“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

US #2559i from the 1941: World at War stamp sheet.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked American troops at Pearl Harbor, catapulting the US into World War II.

The possibility of war between America and Japan had been a concern since the 1920s and was made worse following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931.  In the coming years, Japanese expansion into China and attacks on US vessels led America and its Allies to lend their support to China, further damaging relations with Japan.  Once the US halted oil exports to Japan, the Japanese saw this as an act of aggression and began planning to invade the Dutch East Indies.

US #2559i – Silk Cachet First Day Cover.

In an attempt to fix relations, the US and Japan held a series of negotiations.  However, neither side could agree on terms. Proposals and counter-proposals were sent back and forth.  But the Japanese attack fleet, which had begun planning the battle at the start of the year, set out for Pearl Harbor on November 26.

Contrary to their plans, the eventual attack came before a formal declaration of war.  The Japanese had sent the 5,000 word “14-part message” in advance of the attack, but it took too long to transcribe and was not delivered in time.

Item #M8057 – Antigua sheet issued for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

The arriving Japanese fleet consisted of six aircraft carriers, 408 planes, and five submarines, each with its own midget submarine.  The midget submarines were launched toward Pearl Harbor around 1:00 am on December 7. An American minesweeper saw the periscope from one of these midget submarines and informed the destroyer Ward.  The Ward then sank one of the other midget submarines at 6:45, firing the first American shots in the Pacific War.

Item #M8053 – Gambia sheet picturing the events of 1941, including the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Shortly after 6 am, the first Japanese planes departed their aircraft carriers for Pearl Harbor.  About an hour later, as they approached Oahu, US Army radars detected the planes.  The radar post was still in training mode and its staff new to the technology.  Two operators informed their superior of the approaching aircraft, but as they were expecting 12 B-17 bombers to be delivered from California, he told them to ignore it.

Item #M11791 pictures some of the ships present at Pearl Harbor.

Near Oahu, the Japanese shot down several US planes, one of which managed to radio out a warning, though it was hard to understand.  Ships in the water also sent out warnings, but they were still being processed by the time the Japanese bombers arrived at Pearl Harbor.

The attack commenced at 7:53 am, with the first ship being struck five minutes later.  Japanese torpedo bombers led the first wave, targeting battleships, while dive-bombers went after the air bases on Oahu, including Hickam and Wheeler Fields, as well as the US Army Air Force fighter base.  Aboard the ships, US sailors awoke to alarms and explosions but quickly got to their positions to man guns or otherwise protect their ships and crew.  On land, men in the barracks had a similar startling awakening, and also rushed to take up arms.  A few even managed to get in their planes and fight back in the sky.

Item #M11792 was issued for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

About an hour after the attack began, the second wave of about 170 Japanese planes arrived over Pearl Harbor and unleashed more destruction on American ships, aircraft, and hangars.  Just 90 minutes after it began, the attack on Pearl Harbor was over.  Casualties were high – 2,403 American civilians, Navy, Army, and Marine personnel were killed and another 1,778 were wounded.  There were 18 ships sunk or run aground, including five battleships. Though 13 of these ships were eventually repaired and returned to service to fight later in the war. Additionally, 188 of the 390 aircraft were destroyed with another 159 damaged.  Japanese losses were much lower – 64 dead, one captured, and 29 planes lost. They considered launching a third wave of attacks but ultimately decided against it.  The Japanese did, however, attack the Philippines hours later.

Marshall Islands #1147 features a dramatic painting of the attack.

The day after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress and the nation, calling the event “a date which will live in infamy.”  He called on Congress to formally declare war on Japan, which it did within an hour. Days later, on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on America, as stipulated in their Tripartite Pact with Japan.  The US, in return, declared war on those nations the same day.

