Remembering Pearl Harbor as 75th anniversary nears

LYNDHURST –

The crew of the USS Arizona battleship was due to depart Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941, for a stateside holiday sojourn in San Diego.

As fate would have it, however, they never made the trip.

Because, on Dec. 7, “Once the transmission came to attack at 7:45 a.m., 1,177 U.S. sailors and Marines[of a total 1,500] aboard the Arizona had 22 minutes left to live.”

It took nine minutes for the vessel to go under.

That’s how educator James P. Kane described that particular outcome of the unprecedented attack on the U.S. naval base in Oahu, Hawaii, by Japanese forces.

On the heels of the battle’s 75th anniversary, Kane – who served with the 3rd Marine Division from 1955 to 1958 and as a captain in the Reserves through 1962 – offered a lecture/slide show on“Remembering Pearl Harbor & The War Years” at the Lyndhurst Public Library last Wednesday.

“As a Marine, then as an infantry officer with the 1stBrigade, I sailed in and out of Pearl before the [Arizona] Memorial was built [in 1962],” Kane said. “It was just a hulk sitting out in the harbor in 35 feet of water. Everybody on deck stood at attentionand saluted as we went by.”

Survivors of the Arizona are permitted, upon their death, to have their ashes consigned to the ship “so they can rest with their shipmates,” said Kane. “So far, 23 have done it. Five are still alive.”

But, of course, the Arizona and her crew weren’t the only casualties on that grim Sunday morning.

As Kane related, some 2,400 sailors and Marines perished, along with 35 civilians, three battleships were sunk, four others were badly damaged and 340 planes were lost that day.

But many of the men aboard the USS Oklahoma probably suffered what Kane called the “worst deaths” when, after the ship was blown apart and capsized, they were “entrapped in compartments below decks” and ended up suffocating after several days of desperately struggling to free themselves.

The Japanese attack force, Kane said, was believed to be “the largest ever assembled,” with 33 ships, including six aircraft carriers carrying over 400 planes, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, nine destroyers, 28 submarines and eight oil tankers to refuel the fleet, all under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

Nagumo’s supervisor, Naval War Commander Isoroko Yamamoto, had misgivings about the attack but was overruled by the High Command. (Both were later to die during the war.)

Ironically, the first casualties of the attack were 12 Japanese deckhands who were “washed overboard” in heavy seas as the fleet navigated through the Pacific.

Before the Japanese High Command authorized the mission, it sent a Japanese cruise liner to Honolulu in October as a test run and actually dropped off spies on the island to help guide the fleet when the planes were ultimately launched, Kane said.

On Dec. 7, Kane said, the attack on Pearl came in two waves, each lasting about an hour, with the first initiated at 7:45 or 7:47 a.m.”

As the planes readied their approach to the targets, Japanese Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, air leader, whose plane carried horizontal red-and-yellow striping on its tail, transmitted the attack signal: “Tora, Tora, Tora.

The second wave was launched at 9 a.m. and by the time it was over, most of the U.S. Pacific fleet lay in ruins, as evidenced by the pervasive smoke and flames billowing from the wrecks, and the loss of lives, marked by the masses of white sailor hats floating on the oil-slicked harbor waters.

In the National Cemetery of the Pacific Memorial in Honolulu are the remains of more than 600 Americans shot, drowned and/or burned at Pearl. All were unidentified and buried in a mass grave.

No one knew who they were, Kane said, because they weren’t wearing “dog tags” which they weren’t required to do because they were non-combatants since America was not yet at war.  

Japanese military strategists left nothing to chanceInitially convinced of the merit of using torpedoes in an aerial attack, they had second thoughts after learning that the depth of the harbor waters at Pearlwould be too shallow for conventional torpedoes because once fired, they’d plunge into the bottom of the river floor. 

So engineers at a plant in Nagasaki – which would later be the target of an American atomic bomb reconfigured the torpedoes with fins so they would run straight at the target.

To ensure accuracy, Japanese pilots flew in 30 feet above the enemy ships before releasing their deadly “cargo”.

So well was the attack planned, the Japanese lost only 29 aircraft.

The Imperial fleet returned for a home front celebration in Hiroshima – the first Japanese cityselected for atomic reprisal by the U.S.

Why Pearl? In its fighting with China, Japan was running out of oil and rubber and it wanted to invade Burma and Thailand and felt that if they could significantly damage the U.S. fleet, the American government would sign a treaty and not interfere, Kane said.

While the Pearl invasion was a “tactical success” because “it set America on its heels,” said Kane, “but it was a strategic error” because the Japanese failed to bomb either the island’s American submarinebase, ship drydocks or oil farms.

And, Kane said, “they misread that we had the guts to respond.”

When Japan surrendered, Kane said it’s likely that the ceremony would have been held aboard the battle-scarred USS New Jersey if it weren’t for the fact that Harry Truman had become President and, given that he was from Missouri, well, guess which ship was chosen for this important event even though she had seen less than a year in service.

Asked about conspiracy theories alleging that U.S. top-level political and military figures knew the attack was coming but did nothing to stop it as an excuse to get America into the war, Kane told The Observer, “There is no credible evidence that either President [Franklin] Roosevelt or Admiral/Chief of Naval Operations [Ernest] King knew about it in advance.

“And once Nugamo had those planes in position, there was nothing we could’ve done to stop them.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.