Remembering Pearl Harbor

It took hardly two hours to shock Americans into the war that was engulfing the world. On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft dove with their bombs and torpedoes on a Hawaiin military complex still shaking off a night's sleep. The surprise was total. Altogether 2,330 Americans died, and the Pacific Fleet was devastated. Pearl Harbor was a psychic event, an assasination. It colors American attitudes toward Japan even now, and leads to misunderstanding on both sides. It influenced military planning throughout the cold-war era. Some even see conspiracies in U.S. unpreparedness. The "date which will live in infamy" still holds lessons for those who will listen.

The night was black, low clouds hung over the Pacific. Several hundred miles to the north of the Hawaiian Islands, the emperor's battle fleet pitched and rolled in heavy seas. In the middle of the night, Lt. Hirata Matsumura got out of his bunk aboard the aircraft carrier Hiryu, slipped into new underwear and pulled on a flying suit. Then he trimmed his nails and cut a lock of hair to leave his family. Up on the flight deck, a Nakajima-97 bomber was waiting for him, an 800-kilo torpedo strapped to its belly. The Zeroes took off first that day, then the bombers, then the torpedo planes. For two hours they flew southward above the clouds. Then patches of blue sky opened over Diamond Head. Lieutenant Matsumura nosed his plane over--and roared toward Pearl Harbor.

About 6,000 feet below, Chief Petty Officer John Finn was sacked out in "Splinterville," the married enlisted men's quarters at the Kaneohe Naval Air Station. "Our carriers are making a mock attack," he thought. But the guns sounded strange. Finn pulled on his dungarees and grabbed his chief's hat. With his neighbor Eddie Sullivan, he piled into a jalopy and headed for the air station. They were just getting up speed when they heard a horrible roaring astern. "They were carrier planes, all right, but the wrong navy," he recalls. "I saw those big red meatballs on the bottom of his wings and--boy!--I turned to Sully and said, 'Hey, buddy, this is the real McCoy--it's the damn Japs'."

A shock of recognition. A curse that still reverberates 50 years later. No one in polite society says "Japs" anymore, of course. Defeated by the West, apprenticed to the West, allied with the West, the Japanese have been partners, not enemies, for a long time now. But no one who was in their sights on Dec. 7, 1941, will ever forget what it was like that day. The planes screaming down for the kill. The shriek of the bombs, the whump of exploding torpedoes, the spit of bullets, the licking flames and oily black smoke over Battleship Row, where the Arizona exploded, entombing its crew, and the Oklahoma lay belly up like a dead whale. Charred, bleeding, mangled, the wounded cried out in agony. Corpses floated in the harbor and came to rest nose down in the sand. When President Roosevelt called Dec. 7 a date that would live in infamy, his patrician eloquence didn't quite capture how ordinary Americans felt about it. "We weren't at war," says Ken Creese, then 17, a radioman second class who survived. "It was a sneak attack--those guys were murdered."

Recoiling under the smoke and fire, the United States was shaken to the bottom of its soul, its geopolitical innocence in ruins, its vanity deflated, its will and fiber tested as never before. No longer could it cultivate the old American illusion of withdrawing safely behind the Atlantic and Pacific while the rest of a corrupt world went about its dirty business. The shock was galvanic. It forged a superpower. Isolationist and interventionist impulses that had always divided the nation converged in white-hot fury and a war for unconditional surrender. And the after-shock generated a fear of a nuclear sneak attack that shaped American defense theories and budgets right through the cold war.

Although the time and place of the attack caught the United States napping, Japan had made no secret of its designs. After Commodore Perry pried the secluded island empire open in 1853, the Japanese went about catching up with the West as if security could only come of disciplined frenzy, dismembering the Navy of Imperial Russia, chafing under Western arms-control and immigration policies, forcing their Greater East Asia CO-Prosperity Sphere upon Manchuria and China. Along the way, they adopted the surprise attack as one of their favorite tactics. In 1940 American cryptographers cracked the Japanese diplomatic code (PURPLE) and started reading cables. They discovered as early as July 31, 1941, that the foreign minister was telling his ambassador to Washington, "There is more reason than ever before for us to arm ourselves to the teeth for all-out war."

By that time Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, 57, commander in chief of Japan's combined fleet, knew exactly where he was going to strike. Yamamoto had lived in the United States. He understood its industrial strength; he was not eager for war. When politics and militarism overruled him, he devised an attack on Pearl Harbor. His plan was daring but also pragmatic. First he would cripple the American Pacific Fleet. Then, from behind an island defense perimeter, he meant to wage war until the United States became weary enough to sue for a peace that would leave Japan all it had seized in Asia.

