Pearl Harbor Veterans honored December 7th around WNY

By U.S. Navy Journalist Michael J. Owen       


“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” stated President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an emotional address to the Congress after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor 65 years ago today.

Prior to his speech, war news was spilling out from radios, street taverns, barber shops and homes across the nation. Many popular Sunday afternoon entertainment programs were interrupted. The news sent a shockwave across the nation and influenced many Americans to join the armed forces and unified the nation behind the President.

At dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, without warning, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet center in the Hawaiian Islands and other military targets. Their goal was to cripple the American Fleet so that Japan could capture the Philippines and Indo-China and gain access to raw materials needed to maintain its global military and economic power. This included feeding the war that Japan started against China in the 1930s.

With great aerial striking power from the sea, Japanese planes struck at 7:53 a.m.  Additionally, Pearl Harbor was not on high alert. Based on available intelligence, senior commanders believed that no such attack was imminent. Therefore, aircraft were left parked wingtip to wingtip, anti-aircraft guns were unmanned and many ammunition boxes were locked in peacetime mode. There were no torpedo nets protecting the fleet anchorage and since it was Sunday morning, many military personnel were leisurely ashore or sleeping in late aboard ship.

The first Japanese assault wave, with 51 'Val' dive bombers, 40 'Kate' torpedo bombers, 50 high level bombers and 43 'Zero' fighters, commenced the attack with flight commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, sounding the battle cry: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!).

Oahu’s island inhabitants were taken completely by surprise. The first attack wave struck airfields and battleships while the second wave hit smaller ships and facilities. The air raid lasted until 9:45 a.m. Eight battleships were damaged, with five sunk. Three light cruisers, three destroyers and three smaller vessels were also lost along with 188 aircraft. The Japanese lost 27 planes and five midget submarines which tried to penetrate the harbor and launch torpedoes.

Fortunately, the prime targets, three U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga, were not in port that morning and escaped damage. Also saved were the base fuel tanks. After the smoke cleared, 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians were dead, with 1,178 wounded. This included 1,104 men aboard the battleship USS Arizona killed after a 1,760-pound air bomb penetrated the forward magazine causing massive explosions and sending her to the bottom in nine minutes. 

Almost immediately, Japanese forces sliced through much of the American forces in the Philippines and rolled ashore in Malaya and other parts of the Pacific.

Japan also wanted to expand her empire over Australia, New Zealand, and India, creating the so-called "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.”  The prevailing belief within Japan was that eventually with the then-expected German defeat of Great Britain and Soviet Russia, America’s non-involvement in Europe’s war, and Japan's control of the Pacific -- world power would stabilize into three major spheres of influence.  Japan would control East, Southeast, and South Asia and the entire Pacific Ocean. The combined powers of Germany and Italy would control Great Britain, all of Europe, Western and central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.  The United States would control North and South America.

For the next few months, American and Allied forces suffered until a turning point in the war after decisive victories in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  The memory of the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor fueled America’s determination and industrial strength to fight on in the pacific, and defeat the German and Italian allies preventing future threats to World peace.  The attack also shocked and enraged a previously divided America on whether to enter the war, paving way for a level of unity that has hardly been seen again until the recent terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001.

The now famous "Day of Infamy" speech that echoed through the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere in 1941 still serves as a constant reminder to maintain our military strength and honor our veterans.  Today, December 7th, those who fought and died in Pearl Harbor will be remembered in worldwide ceremonies including here in Western New York.

Grand Island resident, Joe Synakowski, a youngster in 1941 recalls hearing about the Japanese attack from his father. “We had just come home from church in Buffalo when he told me. Everyone was running around talking about the attack, wondering what was going to happen next,” said Synakowski.  “Most people didn’t really know where Pearl Harbor was in those days, just like many Americans today have forgotten the sacrifices and losses of our Pearl Harbor Veterans,” he said in a humble tone. “They had to do what it took to survive and rise up out of defeat to win the war. They didn’t really have a choice; freedom and the American way of life were at stake.” An Army Veteran, he enlisted underage at the end of WWII and now serves as Judge Advocate of The Charles N. DeGlopper Memorial VFW Post #9249 on Grand Island.  A Pearl Harbor Day ceremonial will also be held today at noon in front of the VFW.  “We mainly honor the veterans of Pearl Harbor on that day, but we must also remember all Vets, including the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.

Another member of the post and a Navy Veteran, Neil Hunter, 83, was steaming for Manila Bay, Philippines in 1941 on the troop carrier USS Republic when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Military knew something was up around 1940 and started bolstering U.S. forces in the Pacific Region sometimes using old freighters to move troops. “Things just didn’t seem right, so we were sent to reinforce our troops in the Philippines on some pretty rough ships.”  Japan was also at war with China at that time. “Until we got into the war the Flying Tigers were protecting supply routes around Burma Road (China-Burma –India Theater).  Some pilots had to fly over the Himalayas Mountain.  That was rough flying over the hump with dangerous downdrafts.”  The Republic had left San Francisco the day after Thanksgiving in convoy.  After the war broke out, the ship was diverted to Sidney, Australia for repairs.  “Our crew was happily greeted by the Australians, especially the girls waving more than just their hands,” said the former Sailor with a grin.  “Still, we couldn’t get a letter home for months while our families worried.  We decided then and there, since the Japanese messed with us, we were going to kick their butts back to Tokyo.” Some of Hunter’s convoy troops were later captured in Java by the Japanese and forced to help construct the now famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

On a personal note, I served in Japan for almost seven years in more recent times and sailed around the Pacific Ocean on USS Essex and USS Belleau Wood.  In trying to discover more on what WWII Sailors went through, I also scuba dived on many sunken ships and battle sites around Guam and other pacific islands, including a humble walk on the sands of Iwo Jima and a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial.  The USS Arizona is no longer in commission, contrary to popular belief. The American Flag does fly above the sunken battleship, but it’s attached to a severed mainmast. In recent years, the memorial has come to represent all military and associated personnel killed at Pearl Harbor.

While standing over the rusting hull of USS Arizona one quiet Sunday morning and reading the names of those who died engraved on a marble wall of the memorial platform, I felt a strange feeling come over me. I noticed the slow and periodic, yet endless drip of oil as it escaped the ship’s storage tanks and broke to the surface in rainbow fashion. It’s quite eerie and the realization that this oil leak has probably continued since that fatal day in 1941 gave me a chill.  It’s as if those fallen shipmates are still calling out to remind us to never forget.  Remember Pearl Harbor!