Infamy. This three-syllable word carries a great deal of weight. It is a dark word that was chosen purposely by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to describe the dark and wicked act that took place early on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941: the Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
Today marks the 81st anniversary of that terrible day that we came to know as the “Day of Infamy,” the day that drew the United States into the worldwide conflict that we know as WWII. We had tried to remain neutral, but the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor destroyed any notion of remaining neutral. Three days later, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States, and the rest is history. For the next almost four years, the United States joined its allies to fight against Imperialist and Nazi aggression in both the Pacific and European Theaters. The costs were monumental, but the ultimate allied victories saved the world from the continuing horrors of these two forces of evil.
The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor began at 7:55 a.m. on a typical sunny Sunday morning in Hawaii. The people of Honolulu and the island of Oahu were waking up and going about their daily routines, some heading to church, others finishing their breakfasts and heading out to enjoy the day. The sailors on the wide variety of U.S. Navy vessels of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet that were at Pearl Harbor on that day were also just beginning their days. Some were changing watches, some were at breakfast, some were attending church ceremonies, and others were preparing to go ashore for a little liberty in Honolulu that day. Then, suddenly, the crystal blue Pacific skies over Oahu were filled with the first of two waves of what would eventually total 353 Japanese fighters and bombers. It seemed like hell had come to wreak havoc on the Pacific Fleet and the island of Oahu. The Japanese surprise was complete and devastating.
Over the course of the next almost two hours, the two waves of Japanese fighters and bombers devastated many of the Pacific Fleet ships anchored in the harbor and about half of the 300 U.S. airplanes at Hickam Field. Over 100 ships, including many of the Pacific Fleet’s warships, including all of its battleships, were present in the harbor. 19 U.S. Navy warships, including 8 of the Fleet’s mighty battleships, were severely damaged or sunk at their anchorages. Those battleships had been lined up in a row like ducks on a pond when the surprise attack came.
One of those battleships, the USS Arizona, had just taken on a million gallons of bunker and aircraft fuel, and her armory was fully stocked with powder and shells. A Japanese plane dropped a bomb and struck her just forward of amidship, and the bomb went right into the armory and the fuel supply, and the explosion was massive and devastating. It started uncontrollable fires and further explosions. In that instant, the individual lives of 1,177 sailors and Marines aboard her would be lost, and only 335 of the entire ship’s complement would survive that day. Besides the eight battleships, 19 other U.S. warships, destroyers, and cruisers, would be destroyed or severely damaged that day.
The heroism of those who survived that day would continue on for several days immediately following the attack, and for several weeks and months in the efforts to recover as many of the KIAs as possible. The Pacific Fleet was severely weakened. Luckily, the aircraft carriers were not in port on that day. This would become immensely important when those carriers would turn the tables on the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway Island. The other ships that were damaged but survived that day would take months to be repaired and put back into service. Among the battleships that would be repaired and returned to the fleet to fight again were: USS West Virginia, USS Pennsylvania, USS California, USS Tennessee, and USS Maryland.
It is not within the competence of this writer, or the small space of this article, to tell the countless stories that took place on each ship, in the city of Honolulu, or in and around the Army base at Hickam Field. There is only one purpose in this effort, and that is to remember. We are connected to our history. To forget one’s history is a denial of reality and a danger to the individual and to the country. December 7, 1941, a single day in the history of this country, proved to be a costly and painful beginning to a long and, ultimately, important chapter in our collective history. It must be remembered for the sacrifices and for the lessons learned that terrible day. It is a sad fact that our history is poorly taught today and, as a sad result, is not well known. This could be a problem far more devastating to our future than Pearl Harbor was to our past.
Let us take a few moments this day, December 7th, 2022, to remember those 2,341 sailors, Marines, soldiers and civilians who were killed during those two short hours on that bright Sunday morning in December of 1941. Half of those who died that day were on the USS Arizona, and those 1,177 sailors and Marines remain with the ship on the bottom of Pearl Harbor to this day. Let us remember that peace is fragile and that it is worth preserving with as much effort as it takes to fight in a war…or more.
December 7, 1941, was indeed a day that would go down in our history as a “Day of Infamy.” There are few left to tell the story. Those of us who have become the “elders” of our families and of the nation today are obligated to tell the stories, to keep them alive, and to keep their lessons before our younger generations. This goes for all areas of our history. We have a duty in this. If you have children, tell them the story of Pearl Harbor, and show them some of the videos of the events of that day that are available. Help them to know that the freedoms and privileges that you and they enjoy today were paid for and sustained by the sacrifices of those who fought against the tyrannies of the mid-20th Century. Tell them of the importance of courage, heroism, and patriotism in their own lives. Our future depends on their clear understanding of our shared history.Whizzco