Posted by Travis McRae on Dec 4th 2023

Pearl Harbor Day; A Look Back in Time to "the Date Which Will Live in Infamy," and the Devastating Results that Followed

Remembering Pearl Harbor


"In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers." As said by Neville Chamberlain Prime Minister of England from 1937 to 1940, this quote exemplifies what I hope to touch on in this subject. While the events of Pearl Harbor in and of themselves have no doubt had profound impacts on both sides, both the American and Japanese people along with the countless other casualties that the Second World War wrought and its devastation, there is no real winner here, all have lost. The idea behind this article is to merely observe the events that transpired, what led up to them, and their impact. In the meantime, hopefully, we can learn from it. Those who don't study history are destined to repeat it, while this isn't the exact quote, the thought behind it still holds merit.

What island is Pearl Harbor on?

Pearl Harbor is on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, just west of the city of Honolulu. The name is derived from, "Wai Momi," which means "Waters of Pearl." The Hawaiians also called it, "Puʻuloa," which translates to, “long hill."

The Significance of December 7, 1941

Just before 8 a.m. local time, the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii was suddenly and unexpectedly attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. The results of this event would in turn lead the United States to enter into the ongoing war, known as World War II. The U.S. would go on to join the side of the Allies, opposition to the Axis powers of the time, which consisted of Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan, and the Kingdom of Italy. Until this point, the United States had been neutral in its involvement with the war that had been happening for two years.

Japan's strategy behind the attack, What led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?

While the attack itself was a surprise one, to say the least, this isn't to say tensions hadn't been building prior. War had been on the horizon and a possibility between the two countries (Japan and the United States) since the 1920s. This is largely in part due to both countries looking for expansion of their reach, with the United States moving into the Pacific in the 1890s with the annexation of both Hawaii and the Philippines, and years later, with Japan expanding into China in the 1930s leading to the Sino Japanese War in 1937 between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. With the territorial and military presence of the United States in the Pacific, Japan had felt that the U.S. was a little too close for comfort and to its own realm or sphere of influence. Meaning, their country's economic, political, and or power to impact on a certain area.

The Empire of Japan had desperately wanted to become a world power since the end of WWII. As such, as recommended by some of their strategic thinkers of the time, Japan would need to become economically self-sufficient in order to do so. This would include resources such as oil and iron and the acquisition of these resources since this was something that the islands themselves were not rich in. Japan barely had the oil reserves to make up for a paltry 10 percent of their needs. This, in turn, would mean they would have to look elsewhere for the resources, which meant either to the east to China or to the west and southwest in the Pacific.

The bulk of the Pacific Fleet of the United States was moved from San Diego to Hawaii in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The islands of the Philippines were also reinforced with military forces in order to deter any more hostility and advancements from the Japanese within the region.

To make matters worse, during the time leading up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, just a few months prior, the U.S. had imposed economic sanctions on Japan. This would include a halt on the exportation of oil, which was crucial for Japan's military operations in July 1941. In part due to the recent Fall of France by the forces of Nazi Germany. Japan would go on to aim its sights on the resource-rich islands of the then Dutch West Indies or what is now the present-day Indonesia in the Pacific.

Furthermore, Japan's strategy was guided by the belief in the effectiveness of a preemptive strike. The aim was to disable the U.S. Pacific Fleet and buy them enough time to finalize their expansion into Southeast Asia and the surrounding ocean before the U.S. could respond. As also during this time, the Japanese were indeed involved with peace talks and negotiations up until the day of their surprise attack. The element of surprise was crucial in this strategy in order to continue advancements.

Surprise Attack Image

Details of the Surprise Attack

Details of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have the time slated at starting anywhere from 7:48 to 7:55 a.m. local time on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. A total of 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft would go on to attack the base in 2 waves from 6 aircraft carriers for over 2 hours. The focus of these attacks was to be set on the United States' most valuable pieces of equipment and vulnerable areas.

The 1st wave consisted of 3 groups of 183 planes, each with their own objective and primary targets. This included the 1st group, whose targets were aircraft carriers and battleships, a total of 89 planes each equipped with armor-piercing bombs and torpedoes. The 2nd group would focus on Ford Island and Wheeler Field both bases remote to the harbor with dive bombers, and the 3rd group set its sights on aircraft throughout the island.

The 2nd wave also consisted of 3 groups totaling 171 planes that were to take out the remaining hangars, bunkers, aircraft carriers, and cruisers.

The tragic toll: Deaths and destruction, How many died at Pearl Harbor in 1941?

