Hawaii: Pearl Harbor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This historic harbor was the site of the Japanese air attack of 1941 that led to the entry of the United States into World War II. The three-fingered inlet was an essential part of Hawaii’s fishing and agriculture industries. It is the home of the Pacific Fleet and the location of the USS Arizona Memorial, a monument to the victims of the Pearl Harbor attack, run by the National Park Service in conjunction with the U.S. Navy.

Site Office

USS Arizona Memorial

1 Arizona Memorial Place

Honolulu, HI 96818

ph.: (808) 422-0561

Web site: www.nps.gov/usar/

To history buffs and Americans who were living in 1941, the words “Pearl Harbor” have become synomyous with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy”: December 7, 1941, when the Japanese took the sleepy island of Oahu by surprise one early Sunday morning and bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. At the time, Hawaii was a territory of the United States, and Pearl Harbor was an American naval base. The base had been strengthened in 1940, in response to the Axis Pact, which established a coalition of states headed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) had established Japan as a world power. Japan’s aggression in Indochina and Thailand had led to extreme tension with the United States, and the rise of General Hideki Tojo to prime minister in October, 1941, marked the height of militarist power in Japan.

Japanese Preparations for War

U.S. political and military leaders had largely ignored intimations that the Japanese might attack the country at some point. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expected the United States to go to war with Germany eventually, but he believed the Japanese could be kept at bay through negotiations and small concessions. Most of the American public, as well, gave more thought to the situation in Europe than to that in Asia, and many Americans were determined that the country stay out of any conflict. There was not unanimous support for war among Japanese military leaders, either. Admiral Takijiro Onishi, for one, doubted the wisdom of going to war with the United States, and advised his fellow strategists to remain open to compromise. He was overruled, however, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto urged that Pearl Harbor be the target of the initial Japanese attack. The maneuver was scheduled for November 21, then delayed until December 7 to allow for more training time.

The Japanese military unit that struck Pearl Harbor was a task force called Kido Butai. Between 6:00 and 7:15 a.m. on December 7, the force’s six aircraft carriers discharged 360 planes that made a coordinated attack in two phases. Their primary target was the U.S. Pacific Fleet–the battleships and aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor. The carriers were at sea that morning, but the warships were moored in their usual places at what was known as Battleship Row.

The Attack

The attack began about 7:55 a.m. A total of nineteen ships were wrecked. The USS Arizona suffered the worst damage and the heaviest casualties. An armor-piercing bomb exploded in its forward magazine, and the ship burst into flames and sank with more than 1,100 men trapped on it. In all, 2,403 Americans were killed in the attack, which was over by 9:15 a.m. Besides the ships, the bombers also struck military air stations and other installations, including Schofield Barracks, the U.S. Army’s largest post at the time.

With Americans outraged, and lingering strains of isolationism gone, the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan, and Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The attack also made many U.S. residents suspicious of anyone of Japanese descent, and led to the internment of many Japanese Americans in relocation camps. There also were charges of negligence against those responsible for Pearl Harbor’s defense. A commission eventually absolved President Roosevelt, General Walter C. Short, and Admiral H. F. Kimmel of blame but censured the War Department and the Department of the Navy.

December 7, 1941, is often used by historians as a marker not only for the beginning of war for the United States but also as a historical, political, and social watershed, particularly for Hawaii. When the Japanese bombers attacked the harbor and surrounding environs, they shocked and devastated the islands and entirely changed the social and policital structure of the area. At this point, the military seized control of Hawaii, away from the few, mainly white landowners who had been progressively displacing the Hawaiian leaders since the first point of European contact in 1771. At 4:30 p.m. on December 7, 1941, Governor Joseph P. Poindexter declared martial law and put Lieutenant General Walter C. Short in command. Martial law lasted until October, 1944.

History of the Harbor

The history of Pearl Harbor preceding 1941 should not be overlooked; the transformation of the harbor from an oyster-breeding site to a major military base reflected the changing economic, political, and social landscape of the islands. In some respects, the surprise of 1941 sped up a process of exploration, contact, and exploitation that had begun two centuries before.

When Europeans explored the Hawaiian Islands in the eighteenth century, they heard the locals speak of Wai Momi, or “river of pearls,” at that time a day’s horseback ride from downtown Honolulu. Sometimes called Harbor of Ewa after the river that flowed into it, this three-fingered loch had the Hawaiian name Ke awa lau o Puuloa, or “the leaf-shaped harbor of the Puuloa district.” The harbor was surrounded and nourished by many small fishponds that dotted the shoreline.

