A few days from now, a little remembered day in history will be observed by very few. As the years go by we lose more and more of those who were alive when, "a date which will live in infamy," occurred. As their numbers dwindle, fewer and fewer Americans remember how close we came to being eliminated as a major military power on that day. With the loss of the military might of the United States, it is almost irrefutable that the rest of the world would have eventually fallen to the combined forces of Hirohito's Japan, Hitler's Germany, and Mussolini's Italy, collectively known as Axis.
Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937. In 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland. Both were reeling by 1941. The American territories of Wake, Guam, Midway, and Hawaii were threatened.
For some years, the Japanese had been building a military force that was the envy of many larger countries. Its equipment was top of the line and its soldiers believed that there was nothing worse than failure, and not only on a national level. They also believed that failure was a betrayal to their families, and even their ancestry. Even their own death was preferable to loss or even failure on an individual level.
In what proved to be a fateful move, the US fleet had been moved from California to Hawaii in 1940/41, as a response to Japanese expansionism.
In 1941, the Japanese forces launched attacks on Midway, Guam, Wake, Thailand, Malaya, Shanghai, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Guam, the Philippines, Burma, Borneo, Malaya, Wake, and Hong Kong fell within months.
At 7:47 on the sleepy Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the United States was officially sitting on the fence about entering the war overseas and was in negotiations with Japan. The decision about entering the war was made for them at 7:48 as 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes attacked Pearl Harbor. In 90 minutes, those planes damaged all eight of the Americans' battleships, sinking four. They sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, and more. They destroyed 188 aircraft. About 2,500 Americans were killed and more than 1000 were wounded.
The move, which was intended to neutralize the Pacific fleet, instead propelled President Franklin Roosevelt to give his famous speech referring to December 7 as, "a date which will live in infamy," and to declare war on Japan on December 8. Germany and Italy responded by declaring war on us on December 11, and Roosevelt reciprocated the same day.
Luckily, all three American aircraft carriers were absent from Pearl Harbor on the seventh, having just completed various missions. Back at Pearl, the battleship Arizona was sunk and remains in Pearl Harbor to this day. The Oklahoma was sunk and refloated but capsized and was lost while being towed for repairs. Two more, the West Virginia and the Nevada were badly damaged but were repaired and returned to service in 1944. The Tennessee and the Maryland were damaged but repaired and returned to service in early 1942. Only the Pennsylvania, although also damaged, was able to remain in service. As of noon of December 7, only that one operable battleship remained in the entire Pacific Fleet.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto is quoted as saying, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve". How prophetic those words were. The Americans were able to muster their forces, join with their allies around the world, and begin the efforts that would eventually end the aggressions of the Axis. But on that day, December 7, 1941, the outcome of the war was far from certain. On that day, in what could have been our darkest hour, Americans were galvanized to act.
On that day - Pearl Harbor Day - a date which will live in infamy.