On December 7, 1941, 78 years ago today, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a pre-emptive strike against the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt named “a date which will live in infamy.”
At the time of the attack the US was a neutral country, but it led to their formal declaration of war the next day, bringing them into World War II in an alliance with the British against the Japanese and the Germans.
The British and Allied forces in the South-East Asian theatre were having their own problems at the time. The Japanese had taken over the Korean peninsular, Manchuria and great swathes of China, then launched attacks on the French colonies of Indo-China, heading for the oil fields of Indonesia. In December 1941 and January 1942 they had conquered most of the Malayan peninsular, capturing 50,000 British troops. Between February 8 and 15 they laid siege to Singapore, the key British stronghold. The campaign was a decisive victory for the Japanese forces, forcing the surrender of 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops.
My own father became a prisoner of war at Singapore and spent the next three-and-a-half years building the infamous Burma Railway for the Japanese as a slave labourer. He did not even know that he had become a father, in June 1942, until many months later, when a letter from my mother finally got through.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called Singapore the “worst disaster” in British military history.
Pearl Harbour was attacked by 353 Japanese aircraft, launched from six aircraft carriers. Ninety minutes after it began, the attack was over. In total, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,143 wounded. Eighteen ships, including five battleships, were sunk or run aground. All but the USS Arizona were later raised and some even repaired and returned to service. Fortunately, the Japanese concentrated on battleships, which they believed would be key to the future of the war in the Pacific, and ignored the American aircraft carriers, which had put to sea earlier for exercises. Aircraft flown from air craft carriers were to become the vital to the eventual US victory in the area, but that was a long fight ahead.
As I write this, I am in Barbados, enjoying a break from the brutal Canadian winter. My wife and I will be celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary tomorrow, on December 8. Originally, we were planning to be wed on December 7, but because of the memory of Pearl Harbour, it seemed sensible to change the date. We love Barbados and have visited many times, but that is a story for another day.
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