Just before 8am on the morning of December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes carried out a devastating attack on the Pearl Harbor American Naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. The Japanese aircrews managed to achieve complete surprise and for two hours, Japanese fighter, bomber and torpedo planes carried out a shocking assault on the naval base.
Pearl Harbor will be remembered Tuesday, December 7, 2021.
How is Pearl Harbor Day Observed?
The White House and all United States government buildings fly the American flag at half-mast as should all homes and private buildings to honor those who died in the attack at Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor survivors, associations and the military community typically commemorate the day with memorial services, wreath laying ceremonies and the retelling of the days’ events. Many schools and museums have activities to educate students and the public on the historical importance of Pearl Harbor.
Why Did the Japanese Attack?
Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, World War II had been going on for almost ten years in China and two years in Europe. The Japanese began invading China in 1931, and this was when the war began to brew. The Japanese had been unsuccessfully negotiating with the United States in the hopes of continuing expansion within Southeast Asia, namely the Philippine Islands (an American Territory at that time), Dutch West Indies, and Malaysia. In response to their aggression, the United States placed strict embargos on Japan, which brewed hostility between the two countries. By late 1941, many Americans expected war with Japan to be imminent, though they had no idea it would begin with such a sneak attack.
The December 7th attack was carried out with the intention of destroying the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet before an announcement of war was even made. The hope was that the surprise attack would devastate the power of the United States Navy and allow valuable time for Japan to strengthen its own naval capabilities once the war with the Unites States had been engaged. Japan also hoped to severely cripple American morale, aiming to hinder their acceptance of the war and diminishing overall U.S. involvement in Japan’s aim to conquer.
Significance of Pearl Harbor to the United States’ WWII Involvement
Prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the United States had maintained formal neutrality in the global escalation of conflict. Up until this point, America had isolated itself from the conflicts in Asia and Europe, but over time, these conflicts had built unimaginable tension. The attack on Pearl Harbor was essentially the breaking point. On December 8, 1941, just one day after the attack, the United States declared war on Japan. As a result, on December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy retaliated with a declaration of war on the United States, as they were allied to Japan under the Tripartite Pact (or the Axis Pact) of 1940.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed December 7, 1941 as, “a date which will live in infamy.” After years of a global conflict, the United States had officially entered into World War II.
September 2, 1945 marks the formal surrender of Japan in World War Two which took place aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. This day is known as Victory Over Japan Day or VJ Day.
Pearl Harbor Facts
- The base was attacked in two waves by a total of 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes.
- There were 165 U.S. Naval ships involved. 20 were damaged. 12 of those were back in service in less than 1 year.
- All 8 U.S. Navy battleships were damaged; 4 were “lost in action.”
- All but one battleship were raised and 6 were returned to service and fought in the war.
- No Aircraft Carriers were in port at the time of the attack.
- Japan also launched attacks on U.S. troops in Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand and Midway that same day. Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, and Thailand would all eventually fall to the Japanese.
- Pearl Harbor Casualties:
- 2,008 naval officers killed; 710 wounded
- 218 Army personnel killed; 364 wounded
- 109 Marines killed, 69 wounded
- 68 civilians killed, 35 wounded
- A total of 2,402 Americans were killed, 1,178 wounded
Historic Sites, Museums, Memorials & Resources
USS Arizona Memorial – National Park Service
Battleship Missouri Memorial – Honolulu, Hawaii
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park – Honolulu, Hawaii
Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor – Honolulu, Hawaii
Pearl Harbor Tours, Memorials and Museums – Hawaii
Although the Japanese attack was overwhelming, it was not complete, nor did it achieve what they had hoped. No United States aircraft carriers were present at the time of the attack, and they neglected to damage the shoreside facilities of the naval base, which later went on to play a crucial role in the Allied victory at the end of the war. Additionally, all but three ships damaged in the attack were raised, repaired, and later used in victorious war efforts. Most notably, the outrage caused by the attack fueled the strength of the United States and its citizens to commit to victory in World War II. The U.S. would exact revenge in The Battle of Midway, a decisive naval battle that took place between June 4-7, 1942, six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor Movie vs History
While audiences generally enjoyed (not critics) the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, it isn’t the best source of information to learn about the actual events that happened that day. In fact, many veterans and survivors were disappointed with the liberties with historical facts that were taken and the misrepresentation of the efforts of many on December 7, 1941. Rather than focus on the historical inaccuracies here are a few characters from the movie that inspired a new interest in these real-life heroes roles during the Pearl Harbor attacks.
- Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller – Portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr., he is the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, its highest decoration, for his actions during the Pearl Harbor attacks. With no training for the task, Miller manned a .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun. Once out of ammunition he began rescuing sailors from the water.
- Lieutenants Kenneth Taylor and George Welch – Loosely portrayed by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, Welch and Taylor managed to get airborne under fire—twice—and shot down at least six Japanese planes between them. Welch and Taylor received the Distinguished Service Cross, becoming the first to be awarded that distinction in World War II. The twisted love triangle from the movie is completely out of Hollywood.
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