HISTORY doesn’t have that
many precise demarcation
points. It’s a little fuzzy that way. What’s more, comparatively speaking, those demarcations usually don’t happen all that quickly either.
However, Dec. 7, 1941, was one of the exceptions. There was no in-between time. In a matter of a few hours, the United States left one era and entered another, after which no one’s life would be the same again.
But first let’s set the scene. Morning in Pearl Harbor, for that matter, anywhere in Hawaii, has something magical about it. The air, refreshed by the nighttime trade winds, is full of the fresh smell of Hawaii’s lush array of tropical plants and flowers. The sun is almost always shining.
That was the kind of morning the U.S. Navy, Army, Army Air Corps and Marine detachments stationed on the island of Oahu awoke to on Dec. 7, 1941. It was a Sunday and the pace, by military standards, was relaxed. Over on the USS Arizona, one of our most powerful battleships, the ship’s band had been allowed to sleep in because they had won Saturday night’s battle of the band’s competition. It was a little before 8 in the morning and the crew was preparing to raise the colors.
Yes, there was war in Europe and talk of war in the Pacific. However, peace talks were ongoing. Or so we thought. Indeed, at that very moment, Japanese diplomats were waiting for an audience with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The hope was that there might be some breakthrough settlement in the progressively deteriorating Pacific diplomatic stalemate. Alas, it was all a deception. Japan had made up its mind to go to war weeks, if not months, before.
Pearl Harbor was, as it still is today, a sprawling naval base, and on this Sunday it was full of ships. There were the battleships, cruisers, a dozen or so destroyers, auxiliary vessels of all kinds and submarines. There would have been aircraft carriers, as well, but they were still at sea. That would prove a godsend in the months to come.
In the middle of Pearl Harbor is Ford Island, then an active airbase, and not far away, was Hickam Field and Schofield Barracks. None realized that in addition to the naval base, they too would become targets for one of the largest carrier-based attacks launched up until that time.
Back in Washington, D.C., football fans were listening to the play-by-play on WOL radio as the Washington Redskins took on the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium. That was the tone of official Washington. Just another Sunday afternoon. Oh, and by the way, the Redskins won 20–14.
However, back at Pearl Harbor, as one ship’s log put it in succinct naval fashion, “Planes with red disc markings began attacking ships of the Pacific Fleet. Began firing.” The time was marked, military fashion, as 0758. At that point, for the United States, World War II had begun.
The losses at Pearl Harbor were grievous. There were two waves of air attacks and before it was over, 2,403 American servicemen bravely defending their country were dead. The Arizona went down with a loss of 1,177 sailors. Eight battleships were sunk, a number of others damaged and a total of 76 aircraft were destroyed on the ground at Ford Island and Hickam Field.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a joint session of Congress held the day after the attack, in one of the most memorable quotes of the era, said it was “a day that would live in infamy.” Congress declared war within the hour.
It was as if—in a single day—nothing was what it had been the day before. America’s era of isolation ended. What followed was an American military production and manpower mobilization on a scale and at a pace the world had never seen before and probably will never see again.
The United States went from being on the sidelines of world affairs to quickly taking on the status of a world power. And for that matter, in a term that hadn’t been coined yet, we would soon become a superpower.
Today there will be a special ceremony to commemorate the attack and remember those killed at Pearl Harbor. Those who died, were, like the rest of the nation, thrust into world events. The only thing is, in putting up a stiff defense to a surprise attack, they didn’t survive the day.
May they never be forgotten.