Winds of War

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Sixty seven years ago, on December 3, 1941, America was at peace. Four days later, on a quiet Sunday in December, the world would change forever.

December 7th falls on a Sunday this year, as it did on December 7th, 1941. That day, over one hundred ships were in Pearl Harbor, some of them undergoing routine repairs, most of them berthed to allow their crew some rest for the weekend. By luck, the three carriers normally stationed in Hawaii were underway. USS SARATOGA (CV 3) had just completed repairs in Bremerton and was on her way to NAS North Island in San Diego. The other two carriers had been sent to deliver aircraft – ENTERPRISE (CV 6) got underway on November 28th to deliver planes to Wake. LEXINGTON left on December 5th enroute Midway, a mission that was aborted two days later. But the bulk of the Pacific Fleet, moved to Hawaii as a deterrant to Japanese agression, ironically, was there.

Tensions had escalated with Japan, and intelligence reports announced that a major Japanese fleet had gotten underway, destination unknown. It all became clear on December 7th.

The Japanese came in two waves, launched a half hour apart. The first sortie of 181 planes hit just before 08:00 am, catching the Americans completely by surprise. Some of the planes concentrated on military installations around the island, destroying aircraft as they sat on the ground.

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The rest focused on the fleet – especially the eight battleships, seven of which were moored at Ford Island. All of them were damaged within minutes.

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USS PENNSYLVANIA (BB-38), USS DOWNES (DD-375) and USS CASSIN (DD-372) in Drydock One. PENNSYLVANIA was the only battleship not moored at Ford Island.

Less than two hours later, over 2400 Americans were dead and 1178 wounded. Nearly half of those killed had been aboard USS ARIZONA (BB 39) when she exploded and sank. 21 ships had been damaged or sunk. 188 aircraft were destroyed, and 159 damaged.

It was devastation.

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But the Japanese made the same mistake that others would make in the future – they underestimated American resolve. All but three of the ships sunk or damaged in the raid would eventually be repaired to fight again. The attack took a populace divided in its politics and approach to world conflict, and galvanized it into one nation determined to fight and win.

The Greatest Generation rose to its feet, and the world would never be the same.

(For a complete account of the attack, as well as some outstanding background material, read the Navy Historical Center’s website. Most of the details in this article came from there. All photos are Navy images, stored for sixty years in the garage of a Navy photographer and given to me.)

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  1. America’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, living his 100th year is former enlisted Chief Petty Officer, Aviation Chief Ordnanceman (ACOM), later wartime commissioned Lieutenant John W. Finn, USN (Ret.). He is also the last surviving Medal of Honor, “The Day of Infamy”, Japanese Attack on the Hawaiian Islands, Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, 7 December 1941.

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