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Pearl Harbor, A Sobering Looking Back 79 Years

5:48 AM · Dec 8, 2020

What would it have been like to be at Pearl Harbor 79 years ago today? The surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet docked in Pearl Harbor would later declared “a date which will live in infamy” by Franklin D. Roosevelt, but what was it like for those on the ground, or one of the battleships that sunk, or just a civilian living in the aftermath? The graphic descriptions of those on the ground are often too gruesome for most to imagine. This post will look at just a few of the human elements of that attack and its aftermath. I sometimes think about what it would have been like to be at some of the worst places on the planet in modern history, and how quickly that area descended into chaos. Only focusing historical events associated with the Second World War in the Pacific there are many truly horrific instances. The rape of Nanjing, the firebombing of Tokyo, the military island hopping campaign, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the list goes on. The carnage and destruction brought to Oʻahu early in the morning of December 7th, 1941 took only 90 minutes to forever change the entire Pacific on an otherwise beautiful day. The Attack Begins The first wave of Japanese Zeros descended upon Oʻahu as the island slept from the north early in the morning. Fighters flew low, very low, filling the air with the sound of their Mitsubishi motors as they passed over. Members of the public working at Pearl Harbor reportedly were able to see Japanese pilots in their cockpits, some even waved to them, as smirking pilots waved themselves. There are many first hand accounts of that day that seem like an unbelievable movie scene. At 7:55am the attack commenced, right as the color guard on each ship were raising the American flag, and the band played the Star Spangled Banner on the USS Nevada. 7.7mm machine gun fire began to splinter the decks and shred the flag on the flagpole, and the first percussion of nearby blasts filled the air, yet the band on the Nevada finished playing. Some crew members of the battleships that saw the first bombs dropped still thought that the army was conducting a drill. That there was some mistake made by the army, not an ambush. One sailor exclaimed, “This is the best god-damned drill the army has ever put on”. Very soon they would soon realize there was no drill. The surprise attack the Japanese desired was achieved. Torpedos specially designed for the shallow harbor began to rip the hulls of anchored battleships. “Unbelieving Americans watched as bombs rained down on Hickam and Ford Island airfields while the low flying Kates released their torpedoes against the ships. On Ford Island's west side Utah (a radio-controlled targeting ship), moored in Enterprise's usual place and possibly mistaken for a carrier by an inexperienced Japanese pilot, took two torpedoes.” Michael Slackman wrote of the day, “On the opposite shore of Ford Island torpedoes struck Nevada, Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma and California.” Another sailor, Donald Stratton writes, “I looked over my shoulder at the harbor, which was in chaos. A Zero bore down, splintering our deck. It flew so low, I could see the pilot taunting me with a smirk and a wave. The air defense alarm sounded, followed by general quarters: “Attention! Attention! Attention! Man your battle stations! This is no drill! This is no drill!”” The USS Arizona Explodes The situation descended rapidly. Shortly, the Arizona would be struck and explode with such force that the shockwave caused car motors on Fort Island to stall, and knocked sailors off their feet on other nearby ships. The Arizona had been resupplied with ammunition and her fuel tanks topped off before the attack commenced. Burning oil filled the bay rapidly, floating in a thick layer on the surface of the water. Clint Westbrook recalls, “All of the oil tanks on all of the battlewagons had been ruptured, most of them, and you could just about almost get out and walk on it, it was that thick. And around those ships that had fire on it was on fire as well, so a lot of these people jumping off the ships were jumping right into burning oil. We had just loaded the day before ’cause we were going back to the States for Christmas. The admiral had told us, so we had filled the tank Saturday.” Willam Goshen was thrown from an adjacent ship in the blast from the Arizona, “All that was between me and that bomb was two canvas sheets. Evidently it burnt the canvas off and carried right on into the compartment where I was at, and the concussion happening inside blew me out.” After making it to the surface of the water he recalls, “I looked over at the ship, and I knew there was no need going back there. I looked up at the boats; they were all on fire. The Arizona was on fire.” The burning oil on the surface of the water created a thick black smoke plume that filled the air as sailors were burned alive trying to escape the chaos of the ablaze ships jumped into the surface layer of oil. The “Unsinkable” USS Oklahoma Capsizes Prior to the attack, the USS Oklahoma was thought of as unsinkable with