Remembering Pearl Harbor and its impact, 76 years later today is the day that President Franklin Roosevelt said would live in infamy.
By Mike Spence
Seventy-six years ago today, Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy — with no prior declaration of war — launched two waves of aircraft from distant carriers to attack the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.
For those Americans alive on that fateful day, the attack forever will remain seared into their memories. For those of us who had not yet been born, the day’s significance is mixed.
Baby Boomers’ memories of Pearl Harbor were relayed to them by their parents and relatives, many of whom fought in World War II.
For generations after that, Pearl Harbor is something they read about in the history books. To many of them, the attack on Pearl Harbor is just another event included in their history lesson.
But Pearl Harbor was not just another event. It represents a pivotal point in U.S. and world history.
Left in ruins
The resulting destruction from the sneak attack was devastating.
Eight U.S. battleships were sunk or badly damaged. Three cruisers, three destroyers, two auxiliary ships, one minelayer and one target ship were sunk. A total of 188 aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground.
Official figures put military and civilian casualties at 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.
In about 90 minutes, the backbone of the U.S. Pacific fleet had been eliminated from the conflict before it had even begun. It would take months before American industrial power could replace the losses and achieve superiority.
While Japanese officials celebrated the great victory, they knew it was incomplete. The U.S. Pacific Fleet’s four aircraft carriers had been out on exercises, and were spared as a result.
Another factor that might have been overlooked at the time was America’s fighting spirit.
The officers, sailors and pilots may have been caught by surprise by the attack, but they didn’t run or cower. They began to fight back immediately.
Some manned antiaircraft guns. Others grabbed ammunition. Pilots scrambled into fighter planes to meet the Japanese pilots head on. Some spent the day rescuing others. Still others sacrificed their own lives to save their fellow Americans.
When the smoke finally cleared, the sailors and pilots had proven their fighting mettle. A total of 15 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded on a day when there were too many heroes to count.
The U.S. would produce many more heroes during World War II, including some from Colorado — and from Pueblo.
The attack occurred on a lazy December Sunday. The first wave of Japanese planes hit the target area at 7:55 a.m., while many U.S. sailors and their officers were eating breakfast or, in some cases, still sleeping off the previous night’s shore leave.
They had gone to bed Saturday night and rose on Sunday morning thinking they had nothing to worry about. Many officers were ashore, leaving their vessels in the hands of junior officers.
Ships were moored securely. Only the U.S.S. Nevada had its boilers operating and made an unsuccessful run to the sea. The remaining battleships were moored with their boilers down, which meant they were trapped where they sat once the attack started. U.S. planes were lined up in neat rows at the local air bases because the Army commander was more concerned about local sabotage than an attack from the sky.
Over confidence? Dereliction of duty by those in command? Perhaps. But there were reasons for it.
The U.S. had been holding peace talks with the Japanese. As late as Dec. 5, Japanese representatives assured the U.S. government that Japanese troop movements in Indochina were purely precautionary.
On Dec. 6, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appealed directly to the emperor of Japan for peace and was awaiting a reply.
Besides, the officers assumed, Japan was incapable of launching an attack from so far away.
Perhaps some of the damage could have been avoided. U.S. analysts had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and officials in Washington knew hours before the attack the Japanese were going to break diplomatic relations. An attack was possible, if not imminent.
Gen. George C. Marshall ordered an alert to be sent from Washington to Pearl Harbor about an hour before the attack. For some reason, it was sent by commercial telegram without any urgent or priority markings and didn’t arrive until the attack had started.
Adding insult to the devastation, when the Japanese diplomatic representatives in Washington called at the State Department to give notice of the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the attack on Pearl Harbor had already been in progress for a half an hour.
Americans never forgot that duplicity. It served as motivation into the final days of the war.
Unprepared for war
Puebloans, like the service men and women stationed at Pearl Harbor, were caught by surprise by the attack.
Sure, the United States had been active on the fringes of the war, providing what aid it could to Great Britain and Russia. U.S. ships were guarding convoys in the North Atlantic, and some of its merchant ships, as well as escort ships, were victimized by German U-boats. Perhaps the most notable was the escort vessel U.S.S. Reuben James, which was sunk in early November.
Newspapers of the day published accounts of U.S. pilots being killed in training. In one story, 13 pilots were reported killed.
The war had arrived at America’s doorstep, but America didn’t want to open that door. Pueblo included.
