Remembering Pearl Harbor
Dec. 7, 1941 began as many other Sundays did for the Naval personnel at Pearl Harbor. Breakfast was being served aboard ships and ashore at Ford Island. Chaplains and their assistants were setting up for church services. Those lucky enough to have leave that day were preparing to go ashore. It was just another sunny Hawaiian Sunday.
Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Frank Short, the military leaders of the Hawaiian Command had received some cryptic messages that the Japanese were becoming active in the Pacific, but they did not think that anything out of the ordinary was happening. The admiral and the general were getting ready for their usual Sunday morning golf match.
Radar was in its infancy and the radar station in the remote location above Pearl Harbor and Hickham Field had picked up something, but the radar operators were not sure what they had. They called the officer on duty and he told them that they had probably picked up the flight of B-17 bombers that were due to fly in from the west coast that day.
Offshore from Pearl Harbor, a destroyer engaged a submarine at 0637 that morning and reported that it had sunk the submarine with a depth charge. No one was aware that World War II had started.
A few minutes after 7 a.m., a flight of airplanes flew into Pearl Harbor through a low mountain pass. Those who were among the first observers of the planes simply thought that the U.S. Army Air Force was out on morning maneuvers. When the planes started strafing and bombing the ships at anchor, those observers realized how wrong they were. The planes were bombers, torpedo planes and fighter planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The Japanese wanted total control of the Pacific Ocean and realized that the largest obstacle to their conquest would be the United States. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-In-Chief of the Combined Fleet knew that Japan could not win a protracted war against the United States. He and other high commanders of the Japanese military developed the idea of a surprise attack against the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The fleet at Pearl Harbor that morning consisted of 160 ships and boats. The largest ships were the battleships; the smallest were the PT boats and harbor tugs. Nearly every class of ship was represented, except for the air craft carriers. Not being able to destroy the carriers would be a blow that would later cost the Japanese dearly.
Cedric Stout, of Bridge City, was aboard the battleship Utah that morning. The Utah was not on the list of preferred targets, due to her being refitted to be a target vessel and not used for warfare. Young, inexperienced Japanese pilots saw what they believed was an active battleship and attacked.
“I saw all the commotion going on and thought ‘somebody’s having fun,’ then a bullet whizzed by my head and I knew it wasn’t no fun,” Stout said.
The decks of the Utah had been covered with six inch by 12 inch timbers to cushion the impact of practice bombs. When torpedoes struck the side of the ship and she began to take on water and list, the timbers shifted and caused the speed of the list to increase.
“When it became apparent that the ship was going to roll over, we decided that our chances were better dodging bullets than staying aboard and maybe being trapped when she rolled over,” Stout said. “We went to the mooring ropes and slid down them and made it to shore and scrambled for cover.”
The Utah sank and remains the tomb of 54 sailors. Her hull was only moved enough to clear it from being a navigation hazard and remains a memorial at her last berth on Ford Island.
Joseph Rougeau, now living in McLewis, near Orange, was a Seaman 1st Class aboard the fleet repair ship USS Medusa. The Medusa had been moored at the berth at Ford Island, but had been moved to allow the Utah to dock there. The Medusa moved to the entrance of Middle Loch.
“I was eating breakfast and it took me a while to realize what was going on, Rougeau said. “I could see the smoke and the fire, and I could see sailors trying to swim on the top of the water. We were taught to swim under water and come up to breathe and then go back down. Some of these guys were new, just out of boot camp and probably panicky. They were just swimming on top of the water and getting the oil all over them and breathing in smoke and fire.”
The attack was devastating to the Navy, but repairs were made to most of the ships and they were soon back in fighting form. The battleships Utah and Arizona were total losses. The Arizona was stripped of everything above the water line that could be salvaged. Several of her 14 inch guns were removed and placed in use as coastal artillery guns. There are over 1100 sailors entombed in her.
In 1950 Admiral Arthur W. Radford, commander of the Pacific Fleet started the tradition of raising and lowering the flag over the Arizona daily. The memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1962.
The Arizona still leaks about a quart of black fuel oil daily. These drops are said to be the “ships tears.” There is a legend that whenever the last survivor dies the tears will stop. Any crewman who was aboard the Arizona on Dec. 7, has the right to have his cremated remains buried on the ship with his crewmates. Other Pearl Harbor survivors have the option to have their remains scattered above the sunken ship.
Admiral Yamamoto went into depression after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Due to some failure in the Japanese embassy in Washington D.C., the papers ending diplomatic relations between Japan and the U.S. were not delivered to the American Ambassador until after the attack had started.
Yamamoto had attended Harvard University from 1919-1921 and understood America and Americans better than most Japanese. He realized that the attack would be perceived to be a “sneak attack” and repulsive to most Americans. He also understood the impact that air power would have in the war and realized that by not destroying the American carriers that he had not delivered a killing blow as he had hoped.
On June 4, 1942, four of Japan’s six aircraft carriers were destroyed at the Battle of Midway by the carriers that Yamamoto’s forces had not found at Pearl Harbor.
In the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora”, Yamamoto is portrayed as saying, “I fear all we have done is to waken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.” It is not documented that he ever said those words, but they were found written in his personal diary.
The war in the Pacific would last until August, 1945. Yamamoto was killed in 1943. By the time of his death, Yamamoto had seen the majority of the Japanese Fleet of which he had been so proud nearly destroyed. He probably realized that the “Day of Infamy,” as President Roosevelt called Dec. 7, had indeed “wakened a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve.”