its system of bulkheads and thick 13” hull. However, the bulkhead was not sealed for cleaning and the hull did not stop the torpedos. The Oklahoma’s Commander Jesse Kenworthy Jr. recalled; “As I reached the upper deck, I felt a heavy shock and heard a loud explosion, and the ship immediately began to list to port. Oil and water descended on deck, and by the time I had reached the boat deck, the shock of two more explosions on the port side was felt.” The Oklahoma would quickly begin to rollover, and then the lights inside the vessel went dark. Sailor George DeLong: “The lights went out and water rushed in through the air vent. Furniture and equipment in the compartment started crashing around the deck. I realized my head was where my feet had been.” There were 461 sailors trapped inside the Oklahoma, which was moored to the Maryland to try and save it. As the ship rolled over slowly like a tired dog, sailors that had got out attempted to climb across the lines attached to Maryland were shocked when the order came across from command to cut the line, with them still on it. George Smith recalls that, “I swam around the Oklahoma, heading for the Maryland, which was moored alongside. They threw cargo nets over the side we could climb aboard. But there were so many men from the Oklahoma on the Maryland that they ordered us to get into the water again and swim to Ford Island.” Some of the trapped sailors would be rescued of the hours and days following the attack, others were entombed in their sunken ships. The Attack Strikes Into Honolulu The attack on Pearl Harbor was not confined purely to Pearl Harbor. Fighters also strafed airfields around Oahu and other priority targets. In Waikiki, a bomb was dropped on the roof of Lunalilo High School. The residents of Honolulu scrambled to save homes and stores from a rapidly spreading fire started from bombs that struck inside the city’s Japanese and American districts. Merchants later scavenged through the rubble of their former storefronts for what goods could be saved. The heroics of the crews of the ships and civilians around the island, to which there were many, often overshadow the horrors of war. There were countless small acts of heroism that fateful day. Between the heroics and the tragedy, Hawaiʻi would be forever changed. Military Rule In Hawaiʻi Following the attack, every person on the island of Oahu, with the exception of children, were fingerprinted and issued identification papers that could be requested by authorities at any time. Photography in many areas was banned, particularly along the coastline. Japanese-Americans were treated especially harshly as military leaders questioned their loyalties and motivations. Press outlets were censored and even banned from the use of the Japanese language. 37% of the islands were of some Japanese descent, far too many people for internment camps like on the mainland. So the islands themselves were turned into a mock internment camp. Historian DeSoto Brown describes the military rule as; “Everybody was under martial law and treated equally unfairly because the military couldn’t target just the Japanese, who were so important to the economy.” In Puna on Hawaiʻi Island, the population was told to fear a potential Japanese invasion force. The coastline was guarded by around 100 soldiers stationed in the Kalapana area. The beach at Kaimū was strung with barbed wire to stave off an enemy landing. Those from Kalapana were told to not to go through the wire, but that would not stop some locals from going outside the wire to fish. Eventually, enforcement of that prohibition would stop. A nightly curfew and blackout curtains were used in an attempt to conceal the island from wouldbe invaders. Hawaiʻi would spend the next three years under Martial Law as the battle in the Pacific was fought. The Geopolitical Implications The tragedy of Pearl Harbor is a human tragedy that left profound impacts throughout the Pacific, and spurred the United States into WWII. 2,335 service members lost their lives, another 1,143 were wounded in the attack that would arise a sleeping giant. The Japanese lost less than 30 planes, while the US lost 4 battleships, but more importantly, the Japanese missed the prized aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet that were not in port that day. The importance of the Pearl Harbor attack on the war was described by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; “No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!” “Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war—the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand's-breath; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress. We had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.” “How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.” There is no way one simple post such as this can capture the many events and perspectives of Pearl Harbor, thousands of pages may not even capture the many different aspects of that day. For those that wish to know more about the Pearl Harbor attack the following links are included. Craig Nelson; Donald Stratton with Ken Gire; Michael Slackman; Dan Carlin; Erin Blakemore;

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