Puebloans went about their daily lives as if there was no war. They were more focused on the U.S. recovery from the Great Depression than distant battles in Europe.
They watched as Salida dominated the local high school football scene, as local boxer Billy Pryor won a state boxing title over Joe Lewis the Younger.
The routine business and life of the city continued unabated.
Americans seemed unfazed by their lack of preparedness for war. One story was headlined “Few Army Drivers Know Spark Plug From Carburetor.”
Sure, Americans wanted to help. Another story drew attention to U.S. efforts to get the OK from the German and British governments to send a shipment of food and supplies to the children of occupied France.
Yet, when it came to war, the only soldier Americans seemingly were interested in was one played by actor Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York,” which was a huge hit at the movie box office.
Puebloans reveled in the visit to Pueblo by author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller in November of 1941. They mourned the deaths of former Pueblo resident Simon Guggenheim, head of the famed Guggenheim Foundation in New York, and U.S. Sen. Alva Adams of Pueblo.
Yet, the warnings were there.
U-boats continued to sink U.S. ships. Another story was headlined “Churchill Advises Roosevelt Against Showdown in the Pacific.”
Later, U.S. air forces prepared to guard the Burma Road if Japan attacked Siam (Thailand). A few days later, another story was headlined “U.S. Warns Japan to Halt Aggression.”
Yet another story speculated that “A Naval War With Hitler Inevitable.”
Roosevelt himself hinted that America would be at war by Thanksgiving of 1942.
Despite those almost daily reminders, Americans, Puebloans too, hoped to avoid war.
All that changed when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Life forever altered
The shift to wartime footing didn’t take long, and it affected life in Colorado.
The Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained at Camp Hale near Leadville from 1942-45 to produce soldiers with mountaineering skills that paid dividends against German forces — and later, in launching the state’s ski and outdoor gear industries.
Camp Carson, the Army installation near Colorado Springs, sprang up in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. The base later would expand into the sprawling military and economic force that is Fort Carson.
The facility eventually trained more than 100,000 soldiers for duty in World War II and also housed nearly 9,000 mostly Italian and German prisoners of war, whose labor helped make up for a shortage of Colorado domestic workers during the war.
The Pueblo Army Base was built in three months where the current Pueblo airport is located, and was used to train bomber crews.
Although the Japanese community told anybody who would listen that they supported the war effort, few were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
So began one of the saddest chapters in U.S. history. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February, he basically was ordering the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, where some feared they would engage in espionage or play a role in a feared Japanese invasion of the U.S. mainland.
Japanese families were uprooted to internment camps all over the country. One of them, Camp Amache, was located near Granada.
One of the few heroes to emerge from this dark time was Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr.
Carr opposed the interment of Japanese. Because of that opposition, Carr forfeited what had been believed to be a promising career in the U.S. Senate.
No matter, Carr steadfastly opposed the wholesale uprooting of American citizens just because of their ethnic background.
Carr was reviled by a good segment of the population at the time. Today, people in Colorado and across the U.S. realize Carr was on the right side of history. The Colorado Legislature recognized as much a few years ago, naming U.S. 285 the Ralph Carr Memorial Highway.
Of all of the many Puebloans who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, one stands above the rest. Carl Crawford, just a private, distinguished himself during fighting near Altavilla, Italy, where he single-handedly knocked out three enemy gun emplacements. His actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first Puebloan to earn America’s highest military honor.
As bleak as those initial days after Pearl Harbor were, in retrospect, America’s entry in the war tipped the balance in favor of the Allies.
Hitler declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 9. Few realized at the time that the Russian army already had stopped the German blitzkrieg for good on the outskirts of Moscow. The days of German conquests were over.
Another factor that few envisioned at the time, especially Japan’s Navy High Command: With the toll inflicted on U.S. battle wagons at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy quickly became carrier-centered.
Within seven months, the U.S. Navy had turned the tide of battle in the Pacific with its stunning victory at the Battle of Midway.
Japan’s expansion had been halted, and the slow push back to Tokyo had begun.
While there was still much fighting and dying to do in both theaters, the Axis forces were on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
For those who were alive on Dec. 7, 1941, the date retains its resonance. For those of us who weren’t, we should make sure we never forget.
U.S. entry into World War II marked the beginning of the end of the Axis powers. U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots helped reclaim Europe and the Middle East from the fascist tyranny of Hitler, and the countries in the Pacific from a brutal Japanese regime.
Even today, 76 years later, we should be thankful for those accomplishments.
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