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Monday, 07 December 2015 11:25

Remember Pearl Harbor--December 7, 1941

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Pearl Harbor

Even among non-history types, these two words are highly-recognized, and bring up images of attack, surprise, treachery, and war. Along with 9/11, the very name "Pearl Harbor" stirs up memories of death and pain.


What was Pearl Harbor, and why is it so famous?

Pearl Harbor is a famous navy base on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Long recognized for its deep harbor and strategic location halfway between North America and Asia, it has long been a valued US naval base and supply station. It is a little-known fact that, during WW I, when the US and Japan were allies against Germany, the US actually trained Japanese pilots at Pearl Harbor. Therefore, those pilots knew the geography of the area, plus the lifestyle schedules of the men based there, very well.

During the 1930's, a time of global economic crisis, Japan, Germany, and Italy turned into right-wing, militaristic dictatorships.

Also during the 1930's, Japan had been gradually attacking North China, which turned into full-scale war in 1937. (Some historians consider this the actual start of WW II.) The US, as an ally of China at that time, wanted to hinder and punish Japan for its aggression, but since the US was deeply mired in the Great Depression, plus almost no Americans wanted to start a war with far-off Japan, the US policy was economic sanctions (punishment) of Japan, not military attack. The most punishing of the sanctions was the US embargo (refusal to sell) of oil and iron. (Imagine: the US at the time actually exported more oil than it imported; very different situation today.) As a resource-poor nation, Japan saw this oil embargo as a direct threat. But rather than negotiate with the US and withdraw from China, Japan's leadership made the fateful decision to make a preemptive strike against the US. The Japanese goal was to control the East Asian/Pacific region, but they saw one potential challenger that could keep them from achieving their dream: the USA, with its large naval and air assets based at Pearl. In late November, the Japanese fleet left Japan and headed toward Hawaii, from which Japanese pilots would take off from the decks of Japanese aircraft carriers and bomb Pearl. While the Japanese fleet was sailing, Japan was conducting "peace talks" with the US. Their goal was to later declare war, then moments later launch the attack. However, because the declaration of war was lengthy and it took the Japanese delegates in Washington DC a long time to decode it, the attack actually occurred first, then Japan declared war. That fact enraged the US populace, who were infuriated at the "sneak attack." The attack began at 7:48 am Sunday, Hawaiian time, when many US servicemen were still in bed or in the chow line for breakfast. PearlHarborCarrierChart

Route of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor bombings map

Attack on Island of Oahu


News of the attack was made public by radio at 2:30 pm, Eastern (New York/Washington DC) time. Many Americans were at home, resting after a morning church service and large Sunday lunch. If you can talk with Americans old enough to remember that moment, (those people are now in their upper 80's or 90's), they will often remember exactly where they were, and whom they were with, at that shocking moment. You can listen to some radio news broadcasts from that day here.

Reports indicate that the Japanese military believed, after dealing a crushing blow to the US bases in Hawaii, the US government and public would be so shocked and dazed, they would seek peace. However, quite the opposite happened. Shocked by the attack but infuriated by the surprise nature of it, the American public overwhelmingly clamored for war against Japan. Not long before, public opinion surveys reported almost 90% of the Americans wanted to remain neutral in WW II, but the attack that Sunday morning changed everything.

What effect did the attack on Pearl Harbor have on WW II?

The impact was enormous. That day, President Roosevelt cabled his friend and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "Today all of us are in the same boat...and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk." Churchill explained his emotions that night this way:

"Silly people, and there were many, not only in enemy countries, might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand bloodletting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before” that the United States is like ˜a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate. Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful." (source)

Why was the US in shock, but Churchill was rejoicing and grateful? Because until that day, only Britain and the USSR were standing against the Axis powers, and were barely hanging on. He had been begging Roosevelt for war aid, but because of American isolationism, help had been limited. So, once the US was in the war, Churchill knew America's great human and economic resources would be brought to bear and lead to eventual victory.

The next day, December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress session of Congress and asked Congress to declare war against Japan. (According to the US Constitution, a president cannot declare war; that power is reserved to the Congress only.) In one of the most famous speeches in American history, FDR called December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy." (Hear the speech here.)

Pearl Harbor is forever etched in the American mind. As a "total war," the entertainment industry aided in the war effort in many ways, including the publishing of patriotic songs like "Let's Remember Pearl Harbor." Even after WW II and until today, Pearl Harbor stands as a warning against carelessness and complacency. For example, shortly after 7:00 on the morning of the attack, two American soldiers were using a brand-new radar device on the northern tip of Oahu Island and observed a large "blip" that they thought to be about 50 incoming airplanes. They reported that to the control center, first being told that nobody was on duty (being early Sunday morning), but they persisted and called again, this time getting Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, who when he heard the news, responded with his now infamous, "Don't worry about it." (Lt. Tyler passed away in 2010 at age 96.) In one of the big "what if's" of history, if the US forces had been alerted to the attack some 45 minutes in advance, how might the outcome have been different? As it was, the entire US presence was caught totally unaware that fateful morning, unaware there was an attack until the first bombs began to fall. In an interesting side note, a Navy band began playing the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" at 8:00 sharp on the deck of the USS Nevada, as, ironically, the band members began watching "the bombs bursting in air."

