a half hours, it was over — the death of a fleet, the demise of a delusion.
Six battleships were sunk and two others, along with three cruisers and a like number of destroyers, were damaged. Ashore, at Hickam Field and other bases, about 180 planes had been destroyed and almost as many riddled by strafers and holed by bomb fragments.
Sorrowfully counting nearly 3,600 dead and wounded, 1,500 of these slain aboard the shattered
Arizona, Americans learned at last that they were not protected by power and distance. Their most important Pacific outpost had been sought out and assaulted by a distant enemy.
It was Sunday morning and the United States had been at prayerful peace, there and everywhere.
It would turn the lives of all who dropped a bomb or fired a shot — all who attacked or defended.
Hirata Matsumura, Zenji Abe and Yoshio Shiga would survive and remember — the Japanese in a thinning rank of veterans. Sharing memories, they would also reflect that Japan, rising above ruinous defeat, had attained more in peace than it could have hoped to gain in war. Fifty years after a reveille of thunderous explosions, Japan and the United States would be treaty partners and trade rivals. Japan would be accused of depressing the American economy, flooding the United States with Japanese goods and closing its own market to American products.
Brig. Gen. Kenneth Taylor, long retired, would never forget the morning he and one other pilot flew the only fighters to oppose the Japanese assault. Taylor would relate it to all who listened, warning always of the price of unpreparedness.
Richard Fiske would live to tell of a gallant officer’s death, watching the wounded captain of the West Virginia shout his last orders with his last breath.
All who survived that battle and many that followed would witness a time of cast-of-die change.
The United States, jolted out of isolationism, was forced to fight for its life — and to abandon forever the notion that there could be a Fortress America, with Americans living in safe and cushy comfort behind the walls. In postwar times, America would assume world leadership, thrusting power all over Asia and Europe.
But first there was that disruptive ordeal that lasted a few months short of four bitter years, with Americans unanimously unified in a way that would be unimaginable in the wars of future years.
The Pacific War broke out after one power made a gain-for-pain move to seize natural resources and another held up an arresting hand, the United States denying Japan the iron and fuel it needed to roll its war machine across Southeast Asia.
In Japan, arrogantly confident militarists answered to nobody, silencing dissidents with sword or gavel.
On the pathway to conquest, they suddenly found themselves answerable to a crippled statesman.
No, said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in early 1941 — Japan could not move into French Indochina, seizing control from a weak colonial government. Japan had flexed its arms far enough, endangering order and balance in an area important to strategy and trade.
No oil sold to Japan, Washington told Tokyo — and no scrap to be smelted in Kawasaki and Yawata, then pounded into steel for tanks and warships. Japanese assets in the United States were frozen.
Japan would pull its troops and warships out of Saigon and Haiphong — or face the ruinous consequences.
Japan continued to move southward. America prepared, straining to equip troops that used wooden howitzers in field maneuvers and to, at the same time, give Britain the goods to hold an anti-German front that extended from the English Channel to the Sahara.
America wasn’t ready. A drowsy public, sedated by two and a half decades of peace, had no use for foreign trouble and felt secure, shielded by thousands of miles of Atlantic and Pacific moat.
War was an ordeal that had touched America lightly in this century. In World War I, far fewer Americans were killed in France than those lost in postwar traffic accidents.
What was there to fear from Japan, a hardly-larger-than-California country whose forces were stalled in China? America had Pearl Harbor, the naval Maginot — the mid-Pacific gatekeeper that any intruder would have to pass.
In bars and grocery stores, signs were posted with comforting words, often under an archway of flags: It Can’t Happen Here.
Such confidence was native to the American soul.
In “Babes in Arms,” a 1940 film musical, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland joined other young voices to trill a tribute to “God’s Country,” granted the divine right to live in isolationist splendor, safe from foreign dictators and faraway trouble.
In Tokyo, strategists knew that going to war with the United States was buying on margin, an all-out gamble of resources Japan did not yet have in hand — the oil wells and refineries of Java, the ports and airfields that would be a fortress against counterattack.
The core of American strength in the Pacific was that strong fleet, and the Japanese knew it. But one well-invested stroke would smash a chain of naval power and allow Japan to easily seize what it wanted.
One strike on Pearl Harbor
And so, on Nov. 26, 1941, 23 warships — six carriers — sailed from Hitokappu Bay on Etorofu Island in the Kurils. They carefully threaded their way through dead-of-night fog. Close to Russian waters, they avoided contact with Soviet ships, not wanting a chance sighting to turn into an intelligence leak.
In the last, risk-of-war extremity, any Russian ship encountered would be sunk. Better that than the Soviets sighting the clandestine task force and telling the world.
But the Soviets knew. Before his arrest in Tokyo the month before, spy Richard Sorge had assured Red Army intelligence that the Japanese would not launch an assault on the Soviet Far East. They planned to attack Hawaii, followed by a general offensive on British, Dutch and American possessions.
Well informed, the Soviets rushed their Siberian garrison westward and smashed a German drive on Moscow. Another country was kept in the dark.
(Sorge, hanged in 1944, would be given knighthood status as a Hero of the Soviet Union — the man whose timely information saved the Soviet capital and turned the course of World War II).
Now, what the United States did not know would hurt it gravely.
America slept; Japan moved
In hour-before-dawn darkness, 353 aircraft soared off the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku, savaging a groggy garrison and sleeping fleet.
Sorting through wreckage, helping limping wounded and lifting away dead, Americans now knew it could happen here.
