“A Date Which Will Live In Infamy”
On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked American troops at Pearl Harbor, catapulting the U.S. into World War II.
Imperial Japan had visions of controlling Southeast Asia. They needed the natural resources there to continue their war efforts, but the military presence of the United States prevented them from expanding their territory. And so, they began planning a surprise attack, targeting battleships in an effort to eliminate America’s influence in the region.
December 7, 1941, was a quiet, sunny morning in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet was anchored at the Naval Base. That peace was shattered by the sound of approaching aircraft. The skies were quickly darkened by 353 Japanese planes launching torpedoes, bombs, and bullets. Sailors aboard the battleships anchored in the harbor awoke to a message from headquarters, “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill,” from the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet.
Amidst the chaos and destruction, heroes like Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Mess Attendant on the USS West Virginia, emerged. Finding his battle station ruined, Miller helped carry wounded sailors to safety, including the captain of the West Virginia. With no other wounded in sight, Miller then manned a .50-caliber anti-aircraft gun, even though he’d never been trained in its use. That didn’t prevent him from shooting down three confirmed Japanese planes, long with three more unconfirmed. As torpedoes blew through the deck, the crew was ordered to abandon ship. Miller dived overboard as the West Virginia settled to the harbor floor. Miller was one of several American servicemen to risk his life in the aid of others that day.
The attack ended after 90 minutes, and all eight battleships were either damaged or destroyed, in addition to cruisers, destroyers, and a minelayer ship. The most devastating loss, though, was that of more than 2,000 American lives. The Japanese military had hoped an attack of this size would discourage the United States from committing to war, but it had the opposite effect. As Admiral Hara Tadaichi said, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”
The bombing galvanized support for America’s involvement in World War II. The following day, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a Declaration of War against Japan, calling December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” It took Congress just 33 minutes to declare war on Japan, after which Germany and Italy quickly declared war on the United States.
All of America committed itself to the war effort. Young men enlisted by the thousands, housewives contributed by rationing, and young women manned factory assembly lines. Over the coming years, virtually every United States citizen contributed to the war effort, eventually leading to Allied victory.
Among the ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor was the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 of its crew – about half the lives lost that day. Some of the ship was salvaged for use on other boats, but the hull and two gun turrets sat submerged in 40 feet of water. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the site as a national memorial, and public and private donations were used to finance it. Among the fundraising efforts was a benefit concert by Elvis Presley that collected over $50,000. The memorial was dedicated in 1962.