Prologue Magazine

The Day of Infamy

Japan’s Surprise Attack in Hawaii Brings America into World War II

Winter 2016, Vol. 48, No. 4


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U.S. Navy sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sinking USS West Virginia during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. (111-C-5904, National Archives Identifier 12009098)

Three-quarters of a century have passed since war interrupted a peaceful Sunday morning in Hawaii in 1941—plunging the United States into a war from which it would emerge four years later as the most powerful nation on earth.

Just before 8 a.m. Hawaii time on December 7, Japanese fighter planes and bombers appeared over Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. Pacific Fleet was stationed. Bombs, torpedoes, and enemy fire caused heavy damage to the fleet, some of which was destroyed, some seriously damaged.

In all, 2,403 Americans were killed in the attack on our naval base near Honolulu. More lives were lost and more damage was done that day as a result of Japanese attacks in the Philippines, Guam, and Hong Kong and other U.S. and British outposts in the Pacific that Japan coveted.

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The U.S. Navy battleship Arizona explodes shortly after 8 a.m. during the attack on Pearl Harbor. (80-GK-13512, National Archives Identifier 12009094)

The news shocked the nation on that quiet Sunday, and soon Americans found themselves living in a nation at war. Into their lives would come draft calls that would take away fathers, sons, brothers, and sweethearts; the rationing of food and raw war materials; and in the end, an America unlike the one being left behind on December 7, 1941.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the empire of Japan,” he said as he began his brief remarks.

The United States and Japan, he said, were in peace talks at the moment of the attacks. Later, it was learned that the attacks had been planned years in advance and that the Japanese battleships and carriers that brought the fighters and bombers within range of Hawaii had left Japan weeks earlier.

“With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God,” Roosevelt said.

The President asked Congress for a declaration of war and got one within hours—23 years after the end of World War I. A few days later, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States, and the Congress reciprocated.

Four months later, the United States reminded the Japanese that despite American losses at Pearl Harbor, it still had air power. Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle of the Army Air Force led a group of 16 B-25 bombers on a raid over Tokyo as retaliation for Pearl Harbor and a reminder that American bombers could still reach the Japanese homeland.

The drive to defeat Japan in the Pacific would cost many American and Japanese lives as the U.S. troops island-hopped closer and closer to the Japanese mainland. The Japanese finally surrendered in August 1945, after two U.S. B-29s dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese signed the surrender documents. Peace was now restored to the world—at least for a few years—and those fathers, sons, brothers, and sweethearts headed home.

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The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (80-G-16871, National Archives Identifier 520590)


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.


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