Hawaiians used the harbor for their advanced fishing industry. According to legend, Chief Keaunui ordered his underlings to cut through the coral reef at the mouth of the inlet to allow his warrior canoes to enter. Fish used the passage as well, and large traps were built to capture them. The Hawaiian traps were said to be unique: funnel-shaped with a lead wall directing the fish to a walled-in pocket where they were caught. The traps were submerged at high tide and the fish were most likely removed with nets. The traps were also constructed to take advantage of natural ebb and flow of the tides and currents. The harbor was also home to a large number of oysters, whose pearls were of no apparent value or interest to the islanders.

Outside Intrusions

In 1793, George Vancouver conducted surveys of the northwest coast of America and Hawaii and brought the first cattle and sheep to the islands as gifts to King Kamehameha the Great in 1793 and 1794. Vancouver, under King George III of England, sent men to investigate the spacious bays of Oahu, which they found to be sandy and abundant with coral and oysters. Once King Kamehameha learned that the Europeans placed a significant value on pearls, he put the harbor under royal control and used the pearl sales to enrich the treasury.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, British, French, Russian, and American expeditions showed interest in Hawaii, and some white settlers established plantations and ranches there. The United States looked with disfavor on European interest in Hawaii; in 1842 President John Tyler declared that the Monroe Doctrine applied to the eastern Pacific islands, and specifically stated that European nations should not interfere with the Hawaiian monarchy. By the end of the century, the United States would take control of Hawaii.

The sugar industry was booming in Hawaii in the late 1800’s and began to take its toll on the River of Pearls. As oysters thrive in water slighly less saline than normal ocean water, the mix of fresh water from the Ewa River and the extant water in the Pearl lochs made for a perfect mix. The surrounding lands were being cleared by Europeans, and the consequent devastation caused silt to flow into the waters. This silt, combined with the pollution from the sugar mills, caused the Hawaiian oyster crop to decline at a steady pace.

U.S. Involvement

It would be the agriculture industry, with its emphasis on sugar, that would bring the United States to Pearl Harbor in the late nineteenth century. The Americans convinced the Hawaiian rulers that eliminating tariffs on Hawaiian products entering the United States would cause the islands to prosper and told King Kalakaua that granting the United States the exclusive right to use Pearl Harbor would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. King Kalakaua reluctantly agreed, with the thought that in the long run his kingdom would benefit and prosper from the wealth of its agriculture. In 1887 the United States was granted the exclusive right to enter Pearl Harbor and to improve the site.

The Hawaiians had not passively ceded their lands and rights. In 1873, Major General J. M. Schofield (for whom the U.S. Army post is named) had arrived in Hawaii and reported that Pearl Harbor was a fine one with deep water extending inland, but that coral reefs blocked the entrance. Potential U.S. control of the harbor was discussed at that time, but met with great opposition from the Hawaiians. Their opinion was voiced in a poem in Honolulu newspaper Nuhou, and included the lines

I am a messenger forbidding youTo give away Puuloa (Pearl Harbor)Be not deceived by merchants,They are only enticing you.

Nevertheless, the Americans would persist, and it was with Schofield’s recommendation and influence that the United States was granted rights in 1887. The resultant increased export of sugar to the United States caused the number of sugar plantations in Hawaii to increase tenfold from the 1870’s; with the plantations came the importation of Asian peasants to work the fields, and the financial and political power fell into the hands of the few haole (white European) landowners.

While the agriculture industry flourished, the military, reliant on the U.S. government, was caught in a snare of legislation: It would be twenty years before Congress appropriated funds for dredging the coral from the harbor entrance. Although General Schofield had estimated a minimum cost of $250,000, the legislators authorized only $100,000. The delay can be explained, in part, by the wavering U.S. opinion of the value of Pearl Harbor as a naval base.

U.S. Military Expansion in the Pacific

In 1898, the Spanish-American War resulted in the United States gaining bases in the Philippines and Guam, causing the military to play close attention to Hawaii’s strategic location. The United States annexed Hawaii the same year. In 1900, the first dredging at Pearl Harbor got under way; the first U.S. Navy small vessel to enter and anchor at Pearl Harbor was USS Petral on January 11, 1905.

