“Infamy” – December 7, 1941- A History Lesson

Faye Higbee

At 0755 a.m. (HST) on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a merciless attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The battle caught America “flat-footed” and unprepared with all of our battleships in one place…easy targets for the enemy, as were most of our aircraft packed tightly together at Ford Island, Wheeler, and Hickam airfields. Two waves of Japanese aircraft attacked just hours apart. It was a date that truly does live in infamy – and carries lessons for us all.

The Imperial Japanese attack on the airfields near Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 (National Archives)

The mistakes, morning, December 7, 1941, the date of infamy

Early on Sunday morning, December 7, Washington learned that the Japanese ambassadors had been instructed to ask for an interview with the secretary of state at 1:00 PM (7:30 AM Pearl Harbor time). This was a clear indication that war was at hand. The message took some time to decode, and it was not in the hands of the chief of naval operations until about 10:30. It was delivered to the War Department between 9:00 and 10:00 AM. Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, was out horseback riding and did not see the dispatch until he arrived at his office about 11:15 AM. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Harold Stark, even then did not think that the communication called for any additional instructions to Kimmel. However, Marshall did decide to send a new warning and gave orders to the military command to communicate with the navy. He did not telephone, fearing that his words might be intercepted, and instead sent his dispatch by telegram. There was a mix-up in communication, however, and the warning did not reach Hawaii until after the attack had begun. It is important to note that it had not been filed until noon, only an hour before the Japanese planes moved in on the base.

At Pearl Harbor itself, there were incidents that, properly interpreted, might have given a brief warning. Four hours before the decisive moment, a Japanese submarine was sighted by the minesweeper USS Condor. About two and a half hours later, the commander of the destroyer USS Ward sent a message saying that he “had attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area” near Pearl Harbor. While Kimmel waited for confirmation of this report, the Japanese opened hostilities. In these same morning hours, U.S. Army Pvt. George Elliott, practicing on the radar set after its normal closing time, noticed a large flight of planes on the screen. When he telephoned his lieutenant, he was told to disregard the observation, as a flight of B-17 bombers from the United States was expected at that time. Once again an opportunity was missed.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Infamy, but not defeat:

Mistakes were made that cost 2,400 lives. As our leadership failed, they finally rose to the challenge and moved to do something about it. Though American military might was devastated in the attack, the United States was by no means knocked out. The Japanese gravely underestimated the ability of the Americans to regroup and fight back. We entered World War II and with determination won against the dictators who wanted to rule the world. Throughout history there have been emperors, dictators, and others whose desire to control the masses has driven them to murder millions.

The picture of devastation from the Pearl Harbor attack (National Archives)

Infamy – the dictators of 2020:

Today we live in a nation with many dictators. Governors, Mayors, Legislators, all whose drive for power seeks to destroy the very people who have made America strong. They have excuses, as all dictators do. Today as we reflect on what happened 79 years ago, we must gather our strength, our faith, to do more than protest with flags in the streets. We must do what needs to be done to preserve the Republic in the face of certain defeat. We fight in the courts, we fight in the media, we fight with our “pen and phone.” But we are also the last line of defense, as we were the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Let’s not give up now.

Featured photo via National Archives

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