December 7, 1941
The first American casualties of WW ll did not occur at Pearl Harbor. Some say the first hostile action happened in the Yangtze River outside Nanking on December 12, 1937 where the USS gunboat Panay was sunk by Japanese aircraft, killing three and wounding 45. Others maintain that since WWll was not yet officially under way on that date, the first Americans to die in action were on October 17, 1941 when the USS Kearney, a Benson-Livermore Class Destroyer was attacked off the coast of Iceland, by the U-568 which was part of a wolf pack eviscerating a convoy that the Kearney was trying to protect. 11 US sailors were killed and 22 were wounded in the fight.
All of this is a reminder that great and terrible events do not happen in a vacuum.
For most of the 1930's, America in proud and defiant isolation caused in part by the Great Depression, watched as both Asia and Europe became engulfed in war and dictatorship. FDR eventually turned America into the Arsenal for Democracy after WWII began on September 1, 1939. Politically however Roosevelt had to walk a fine line with regard to American neutrality even as Churchill pressured him to join the fight and as anti-Japanese and anti-German feelings began to emerge domestically on the political left, particularly after Hitler invaded the USSR.
On October 16, 1941, the Japanese Prime Minister Prince Konoe resigned and General Hidecki Tojo assumed the post and the planning for an attack on the American Pacific Fleet was set in motion.
Simultaneously, in Washington, Japanese Ambassador Nomura Kichisaburo continued his efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between the US and Japan, unaware of what Tojo and the Japanese military were planning. He continued his diplomatic efforts becoming more belligerent right up to December 7th when he was coldly informed by Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the attack had already begun.
The plan for the attack was the work of the Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto who had studied in the US and privately was against the attack which had as its political aim to so cripple the American Pacific Fleet that Japan could go into the Dutch East Indies for the oil and rubber they urgently needed without fear of retribution. He believed the War that would follow would allow him to "run wild for the first six months" but he had no confidence as to the second and third years.
On November 20, 1941 Japan issued an ultimatum to the U.S. demanding non-interference for Japanese actions in China and Indo-China thereby escalating the tensions between the two countries.
On November 26th the Japanese Hawaii task Force left the Kurile Islands bound for Pearl Harbor. On the same day the U.S. Secretary of State demanded the Japanese Imperial Army leave China immediately. In Tokyo, Tojo declared this to be an ultimatum, cynically using it as justification for a sneak attack he had already set in motion. The next day the United States military was placed on high alert.
Admiral Husband Kimmel was the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. His Army counterpart was Lt. General Walter Short. In the days after the attack both men would come under intense criticism for their lack of preparedness and eventually would be forced out of the military. Both had determined that an attack on Pearl was extremely unlikely notwithstanding the heightened state of alert, Nor did they respond with alacrity to the sinking of a Japanese Midget Sub just before the first wave of the attack began or radar showing a large number of aircraft approaching Oahu.
The attack began at 7:48 A.M. on a beautiful tropical and peaceful Sunday morning when the first wave of 183 aircraft carrier based planes open fire. The 70 U.S. combat ships and 24 auxiliary ships were all lined up on Battleship Row providing excellent targets for the air forces led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. Likewise, were the 400 Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft lined up wing to wing on three nearby airfields.
The fist wave lasted until 8:30 A.M. and inflicted horrible damage on a half dozen ships including the Arizona, the Oklahoma and the California. The second wave came at 9:00 A.M. under the command of Lt. Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki and lasted for an hour. No third wave materialized.
The United States lost 3,600 men killed or wounded including 1,177 killed on the USS Arizona alone. 21 ships were sunk or damaged , 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 were damaged out of 400 total. The Japanese lost 55 airmen and 9 submariners. The attack it should be remembered took place before any formal Declaration of War was ever issued by Japan.
There were numerous incidences of incredible bravery exhibited that day by both military personnel and civilians. 129 medals, including 15 Medals of Honor were awarded to American servicemen. 68 civilians were killed and 35 were wounded coming to the aid of their country.
Mess attendant Doris "Dorie" Miller won the Navy Cross for his actions that day. Miller was aboard the USS West Virginia when the attack began. He carried his wounded Captain to a safer place on the ship and while untrained, manned a .50 caliber antiaircraft gun until he was ordered to abandon ship. Two years later Miller died in action.
Perhaps no one described the horror of that day better then Seaman Second Class Eddie Jones of the USS California who wrote the following:
"When that big bomb blew up and they put the fire out, I looked down in that big hole that went down three or four decks. I saw men all blown up, men with no legs on, men burned to death, men drowned in oil, with oil coming out of their eyes and their mouth and their ears. You couldn't believe it was happening. You could see it in front of your eyes, but you couldn't believe it. Here it was, a beautiful day -- a beautiful Sunday morning -- and you see everything blowing up and ships sinking and men in the water. And you think, we're at peace with the world. This can't be happening".
The next day, December 8th, FDR called December 7th , "a day that will live in infamy" and asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. Two days later Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war against the US playing right into Churchill's hands. In the days, months and years to come in the Pacific theater Americans would learn the geography of war in far away places with exotic names like Corregidor, Bataan, Wake Island, Tawawa, Kwajalien, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Saipan, Guam, The Coral Sea, Midway, The Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Okinawa.
No one knew immediately after December 7th what the outcome of this titantic struggle would be save perhaps the architect of the attack, Admiral Yamamota who lamented "I fear all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant." Thus America cast off the shackles of isolationism and became in time a superpower...but a superpower built on the patriotism and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation comprised of young men and women who left the villages, towns, cities and farms of America to go off to war against some of the most evil forces in the history of the world. In the words of the old WW II song we remember them today and say "Bless them All".