Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reflections on The Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Seventy Years Later

It has been a while since I have written a post. Thesis writing, research, graduate applications, and numerous projects have been keeping me very busy over the past few weeks. However, I could not let the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor pass without sharing some thoughts and other materials. I hope to share some largely unseen photos of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath and also hope to reflect on what Pearl Harbor meant to Americans in the midst of wartime.

My grandfather enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1941, later trained for a period of time at Pearl Harbor, and was (by shear luck) stationed in Casco Bay, Maine during the attack. He, as many other Americans, contemplated how such a blatant and surprising breach was possible. But as LIFE Magazine reflected one week following the attack:

"Close observers of Japan have said for years that if that country ever found itself in a hopeless corner, it was capable of committing national hari-kiri by flinging itself at the throat of its mightiest enemy. Japan has found itself in just such a corner. It could not retreat without losing all and it could not advance another step without war. It took the desperate plunge and told its enemies in effect: 'If this be hara-kiri, make the most of it.'"
Though hardly (and understandably) written with objectivity, the LIFE article nevertheless delves into the heart of the matter. The seeds of the Pearl Harbor attack were planted nearly fifty years earlier during the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War of the 1890s and early 1900s. Japan realized that their productive and burgeoning civilization and military could and needed to flex its might in order to ensure continued "growth." The militarized nation sought to conquer China, Manchuria, and the vast expanses of East Asia. In the ensuing years, at least twenty million civilians were killed in occupied China. The empire moved from nation to nation to secure strategic footholds in addition to natural resources such as oil and rubber. On New Year's Day, 1941, the 2,601st birthday of the Japanese Empire, Tokyo journalist Soho Tokutomi forewarned that, "There is no denying that the seas are high in the Pacific. . . . The time has come for the Japanese to make up their minds to reject any who stand in the way of their country. . . ." (At Dawn We Slept, 3). Eyes turned toward Hawaii and the western reaches of the Pacific.

Japanese "rejection" of those standing in her way came at 7:53 a.m. on December 7, 1941. Corporal E. C. Nightingale stationed aboard the U.S.S. Arizona recalled the attack: "I was the last man to leave secondary aft. . . .The railings, as we ascended, were very hot and as we reached the boat deck I noted that it was torn up and burned. The bodies of the dead were thick, and badly burned men were heading for the quarterdeck, only to fall apparently dead or badly wounded. The Major and I went between No. 3 and No. 4 turret to the starboard side and found Lieutenant Commander Fuqua ordering the men over the side and assisting the wounded. . . . Charred bodies were everywhere. (Battleship Arizona's Marines at War, 93). 2, 402 U.S. servicemen and women were lost in the day's actions.

Up until the 1960s, the perception that Japan's attack was nothing more than "murder with a toothy smile" was the overwhelming belief in American society. The attack served as a rallying cry in every conceivable form for the enraged public. However, as Japan closely allied itself with the United States during the Cold War, scholars and politicians alike embraced a more sympathetic approach to the attack, claiming that the Tojo Government fully intended to deliver its declaration of war a full hour before Nagumo's Japanese pilots began bombing. This warning was supposedly delayed only by the sluggish typist in Washington's Japanese Embassy who had difficulty translating. This notion was false. The Japanese military had no desire to offer warning or time of preparation. An entry in the Japanese War Diary noted the day before the attack, "our deceptive diplomacy is steadily proceeding toward success." The former perception of the attack was resonate for decades, however. The diplomatic depiction in numerous books as well as the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! was the byproduct of political leaders wishing to build reconciliation and Cold War ties between two former enemies, not sound historical logic. (Power at Sea, 223-4).

"California hit. Battered by aerial bombs and torpedoes, the U.S.S. California settles slowly into the mud and muck of Pearl Harbor. Clouds of black oily smoke pouring up from the California and her stricken sister ships conceal all but the hulk of the capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma at extreme right" (Office of War Information). According to historian Gordon W. Prange, California was perhaps the battleship least prepared for combat. In preparation for the planned ship inspection that Monday, several of the ship's manhole covers were left open. "When two torpedoes stuck, water poured into the fuel system, cutting off light and power. An alert ensign, Edgar M. Fain, directed prompt counterflooding measures which saved the vessel from capsizing" (At Dawn We Slept, 510). Sailor James Hamlin on board recalled a comrade exclaim, "You better get used to eating fish heads and rice, boys, 'cause we've lost this war." These sentiments of despair quickly turned into those for vengeance for the survivors and Americans in general.

"First Army photos of the bombing of Hickam Field, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. Wreckage of pursuit ship after bombing" (Library of Congress). For many at the Army Air base, air attack was initially not their main concern. Sabotage from suspected agents on the islands was. Therefore, planes were clustered together so they would be easier to guard. General Walter Short, commander of Army forces in and around Pearl, however, wrote to the Adjutant General on March 1, 1941: "The concentration of these airplanes at Wheeler and at Hickam Field presents a very serious problem in their protection against hostile aviation" (At Dawn We Slept, 58). Short wanted the aircraft safeguarded in bunkers from saboteurs and enemy planes alike. These requests were largely ignored and the bunched together planes were easy targets for the Japanese bombers.

At least fifty-seven civilians on the island were killed as well - these ones accidentally by U.S. anti-aircraft flak that fell upon their automobile as they attempted to escape Japanese planes. Sadly, the government refused any form of compensation for burial and commemoration for the five dozen civilians killed. Relatives of these casualties were also excluded from the 50th anniversary events in 1991. Heart-wrenching tales abound from these deaths. Eunice Wilson was seven months old when her mother and father were killed beside her as they sat on the family porch. Hawaiian Joseph Adams was killed with his son as they drove their sedan to work. He left nine children, who all were subsequently forced to quit school and work to fill the monetary void. Families across the nation would be faced with similar circumstances as loved ones left for war, many of them not returning. (Pearl Harbor Ghosts, 196).

