Dec. 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, dawned a peacefully quiet, gorgeous Sunday morning. The bulk of the United States Pacific Fleet, minus three aircraft carriers which had sailed on a supply mission to Midway Island, rode at anchor near the city of Honolulu.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made the decision some months previously to transfer the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor from its home base in San Diego, Calif. The government of Japan had been waging war on China since 1938, and the Japanese had made little effort to hide their desire to expand their "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" throughout virtually all the Pacific Ocean.
America was vitally interested in helping Great Britain survive on the Atlantic Ocean side of the country against Nazi Germany's attempted conquest of Europe. As most of America's resources and attention were focused on sending war materials to England via "the Lend-Lease Act," Roosevelt hoped that the stationing of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii would serve as a deterrent to keep the Japanese from venturing in our direction.
It was not to be, of course. Revisionist historians over the last few decades have made their best efforts to spread the poisonous rumor that Roosevelt knew of a planned Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But definitive research by the late Gordon W. Prange ("At Dawn We Slept ") and one of his associates, Donald Goldstein ("The Pearl Harbor Papers: Inside the Japanese Plans") proves - in concert with the work of official Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison - that only the Japanese were responsible for their reprehensible, despicable, cowardly actions on that Dec. 7 morning some 66 years ago.
Long story not as long, what happened that morning was that Japan launched a sneak attack on a sleeping United States fleet, riding at anchor in Pearl Harbor in peacetime, on a sleepy Sunday morning. Utilizing carrier-based warplanes, along with a few midget submarines whose part of the attack failed miserably, the Japanese achieved complete surprise. Two waves of Japanese strikes destroyed a whole lot of aircraft on the ground, sank many of our battleships and support vessels, and killed over 2,500 American servicemen and civilians in and around Pearl Harbor.
Unable to locate the American carriers, however, Japanese task force commander Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sailed for home instead of launching a third strike to destroy vital repair facilities and fuel depots. Six months later this was proven to be a catastrophic blunder on Nagumo's part, as the Americans dismembered his task force at the pivotal Battle of Midway. Nagumo eventually committed suicide on Saipan in 1944.
The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt addressed Congress with phraseology engraved forevermore on every American's heart. He declared Dec. 7, 1941, to be a date which will live in infamy, and asked Congress to declare that a state of war existed between America and Japan.
Interestingly, the vote was not unanimous.
The first woman elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong pacifist, voted against the resolution. Booed and hissed at by other members of Congress, Rankin explained on the floor that "...as a woman, I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else."
Rankin was in her second of two separate terms in Congress, the first having been from 1917-1919, in which she had also voted "no" to declare war on Germany in World War I. She spent her entire life working for causes that promoted peace and women's rights, and in 1971 wrote President Richard M. Nixon and asked him to end the Vietnam War. She died two years later, at 92.
Now, I'm not a smart man, but I always thought that it was the role of a representative in Congress to vote the way their constituents felt about things. There's no way for me to know, today, if a great many Montana folks supported that "no" vote in Congress. But I do know that Montana became the only one of the 48 states in World War II not to have a battleship named for it.
Even today, Montana is the only state which has never had a modern naval ship named in its honor.
I think that's because blood runs thicker than water. And on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the blood ran mighty thick in the oily, fiery waters of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
"Remember Pearl Harbor" became the motto for America as the nation sprang into action to fight a two-ocean world war. "Remember the Arizona," for the battlewagon blown into history when one single aerial bomb pierced her ammunition magazines, galvanized the American public.
You've never heard "Remember the Montana," have you? And now, possibly, you know why you most likely never will.
Like many folks my age, I've grown up raised by, and associated with, veterans of World War II. I've read voraciously on matters of that war, especially concerning the Pacific Theatre. My daddy, you see, had the somewhat unique perspective of having served as a Navy corpsman in England during the buildup to the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, and then also served in the Philippine Islands during the last two years of the war.
Daddy died when I was 17, and he didn't talk too much about his war experiences. When he did talk, he talked about England. But when I'd pull out the v-mail correspondence my mother had saved, and a few grainy black-and-white pictures of a forward medical base in the Philippines, Daddy would choke up and get tears in his eyes. The one time he was able to talk to me about the war against the Japanese, he told me of the atrocities the Japanese had perpetrated against the Filipino people and against our servicemen that they'd captured. He told me what he knew of the Bataan Death March, and of how the Japanese would put American prisoners in the belly of their warships, so that if they were tor-pedoed the Americans would be sure to perish.
Before he died, my dad bought a car made in Germany, which he drove to work every day. He'd been able to work through that side of World War II. But he never could bring himself to terms with the Pacific side of things. Years later I drove a Dodge Ram D-50 pickup, built by Mitsubishi, the same people who made Japan's famous Zero fighter plane - and I couldn't help but wonder how Daddy would feel about that.
"Let bygones be bygones," the old adage says. Today, indeed, Japan is one of America's staunchest allies. And yet the lessons of history demand, absolutely demand, that we pay attention to the past, and honor the sacrifices made by so many on that dreadful Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
Twenty months ago I finally made the one trip I'd always hoped I could make during the brief time I have here on this planet. I finally made it to Pearl Harbor, and stood on the national monument spanning the hulk of USS Arizona. I took in the place I'd read so much about, and seeing it with my own eyes could appreciate the incredible skill those Japanese pilots pulled off in torpedoing "Battleship Row" in that narrow, confined area.
Most of the visitors on the Arizona Memorial stand on the south side, looking at the USS Missouri which is now moored there. But I spent most of my time looking at the north end of "Battleship Row," at the pier marked "USS Nevada." And I followed, with my mind's eye, the path that behemoth took as her crew got her underway from a cold start just 30 minutes after the attack began.
Her chief boatswain mate, Edwin Hill, dove into the fiery waters, swam to the pier and cast off her lines, then swam back to his ship. Nevada sortied through the hell of that morning, her flag whipping defiance as she garnered the attention of every Japanese aircraft in the area, taking numerous bomb and torpedo hits. She made it to Hospital Point where her crew beached her to avoid sinking in and blocking the channel. Chief Hill was killed as he dropped Nevada's anchor to secure her position; he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
In his account of the sortie, Prange says that Nevada passed so close aboard the furiously burning Arizona that her ammunition started cooking off - exploding from the heat of the burning battleship. Scores of her men - and these guys never got that medal - covered the big shells with their own bodies, literally melting away into nothingness to save their ship and shipmates.
No, I wasn't there to see it that day.
But Gordon Prange talked to every survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack who survived the war. He interviewed Americans, Japanese and civilian survivors as he shaped his "At Dawn We Slept," and he recounted the countless acts of bravery, of selfless heroism, of sacrifice. And his lesson is clear, indeed.
We must not forget. We must honor these brave people who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
Americans must always "Remember Pearl Harbor."
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.