Yamamoto's ideas squared poorly with smug Western stereotypes of the Japanese as little men in bottle-bottom glasses and buckteeth. His team was brave, capable, determined. By October, Tatsuya Ohtawa, 22, one of his bomber pilots, was training day after day, dropping dummy bombs on dummy ships off Kagoshima prefecture. "Something is coming," he thought as he craned back to see what his last powder marker had blasted. One day Zenji Abe, 25, a dive-bomber pilot, walked into a briefing room to find Minoru Genda, Yamamoto's chief tactician, pulling a white cloth from a table. Underneath was a mock-up of Oahu with models of American battleships, carriers and air bases. "So that's it," he whispered to himself. A few days later Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the First Air Fleet, gathered his officers at a Japanese inn for a party. Nagumo was short, bowlegged, grandfatherly. "He poured sake into my cup," Abe recalls, "and I could see there were tears in his eyes."

By mid-November six Japanese aircraft carriers had assembled in Saiki, a port in Kyushu. Finally Yamamoto appeared and had himself piped aboard the flagship Akagi. Mustering his officers, he told them that talks with the United States were going badly, that they were about to set sail on the biggest operation Japan would ever mount. Then, one by one, the carriers slipped out of Saiki, dropped all radio communications and disappeared. A few days later Kazuko Sakurai, 10, a postmaster's daughter, looked out and found Hitokappu Bay in the Kuril Islands full of warships. When her parents ordered her not to look at them, she walked in a rigid straight line to school, sneaking glances out of the side of her eyes at the gathering battle fleet. At night, searchlights aboard the ships beamed long shafts of blue light through the falling snow. The crews used only flag signals. She saw no one come ashore.

The clock on peace was running out. On Nov. 24, boats ferried hundreds of pilots across the bay for a final skull session aboard the Akagi. The restless fliers jammed into the carrier's briefing room and spilled out onto the hangar deck. Lt. Suguru Suzuki, a spy, gave them the results of his just-completed survey of Pearl Harbor. Among other coups, he had been able to photograph military installations from a plane open to all tourists. There were toasts in sake. Three times the pilots shouted "Banzai" for the emperor. That night the weather was rough. Many of the pilots stayed aboard for a last round of drinking. Two days later the battle fleet sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. Yamamoto's instructions were to return if negotiations in Washington succeeded. On Dec. 2, he wired the fleet that the talks would fail. As the battle fleet plowed through heavy seas, the pilots whiled away the time studying photos of the battleships Oklahoma and Arizona.

The United States wasn't entirely off-guard. In mid-November, "Station M," a U.S. naval intelligence and communications operation in Maryland, had intercepted Japan's "Winds Code Set-up," an alert to Japanese embassies and consulates abroad. "When crisis leading to worst arises," it said, "following will be broadcast at end weather reports [on the daily radio program from Tokyo]. One: East Wind Rain--war with the United States. Two: North Wind Cloudy--war with Russia. Three: West Wind Clear--war with Britain, including attack on Thailand, Malaya and Dutch Indies. If spoken twice, burn codes and secret papers."

During the midnight watch of Dec. 4, Ralph Briggs, a Station M operative, caught the message Higashi no Kazeame (East Wind Rain). He flashed the message to naval-intelligence headquarters in downtown Washington. The next day his station received a "well done." President Roosevelt knew the pot was going to boil. But where? On Dec. 6, William Smedberg III, one of FDR's naval aides, received intelligence reports showing Japanese transports moving toward the Kra Peninsula. As he and his colleagues left the office that night, one of them said, "Well, the British are sure going to catch it tomorrow in Singapore."

On Oahu early the next day, two crucial warnings went aglimmering. At 6:30 a.m., Ensign William Tanner looked down from his PBY flying boat and saw a conning tower in the water about a mile outside Pearl Harbor. "I hope it's not one of theirs," he thought. Then the sub opened fire. Tanner helped the USS Ward nearby sink it. But even after he wired a coded message that they had sent an enemy vessel to the bottom just outside Pearl, no one sounded general quarters for the fleet.

