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December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor 75 Years Ago

U.S. Navy

Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,  which brought the United States into World War II, and forever changed this nation and the world.

One day earlier, December 6, 1941, was a typical Saturday for many Americans.

“Much of life in the United States was proceeding as it had been; on a normal, peaceful day you had your football games, you had people enjoying the outdoors, and planning events,” said historian Hill Goodspeed at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

“[At] NAS Pensacola a Saturday night meant ‘Liberty Night’ for many naval aviation cadets and sailors assigned here on board the air station,” said Goodspeed. “Looking for those welcome few hours of liberty away from the demands of training.”

Americans had been following the war in Europe for the past two years, and hostilities in Asia for the past decade. Radio and newspapers were the media for the most part, and it was by radio they got the word on a place many had never heard of.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press,” the announcer intoned. “FLASH-WASHINGTON: The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”

By the end of the day 21 American ships were either sunk or crippled; 188 aircraft were destroyed, with more than 3,500 American casualties. Japan was now formally at war with the United States. Congress passed its declaration of war the following day, after hearing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” address.

“With confidence in our armed forces,” said FDR, “With the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.”

But, how did a Japanese task force of six aircraft carriers and their 353 aircraft, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, manage to steam undetected 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean? One reason, says Goodspeed, was the clandestine preparations for “Operation Z.”

“They operated under a lot of strict secrecy; a lot of their training had been done in remote areas,” Goodspeed said. “Their whole transit before descending to the south to strike Pearl Harbor was in the northern Pacific, which was less well-traveled.”

The fleet also observed radio silence, and actually benefitted from rough weather that helped shield them from detection.

“The technology of the day was not as advanced as it is now, as far as radar,” said Goodspeed. “Back in those days a force could travel a great distance without being detected.”

But was the U-S government and leadership at Pearl Harbor really asleep at the wheel? Goodspeed doesn’t think so, saying the government was cognizant of war warnings that had been issued through the higher chain of command.

“Negotiations with the Japanese government were not going well,” said Goodspeed. “But the place that they were thinking [an attack] would occur was more in the Philippines or other areas in that part of the Pacific. The warnings did not specifically mention Pearl Harbor.”

Simultaneously with the raid on Pearl, Japanese forces also attacked U-S bases in Manila.

America had shed its isolationism in 1917 to enter World War I, but retreated back to itself afterward. In 1941, Pearl Harbor brought her back onto the world stage – this time for good.