Remembering that most infamous date
“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” — Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Last Friday, a date we Americans pledged to always remember, came and went in relative obscurity — yet another unrecognized concession, I suppose, to both the unending and outrageous natures of the contemporary news cycle.
It has been 77 years since that above quoted president addressed a joint session of Congress, seeking and receiving an official declaration of war against the Japanese Empire in the then still shock wave-filled aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Though, Lord knows, the United States has gone to war lots of times since, World War II remains the last declared one — a fact the Founders would no doubt find both perplexing and disturbing.)
My father had two first cousins stationed at Pearl Harbor on that early morning in December 77 years ago, and their experiences of that day and those that immediately followed were ones from which they never fully recovered, to hear Dad tell it. Having to don diving gear and using a cutting torch, extracting the bodies of your fellow seamen from their sunken ships is something that would tend to stay with a man, I imagine.
And so, whether that or just the general interest I developed in World War II naval combat as a boy, I made it my business to learn all that I could about the event that defined one generation of Americans in the same way as did Sept. 11, 2001, for a later one.
Oh, a word to the wise: The movies get a lot of it wrong.
Carrying out the plan devised by its naval genius, Admiral Isoraku Yamamoto, the Japanese assembled what was at that time the largest armada to ever go to sea in the Pacific — six new frontline aircraft carriers, sporting 360 bomber, torpedo and fighter planes, surrounded by a flotilla of support vessels.
A southeast trade wind was blowing in the predawn hours of that fateful Sunday morning when at a point some 275 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands, the carriers turned into that wind and launched.
The planes came over Pearl Harbor in exact waves, and in less than two hours, broke the back of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, some 70 combat and auxiliary ships strong.
Of the eight battleships in the harbor, four were either sunk or capsized and the other four were heavily damaged and on fire, along with three cruisers, three destroyers and four auxiliary ships. Almost 200 warplanes were destroyed on the ground, along with most of their hangars and repair facilities and military and civilian casualties totaled 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded.
In its two opening hours of World War II, the United States Navy lost three times as many men as had died by enemy action in World War I and the Spanish-American War, combined.
The Japanese, meanwhile, suffered losses of only 29 planes, five midget submarines and 68 pilots and sailors. A very compelling case can be and has been made that the attack on Pearl Harbor represents the least costly and most devastating victory in modern military history.
And yet, that victory was not complete. The Japanese intelligence was faulty and the American aircraft carriers, thought to have been at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, were not, having been at sea on maneuvers.
Those carriers, the Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown, were to prove the United States’ saving grace and extract the first real measure of revenge for Pearl Harbor six months later in the seas surrounding a tiny dot on the map named Midway Island. In but one of the many ironies that surround Pearl Harbor, and in what would prove to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific, American carrier-based planes would sink four of the aircraft carriers — the Akagi, the Kaga, the Soryu and the Hiryu —that had been the backbone of the Dec. 7 attack.
Yamamoto, who had lived briefly and studied in America, knew this country and its people far better than other key figures in imperial Japan. Consequently, in the formulation of his attack, he insisted that a formal declaration of war be delivered to the United States government prior to the commencement of hostilities in Hawaii.
However, due to imperial infighting in Japan and bureaucratic ineptitude at its embassy in Washington, the formal war declaration was not delivered until after what would hence forever be known as the “sneak” attack at Pearl Harbor.
When Yamamoto heard that news, he was both furious and fatalistic, knowing what the reaction of America and her people would be. Amid the victorious cheering of lesser officers and thinkers, he is reported to have presciently mused. “I I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.