Straine-On-Success — Aboard the USS Arizona December 7, 1941

Published on December 7, 2016

The battleship burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Seventy-five years ago today, the sun rose on Oahu a few minutes before 6:30. Later accounts vary in many details, but all agree that the day dawned fair—blue skies, wispy clouds, a fresh breeze. It was a quiet Sunday morning.

On the great naval base at Pearl Harbor, a battle-of-the-bands competition had been held the evening before. American battleships carried 20-man bands, and in a semifinal two weeks earlier the USS Arizona’s had qualified for the final round. The concert on Dec. 6 was a second semifinal, and the Arizona’s musicians attended only to watch and listen.

Next morning, they were back aboard ship. When “first call to colors” was bugled just before eight, the band formed up on the fantail to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But before they struck up, there came the drone of approaching aircraft.

Astonishingly—incredibly—low-flying planes, bearing the distinctive red “meatball” insignia, appeared, dropping torpedoes and dive bombing. Arizona’s bandsmen rushed to their battle stations. The Coast Guard’s motto is semper paratus, always ready, but in 1941 peace-loving America was minime paratus, very little prepared, even though Europe had been at war for over two years and Japan for more than four.

“The Navy is not going to be caught napping,” the secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, had promised a mere three days earlier. The Japanese attack—boldly conceived, assiduously plotted and rehearsed, shamelessly perfidious—torpedoed not only battleships, but American complacency.

Japan’s great victory, however, was a catastrophic miscalculation. Never since have Americans been so collectively aroused, ignited and determined. The empire’s doom was assured even before the attacking aircraft had returned to their carriers 200 miles north of Oahu. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Japanese fleet and architect of the attack, feared as much. If ordered to go to war with America, he had warned, “I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it went on for two or three years.”

In exactly six months—June 7, 1942—a shattered Japanese strike force would retreat from Midway, leaving four aircraft carriers on the bottom of the Pacific. Yamamoto survived Pearl Harbor by less than two years: American pilots, fittingly, ambushed his plane during an inspection tour of Japanese bases.

Hearing of Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill in beleaguered Britain gloated: “Hitler’s fate was sealed,” while the Japanese “would be ground to powder.” And so they were.

But for the 2,400 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor, there would be no victory celebration. At battle quarters, Arizona’s bandsmen did not fiddle. When general quarters sounded, they dropped their cornets and clarinets and hurried to the ammunition hoists beneath the forward turrets, where they handled the heavy powder bags for the ship’s 14-inch guns.

At nearby Tripler Army Hospital, Army nurse Anna Busby was herself a patient that morning, with an infected cheek. Hearing explosions, she rushed out to a lanai to look. “My God! The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor!” another nurse exclaimed. “Well, we will all be needed on duty,” Anna replied. She doffed her patient’s gown and donned her nurse’s uniform. “You can’t go anywhere with that red face,” the chief nurse said. “You’d better take charge of the women’s ward.” And so, Anna recalled, “I reported on duty, took the report, and now I was in charge of the women’s ward, where I was a patient in the last hour.”

Only minutes after the attack began, a Japanese bomb hit the Arizona, triggering a volcanic explosion in the forward magazines. The ship broke in half and quickly sank. Almost 1,200 sailors and Marines, including all 21 musicians, died.

We sleep peacefully in our beds at night, it has been said, because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. But few of the sailors on the Arizona were rough men. Many were homesick young recruits, 18- and 19-year-old boys from rural and working-class America. One bandsman had enlisted the year before at 16. Arizona’s dead remain entombed in their sunken ship, America’s most poignant war memorial.

Mr. Garnett is a professor of English literature at Gettysburg College.


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