Military posts along the shores of Pearl Harbor began to be established at the turn of the century. On July 6, 1901, land at Kuahua Island on the last loch was purchased and set up for ammunition storage. In 1904, the first permanent detachment of U.S. Marines arrived. In 1909 a contract was extended to the San Francisco Bridge Company for a dry dock, which collapsed four years into its construction. A new dock was begun two years later and was officially dedicated on August 21, 1919. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels called it the “backbone of naval power in the Pacific.” Naval aviation at Pearl Harbor began the same year: the USS Chicago arrived with four seaplanes and forty-nine officers under Lieutenant Commander R. D. Kirkpatrick. In 1922, thirty storage tanks for oil were built at Pearl Harbor for the Navy.

Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Navy

Pearl Harbor became the home of the Pacific Fleet and Schofield Barracks, the largest army post in the United States. After World War I, between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand men were stationed in Hawaii, with the dry dock at Pearl Harbor involving a payroll of sixty thousand dollars per month for almost ten years. After the 1941 attack, Pearl Harbor’s facilities were repaired, and it became the most important U.S. base in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, the military continued to be a major power in Hawaii and its most significant source of income; coupled with tourism, it was to become a major Hawaiian industry, replacing agriculture.

It took more than twenty years after the Pearl Harbor attack for a memorial to be erected on the site. There was no lack of suggestions for memorials, but there were numerous funding problems. Finally, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, a mix of federal, state (Hawaii became a state in 1959), and private funds came together; private funding sources included an appeal made on the television program This Is Your Life and a benefit concert by Elvis Presley. The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day of 1962, and was put under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy.

The USS Arizona Memorial is a simply executed white concrete structure designed by Alfred Preis, an Austrian, who was taken prisoner by Americans in Hawaii in 1941 and interned in the prisoner of war camp close by on Sand Island. The 184-foot-long memorial spans but does not touch the sunken battleship USS Arizona. The men who died on the ship lie interred in its hull. The memorial is supported by concrete pilings sunken into the harbor floor. The roofline dips at the center and rises to peaks at each end. Twenty-one open spaces puncture the sides and roof. While the structure is an engineered solution to the problem of weight distribution, it also serves as a fine metaphor for the nation’s fall and rise during World War II. On October 10, 1980, the U.S. Navy turned the visitors’ center and the operation of the Arizona Memorial over to the National Park Service.

Modern Tourism

The memorial and visitors’ center attract more than a million and a half visitors annually, and overcrowding is becoming a concern to the park service. Meanwhile, the participants in December 7, 1941, continue to haunt the harbor and add to the already serious pollution problem. Skeletons of the aircraft, the wreck of the USS Utah, and chunks of damaged ships litter the bottom. A toxic mixture of oil, lead, copper, and zinc leaks slowly from the debris, causing an ongoing ecological threat. While no one wants to tamper in this historical arena, it might be only a matter of time before measures must be taken.

Pearl Harbor is home port for twenty-two Navy surface ships and eighteen attack submarines. Budget cuts continue to threaten the jobs of many employed at Pearl Harbor. Although the military was the number-one industry in Hawaii between 1950 and 1970, tourism has now seized the top position. Nevertheless, the military remains an important part of Hawaii’s economy and history. Pearl Harbor continues to employ thousands and attract tourists, many of whom have relatives buried in the USS Arizona Memorial.

For Further Information
  • Daws, Gavan. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. An excellent view of Hawaii’s geological, historical, economic, and social background.
  • LaForte, Robert S., and Ronald E. Marcello, eds. Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1991. Firsthand observations of the attack.
  • Landauer, Lyndall Baker. Pearl: The History of the United States Navy in Pearl Harbor. South Lake Tahoe, Calif.: Flying Cloud Press, 1999. Examines the history of the U.S. Navy’s presence in Pearl Harbor.
  • Murphy, William B. “Pearl Harbor Before ‘Pearl Harbor.’” Our Navy (January, 1967). A description of Pearl Harbor’s use and significance before World War II.
  • Slackman, Michael. Remembering Pearl Harbor: The Story of the USS Arizona Memorial. Honolulu: Arizona Memorial Museum Association, 1984. Provides a comprehensive overview of the memorial’s construction.
  • Weintraub, Stanley. Long Day’s Journey into War. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1991. Contains a good overview of the attack and provides extensive background on the major participants in World War II.
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