Americana: A day of infamy

December 2, 2018

Beth Stephenson

It was 1941. War raged in Europe, and Germany had allied with Italy and Japan. Sentiment in the U.S. was mixed. Some saw American involvement as unavoidable, while others believed the foreign conflicts were none of our business. Great Britain pleaded for our help.

Japan had already conquered much of eastern Asia with its clear objective to conquer all of China. The United States first tried diplomacy and then sanctions against Japan. But when they cut off the lifeblood, oil, Japan decided that the U.S. must be prevented from interfering with their imperial designs.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent almost the entire U.S. Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor at Oahu in the American territory of Hawaii.

The Japanese entered “negotiations” designed to lull America into believing that peace could be achieved through diplomacy. The wary United States demanded a full cessation of violence amidst the growing expectation that Japan would eventually attack. They expected Japan to target U.S. interests much nearer their wartime shipping lanes than Pearl Harbor.

“Peace negotiations” were still going on when six Japanese aircraft carriers set out toward Pearl Harbor. In the previous six months, the Japanese had redesigned torpedoes to operate in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor.

The eight battleships moored in Pearl Harbor were the first targets. They represented the might and authority of the U.S.A. Once they were disabled, the next targets were the 390 aircraft arranged wingtip to wingtip in the open to guard against sabotage. After those objectives were achieved, pilots were instructed to destroy everything else moored in the harbor.

The Japanese knew that the U.S. aircraft carriers were not in port, but they expected the war with the U.S. to be quick and decisive, like knocking out an opponent’s queen in a game of chess.

The attack damaged all eight of the battleships and sank four. The fuel on the surface of the water caught fire. Though relatively few bombs or torpedoes found their targets, a torpedo struck the forward magazine of the U.S. battleship USS Arizona, causing a tremendous explosion and fire. She sank immediately, entombing most of the 1,177 officers and crewmen who had died onboard.

Because the U.S. was not at war when the Japanese attacked, all 2,335 military deaths and 1,143 wounded were listed as non-combatants. Additionally, 68 civilians were killed and 35 wounded.

In all, 188 American aircraft were destroyed and 159 aircraft were damaged. 64 of the Japanese military died.

By 9 a.m., Dec. 7 1941, it seemed that America’s Navy and Army air force in the Pacific had been obliterated. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. The day after that, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Yet, the Japanese failed to consider the Pearl Harbor shipyards. They expected the war with America to be so quick that repairs would be irrelevant.

The U.S. set to work immediately repairing the damaged ships. They raised the three salvageable battleships and quickly sent six battleships to fight the Japanese in other arenas. Similarly, damaged planes were repaired where possible.

Today, the USS Arizona Memorial straddles her wreckage like a bridge. The memorial is peaked on both ends and sags in the middle, representing American pride and power before the attack, the depression and mourning after the attack and the return to new heights of power and prosperity after the war.

The decaying hull is an official military cemetery and national historic site. Survivors from the Arizona may choose in advance to have their remains interred with their shipmates within the wreckage by Navy divers.

Oil from the submerged engines drifts to the surface, reflecting a rainbow of color on the harbor surface. Visitors are carried back and forth to pay their respects in Navy boats, with no more than 200 allowed on site at a time.

The names of all those who died on board are inscribed in marble in the shrine portion of the exhibit. There is an opening to the water in the assembly area where visitors can look through the water to the sea-life encrusted structure below.

The visitor’s center museum on shore boasts a wide collection of WWII memorabilia and displays, including one of the U.S.S. Arizona’s three 10-ton anchors.

The Arizona Memorial is a solemn place to consider the evil that led to the loss of so much life and limb. To remember is to avoid allowing repetition.

Only in America, God bless it.

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