Today is the 75th Anniversary of the United States’ surprise entry into World War II, by virtue of the Japanese attack on American installations in Pearl Harbor on the Island of Oahu — as mail was addressed at the time, Pearl Harbor, T.H.. The attack was quickly followed up by attacks on Wake Island and the Philippines, and on English and Dutch possessions in the Far East. Except for Wake, where the initial Jap invasion was rebuffed on December 11th, these were all resounding Japanese victories. (And they settled their score with Wake on December 23-24).
Pearl Harbor was, from the Japanese side, a brilliant air-sea coup de main that exploited Japanese superiority in discipline, ship handling, personnel selection and training and naval air innovation. Within two years all those Japanese superiorities would be reversed (except for discipline, which would become the noose by which the IJA and IJN would hang themselves). But on December 7th, that was in the unimaginable future.
Pearl Harbor was, from the American side, a shock and a calamity. Americans and Japanese each saw the other from a prism of contempt, tinged by convictions of racial superiority. Three and a half years of mutual ass-kicking across a 7,000 mile theater of war would cycle the nations’ mutual feelings through bitter hatred to, ultimately, respect. Nobody fighting them believed the Japanese to be the shifty, nearsighted creatures of propaganda. And nobody fighting them believed the Americans to be the lazy, bloated creatures of their propaganda, either.
But it all began at Pearl. Here are some oral histories from The Guys Who Were There, collected for the 70th Anniversary, five years ago (although some of the interviews are much older than that). Lead-off interviewee, Alan Sanford, was a seaman on the USS Ward, which fired the first American shots of the war. The next, Joe Morgan, was a Marine with VMU-2 and on duty at his hangar at Luke Field… it just goes on like that.
It’ll take about an hour to watch them all. Since they’re talking head interviews, you could multitask ad just listen to them, but you’d miss the facial expressions.
Along with the interview video and audio, there are some (pretty awful) transcripts, too. And here’s Part 2:
The attack on Pearl was controversial in Imperial Japanese Navy circles, unlike the attacks on Singapore, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies. Those attacks were central to Japan’s strategy of seizing needed resources from the southern rim of the Pacific. But could they do that alone, without making the US attack? The prevailing opinion on the Imperial General Staff was that the US would join the war if Japan attacked the colonies of England and Holland. So, therefore, those attacks should be accompanied by a pre-emptive strike on the Americans, too; to be followed by immediate peace feelers.
The minority opinion was that the US would still cling to its European focus and neutrality, even if Japan was beating the British and Dutch forces like a rented mule. Now, 75 years later, it’s only an interesting counterfactual. What happened is they attacked us, in a way that seemed particularly treacherous and enraging, and for several months they continued to beat the living Jesus out of us… and then the tide turned, and the Japanese language nearly came to be, as one American threatened, “spoken only in Hell.”
In any event, all the prattle of historians and pundits, of which there will undoubtedly be tremendous billows and blasts today, is fairly inconsequential. What is true is the voices of these few men, those who Were There.