Five Japanese "Midget Subs" were implemented in the attack. Four were sunk and one was grounded. Here, crew of the U.S. tug Ortolan raise one of them for investigation. A recent episode of NOVA on PBS offered, what I think is, fairly compelling evidence that one of these subs may indeed have made it into the harbor and contributed to the attack's damage. Today, North Korea and Iran have midget subs, as do international drug dealers. Do contemporary subs possess equal or greater lethality as their 1941 predecessors?

Watch a portion of the film here.


As with September 11, many aspects of government and transportation were shut down in the aftermath of the attack. Above, an MP checks the identification of an employee of the San Francisco docks on December 8, 1941. Many parallels have been drawn to the two sneak attacks sixty years apart. Indeed, the 9/11 Commission Report mentions Pearl Harbor no less than five times. However, the commission alluded to the fact that investigating with hindsight warrants caution. The study quotes Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decisions, which notes, "it is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can see what disaster it was signalling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings" (Staff Ride Handbook for the Attack on Pearl Harbor, 123). Could we not say the same for nearly any historical event of importance?

The White House in the late evening of December 7. Notice how pedestrians and traffic are still able to move around the building despite a virtual state of war existing. Inside, President Franklin Roosevelt was preparing his address for a declaration of war. "Early in the afternoon of December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his chief foreign policy aide, Harry Hopkins, were interrupted by a telephone call from Secretary of War Henry Stimson and told that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. At about 5:00 p.m., following meetings with his military advisers, the President calmly and decisively dictated to his secretary, Grace Tully, a request to Congress for a declaration of war. He had composed the speech in his head after deciding on a brief, uncomplicated appeal to the people of the United States rather than a thorough recitation of Japanese perfidies, as Secretary of State Cordell Hull had urged" (National Archives text).

Amazingly, the opening of the "day in infamy" was originally going to be "a date which will live in world history." Secretary "Grace Tully then prepared the final reading copy, which Roosevelt subsequently altered in three more places. On December 8, at 12:30 p.m., Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and the Nation via radio. The Senate responded with a unanimous vote in support of war; only Montana pacifist Jeanette Rankin dissented in the House. At 4:00 p.m. that same afternoon, President Roosevelt signed the declaration of war" (National Archives). The speech came to enshrine American unity and perseverance.

But unity did not ensure equality. Cook 2nd Class Doris Miller was stationed aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia when she was attacked. Manning a set of heavy machines guns with no prior experience, he shot down an enemy plane and was awarded the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz six months later. Despite his heroics, he was nevertheless racially lambasted by many in the press, with some newspapers spewing numerous stereotypes about black cooks and subjugation. Both before and following his death off Tarawa in late 1944, Miller literally became the poster boy for African American recruitment in the war effort.

Many African Americans were well aware of the contradictions of this war. The United States was fighting to defeat the evils of fascism, yet it legally permitted Jim Crow laws and segregation in the military. These three NAACP workers from St. Louis, Missouri illustrate this startling fact. The middle gentleman is holding a sign declaring, "Remember Pearl Harbor, but don't forget Sikeston [Missouri]." This refers to the 1942 murder of Cleo Wright in that town. Wright, a black man, was accused of raping a white woman and subsequently dragged through the streets by a pickup truck while his body was set aflame. The ensuing investigation was one of the first times the Federal Government became involved in a Civil Rights case, but a local jury still had the power to bury the case. In numerous ways, the injustices inflicted during World War II helped initiate the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950 and 60s. Yes, Pearl Harbor was worth avenging. But in the minds of many African Americans, retribution had to be sought with a system morally superior, not similar, to those of their enemies.

Similarly, the constitutional rights of Japanese American citizens were squashed as over 100,000 of them were forcibly evicted from their homes and placed in guarded internment camps throughout the West Coast. Fears of homeland invasion and internal sabotage were rampant in the public's imagination. Here, two young boys, one of them wearing a "Remember Pearl Harbor" sailors cap, wait in a bus station before they are relocated by the military to a prison camp. I think this one speaks for itself.

Whereas the war stripped the rights of some, however, it nurtured and ensured them for others. In a 1942 fireside chat, Franklin Roosevelt noted, "In some communities, employers dislike to employ women. . . . We can no longer afford to indulge such prejudices or practices" (Rosie and Mrs. America, 4). Rosie the Riveter was born. This Office of War Information photograph was subtitled, "Women aircraft workers. She can't forget Pearl Harbor, and she's determined that Hitler and Hirohito shall have cause to remember it. Mrs. Evelyn J. W. Casola, Pearl Harbor widow, drills rivet holes in the belly gun door of a U.S. bomber, soon to storm over Axis lands, showing death to the aggressors." They fought back in the most effective manner made possible to them, including my grandmother who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad during the conflict.

Sailors at the Kaneohe Naval Air Station places flags and leis over the graves of the fallen Pearl Harbor comrades. On the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I hope we can attempt to reflect back with more than a romantic nostalgia of the 1940s and comprehend the event in all its complexities and horrors. That is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to those who did not make it.

For the 2,500 who didn't live to see 1942. . .

1 comment:

  1. it really fantastic post, thanks for sharing it.

    regards
    Loading Arm

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