December 7, 1941
The world was in a perilous place in December 1941. Hitler’s Nazi armies were marching across Europe. Imperialist Japan was expanding its empire across China and much of the Pacific. With little desire to become involved in a global conflict, the United States mostly watched as the world became a more dangerous place. That all changed one Sunday morning in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Japan was a country with great ambition but few natural resources. To make up for this shortage, Japan attacked its neighbors in China and Southeast Asia. In response, the United States cut off oil and other raw materials to Japan believing this would reign in Japanese expansionism. The two countries tried to negotiate but these talks led to little progress. War was inevitable.
Military leaders believed if Japan were to attack it would be against U.S. interests in the South Pacific. The thought of an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor garnered little contemplation.
The U.S.S. Arizona as it lies today
But Japan did plan to attack Pearl Harbor. Japan believed that a decisive blow against the Pacific Fleet would cripple America’s ability to stop Japan’s plans of conquest. After months of meticulous preparation, Japan sent a group of six aircraft carriers, submarines and support vessels towards Hawaii. At about 8 a.m., on December 7, Japan began the attack over Pearl Harbor. The United States was caught by surprise.
The attack lasted about two hours with several waives of Japanese plains hitting multiple targets. Although heroism was common that morning, Americans on the ground were not able to mount much of a sustainable response. Twenty-one American ships were sunk or damaged. 188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged. American dead numbered 2,403, a figure that included 68 civilians. There were 1,178 military and civilian wounded. Of those killed, 1,177 men died on the U.S.S. Arizona after a bomb landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The attack took a heavy toll.
Despite the carnage, there were some positives for America. The Japanese had failed to destroy important onshore facilities such as oil storage depots, repair shops and shipyard and submarine docks. There were no aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor that morning, a development that proved a vital bit of fortune as carriers would become the most important vessel in the war. Of the eight battleships that were sunk or badly damaged, only the Arizona and Utah were not raised and repaired.
America responded by uniting around the attack and committing itself to total victory. President Franklin Roosevelt would address a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941 saying, “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.”
It was the commander of the Japanese fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a man who had graduated from Harvard with an economics degree, who uttered the now famous words, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Yamamoto’s words proved true. The attack galvanized the American people and led directly to the defeat of both Japan and Germany in World War II.
“A date that will live in infamy”
Footnotes of Interest:
The only vote cast against the declaration of war against Japan came from Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Rankin was a pacifist who had also voted against America going to war in World War I. “As a woman,” she said. “I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
The original vote to go to war was only against Japan. On December 11, 1941, Japanese allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The United States Congress reciprocated.