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CHIPS Articles: Remembering Pearl Harbor: A Glimpse of the Day that Changed a Nation

Remembering Pearl Harbor: A Glimpse of the Day that Changed a Nation
By Heather Rutherford - December 5, 2017
It was a quiet Sunday morning. Most of the United States Armed Forces personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Base were engaged in their day-to-day activities, preparing for work or pleasure on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. There was no particular reason to suspect that Dec. 7, 1941 would be the day that the United States would enter World War II — no way of knowing that it would become, as then President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “a date which will live in infamy.”

This ordinary morning wasn’t without its share of unusual activity, however. In the hours before dawn, the U.S. Coast Guard reported a sighting of an unidentified submarine periscope near the entrance to Pearl Harbor, according to an official report by the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Commander-in-Chief which detailed the events of Dec. 7 and the actions taken in the months leading up to the attack.

Upon receiving this notification, the Navy destroyer USS Ward (DD-139) quickly demolished the intruding submarine. The handling of that unwelcome visitor was considered routine, and at 7 a.m., when an Army radar station operator at Opana detected the first attack forces on the horizon, it still wasn’t cause for alarm. According to a Department of Defense article posted by the Naval History and Heritage Command, it was assumed that these were American forces whose arrival was anticipated that morning.

Lt. Ruth Erickson, a Navy nurse who was stationed at Naval Hospital Pearl Harbor, said that the attack was unexpected — despite the ongoing strategic positioning of American troops in the Pacific, and the knowledge that Japan had been, in her words, “rattling the saber” for some time, according to a transcript provided by the NHHC.

“Two or three of us were sitting in the dining room Sunday morning having a late breakfast and talking over coffee. Suddenly, we heard planes roaring overhead and we said, ‘The fly boys are really busy at Ford Island this morning.’ The island was directly across the channel from the hospital. We didn't think too much about it since the reserves were often there for weekend training,” Erickson said.

And then, disaster.

“We no sooner got those words out when we started to hear noises that were foreign to us,” Erickson said.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, led by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, swooped down upon the U.S. military forces located in and around Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m., executing a meticulously planned surprise attack. In the days preceding the strike, the Japanese had lain in wait under the cover of foggy Tankan Bay, a remote, sparsely populated area located to the north of Japan in the Kuril Islands. They began their descent toward Hawaii on Nov. 26, crossing the North Pacific and avoiding normal shipping lanes, which enabled them to remain undetected until they were around 200 miles north of Oahu.

In their aim to disable American forces before they could get off the ground or launch ships, the Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers focused their attacks on both land and sea. They simultaneously lashed out at U.S. military airfields and the fleet of around 90 ships anchored in Pearl Harbor, raining down bombs and gunfire upon multiple strategic locations, including the Marine Corps Air Station Ewa, the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam, Naval Air Station (NAS) Kaneohe Bay, and NAS Ford Island. Ford Island was a particularly crucial target for the Japanese, with its prime location at the center of Pearl Harbor. The air station, headquarters to Patrol Wing Two, was home to various aircraft, including several PBY patrol seaplanes.

Of the U.S. aircraft destroyed by the Japanese strike force, 33 were located on Ford Island at the time of the attack. This bombing prompted the now-famous warning: "Air Raid, Pearl Harbor — this is no drill."

Of the many ships in Pearl Harbor on that day, none were aircraft carriers. At that time, three carriers were actually stationed in the Pacific but they were all located elsewhere during the attack. Adm. Husband Kimmel, then Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, had ordered the USS Enterprise (CV-6) to deliver Marine Corps fighter planes to Wake Island and the carrier was making her way back to Oahu as Pearl Harbor was under fire by the Japanese.

Around the same time, Adm. Kimmel had sent the USS Lexington (CV-2) with a task force to deliver 25 scout bombers to Midway Island. The USS Saratoga (CV-3) had gone to the West Coast for repairs and upkeep and she was waiting in San Diego to embark her air group and the Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221, along with a cargo of miscellaneous airplanes.

