WWII History | Eyewitness Accounts Of The Attack On Pearl Harbor
The attack from the Empire of Japan on the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii was a devastating event to U.S citizens and its military forces. This was the moment the U.S officially would enter WWII fighting on several fronts at the same time. President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7th, 1941, “A date which will live in infamy.”
The Japanese Bombardment began just shortly after eight in the morning leaving over two-hundred military vessels absolutely destroyed. This includes submarines, airplanes, and ships. To make matters even worse, this attack caused twenty-four hundred Americans to lose their lives and left another thousand seriously wounded in just a single attack.
In today’s post, I am going to share three letters and accounts from different perspectives to show the weight this day had on everyone involved. The attack altered history significantly because it was the event that finally turned public opinion solidly on the side of Americans joining the war when public opinion had previously been vastly against it. The U.S was in a period of isolation after the first world war, a national policy of avoiding political or economic entanglements with other countries. Japan’s attack is what broke this policy and changed it. The first excerpts describe President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reaction to the news and how he responded to the attack from the words of his personal secretary Grace Tully.
This moment in history is significant because the United States involvement in the world wars drastically changed lives and the outcome. The second and third accounts in today’s post come from very different perspectives to show the various impacts the attack had on soldiers and civilians alike. The excerpts come from a soldier in the thick of the fighter and a young schoolteacher witnessing the horror that was taking place around her.
THE PRESIDENT LEARNS OF THE ATTACK
The following is a first-hand account from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary Grace Tully. She wrote about the afternoon the U.S President learned of the Japanese attack on american soil at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 in a book about her experiences of years working for the white house. This excerpt was published on Eyewitness To History’s website from Grace Tully’s book My Boss (1949).
“On Sunday afternoon I was resting, trying to relax from the grind of the past weeks and to free my mind from the concern caused by the very grave tones in which the President dictated that Saturday night message. I was rather abstractedly looking at a Sunday paper when the telephone rang and Louise Hackmeister said sharply:
‘The President wants you right away. There’s a car on the way to pick you up. The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!’
With no more words and without time for me to make a single remark, she cut off the connection. She had a long list of people to notify. In twenty minutes I was drawing into the White House driveway, already swarming with extra police and an added detail of Secret Service men, with news and radio reporters beginning to stream into the Executive Office wing and State, War and Navy officials hurrying into the House. Hopkins, Knox and Stimson already were with the Boss in his second floor study; Hull and General Marshall arrived a few minutes later.
Most of the news on the Jap attack was then coming to the White House by telephone from Admiral Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, at the Navy Department. It was my job to take these fragmentary and shocking reports from him by shorthand, type them up and relay them to the Boss. I started taking the calls on a telephone in the second floor hall but the noise and confusion were such that I moved into the President’s bedroom.
General Watson, Admiral McIntire, Captain Beardall, the Naval Aide, and Marvin McIntyre were on top of me as I picked up each phone call and they followed me as I rushed into Malvina Thompson’s tiny office to type each message. All of them crowded over my shoulders as I transcribed each note. The news was shattering. I hope I shall never again experience the anguish and near hysteria of that afternoon.
Coding and decoding operations in Hawaii and in Washington slowed up the transmission. But the news continued to come in, each report more terrible than the last, and I could hear the shocked unbelief in Admiral Stark’s voice as he talked to me. At first the men around the President were incredulous; that changed to angry acceptance as new messages supported and amplified the previous ones. The Boss maintained greater outward calm than anybody else but there was rage in his very calmness. With each new message he shook his head grimly and tightened the expression of his mouth.
Within the first thirty or forty minutes a telephone circuit was opened from the White House to Governor Joseph B. Poindexter in Honolulu. The Governor confirmed the disastrous news insofar as he had learned it. In the middle of the conversation he almost shrieked into the phone and the President turned to the group around him to bark grimly:
‘My God, there’s another wave of Jap planes over Hawaii right this minute.’
Mr. Hull, his face as white as his hair, reported to the Boss that Nomura and Kurusu were waiting to see him at the exact moment the President called to tell him of the bombing. In a tone as cold as ice he repeated what he had told the enemy envoys and there was nothing cold or diplomatic in the words he used. Knox, whose Navy had suffered the worst damage, and Stimson were cross-examined closely on what had happened, on why they believed it could have happened, on what might happen next and on what they could do to repair to some degree the disaster.
Within the first hour it was evident that the Navy was dangerously crippled, that the Army and Air Force were not fully prepared to guarantee safety from further shattering setbacks in the Pacific. It was easy to speculate that a Jap invasion force might be following their air strike at Hawaii – or that the West Coast itself might’ be marked for similar assault.
