In the early morning of December 7, 1941, a group of planes made an ominous procession towards Oahu, Hawaii. Despite their Japanese colors, it seemed unlikely that the island—home to Pearl Harbor—would be the initial site of Japan's war against the U.S. Surely its location, thousands of miles away from the enemy, guaranteed its safety?
But with tensions between the two countries at an all-time high—and with the harbor lacking proper defenses—no such guarantee could be made. At 8:00 am, Japanese planes rained fire down on Battleship Row, where major U.S. naval vessels lay largely unguarded. Destroying them would be essential for a Japanese victory, as the Pacific Fleet impeded Japan's access to the rest of the South Pacific.
The USS Arizona was among the first to be hit. A nearly 2,000 pound bomb crashed clear through to the forward ammunition magazine, and the ship erupted in an explosion with over 1,000 of her crew members perishing in the bomb blast. The remaining seven battleships, including the USS California and USS West Virginia, followed soon thereafter. Within 30 minutes, most of the damage was done—but the assault wasn’t over yet.
A second wave began, and while it was nowhere near as destructive as the initial attack, it hit American forces hard. Bombs, bullets, and torpedoes tore through the base, which had been scarcely manned due to Sunday schedules. After only an hour, the Japanese threat had withdrawn. Left in its wake were 20 destroyed naval vessels, over 300 damaged airplanes, and at the end of it all, the death toll including civilians was more than 2,400, with another 1,000 Americans suffering from injury.
However, despite such grand scale devastation, there were many who survived—and most of the battleships damaged that day eventually returned to service. Japan’s hopes for crippling American forces were in vain, regardless, as they failed to consider that battleships were no longer the primary vessel within the navy. Americans had embraced aircraft carriers as their central warships, and on the terrible tragedy of December 7, all of the carriers of the Pacific Fleet were either at the mainland or delivering planes.
The Japanese attack was further minimized by the fact that the essential resources at the Pearl Harbor base were left in tact. Vital assets such as oil storage, repair shops, and submarine docks were still standing onshore. Because of this, it wasn’t long before the United States Navy has recovered from the loss and destruction of the barrage.
Renowned historian author Walter Lord, who is known for The Miracle of Dunkirk and A Night to Remember, recounts the destruction of the Pacific Fleet in his bestseller Day of Infamy. At once a detailed account of the attack, it's also a testament to the heroism of those onboard the ships.
Read on for an excerpt from Day of Infamy, and then download the book.
Over 1000 men were gone.
Incredibly, some still lived. Major Allen Shapley of the Marine detachment was blown out of the foremast and well clear of the ship. Though partly paralyzed, he swam to Ford Island, detouring to help two shipmates along the way. Radioman Glenn Lane was blown off the quarterdeck and found himself swimming in water thick with oil. He looked back at the Arizona and couldn’t see a sign of life.
But men were there. On the third deck aft Coxswain James Forbis felt skinned alive, and the No. 4 turret handling room was filling with thick smoke. He and his mates finally moved over to No. 3 turret, where conditions were a little better, but soon smoke began coming in around the guns there too. The men stripped to their skivvie drawers and crammed their clothes around the guns to keep the to keep the smoke out. When somebody finally ordered them out, Forbis took off his newly shined shoes and carefully carried them in his hands as he left the turret. The deck was blazing hot and covered with oil. But there was a dry spot farther aft near No. 4 turret, and before rejoining the fight, Forbis carefully placed his shoes there. He lined them neatly with the heels against the turret — just as though he planned to wear them up Hotel Street again that night.
In the portside antiaircraft director, Russell Lott wrapped himself in a blanket and stumbled out the twisted door. The blanket kept him from getting scorched, but the deck was so hot he had to keep hopping from one foot to the other. Five shipmates staggered up through the smoke, so he stretched the blanket as a sort of shield for them all. Then he saw the Vestal still alongside. The explosion had left her decks a shambles, but he found someone who tossed over a line, and, one by one, all six men inched over to the little repair ship.
At that particular moment they were lucky to find anyone on the Vestal. The blast had blown some of the crew overboard, including skipper Cassin Young, and the executive officer told the rest to abandon ship. Seaman Thomas Garzione climbed down a line over the forecastle, came to the end of it, and found himself standing on the anchor. He just froze there — he was a nonswimmer and too scared to jump the rest of the way. Finally he worked up enough nerve, made the sign of the cross, and plunged down holding his nose. For a nonswimmer, he made remarkable time to a whale boat drifting in the debris.
Signalman Adolph Zlabis dived off the bridge and reached a launch hovering nearby. He and a few others yelled encouragement to a young sailor who had climbed out on the Vestal’s boat boom and now dangled from a rope ladder five feet above the water. Finally the man let go, landed flat in the water with a resounding whack. The men in the launch couldn’t help laughing.
