This day in history: Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941.
It’s hard to imagine that it’s already been 70 years since Pearl Harbor. Many from my generation had grandparents with living memories of World War II; both of my grandfathers served in the war. One served in North Africa in the Army, and one served on a destroyer – the USS De Haven – with the Navy’s Pacific fleet. As a historian looking back to this era, it’s not surprising that the United States entered the war. It was how we entered — the impetus — that strikes me as almost an anomaly.
Some of our regular readers might know that my specialties are culinary history and modern Japan. I did most of my master’s degree work focused on Japan during WWII and the Occupation Era. After all the primary source research, all the discussions, and all the secondary source readings, it still surprises me that Pearl Harbor happened. But should it? Perhaps the motivations for the bombing can be seen as an act of desperation: Japan was already cut off from most of its supplies that came from America, and it knew there was no way to defeat the Americans in battle. Did they think that a sneak attack would not result in a declaration of war? Didn’t they know that bombing Pearl Harbor would have to end in a war with America? It reminds me of a verse from Job; “neither was I quiet, nor was I at rest, yet trouble came.”
Diplomatic cables intercepted by American military intelligence knew something would happen. But what? When? Where? There’s many theories about how much or how little President F.D. Roosevelt and other leaders knew about the bombing, but I think for the average person, it was really a shock. Decades of isolationism, the Great Depression, and even a feeling that war was “over there” influenced the early 1940s mindset. Unlike Great Britain that had been fighting off Nazi attacks for years, or China that had been suffering from Japanese occupation for a decade already, the psyche of the average American was not naive, but had an immunity complex. The notion that something can’t or won’t happen ended 70 years ago today.
The above photo is Building 307, the Signal Corps Warehouse at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. The Signal Company Aircraft Warning modified this structure to be the temporary information center for control and coordination of the six SCR-270B radar sets that were in operation during the Japanese attack on December 7th, 1941. A caption on the photo states it was taken in late 1941 during the last phases of construction of the Information Center. That section is the large wooden structure mounted on the concrete warehouse.