Orders were sent to the full Cabinet to assemble at the White House at 8:30 that evening and for Congressional leaders of both parties to be on hand by 9:00 for a joint conference with the Executive group.
Shortly before 5:00 o’clock the Boss called me to his study. He was alone, seated before his desk on which were two or three neat piles of notes containing the information of the past two hours. The telephone was close by his hand. He was wearing a gray sack jacket and was lighting a cigarette as I entered the room. He took a deep drag and addressed me calmly:
‘Sit down, Grace: I’m going before Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.’
I sat down without a word; it was no time for words other than those to become part of the war effort.
Once more he inhaled deeply, then he began in the same calm tone in which he dictated his mail. Only his diction was a little different as he spoke each word incisively and slowly, carefully specifying each punctuation mark and paragraph.
‘Yesterday comma December 7 comma 1941 dash a day which will live in infamy dash the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan period paragraph.’
The entire message ran under 500 words, a cold-blooded indictment of Japanese treachery and aggression, delivered to me without hesitation, interruption or second thoughts.
‘I ask,’ he concluded, ‘that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday comma December 7 comma a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire period end.’ As soon as I transcribed it, the President called Hull back to the White House and went over the draft. The Secretary brought with him an alternative message drafted by Sumner Welles, longer and more comprehensive in its review of the circumstances leading to the state of war. It was rejected by the Boss and hardly a word of his own historic declaration was altered. Harry Hopkins added the next to the last sentence: ‘With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounded determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.’ ”
FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR NUMBER 1:
The National Museum of American History has collected and digitized a series of letters written by a civilian, Beth Slingerland, as she watched the attack from her home in the hills above Pearl Harbor. Beth was a teacher and lower school director at the Punahou School in Honolulu. Her husband, John, was a hammerhead crane operator working as a civilian employee at the naval base. During the surprise attack, on a previously quiet Sunday morning, nearly 200 Japanese planes flew over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs and raining gunfire on the largely undefended American fleet. — The NMAH By Patri O’Gan
Honolulu, [Territory of Hawaii]
Between 8-9 Am.
Under Attack by an Enemy – Japan
Dearest Mother and Dad,
How can I write at such a time? I have to do something because I can see the smoke pouring up into the air from Pearl Harbor and the sound of the guns and the bombs bursting in the water right before us keeps me in such a nervous state that I must do something. John is at Pearl Harbor. He left early this morning because he was supposed to go today—they have been rushing so. I know they have hit places there because I see so much, much smoke.
The guns began some time ago but I thought they were our own usual gun fire. Then I just got nervous and went out to take a better look to discover all the smoke and just then great spouts of water began rising out of the ocean. . . . The great spouts rose all about some of our battle ships. . . . I turned on the radio just in time to hear that we were under attack by “the Enemy”. All I can think of is John down there where they are [attacking.] How do people face bravely the fact that their husbands are in places where they may be killed any day and I can’t get any news, of course, and I do not know how long it will be before I shall know anything. I love him so I can’t look into the future without him.
Another attack came and I watched it. My only comfort is being up here where I can see so much. Eight Japanese planes flew over the house on to Waikiki and out to sea. Their big red circles showed up so plainly. Lots of planes were high and the anti-aircraft tracer bullets are all over Pearl Harbor. . . . I can see our ships guarding the entrance to the Honolulu Harbor. At times the bombs fall about these ships. Right now things are more quiet but I can still feel the jar of the big guns. . . . I can see lots of smoke in back of the big hangers at [Hickam] Field. . . . Where I sit to write this I can look out all over the sea so I watch and write at the same time. No planes are in the sky right now. . . . What I thought were submarines seem to be cruisers and destroyers. The water is breaking high over them.
…More enemy planes have come since I wrote last. . . . Big fires burst out below and are still raging with great flames shooting up into the air. . . . We hear planes and then we see the tracer smoke puffs of the anti aircraft being fired from Pearl Harbor.
…[At] about four-thirty or five…I heard the familiar sound of John’s [shoes] coming up our driveway and I do not ever remember hearing anything more welcome.
