I studied the Second World War at school. A lot. We covered the rise of the Nazis through to the Yalta and Potsdam conferences that came at the end of the war and continued through the crises and treaties of the Cold War. Although we did of course cover Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor*, we were focused on the war in Europe and learned little about what was going on in the Pacific.
To experience Pearl Harbor for yourself, watch this short video and join me as I visit the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri:
Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7th December 1941, a date, as President Roosevelt famously announced to Congress, that would “live in infamy”. It was the event that brought the US into the war and probably sealed the fate not just of Japan but of Nazi Germany. In short, a pretty crucial point in the course of the war and of history.
Admiral Yamamoto’s strategy was to annihilate the US Pacific Fleet, thus preventing them from interfering in Japan’s military actions in Southeast Asia. He attacked mainly by air (with a less successful attack by midget submarine): starting at 07.48 local time, 353 Japanese fighter planes, torpedo planes, and bombers were launched from six aircraft carriers and attacked the base. During the attack, 2,335 military personnel were killed and 1,143 wounded; the civilian figures were 68 and 103. The Japanese attackers lost 55 men.
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
Today, Pearl Harbor is still a naval base, with a visitor’s centre and museum dedicated to telling the story of what happened during the war. The focus is on the USS Arizona, one of three battleships that could not be returned to service after the attack and the only one that could not be raised. One of the bombs that was dropped on the Arizona caused a detonation of the forward magazines and the explosion and its aftermath saw 1,177 officers and crew lose their lives. The names of these men are marked on the memorial built over the wreck of the ship.
You can say what you want about the cheesy Hollywood epic in which “the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle” but what it definitely does do is bring to life the horror of the sudden bombing and especially the reality of the men who were trapped on board.
If Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona marked the beginning of World War Two for the US, it was the USS Missouri that marked the end. The last battleship commissioned by the US – technology has since made these ships obsolete – the USS Missouri was not yet built at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Instead it played an important role a few years later, when it housed the official signing of the Japanese surrender in September 1945.
To my ignorant eye, the Missouri looks a lot like the Arizona in the film and this made it all the more poignant to walk around on board the ship and imagine what it would have been like on board the battleships that were present on the day of the bombing. Although I chose not to go below deck – I’m claustrophobic – I did peek into the cramped cabins lined with bunk beds, where men were sleeping on the day of the bombing; on the Missouri, youth groups can now spend the night here.
Across the water, you can see the more modern destroyers and submarines in what are still the headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet.
Next March, I’m travelling to Japan and I’m going to continue this historical journey to Hiroshima, another pivotal moment that came before that official signing of the surrender on the USS Missouri.
*As you can see, I’ve made the very difficult decision to go with the US spelling here. It is, after all, a place in the US…
The practical bit
Pearl Harbor Tours: You can drive to Pearl Harbor and visit the sights yourself but given that I didn’t have a car I booked onto the Arizona Memorial & Battleship Missouri Tour. It’s basically a full day, including also a drive through the Punchbowl Cemetery in town and a mini-city tour including Barack Obama’s private high school.