In the early hours of the morning on December 7, 1941, the radar operator at Fort Shafter’s radar information center on O’ahu, east of Pearl Harbor and further inland, noted a profound surge in signal, indicating a large amount of aircraft activity one hundred miles north. First Lieutenant Kermit A. Tyler assumed the surge was from an expected delivery of United States B-17 bombers. One Japanese pilot later wrote that he had been trained to think of his aircraft as if he and the plane were one body. The USS Arizona was bombed at least five times with B5N torpedo bombers, both from air and sea, via midget submarines. The last bomber is believed to have exploded the ammunition magazines on board, which burnt and hollowed the ship’s interior, fire and smoke venting through the sides. Black smoke and flame swept the shoreline. Fires burned for two days on the surrounding shores. Sailors swam to nearby Ford Island for refuge, their bodies burnt and coated with oil. Civilians died by friendly fire, officers desperately shooting against an enemy that had already retreated. By the end of the attack, of 2,335 sailors, soldiers, and marines, as well as 68 civilians were dead.
The permanent exhibit at the Pearl Harbor Museum, within the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument on O’ahu, reflects that the attack was “the end of the age of the great battleship.” Pearl Harbor is now under the auspices of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, established in December of 2008 and comprising national sites Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands, and Newell California. All commemorate U.S. engagement in the Pacific theatre of war during World War II. Via the site in Hawaii, you can also tour the USS Missouri, where the peace agreement between the U.S. and Japan was signed in September of 1945, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, on Ford Island.
We visited Pearl Harbor in 2013, and were deeply moved and sobered by the memorial, more finely understanding the fear and devastation that the surprise attacks wrought. The collected, recorded stories of soldiers and civilians helped us imagine the feelings of being foisted to the front line of a new war, hours if not days away from immediate assistance.
The USS Arizona Memorial, designed by Alfred Preis, is set atop the sunken USS Arizona, still lodged in the Pacific. Leaking oil from the ship, also known as “black tears,” stains the surface of the water; park rangers say the ship will leak oil for decades to come. Visible from the memorial are the USS Missouri and Ford Island. The names of those who perished are set upon the entire rear wall of the memorial.
Memories of our visit to Pearl Harbor flooded back this past fall, when we visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, in Hyde Park, New York. The site is comprised of Roosevelt’s home and Presidential Library and Museum, a considerable portion of which is devoted to interpreting his immediate response to Pearl Harbor and the aftermath, as Commander in Chief of a country at war. We see the drafts and rewrites of his appeal to Congress on December 8, 1941, the day after the attacks; the speech was initially intended to be pointed and brief, but subsequent rewrites in collaboration with his advisers shaped the version we know today. As per the National Archives:
“…the President calmly and decisively dictated to his secretary, Grace Tully, a request to Congress for a declaration of war. He composed the speech in his head after deciding on a brief, uncomplicated appeal to the people of the United States rather than a thorough recitation of Japanese perfidies as Secretary of State Cordell Hull had urged. President Roosevelt then revised the typed draft—marking it up, updating military information, and selecting alternative wordings that strengthened the tone of the speech. He made the most significant change in the critical first line, which originally read, "a date which will live in world history."
The Senate unanimously voted in support of war, and only Montana pacifist Jeanette Rankin dissented in the House.
The original draft of the speech is preserved, Roosevelt’s pencil markings and edits a unique glimpse into the writing and editing process moments after a crisis. One critical amendment to the speech was to, at the last moment, change “a date which will live in world history” to the words we know today “a date which will live in infamy.” Roosevelt, an intuitive archivist, recorded his thoughts throughout the war. He later wrote that upon receiving the phone call about the bombings at Pearl Harbor, his first instinct was to record his thoughts in writing, knowing his response would become part of our national historical memory.
This year’s remembrance of Pearl Harbor will be made particularly special, as for the first time, a leader of Japan’s government, the President himself, will be present to mark the day. On the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we wanted to reflect upon this moment in history, and to remember the lives of those that perished in the attacks, as well as in the years of war that followed.
Banner photo, USS Arizona Memorial, photo by Amy Beth Wright.