“Remember Pearl Harbor!”
IT WAS a beautiful Sunday morning on Oahu Island. Adeline, a sixth-grade Japanese-Hawaiian girl, was out in her yard in downtown Honolulu. She saw planes flying and smoke coming up from the direction of Pearl Harbor. Was it another drill?
People on Oahu were used to military maneuvers and mock gunfire, so much so that even Vice Admiral William S. Pye of the U.S. Pacific Fleet looked out of his apartment window and said to his wife: “It seems funny that the Army would be having target practice on Sunday morning.” That Sunday morning was December 7, 1941.
Hearing approaching planes, a 13-year-old boy peered out of the window. “Dad,” he reported to his father, who was the commander of Kaneohe Naval Air Station, “those planes have red circles on them.” A glimpse of the red disk, the rising sun, on the planes of the Japanese Imperial Navy, was enough to tell the whole story—a surprise attack!
Admiral H. E. Kimmel, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, received a report of the attack over the telephone. His face was “white as the uniform he wore” as he stood stunned, watching enemy planes buzzing like wasps as they bombarded his fleet. “I knew right away,” he recounted, “that something terrible was going on, that this was not a casual raid by just a few stray planes. The sky was full of the enemy.”
“Tora, Tora, Tora”
A few minutes before torpedo explosions and bomb blasts shattered the serenity of Pearl Harbor, an officer aboard a Japanese dive-bomber saw the island of Oahu come into view. “This island is too peaceful to attack,” he thought.
The break in the clouds, however, struck Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the flight leader of the attack force, in a completely different way. “God must be with us,” he thought. “It must be God’s hand which pulled aside the clouds directly over Pearl Harbor.”
At 7:49 a.m., Fuchida gave the attack signal, “To, To, To,” standing for “Charge!” in Japanese. Confident that the American forces were caught totally unawares, he gave the order to click out the message to indicate that the surprise attack had been made—the famous code words “Tora, Tora, Tora” (“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”).
Surprise Attack Accomplished
How could a large task force that included six aircraft carriers have sneaked as close as 230 miles [370 km] from Oahu and launched in the first-wave attack 183 aircraft, which dodged radar networks and dealt the U.S. Pacific Fleet such a terrible blow? For one thing, the Japanese task force took a northern route despite turbulent winter seas. The U.S. patrols were weakest north of Pearl Harbor. And the Japanese flattops maintained strict radio silence.
However, radar was watchdogging the strategic island to detect any approaching aircraft. About seven o’clock on that decisive morning, two army privates on duty at Opana Mobile Radar Station on the island of Oahu noted unusually large blips on the oscilloscope, representing “probably more than 50” planes. But when they alerted the Information Center, they were told not to worry about it. The officer at the Information Center took it for a flight of American B-17 bombers that was scheduled to come in from the mainland.
Still, did not the U.S. government smell gunpowder in the air, so to speak? The Japanese government had sent a 14-part message to its envoys in Washington, D.C., to deliver to Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, at exactly 1:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on December 7, 1941. That would have been the morning of December 7 at Pearl Harbor. The message contained the statement that Japan would break off negotiations with the United States over crucial political matters. Having intercepted the message, the U.S. government became aware of the gravity of the situation. The night before the momentous day, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then president of the United States, had received the first 13 parts of the intercepted document. After reading it, he said, in substance, “This means war.”
Although the U.S. officials felt that hostile Japanese action was imminent, The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “They had no knowledge of the time or place at which it would occur.” Most felt it would be somewhere in the Far East, perhaps Thailand.
The 1:00 p.m. appointment had to be delayed because the Japanese embassy secretaries were slow in typing the message in English. When the Japanese ambassador handed the document to Hull, it was 2:20 p.m. in Washington. At that time, Pearl Harbor was under fire and threatened by the second-wave attack. News of the raid had already reached Hull. He did not even offer the envoys chairs; he read the document and coldly nodded them to the door.
The delay in the delivery of the intended ultimatum intensified the American rage against Japan. Even some Japanese felt that this circumstance turned the Pearl Harbor attack from a strategic surprise attack into a sneak attack. “The words ‘REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR’ became an oath that stirred up the fighting spirit of the American people,” wrote Mitsuo Fuchida, the flight commander of the first-wave attack. He acknowledged: “The attack brought upon Japan a disgrace which did not vanish even after her defeat in the war.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” On that day at Pearl Harbor, eight U.S. battleships and ten other vessels were either sunk or severely damaged, and more than 140 aircraft were destroyed. The Japanese lost 29 aircraft out of some 360 fighters and bombers attacking in two waves, in addition to five midget submarines. More than 2,330 American lives were lost, and 1,140 were left wounded.
To the cry of “Remember Pearl Harbor!” American public opinion was unified against Japan. “With only a single dissenting vote in the House,” says the book Pearl Harbor as History—Japanese-American Relations 1931-1941, “Congress (like the American people in general) united behind President Roosevelt in the determination to defeat the enemy.” Seeking vengeance for the raid was more than enough reason for them to open hostilities against the Land of the Rising Sun.
A Surprise Attack for World Peace?
How did the Japanese rulers justify their hostile actions? Incredible as it may seem, they claimed that it was to establish world peace by uniting the ‘whole world into a big family,’ or hakkō ichiu. This became the slogan goading the Japanese into bloodshed. “The basic aim of Japan’s national policy,” declared the Japanese cabinet in 1940, “lies in the firm establishment of world peace in accordance with the lofty spirit of hakkō ichiu in which the country was founded, and in the construction, as the first step, of a new order in Greater East Asia.”
In addition to the slogan hakkō ichiu, liberation of Asia from the Western powers became the other great goal of the Japanese war effort. Both causes were considered to be the will of the emperor. In order to accomplish this world conquest, militarists led the nation into a war with China and then with the Western powers, including the United States.
Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, though, realistically concluded that there was no way that Japanese forces could overpower the United States. He saw only one chance to maintain Japanese dominance in Asia. The Imperial Navy should “fiercely attack and destroy the U.S. main fleet at the outset of the war, so that the morale of the U.S. Navy and her people” would “sink to the extent that it could not be recovered,” he reasoned. Thus the idea of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was born.
[Picture on page 4]
Pearl Harbor under attack
U.S. Navy/U.S. National Archives photo