Pearl Harbor Attack: The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor
The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor

The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor

Larry Holzwarth - February 9, 2022

The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor
Cavite Navy Yard in flames following Japanese attacks in the Philippines, December 10, 1941. US Navy

Pearl Harbor was the major Japanese attack in the Pacific that December

Within a span of less than eight hours following the Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor, American, British, and Dutch possessions in the Pacific also came under attack. In all cases, they struck enemy airfields and, where relevant, Naval installations. American bases in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island were assaulted almost simultaneously. All received severe damage and casualties. British installations in Malaya and Singapore, the latter called by Churchill the bastion of the Empire, came under attack. Even before the American Congress heard FDR’s request for a declaration of war against Japan, the British Empire had declared war. Churchill himself directed a British task group, consisting of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, to support the defense of Malaya. Both were sunk by Japanese air attack on December 10.

By that time there were already calls across the United States for an investigation into what happened at Pearl Harbor, as well as open accusations of Roosevelt having foreknowledge of the attack. One area of focus among those who believe FDR knew of the impending attack was the absence of the American aircraft carriers from Pearl Harbor. The theory suggests FDR had the Navy remove the carriers to protect them from harm, and ignores naval doctrine of the day. In December 1941, aircraft carriers were not considered capital ships by navies which adopted the Mahan Doctrine (including Great Britain, the United States, and Japan). Battleships and heavy cruisers comprised capital ships, carriers were considered part of the fleet’s scouting forces. The Pearl Harbor debacle led the world’s fleets to reconsider the value of aircraft carriers.

The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor
USS Enterprise was much closer to Pearl Harbor than widely believed, and was schedule to be in port before the attack. US Navy

American carriers were absent to prevent them from being attacked

American carriers were absent to prevent they are being attacked, The United States had three aircraft carriers in the Pacific in December 1941. USS Saratoga was in a scheduled refit in Puget Sound. Lexington and Enterprise were both returning from missions during which they reinforced Marine aviation groups, the former at Midway, the latter at Wake Island. Had Enterprise been on schedule, the carrier would have entered port on December 6, after dispatching its air groups to the Naval Air Stations at Pearl Harbor. Heavy weather encountered during its return from Wake Island delayed its arrival by about 24 hours. During the attack, Enterprise was about 200 miles from Pearl Harbor, and planes from its air groups arrived over Hawaii as the attack was underway. Additional aircraft arrived following the Japanese raid and were subjected to friendly fire by the understandably jittery gun crews on the island.

The fact is, the battleships of the US Pacific Fleet were considered by the Navy at the time as the most valuable asset present at Pearl Harbor. Although the United States had other battleships which could be transferred to the Pacific, including Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, New York, and Mississippi among others, it could ill afford the loss of the ships destroyed on December 7. It was from the Japanese the United States, and Great Britain, learned the value of aircraft carriers massed together as an offensive weapon at sea. With a couple of notable exceptions, the battleship was relegated to task force defense and shore bombardment following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The majority of the surface engagements which occurred in the Pacific during the war involved cruisers and destroyers. Fleet actions involved aircraft carriers, usually well out of sight of each other.

The Reality of Living through Pearl Harbor
The remains of USS Arizona continue to leak fuel oil eight decades after the ship was lost. US Navy

Pearl Harbor remains controversial eight decades on

Following the war, the attack on Pearl Harbor, an assault by a belligerent against a neutral nation, was designated a war crime. A total of 2,403 Americans were killed in the surprise attack, the first of over 100,000 who lost their lives during the Pacific War. During the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Navy Minister Shigetaro Shimada, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and Osami Nagano, Chief of the Naval Staff, were charged with and convicted of war crimes involving the Pearl Harbor attack. Yamamoto, who planned the attack, and Nagumo, who commanded the task force which accomplished it, were both dead by then. Conspiracy theorists and revisionists believe FDR should have been charged as well, though the evidence he was aware of the pending attack and deliberately covered it up does not, for the most part, stand up to close examination.

By the late 1990s, the stirring World War II call to “Remember Pearl Harbor” had faded from memory. The attack is barely mentioned in American schools and history textbooks in the 21st century. The grandchildren of Americans who huddled by their radios on December 7, 1941, are largely unaware of the date’s significance. In Japan, schools teach it as just one event in the long war to protect Asia from European colonialization and exploitation, which began in 1931 and continued until the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. USS Arizona remains where it sank, stripped of all salvageable parts, part of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Eighty years after its destruction the hull still seeps fuel oil, a few drops at a time which rise to the surface above, easily seen by those who visit the remains of the ship.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“War Plan Orange: Powerful Stuff”. Harry D. Train II, Naval War College Review. 1993. Online

“The Impossible Task of Remembering the Nanking Massacre”. Simon Han, The Atlantic. December 17, 2017.

“Two-ocean Navy bill becomes law, 19 July 1940”. Article, US Naval Institute. July 19, 2010. Online

“Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo makes himself ‘military czar'”. The Editors, History.com. November 5, 2009

“Forgotten Fights: Strike on Taranto, November 1940”. Article, National World War II Museum. July 13, 2020. Online

“General Genda Remembers Pearl Harbor”. Minoru Genda, US Naval Institute. March, 1969. Online

“Pearl Harbor: Thunderfish in the sky”. Ray Panko, Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. December 28, 2015. Online

“United States freezes Japanese assets”. Article, History.com. Online

“The Pacific Strategy, 1941-1945”. Article, National World War II Museum. Online

“Chuichi Nagumo, Vice Admiral, IJN”. J. Owen, Pearl Harbor Museum. August 17, 2013. Online

“Letter to Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, February 7, 1941. George C. Marshall. 1941. Online

“Minoru Genda and his role in the Pearl Harbor attack”. Mark Loproto, Pearl Harbor Museum. July 10, 2018. Online

“Why didn’t Japan finish the job?”. James R. Holmes, The Diplomat. October 23, 2011

“Mountbatten Predicted Pearl Harbor”. Thomas O’Toole, The Washington Post. December 7, 1982

“A Taranto – Pearl Harbor Connection”. Christopher P. O’Connor, US Naval Institute. December, 2016

“The Spy Who Doomed Pearl Harbor”. Edward Savela, History.net. Online

“December 7, 1941: The Air Force Story”. Leatrice Arakaki and John Kuborn. 1991

“USS Nevada during the attack”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“Salvage and repair of USS California”. Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“How the navy’s most important ships avoided destruction at Pearl Harbor”. Benjamin Brimelow, Business Insider. December 7, 2020

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