“We Will Never Forget”

It is up to each of us to tell the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor
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Throughout history, tragic events are followed by promises to never forget the victims. Presidential proclamations, songs, movies, posters, and anniversary celebrations all help us to keep the memory alive of those who had suffered or died. Recently, our generation has enshrined September 11 as “Patriots Day” to remind us of the many victims who died as well as the first responders who gave their all to find survivors of the Two Towers attack in 2001.

But before September 11, 2001, “We will never forget” applied to one horrific morning in 1941, when a Japanese attack on a US base in the Pacific killed more than 2,300 Americans, sank or beached twelve US Navy ship, and destroyed at least 188 aircraft. On its own, the loss and extent of damage at Pearl Harbor would have been enough for December 7, 1941, to hold a place in our collective memory. However, what permanently cemented it in American folklore and history  was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s request to Congress to declare war on Japan the following day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown in the Oval Office signing the Congressional declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/ NARA

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shown in the Oval Office signing the Congressional declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/ NARA

Only one hour after the President’s now famous “Infamy” speech, the United States Congress declared war (Pub.L. 77–328, 55 Stat. 795) on the Empire of Japan. In response, Japan's allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, bringing the United States fully into World War II — a war that would affect every family across the United States with military and civilian casualties topping 418,500 before the war ended four year later.

Our Responsibility

“We will never forget” depends on retelling the story to children. This is how our national memory is maintained. Though it is easy to say that “kids today don’t care,” that is not a reflection of the kids, but rather, us. 

There are not many young Americans who are able to recount the story of the War of 1812’s Battle of Bladensburg that led to the burning of the nation’s capital, the fall of the Texas Republic’s Alamo in March 1836 leaving as many as 257 defenders dead, the carnage left by the nation’s deadliest battle near Sharpsburg, Maryland, when nearly 23,000 men died, were wounded, or went missing over the course of the single-day battle in 1862, or the deadliest day of the Vietnam War when 246 US troops died during the launch of the Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968. 

The young are not to be blamed for not holding these events dear. The responsibility was on us to convey the impact of these events on the forming of our national awareness. Saying “we will never forget” carries more responsibility than buying a poppy, wearing a ribbon, or displaying a flag. Sharing the stories is how we guarantee the lives lost are not followed by memories forgotten

The Story of Pearly Harbor

Okay, I know that anyone who has read this far probably has a good idea of what happened on December 7, 1941. Our parents and grandparents have been true to the memory of those Americans who died in the morning attack. Therefore, I will give you a short list of “talking points” that will guide you through the event. You may use these as an outline to share with your children, grandchildren, or other young people who haven’t heard the story before.

Pearl Harbor naval base aflame after the Japanese attack, 1941. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-16555.

Pearl Harbor naval base aflame after the Japanese attack, 1941. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-16555.

* On December 7, 1941, Japan staged a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, decimating the US Pacific Fleet.

*This was not an isolated incident, but rather, its roots stretched back more than four decades. Japan tried to imitate western nations as it became an industrialized nation.

*The United States and Japan had competing interests in Chinese markets and Asian natural resources.

* In 1931, Japan took its first step toward building a Japanese empire in eastern Asia by invading Manchuria, a fertile, resource-rich province in northern China. Japan installed a puppet government in Manchuria, renaming it Manchukuo. But the United States refused to recognize the new regime.

*At the time, US companies continued to supply Japan with the steel and petroleum it needed for its fight against China long after the conflict between the countries escalated into a full-scale war in 1937.

*A powerful isolationist movement in the United States insisted that our nation had no business in the international conflicts developing around the world. Even the Japanese military’s murder of between 100,000 and 200,000 helpless Chinese military prisoners and civilians and the rape of tens of thousands of Chinese women during the 1937 Rape of Nanking failed to shift the US public’s opinion. Japan saw this lack of Americas’ response as an opportunity to become the dominant imperial power in Asia.

*Responding to the public's call for an “America first” attitude, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt cut off shipments of scrap iron, steel, and aviation fuel to Japan in July 1940 (he did allow American oil to continue flowing to the empire, however).

* Japan responded by entering resource-rich French Indochina, with permission from the government of Nazi-occupied France, and by cementing its alliance with Germany and Italy as a member of the Axis.

* In July 1941, Japan then moved into southern Indochina in preparation for an attack against both British Malaya, a source for rice, rubber, and tin, and the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. This prompted Roosevelt to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States on July 26, 1941. This cut off Japan’s access to US oil.

* That move pushed Japan to secretly ready its “Southern Operation,” a massive military attack on Great Britain’s large naval facility in Singapore and American installations in the Philippines and at Pearl Harbor, thus clearing a path for the conquest of the Dutch East Indies.

*Though diplomatic talks continued between the United States and Japan,  neither side compromised. The United States insisted that Japan immediately withdraw all of its troops from China and Indochina. Japan refused to give up any of its newly acquired territory.

*Japan's final proposal, delivered on November 20, offered to withdraw from southern Indochina and to refrain from attacks in Southeast Asia, so long as the United States, United Kingdom, and Netherlands ceased aid to China and lifted their sanctions against Japan.

* On November 26, 1941, US officials responded with a 10-point statement reiterating their long-standing position that required Japan to completely evacuate China without conditions and conclude non-aggression pacts with Pacific powers.

*Many Americans believed that hostilities between the U.S. and Japan were imminent. A Gallup poll taken just before the attack on Pearl Harbor found that 52% of Americans expected war with Japan, 27% did not, and 21% had no opinion

*On the day before receiving the US response, Japan had sent a Japanese Imperial Navy armada to sea. The force included 414 planes aboard six aircraft carriers.

*The Japanese intended to use this movement to prevent the United States Pacific Fleet from interfering with its planned military actions in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States. Additionally, from the Japanese viewpoint, it was seen as a preemptive strike “before the oil gauge ran empty.” The flotilla’s commander, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, aimed to destroy the US Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor.

* The Japanese ships maintained strict radio silence during the 3,500- mile trek from Hitokappu Bay to a predetermined launch sector 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

* At 6:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, the first wave of Japanese planes lifted off from the carriers, followed by a second wave an hour later. The planes spotted land and assumed their attack positions around 7:30 a.m.

* Twenty-three minutes later, the leader of the two flights, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, broke radio silence to shout, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) — the coded message informing the Japanese fleet that they had caught the Americans by surprise.

* For nearly two hours, Japanese planes bombed, dropped torpedoes, and machine gunned the American ships and servicemen.

USS Arizona, at height of fire, following Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-104778

USS Arizona, at height of fire, following Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-104778

* Ninety minutes after the attack began, 2,008 sailors were dead and 710 others had been wounded; 218 soldiers and airmen had been killed and 364 wounded; 109 Marines were killed and 69 wounded; and 68 civilians were killed and 35 wounded. In total, 2,403 Americans had been killed and 1,143 wounded. In addition, eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships. Of the 402 American aircraft in Hawaii, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged, 155 of them on the ground.

*It is important to remember that all of the Americans killed or wounded during this attack were non-combatants. There was no state of war when the attack occurred.

*The Japanese immediately followed the assault on Pearl Harbor with attacks against US and British bases in the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, Wake Island, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Within days of the December 7 attack, the Japanese dominated the Pacific.

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Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine