Attack on Pearl Harbor: Survivors Speak

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.

33 thoughts on “Attack on Pearl Harbor: Survivors Speak

  1. Keith

    Well written sir. My mother told me how she could remember the radio announcing the attack as they sat down for after church lunch.

    You have a slight typo here, “…would hag themselves…” I think you meant to type ‘hang’.

  2. Jacobs

    Good post. I’ve always heard it that the Marines and soldiers who fought the Japs absolutely hated them and considered them to be little better than animals. Of course, all I’ve really heard is from Eugene Sledge.

    1. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

      The Marines I met as a kid who had fought in the Pacific Island campaigns held the Japanese soldier in high regard for his tenacity, fearlessness and ferocity.

      As a result, these Marines told me that they rarely took or sought prisoners, instead killing every Japanese soldier they could get into their sights, with absolute resolve.

    2. Boat Guy

      While I’ve read Sledge, I never had the priviliege of conversing with him.
      That said; I have conversed with many veterans of the Pacific war (most gone now) and the hatred was palpable in nearly all of them; especially the Marines. The only person I never heard the hatred from was my StepMom’s Dad; a retired RADM with two Navy Crosses. He was a pro and while he fought them in gun battles at night in the Slot, he never encoutnered them as personally as the Marines did.
      My StepMom BTW is a “Pearl Harbor Survivor” she was a toddler when her Dad blew out the door that day; they didn’t see him again for over two years. She remembers being sent home on the Lurline.

  3. SPEMack

    Jackie and I went to Hawaii in September. A former Chief Naval Aviation Pilot was there, having been there 75 years ago as a PBY crewman.

    The gravel in his voice talking about watching his “boats” get blowed up and sunk and then the icey tone when he said “yeah, and then Bill Halsey chased them back to Yokohama and we did his Scouting” was something hard to put into words.

  4. 6pounder

    A very solemn day indeed. One of my uncles who fought in the Pacific theatre, and seldom talked about it to any of us, refused to buy anything made in Japan until the day he died. Nothing. He said they were more like dogs than men, and that’s the way they killed them. That gave me a real understanding of just how bitter it was in that theatre.

  5. Dienekes

    As something of a WWII history buff, I have run across some interesting things in my time. Back in the late 80s I came across a file on one Mitsuo Fuchida. Never mind how…A Japanese citizen, he survived the war. Years later he visited the US several times. Some may recognize him as the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor and sender of the “Tora, Tora, Tora” message; and survivor of the Midway debacle. The file contained his entire wartime record. After the war he became a Christian missionary…

    Then there was the nice Japanese-American lady who worked in our office. Born in the US, her traditional family took her, aged 10, back to Japan just prior to the outbreak of war. In August 1945, still a schoolgirl, she was working part time in a Mitsubishi plant–in Nagasaki.

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

  6. DB

    From the great historian Gerhard Weinberg, why the Japanese attack was a failure strategically, operationally, and tactically:

    “First, by ensuring the Americans would insist on a crushing victory, it destroyed the Japanese concept of making extensive conquests and then arriving at a new settlement. Second, the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, of which the Japanese were aware, meant that most of the warships that Yamamoto imagined sunk were instead set into the mud, raised, repaired and returned to service. Third, the attack on ships in harbor on a peacetime Sunday failed to eliminate the crews of most of the ships.”

    1. Brad

      What a revelation the Japanese offensive (including the Pearl Harbor attack) was to conventional military naval thinking.

      The Pearl Harbor attack itself was predicated on an assumption of battleship supremacy in naval warfare. But the astonishing success of Japanese air power and carrier based air power in particular in defeating battleships in every engagement changed everything.

      Because of the Japanese offensive, the world learned that the aircraft carrier was the new capital ship and the battleship was obsolete. But that new understanding astonished the Japanese just as much as the rest of the world.

      The type of aircraft carriers built before the war, the mix of aircraft assigned and the doctrine developed for aircraft carriers were of little connection to what proved actually useful during the war. Of course I only see this because of 20-20 hindsight, and I don’t mean to insult the military thinkers of that era. Those men made perfectly reasonable decisions with the information they had available to them at the time.

