Holiday History: Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

At 7:53 a.m. local time on this day 80 years ago, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked. The United States was drawn into World War II.

The date of December 7, 1941 was “a date which will live in infamy,” U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt said at the time.

“The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” Roosevelt went on to say. “The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.”

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The attack on the U.S. Navy and Army bases at Pearl Harbor—including the Army Air Force facilities—resulted in the death of 2,403 Americans, with another 1,178 injured.

As for the ability to wage war, 188 planes were destroyed, and another 159 damaged. Multiple ships were hit. All eight of the battleships were damaged, two of them, the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma, irreparably.

Destroying the battleships had been a main goal in the attack for the Japanese. While the term luck should never be applied to a day like this one, the United States did catch a break: none of the aircraft carriers stationed at Pearl Harbor were in port at the time.

Not only that, but Japan made a critical strategic mistake when it failed to destroy the fuel depot, the submarine base, and the shipyards, which allowed the U.S. to quickly repair many of its ships on site.

The Japanese were hoping to land a knockout punch that morning, one that would keep America out of the war in Asia and the Pacific, or at least force the Americans to accept Japan’s expansion across the area.

Pearl Harbor was just one of multiple attacks that day. It was already December 8 in Japan, as well as in Asia and the western Pacific, all of which are across the International Date Line from Hawaii. The Japanese attacked the Philippines, an American commonwealth at the time; the American outposts of Guam, Wake Island, and Midway Island; and the British colony of Malaya (the continental part of what is now the country of Malaysia). They also bombed Singapore.

Oil, which many have blamed for recent wars, was a huge factor in Japan’s thinking. As its forces moved south, a primary goal was the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a significant producer of oil.

Previously, Japan had received much of its supply from the United States, which at that time produced nearly two-thirds of the world’s oil. That ended on August 1, 1941, after the Japanese extended its reach into French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). The French had been defeated by Germany, Japan’s Axis ally, the year prior, and the part of France that was not occupied by Germany was cooperating with it.

The United States wanted the Japanese out of Indochina, and out of China as well. Japan had invaded China in 1937, and that war was still raging.

Everyone on all sides knew tensions were rising. The United States, Britain and others expected an attack, but didn’t know where.

Only a small minority of military and diplomatic experts anticipated an attack at Pearl Harbor. The greater fear was sabotage. That’s part of the reason why so many planes were lost there. Most were neatly arranged in compact rows, which is a reasonable way to protect against sabotage, but which was devastating when the bombing came by air.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical victory for the Japanese. They achieved their goal of severely harming the potential of the Americans to respond.

But it was a strategic failure. It enraged the American public. It took about six months in the Pacific, when the U.S. won the battle of Midway, to turn the tide. It took nearly four more years to achieve the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Many more American lives would be sacrificed in that fight, as well as the fight in Europe. The United States also famously became the Arsenal of Democracy, producing much more war materiel than the most optimistic person would have expected, material used by Americans and their allies, including the Soviets, British and the Free French.

It had been a quiet Sunday morning in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The bombing raids were over in two hours. But, that date, which we remember today on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, changed the world forever.

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