Has it really been 71 years?
I was 4 years old, and the old unpainted clapboard house on the red-clay Silver Bluff Road where I lived with my grandparents was ringing with shouts from older members of my extended family: “War! War! We’re in war!”
As far back as my memory extended, I had heard of the Germans as the world’s bad guys, and figured the U.S. was at war with them. On this day – Dec. 8, 1941, the morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor – I heard of a new bunch of villains: the Japs.
Before Pearl Harbor, the general belief in the United States was that the Japanese were little yellow people who couldn’t see straight and therefore couldn’t fly aircraft very well, and anyway their airplanes were junk, just like the cheap toys they sent us.
When the sun set on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans knew that the Japanese could see straight and aim straight and were flying, with considerable skill, some pretty good airplanes.
They had sneaked, undetected, six carriers and their supporting vessels to a point north of Oahu, from which they launched their airplanes. Their bombs and torpedoes were well aimed.
When the planes returned to their carriers, a substantial portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was either burning or resting on the bottom at Pearl Harbor.
President Franklin Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
But Stanley Weintraub’s 1991 book, “Long Day’s Journey into War,” hints at some traces of honor among the Japanese.
Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura, a former admiral who had an American wife, had been involved in negotiations with Washington that obviously were intended only to buy time for the Japanese.
At length, Nomura asked to be excused from the negotiations: “I don’t want to go on with this hypocrisy, deceiving other people.”
Nomura was one of two Japanese diplomats who delivered to Secretary of State Cordell Hull an ultimatum that was supposed to provide a rationale for the Japanese attack. It was timed to be delivered at 1 p.m. Washington time – just prior to the planned attack.
Because of delays in translating it, the Japanese were more than an hour late delivering it to Hull. But Americans had already intercepted and translated the document, and Hull knew what it said.
Nomura’s government hadn’t bothered to inform its diplomats that it was attacking the United States, so the ambassador delivered the ultimatum unaware that Pearl Harbor was being bombed.
He was taken aback by Hull’s blistering reaction. The normally courtly Tennessean fumed that he had “never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”
The international response to the raid was fascinating. Adolf Hitler slapped his thighs with glee, calling the raid “a turning point.” But he would have preferred an attack on Russia, where his troops were at a real turning point: Their brutal invasion of the Soviet Union had been frozen in its tracks by the Russian winter, and reserves of men and equipment undreamed of by the Nazi leader were beginning to roll the Wehrmacht back toward Germany.
Winston Churchill saw Pearl Harbor as the salvation of England. It would bring the U.S. into the war against Germany; without the U.S. at its side, Britain was unlikely to hold out.
In Japan, the raid was hailed as a huge success by the public and by government leaders. The newspaper Hochi editorialized: “What is destined to come has at last come. The Japanese people have long waited for this day. . . Let us scourge Britain and America, the enemies of peace.”
Radios and loudspeakers blared out the macabre but prophetic hymn:
“Across the sea, corpses soggy in the water;
“Across the mountains, corpses heaped upon the field.
“I shall die only for the Emperor;
“I shall never look back.”
But there were voices of realism in Japan.
Seventy-year-old political scientist Kiheiji Onozukap wrote in his diary: “The good ship Japan has just been sunk.”
Former Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye, who had been replaced by the war-minded Hideki Tojo, gave his reaction at a Tokyo club: “It is a terrible thing that has happened. I know that a tragic defeat awaits us at the end. I can feel it. Our luck will not last more than two or three months, at best.”
Konoye’s prediction was only slightly off. Within weeks, many of the ships sunk at Pearl Harbor were raised, repaired and sent into action. Four months later, a group of twin-engine B-25 bombers took off from the carrier Hornet and dropped bombs on Tokyo. Six months after Pearl Harbor, four of the six carriers that had launched the raid were on the bottom of the Pacific, sunk during the Battle of Midway.
Finally, on Aug. 6, 1945, residents of Hiroshima watched an American B-29 drop a package attached to a parachute. Another package parachuted down from a second B-29.
The first package contained a nuclear bomb. It exploded and demolished the city. When survivors reported the second parachute, Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida, who had led the first wave of attackers on Pearl Harbor, was asked to search the ruins for it, on the chance it might have conveyed a second bomb that failed to go off.
After a lengthy search, Fuchida found the package: a bundle of scientific instruments designed to measure the performance of the bomb.
In the heady days before the war turned inexorably against Japan, a schoolgirl, reared as a pacifist, recalled a popular song she heard from her elementary-school teacher’s portable radio:
“Siren, siren, air raid, air raid,
“What is it to us?
“Enemy planes are only mosquitos or dragonflies.”
Her school was in Nagasaki.
Readers may reach Gene Owens through e-mail at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.