      Aircraft carriers were never thought of as capital ships before the war. Carriers were envisioned as independently operating fast scouts and raiders, as a support element to the battleships concentrated in a line of battle, just like cruisers were thought of. So it was natural for the Saratoga and Lexington to be built from converted battle-cruisers. And for aircraft carriers of the world to be built similarly to the fast armored cruisers of the world, except with flight decks and aircraft substituting for turrets and guns.

      Could the men who designed those aircraft carriers have imagined the leaps in aircraft technology that would take place during the 1930’s? Could Navy planners have imagined that faster carriers would not be as important as faster carrier fighter planes?

      1. Boat Guy

        Not sure I’d go so far as to agree that “…the mix of aircraft assigned and the doctrine developed for aircraft carriers were of little connection to what proved actually useful during the war. ” The US was developing the carrier aircraft that would serve through the war, mostly before the war went hot. The Corsair was flight test in 1938. Grumman in particular was already developing the TBF to replace the TBD; a Detachment of Torpedo EIGHT USS Hornet Air Group) Avengers participated in Midway (where five of the six TBF’s were shot down). The Grumman Wildcat was in service and when properly used was a match for the Japanese Type Zero – the “Thach Weave” was an effective tactic. The superlative Douglas SBD was already in service and the Curtiss aircraft that eventually replaced it wasn’t all that much better than the Dauntless.
        The carriers themselves, particularly the Yorktown/Hornet/Enterprise class were about as good as carriers could get – the later classes were improved but again not hugely when one compares the Yorktown-class against any other nations’ carriers throughout the war.

        1. Brad

          I’m happy to elaborate my point.

          The Pearl Harbor attack demonstrated that concentrated sea-based air-power, multiple carriers acting together in a single task force, was the new master of the ocean. That new method of using aircraft carriers not only made battleships obsolete, it also made obsolete the old doctrine of what kind of aircraft carrier is best to build, and what types of aircraft it should be equipped with.

          The Essex class carriers completed during the war and used to smash the Japanese empire were made according to design concepts and carrier doctrine from the early 1930’s, just as the Yorktown class was. But the air complement of those Fast Fleet carriers in 1945 were radically different compared to the 1941 air complement of the Yorktown, and I’m not talking about more modern aircraft.

          80%+ of the aircraft of a 1945 Air Wing were comprised of fighter aircraft, as operating fighters for control of the airspace was recognized as the most important job of Fleet Carriers. In 1941 Air Wing Six on the Enterprise was 25% fighter, 25% dive bomber, 25% torpedo bomber, and 25% scout, as befitting the doctrine of Aircraft Carriers used for independent scouting and raiding, and not used as Capital Ships.

          Once the value of concentrated sea-based air power was recognized, the design of the pre-war Carriers was also obsolete. Belt armor, high top speed, guns for surface combat, all those expensive features of pre-war carrier design were also obsolete. But the Essex Carriers were already under construction and you don’t just junk major warships while the enemy is knocking at the gates.

          The most logical designed warship of WWII was the modest and slow yet mass produced Escort Carriers. (Over 120 built during WWII) Even though the Escort Carriers were used in secondary roles during WWII they could have been used just as effectively as Fleet Carriers if pressed into that job. (and no, I am not claiming one Escort Carrier is equivalent to one Essex class carrier) The Escort Carriers could and did carry the largest carrier plane the Navy had in service then, the TBM Avenger.


    Even though I’m a Damn Furriner, I always commemorate Pearl Harbour day because I appreciate the sacrifice made then and subsequently by US service men and women that helped keep my country free. And my 2 fine young sons and my beautiful daughter are all US citizens, so somehow I feel like I have some skin in the game.

    This time around I made 200 rounds of 9mm ammo, because making ammunition seemed like an appropriate thing to do on this day. And even though the events of my life have resulted in me not being a religious man, I said a prayer for those killed that day in the hope that someone really might be listening somewhere.

    It is a sombre day, and my thoughts are with my American family and friends, including Hognose and the WM folks.

    1. DSM

      Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was a popular, patriotic song of the era. Now our so-called movie stars moan about moving to Canada or France and yet strangely never really do.

    2. Hognose Post author

      I have always believed that a heartfelt prayer from a heathen finds a sympathetic ear (grin). Parable of the prodigal son, and all that. Of course, as soon as the Japanese attacked in the Pacific, OZ was in it up to their necks, and most of their fighting men were fighting for England in the Western Desert already. Must have been some tense times.

