Jim Lacey: Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy

Roundup: Talking About History

Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.

Just before 8:00 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the first of two waves of attacking aircraft swept over Pearl Harbor. Barely 15 minutes later the most powerful battleships of the mighty U.S. Pacific Fleet were either sunk or burning wrecks. The California was half submerged, with her keel lying in the harbor’s mud. Nearby, the West Virginia had her port side torn open. Her twisted metal was burning, but for now she was still afloat. Two other ships, the Tennessee and the Maryland, were battered, but in better shape than their sisters. Beside them, the Oklahoma had been struck by a barrage of torpedoes and capsized. The U.S.S. Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that morning, but she was damaged and had run up onto the beach. The worst fate was suffered by the U.S.S. Arizona,which blew up and sank, taking over 1,000 of her crew with her.

The following day, President Roosevelt went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. At the time, he could not have known that the attack on Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of a Japanese offensive that would conquer most of the Western Pacific. Wake Island fell two weeks later, after a truly heroic stand, and only five months after Pearl Harbor the half-starved “battling bastards of Bataan” also surrendered. Fortress Corregidor, in Manila Harbor, withstood a brutal siege for another month before it too fell, but only after the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Regiment fought off several attacks in hand-to-hand combat. By the time Corregidor was lost, 120,000 British soldiers had already surrendered Singapore to an inferior Japanese force. Furthermore, the British Army in Burma was in full retreat toward the Indian border. Capping this run of victories, the Japanese seized New Guinea and Indonesia and launched devastating air raids on northern Australia....

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