Remembering Pearl Harbor: Bombing of Navy base killed 2,403 service members, launched U.S. into WWII

It’s been 76 years since the Empire of Japan struck Pearl Harbor in a surprise Sunday-morning attack that devastated the American Pacific Fleet, killed 2,403 service members and launched the United States into World War II.

 

Historians still contemplate the conditions that led to the violent confrontation.

Ron Milam, professor of military history at Texas Tech University and executive director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict, refers to sanctions that were tried by the United States as a means of curbing Japanese aggression in the Asian region.

“We had put an embargo on Japan — an oil embargo. We felt that some of the oil-producing areas down in the Dutch East Indies were vulnerable to Japan, and we controlled many of those,” he said.

“We actually put in an embargo, and we were threatening an even bigger embargo that would have shut off oil to Japan to feed their military machine.

“We call that sanctions, today.”

There already had been serious discussion about the wisdom of keeping the Pacific Fleet at San Diego or positioning it halfway across the Pacific Ocean at Hawaii where it wouldn’t have the benefit of support forces.

“We had watched Japan invade China, which at the time was having its own civil wars between the Communists and the Nationalists,” Milam said. “So, we were concerned about Southeast Asia.”

Milam said, “In those days there was no Central Intelligence Agency. Every branch of the government had its own intelligence … and none of them talked to each other.”

There was this threat from Japan, also:

“We had pretty good intelligence that their aircraft carriers made them incredibly mobile. And their attitudes toward this embargo that was going on — we should have known that something bad was going to happen somewhere.

“They went after the fleet, and 90 percent of the men on the Arizona were killed. The reason for that was that one of their aerial torpedoes hit the ammunition hold in the Arizona, and it blew up. That’s what killed everybody on the Arizona. But their targets were the fleet and also the airports that had our aircraft that they knew could take them on. They did a pretty good job of taking out the air assets also.

“They hit the hospital, and a lot of people were killed in the hospital. They didn’t target civilian targets just to be targeting them — they really were after the military assets because they knew if they could destroy the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, that gave them the opportunity to have enough time to build up their assets in the South Pacific.

“They knew it would be a long time before America could make it there, and it would give them time to take over all those islands in the Dutch East Indies.”

Even the organizers of the carrier-based attack, including Isoroku Yamamoto, had argued against it to the militarists of Japan:

“Yamamoto was a student at Harvard back in the 1920s, and he knew Americans. He knew what our response would be,” Milam said.

The American response to the attack was a battle to the total surrender of Japan, along with devastation of that country’s forces and much of its country along the way.

The war, begun as an attack on the American Pacific Fleet, ended in August 1945 with atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, two men are being posthumously awarded medals for helping save the lives of their fellow sailors.

The Navy said Monday the late Lt. j.g. Aloysious Schmitt is being recognized for sacrificing his own life while helping his shipmates escape their capsizing battleship. The USS Oklahoma chaplain is being awarded the Silver Star.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph George of the USS Vestal is being awarded the Bronze Star for saving the lives of several sailors from the USS Arizona. George tossed the sailors a rope they used to crawl to safety as flames engulfed the Arizona.

George died in 1996.

The Navy will present their families with the medals today.

Also today, a larger-than-life Doris Miller is making his final road trip to Waco.

A 9-foot-tall bronze statue depicting the Waco-born World War II hero is set to be unveiled on the banks of the Brazos River on Pearl Harbor Day.

The 4 p.m. unveiling ceremony at Bledsoe-Miller Park will feature local dignitaries, Miller family relatives and former crew members of the now-decommissioned USS Doris Miller.

The statue is a centerpiece of the Doris Miller Memorial, which has been years in the making and is still under construction. Officials have raised $1.2 million for the first phase of the memorial and are hoping the installation of the statue will help them raise an additional $600,000 to complete it with a stylized ship hull that will envelop the war hero.

“I think when people actually see it they will be excited about it,” said Gerald Powell, a Baylor Law School professor who has raised funds for the project. “They will be anxious to see Doris Miller home on the banks of the Brazos and see this project come to fruition.”

Memorial officials said they plan to dedicate Phase 1 on Memorial Day, and there’s a chance the whole project could be done by then.

Miller was the first black hero of World War II, and his story was used to recruit other African-Americans to the war effort. A mess attendant on the USS West Virginia stationed at Pearl Harbor, he dragged his injured captain to safety, then directed machine-gun fire at enemy aircraft as the ship sank.

He received the Navy Cross for his heroics, and recent decades have seen efforts to award him a posthumous Medal of Honor. He was later killed in combat while on a ship in the Pacific.

Miller was portrayed by actor Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”

The Doris Miller statue was created by Lubbock sculptor Eddie Dixon, who had it cast in bronze at a foundry in Loveland, Colo.

Doreen Ravenscroft, the Cultural Arts of Waco official who has spearheaded the memorial effort, said she thinks the community will be proud of the statue.

“From what I’ve seen, it looks absolutely beautiful,” she said. “The patina on it is a beautiful golden bronze color. I think it will reflect the light, and when it’s finally placed in its final position at the steel wall, it’s going to look totally amazing. … I’m really excited that it’s beginning to look like what we said was really going to happen.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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