The last chance came about half an hour later. On the northern tip of the island, Pvt. Joseph Lockard, 19, and Pvt. George Elliott, 23, were manning the U.S. Army Signal Corps's new radar station at Opana. They were due to go off duty at 7 a.m., but decided to leave the set on and practice for a while. Just minutes after 7 o'clock, a huge blip suddenly spiked up and filled their entire screen. At first, Lockard thought something was wrong with the controls. Judging by the speed, the blip had to be a huge flight of planes 137 miles to the north. Elliott phoned an alert to Fort Shafter, but there was no one at the plotting table to take his information. A few minutes later the officer in charge called back. "He told me not to worry," Lockard recalls. "I found out later he thought they were B-17s coming in from the West Coast."

A fatal mistake. The giveaway blip was really Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida leading the first wave of the Japanese attack. "Tora, tora, tora, "he shouted into his radio, flashing the code for accomplishing complete surprise as he and his airmen dove at Pearl Harbor. Far below, by turret number three on the USS Nevada, James Leftwich, a sailor from Kansas City, was reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls" as bombs like wicked black balls started falling all around him. He dropped the novel and started shooting. Radioman 3/c Lee Goldfarb of the USS Oglala, a Jersey City kid who had never been farther than Journal Square, jumped ashore, looked up and saw bullets chewing down the dock toward him. "I'll never forget the look on that pilot's face," he says. "He had a small mustache--and he was laughing."

The fleet's aircraft carriers were at sea that day, but its battleships were sitting ducks. On the battleship Arizona, Seaman 1/c Donald Stratton had just picked up some oranges for a buddy in sick bay when he heard shouting on deck. He sprinted for his battle station above the bridge. At first, all that crossed his mind was "to see if we could get some of those suckers knocked out of the air." Then a bomb fell into the forward magazine, and a fireball 500 feet high swirled over the ship. "That battleship weighed 35,000 tons and it just shook like a piece of paper," he says. "We were all trapped in that ball of flame." Someone from the USS Vestal threw a line to the Arizona. Stratton was burned over more than half his body. Hand over hand he made his way across the rope line to the Vestal. "They kept coaxing me, 'One more swing and you'll be here; don't look down." Stratton was one of the lucky ones. That day 1,103 men went down with the ship.

On the Oklahoma, men groaned when general quarters was sounded. Everyone had had a bellyful of drills. Then a voice over the P.A. system roared, "Jesus Christ, this is real. Get to your battle stations now." Torpedoes slammed into the ship. Below-decks, Petty Officer 2/c Walter Staff looked out and saw water spouting from pipes and oil gushing in. The lights went out, and the ship began to heave over. Someone lit a cigarette lighter. He could see the faces of young seamen looking to him for help. "They went out of their noggins, screaming and praying." Staff struggled upward and wound up in a compartment with bodies floating all around him and the phone upside down. The ship had capsized. He hunkered down in an air pocket and tapped on the hull. Rescuers drilled a hole and pulled him out just as the water had risen to his neck. "I was the last survivor," he says. Of his shipmates, 447 were killed.

When the first attack came, Staff Sgt. Wallace Kampney was sitting in his skivvies in a Honolulu apartment. Grabbing the phone, he had just hit the first two numbers to Wheeler Field when an explosion blew him out the window. He recovered, jumped in his car and headed down a jammed Kamehameha Highway for the air base. In the distance he could see the Arizona burning, the Oklahoma on its side, the California sinking. He pulled into the field to discover that the Japanese had made sushi out of the 44th Pursuit Squadron's planes. Gen, Walter Short, more afraid of sabotage from Hawaii's loyal Japanese-Americans than an airstrike, had ordered them parked wingtip to wingtip. Kampney surveyed the damage and handed a list of intact fighters to Col. Harvey Burwell, the base commander, who said bleakly, "Is that all we've got left?"

The falling bombs and strafing fire at Wheeler woke Lt. Kenneth Taylor. He had left his plane at Haleiwa Field after an exercise, and the Japanese missed it. Hauling on the tuxedo pants he had worn to dinner the night before, he drove to the little field with George Welsh, a squadron mate. The two scrambled into their fighters and soared aloft. Near the Marine air base at Ewa they tore into a wing of Japanese dive bombers. "We simply got into the party and broke it up," Taylor recalls. When he landed at Wheeler to rearm, 15 Japanese fighters pounced down. Giving his P-40 the gun, he taxied toward them, firing as he took off. Then he did a chandelle flip that put him on the tail of the formation, ignored the bullets crashing through his canopy, and chased the Japanese out to sea. He and Welsh wound up with four kills each: eight of the 29 Japanese planes that went down.

