… a date which will live in infamy
At 0645 on Dec. 7, 1941, the destroyer USS Ward’s No. 3 deck gun sent a high-explosive round into the conning tower of a Japanese midget submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor, the pivotal American naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Depth charges followed, and the sub became a tomb for its two-man crew in 1,200 feet of water just outside the harbor entrance. An hour later a first wave of 183 Japanese torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters swept over Oahu, bombing and strafing Kaneohe Bay and Ford Island Naval Air Stations and Hickam and Wheeler Army Air Fields and adding torpedoes to the mix in the anchorage at Pearl. Within minutes the first of more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians lay dead or dying. A second Japanese wave, the balance of the 353 planes committed to the raid, smashed Ford Island, Bellows Field and other targets of opportunity missed by the first raiders.
At airbases across the island, planes parked wing to wing in neat rows blew apart as fires blossomed from hangers and vehicles. Men responding to the surprise attack met rounds from strafing Zeros, their cries of anguish fading amid the explosions and gunfire. Of the slightly more than 400 American planes on Oahu, bombs and bullets damaged or destroyed some 350—most never rose against the enemy. Smoke drifted skyward from the bloodied, burning tarmacs to mix with that of the greater conflagration at Pearl Harbor.
There, torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs slammed the great gunline of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, anchored in pairs along Battleship Row. Utterly surprised, drowsy crewmen rushed from their racks or to rejoin their ships after a night of shore leave. Training could only do so much: Between empty ammunition lockers, damage from the initial assault and missing personnel, only a fraction of the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns saw action. Within the harbor hell and heroism warred.
The battleship Oklahoma, struck by five torpedoes, capsized. As it slowly rolled its masts into the mud, men abandoned ship in the face of strafing Zeros; more than 400 sailors died. Captain Mervyn S. Bennion of the battleship West Virginia, though mortally wounded, fought to save his great vessel from the damage of seven torpedoes and two bombs, dying with orders still on his lips minutes before the crew abandoned ship. Among them was Mess Attendant Doris Miller, who helped carry his captain to safety, then manned a machine gun against the attackers. Miller received the Navy Cross (the first black American to do so; see P. 17), while Bennion received a posthumous Medal of Honor. More than 100 of his crew joined their captain in death. Uncommon valor was a most common commodity on Oahu that Sunday morning.
Tennessee and Maryland, anchored inboard on Battleship Row, caught two bombs each. California, not as lucky in positioning, felt the blasts of two torpedoes and two bombs before its deck slid beneath the waters. A hundred sailors and Marines died with it. Arizona reverberated to six hits and near misses before an armor-piercing bomb penetrated its deck. The resulting magazine explosion destroyed the battleship, killing 1,177 men. Nevada, anchored alone at one end of the row, managed to steam for the harbor mouth, but a torpedo and six bombs forced its deliberate grounding with 60 dead. Pennsylvania, in dry dock across the harbor, suffered only one bomb hit, but the destroyers sharing its dock suffered severe bomb and fire damage. The retired battleship Utah capsized, entombing more than 50 men. Across the harbor other vessels suffered damage and more Americans died—a devastating defeat that marked the beginning of a journey to victory in 1945.
Today, Oahu remembers its dead. The 112-acre National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, sprawled across Honolulu’s Punchbowl Crater, holds the remains of 34,000 American dead and features a marble monument listing the names of almost 29,000 MIAs from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Overlooking the Pacific, the Hale’iwa War Memorial honors the memory of area residents who gave all for this nation. The best-known memorial hovers over Arizona’s shattered hull [www.nps.gov/valr], a tomb for so many of its crew. Fittingly, USS Missouri [www.ussmissouri.com], famed site of Japan’s surrender and now a living memorial to so many patriots, is moored near Arizona on Battleship Row.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.