By the end of 1941, World War II had raged with increasing intensity for three years in Europe and Africa. In Asia, Japan had been on the warpath for years, occupying Manchuria and China. After years of tumultuous politics, assassinations and attempted coups, Japanâ€™s aggressive War Minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, became Prime Minister in October 1941. In November 1941, Japan and the United States started talks to ease tensions. These meetings were apparently a subterfuge on Japanâ€™s part.
On Dec. 7, 1941, there were warnings, too. That morning in Washington, D.C., hours before the attack, a message telling the Japanese Embassy that diplomatic relations between the two countries would end was intercepted and deciphered. Information about the message was sent to Oahu. Submarine sightings near the island were reported at about 4 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Shortly before 7 a.m., a U.S. destroyer shot at and sunk a small submarine, just 5 miles from "battleship row." Just after 7 a.m., a radar station on Oahu reported sighting what looked like a swarm of aircraft headed for the island. Unfortunately, these warnings were misdirected or explained away or buried in paperwork until it was too late.
Around 7:50 a.m., the first wave of Japanese attackers swept over Kaneohe Naval Air Station, 20 miles from Pearl Harbor; then Wheeler Field, the United Statesâ€™ main Pacific fighter base, 10 miles north of Pearl Harbor. Ewa Marine Corps Air Station, four miles west of Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, next to Pearl Harbor, and Ford Island Naval Air Station, right in the middle of Pearl Harbor, quickly followed. Of about 310 planes on the ground, the Japanese destroyed or disabled 250 or more. Some 500 to 600 people were killed or wounded in the air base strikes alone.
But the greatest carnage was yet to come - against the ships in Pearl Harbor. At 7:55 a.m., some 40 Japanese planes, carrying specially modified torpedoes, dropped their deadly cargo. Planes with bombs followed.
By 8:25 a.m. it seemed to be over. But the respite was brief. Around 8:50, a second wave of Japanese attackers arrived: 54 high-level bombers headed for air fields, hitting Hickam and Kaneohe again, and bombing Bellows Field on the islandâ€™s east side for the first time. Some 78 dive bombers aimed for undamaged ships in Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile 36 fighters circled the harbor to maintain air control. By 9:45 a.m., the harbor was in shambles.
Hawaii was stunned. Hundreds of horribly burned and wounded overwhelmed medical facilities at Pearl Harbor and Honoluluâ€™s hospitals. Detail swept through the harbor, picking up bodies and body parts. Schools were closed. A blanket of smoke covered the area.
Back in Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other top officials listened in horror and rage as the extent of the horrible devastation became clear. The attack ended the debate over whether the United States would enter World War II. The next day, as the Japanese attacked targets throughout the Pacific, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, on Oct. 11, Japanâ€™s allies in Europe declared war on the U.S. and the United States declared war on them in return.
In Great Britain, a country left to fight the Nazis almost alone since the fall of France in 1940, the horror and sympathy was mixed with relief: the United States would join the Allies. Privately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of his joy that the United States was finally fully involved in World War II: "Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder."
Japanâ€™s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese naval commander and architect of the attack on Oahu, expressed his misgivings, too, before Pearl Harbor: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." He was right.
Watch President Rooseveltâ€™s speech to the joint session of Congress on December 8th, 1941.
Visit the South Dakota Department of the Military and Department of Veterans Affairs for information about South Dakotans who served in Americaâ€™s wars