Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941
Overview and Special Image Selection
The 7 December 1941 Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor was one of the great defining moments in history. A single carefully-planned and well-executed stroke removed the United States Navy’s battleship force as a possible threat to the Japanese Empire’s southward expansion. America, unprepared and now considerably weakened, was abruptly brought into the Second World War as a full combatant.
Eighteen months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred the United States Fleet to Pearl Harbor as a presumed deterrent to Japanese aggression. The Japanese military, deeply engaged in the seemingly endless war it had started against China in mid-1937, badly needed oil and other raw materials. Commercial access to these was gradually curtailed as the conquests continued. In July 1941 the Western powers effectively halted trade with Japan. From then on, as the desperate Japanese schemed to seize the oil and mineral-rich East Indies and Southeast Asia, a Pacific war was virtually inevitable.
By late November 1941, with peace negotiations clearly approaching an end, informed U.S. officials (and they were well-informed, they believed, through an ability to read Japan’s diplomatic codes) fully expected a Japanese attack into the Indies, Malaya and probably the Philippines. Completely unanticipated was the prospect that Japan would attack east, as well.
The U.S. Fleet’s Pearl Harbor base was reachable by an aircraft carrier force, and the Japanese Navy secretly sent one across the Pacific with greater aerial striking power than had ever been seen on the World’s oceans. Its planes hit just before 8AM on 7 December. Within a short time five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes were also knocked out and over 2400 Americans were dead. Soon after, Japanese planes eliminated much of the American air force in the Philippines, and a Japanese Army was ashore in Malaya.
These great Japanese successes, achieved without prior diplomatic formalities, shocked and enraged the previously divided American people into a level of purposeful unity hardly seen before or since. For the next five months, until the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May, Japan’s far-reaching offensives proceeded untroubled by fruitful opposition. American and Allied morale suffered accordingly. Under normal political circumstances, an accommodation might have been considered.
However, the memory of the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor fueled a determination to fight on. Once the Battle of Midway in early June 1942 had eliminated much of Japan’s striking power, that same memory stoked a relentless war to reverse her conquests and remove her, and her German and Italian allies, as future threats to World peace.
–Naval History & Heritage Command
My father was traumatized by the attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember him showing me the newspapers with the headlines blazing with the news. He told me it was so hard for people to grasp. He told me that America didn’t want to enter WWII. Isolationism really was the public thinking. But the attack changed all of that. And history shows that for the rest of the world it would be a turning point in the war. Many good men died in Pearl Harbor. Some went down in their ships and are “buried” there. Those men and women who were killed that day are every bit as much heroes as the men and women who served and worked through the rest of the war to free the world. I remember my Father tearing up telling me about the attack. His family had immigrated to America, but he considered himself an American. He was not called up to fight but he followed all of the news of the day. December 7, 1941, was a Sunday morning and the Japanese planes came out of nowhere and bombed all of the Navy ships as they were docked at Pearl Harbor. A veteran, any veteran gives up a huge piece of himself when he/she goes off to fight a war. “The Great War” was the last time that veterans came home to parades and pride for opening up the camps and letting out the Jews, Poles and Gypsies. They freed France and many men died.
My father was very upset by Pearl Harbor, but I didn’t understand why. On 9-11, when we were once again attacked, I understood. It had happened again. My Father had passed some 20 years before, and I wish I’d been able to tell him that, now, I understood completely.
In midnight sleep of many a face of anguish,
Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, ( of that indescribable look, )
Of the dead on their backs with arms extended wide,
I dream, I dream, I dream
Of scenes of Nature, fields and mountains,
Of skies so beauteous after as storm, and at night the moon
so unearthly bright,
Shining sweetly, shining down, where we dig the trenches
and gather the heaps,
I dream, I dream, I dream
Long have they pass’d, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure,
or away from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time — but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream