HONOLULU, Hawaii — It was not the aggressive advances of Hitler’s Third Reich across Europe, nor the bellicose rhetoric of the Italian dictator Mussolini that finally pushed the “sleeping giant” into World War II. Rather, an early morning attack in the global conflict’s Asia-Pacific theater brought American guns to bear following what then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a day of infamy.”
Today, the USS Arizona rests on the sea floor of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, a casualty, along with thousands of American soldiers, sailors and civilians, of an aerial assault by imperial Japanese forces on Dec. 7, 1941. Above the sunken battleship, the USS Arizona Memorial sees hundreds of visitors daily, a parade of curious tourists, history enthusiasts and war veterans, among others.
More than 70 years have passed, but each year Americans mark Pearl Harbor Day, in solemn memory of the Sunday morning surprise attack on US forces stationed in the harbor west of Honolulu, Hawaii, that killed more than 2,000 US servicemen.
Jimmy Lee, a survivor of the attack, still remembers the scene of destruction that he witnessed at just 11 years old.
“We ran for hiding,” the Honolulu native said. “Two hours later, when we came back [to the harbor], I saw the smoke coming from coastal waters. Then, boats were going around, picking up the dead from the water.”
Built in 1962, the Arizona Memorial is the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and marines on board the battleship who were killed in the Japanese attack. The memorial, which straddles the sunken hull of the battleship, receives more than one million visitors a year and is accessible only by boat.
Visitors to the memorial can find the names of all 1,177 crew members, and have a chance also to view a 23-minute documentary film about the events of Dec. 7, 1941. Every year, a ceremony is held on the Arizona Memorial to remember those who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor.
Paul Heintz, education director at Pacific Historic Parks, which supports the USS Arizona Memorial, said the Japanese attack was a preemptive strike with an eye toward conquest in Southeast Asia.
“Japanese imperial forces wanted to colonize the whole Indo-China peninsula. In order to be able colonize Indo-China, the Japanese thought they needed to knock out the American forces in Honolulu,” he said.
The Pearl Harbor attack came without warning, as Japanese planes bore down on the moored US ships from all directions. Torpedo planes struck first, flying low over the harbor and launching their underwater rockets toward Ford Island’s “Battleship Row.”
They struck eight battleships anchored in the harbor, along with other vessels berthed in the naval yard. Bombs dropped from aircraft high above as fighter planes wheeled and dived, strafing US aircraft and military personnel.
One day later, the United States declared war on Japan and ultimately its Axis allies.
In the four years that followed, US forces joined Allied powers that included Britain, China and Australia, in a campaign that would end for Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, decimating the cities and crippling the empire’s resolve to fight on.
US forces, widely considered to have helped turn the tide in the Allies’ favor, bolstered campaigns in theaters that included Burma, where British troops joined with ethnic Karen, Kachin and Karenni fighters to push out occupying Japanese troops in 1945.
In a diplomatic tidal shift that would have been scarcely conceivable in the 1940s, the United States today counts Japan as its strongest ally in Asia, as Washington seeks to again assert its influence in the region and counterbalance a rising China.
The Irrawaddy reporter Saw Yan Naing is participating in the East-West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship program.