80 years after the attack: The shock of Pearl Harbor

Status: 07.12.2021 10:30 a.m

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to enter World War II, became a national trauma – and fueled racist hatred. The events are still having an impact 80 years later.

By Katharina Wilhelm, ARD Studio Los Angeles

December 7, 1941 is a bright Sunday morning on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Many soldiers are having breakfast when the surprise attack from the air takes place: “Suddenly there was a commotion everywhere, glass smashed against my head and shoulders. I thought a plane had crashed and was running down to the hangar,” recalls war veteran Earl Kohler, called “Chuck”, at the first minutes of the attack. The attack by the Japanese fighter-bombers came as a surprise to the US Navy base soldiers. A reporter reporting the attack over the phone repeated: “It’s not a joke, this is real war.”

The attack was preceded by tensions between Japan and the United States that had lasted for several years. In two waves, 350 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. In less than two hours, five battleships were sunk, another three badly hit, and 188 aircraft destroyed. More than 2,400 people died in the attack.

US Entry: “Crucial to War”

The next day, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed his people and spoke of the “date of shame” when Japan suddenly and deliberately attacked the United States.

According to American historian Rob Citino, Pearl Harbor was a turning point for the United States: “It drew the big, neutral United States into a war. A few days later, the Germans and Italians declared war on the United States. The United States would be there I’m confident I never went to war without the shock of Pearl Harbor.”

The Japan historian Takuma Melber from the University of Heidelberg takes a similar view. He has also researched Pearl Harbor, his book Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Attack and US Entry into the War has just been translated into English. “Pearl Harbor is the moment in World War II that connects the two theaters of war, Asia and Europe,” he says. “As in World War I, America’s entry into the war was decisive for the outcome of World War II.”

Pearl Harbor veteran Chuck Kohler (pictured left) salutes with comrade Don Long at a memorial service (2018 photo).

Bild: picture alliance/AP Photo

Racial hatred against Asian Americans

Not only the dynamics of the world war changed. Pearl Harbor had dramatic repercussions for Asian Americans, especially those of Japanese descent. About 120,000 of them were sent to internment camps. One of the best known among them is the actor George Takei, known as Sulu from the Star Trek series “Starship Enterprise”. He lived in such a camp from the age of five to eight.

Racism against Asians is still very present in the USA today. This year, thousands of Asian Americans took to the streets to protest hate speech and hate speech. A legacy of Pearl Harbor and other wars against Asian countries, including Korea and Vietnam, Takuma Melber says: “Unfortunately, I think the reality is that certain American military personnel or even the average US citizen all Asians to some extent lumped together,” he says.

Veterans are more than 100 years old

On the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, the Pearl Harbor Memorial is a tourist magnet. Among other things, visitors can take a look at the sunken “USS Arizona”, on which more than 1000 people died.

Pearl Harbor has become a memorial and tells of the beginning and end of the war. With the destruction of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US war effort began – on the “USS Missouri”, which is only a few hundred meters away, it ended four years later.

The memorial is becoming increasingly important for future generations because when the US flag is raised on December 8th and the victims of the Pearl Harbor attack are commemorated, a few dozen survivors will be gathered again. But it is probably the last round date on which contemporary witnesses come together: many of them are already more than a hundred years old.

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