Pearl Harbor

Called Pu'uloa by the original inhabitants of O'ahu, the Hawaiians, the waters of that splendid bay named by foreigners Pearl Harbor became the main target of Japan's attack that began World War II for the United States. In 1873, the secretary of war sent two generals, ostensibly on vacation in Hawai'i, to survey the islands for their military value. The anticipation was war with a maritime nation, so the secretary wanted information on the islands’ strategic value to the United States. The generals stayed in Hawai'i for two months, gathering information. Both stressed the value of Pearl Harbor as an excellent harbor for military and commercial purposes. In the years to come, those U.S. interests in Hawai'i, for military and commercial benefits, would influence U.S. policy over the fate of the islands.

In 1876, a price for reciprocity or the entry of Hawaiian sugar into the United States duty free was permission to use Pearl Harbor as a U.S. military base. The agreement boosted the previously slumping sugar industry, which grew about 2,000 percent during the years the Reciprocity Treaty was in effect. In 1887, the Hawaiian king gave Pearl Harbor to the United States for its exclusive use as a naval station. With U.S. military support in 1893, whites overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom and asked for U.S. annexation. When the United States refused, whites declared a Hawaiian Republic on July 4, 1894. Four years later, on July 7, 1898, President William McKinley, an ardent proponent of Manifest Destiny, signed a joint resolution of Congress and therewith annexed Hawai'i.

The Navy built Pearl Harbor into a citadel for its Pacific Fleet. Pearl Harbor was called the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.” Situated mid-Pacific, the fleet was critical for

U.S. global ambitions, which included the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific as American territories. Ships transported labor, raw materials, and goods produced in fields and factories, and the Navy ensured their safety as they plied the seas. Moreover, military strategists envisioned Hawai'i as an outpost, a buffer against attack from Asia, whether peaceful as in migration or an armed invasion. Pearl Harbor, thus, anchored the frontline, and the Hawaiian Islands were like an armed flotilla pointed toward Asia.

Japan was well aware of that strategy even though war planners in Tokyo believed an attack on Hawai'i would never succeed. Contrarily, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan's Navy since 1939, decided an attack could succeed through airpower. In early spring of 1940, with diplomacy failing, Yamamoto developed the strategy of island hopping, taking islands, building airfields from which to launch bombing raids, and moving on to the next stretch of oceans and islands. With preparations complete, on November 25, 1941, the fleet,

which included six aircraft carriers, embarked on a secret mission to a rendezvous point to the north of Japan. There, they set sail for Hawai'i without radio contact, without tracks left by oil spills or garbage, and without lights at night. They succeeded, and U.S. intelligence lost their scent.

But on December 6, through intercepts, the United States knew Japan was about to make a major move about eight hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor began. The warning, however, was delivered to the Hawaiian commander two hours after the first bombs fell on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Within minutes, the Japanese attackers destroyed 152 of 230 U.S. planes, sank five of six battleships, and damaged about a dozen other ships. Approximately 2,500 Americans were killed in the surprise attack. The Pacific Fleet was saved from complete destruction because, by chance, its three aircraft carriers and their escort vessels were out at sea, and by 1944 four of the damaged battleships were recovered, repaired, and returned to sea.

“A date which will live in infamy,” thundered President Roosevelt before a joint session of Congress, declaring war on the Empire of Japan and Axis Powers, and “Remember Pearl Harbor” became the slogan for this war. The U.S. military in Hawai'i had long prepared for that war with Japan, but Washington, D.C. anticipated internal subversion, not an external attack at the onset of war. Hawai'i's governor recalled Interior Secretary Harold Ickes telling him, “Washington felt there would never be an attack by Japan but had instructed the army and navy locally to be on guard against sabotage” (Okihiro, 208). Accordingly, the military's posture changed from “attack alert” to “sabotage alert,” and the army stationed soldiers at harbor facilities, public utilities, and water pumping stations weeks before Pearl Harbor. The precautions, the governor observed, was “a sort of undeclared form of martial law” (Okihiro, 209).

The Pearl Harbor attack triggered martial law for Hawai'i, a defensive plan first proposed decades earlier, and it led to the apprehension of Japanese American leaders, both alien and citizen, and a number of German and Italian aliens. Friday night before the attack on Sunday, U.S. intelligence drew up a revised list of names for internment. A group representing Army intelligence, the FBI, and the civilian police decided on the fate of Japanese Americans placed on that list. If two of the three agreed, the person was interned. The group failed to investigate consular agents, language-school principals and teachers, and other community leaders because “they were aliens and they were prime and with very few exceptions they were picked up as a unit.” Whether they were subversives was not the issue; they were interned because they were leaders. “So there were some things operating against the Japanese, to tell you the truth,” the representative from the Honolulu police admitted (Okihiro, 209).

In addition to that acknowledgement, the U.S. government knew there was no evidence of espionage or sabotage on the part of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i. The army's Board of Inquiry into the Pearl Harbor disaster found “no single instance of sabotage … up to December 7,” and “in no case was there any instance of misbehavior, despite a very exhaustive investigation being made constantly by the FBI, and by G-2 [Army intelligence], as well as by Naval Intelligence.” Despite

that, Navy secretary Frank Knox in January 1942 reported that Pearl Harbor was a result of “the most effective fifth column [subversive] work that's come out of this war, except in Norway” (Okihiro, 228), and the press published sensational stories of cane fields cut by Japanese American workers pointing the attack planes toward Pearl Harbor and shot down Japanese pilots wearing school rings from institutions in Hawai'i. All of those claims were false.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.