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History's Happenings for December 7

Pearl Harbor Bombed!
1941

Battleships burning after Pearl Harbor attack

As 1941 dawned, Europe was in a shambles. Hitler, fresh from victories over Poland, Denmark and Norway, had defeated France during the previous summer in a fast Blitzkrieg. The British had been pushed off the French beaches at Dunkirk, leaving behind all their heavy equipment. The Battle of Britain had waned and left in its wake the ongoing Blitz, the bombing of British cities.

Across the Atlantic, America was still technically at peace. But she was supporting Britain behind the scenes, even lending her old American destroyers for the Atlantic war, and she was at serious odds with the Japanese over the latter's invasion and occupation of China in the 30's, and obvious additional designs in southeast Asia. Ominously, the Japanese Empire had signed a tripartite agreement with Nazi Germany and Italy in 1940 intended to form a united front should the U.S. enter the War.

Peace and American neutrality were fast becoming an illusion. If the typical American still held out hope that we could avoid involvement in these seemingly foreign squabbles, the U.S. military, and President Franklin Roosevelt, certainly had other plans.

The president had declared a state of emergency on September 8, 1940, and shortly after created an Office of Production Management to coordinate defense tool-up and to keep supplies flowing to Britain. In October the U.S. government had instituted the first peacetime military draft in its history.

The preparations occurred none too soon. The escalation continued in 1941, the U.S. squeezing the Japanese economically, and dramatically increasing aid to both Britain and the Soviet Union (which Hitler had invaded in June). By mid-year, American neutrality in the European war was a clear sham, and the militant government of Japan had been pushed into a fury. Quietly, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo put into action a plan that would decide the issue once and for all -- an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which had only recently been moved westward to the big naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The plan was to cripple, in one surprise blow, the ability of the U.S. Navy to respond to any Japanese actions in the Pacific.

That such an attack would inevitably mean war created disagreement within the Japanese government, and even among its top military leaders: Despite the fact that the current situation with America was anything but friendly, respect for American industrial might and the indignation that would follow any act of war were not lost on many Japanese.

But the dictatorial nature of Tojo's government, and the natural inclinations of the Japanese to respect leadership ruled the day; and the element of surprise, far from being a moral concern, fit nicely with the Japanese Bushido military code. Consequently, in late November, a fleet of six aircraft carriers quietly departed Japan on its way to Hawaii.

In the U.S., the Japanese diplomatic code had been broken, and U.S. intelligence had been reading routine messages to the embassy in Washington and elsewhere. Combining the contents of those messages with on-the-ground intelligence from Japan itself formed a fairly clear picture that the Empire was contemplating action against the United States, even as Ambassador Nomura tried to negotiate peace with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

On December 6, a final message in multiple parts was received by the Japanese embassy which, to some Naval analysts, spelled imminent attack on the Pacific Fleet. Half-hearted advisories were issued, but the fleet was not put on a war warning -- a seeming dereliction that is still disturbing, considering the general circumstances of the time. On Sunday morning, December 7, sailors were ashore, as was the custom, and watches aboard ship were minimal. Ammunition was locked away. Battleships were moored side-by-side, boilers unfired. Aircraft at nearby Army fields were parked in tight groups because the fear of local sabotage outweighed any fear of attack from the air.

At dawn, local time, as the Japanese fleet approached within 200 miles of Oahu from the north, it turned into the wind and launched its aircraft. Three hundred and fifty planes in two waves, some carrying special shallow-running torpedoes (Pearl was only 35 feet deep), and others carrying bombs, left the flight decks determined to sink as many ships and destroy as many other assets as their ordnance would allow.

Just before eight o'clock, as ordinary early-morning peacetime observances were occurring on Oahu, the dogs of war came howling. Following prearranged plans, some Jap planes split off to shoot up the airfields and other military posts on shore, while the main force lined up on the battlewagons and other shipping in the harbor.

Insofar as the forces at Pearl were concerned, the attack was a total surprise. Keys to ammunition lockers had to be found, crews for the guns rounded up, planes separated and, to whatever extent possible, gotten into the air. Given the total lack of preparation, the efforts by surprised U.S. military personnel were nothing short of heroic.

When the attack abated less than two hours later, all eight U.S. battleships had been sunk or heavily damaged, including the U.S.S. Arizona, which still lies at the bottom of Pearl today with 1,100 of her crew. Many smaller ships were sunk or damaged. About 170 aircraft had been destroyed and 102 damaged. Total American service casualties were about 3,400, including 2,403 killed in action. The Japanese lost 29 planes and five midget submarines.

By sheer luck, or by design of Providence, the main Japanese target, the Pacific Fleet's two aircraft carriers, had put to sea earlier for exercises and returned safely after the attack.

Concurrent with the Pearl Harbor attack, Jap forces also smashed U.S. military bases elsewhere in the Pacific, including at Wake Island and in the Philippines. When it was over, American strike capability in the Pacific had been all but wiped out, and the Japanese haughtily declared that the U.S. had been reduced to a third-rate naval power.

News of the attack reached Washington shortly before two o'clock local, as Ambassador Nomura prepared to meet with Secretary Hull with yet another suggestion for peace. Upon receiving the Ambassador and quickly reading what he had to offer, an enraged Hull declared: "In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions ..."

As America's radio stations broke into their typical Sunday afternoon programming to report the Pearl Harbor attack, the rage that many Japanese officials feared would come filled the American soul. The next day, President Roosevelt stood before Congress and asked for a Declaration of War against the Empire, and Americans young and old responded by flooding the recruiting stations.

The attack on Pearl is rightly viewed as a tactical masterpiece, even the most brilliant Japanese action of the war. Unfortunately that served them naught, because to Americans it was just as rightly viewed as the "date which will live in infamy".

Delaware First To Ratify Constitution
1787

(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
On the other hand, if you'd like to try writing
one  ... send it in! )

Thomas Edison Demonstrates Gramophone
1877

Thomas Edison

(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
On the other hand, if you'd like to try writing
one  ... send it in! )

Last Manned Moon Mission Launched
1972

Thomas Edison

(Stay tuned for a write-up on this event.
On the other hand, if you'd like to try writing
one  ... send it in! )




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