It was early on a Sunday Hawaiian morning when explosions suddenly caught the attention of everyone within earshot.
A sneak attack by Japanese aircraft had caught military authorities by surprise. The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress, calling for a declaration of war. His speech, broadcast nationally, began with the words, “December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.”
Indeed it did. The cry of “Remember Pearl Harbor” resounded across the country. Men, both young and old, rushed to the recruiting offices to enlist, eager to avenge the betrayal. And a betrayal it was because envoys of Emperor Hirohito at the time were engaged in “peace” negotiations with the State Department.
Those old enough to react to news of the attack will always remember Pearl Harbor and that infamous date. Christmas of 1941 was far from merry.
Families of 2,403 people learned that their loved ones had been among those killed. Two thousand and eight Navy men died, 1,177 of them on the USS Arizona, the first battleship hit and sunk. Also lost were 109 Marines, 218 Army personnel and 68 civilians.
The attack on the fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor was unexpected, although tensions were high.
Strategists had expected other targets would be chosen. Intelligence officials lost track of the Japanese fleet. They were searching but did not believe the fleet could have come as far as Hawaii. In those days there were no satellites or the capability to see through space. Radar was new. Even when specks were seen on the screen on the set operating on an Oahu mountain peak, it was thought it reflected a flock of birds.
Many historians feel that war was inevitable. Japan was an island nation, dependent on other countries for oil and other natural resources. It began an aggressive expansion program in 1931, invading and annexing Korea and portions of the eastern coast of adjoining land from China, Mongolia, and Russia. Within a dozen years, it also had added Burma, Thailand, French Indochina, Malaya, Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. Its warlords desired to control the Pacific and wanted even more land.
In 1939, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland and other European nations in his plan to create an Aryan empire. He had taken power in Germany during unrest over economic conditions arising from heavy sanctions imposed by the Versailles Treaty ending the Great War. He secretly rebuilt the German military in disregard of the treaty’s prohibitions.
Germany and Italy formed an alliance, then joined Japan to form the Axis after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That put the United States in the position of fighting on two fronts—Europe and the Pacific. Roosevelt previously had tried to remain neutral in the European conflict even though willingly supplying the Allies in their opposition to Hitler’s Nazi aggression.
Alaska became the only American soil to be invaded by the Japanese. On June 2 and 3, 1942, Dutch Harbor was bombed repeatedly by Japanese aircraft. At that time their military forces were continuing their advance through the Pacific, the U.S. and its allies slowing but unable to stop the expansion.
Having used the Dutch Harbor bombing as a diversion, troops of the imperial army of Japan a few days later captured the islands of Attu and Kiska.
Kiska’s population had been evacuated but 40 civilians on Attu were taken prisoner by the invaders. Charles Foster Jones, a weather observer and the husband of the island’s school teacher, was publicly executed after he refused to restore a radio he had damaged. His wife, Etta, and 38 villagers were taken to prison camps in Japan. Half of them were to die in captivity.
The Aleutian islands were retaken a year later, with the battle of Attu being one of the bloodiest of the Pacific fighting.
The war tide was to turn in the Battle of Midway and the bloody campaign on Guadalcanal. The Midway Islands are located due south of Dutch Harbor and about halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. Guadalcanal is located both farther west and south, closer to the west coast of Australia. It was there that American forces defeated the entrenched Japanese in a struggle for supremacy that lasted for six months and two days.
The naval victory at Midway was vindication for the intelligence services that had failed to predict the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Japanese codes were broken by cryptologists, enabling them to learn the secret names of targets in their battle plans. A false message was sent out from Midway saying that troops there were running out of supplies and freshwater. When enemy forces heard that weakness, an attack was ordered. The U.S. forces, though, were prepared and planned an ambush.
In the June 4-7 confrontation, the Pacific Fleet was waiting. Their ships consisted of 3 carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, 15 destroyers, and 16 submarines. The Japanese force consisted of four carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and 12 destroyers. Those carriers had 248 aircraft aboard.
After the three days of heavy fighting, the Japanese pulled out, leaving four carriers and one heavy cruiser sunk, another heavy cruiser damaged and all 248 aircraft destroyed. Killed were 3,957 sailors and airmen while 37 were captured. American losses were one carrier and one destroyer; 150 aircraft downed and 307 men who lost their lives.
With their fleet severely damaged and such large loss of life from both Midway and Guadalcanal, the Japanese found it impossible to sustain further advancement. They were to struggle for three more years, forced off many of the places they had captured and their backs forced to the wall.
The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, and the Allies focused on the Pacific.
On Aug. 6, an atomic bomb named “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and three days later “Fat Boy” was unleashed on Nagasaki. As many as 220,000 people, mostly civilians, were to die, about half of them simply obliterated when the bombs exploded. The rest were to die of radiation poisoning. Both cities were leveled, with only rubble left over many square miles.
Six days after Nagasaki’s destruction, the Japanese announced their surrender. A declaration of unconditional surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945.
Authorized by President Harry S Truman after receiving a go-ahead from leaders of the Allies, it was the only use of nuclear weapons in war. For nearly three-quarters of a quarter century since the subject has been debated. Several nations now hold nuclear arsenals. Not all of them are friendly to the United States.
The world hopes never to again see the effects of such a weapon. Its devastation is unimaginable.