At five minutes to eight o’clock, on a Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, in Hawaii, Japanese planes attacked the United States military base at Pearl Harbor.
An hour later, a second wave of Japanese planes continued the attack. By 9:45 a.m. (local Hawaii time), the attack was finished, with all but 29 Japanese planes returning to the safety of their aircraft carriers.
The attack on Pearl Harbor wiped out approximately half of America’s military airpower in the Pacific Theater; severely damaged eight Navy battleships, three destroyers and three cruisers; demolished the battleships U.S.S. Oklahama and Arizona; and killed more than 2,300 American servicemen.
Pearl Harbor also spurred an isolationist America into World War II.
Directly and indirectly, the attack, during the course of the next three-plus years, led the United States to enlist 11.2 million soldiers, 4.2 million sailors, nearly 670,000 Marines, more than 240,000 members of the Coast Guard (the U.S. Air Force had not been created at this time and airpower was under the Army’s purview).
American manufacturers produced 296,000 planes, 102,000 tanks, 88,000 ships and landing craft during the course of World War II.
Of the attack on Pearl Harbor, historian Paul Johnson writes, “Thus America, hitherto rendered ineffectual by its remoteness, its divisions, and its pusillanimous leadership, found itself instantly united, angry, and committed to wage total war with all its outraged strength.”
Speaking to a joint session of Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor “a date which will live in infamy.”
America declared war on Japan. Soon, Germany’s Adolf Hitler officially drew the U.S. into the European conflict by declaring war on America.
Though committed to the task of winning the war, there are myths about the consequences of Pearl Harbor.
Despite anger concerning the attack, every able-bodied, American male did not immediately rush to enlist to wage war.
There was a surge in recruitment following the attack, but “contrary to much later mythology, the nation’s young men did not step forward in unison to answer the trumpet’s call, neither before nor after Pearl Harbor (and) deferments were coveted,” writes historian David M. Kennedy on America’s Selective Service process of the early 1940s.
The nation’s politicians did not set partisan criticism aside for the “common cause.” Some people accused Roosevelt of placing the naval forces in Pearl Harbor to intentionally bait the Japanese into an attack (though little evidence has been supplied to support the claim).
Though World War II was one of the most popularly supported wars in American history, there remained periods when people jumped off the patriotic band wagon to voice other concerns.
Historian Howard Zinn notes there were approximately 14,000 labor strikes during the war years, with 1 million workers striking from the nation’s mines, steel mills, auto and transportation-equipment industries at various times during 1944, a crucial period of the war since the D-Day invasion occurred that same year.
Still, these issues aside, following Pearl Harbor, “the United States had embarked on a mobilization of human, physical, and financial resources without precedent in history,” Johnson writes.
And this spirit of commitment won the war.
By war’s end, America had become a superpower nation, ushering in the age of atomic and nuclear weapons; Stalin’s Russian forces covered Eastern Europe leading to a decades-long Cold War stand-off with the growing Soviet Union.
It all began, arguably, because of the events of that Dec. 7 morning.
Though cushioned by the breadth of two oceans, America learned it was no longer a nation immune to attack — a lesson that, until then, it had not had to grasp since the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.
From Pearl Harbor, outside of the tragic losses, America learned that it must actively participate in international affairs, sustain an adequate military force, and keep open a vigilant eye, if the nation were to protect itself.
These reasons are part of why a horrific, hour-and-50-minute attack that occurred 77 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, remains relevant today. Especially, in an America that has since suffered 9/11 on its shores and again speaks politically of America First isolation.
But the day is also remembered because of the sacrifices and determination of the American military personnel and people during World War II.
It should be a day to remember the strength imbued in that group of young men and women, the ones Tom Brokaw dubbed the “Greatest Generation.”
Their childhoods were spent in the meager accommodations of the Great Depression. As young adults, they battled and labored to triumph over Nazism, fascism and imperialism.
Of the ones to survive, they grew old working, raising families and building the nation, while steadfastly countering communism for the next several decades.
And now, this generation is vanishing with time and age, but its commitment, as well as the lessons to be gained from Pearl Harbor, should long be remembered, honored and upheld.