Still on board the Vestal, Radioman John Murphy watched a long line of men pass his radio room, on their way to abandon ship. One of the other radiomen saw his brother go by. He cried, “I’m going with him,” and ran out the door. For no particular reason Murphy decided to stay, but he began feeling that he would like to get back home just once more before he passed on.
At this point Commander Young climbed back on the Vestal from his swim in the harbor. He was by no means ready to call it a day. He stood sopping wet at the top of the gangway, shouting down to the swimmers and the men in the boats, “Come back! We’re not giving up this ship yet!”
Most of the crew returned and Young gave orders to cast off. Men hacked at the hawsers tying the Vestal to the blazing Arizona. Inevitably, there was confusion. One officer on the Arizona’s quarterdeck yelled, “Don’t cut those lines.” Others on the battleship pitched in and helped. Aviation Mechanic “Turkey” Graham slashed the last line with an ax, shouting, “Get away from here while you can!”
"Come back! We're not giving up this ship yet!"
Other help came from an unexpected source. A Navy tug happened by, whose skipper and chief engineer had both put in many years on the Vestal. They loyally eased alongside, took a line from the bow, and towed their old ship off toward Aiea landing, where she could safely sit out the rest of the attack.
When the Arizona blew up, Chief Electrician’s Mate Harold North on the Maryland thought the end of the world had come. Actually he was lucky. Moored inboard of the Oklahoma, the Maryland was safe from torpedoes and caught only two bombs. One was a 15-inch armor-piercing shell fitted with fins — it slanted down just off the port bow, smashing into her hull 17 feet below the water-line. The other hit the forecastle, setting the awnings on fire. When a strafer swept by, Chief George Haitle watched the firefighters scoot for shelter. One man threw his extinguisher down a hatch, where it exploded at the feet of an old petty officer, who grabbed for a mask, shouting, “Gas!”
The Tennessee, the other inboard battleship, had more trouble. Seaman J. P. Burkholder looked out a porthole on the bridge just as one of the converted 16-inch shells crashed down on No. 2 turret a few feet forward. The porthole cover tore loose, clobbered him on the head, and sent him scurrying through the door. Outside he helped a wounded ensign, but couldn’t help one of his closest friends, who was so far gone he only wanted Burkholder to shoot him.
Another armor-piercing bomb burst through No. 3 turret farther aft. Seaman S. F. Bowen, stationed there as a powder carman, was just dogging the hatch when the bomb hit. It wasn’t a shattering crash at all. Just a ball of fire, about the size of a basketball, appeared overhead and seemed to melt down on everyone. It seemed to run down on his skin and there was no way to stop it. As he crawled down to the deck below, he noticed that his shoestrings were still on fire.
Splinters flew in all directions from the bombs that hit the Tennessee. One hunk ripped the bridge of the West Virginia alongside, cut down Captain Mervyn Bennion as he tried to direct his ship’s defense. He slumped across the sill of the signal bridge door on the starboard side of the machine-gun platform. Soon after he fell, Ensign Delano arrived on the bridge, having finally been sent up from central station. As Delano stepped out onto the platform, Lieutenant (j.g.) F. H. White rushed by, told him about the captain, and asked him to do what he could.
Delano saw right away it was hopeless. Captain Bennion had been hit in the stomach, and it took no medical training to know the wound was fatal. Yet he was perfectly conscious, and at least he might be made more comfortable. Delano opened a first-aid kit and looked for some morphine. No luck. Then he found a can of ether and tried to make the captain pass out. He sat down beside the dying man, holding his head in one hand and the ether in the other. It made the captain drowsy but never unconscious. Occasionally Delano moved the captain’s legs to more comfortable positions, but there was so little he could do.
As they sat there together, Captain Bennion prodded him with questions. He asked how the battle was going, what the West Virginia was doing, whether the ship and men were badly hit. Delano did his best to answer, resorting every now and then to a gentle white lie. Yes, he assured the captain, the ship’s guns were still firing.
Lieutenant Ricketts now turned up and proved a pillar of strength. Other men arrived too — Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Leak … Ensign Jacoby from the flag radio room … Lieutenant Commander Doir Johnson from the forecastle. On his way up, Johnson ran across big Doris Miller, thought the powerful mess steward might come in handy, brought him along to the bridge. Together they tenderly lifted Captain Bennion and carried him to a sheltered spot behind the conning tower. He was still quite conscious and well aware of the flames creeping closer. He kept telling the men to leave him and save themselves.
In her house at Makalapa, Mrs. Mayfield still couldn’t grasp what had happened. She walked numbly to a window and looked at Admiral Kimmel’s house across the street. The Venetian blinds were closed and there was no sign of activity. Somehow this was reassuring … surely there would be some sign of life if it was really true. It didn’t occur to her that this might be one morning when the admiral had no time for Venetian blinds.
