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80 Years of Infamy: The Heroes of Pearl Harbor


It was a lazy Sunday morning on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. In other hotspots around the world, war was raging without mercy, causing devastation for both combatants and civilians alike. Right now on Oahu, though, everything seemed perfectly peaceful. The sailors stationed at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor lounged aboard the decks of their ships. Nearby American soldiers were finding similar ease outside their billets. December 7, 1941 seemed to be a perfect day in the making, and it also brought some surprises. A group of tourists on an incoming U.S. liner watched with great interest as groups of planes flying in precise formation emerged out of the clouds above them. Any thoughts that this might be part of some impressive military exercise were horribly dashed, however, when those same planes began to rain down death and destruction upon the mighty battleships anchored at Pearl Harbor and the clustered bands of aircraft on the ground at Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows Fields. War had come to America at last, courtesy of the Empire of the Rising Sun.

December 7, 1941 will forever be “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said. On that fateful Sunday 80 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 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.

Fifteen sailors earned the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, 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. During the opening ten minutes of the onslaught, eight enemy torpedos hit the Oklahoma and the battleship began to sink. With the behemoth 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.

Fifty-one sailors were also awarded the Navy Cross, the naval service's second-highest decoration for valor under fire, for their heroism during the attack at Pearl Harbor. Mess Attendant Second Class Doris 'Dorie' Miller was one of those special warriors who distinguished himself during the mayhem. Stationed aboard USS West Virginia, Miller was gathering laundry just before the Japanese unleashed their fury against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. After helping to carry wounded sailors to safety, he was ordered to the bridge and used his strength again to move the mortally wounded captain to a more secure position. Miller, who had previously earned the distinction of becoming the USS West Virginia's heavyweight boxing champion, proceeded to take the fight to the enemy, manning an anti-aircraft machine gun and blasting away at Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition and was thus ordered to abandon ship. For his resolute bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942, becoming the first African American to receive that decoration. Two years later, Miller was killed in action when a torpedo from a Japanese submarine sank his ship, USS Liscome Bay, near Butaritari Island in the Pacific.

Doris Miller with his Navy Cross proudly pinned to his uniform. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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 toward 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 Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor awakened a sleeping giant. Congress voted 470 to 1 for war. Millions of Americans would step forward to fight, enduring every hardship imaginable across unforgiving battlefields on land, at sea, and over the air, going on to the very end to achieve "absolute victory" over Japan.

Sources After Pearl Harbor: The Race to Save the U.S. Fleet. 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.

The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II by Winston Groom.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.

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