by William H. Benson
December 7, 2000
At first, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto refused to consider attacking the U.S. He had lived and studied in the U.S. in the 1920’s and had also served as a Japanese attache in Washington. He fully appreciated American industrial strength and its citizens’ willpower. But then when politics and militarism overruled him, it was he who devised the idea of a surprise attack that would cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet. But he had no illusions about a lengthy war. He warned that if the resulting war lasted longer than a year, he said, “I have no expectations of success.”
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, (Honolulu time), the attack came in two waves: the first at 7:49 a.m. and the second at 8:55 a.m. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was the code for an attack (To) that was a complete surprise (ra).
The damage was extensive: in a matter of a couple of hours 2403 Americans were killed; 1178 were wounded; 169 aircraft were obliterated; and three battleships–the Arizona, the Oklahoma, and the Utah–were completely destroyed.
Mary Ann Ramsey, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a naval commander, found safety during the attack in a basement on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. She recalled that morning, “Then our wounded arrived–some with filthy black oil covering shredded flesh. We placed them on mattresses and gave cigarettes to those who wanted to smoke, even holding them for the ones who could not use their hands. We tried to reassure them With the first sailor, so horribly burned, personal fear left me; he brought me the full tragedy of that day.”
Immediately President Roosevelt addressed Congress, “December 7th, 1941–a day that will live in infamy.” He asked for and received a declaration of war. It would have been a unanimous vote except for a solitary negative vote by a Congresswoman from Montana. However, due to the attack on Pearl Harbor Americans threw themselves fully into the war effort. American determination and willpower demanded nothing less than “unconditional surrender”.
The Arizona still rests today at the bottom of Pearl Harbor in about forty feet of water and is visible from the Memorial which stretches at right angles above the surface of the water and the ship. Ferry boats transport some 1.5 million visitors–many of them Japanese–back and forth to the Memorial each year.
How much did President Roosevelt know about what was to happen. John Toland, the World War II writer, sifted through all the evidence and concluded that Roosevelt “had known” the attack was imminent. But other historians read the same evidence and conclude otherwise. David Kahn, a writer in Foreign Affairs, wrote, “Though war with Japan was indeed expected, it is impossible in logic to leap from a general belief to a specific prediction.” The clues are there that he may have known, but they are not entirely conclusive.
Although I have never visited Hawaii, I have been told that it is an exceedingly beautiful corner of the world (perhaps an understatement). The attack on Pearl Harbor was indeed a sorrowful incident. A South Pacific island with palm trees, white sand beaches at Waikiki, and friendly natives should not be the scene of geopolitical confrontation, massive numbers of dead, and destruction. But it did happen on Oahu, and if President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have it his way, the day–December 7th, 1941–will live in infamy.