MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO --
Sixty-six years ago today, more than 2,400 U.S. service members were killed in a world-changing event.
In the early morning of Dec. 7, 1941, 181 Japanese bombers and fighter planes, launched from six aircraft carriers positioned about 200 miles north of their target, bombed and strafed American ships military installations on Oahu.
Shortly before 8 a.m. that Sunday, Hawaii’s morning sky filled with Japanese aircraft as the fleet in Pearl Harbor was deluged by bullets and bombs, while simultaneous attacks bombarded Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at Hickam, Wheeler and Bellows.
At Ewa, two squadrons of Japanese aircraft had swooped in at low altitude to rake the aircraft parked near the runways. Marine pilots and air crewmen scrambled to their planes in an effort to get them airborne or out of the line of fire, but the Japanese pilots had swung back toward the airfield to finish the destruction.
The Marines assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 21 overcame their initial shock and gathered the few rifles and machine guns they had to return fire. They stripped salvageable guns from the damaged aircraft, creating improvised mounts or firing from the original mounts on the immobile aircraft wreckage. Marines at other bases reacted similarly, manning and firing machine guns by 8:01.
By 8:30, the attack had stopped. The battleship USS Nevada got underway and moved toward the channel to get out to the open sea. But before Nevada could clear the harbor, a second wave of 170 Japanese planes swarmed over the harbor. They concentrated on the moving Nevada, trying to block the harbor by sinking the huge battleship. Nevada beached on Hospital Point, denying Japanese forces the chance to seal the channel.
While only a small number of Japanese planes were destroyed (29 did not return to their carriers), the quick reactions of Marines with the 1st and 3rd Defense Battalions were a significant factor in that damage.
The attack ended less than two hours after it began. By 10 a.m., 21 ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been sunk or damaged, including eight battleships, four destroyers and three cruisers. Also, 347 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, most of them hit before having the opportunity to take off.
In his address at a joint session of Congress the day following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as “a date which will live in infamy.”
That December morning marked America’s entry into a global war that had been going on for years.
Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany had annexed the Sudetenland in 1938, invading the rest of Czechoslovakia the following year. By 1941, Nazi Germany had expanded its territory throughout Europe and to Northern Africa, and Japan was engaged in war with China.
America had been restricting trade with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, while supporting the Allies economically through activities such as the Lend-Lease Act, which supplied military materiel.
According to Naval Historical Center documents, American embargoes against Japan left them in desperate need of resources. To find the resources to continue their war with China — now in its fourth year — Japan planned to pillage the surrounding South Pacific Islands. The American naval forces stationed in Hawaii were a threat to Japan’s plan.
Several days before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, American code breakers had intercepted and cracked a Japanese message, describing a planned attack on areas in the South Pacific. A second message received during the day of the attack prompted a warning that was issued immediately to headquarters on Oahu; however, by the time the message was received, the attack had been over for nearly two hours.
Fortunately, the aircraft carriers USS Lexington, USS Saratoga and USS Enterprise — which were the Japanese’s primary targets — were not docked in the harbor during the attack.