The winds of war
The Second World War was a long time coming in the Pacific. In Japan, the military held the actual power, not the civilian government. The military had ambitions to gain control over all Asia and the Pacific. In 1931, Japan started on its territorial conquests by invading Manchuria and making it a vassal state. As usual with these conquests, the excuse was that Japan was protecting its vital interests.
Japan has almost no natural resources, especially coal and oil. These resources are vital elements for an industrial society and also for running a large military. In 1937, Japan invaded China. The British and the USA dominated trade with China. The invasion had two goals; break the British and US domination of trade with China and more importantly, gain control of China’s abundant natural resources. The invasion was more than brutal, the Japanese army moved from atrocity to atrocity as the invasion progressed across China. The most well-known is The Rape of Nanking, where the Japanese slaughtered all the men, raped all the women and forced mothers to watch as they bayonetted their babies.
Tensions between the US and Japan increased, especially as reports of Japans brutality began to appear in the American press. The American populace was against American involvement in the war in Europe, but President Roosevelt was convinced it was only a matter of time before the war came to the US.
In an effort to stop Japan expansion in Asia and attempt to maintain American dominance in the Pacific, President Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the US and stopped all deliveries of coal, iron, oil and steel to Japan. The embargo was coupled with an ultimatum; Japan out of China or the embargo remains in place. The Japanese military was not about to agree to this and their expansion across the Pacific continued, invading the Dutch Indonesian Islands to gain control of the rich oil fields there.
In early December 1941, Japan launched simultaneous attacks on Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Early in the morning of December 7, 1941, they attacked the Philippines (an American territory at that time) and Pearl Harbor on Hawaii.
These attacks caused Canada, Great Britain and the US to declare war on Japan. Four days later, Japans allies, Germany and Italy declared war on the US and a second world war was now a reality.
Pearl Harbor on O´ahu was the major American naval base in the Pacific. During the spring and summer of 1941, President Roosevelt sent three battleships from the Atlantic fleet to Pearl Harbor to strengthen the Pacific fleet and to act as a deterrent to Japan.
Japan countered this move by sending six aircraft carriers and support ships secretly across the Pacific to attack Pearl Harbor. The Japanese military was convinced that if they destroyed the fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Americans would back down and let Japan pursue its Asian conquests. The Japanese fleet arrived several hundred miles from Hawaii and early on Sunday, December 7, attacked.
There were two waves. The Japanese concentrated on hitting the battleships in the harbor and the airplanes on Hickam and Wheeler Fields. Of the eight battleships moored on “Battleship Row”, four, Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma and California sank. Nevada was hard hit but managed to sail herself aground. Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Maryland sustained damage, but were quickly repaired and back at sea within a couple of months. The California and West Virginia were raised and repaired. The Oklahoma was too badly damaged and cut up for scrap.
Several other ships, destroyers etc. were hit and sank. At Hickam and Wheeler Fields, over half of the 402 planes were destroyed, the rest damaged.
At the start of the attack, the Arizona was hit by a bomb that pierced her deck and made its way to the powder room. The resultant explosion tore the Arizona completely apart and she sank immediately. Almost half the Navy dead at Pearl Harbor died aboard the Arizona. The Navy decided not to try to raise the remnants of Arizona but let her lie as a monument. She is no longer on the list of ships on active duty. She belongs to the US National Park Service, but the Navy has retained the right to fly the American flag above the monument.
While the attack on Pearl Harbor was successful, when seen with Japanese eyes, militarily, it was a fiasco. Naval wars up to this time had been fought with lines of battleships facing off and shooting at each other until one side or the other emerged as the victor. The age of battleships was over. Aircraft carriers could lie many miles away and send waves of airplanes to attack the capital ships. By sinking the battleships in Pearl Harbor, Japan bought themselves some time, but even sinking the US Pacific Fleet was not a decisive blow. Japan concentrated on the ships and left all the vital infrastructure in place. The dry docks and repair facilities were untouched, as were the fuel storage facilities. In military terms – Japan would have been better off destroying the infrastructure than sinking battleships.
