'Infamy' as Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor

The USS Shaw explodes after taking a direct hit at Pearl Harbor. © Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com
The USS Shaw explodes after taking a direct hit at Pearl Harbor. © Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com

by Ray Setterfield

December 7, 1941 — This day is “a date which will live in infamy,” according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was referring, of course, to the shock attack by Japan on the American Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Apart from the resulting substantial damage and heavy loss of life, Roosevelt was particularly incensed because the early morning attack happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning.

Nevertheless, military analysts consider the raid to have been one of the best-planned and best-prepared operations of the Second World War, involving as it did the secret passage of an entire fleet – including six aircraft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers – over 3,700 miles across the North Pacific.

In the late 1930s, America firmly supported China as the main plank of its foreign policy in the Pacific. Any aggression against that country by a territory-expanding Japan would bring the Japanese into conflict with the United States.

Beginning in the summer of 1940, as tensions between the two countries mounted, America began to restrict the export to Japan of materials useful in war.

By July 1941 the Japanese had entered into an alliance with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolino’s Italy and had occupied all of Indochina. America responded by cutting all commercial and financial relations with Japan, freezing its assets and banning shipments to the country of oil and other vital war materials.

At the same time, American aid to China was stepped up.

Militarists in Tokyo bitterly resented all this and the government of Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki decided on war. At the heart of their plans was an attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor – an operation that had been planned with great care by Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet.

It was reasoned that by destroying the American fleet, nothing could then stop a Japanese conquest of all of Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago.

So on November 16, 1941 Japan’s task force began to assemble at the Kuril Islands in the North Pacific Ocean, 5,600km from Hawaii.
From there, using six aircraft carriers, the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor was launched in two waves, half an hour apart. The Japanese used 353 planes including fighters, level and dive bombers and torpedo bombers.

In the raid which lasted two hours and 20 minutes, 19 US Navy ships, including eight battleships, were destroyed or damaged. A total of 188 US aircraft were blown up; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded.

By contrast, the Japanese lost only 29 aircraft and five midget submarines. About 130 of their men were killed.

Judged on its long-term repercussions, however, the attack can only be regarded as a failure. Because of the shallow water all but one ship – USS Arizona – were later raised. Six were returned to service and went on to fight in the war.

And the next day, President Roosevelt told Congress:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941– a date that will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people will, through their righteous might, win through to absolute victory. . . With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.

“I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

The President’s request was granted as Japan formally declared war against the United States. On December 11, war was also formally declared between America and the Axis powers of Germany and Italy.

In London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was bowled over by the news. He later wrote: “To have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. Now I knew the US was in the war, up to the neck and in it to the death. So we had won after all! Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.”

Reflecting on the attack, Admiral Yamamoto has often been quoted as saying: “I feel all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

The sombre and perceptive quote was said at the end of the 1970 film, Tora! Tora! Tora! and repeated in the 2001 movie, Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Yamamoto ever said those words and it is yet to be verified that the now famous quote is anything more than a line from a script.

Published: November 25, 2019

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