Pearl Harbor Day: A Tragedy with a Legacy of Heroism

pearl harbor remembrance

Dec. 7, 1941, was a peaceful Sunday morning on the island paradise of Oahu. Thousands of American service members were just waking, cleaning up for church services or heading off for a day of R&R at the beach. Just before 8 a.m., the explosions started. When the Japanese onslaught stopped almost two hours later, more than 2,400 Americans were dead.

More than 70 years later, a dwindling few survivors remain to share their firsthand memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As their numbers decline, the nation's commitment to remember that day grows ever more important. The anniversary is formally recognized as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. And though Congress didn't officially observe the day until 1994, Dec. 7 has always been known, in Franklin D. Roosevelt's terms, as "a date which will live in infamy."

A Prelude to War

While the Pearl Harbor attack caught American forces off guard, the buildup to that fateful day had begun years earlier. For more than a decade, Japan had aggressively sought to seize political and military control over China, and by 1937 the two nations were engaged in an all-out war. The U.S. disapproved of Japan's imperialistic plans, curtailing and eventually halting trade with the Japanese. As Japan's power-grabbing strategy spread into Southeast Asia, it appeared that military intervention from the United States was imminent.

To discourage further Japanese aggression, Roosevelt moved the Navy's Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii. The Navy was prepared to move into action if the Japanese launched an offensive against several targeted Asian nations. What U.S. officials never expected was that the assault would come to them.

Two waves of Japanese bombers and fighters — more than 350 planes launched from aircraft carriers in the Pacific — descended upon Pearl Harbor with unrelenting force and calculated precision. The surprise attack decimated the Pacific Fleet, sinking four of the eight battleships stationed in the harbor, destroying other massive ships and taking out hundreds of U.S. aircraft.

The strike was intended to prevent the U.S. from interfering in Southeast Asia, while issuing a devastating blow to American morale. But history would have it otherwise.

Fighting Back

For several years prior, the U.S. government had debated whether to enter the escalating global conflict provoked by Germany, Italy and Japan. But now, shocked and enraged by the premeditated attack, the American people supported retaliation with near-unanimous fervor. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan, effectively launching the country into World War II. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on America, and the largest military confrontation in history approached its boiling point.

The name Pearl Harbor will be forever tied to tragedy. But as the flag flies at half-staff each Dec. 7, Americans can also take pride in what occurred that day and the years that followed. Fifteen Medals of Honor and dozens of other commendations were bestowed upon American service members for their selfless heroism during the attack. As the nation banded together in war, America reminded the world of its resilience, its sense of responsibility and its resolve to fight for what is right.

The National Military Family and USAA salutes the veterans who were lost at Pearl Harbor, the ones who lived on and the generations of service members who have followed in their footsteps.

This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

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