A Cultural Crossroads
Countless accounts of World War II have begun with an expression of the axiom that both history and everyday American life changed forever on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. This was true for nearly any American alive at the time, and it was especially true for the people of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii.
Sunday morning had dawned warm and pleasant, as it almost always does in the mild climate of the Hawaiian Islands, even in December. The mood was relaxed and tranquil, as it almost always was in those days in Hawaii—even in the big city of Honolulu on the island of Oahu, then a sleepy municipality with a population of 137,000 people.
Typical of many people around Honolulu, the Inouye family on Coyne Street were up at 6:30 that morning, and having a leisurely breakfast before church. As Daniel Inouye recalls in his memoir Journey to Washington, “It was going to be a beautiful day. Already the sun had burned off the morning haze over Honolulu and, although there were clouds over the mountains, the sky was blue.”
About two hundred miles north-northwest of Honolulu, aboard six aircraft carriers of an Imperial Japanese Navy task force, the mood was anything but relaxed and tranquil. Aboard the Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, and Zuikaku, armorers scrambled to load ordnance aboard an armada of Aichi Type 99 dive bombers and Nakajima Type 97 torpedo bombers. Crewmen and pilots of these attack aircraft, as well as of the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters that would escort the bombers, received their final briefings and climbed aboard. The carriers, escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, and three fleet submarines, had departed Japan’s Kuril Islands on November 26, and had made their way to within striking distance of the big American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the western edge of Honolulu.
By 7:00 a.m., 183 Japanese aircraft were airborne, and the only people on Oahu who knew it were a pair of U.S. Army radar technicians at Opana. They weren’t sure what the blips on their radar scopes represented. Were they American planes inbound from the West Coast, or something else? Fifteen minutes later, word of the incoming aircraft had reached the duty office of the 14th Naval District, where it was decoded and passed along to Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander of American naval forces in Hawaii.
A few miles from Kimmel’s headquarters, young Daniel Ken Inouye, two months to the day past his seventeenth birthday on this warm Sunday morning, was finishing his chores. The Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft were seventy miles away and closing.
The snarl of Mitsubishi Kensei and Nakajima Sakae radial aircraft engines was first heard over the sugarcane fields of Oahu’s north shore by about 7:40 a.m., and at 7:53, the first bombs fell on the warships anchored near Ford Island within Pearl Harbor.
Dan Inouye had finished his chores and was combing his hair, getting ready for church. Like many people in Honolulu that morning, including a lot of the young sailors at Pearl Harbor, he was listening to Hawaiian music on his radio.
The sailors aboard the ships anchored on Battleship Row near Ford Island were taken completely by surprise. In quick succession, torpedo bombers scored hits on the battleships Oklahoma, Utah, California, Arizona, and other vessels. A bomb then penetrated the deck of the Arizona, exploding within her forward magazine with devastating results. The bombers kept up their attacks on the ships, as well as Army Air Forces aircraft at nearby airfields.
The musical program that the young McKinley High School senior was listening to stopped abruptly as the announcer suddenly came on the air shouting that Pearl Harbor was under attack. Inouye heard him yell, “Pearl Harbor has been bombed, for real! This is no test!”
Dan and his father walked out of their home and looked in the direction of the big naval base. His younger brothers and sister began to follow them out, but their father told them to stay inside where it was safer. As the eldest son, Dan was considered old enough to witness the unthinkable tragedy unfolding at Pearl Harbor. With his father, he watched the puffs of black smoke as antiaircraft rounds exploded in the sky. When three pearl gray aircraft thundered overhead, they could see that their wings were marked with the red disks of the Imperial Japanese rising sun insignia. Dan Inouye had sensed the Japanese pilots looking down at them as the planes raced overhead. “I felt that my life had come to an end at that point,” he recalled as he recognized the insignia of the land of his ancestors. “I wasn’t quite certain as to what the future held for us.”
As the attacking aircraft disappeared in the smoky haze that now obscured the Koolau Mountains, the phone rang in the little Coyne Street bungalow. Dan Inouye had been volunteering as a first aid instructor at the local Red Cross station, and they were calling to see how soon he could get there. Injured people seemed to be everywhere, and they needed his help. His mother was terrified when he ran to grab his bicycle, but his father told her that it was his duty, that he must go.
The second wave of 168 Japanese aircraft swept in around 8:40, attacking the surviving American ships as they attempted to get under way and steam toward the open water of the Pacific Ocean. By this time, young Dan Inouye had reached the Red Cross first aid station. “We worked all night and into the next day,” he recalled. “There was so much to be done—broken bodies to be mended, shelter to be found for bombed-out families, food for the hungry. We continued the following night and through the day after that, sleeping in snatches whenever we could.”
Although greatly overshadowed by the air attack, Imperial Japan also attacked Hawaii from the sea. Five 46-ton Type A one-man, midget submarines were also intended to take part in the attack. Launched by larger I-Class fleet submarines the night before, they were not nearly as successful as the aircraft. Except for unconfirmed speculation that one may have entered the harbor and fired torpedoes, the submarine attack failed.
One of the five was confirmed sunk by the destroyer Monaghan, and one was attacked and probably sunk by another destroyer, the Ward. Two disappeared completely, and the fifth, the Ha-19, suffered a failed gyrocompass and went aground at Waimanalo on the east coast of Oahu on December 8. The sub and its pilot, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, were promptly captured by the Hawaii National Guard. Among those involved were the first Japanese American soldiers to see action in World War II, notably young Thomas Tsubota, who would later be in combat in the Far East with Merrill’s Marauders.
In 1941, the Hawaii National Guard included the 298th Infantry Regiment, composed of men from Oahu, and the 299th Infantry Regiment, composed of men from the outer islands. The pool of young men who made up the Guard in Hawaii naturally included Japanese Americans, including Tsubota. In fact, while they comprised a third of Hawaii’s population, Japanese Americans accounted for half of the approximately three thousand troops in the Hawaii National Guard.
The two waves of bombers that attacked Oahu had struck in the space of just ninety minutes, leaving 2,335 American service personnel and 68 civilians dead, and 1,178 Americans badly injured. All eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were damaged or destroyed, as were three cruisers, four destroyers, and four other vessels. The sinking of the Arizona alone had cost the lives of more than 1,100 men. Like no other incident before September 11, 2001, the attack stunned and infuriated the American people and galvanized the nation.
On December 8, as Thomas Tsubota and the 298th Infantry Regiment were taking the Ha-19 into custody, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” he began. He discussed the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Imperial Japanese attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, and Wake Island that had occurred in the hours immediately following the initial bombing of the naval base in Hawaii. He concluded by asking Congress to “declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
The United States was at war.
For the Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and for those living on the mainland, the Pearl Harbor attack had come as a devastating clash of cultures, and as a most ominous milestone on what had been a long and difficult road.
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Yenne. All rights reserved.