The aircraft carriers may have been out of reach, but eight powerful battleships were anchored in Pearl Harbor. “Battleship Row,” located on the southeastern shore of Ford Island, held seven of those ships. Only the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was missing — she was in the drydock across the channel.

The Japanese considered the U.S. battleships their prime target and wasted no time in their swift attack on Battleship Row.

“I leaped out of my chair and dashed to the nearest window in the corridor. Right then there was a plane flying directly over the top of our quarters, a one-story structure. The rising sun under the wing of the plane denoted the enemy. Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles. He was obviously saving his ammunition for the ships. Just down the row, all the ships were sitting there — the [battleships] California, the Arizona, the Oklahoma and others,” Erickson said.

Within minutes, the Japanese forces had wreaked unprecedented havoc.

The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was struck by a deadly barrage of torpedo attacks, while a lethal combination of torpedoes and bombs was used to devastate the USS West Virginia (BB-48). Both vessels sank within minutes of the beginning of the conflict.

At about 8:10 a.m., the USS Arizona (BB-39) exploded due to an armor piercing bomb which had ignited the ship's forward ammunition magazine. She eventually sank, and a total of 1,177 people lost their lives as a result of the massive explosion and subsequent fire aboard the Arizona. This vast loss of life accounted for nearly half the number of Americans killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The first 30 minutes of the attack also saw the USS California (BB-44), the USS Maryland (BB-46), the USS Tennessee (BB-43), and the USS Nevada (BB-36) sustain varying degrees of damage — the California eventually sank.

Though battleships were the primary focus of the Japanese forces, other ships were not exempt from attacks. The crew of the USS Utah (AG-16) made that unwelcome discovery as they watched the bombing of Ford Island, never imagining that it was anything more than a practice run.

Pharmacist's Mate (PhM) 2nd Class Lee Soucy, a crew member aboard the Utah who provided a firsthand account of the attack, said that it didn’t occur to him that these were enemy planes, even after he heard the explosions and saw a massive cloud of black smoke emerge from Ford Island. His first thought was that it was, as he put it, a SNAFU.

It was “too incredible, simply beyond imagination,” Soucy said.

As he watched the chaos unfolding, the Utah was suddenly attacked from the port side, and the crew was soon given the order to abandon ship. During the escape efforts, one of the mooring lines snapped, causing the Utah to keel over. Soucy was thrown from the ship, still unaware of just who was behind the bombings. “…after I bobbed up to the surface of the water to get my bearings, I spotted a motor launch with a coxswain [steersman] fishing men out of the water with his boot hook. I started to swim toward the launch. After a few strokes, a hail of bullets hit the water a few feet in front of me in line with the launch. As the strafer [bomber] banked, I noticed the big red insignias on his wing tips. Until then, I really had not known who attacked us. At some point, I had heard someone shout, ‘Where did those Germans come from?’”

There was a short lull in the attack, and then the second wave of 170 Japanese attack planes roared over the harbor at about 8:40 a.m.

Dive bombing, horizontal bombing and fighter machine gun attacks continued over the course of the hour. During the second wave, the Japanese strike force focused on airfields and various Navy Yard targets. They also pursued the badly damaged Nevada, which had been struck by at least one torpedo and several bombs during the first wave of attacks, yet had somehow still gotten underway. As the Nevada valiantly sailed toward the open sea, the Japanese turned their attention in her direction, with the intent to sink the ship and thus block the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The crew of the Nevada then beached the ship at Hospital Point, leaving the channel free of any blockage.

The Japanese aircraft began to return to their carriers just before 10 a.m. In only two short hours, they had either sank or damaged 21 ships, completely destroyed 188 aircraft, and damaged 159 aircraft in various ways. A staggering 2,403 Americans lost their lives in the attack, while yet another 1,178 military personnel and civilians were wounded.

