Many of the planes came in low over the harbor that Sunday morning, unleashing their torpedoes on the moored ships and dropping their bombs on other vessels or on aircraft parked wing to wing on airfields. As Navy Admiral William Furlong said of the first plane that passed over his ship, the pilot was so close that “I could have hit him with a spud.”
In less than two hours, hundreds of attacking airplanes marked with Japan’s Rising Sun had inflicted a disastrous defeat on American military forces. Every battleship in the harbor was damaged, two of them beyond all repair, including the USS Arizona, which to this day rests beneath the waters. Overall, 19 ships and over 300 aircraft were crippled or destroyed, and over 2,400 sailors, soldiers, and civilians lost their lives.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of that surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the forces of imperial Japan.
And that attack would change the face of the world forever.
The Sleeping Giant
There is no evidence that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, said that he feared this act of war would awaken a sleeping giant. Yet he spent the rest of Dec. 7 in what appeared to be a deep depression while his staff celebrated. He understood that a protracted war with America would end in Japan’s defeat.
And that giant began rolling out of bed on the very day of the attack. In the Preface to Gordon Prange’s “December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor,” edited by Katherine Dillon and Donald Goldstein, we read of a few military officers who failed to do their duty on that auspicious day. Then in the editor’s introduction, they add:
“But for everyone who failed, hundreds rose to the occasion, performing under fire the tasks for which they had been trained. One admiral and two battleship captains died at their posts. Junior officers and enlisted men such as Ens. Francis C. Flaherty and Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich gave their lives to save the men in their charge. Two lieutenants of the Hawaiian Air Force got their planes up and shot down seven Japanese aircraft between them. Mess Attendant Doris Miller seized a machine gun and performed so valiantly that he became the first black man to receive the Navy Cross. Untold numbers worked without panic and without vainglory, simply because that was their job.”
On Dec. 8, President Franklin Roosevelt appeared before Congress and opened his address with these famous words: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
He closed his short speech by asking Congress to declare that a state of war existed between Japan and the United States.
Three days later, Adolph Hitler declared war on the United States, in part because he believed that the Japanese empire was unbeatable.
Less than four years later, both Hitler’s Third Reich and the islands of Japan lay prostrate, defeated and ruined.
America Goes to War
Historians continue to debate why our military was so poorly prepared to meet this attack, whether that circumstance stemmed from negligence or was deliberate, but that question is beyond the scope of this article. What did happen was that the sleeping giant awoke and was transformed into a tiger.
By the war’s end, as many as 16 million American men and women had served in uniform. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died in faraway places that most Americans had never heard of, in battles like Guadalcanal and Midway, Tarawa and Iwo Jima, the Kasserine Pass and the Po River Valley.
Meanwhile, on the home front, American manufacturers pumped out engines of war—ships, tanks, aircraft, equipment—at an unbelievable rate. By the end of the war, for example, the Navy had grown from 700 commissioned ships to over 6,000. With few exceptions, civilians got behind their troops, planted Victory Gardens on their property for extra food, tolerated gas rationing cards, and closely followed accounts of the fighting in their newspapers and on the radio.
Aftermath at Home
America emerged from the war as the world’s economic powerhouse.
Within just a few years, the nation went on a spending spree, buying everything from new cars to refrigerators, from televisions to homes. The G.I. Bill helped millions of ex-military men and women build homes, receive vocational training, or go off to universities, with the result that universities and colleges expanded or were built at an incredible rate. The subsequent “baby boom” of those years also meant the construction of vast numbers of elementary and secondary schools.
Victory in 1945 brought other sweeping cultural changes. Though many of the women who had worked in factories and offices married following the war and raised families at home, a large number remained in the workplace. And blacks who had fought against the Germans and the Japanese came home and fought for civil rights, eventually bringing an end to the Jim Crow laws of the South and winning equality in the public square.
Meanwhile, technology and science brought enormous changes to American culture and society. Space travel, early computers, major advances in medical care, and all their ancillary advancements grew out of World War II and transformed American lives.
In addition to the boom of prosperity at home, by war’s end that seemingly catastrophic battle at Pearl Harbor had left the United States as the world’s greatest international power alongside the Soviet Union.
And unlike communist Russia, which for over 40 years would oppress Eastern Europe and part of Germany, Americans sought to repair the war-broken world. This time, there was no repeat of the isolationist response that had followed the World War I. America sent vast sums of money to help rebuild Europe. It gave aid to its arch-foes, Germany and Japan, so much so that within 25 years both those former enemies had become economic powerhouses.
The United States also dispatched funds and expertise to the new nations in Africa and Asia. Through various organizations, the best-known of which is the Peace Corps, Americans themselves traveled to these distant lands to help build schools and hospitals, to dig wells, and to improve agrarian practices. These financial packages often came with strings attached or with the hopes of blocking the expansion of communism, but they nonetheless bestowed on America its deserved reputation as the most generous country in the history of the world.
Even today, America continues to send its money and its people to improve the lives of people around the globe.
Commemoration and a Question
Even today, when time has blurred past events, when so many Americans once again have never heard of Leyte or the Kasserine Pass, and when some in our culture work to eradicate as much of our history as they are able, most of us possess at least some minimal awareness of Pearl Harbor and what happened on Dec. 7. Though the names of many of the battles fought in the Pacific might today bring blank looks from those who hear them, Pearl Harbor stands as a representative for all of them. When we remember that event, we remember that far-flung war.
We might also recollect that this horrific war, fought around the world, led for better or for worse to the emergence of our country as the greatest power and proponent of liberty that the world had ever seen. The blood of that Midwestern farm boy who died on the sands of Okinawa was just one of hundreds of thousands of such sacrifices on the altar of freedom.
And finally, we might pause to consider our present situation. Eighty years ago, the Japanese prodded a sleeping giant. Americans rose to the occasion to defend their way of life and their liberties. But what about us today? Are we still capable of performing the deeds done by those men and women who roused themselves to go off to war, who devoted themselves to the cause of liberty? Do we still possess their love of country and their determination to fight for freedom?
Let us hope this is the case.