This day resulted in a tragic loss of lives and significant damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. According to various historical records, 2,403 Americans lost their lives that day, including military personnel and civilians.

  • The U.S. Navy suffered the greatest losses, with 2,008 of their enlisted men killed.
  • The U.S. Army lost 218 members.
  • The Marines saw 109 of their men fall.
  • 68 civilians also died in the attack.

Almost half of these casualties, a total of 1,177, occurred on the battleship USS Arizona alone. This ship became the watery grave for most of its crew, marking the greatest loss on any U.S. warship in American history. This attack also resulted in 1,000 wounded.

4 of the 8 US Navy battleships were sunk along with 180 US aircraft destroyed.

Though 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers were damaged in the attack and also suffered casualties, most of these were all reconstructed and either returned to service or continued with patrol.

The attackers took advantage of the element of surprise and the fact that many of the US servicemen were on shore leave or still asleep in their bunks. Some sources had noted that due to shore leave, most of the remaining personnel present were in fact junior officers of around 18 or 19 years of age. Despite this, and their blurry-eyed and intense wake-up call to bombs, sirens, and heavy gunfire, these men still managed to take their battle stations with some taking command of posts that were of their superiors to do their best to defend themselves and that of the harbor.

USS Arizona

Understanding the role of the USS Arizona

The USS Arizona was one of the biggest losses the U.S. had ever experienced, let alone on their own soil. Its sinking symbolized the severe damage inflicted on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, along with the loss of over 1,000 crewmembers.

  • The USS Arizona was a powerful battleship, built in a Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York, and was the second and last battleship to be built in the Pennsylvania class, a super dreadnought, larger and with more weapons than its predecessor. This class only bore 2 ships with the USS Pennsylvania being the other.

  • She escorted President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of World War I.
  • During the 1920s, the ship spent some time in the Caribbean as part of training exercises and fleet maneuvering.
  • On December 7, 1941, the Arizona was attacked with at least four armor-piercing bombs that were air-dropped by planes overhead.

  • Unfortunately, the ship was so badly damaged that it was decommissioned later that month and was to not be salvaged. It should be noted that some weapons, turrets, and towers did go on to continue serving the United States Military.
  • What's left of the ship's remains now rest in Pearl Harbor and serve as the final resting place for her crewmen.

  • The USS Arizona Memorial, constructed over the ship's wreckage, pays tribute to not only the crewmembers who lost their lives but to everyone who did on that day. This memorial is a significant part of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and is visited by millions each year.

Impact on Hawaii and its islands

The attack on Pearl Harbor had profound impacts on Hawaii and its islands. The immediate impact was a state of fear and uncertainty that took hold of the islands. Martial law was declared, resulting in restrictions and changes to everyday life, that included things such as blackouts, curfews, rationing, and censorship. It also led to military and government control of everything on the islands from working hours, wages, restaurants, and bars, along with complete control of the press with no room for public journalism, debate, or even criticism. This was indeed a dark time for the islands as the basic human rights of citizens were essentially trampled on.

Hawaii's strategic significance was permanently altered as it became a crucial hub for military operations in the Pacific, leading to economic and social changes due to the influx of military personnel. Due to the influx in military personnel, dozens of USO locations emerged across Hawaii, with over 80 staff members and 3,000 volunteers operating 51 clubs in 1942 alone.

The Hawaiian economy also underwent significant changes. While the tourism industry suffered a major setback, the sudden escalation of military personnel and federal dollars led to an economic boom in certain sectors. The construction industry, in particular, experienced rapid growth as military bases, airfields, and naval installations were expanded or built. There were also significant demographic changes as thousands of mainlanders, including military personnel and civilian workers, flooded the islands. Hawaii would finally get its title of statehood in 1959.

Pearl Harbor Memorial

Memorial: A tribute to the fallen heroes

The island of Oahu, Hawaii has a number of memorials and attractions you can take in if you decide to visit the area. Visitors can expect to see memorials for the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and the USS Utah, along with a host of other things related to the events of December 7th.

To see the USS Arizona Memorial, a US Navy vessel will take you out to its final resting place, where the top of this once mighty ship can be seen just below the surface of the water which is said to still leak oil from time to time. A giant marble wall with the names of 1000 sailors and Marines is built over top of the submerged structure. According to the Go Hawaii website, "the USS Arizona Memorial is a place of somber beauty and quiet reflection." To really see the devastation that war can bring and to be grateful for the time we are in, peacetime. You can visit the USS Arizona for free, but will need to reserve a timeslot with It's as easy as searching for the USS Arizona in the Tickets and Tours section on the page. Two world-class museums are also on-site next to the visitor's center.

