At 7:55 a.m. the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 in Honolulu, Hawaii, 353 planes from four Japanese aircraft carriers north of the Hawaiian Islands attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Army Air base at Hickam Field.
Eighty years ago now next Tuesday, something that is only history to most Americans, but was certainly the biggest surprise in the annals of American history to that time.
Historians note “The day the cat jumped” as some have labeled it, was highly anticipated, but still came as a complete surprise to most of the American public.
The tactics of a sneak raid on Pearl Harbor causing crippling damage to the formidable U.S. fleet based there and freeing the Japanese to dominate the Pacific for a time, had been a standard part of both Tokyo and Washington’s strategic thinking for over 10 years.
Since 1931, every graduating class of the Japanese Naval College had been given the same final exam question, “How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?”
In 1932, a U.S. carrier actually showed how by staging a simulated pre-dawn raid, with its planes sinking all the vessels at Pearl. No doubt Japanese naval observers took keen note of the report.
By mid-1941, the long-standing rivalry between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific had been sharpened by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.
The U.S. government had already embargoed oil and scrap metal shipments to Japan – vital to the growing Japanese military build up taking place.
In July, 1941, President Roosevelt brought matters to a head by freezing all Japanese assets in the U.S.
Now the militarists in Japan felt they had no alternative but to strike, and strike soon.
Still, Emperor Hirohito did try for peaceful negotiations with Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and Special Envoy Saburo Kurusu, hoping that somehow war could be averted.
But, a 32-ship Japanese fleet had set sail from islands north of Japan on Nov. 26. Dec. 5 was the last day they could have been recalled.
General Hideki Tojo, who definitely wanted war, sent a note to Nomura saying, “We will wait until Nov. 29. After that, things will happen automatically.”
On Dec. 5, the Japanese Embassy in Washington was known to have been burning its confidential papers and on the evening of Dec. 6, President Roosevelt had been informed Tokyo was “breaking off negotiations forthwith.”
Roosevelt is reported to have told his aide Harry Hopkins, “This means war.”
The next morning, at 2:30 a.m. Hawaii time, the Japanese attack signal, “Climb Mt. Niitaka,” was given to all aircraft carriers and 353 planes began their journey on “The Day of Infamy.”
It is interesting to note that the U.S.S. Nevada was the only battleship in the harbor during the attack that morning to be able to actually get moving. Although hit by 12 bombs, the ship was able to move out of the main harbor channel and run aground in such a way as to not completely block the harbor for other traffic and rescue efforts.
Dec. 7, 1941. What sort of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our lives.