A visit to Pearl Harbor National Monument
Pearl Harbor National Monument encompasses a large area including the Arizona, the submarine Bowfin and the battleship USS Missouri.
The monument is a popular attraction and usually you need to order tickets ahead of time. We haven’t managed to do that, but we decide to drive out there and take our chances. The corona virus hasn’t hit us yet so no lock down and the park is open. Tourism has been affected so it is not as crowded as we feared and tickets are readily available.
As I’m buying the tickets, the sweet young woman behind the desk asks if I am a veteran. I laugh and say; yes, I’m a veteran, but not from the American military. I’m a veteran from the Danish army. Do I have my military ID? Of course not – why should I carry that? I’m a Danish veteran. I also forget to her that while I was in the army, it was only for five days. It took them five days to process my papers as a conscientious objector. She smiles right back at me and says; a veteran is a veteran and gives me the military discount – 40%.
I certainly thanked her – we poverty-stricken cruisers have to save where we can.
The area is huge and there are many exhibitions. One of them is a film about the attack and the guidebook recommends watching it before visiting the rest of the park. There is a line to see the movie, so we visit the Bowfin first.
The Bowfin was one of the bigger submarines and carried a crew of seventy-eight. There isn’t much room on board and therefore there were only bunks for half the crew. Everyone hotbunked, meaning when one sailor crawled out of a bunk, another crawled in. It is difficult to imagine living under these conditions. Certainly, this is no place to suffer from claustrophobia. There is also no place to go to be alone. When I think about all the sounds Capri makes when we sail, I don’t dare think about what noises you hear when you are several hundred feet below the surface. Every sound could mean the hull is breaking up.
As we tour the Bowfin, I can’t help but think the “dolphins” as submariners are known, must be made of special stuff. I couldn’t do it. Fresh water was always rationed – a navy shower once per week.
The subs could stay down for over forty-eight hours, but rarely did. They needed to surface to run their diesel engines to charge their batteries.
The Arizona lies where she sank with eleven hundred seventy-seven crew. The Arizona Monument is a simple white building over the ship.
You sail out to the Arizona. The tourists are quiet, as we have all just come from watching the movie about the attack. Over two thousand four hundred military persons died in the attack. Two Navy seamen, in sparkling white uniforms with knife sharp creases man the boat sailing us out to the monument.
The monument is touching in its simplicity. There is white building, resting on pilings that are sunk alongside the ship. No parts of the monument touch the ship. There are vertical openings as windows and the building stands in lonesome majesty with the American flag flying above. The floor is marble and at the wall on the end, the name of the eleven hundred seventy-seven crew who down with are ship are engraved.
In front of this large wall there is a smaller wall, with names and dates of some who have died since the tragedy. Who are they? The attack occurred early on a Sunday morning and that meant that not all the crew were on board – some were at church, some had a weekend pass. Many of these crew have felt guilty that they survived and didn’t go down with their shipmates. Those from the Arizona that survived the attack have been given the right to be buried here with their comrades if they want. So far, forty-four former crewmembers have chosen to be buried here. Divers from the Navy dive down and place in the urns in the wreck.
We stand and look into the water at the rusting vestiges of the ship. Oil still leaks from the wreck. Only the cannon turrets are above water. After an hour, the boat sails us back.
We’re the only passengers to the bus out to the Missouri. Despite the age of the battleships being over, many new battleships were built during the Second World War – the US launched four ships of the Iowa class, New Jersey, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. The rest have since been scrapped but the Missouri has been saved since it was on her decks that the Japanese capitulated and signed a peace agreement.
Make no mistake – this is a big battleship. The ship has been rebuilt several times since WWII, since it was on active duty in Korea and Vietnam. The sailors here had more space than those on the Bowfin.
Our visit to Pearl Harbor took the entire day and we were sated with impressions when we got back to Capri. A few days after our visit, the Park Service closed the Monument due Corona.