80 years after the attack: the shock of Pearl Harbor

Status: 07.12.2021 10:30 a.m.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States to enter World War II, became a national trauma – and fueled racist hatred. Even 80 years later, the events continue to have an impact.

By Katharina Wilhelm, ARD Studio Los Angeles

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

Catherine Wilhelm
ARD-Studio Los Angeles

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

US entry: “Decisive for the war”

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to his people the next day and spoke of the “date of shame” on which Japan suddenly and deliberately attacked the USA.

Pearl Harbor was a turning point for the USA, says the American historian Rob Citino: “The large, neutral USA were drawn into a war. A few days later the Germans and Italians declare war on the USA. The USA would be there I convinced never entered the war without the shock of Pearl Harbor. “

The Japan historian Takuma Melber from the University of Heidelberg sees it similarly. He has also dealt with Pearl Harbor, his book “Pearl Harbor: Japan’s Attack and the US Entry into the War” has just been translated into English. “Pearl Harbor is the moment in World War II when the two theaters of war, Asia and Europe, are connected,” he says. “As in World War I, the United States’ entry into the war was decisive for the outcome of World War II.”

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

Bild: picture alliance/AP Photo

Racial hatred against Asian Americans

Not only did the dynamics of the world war change. Pearl Harbor had a dramatic impact on Asians, and Americans of Japanese descent in particular. About 120,000 of them were sent to detention centers. One of the best-known among them is probably the actor George Takei, known as Sulu from the Star Trek series “Spaceship Enterprise”. He lived in such a camp from the age of five to eight.

Racism against Asians is still very present in the US today. That year, thousands of Asian Americans took to the streets to protest hatred and agitation. A legacy of Pearl Harbor and other wars against Asian countries, including Korea and Vietnam, says Takuma Melber: “Unfortunately, I think, in reality it is already the case that certain American military personnel or even the average US citizen all of them Asians lumped together a bit, “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. Because with the destruction of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US war mission began – on the “USS Missouri”, which is only a few hundred meters away, it ended four years later.

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


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