Once there were more than 50 members left in the South Dakota Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. In May 2000, when SDPB interviewed them for this documentary, there were just 19. Each was there on the historic "day which will live in infamy." On Dec. 7, 1941, when a Japanese surprise attack on Oahu left thousands dead and injured and catapulted the United States into World War II.
SDPB Television has recorded the breathtaking stories of nine of these men for posterity in Pearl Harbor Survivors: South Dakota Stories (download). The special includes the exploits of men like David Smith of Colman, who crawled up the deck of his ship as the torpedoed vessel rolled over, then slid down the side into the water. And Darrel Christopherson of Vermillion recalls the bombing of his ship, which the crew beached on mudflats to prevent its sinking. The hour-long documentary also explores their backgrounds, their military experiences, and their feelings during the chaos of the Oahu attacks.
Day of Infamy
Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, dawned bright and sunny at Oahu. For the more than 50,000 servicemen stationed on ships in Pearl Harbor and at bases on the island, it started out as another beautiful day in this tropical Hawaiian paradise.
Paradise was lost in an instant. At about 7:50 a.m., the first wave of 183 Japanese attackers swept over the airfields and the vulnerable ships in the harbor. At 8:45 a.m., after a 15-minute lull, 170 more planes struck in a second wave. When it was over:
- More than 2,400 Americans were dead.
- Some 1,200 were wounded.
- 18 American warships, including all eight battleships, were sunk or heavily damaged.
- 160 to 190 American planes were destroyed, most as they sat in neat lines on airfields, and more than 100 more were damaged.
- The United States Pacific Fleet was badly damaged.
- The U.S. was catapulted into World War II.
The attack came as a surprise, even though the state of the world had become more chaotic over the past decade.
By the end of 1941, World War II had raged with increasing intensity for three years in Europe and Africa. In Asia, Japan had been on the warpath for years, occupying Manchuria and China. After years of tumultuous politics, assassinations, and attempted coups, Japan’s aggressive War Minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, became Prime Minister in October 1941. In November 1941, Japan and the United States started talks to ease tensions. These meetings were apparently a subterfuge on Japan’s part.
On Dec. 7, 1941, there were warnings, too. That morning in Washington, D.C., hours before the attack, a message telling the Japanese Embassy that diplomatic relations between the two countries would end was intercepted and deciphered. Information about the message was sent to Oahu. Submarine sightings near the island were reported at about 4 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Shortly before 7 a.m., a U.S. destroyer shot at and sunk a small submarine, just 5 miles from "battleship row." Just after 7 a.m., a radar station on Oahu reported sighting what looked like a swarm of aircraft headed for the island. Unfortunately, these warnings were misdirected or explained away or buried in paperwork until it was too late.
Around 7:50 a.m., the first wave of Japanese attackers swept over Kaneohe Naval Air Station, 20 miles from Pearl Harbor; then Wheeler Field, the United States’ main Pacific fighter base, 10 miles north of Pearl Harbor. Ewa Marine Corps Air Station, four miles west of Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, next to Pearl Harbor, and Ford Island Naval Air Station, right in the middle of Pearl Harbor, quickly followed. Of about 310 planes on the ground, the Japanese destroyed or disabled 250 or more. Some 500 to 600 people were killed or wounded in the airbase strikes alone.
But the greatest carnage was yet to come - against the ships in Pearl Harbor. At 7:55 a.m., some 40 Japanese planes, carrying specially modified torpedoes, dropped their deadly cargo. Planes with bombs followed.
By 8:25 a.m. it seemed to be over. But the respite was brief. Around 8:50, a second wave of Japanese attackers arrived: 54 high-level bombers headed for airfields, hitting Hickam and Kaneohe again, and bombing Bellows Field on the island’s east side for the first time. Some 78 dive bombers aimed for undamaged ships in Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, 36 fighters circled the harbor to maintain air control. By 9:45 a.m., the harbor was in shambles.
The West Virginia: Hit by at least six torpedoes, the battleship sinks to the bottom, its top deck just above the surface. About nine dozen are killed.
The Oklahoma: The battleship, hit by four torpedoes, slowly rolls over, ending bottom up. Some 400 die.
The California: Two torpedoes cripple the battleship and a bomb that explodes near the sick bay kills nearly 100 instantly.
The Nevada: Hit by one torpedo, the battleship is still able to make a run for the harbor mouth and the relative safety of the open seas. However, the ship is hit by five bombs during the second wave of the attack, and to avoid blocking the harbor, her commander grounds the foundering ship.
The Maryland: This battleship is hit by a bomb, but weathers the day.
The Tennessee: Two of the battleship’s bomb turrets are hit by bombs. The ship is trapped in place by the sunken West Virginia.
Arizona: The battleship is hit by at least one torpedo. Meanwhile, a bomb penetrates the main deck and ignites the ship’s massive supply of shells, ammunition, and powder. The deafening explosion breaks the doomed ship in half and it quickly sinks amid flames and smoke. Some aboard die instantly. Others die in agony as they burn to death. Some are trapped inside, turning the remains of the Arizona into a tomb. The water around the ship is full of flames and body parts. 1,177 officers and enlisted men are killed.
The Vestal: The repair ship, moored next to the Arizona, is damaged by the Arizona explosion and bombs. The concussion from the Arizona blast blows men off the deck.
The Utah: Two torpedoes slam into the target ship and it capsizes. 58 die.
The Helena and The Oglala: The light cruiser Helena is hit by a torpedo and the explosion rips open the minelayer Oglala as well. 20 die aboard the Helena; the Oglala rolls over onto her side.
The Raleigh: The light cruiser is hit by a torpedo and bombs.
The Curtiss: The seaplane tender is hit by bombs and a crashing Japanese plane.
The Pennsylvania, Cassin, and Downes: The battleship Pennsylvania and the two destroyers, all in Dry dock 1, were all hit by bombs in the second wave.
The Shaw: The destroyer, in dry-dock No. 2, was cut in half by the bombs. A fire set off the ship’s forward magazine, sending debris high into the sky.
The Honolulu: The light cruiser attempted to escape the harbor, but was hit by a bomb.
The St. Louis: The light cruiser was the only capital ship to make it out of Pearl Harbor.
A few planes made it into the air to fight back. They and other U.S. forces managed to down 29 Japanese planes.
Hawaii was stunned. Hundreds of horribly burned and wounded overwhelmed medical facilities at Pearl Harbor and Honolulu’s hospitals. Detail swept through the harbor, picking up bodies and body parts. Schools were closed. A blanket of smoke covered the area.
Back in Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other top officials listened in horror and rage as the extent of the horrible devastation became clear. The attack ended the debate over whether the United States would enter World War II. The next day, as the Japanese attacked targets throughout the Pacific, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, on Oct. 11, Japan’s allies in Europe declared war on the U.S. and the United States declared war on them in return.
In Great Britain, a country left to fight the Nazis almost alone since the fall of France in 1940, the horror and sympathy were mixed with relief: the United States would join the Allies. Privately, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of his joy that the United States was finally fully involved in World War II: "Hitler's fate was sealed. Mussolini's fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder."
Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander and architect of the attack on Oahu, expressed his misgivings, too, before Pearl Harbor: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." He was right.