One of them slammed into a tennis court at Hospital Point, nosed into a Medical Corps lab and started a fire. Dr. Tully T. Blalock, a Medical Corps officer, pulled up in his Packard and saw a horrendous explosion across the harbor as the USS Shaw blew up. He still shudders when he remembers his work with the wounded that day. "Those boys were completely covered with oil, grease, soot and smoke. All were badly burned. Most were in shock. Some had been blown overboard and swallowed a lot of oil." To relieve the pain he gave them morphine, until it ran out, along with the blood and plasma. Night fell, bringing a complete blackout to the hospital and an antiaircraft battery nearby: "A cigarette would bring howls from the Marines."

A wave of hysteria washed over Oahu that night. Rumors swirled that the Japanese were going to invade, that Japanese paratroopers had landed, that the planes would be back to finish everyone off. The American carrier Enterprise, arriving too late to take part in the battle, sent six of its planes into Pearl Harbor to land. "Every gun, everybody that had a rock, a .45, five-inch shells, everybody from the gunnery school, Hickam Field, Fort Shafter, all the guns in the ammunition depot, all the revetments on the sunken ships--everybody started to shoot," recalls Ensign James Daniels. Five of the planes were shot down, three pilots killed. Daniels ran the gantlet and landed only to have a Marine with a .50-caliber machine gun open up on him. One of the downed American pilots who had survived rushed the Marine, cold-conked him with a gun butt, then climbed up on Daniels's wing. "My God, Jim, you're alive," he shouted. "What the hell's happened?"

Later that night Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet, materialized out of the darkness and walked up the gangway of his flagship, the USS Pennsylvania. The battleship lay in dry dock, where the Japanese had pounded it. Gunner's Mate Harold Rivinius, 19, was one of the sailors who snapped to attention as the CO came aboard. Fifty years later, the memory still haunts him: "He said, 'How are you boys?' just like a regular Joe. It was pitiful, because you knew how he felt. He was a whipped man."

The attack a success, Admiral Yamamoto left diplomacy sinking in his wake. On the morning of the raid, Yuzuru Sanematsu, 39, arrived at the Japanese Embassy in Washington at 9. Milk bottles and the Sunday papers were piled on the stoop, telegrams dangled out the mailbox. "Son of a bitch, what the hell is going on?" he muttered to himself. First Secretary Katsuzo Okumura arrived later. Sleeves rolled up, sweat beaded on his forehead, he typed a copy of Japan's official papers breaking off relations with the United States. He didn't finish until half an hour after the attack began. When two Japanese ambassadors finally brought the documents to the State Department, Secretary of State Cordell Hull blistered the diplomats--and sent them packing. That evening President Roosevelt assembled the cabinet in his study at the White House. Maps were everywhere. FDR sat with his back to the wall smoking a cigarette. He read a draft of a declaration of war. The next day a joint session of Congress approved it, and the second world war was an American fight.

The irony was that the attack, a tactical masterpiece, led Japan to a strategic catastrophe. "Without Pearl Harbor there would have been no Hiroshima or Nagasaki," says Thomas Stockett, who was a 22-year-old machinist mate 1/c aboard the USS Dale on the day of infamy. Winning the war did not ease American suspicions of those who started it--and of those who might set off World War III--until occupation and tutelage in genuine democracy was complete. One legacy was an obsession with better intelligence that led to the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Another, less tangible, was the barely hidden distrust that still mars relations between Japan and the United States as economic competitors. "It is not wise to keep saying 'Remember Pearl Harbor'," says Sanematsu, who still has the seersucker pants he had tailored in Washington. "It is about time to look forward to the future of Japan and the United States." The challenge now is to manage economics better than guns were handled 50 years ago.

The Japanese raiders swept down from the north at 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. Battleship Row was a fat target. So were the dry docks on the southern shore. At the airfields, U.S. warplanes were clustered wingtip to wingtip. The U.S. Pacific Fleet would have been crippled but for one thing: its three aircraft carrier battle groups were at sea that day.

The Japanese assault left 2,330 Americans dead and 1,347 wounded. Eight battleships were sunk or badly damaged; 10 other vessels were sunk. The attackers also destroyed or damaged 188 U.S. planes.

64 men were killed, 29 planes lost, five midget subs sunk.

was a fighter pilot with the Army Air Corps, based at Wheeler Field In the hills north of Pearl Harbor. On Sunday, Dec. 7, he awoke earlier than he Intended, and was gazing idly out a window overlooking the hangar line when he saw a plane drop something that blossomed into a bomb. Now 73 and the holder of the Silver Star and Distinguished, Flying Cross, he lives in Ft. Myers, Fla.