The Japanese counted fractional losses for large gain — 29 planes and 55 pilots or crewmen, five two-man submarines.
The next day, Roosevelt called Sunday, Dec. 7, “a date that will live in infamy” and asked that war be answered with war. Congress and the entire country responded with a unified resolve.
Recruiting stations could not handle the on-rush, handing volunteers order-of-priority numbers and telling them to stand in long lines. No signs were carried to protest the war or the draft. Anybody who resisted a summons faced the disdain of his neighbors and the wrath of the Justice Department.
Americans were enraged at the Japanese assault, launched as Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu prepared to deliver a final message to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, telling him that further negotiations were fruitless.
It was called a “sneak attack” — a stab in the back from a country that had been backward and isolated until an American admiral forcibly opened it in the last century. Japan was defamed in cartoons as a leering, treacherous troll that owed its status as an modern power to American largest and had ungratefully turned on its provider.
Racial anger was turned on Americans of Japanese descent. Their homes, stores and farms were taken as they were deported en masse to “relocation camps” in bleak places like Manzanar, Ariz.
Signs hung in bars offered “Japs” a free Mickey Finn — a drink spiked with an evacuant that caused severe diarrhea and was served to troublesome drunks.
Barber shops were willing to give Japanese-Americans free haircuts - “not responsible for sudden death while in chair,” smaller letters on a sign said.
Public anger intensified when a Japanese submarine surfaced near Ellwood, Calif., and shelled an oil field. Other Americans of Asian ancestry wore buttons identifying them as Chinese, Filipino or whatever.
Xenophobic war films flooded American screens. In “Air Force,” bombers landed in Hawaii as Pearl Harbor was attacked, with crewmen under fire from disloyal Japanese farmers as they came down.
“Salute to the Marines” cast Wallace Beery as a retired Leatherneck who rallied his neighbors to quell a Nisei (Japanese-American) uprising in Hawaii. “Little Tokyo, U.S.A.” justified the deportations, showing every Nisei flower shop and grocery store to be a nest of subversives.
There was never a proven case of disloyalty, sabotage or espionage against any of those deprived of freedom and property.
All over the United States, there was an overnight change in national attitude. Being American was now a responsibility, not a privilege. Every patriotic hand would be turned toward winning the war.
American factories threw away the 5 o’clock whistle, working at all hours. There were no more refrigerators, new cars or luxury items —only tanks, guns and warplanes.
The United States also declared war on Germany and Italy, Japan’s partners in the triad called the Axis.
In Tokyo, a wise and rueful few wished they had been listened to.
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, hadn’t wanted war. He feared the “invisible army” behind the American military— the work force that was armed with wrench and rivet gun and would soon have warships back in the water.
When male hands were pulled away from American assembly lines, boys as young as 16 replaced them — and women. Rosie the Riveter, first extolled in a popular song, became a wartime legend — the swing-shift worker in jeans or coveralls, her hair done up to keep it from snagging in a machine.
The war went badly at first. The Japanese took the Philippines, Hong Kong, Wake Island, the Malay Peninsula, Guam and the Dutch East Indies.
Such losses only fueled American determination, doubling workshifts, tripling sales of Defense Stamps and Bonds. Schoolchildren collected pots, pans and other aluminum scrap that would go into the fuselages of fighter planes. In Los Angeles, students at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School raised enough money in bond and stamp purchases to pay for a P-51 fighter, christened on the playground as “Walloping Waldo.”
No popular song could be successful unless the lyrics nodded to the war effort — campy classics like “Johnny Zero” and “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere,” in which a cripple pleaded with a recruiting sergeant: “Do not judge my courage by my twisted leg. Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do, sir, let me help and take the Axis down a peg.”
A country song proclaimed to the Japanese: “We didn’t invite you over, but we’re gonna repay the call.”
The rattle of rivet gun, the glare of welding torch was evident at all hours. Every American of any class or calling was in the war up to his or her neck — the housewife who worked in a defense plant and the farm boy whose enlistment marked his first trip beyond an rural mailbox.
Clark Gable enlisted and so did James Stewart. Actor Lew Ay res, declaring himself a pacifist who would serve only as a disarmed medic, suffered crippling career damage. Ayres’ movies were shelved and his role in the popular Dr. Kildare series was passed to Van Johnson, who had been declared 4-F (physically unfit) and never served a day.
What Yamamoto feared was coming to pass. Military goods poured from an industrial cornucopia.
The Japanese found themselves facing firepower afloat and in the air.
Not one of the carriers that launched the Pearl Harbor strike survived the war. Four were lost in the turn-of-tide battle at Midway.
In a slow, island-crawling campaign, the Allies regained all they had lost.
Her fleet demolished, most of her aircraft gone, Japan watched doorstep territory on Okinawa taken and stood besieged. Last-stand defenses were dug, with high-school girls taught to stab Americans with sharpened bamboo poles.
The Pacific War would end with a modern and terrible Tale of Two Cities — 247,000 killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and 73,884 at Nagasaki, not counting those who later died of radiation infirmities.
As a crippled diplomat limped aboard an American battleship to sign a surrender document, the final toll was 2 million Japanese dead, taking in civilian bombing casualties as well as battle losses.
On the American mainland, the toll of civilian casualties was six. A woman and five children were killed when they tampered with a strange object that had fallen in an Oregon woods — one of the explosive-laden balloons the Japanese had launched at the American West Coast. This was a last desperate effort to reach a distant enemy whose long reach had already devastated cities in Japan.
America, losing 295,904 on all fronts, had learned a hard-way lesson.