Dec. 7 marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians, wounded more than 1,200 and propelled the United States into World War II that eventually took the lives of 405,000 Americans and some 60 million worldwide before it finally ended in 1945 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Much has been made about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. But in reality it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Japanese had been on the move throughout the Pacific and the Orient since 1904 when they defeated the Russians in Port Arthur, Manchuria. Then they took control of Korea and most of the German colonies in the Pacific, including the Carolines, Gilberts and Marianas, plus the German colony on the Chinese coast at Tsingtao.
American writers Homer Lea and Jack London had written about the Japanese efforts to expand its empire prior to World War I. Gen. Billy Mitchell wrote about it in the mid-1920s. And in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and followed in July 1937 with the “infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which instigated the Second Sino-Japanese War,” and then followed with attacks on Shanghai and Nanking. Finally, there was the Japanese air attack on the American gunboat, USS Panay, in December of ’37 that happened to be filmed by cameramen on the Panay and on the riverbank. Both films clearly showed Japanese aircraft attacking the Panay with the American flag flying.
This was all public information.
And when George Patton was the intelligence officer of the Hawaiian Division, he issued a detailed report dated June 3, 1937, in which he concluded, “Japan was willing and possibly able to attack Hawaii.” In the last sentence of the report, he wrote, “It is the duty of military forces to prepare against the worst possible eventualities.”
Gen. Patton always said, “To be a successful soldier, you must know history.”
Either the leaders of this country didn’t know history or didn’t pay attention to it.
As late as November 1941, admirals in Washington wrote a vague message warning the commanders in Hawaii of the possible danger of an attack, but never checked to see if any precautions were being taken. Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Twomey writes about this in his book, “Countdown to Pearl Harbor,” which I read last year prior to attending the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The commander of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence unit had lost track of Japan’s biggest aircraft carriers. Twomey writes of false assumptions and racists ones, misunderstandings, infighting and ego clashes between intelligence officers and the Navy and Army commanders—all of which led to our being totally unprepared for the attack.
So much warning was evident long before the “Day of Infamy.”
At 7:02 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 7, two young Army privates, George Elliott Jr. and Joseph Lockard, at a mobile radar unit at Opana on the opposite side of Oahu, picked up “a blob of unknown, inbound airplanes that erupted on their oscilloscope,” and they reported it to authorities. Only the switchboard operator and one other man were at Fort Shafter’s information center as Elliott informed the operator that a “large” flight of planes, which turned out to be 360 Japanese war planes, were inbound.
A few minutes later Lt. Kermit Tyler, a fighter pilot who had been given the morning shift for the second time in his life to be a “pursuit officer,” called the mobile radar unit at Opana. With no fighter planes standing by, he knew nothing about how things worked or what to do. When Lockard told him about the incoming aircraft, he said he thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, don’t worry about it.”
“I had a friend who was a bomber pilot,” he said later, “and he told me any time that they play this Hawaiian music all night long, it is a very good indication that our B-17s were coming over from the mainland because they use it for homing.”
He had heard such music on his radio as he drove to the center in the early morning hours. And a flight of B-17s had, in fact, been flying all the way from California and arrived in the midst of World War II.
At 7:55 a.m., Dick Lewis, a Marine sergeant from my hometown, was relieving the guard on Ford Island. He was standing at the end of the runway with three other Marines, all of whom had just returned from a few months in the Central Pacific building airstrips with the forward echelon of the Marine Air Wing.
“I looked over my shoulder and saw these planes flying right at us,” Lewis told me in an interview that was later published in Leatherneck magazine. “I thought they were Army planes at first and wondered why they were flying maneuvers on Sunday morning. Then I noticed them meatballs on the wings and wondered why they covered up the stars on the bottom of the wings. That’s how dumb I was at first.
“Then I saw something coming out of the planes and didn’t know what it was that was hitting the airstrip and making fire jump off the runway. They were still quite a ways away from us, and pretty soon something went ‘Yiinnnggg,’ and I went end over end. I got a ricocheted bullet in my right shoulder. And I knew it was for real then.”
For a short time, Lewis thought he’d lost his whole shoulder. Bleeding badly, he yanked off his dungaree jacket to get down to his undershirt and tore it off, then took his fingers and pushed the shirt into the hole to stop the bleeding. But his arm was hanging straight down and wouldn’t move.
“We’re under attack, boys!” Lewis shouted as the planes flew over. “This is the real thing.”
He said they were on the other side of Ford Island about three miles from Battleship Row; smoke was billowing up over the hangers, and planes were burning right in from of them. Smoke was also beginning to billow up over the harbor.
“Dadgoneit,” Lewis told me in the interview, “we knew the war was coming just as well as you and I are sitting here and know that it did happen. They sent us on out to Guam to build an airstrip, and then we went on to another island—I may be getting these islands mixed up—but we went on to Midway and helped build an airstrip on Eastern Island and got on ship and came back to Barber’s Point on the fourth or fifth of December. We came into Pearl Harbor and unloaded all our planes and things.”
And so, the war did come. It raged on for 43 more months in the Pacific and in Europe. The world endured tremendous loss and destruction amid that horror—and witnessed a lot of courage and sacrifice, as well. What Pearl Harbor signals today is that the security of our world can be a precarious thing, and sometimes we must fight to preserve our freedom. But it also has a great cost.