An active military base houses the memorials for the USS Oklahoma and the USS Utah. Although you cannot access the grounds without an active duty military ID, there is a bus tour that goes through the area led by National Park Service Rangers. These rangers work in close conjunction with the United States Navy to ensure that the tour doesn't impede. The Ford Island Bus Tour is a 90-minute round trip to some of the less visited areas on the island and offers to show the viewer some, real "hidden gems," of the island that are a little more off the beaten path. The USS Utah can still be seen partially above the water.

Visiting Pearl Harbor: Tickets and tour information

You can find tickets and tour information at searching for "Pearl Harbor," under the Tickets and Tours section on the webpage.

Closing Thoughts: Other Notables, Aftermath and historical significance of the attack

While it is undisputed that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a terrible incident, there were also horrific things havening around the same time of this incident, eight hours after to be precise. What was left out of primary topic in Franklin D. Roosevelt's December 8th speech to the public in his famous "a date which will live in infamy," was the fact that along with the bombings of Pearl Harbor, several other U.S. and British territories were also being attacked by the Japanese, most specifically that of the Philippines.

The Philippines had not only seen the initial raid which was just as catastrophic as the event at Pearl Harbor, but also saw it happen multiple times over and over again leading to the eventual conquest of the island chain by Japan. The end result of this would not only see 16 million Filipinos, US nationals at the time fall under Japanese rule, but also saw the majority of United States warships outside of North America destroyed, crippling the air defense of the Allies in the Pacific.

It appears that Pearl Harbor was in fact part of a much larger strike against both the U.S. and Great Britain with a distribution of attacks all happening within a single day. This happened to the U.S. territories of Guam, the Philippines, Midway and Wake Island, and to the British colonies of Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya, and even the invasion of Thailand. It should also be noted that Japan saw much success with these campaigns as within months, Singapore, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake, Malaya, and the Philippines all fell.

But why did FDR leave this out of the main points in his speech? Was this in part due to wishing to spin the story a certain way to advocate for U.S. involvement in WWII? Telling the story of Americans being killed so close to American soil certainly works better to puff up the patriotism than that of another tropical territory in a different hemisphere being attacked. The US nationals of the Philippine islands looked up to Roosevelt as their own leader and got nothing but a brief footnote in his address. While I don't necessarily disagree with FDR's and Congress' decision to go to war in this case, I do dispute how it was went about and what was done after. Of course, it is easy to criticize the past as hindsight is indeed 20/20.

The aftermath, historical significance, and events that followed can be seen, nay, were much worse than what triggered them. We already discussed the enactment of martial law in Hawaii which in and of itself was in no way fair to the population of the islands. Another thing that happened after these events was the detainment of over 100 thousand Japanese, 11 thousand Germans, and a number of Italian Americans within the United States. Most of these people were American citizens who were forced to leave their homes and to live in camps for the remainder of the war.

Along with this and the subsequent entering of the Second World War, the United States would not only suffer its own casualties but in turn, inflict a number more. Nearly four years after the events of Pearl Harbor and of fighting within the war, both on the European and Pacific fronts, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would take place. Perhaps the most despicable and detestable thing ever done by humans in recent years were these events and the decision to do so. While the defense of one's home may be necessary and the cost of protecting yourself high, it should never have gotten to the point where it did to where the decision to use nuclear force on a whole metropolitan city was the answer. The loss for these events was by far some of the worst ever seen with estimates at 70 to 126 thousand civilians and 7 to 20 thousand soldiers being killed in the bombing of Hiroshima, along with 60 to 80 thousand civilians and 150 plus soldiers killed in Nagasaki.

While I won't go into any more on this subject in specific as it is deeply disturbing, there is something that can be learned from this, something I mentioned at the very beginning of this article- in war, there are no winners, only losers. How many of these people lost in these two horrific bombings were really advocating for their empire to expand its reach and become a world superpower? Did they even care? Did they even know? Would it have mattered if they did? My guess is they were like you and I, merely living their lives and trying to provide for themselves and their families. This isn't to say there weren't losses all around, because there was. With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone lost, humanity lost. I'm not a pacifist and I do believe in standing up for what is right, but I do believe in doing that right. And I do believe that there was a better way to end the war with Japan than what was done. And I do believe it could have worked. Would it have taken longer? Did we run the risk of losing more soldiers? Perhaps. But at least these men and women knew they were fighting for something. I'm not saying that this was right either, but all of the civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki never even stood a chance. Hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes and do better. To not hold an entire race or country's people responsible for the actions of a smaller group. To respect our fellow brothers and sisters and to never do something like this again.


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