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South Carolinians observe 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

The USS Arizona on fire after Japanese forces attacked American military facilities in Pearl Harbor, HI, on Dec. 7, 1941.
National Archives and Records Administration
The USS Arizona on fire after Japanese forces attacked American military facilities in Pearl Harbor, HI, on Dec. 7, 1941.

One of the blackest days in American history occurred 80 years ago, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy,” as spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The sneak attack brought the United States out of its isolationist shell into World War II. Looking back eight decades later, historian Fritz Hamer said the stage was set for war when the U.S. embargoed the sale of oil, rubber and metals to Japan because of its incursions into Manchuria and other parts of Southeast Asia. The two nations tried to find a compromise, but while talks were ongoing, the Japanese secretly planned a gamble to keep America from interfering with its Asian conquests.

“The United States knew things were starting to boil over in Japan, because we had broken their secret code, and we could read much of it,” said Hamer. “But they weren’t sure exactly where [a response] would come. And so when that first wave of Japanese aircraft entered Pearl Harbor airspace at 7:55 a.m. on the 7th of December, everything was a sitting duck for them. They destroyed something like 180 aircraft, in part because they were so closely packed together. And then within half an hour, they had severely damaged or destroyed the bulk of the Pacific Fleet in the harbor.”

Greenwood resident Jim Morgan was nine and living at Pearl Harbor while his father was in the navy. He witnessed the attack first-hand.

“I had a window facing west, facing right over Pearl Harbor,” he recalled. “I saw what I thought was a small fire in the submarine base, and it must have been one of the first torpedoes to hit battleship row, that I saw afire. My mother looked out and saw the same thing.

“And about that time, a plane came right by our window. It couldn’t have been more than 50 to 100 feet in the air, going straight towards Battleship Row. My mother said, 'I don’t know whose they are, but let’s get the heck out of here.'"

Morgan remembered the attack lasted about 45 minutes. But then a second wave of aircraft struck. By the time the roughly two-hour strike ended, all eight ships on battleship row were damaged, with four completely sunk, including the Arizona, the Oklahoma and the Utah. Thick black smoke from burning oil was everywhere.

After the attack was over, “we went outside and you just could not believe what we were looking at,” said Morgan. “Just massive fires and just pure bedlam. About that time the marines came up the street with a jeep, threatening to shoot anybody that didn’t go back into their houses. They were extremely uptight about everything, obviously.”

Gordon Sparks of Columbia is secretary for the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. He has a large collection of records from the event, as well as an arsenal of related stories from survivors. He said the attack galvanized the American public into action, calling Americans’ reaction “unbelievable.” The population was outraged by the dastardly attack. So many people volunteered for the service that it overwhelmed army, navy and marine recruiters.

“I’ve got several stories of 15, 16-year-old kids that enlisted and lied [about their ages], and changed their birth certificates or took their brothers’ birth certificates," Sparks said. "But that was the people that just wanted to defend the United States.”

Although the Japanese did massive damage at Pearl Harbor, Hamer said there were a couple of crucial factors that they missed. Fortuitously, America’s aircraft carriers were out at sea, so they were saved from destruction, a lucky break since the Japanese were counting on knocking out the carriers to completely cripple the U.S. fleet.

“But the other crucial mistake the Japanese made,” said the historian, was that “they didn’t touch the petroleum reserves that were there on the harbor. That was key. And by not destroying those, that allowed the Americans to recover more quickly than they might have.”

“To this day there’s a mystery to why the Japanese didn’t attack the oil storage tank farms. They were all over the island,” added Morgan. He had a good reason to be glad for the enemy’s oversight. “Our house was a block away from a big oil storage tank farm. If they’d hit that, I wouldn’t be here.”

But because the Japanese had not bombed the shipyard and the oil storage tanks, he said, the Navy was able to operate reasonably well with the equipment and resources it had left.

Japan’s gamble, of course, ultimately failed, and it lost the war after nearly four years of fighting which cost a staggering price in human lives and material, even more for the Japanese than the victorious Americans.

All the men agreed that the big lesson of Pearl Harbor is the importance of vigilance, whether against overt attack or today’s increasingly common threat: cyber attacks.

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.