[John’s] experience had been very horrible and I imagine it will be a long time before he is back to his old self again. He heard the unusual explosions coming from Ford Island way, went out to see what was up and beheld the Japanese planes flying no more than 50 feet off the ground coming right before him. The [USS Oglala] was blown up right before his eyes and the men worked hard to get all the men off before she turned over on her side and sank. They were not entirely successful. . . . Then [the Japanese] got three battle ships and three cruisers, and some destroyers. John cannot bear the thought of seeing our beautiful big ships sent to the bottom with just funnels sticking out of the water. Later in the morning he was called to try to move the huge crane…just as more Japanese planes came. He ran to as much cover as he could find but it wasn’t enough for from the rear of the planes flying low they machine gunned at him and one young man. The bullets so close lent wings to their feet and they threw themselves over some sort of a high iron wall…so that they were between that and some cement. A piece of shrapnel came through a hole and scraped his side but not seriously, thank goodness. . . . He dug the shrapnel out of the cement after all was quiet and brought it home. I had no idea how jagged and heavy they would be.
They fought fires and did all kinds of things all day. The last big raid came at about twelve o’clock. His praise for the boys on the USS Pennsylvaniaknows no bounds. He said that they were at their posts so quick that he cannot even know now how they managed to do it. They had their [anti-aircraft guns] at work almost immediately.The islands have been put under military rule. . . . Do not worry unduly for now things are really organized as they have not been and the whole island is on its toes. I am sure that the army and navy will handle the situation much better – now that they know the enemy has arrived.
I am so glad you are not here. It isn’t that I am afraid to be here but it is nice to know that you are safer where you are just now. . . . It will all end right I know, only it is hard to really know war has actually begun. Much, much love to you all and have a Merry, Merry Christmas even if you do wish we were with you, as I know you do. We are together here and we love it here and this will all be over eventually.
FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR NUMER 2:
The attack on Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) on December 7th, 1941 changed the course of history and triggered the involvement of the United States in World War II. The attack destroyed much of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and killed nearly 2,500 Americans. Paul Aschbrenner was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Oklahoma was docked in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack began at 7:55am, Hawaiian time — Iowa Pathways – Media Artifacts
Paul Aschbrenner: “They announced over the speaker to man your battle stations. ‘This is no blank’ I’ll let you fill that in yourself. Just as they got the last word out, I can remember very distinctly that a torpedo hit just as I was running down the steps to go to my battle station down at the powder deck aboard the battleship.”
Gunner’s mate Paul Aschbrenner was a 19-year-old sailor from Sumner who had joined the navy the year before because there were no jobs available near his home. Aschbrenner had been assigned to the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Oklahoma was docked in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack began at 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time. After the first torpedoes struck the Oklahoma, the lights went out and Aschbrenner found himself deep inside the ship in the dark.
Paul Aschbrenner: “The ship started to list — started to turn over. As it was turning over, I got about one or two decks up. I think the next deck was the shell deck. I honestly could see in my heart that I couldn’t possibly get out of there in my own strength. And I — I knew of the Lord, but I really didn’t have him into my heart. But I asked him if he would spare my life that I would dedicate my life over for him to use. And in some miraculous way, I did get out. And as I was getting out of the overhang of the turret, the crude oil and water was coming in.”
The dive bombing and torpedo attacks lasted for a little more than an hour. For Aschbrenner and everyone else at Pearl Harbor, the attack had been a complete surprise. As the Japanese planes flew away, 2,500 American soldiers, sailors, and marines were either dead or missing.
BOOK PICK OF THE DAY
In this “riveting” (Los Angeles Times) account of the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Twomey “infuses a well-known story with suspense” (The New York Times Book Review), offering a poignant new perspective on the most infamous day in American history.
In Washington, DC, in late November 1941, admirals composed the most ominous message in Navy history to warn Hawaii of possible danger—but they wrote it too vaguely. They thought precautions were being taken, but never checked to be sure.
In a small office at Pearl Harbor, overlooking the battleships, the commander of the Pacific Fleet tried to assess whether the threat was real. His intelligence had lost track of Japan’s biggest aircraft carriers, but assumed they were resting in a port far away. Besides, the admiral thought Pearl was too shallow for torpedoes; he never even put up a barrier. As he fretted, a Japanese spy was counting warships in the harbor and reporting to Tokyo.
There were false assumptions and racist ones, misunderstandings, infighting, and clashes between egos. Through remarkable characters and impeccable details, Pulitzer Prize–winner Steve Twomey shows how careless decisions and blinkered beliefs gave birth to colossal failure. But he tells the story with compassion and a wise understanding of why people—even smart, experienced, talented people—look down at their feet when they should be scanning the sky.
The brilliance of Countdown to Pearl Harbor is in its elegant prose and taut focus. “Even though readers already know the ending, they’ll hold their collective breath, as if they’re watching a rerun of an Alfred Hitchcock classic” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).
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