      There are a lot of coalition warfare lessons in the short, unhappy career of the ABDA (American British Dutch Australian) naval force in 1941-42. American intelligence was so bad that some prewar products said Japanese people have bad night vision, and won’t fight at night, while they actually were the kings of night naval gunnery, and no slouches at doing it in the sunlight, either. Ultimately, we ground them down with logistics and the sub blockade. But they never admitted they were beaten, and a lot of good men had to die for a foregone conclusion. Probably 2 million more would have died, if not for the nukes (most of them Japanese, but plenty of Americans, British, Aussies, and Soviets, too).

      As it was, imagine the stubbornness that did not quit even after having a city nuked. They needed to lose a second city to decide to throw in the towel. And some die-hards did not accept even the emperor’s surrender order. It was as irrational as the Dutch Tulip Bubble, but a lot more devastating to those involved.

      1. H

        Hognose, I’ve wondered for a long time about the many Japanese units in China. Do you know of any decent speculation what Japan would have done with those troops if the bombs hadn’t been used and an invasion of Japan had occurred?

      2. Brad

        Probably 2 million more would have died, if not for the nukes (most of them Japanese, but plenty of Americans, British, Aussies, and Soviets, too).

        Don’t forget that other important combatant, the Chinese!

      3. Boat Guy

        True, all. Even the Japanese optics were better than we had; we have a set of Japanese binoculars from one of their ships; as good or better than any one could find now.
        Their torpedoes were an amazing weapon, even without comparing those to our own dismal prewar products.
        The ABDA coalition fought bravely and were sacrificed; some unecessarily, to delay the Japanese advance. A story all of us should know is of the last battle of USS Houston and HMAS Perth.
        Walter Winslow’s book “The Fleet The Gods Forgot” does a great job of chronicling the last days of the US Asiatic Fleet.

  8. Martin

    I still wonder how much the attack was “welcomed” in Washington, as they didn’t alert the Hawaii highest commanders, especially Kimmel, accordingly to the situation.

    1. Hognose Post author

      In retrospect, I find any of the conspiracy theories hard to believe. Against that is the weight of: the US Navy being a large and complacent bureaucracy. Note that even the codebreakers treated the Japanese ultimatum as routine, because it was nothing but diplomatic flowery double-talk until the very end, and it was very subtle that this was, in fact, a war ultimatum.

      The real puzzle (to me and to historians) is not why Pearly was unready, because the attack was a perfectly planned, effective surprise; or why Wake was unready and lost their aircraft, because Wake (unlike Oahu) didn’t even have one of 1941’s primitive radars. The puzzle is why Cavite and the rest of Luzon were unready for an attack that came the next morning. No one has ever gotten a satisfactory answer on that, not out of Army (i.e. Macarthur), Navy or overall government officials.

      The Japanese attacks showed the benefit of hitting airfields hard first. Successful attackers, whether the Israelis in the 6-Day War or the US-led coalition in Desert Storm, learned that lesson.

      One of the commenters mentioned that the Japanese didn’t recognize the shallow harbor would allow sunk ships to be refloated and repaired. Interesting point, as most of the ships that still had combat value returned to action by war’s end. (Arizona was an obvious exception, it was destroyed by magazine explosions but many of its guns and structures were salvaged). And the Japanese definitely knew that the harbor was shallow — they had to modify their torpedoes and delivery tactics, which had been designed for blue water, to work in the shallow harbor.

      No answer except, to err is human, and to be human is to err.

      Many Americans took the Pearl Harbor sinkings as fruit of treachery alone and still underestimated Japanese men, ships and aircraft. But the sinking of two British capital ships at sea, one of the Japanese victories that followed shortly after, woke up naval professionals worldwide. “This naval air stuff works.”

      1. Boat Guy

        MacArthur’s failure to act after Pearl Harbor is at the very least “puzzling” though I think the word “derelict” might be more apropos. The Japanese airfields on Formosa were socked in; one wonders how much good the B-17’s could have done against them, but in the end it would have been far more good than they eventually accomplished
        We were lucky that the weekend the Japanese picked was one where the BB’s were in port rather than the CV’s – THAT made all the difference.
        The salvage effort that resulted in the return to duty of nearly all of the BB’s is an amazing and largely unknown story; there were heroes in that effort too. Diving on those ships was about as dangerous as one could get short of standing in front of a muzzle.