I yelled down the hall that we were being attacked by Japs. I strapped on my web belt and .45-caliber pistol over my pajamas and ran for the flight line. It was chaos. Ammunition was exploding in the hangars, fire everywhere. An airplane would explode and in turn ignite the plane next to it. The only planes not burning were a few Curtiss P-36s. I jumped into one, got it started and, with an armorer who come out of nowhere, [took off]... I had been up 15 minutes when I got hit. The whole airplane shuddered, and I couldn't maneuver... We had practiced before but this was the first time I had ever been in combat. The controls were severed. The canopy was shot off. I ducked into a cloud as fast as I could ... [My comrade] Gordon Sterling was shot down 30 seconds after the Japs started firing. He disappeared in the water off the coast. I didn't see him go into the water but I saw him descending with Japanese aircraft chasing him. He was on fire ... The only thing I thought was that these guys had violated us, and we were going to get them.

flew in the second attack wave against Pearl Harbor as a dive-bomber pilot assigned to the carrier Akagi. Late in the war, he made an emergency landing in the Marianas and spent a year in the jungle before surrendering to U.S. forces in 1945. He spent a year and a half in a camp on Guam before returning to Japan. Now 75, he lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo.

I was not excited nor did I feel fear. I was calm and all I cared was to follow the order ... It must have been about an hour after we took off from the Akagi. Chiaki Saito, the navigator who was sitting behind me, told me that he heard the wire saying, 'Tora, Tora, Tora." "Good," I said. Between masses of white clouds, I was beginning to see white waves at Kaneohe. By then the U.S. side was shooting back. I was flying 3,000 meters in altitude but their aim was frightfully accurate. I was beginning to fool sweat in the back of my neck. When I reached right above Pearl Harbor I could see white clouds coming up from the ground from the earlier attack. There were six ships, two each lined up side by side. I dived down to 400 meters above sea level and released a 250-kilogram bomb. It looked as if the enemy ship was right in front of me. I must have been 50 to 60 meters above sea level before I gradually started upward. Saito shouted, "Right on, hit the target!" I learned later that the ship I hit was probably the Arizona.

was assistant naval attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, and was the first to arrive on the day of the attack. He knew the United States better than most Japanese, having studied at Princeton. After the war he served 11 years in prison for war crimes (he denies them). Eighty-eight years old now, he lives with his wife in Tokyo.

I went to the embassy at 9 a.m. as usual, though it was Sunday. When I arrived what I saw in front of the door were three huge piles of Sunday papers, milk bottles and letters and telegrams overflowing from the mailbox. "Son of a bitch, what the hell is going on?" I cursed to myself... I sorted telegrams [and] went around the building looking for someone from the embassy. As I recall, those telegrams included the ... "1 p.m. notification." [The attack began at 1:25 p.m. Washington time.] Arms crossed and hood down, we listened to the radio. What I felt was, at last, it did happen.

I knew America a little better and I knew what kind of power the U.S. had. In 1940, I took a long trip driving through the States [and] ended up at the Rockies. I was so surprised to see the road that led me up to 12,000 feet ... I saw a power shovel and a dump car. There were only three people working with these machines, a job which would take 30 to 40 people to do in Japan. I felt in my guts that it would be a real trouble if Japan had to fight with such a country.

was a 25-year-old petty officer on the repair ship USS Medusa when the Japanese bombers struck. The crew rallied enough by the time the third Japanese attack wave struck to get credit for blasting the periscope off a Japanese submarine and assisting in the downing of two aircraft. Now 75, Campbell lives in retirement in Grand Rapids, Mich.

I had just come up topside and had a cup of coffee in my hand and was getting ready to read the paper. I had just come up from the machine shop. All of a sudden these planes came in, but we were used to that because our own planes were always making mock raids. We took a good look st the planes and saw the red-sun emblem and we know it was the real thing. Then all hell broke loose. With the first attack that hit us, we really didn't fire back much. By the time they came back a second time, we did put up a few shells. Then they made a third attack. By that time we did give them a little resistance ... The feeling at the time of any attack--I was under a few others in the Pacific--was that you don't have time for feelings. But afterward you realize it, especially when you look around and see what happened. Then you got the shakes and you just kind of sit down and are ready to cry or whatever way you want to go. Even though you're strong willed and not the kind of guy to sit down and cry over a little incident. But it just hits home, especially on Dec. 7.

Remembering Pearl Harbor | U.S.