By now Captain Mayfield was in his uniform. He took a few swallows of coffee, slopping most of it in the saucer, and dashed for the carport. He roared off as the CINCPAC official car screeched up to the admiral’s house across the street. Admiral Kimmel ran down the steps and jumped in, knotting his tie on the way. Captain Freeland Daubin, commanding a squadron of submarines, leaped on the running board as the car moved off, and Captain Earle’s station wagon shot down the hill after them.
In five minutes Admiral Kimmel was at CINCPAC Headquarters in the sub base. The admiral thought he was there by 8:05; Commander Murphy thought it was more like 8:10. In either case, within a very few minutes of his arrival, the backbone of his fleet was gone or immobile — Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia sunk … California sinking … Maryland and Tennessee bottled up by the wrecked battleships alongside … Pennsylvania squatting in drydock. Only the Nevada was left, and she seemed a forlorn hope with one torpedo and two bombs already in her.
Nor was the picture much brighter elsewhere. On the other side of Ford Island the target ship Utah took a heavy list to port as her engineering officer, Lieutenant Commander S. S. Isquith, pulled his khakis over his pajamas. The alarm bell clanged a few strokes and stopped; the men trooped below to take shelter from bombing. Isquith sensed the ship couldn’t last, and he had the officer of the deck order all hands topside instead.
Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia sunk … California sinking … Maryland and Tennessee bottled up by the wrecked battleships alongside …
The men were amazingly cool —perhaps because they were used to being “bombed” by the Army and Navy everyday. When Machinist’s Mate David Gilmartin reached the main deck, he found the port rail already under water. Twice he crawled up toward the starboard side and slid back. As he did it a third time, he slid by another seaman who suggested he throw away the cigarettes. To Gilmartin’s amazement he had been trying to climb up the slanting deck while holding a carton of cigarettes in one hand. Relieved of his handicap, he made the starboard rail easily.
As the list increased, the big six-by-twelve-inch timbers that covered the Utah’s decks began breaking loose. These timbers were used to cushion the decks against practice bombing and undoubtedly helped fool the Japanese into thinking the ship was a carrier unexpectedly in port. Now they played another lethal role, sliding down on the men trying to climb up.
As she rolled still farther, Commander Isquith made a last check below to find anyone who might still be trapped — and almost got trapped himself. He managed to reach the captain’s cabin where a door led to the forecastle deck. The timbers had jammed the door; so he stumbled into the captain’s bedroom where he knew there was a porthole. It was now almost directly overhead, but he managed to reach it by climbing on the captain’s bed. As he popped his head through the porthole, the bed broke loose and slid out from under him. He fell back, but the radio officer, Lieutenant Commander L. Winser, grabbed his hand just in time and pulled him through. As Isquith got to his feet, he slipped and bumped down the side of the ship into the water. Half dead with exhaustion, harassed by strafers, he was helped by his crew to Ford Island.
Others never left the ship — Fireman John Vaessen in the dynamo room, who kept the power up to the end; Chief Watertender Peter Tomich in the boiler room, who stayed behind to make sure his men got out; Lieutenant (j.g) John Black, the assistant engineer, who jammed his foot in his cabin door; Mess Attendant Smith, who was always so afraid of the water.
Of the other ships on this side of Ford Island, the Tangier and Detroit were still untouched, but the Raleigh sagged heavily to port. Water swirled into No. 1 and 2 firerooms, flooded the forward engine room, contaminated the fuel oil, knocked out her power. In the struggle to keep her afloat, no one even had time to dress. As though they went around that way every day, Captain Simons sported his blue pajamas … Ensign John Beardall worked the port antiaircraft guns in red pajamas… others toiled in a weird assortment of skivvies, aloha shirts, and bathing trunks. Somehow they didn’t seem even odd: as Signalman Jack Foeppel watched Captain Simons in the admiral’s wing on the bridge, he only marveled that any man could be so calm.
Want to keep reading? Download Walter Lord's A Day of Infamy now.
On December 8th, the day after the disorienting assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress with a vow to defend American soil from further deliberate violence from the Japanese forces. Congress was quick to approve Roosevelt’s declaration of war, with only one dissenting voice from pacifist Jeannette Rankin, the Representative of Montana. Three days later on December 11, the other Axis powers of Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. Once again, Congress was not afraid to reciprocate—America had finally entered the conflict of World War II.
What followed was a chain reaction that would frame no one as a hero within the Japanese-American conflict. For about six months, the Japanese had many military successes through the South Pacific. However, tides turned with an American naval victory in the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. Unfortunately, on American soil, Roosevelt had also authorized Executive Order 9066, which led to the implementation of Japanese internment camps.
Three years later in 1945, the fallout of Pearl Harbor came to a head. The United States Army Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. After another three days, a second atomic bomb touched down on Nagasaki. An estimated 120,000 Japanese civilian lives were lost as a result of this retaliatory devastation. And upon surrendering to American forces, the Japanese government got the exact opposite of what they had hoped for with the attack upon Pearl Harbor—foreign occupation, rather than lessened economic sanctions.
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