      2. 11B-Mailclerk

        The plan was to kick in our teeth (our carriers were intended targets, also) , and then persuade us to end the war on terms favorable to Japan. A 6-24 month time-to-repair did not factor in that scenario.


        If they had instead stuck to the “conventional” plan of baiting us into a big decisive sea battle, but one carrier-heavy in execution, “The Battle off Hawaii” would have resulted in sunk and -lost- ships and -massacred- crews, at some considerable cost in losses to Japan. Six carriers plus the rest of the IJN fleet was -plenty- to kill the fleet at Pearl in a stand-up fight that was executed as a baited ambush. They then smash the fuel, support, repair, and personnel facilities at Pearl and sail home. We are then out of the “Naval Warfare” business in the Pacific for 3-5 years.

        There is no reason to believe that we would have fought that battle “smart”, caught off guard as we were and still rather wrong in our pre-war assumptions about the IJN.

        But it went -our- way, because they failed to take us all the way out, and they nut-kicked us in such a blatant way as to guarantee we were going to go for the throat.


  9. Larry Kaiser

    WRT the difference between Hollywood types then and now. As a Navy recruit in the early 60’s I was shown a film about ammunition safety and handling. I think it was intended more for the people making it than the people who were going to use it. A major part of the film was a young lady who was dreaming about her boyfriend while she was supposed to be inspecting and packing belted .30 MG ammo. She lets an obviously damaged round go by and the next scene is her boyfriend with a jammed up heavy .30 being bayoneted by several Japanese soldiers. The movie was narrated by William Bendix. He was a kindly sort who played supporting roles as a father or laborer or whatever. At some point during the film Bendix looks into the camera and says “remember, the only purpose for this ammunition is to kill Japs”!
    Its hard to imagine any current Hollywood star saying something equivalent except maybe Mel Gibson.

  10. TRX

    > So, therefore, those attacks should be accompanied by a pre-emptive strike
    > on the Americans, too; to be followed by immediate peace feelers.

    “Let me know how that works out for you.”

    Or as the immortal H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “Do not call up what you cannot put down.”

    Both the American and Japanese sides had serious problems understanding the culture of the other. This affected the way they interpreted intelligence, how they made plans, their political stances, and their military operations.

    The question now is, where are our blind spots today?

    1. Hognose Post author

      I have an excellent book on US intelligence in the Pacific war, which points out that the vast majority of prewar intel was crap, and it was only as we gained combat intelligence from enemy contact that we began to understand.

      I also have Ken Kokani’s excellent book on Japanese intelligence. They were good at the basic building blocks of intelligence disciplines, and were especially strong in SIGINT. They seem to have broken as many of our codes as we did of theirs. But they stank at dissemination, and in analysis, production and especially in the minds of the consumers, that hard-gained intelligence information was squandered.

      No doubt we have blind spots today. Many of them.

      An intelligence community that has 95% of its jobs and 100% of its paths to advancement in headquarters is unlikely to serve well.

    2. John M.

      I think it’s clear, 15 years after 9/11, that USG as currently constituted has no ability or inclination to defeat Islamist terrorists. I don’t know if that counts as a “blind spot” or not, but I think it’s important to note regarding our current military footing.

      -John M.

  11. Keith

    In the MSM’s and Progressive/Cosmo/Tranzi view of the threat from Islam. Of course you could say that’s a case of will full ignorance. Back then the Japanese culture and language was very opaque to the west.

    I’ve read in more than one place that the initial strike against the Luzon and Cavite was grounded by fog. The FEAF put up CAP however most of it was back on the ground refueling when the IJN/IJA strike arrived.

  12. cm smith

    I recall an 80’s article in a Proceedings magazine from the U.S. Naval Institute (if I’ve got that right) on the (apparently often asked) question of why the Japanese did not make a second strike on Pearl and relating that to events in the Russo – Japanese war. Probably many out there like that.

    I tried, but the archive search is down at the moment.

    1. 11B-Mailclerk

      Typo? They did make two strikes at Pearl. A third strike was planned but not executed, to have been against fuel storage, dry docks, and repair facilities. This would have put us effectively back to the US coast. Yorktown, damaged at Coral Sea, would not have been repaired for Midway, for example. Assuming we even had the fuel to go beyond sight of Hawaii to get to Coral Sea. Or to just pull the survivors back to safety of California.


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