Hi there, Dear Reader. It’s late morning here in Lithia, Florida on Tuesday, December 7, 2021. It is a chilly day – for Florida, at any rate – and a grey, dimly lit one at that. Currently, the temperature is 68˚F (20˚C) under mostly cloudy skies and dense fog. With humidity at 100% and the wind blowing from the southeast at 1 MPH (1 KM/H), the feels-like temperature is 65˚F (18˚C). Today’s forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies and a high of 81˚F (27˚C). Tonight, cloudy skies will continue and the low will be 59˚F (15˚C).
Today marks the 80th Anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base and other U.S. military bases – including Hickam and Wheeler Army Air Fields and the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station on Oahu, an island in what was – on December 7, 1941 – the Territory of Hawaii. On that fateful Sunday morning, the six aircraft carriers of Japan’s Kido Butai launched two waves of planes (353 in all) – torpedo bombers, horizontal bombers, dive bombers, and fighters – in a daring bid to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet and demoralize the American people at the onset of what Japanese military leaders hoped would be a short, victorious war that would create a vast Asia-Pacific empire ruled from Tokyo.
In less than three hours, the naval aviators from the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku, and Ziukaku wreaked havoc on the unprepared sailors, soldiers, Marines, and pilots stationed in and around Pearl Harbor. The attack killed 2,403 U.S. citizens, including 68 civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships, including 8 battleships. In addition, 188 American planes were destroyed and another 159 were damaged. Most of the U.S. planes were smashed before they could take off.
In contrast, Japan’s losses were modest. Here’s the total tally of Japanese casualties in materiel and personnel:
- 4 midget submarines sunk
- 1 midget submarine grounded
- 29 aircraft destroyed
- 74 aircraft damaged
- 64 killed
- 1 sailor captured
In every book I’ve read about the events that took place eighty years ago, “Operation Hawaii” or “Operation Z” was a tactical victory for Japan but, in the long run, a strategic defeat. Even though the massive aerial attack shocked Americans and graphically demonstrated that the age of the almighty battleship was over and that naval air power was the decisive element in sea warfare, the seemingly grievous losses of capital ships were temporary. Of the eight battleships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, six were raised from the shallow (40 feet) waters of Battleship Row, repaired, and upgraded. One of the ships, USS Nevada, was among the 5,000 vessels of the Allied armada at Normandy on June 6, 1944. And at least four of the old, slow BBs, including USS West Virginia and USS Maryland, that had been bombed or strafed at Pearl Harbor were part of the Navy’s last “battleline” at the Battle of the Surigao Strait in October of 1944.
The U.S, Navy was also fortunate that none of the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet were moored at Pearl Harbor on December 7. The carriers were among the prime targets of the Japanese attack, and the Imperial Japanese Navy would long regret that Lady Luck had smiled on USS Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga on that fateful Sunday morning 80 years ago.
More importantly, because the Japanese plan single-mindedly focused on destroying ships and aircraft, the attackers left the Pearl Harbor Naval Base’s infrastructure – the fuel tank farm, the drydocks, and the repair yards – intact. Many of the more aggressive and tactically astute officers of Kido Butai advised the task force commander, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, to launch a third wave intended to hit those facilities. They also urged Nagumo to keep the task force in the area to catch the American carriers at sea and destroy them, as well.
However, Nagumo considered that it was best to conserve the task force and its planes for future battles. He was a torpedo expert, not an aviation-minded officer. He was also cautious and did not want to press his luck. So, much to his air crews’ displeasure, he ordered the six carriers to head back to Japan as soon as the last planes returned home.
More importantly, the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor had the reverse effect on American morale, especially among its civilian population. Instead of causing a sense of doom and gloom among a people that the Japanese believed to be soft, luxury-minded, and lacking in martial skills and spirit, Pearl Harbor aroused a great sense of anger and a thirst for revenge in the majority of the American people. The fact that the attack occurred before the Japanese broke off diplomatic relations angered many Americans, and millions rushed off to recruiting stations to join the armed forces. The propaganda slogans of the time often invoked this sense of national outrage and almost universal unity – “Remember Pearl Harbor!” “Avenge December 7th!’’ and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” were printed on posters or incorporated into popular songs of the time.
This sense of national indignation – as well as white Americans’ deep-seated racism – gave the Asia-Pacific War of 1941-1945 a particularly nasty and prevalent racial undertone that was notably absent from the U.S. war effort against Hitler’s Third Reich. In Europe, after all, it was a conflict between countries that shared a common culture and historical, religious, and philosophical Western heritage. In most cases, the average U.S. GI did not hate the German or Italian soldiers he was fighting – in fact, one out of seven American servicemembers was of German extraction, including Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (the post-Pearl Harbor commander of the Pacific Fleet) and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1944 was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in western Europe.
But because Japanophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism played a huge role in the American response to Pearl Harbor, racism – on both sides of the battlefield – was the reason why battles in the Pacific were so bloody and brutal. The Japanese were seen as brutish savages who proved to be untrustworthy and uncivilized. The Japanese military’s adherence to the Bushido martial code and ill-treatment of prisoners of war also hardened America’s desire for revenge, in sharp contrast to GIs’ “let’s get the job done and go home” attitude that prevailed in the European theater until Allied forces liberated concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe and saw the extent of Nazi barbarity in person.
I don’t intend to turn this blog post into a treatise on the entire Asia-Pacific War or racial hostility between Americans and Japanese during World War II, so I’ll just stop here. Suffice it to say that for many years, most Americans remembered Pearl Harbor as vividly as my generation remembers such events as the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979, the Challenger disaster of 1986, or the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda.
Nowadays, as the last Pearl Harbor veterans pass away – only a few remain, and they are in their late 90s and early 100s – many Americans don’t remember, much less understand, what happened on that day that President Roosevelt once said would “live in infamy.” This subset of my fellow citizens includes a President that to many of us will also live in infamy.
As for me, I learned about Pearl Harbor when I was a kid living in Bogota, Colombia. I was too young to grasp all of the details about the Japanese attack and how it came about, but even at the age of eight – 50 years ago as I write this – I knew more about this pivotal day in world history than a future President of the U.S. did. Pearl Harbor became one of my biggest World War II interests, and to this day I try my best to commemorate the anniversary and keep the memory alive.
 Although most of the Americans killed were military personnel, most of them sailors and Marines, 68 civilians were killed on the “day of infamy.” By a sad twist of fate, all of the non-military deaths were caused by stray shells from U.S. warships’ anti-aircraft batteries.
 One of the revelations in Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker’s 2019 book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump and the Testing of America is that in an anecdote from John Kelly, the retired Marine general who was Trump’s second White House Chief of Staff, Trump and his First Lady, Melania, did not know what happened at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Here’s a relevant excerpt from the book:
The first couple was set to take a private tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits just off the coast of Honolulu and straddles the hull of the battleship that sank into the Pacific during the Japanese surprise attack in 1941. As a passenger boat ferried the Trumps to the stark white memorial, the president pulled Kelly aside for a quiet consult.
“Hey, John, what’s this all about? What’s this a tour of?” Trump asked his chief of staff.
Kelly was momentarily stunned. Trump had heard the phrase “Pearl Harbor” and appeared to understand that he was visiting the scene of a historic battle, but he did not seem to know much else. Kelly explained to him that the stealth Japanese attack here had devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet and prompted the country’s entrance into World War II, eventually leading the United States to drop atom bombs on Japan. If Trump had learned about “a date which will live in infamy” in school, it hadn’t really pierced his consciousness or stuck with him.
“He was at times dangerously uninformed,” said one senior former adviser.