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December 7, 1941: "a date which will live in infamy"


December 7, 1941 will forever be “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said. On that fateful Sunday 78 years ago, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.” The Japanese strike against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii delivered a crushing blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, destroying or damaging nearly 20 vessels, including the eight battleships in port, and over 300 airplanes. American losses included 2,403 servicemen and civilians killed and 1,178 wounded. The unsettling day was filled with tragedy, but in the midst of the chaos, heroes emerged.

15 sailors earned the United States military’s highest decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor for their actions at Pearl Harbor. Among these selfless individuals was Seaman First Class James R. Ward, who was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma at the time of the attack. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “In the first ten minutes of the battle eight torpedoes hit the Oklahoma and it began to sink.” With the battleship capsizing, the order was given to abandon the vessel, but Ward remained in his darkened gun turret, holding a flashlight to guide his shipmates to safety. In doing so, the 20-year-old sailor sacrificed his life. Ward and 428 other Americans from the Oklahoma lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.

Seaman First Class James Richard Ward. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Including Ward, 10 of the 15 sailors who earned the Medal of Honor for their actions at Pearl Harbor were awarded the decoration posthumously. In the face of utter devastation, these men, among many others, showed that regardless of the circumstances, Americans fight and guide the way forward for each other until the very end.

While the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor inflicted massive damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, it was not a complete victory. When the attack occurred, the U.S. Navy’s only two aircraft carriers then in the Pacific were at sea and avoided destruction. The Japanese also failed to destroy Pearl Harbor’s naval stores and repair yards that would be vital to repairing the damaged fleet. As soon as the smoke cleared, operations began to salvage what had been lost or damaged and the majority of American battleships and other vessels struck during the Japanese raid would survive and eventually see service in World War II.

Damaged during the attack at Pearl Harbor, the USS Tennessee was repaired and returned to service in February 1942. In the photo above, the Tennessee is providing cover fire for Marines as they move towards the island of Okinawa in April 1945. (Photo Credit:

Recognizing that Japan’s plan to inflict a catastrophic blow against American sea power had fallen short, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, wrote in a letter, “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack…”

The American people were certainly angered and outraged, and they were ready to fight. On Monday, December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, rallying the nation with the immortal words: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941- a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Roosevelt stated that “very many American lives have been lost,” and recognized further Japanese aggression, reporting attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines and Wake and Midway Islands. With firmness, the president declared, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.”

President Roosevelt's famous words that rallied the nation the day after the attack at Pearl Harbor.

The attack at Pearl Harbor awakened a sleeping giant. Congress voted 470 to 1 for war and millions of Americans would enter the fray, enduring every hardship imaginable and going on to the very end to achieve absolute victory over Japan.

Sources Pearl Harbor.

Naval History and Heritage Command: James R. Ward.

Naval History and Heritage Command: Medal of Honor recipients for Pearl Harbor attack.

Oklahoma Historical Society: USS Oklahoma.

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