Back in Pearl Harbor, rescue teams searched for survivors, then salvage operations began.  Navy divers spent 20,000 hours underwater patching holes, moving debris, and pumping water out of ships so they could be re-floated.  Within six months, they had five battleships and two cruisers afloat and ready to go back to the mainland for repairs.  Not all ships were as easily salvaged.  Most notably, the USS Arizona was too badly damaged and could not be removed or returned to service.  Some parts were salvaged for other ships, but the bulk of the Arizona remained at the harbor floor.  Years later, a memorial was built on the water above the wreckage, paying tribute to all those that fought at Pearl Harbor, and especially those that lost their lives.

US #4873 – The USS Arizona Memorial was opened in 1962.

Though a devastating blow to the American people, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a victory for the Japanese.  While they hit their objectives that day, they did not cripple the American military as they had hoped and did not prevent America from fighting back.  One Japanese commander claimed, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”  The American military was lucky in a sense because their aircraft carriers were out to sea that day and therefore did not suffer any damage from the attack.  Had they been there, it could have been at least a year before America would strike back against the Japanese.  Additionally, while the Japanese targeted some land locations, they did not hit the repair shops or fuel depots, enabling American forces to have a much quicker recovery.

US #4873 – First Day Cover with Digital Color Postmark.

Following the recovery efforts from the attack, several Americans were honored for their bravery.  There were 15 Medals of Honor, 15 Navy Crosses, 53 Silver Stars, four Navy and Marine Corps Medals, one Distinguished Flying Cross, four Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, and three Bronze Star Medals.

Click here for more about Pearl Harbor.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. The night of Dec 7, 1941 found one man going to bed happy. That was Winston Churchill
    because he KNEW that he could persuade FDR into going after Germany first and playing
    a holding game against Japan.

  2. I was a 17-year old high school senior on Sunday, Dec 7, 1945. We were all excused from classes in school the next morning so that we could all listen on radios to Roosevelt’s speech to Congress. One year later, I joined the Navy when they lowered the draft age to 18. Everybody was a part of WW2, All of our industries converted to military production. Nationwide rationing of foods, No new cars.or other goods for the general public. We were all part of something big.

  3. Thank you for your service!
    My Dad was in the Army Air Corp and was on Tinian the day they brought the Bomb over to be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
    You guys made America a great nation.

  4. A great story about a known event. The story, the movie arouses me. People on both sides fight and give away their lives for their country. The destruction, turmoil are at peak during war. Every human life is expendable at time of war for common goal. One has to be lucky to live in times of peace.

  5. As further tribute to those who fought at Pearl that morning, the Japanese themselves were stunned at the rapidity and ferocity of the American response. They had estimated, based on their own extensive combat experience, that it would take hours for the Americans to begin fighting back, by which time they planned on being long gone. Instead, the American response came within minutes, and caused higher Japanese casualties than they had anticipated. This played a major role in their decision not to launch a third wave, which most likely would have knocked out the repair facilities and fuel depots. No wonder so many commendations for bravery were awarded.

  6. My Mom and Dad were living on Oahu in Waikiki on Sun Dec 7, 1941. I was not born until 1943, but my Mom told me about that fateful morning. The radio woke her up at 8AM with the announcer saying, “The island is under attack! Take cover. This is no drill!!” She said she was really scared as there were blackouts, and later many of the soldiers on the streets were Asian/Japanese. At first, she thought there had been an invasion. My father picked up a sailor in Waikiki and drove him to Pearl Harbor that morning.
    My Dad managed the Bata Shoe Store in downtown Honolulu at Fort and King Street and my Mom helped out. She told me about the trucks that went by carrying coffins!
    She also mentioned Sat night Dec 6. When she and my Dad closed the store at 9PM and went to Waikiki she said, “Waikiki was all white with sailor uniforms. The fleet was in!”
    Going to the Arizona memorial today, for me, is a spiritual experience, especially when it is quiet. Inside the white memorial are listed the names of the sailors from the Arizona who died in the attack. And looking over the side, you can still see an oil slick rising up from below!

  7. A few months ago I was in New Orleans for my Vietnam Marine Corps unit reunion. We spent an entire day at the World War II Museum. A must see destination.

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