“Remember Pearl Harbor” resonates today as a turning point in world events that launched the American Century and its era of globalization, according to a local expert.
The surprise attack 75 years ago did more than force a reluctant U.S. into World War II, said Conrad Crane, chief of historical services at the Army Heritage and Education Center outside Carlisle.
The raid saw an end to isolationism and set in motion a unified effort unparalleled in human endeavor that not only brought down Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, but redefined the world.
“Pearl Harbor turned America outward,” Crane said. “The globalization that arises was an American creation no one could have foreseen on Dec. 6, 1941. We’ve created a world in our image.”
A strategic disaster
Before the attack, the U.S. was thought to be safe and secure, protected by two oceans. The nation was self-sufficient with ample resources, plenty of food and a strong industrial base.
The people were divided over whether to intervene in World War II in Europe. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing what he could to support Britain and Russia by supplying war material through lend-lease.
Most everyone thought if war came to America, it would be by way of Europe, Crane said. U.S. Navy warships were already involved in escorting convoys through U-boat infested waters. There were attacks on American destroyers.
Still many thought it was prudent to stay neutral and isolated. In 1941, a motion to extend the peacetime draft by one year passed Congress by only one vote, Crane said.
But all this changed when aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an airstrike on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and on U.S. airfields throughout Oahu.
On that Day of Infamy, 2,403 American servicemen died and 1,178 were wounded. Two battleships – the Arizona and the Oklahoma – were total losses, and six more were damaged. Almost 190 aircraft were destroyed and 160 were damaged. Japanese losses were 29 aircraft, 64 servicemen killed and five midget submarines sunk or grounded.
While a victory at the tactical and operational level, the surprise attack on Hawaii was a strategic disaster for Japan because it did the unexpected, Crane said. “The Japanese thought of the U.S. as a mongrel nation that was soft. They didn’t realize how united we would be after Pearl Harbor. They downplayed our fighting skills. They downplayed our courage. They just did not see us as standing up to their superior warrior spirit.”
Lack of imagination
The attack was mounted amid an atmosphere of rising tension in the Pacific. The U.S. wanted Japan to back out of its empire in China and Southeast Asia, which Japan saw as necessary for survival. Japan’s refusal prompted the U.S. to impose an oil embargo and other sanctions that convinced Japanese leaders America could no longer be trusted as a reliable source of raw materials.
Japan looked to the Dutch East Indies as an alternative, but knew it had to defeat the British in Malaya and the Americans in the Philippines to secure the supply route to such a conquest, Crane said. One obstacle to their plan was the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor which had to be taken out to prevent reinforcements from coming over by sea.
The Japanese figured if the attack could cripple the fleet, it could also buy enough time for the empire to set up a line of defense too costly for the soft Americans to overcome, Crane said. “They were aware of American industrial might, but they didn’t think we would have the guts to fight through it.” They thought we would get tired of fighting and would let them hold onto their gains.”
But the U.S. had its own misconceptions.
“We were a victim of a failure of the imagination,” Crane said. “We just didn’t think the enemy was going to do what they did. We had signals the Japanese fleet was on the move, but nobody thought they would be so audacious as to attack Hawaii.”
For one, U.S. commanders thought the battle fleet was safe because Pearl Harbor was too shallow for conventional torpedoes. “We underestimated their technical capability,” Crane said of the Japanese, who had developed a shallow running torpedo just for use in the attack.
Army Lt. Gen. Walter Short was responsible for the defense of Oahu. He thought the threat was from saboteurs so he ordered all planes on the airfields to be lined up in rows to make it easier for sentries to guard. But this would only help the Japanese who attacked the planes on the ground with fighters and dive bombers.
Because no one thought Hawaii was a target, the Army and Navy were sloppy with surveillance and did not send patrol aircraft aloft to cover all angles of approach, Crane said. He added while the attack force was picked up on radar, the technology was so new it wasn’t trusted and the contact was misidentified as a formation of B-17 bombers expected in from the West Coast.
Even the slightest warning could have changed the outcome and could have resulted in greater Japanese casualties, Crane said. More planes could have taken off, more anti-aircraft gun mounts could have been manned and the ships in the harbor could have been at battle stations and even moving out to sea. But none of that happened on Dec. 7, 1941.
Missteps and snafus
But the Japanese made mistakes that day. For one, they were unable to attack the Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers that were away on other missions, Crane said. The devastation to the battleship fleet forced the U.S. Navy to focus on the carrier as the main offensive weapon. Six months after Pearl Harbor, four of the six Japanese carriers that attacked on Dec. 7 were sunk at the Battle of Midway, turning the tide of the Pacific war.
The Japanese also failed to attack the harbor repair facilities and oil storage farm that made Pearl Harbor an effective base, Crane said. Though this oversight was made out of fear of an American retaliation and the reality of an alerted defense, it would leave the U.S. Navy with a foundation on which to build its revenge.
The payback came swiftly. Within days of the attack and the U.S. declaration of war, the order had been sent out to the Pacific submarine fleet to begin unrestricted warfare on enemy merchant shipping, Crane said. Though at first American torpedoes were of poor quality, the long-term effect of this submarine campaign would devastate Imperial Japan.
Pearl Harbor ended the struggles Roosevelt had in trying to rally support for the Allied cause, Crane said. The American people quickly mobilized to win on two fronts after Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 11, 1941.
“The Arsenal of Democracy was launched,” Crane said. “Victory was assured by the Allies. America has never been as united as it was after Pearl Harbor. It still boggles the mind to think about the resources we put together to fight in both Europe and the Pacific. It was truly an amazing effort. No other country in the world could have done it.”
Remember Pearl Harbor
Just to take on Japan, the U.S. had to build a fleet of supply ships capable enough to haul men and equipment across thousands of miles of ocean. There was no way Imperial Japan could keep up with this output.
“’Remember Pearl Harbor’ helped to drive us all the way back across the Pacific,” Crane said. “It was a battle cry for the rest of the war.”
By August 1945, U.S. carriers were attacking the Japanese home islands, B-29 bombers had firebombed most of the cities and the coastal waterways were choked off by sea mines. Japan as a civilization was on the brink of collapse and millions of civilians were in danger of starvation.
The U.S. emerged as the only major Allied nation unscathed by the effects of World War II. Its status as one of two superpowers would launch the U.S. into the forefront of the world stage. It will It would become a bulwark against the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism and the center of a multitude of military and trade alliances.
“We went from this isolated country that can’t unite to one that is creating a globalized system,” Crane said. “We got enmeshed in the world, and that was the biggest change.”