If there were one "silver lining" for the Americans that day, it was the fact that the three US aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor were gone that day, out on the open seas for maneuvers. An aircraft carrier is basically a kind of "floating airport," so when it has planes aboard, it can project military power almost anywhere in the world. Therefore, those aircraft carriers were the main targets for the Japanese. So, despite the overwhelming Japanese victory that day, the Japanese leaders were not satisfied that afternoon, knowing that their primary objectives were still untouched and at large. Of course, when the US then began its war push against Japan after the attack at Pearl, those three aircraft carriers played a vital role in prosecuting the war.

Still long after WW II, the attack that day and complete American unpreparedness serve as a warning. This bluegrass song "Let's not sleep again" advises Americans to stay awake and alert, lest we be attacked again. (Bluegrass is a popular music style in the Appalachian region of the US.) With the horrific attacks on 9-11 and more recently in San Bernadino, California, the need to remain vigilant to preserve liberty is still crucial.

For a brief overview of the Pearl Harbor background and attack, watch this three-minute video.

Pearl Harbor file

Pearl Harbor

What if there had been no attack on Pearl Harbor?

This is another one of those great "what ifs?" in history. Of course there is no way to tell, but many historians believe the attack on Pearl Harbor, by bringing the US into WW II, was a crucial step in defeating the Axis powers and preserving democracy and liberty in the world. Here is the logic. The US, with its widespread popularity of isolationism, persistent economic problems from the Great Depression, and relatively fresh memories of WW I, would probably have never entered the war, without that attack. By late 1941, Britain was barely clinging to its island as practically the only non-Nazi area of Europe, and the USSR was reeling from its own surprise attack from Germany that summer. The German army was at the gates of Moscow, and one German unit got to within five miles of Moscow. In Asia, the Japanese were still grabbing huge swaths of China, and would soon conquer the Philippines, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. The outlook for the Allies was grim indeed. If the US had not entered the war, many historians imagine Germany taking over the USSR, Britain, and Africa, and Japan taking over Australia, India, and the Pacific. Imagine WW II with both the USSR and Britain defeated, and you can imagine the entire Axis onslaught against only North and South America. Frightening to imagine.


What is it like to visit Pearl Harbor today?

As a history major and teacher, I have long been fascinated by Pearl Harbor. However, since I am from Roanoke, Virginia, a trip from the East Coast to visit Hawaii is neither fast nor cheap. So in 2010, while planning our trip to Taiwan to visit family and lead a Summer English Camp for, I was delighted to schedule a lay-over in Honolulu on the return flight, for just a small airline fee. So, our family of six excitedly flew from Taipei to Tokyo, then to Honolulu for a marvelous week of vacation. After a very full summer of teaching English in Taiwan, the week on Oahu was a great time to relax and connect with each other. Before the trip, I had decided we would visit Pearl Harbor on our first day, because that was my top priority. I wanted to see it for myself, as a way to satisfy my personal curiosity and to improve my teaching practice, but it was also important to share that experience with my family.

Early on our first day in Hawaii, we drove our rented van to the National Park site, getting there early to get a ticket for the boat ride to see the USS Arizona Memorial. That ship had sunk on December 7, and the memorial was built right over it. On one end of the memorial is the list of names of the sailors and marines who died aboard. In fact, the ship is only a few feet below the water surface, so visitors can look down and see much of the hull, and a few parts of the ship are even standing above the waterline. Particularly eerie is how some oil from the Arizona is still leaking, just a few drops at at time. You can stand there and, every few minutes, see a few drops of oil rise to the surface, break, and spread across the surface in a rainbow sheen. It's hard to imagine that some crew member pumped that oil into the belly of the Arizona in 1941, unaware of the disaster that awaited them. Our family still remembers that visit to Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. If you have a chance, try to go. If you are a person who often flies between North America and Asia, you might want to consider scheduling a lay-over in Hawaii some time. It is an economical way to pay for your trip, and it is a great way to break up that long journey!
USS Arizona Memorial
The USS Arizona Memorial


Dreyer Family at USS Arizona Memorial

oil sheen

Oil sheen leaking from the ship--since 1941!

list of the fallen

The list of the fallen uss arizona

Part of the USS Arizona still above water


How does this relate to English classes with

There are many places to learn English, including American English.But our program is unique, in that not only do we teach "English language," but also about "Life in America," and that includes some holidays, current events, and historical happenings. A few years ago I was having an online class with a student in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and it happened to be December 7. I had planned to briefly mention Pearl Harbor, then move into my planned lesson with our textbook. But as we started the class discussing the attack, the student asked a question, then another, then another. As I remember, I used a little Chinese to explain some points, but most of the class was in English--and this was with an elementary-aged, Chinese native-speaker student!
Where is Pearl Harbor? Why did Japan want to attack America? What was it like?

Each question of his led to another answer, plus I shared some images and maps using share screen, etc. As a teacher, I see conducting a class more like using a sailboat, than a motorboat. That is, as much as possible, tap into student interest and let that guide the class. The fifty minutes sped by, class time was up, and we had never touched our textbook. As we wrapped up, I told him, "Today we had a history class." So here we had a student who practiced his English and learned about US history, all at the same time. Here is that student's mother, telling about the "double benefit" of learning English AND history with us. Video is in Chinese; her remarks about our Pearl Harbor class begin around the 4:00 time-stamp.)


In late 2017, an advanced writing student had read this Pearl Harbor blog and wrote his own essay about the crucial 1942 Battle of Midway, which took place just six months after the Pearl Harbor attack and was the turning point in the Pacific Theater. You can read his essay and also watch a class video where he read his first draft and we discussed it. Click here

That is a unique advantage of studying English with you learn English AND history! Come join us!

Read 21926 times Last modified on Wednesday, 06 February 2019 14:57
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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