Remembering “a date which will live in infamy”

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. Learn more about the day of infamy by visiting the National Archives News.

From its food to its anime to its cars to its video games, Japanese culture is part of everyday American life today. In 1941, however, the idea of so much Japanese influence in our daily lives would have been inconceivable, especially after the events at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning in December.

At 7:55 a.m., local time, the Japanese military began its fateful surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The two-wave attack brought an hour and 15 minutes of chaos. These events were forever captured by the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy.”

While many on the base were still asleep, the Japanese military launched a force of 200 planes from six different aircraft carriers they had stationed in the Pacific Ocean. This was to be the first wave of what was known by the  Imperial Japanese Navy as “Hawaii Operation,” what we know as the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor was the result of a meticulously prepared plan devised with the intent to cripple the U.S. naval forces so heavily that the nation would be unable to recover. This was essential to the Japanese Empire’s plans at the time. Without the fear of American interference on the high seas, the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia could begin.

Between their two waves of aerial attacks, Japanese forces damaged 16 U.S. Navy ships and completely destroyed two battleships and one auxiliary ship.

More than 160 Navy and Army aircraft were destroyed, and another 205 were damaged.

The surprise nature of the attack resulted in steep casualties. 2,403 Americans were killed in the surprise air raid, with another 1,178 wounded. More than half the dead were servicemen aboard the USS Arizona, one of the two battleships destroyed in the attack.

Today, the remains of the USS Arizona survive just below the water at Pearl Harbor, and a memorial above the ship’s grave site commemorates all Americans who died in the attack.

World War II poster, “Avenge Pearl Harbor: Our bullets will do it,” ca. 1942-1943. (National Archives Identifier 534787)

While American losses were high, the Japanese lost only 29 aircraft, a small fraction of the force of more than 350 planes that composed both waves of the attack. During the attack, Fifty-five Japanese airmen and nine submariners were killed; once the smoke cleared, one naval officer who survived the raid became the first prisoner of war taken by the U.S. in World War II.

As devastating as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, it was not entirely successful on the Japanese front. Though Japanese forces managed to surprise Americans, they failed to decimate the U.S. naval fleet to the extent that they had hoped.

Despite the intricate planning, they were unable to locate the three U.S. aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet that were out of port on December 7. Thanks to this, the Navy’s force of aircraft carriers remained completely intact.

Also, the Japanese did not destroy key oil storage facilities at Pearl Harbor, leaving the Navy with plenty of resources to be used in the war to come.

On December 8, President Roosevelt declared the previous morning as “a date which will live in infamy,” as he urged a joint session of Congress to declare war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt Signing the Declaration of War Against Japan, 12/8/1941. (National Archives Identifier 12009102)

Later that same day, he signed the declaration that brought America into World War II.

The tragedy at Pearl Harbor had enraged the nation and quieted much of the isolationist sentiment that had kept the country out of the conflict for the last two years.

The United States’ impressive industrial capacity allowed it to recover remarkably quickly to face Japan on the Pacific Front.

Of the ships damaged at Pearl Harbor, only the USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma were destroyed. The others were repaired and went on to see action in the war.

This month the National Archives is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by showcasing the Senate’s copy of FDR’s Day of Infamy address, which will be on display from November 10, 2016, through January 4, 2017, in the East Rotunda Gallery.

5 thoughts on “Remembering “a date which will live in infamy”

  1. What happened to the Japanese ambassador and his colleague on Dec. 7, 1941 while they were in Washington, DC delivering a formal reply to the U.S. Secretary of State to a recent American message one hour after Japanese squadrons commenced the attack on Pearl Harbor? Were they automatically interred in the U.S. for the duration of the war, or were they sent packing?

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