For the United States, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a painful and dramatic entrance into World War II. The U.S. troops went on to win many battles in the Second World War, but the loss that America suffered on that fateful December morning would never be forgotten.

For more information, see the Naval History and Heritage Command's website's coverage of Pearl Harbor.

Torpedo planes attacking "Battleship Row" at about 0800 on Dec. 7, 1941, as seen from a Japanese aircraft. Ships are, from lower left to right: Nevada (BB-36) with flag raised at stern; Arizona (BB-39) with Vestal (AR-4) outboard; Tennessee (BB-43) with West Virginia (BB-48) outboard; Maryland (BB-46) with Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard; Neosho (AO-23) and California (BB-44). West Virginia, Oklahoma and California have been torpedoed, as marked by ripples and spreading oil, and the first two are listing to port. Torpedo drop splashes and running tracks are visible at left and center. The white smoke in the distance is from Hickam Field; the gray smoke in the center middle distance is from the torpedoed USS Helena (CL-50), at the Navy Yard's 1010 dock. The Japanese writing on the lower right side states that the image was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Torpedo planes attacking "Battleship Row" at about 0800 on Dec. 7, 1941, as seen from a Japanese aircraft. Ships are, from lower left to right: Nevada (BB-36) with flag raised at stern; Arizona (BB-39) with Vestal (AR-4) outboard; Tennessee (BB-43) with West Virginia (BB-48) outboard; Maryland (BB-46) with Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard; Neosho (AO-23) and California (BB-44). West Virginia, Oklahoma and California have been torpedoed, as marked by ripples and spreading oil, and the first two are listing to port. Torpedo drop splashes and running tracks are visible at left and center. The white smoke in the distance is from Hickam Field; the gray smoke in the center middle distance is from the torpedoed USS Helena (CL-50), at the Navy Yard's 1010 dock. The Japanese writing on the lower right side states that the image was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37). USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives collection.
USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37). USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives collection.

The forward magazine of USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the second Japanese attack wave. To the left of the explosion, Shaw's stern is visible, at the end of floating drydock YFD-2. At right is the bow of USS Nevada (BB-36), with a tug alongside fighting fires. Photographed from Ford Island, with a dredging line in the foreground. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
The forward magazine of USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes during the second Japanese attack wave. To the left of the explosion, Shaw's stern is visible, at the end of floating drydock YFD-2. At right is the bow of USS Nevada (BB-36), with a tug alongside fighting fires. Photographed from Ford Island, with a dredging line in the foreground. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

View looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. Submarine in the left foreground is USS Narwhal (SS-167). In the distance are several cruisers, with large cranes and 1010 Dock in the right center. Note Sailors in the center foreground, wearing web pistol belts with their white uniforms. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives Collection.
View looking toward the Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the attack. Submarine in the left foreground is USS Narwhal (SS-167). In the distance are several cruisers, with large cranes and 1010 Dock in the right center. Note Sailors in the center foreground, wearing web pistol belts with their white uniforms. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives Collection.

Poster designed by Allen Sandburg, issued by the Office of War Information, Washington, D.C., in 1942, in remembrance of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The poster also features a quotation from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ...". Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Center. Donation of Dr. Robert L. Scheina, 1970. Image courtesy of NHHC.
Poster designed by Allen Sandburg, issued by the Office of War Information, Washington, D.C., in 1942, in remembrance of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The poster also features a quotation from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ...". Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Center. Donation of Dr. Robert L. Scheina, 1970. Image courtesy of NHHC.

Following Hawaiian tradition, Sailors honor men killed during the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Oahu. The casualties had been buried on Dec. 8. This ceremony took place sometime during the following months, possibly on Memorial Day, May 31, 1942. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives Collection.
Following Hawaiian tradition, Sailors honor men killed during the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Oahu. The casualties had been buried on Dec. 8. This ceremony took place sometime during the following months, possibly on Memorial Day, May 31, 1942. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives Collection.
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