Pearl Harbor: Sixty years ago, the U.S. was suddenly attacked.
Then, just before 8 a.m., two bugle blasts sounded over the battleship's loudspeaker. Young later remembered how puzzled he and his crewmates were:
"A voice boomed throughout the ship: 'All hands, man your battle stations!' What the heck was this? Drills on Sunday? They knew we were all waiting to go ashore. The harsh, excited voice on the PA system froze us in our tracks. 'All hands, man your battle stations! On the double! This is no drill! Get going--they're real bombs!'" (1)
So began one of the worst days in U.S. history. Japanese warplanes swooped down and bombed most of the U.S. battleships based in the Pacific Ocean, along with 188 planes. The attack left 2,400 people dead and 1,200 wounded.
Until September 11, 2001, Pearl Harbor was the most horrible attack the U.S. had ever suffered on its own soil. Like the recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., it was a historic turning point. Pearl Harbor shocked Americans and pushed the U.S. into World War II.
Roots of Disaster
Why did Japan bomb Pearl Harbor? The attack had its roots in the Great Depression--a worldwide economic downturn that lasted from 1929 to 1940. The Depression hit Germany and Japan hard. Poverty and unrest in both countries caused democratic governments to fall. They were replaced by dictatorships bent on conquest.
Starting in 1931, military leaders gradually took control of Japan's government. They began a long, bloody invasion in China with an eye toward controlling the entire Far East.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party seized control of Germany. Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, starting World War II in Europe. A year later, Germany, Japan, and Italy--another dictatorship--formed the Axis alliance.
At that time, many Americans were isolationists--they were opposed to U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. They cared more about ending unemployment at home than fighting overseas. By early 1941, however, Hitler had gobbled up most of Europe. Japan was poised to conquer Asia.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to convince the American people to get ready for war. But many people opposed starting a military draft or building new planes and ships.
A Lightning Strike
Japanese officials could not resist attacking Pearl Harbor. They believed that with one lightning strike, they could crush their strongest foe--the U.S. Navy.
U.S. leaders had warnings that an attack was coming. In fact, they had broken one of Japan's secret codes. But the hints and signs of danger were like pieces of a puzzle--which nobody put together.
Warnings even came on the morning of the attack. An alert from Washington calling for greater watchfulness at Pearl Harbor was misrouted by a telegraph operator. A U.S. destroyer caught and sank a strange-looking submarine just outside the harbor. Radar operators spotted planes coming toward Hawaii but mistook them for U.S. bombers.
How could all these warnings have been ignored? Basically, Americans underestimated the Japanese. Japan was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles away. Few Americans thought Japan had the skill or the weapons to attack Pearl Harbor.
But they did, and 6-year-old Dorinda Nicholson had a ringside seat to the attack. Her family was eating breakfast in their home near Pearl Harbor when suddenly warplanes roared overhead.
"We shielded our eyes from the early morning sun," said Nicholson, "and looked up into the orange-red emblem of the Rising Sun [Japan's wartime flag]. The planes were so low, just barely above the rooftops, that we could see the pilots' faces and even the goggles that covered their eyes." (2)
The Japanese first destroyed most U.S. planes on the ground. Then they sent bombs screaming into eight U.S. battleships and dozens of smaller vessels (ships). On some ships, the ammunition for anti-aircraft guns was locked up tight. Frustrated sailors threw wrenches and fired rifles at the low-flying planes.
Within minutes, thousands of men were dead or wounded. On the battleship USS California, sailor John McGoran tried to rescue one injured man.
"If on December 6th anyone had asked me to help save the life of this offensive guy, I would have answered, 'To heck with him,'" said McGoran. "I had known this fellow since boot camp, and he was one of the most overbearing individuals I had ever met. But now... his was a life to be saved." (3)
Shock and Anger
Because of the time difference between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, most Americans did not hear about Pearl Harbor until Sunday afternoon. Shock and disbelief quickly gave way to anger and fear. Some panicked. In Florence, Alabama, 13-year-old Douglas Jaynes ran through the streets yelling, "The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor, and they're headed for us on Four Mile Creek." (4)
Jaynes was mistaken, but so were many other Americans. In the days that followed, rumors convinced thousands that a Japanese invasion force was about to land in California. Air-raid sirens--each one a false alarm-- wailed all ver the U.S. In Los Angeles, anti-aircraft guns opened fire on planes that weren't there.
The Japanese were jubilant (overjoyed). They had crippled U.S. sea power and lost only 29 airplanes and 55 men. But the attack was not a complete success. Most of all, Japan had want d to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers. But those ships had sailed from Pear Harbor just days before.
The strike on Pearl Harbor left American united and thirsting for revenge. On December 8, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war. He called the previous day "a date which will live in infamy."
Back at Pearl Harbor, Stephen Bower Young was still on the Oklahoma. The great ship had capsized within 15 minutes of the first bombs falling. Young and hundreds of other men were trapped belowdecks. Rescue crew managed to save Young and 31 others. But 429 sailors couldn't be reached.
"Standing on the upturned hull, I gazed about me," said Young. "It was the same world I had left 25 hours before, but as I looked at the smoke and wreckage of battle... I felt that life would never be the same, not for me--not for any of us." (5)
(1.) Eyewitness to World War II: The Best of American Heritage (Houghton Muffin, 1991)
(2.) Pearl Harbor Child: A Child's View of Pearl Harbor--From Attack to Peace (Woodson House, 1993)
(3.) Remembering Pearl Harbor Web site: plasma.nationalgeographic.com/pearlharbor
(4.) The Home Front: USA (Time-Life Books, 1978)
(5.) Eyewitness to World War II.
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When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans felt the brunt of their country's anger. People spat on them and called them names. Some were beat up. Banks, stores, and restaurants refused to serve them. Many had their homes and businesses vandalized.
Worse things were to come. U.S. government officials feared that Japanese-Americans might become spies for Japan. Although they were loyal to the U.S., other Americans mistrusted them.
In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 sending 120,000 Japanese-Americans to hastily-built internment camps. People were given 48 hours to sell their homes, businesses, farms, and most of their belongings. Desperate to sell, they had to accept bargain-basement prices.
For the next four years, most internees lived in remote camps in states like California, Utah, and Wyoming. Near the end of the war, many were allowed to leave the camps. Despite the unfair internment, the U.S. made Japanese-American men eligible for the draft, and 8,000 of them served in the U.S. armed forces.
After the war, many internees found it difficult to resume their old lives. In 1988, the U.S. government apologized to them and paid each $20,000 for their suffering. It was just a fraction of what they'd lost in 1941.
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|Date:||Nov 26, 2001|
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