6 little-known stories about Pearl Harbor
December 1, 2021 | View PDF
Eighty years later, the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor remains significant as one of only a few times the United States has been attacked by a foreign adversary on its own soil. The tragedy of the attack came not only in the loss of over 2,400 lives, but also in how unprepared the U.S. was for it. Not that they can be much blamed ― a surprise attack from a nation over 4,000 miles away had been previously unthought of.
While much has been said about the attack itself, here are some lesser-known facts and stories surrounding Pearl Harbor:
1. Japan’s surprise attack came in the wake of a devastating American oil embargo. In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order announcing a freeze on assets with Japan. Now, any business would need to seek the U.S. government’s permission to trade with the country. However, confusion about the order resulted in cutting off all trade with Japan — including the export of U.S. oil, which the Japanese naval forces were dependent upon.
This led the island country to set its sights toward an invasion of Southeast Asia and its oil resources, though it knew such an act would lead to war against America. As a result, Japan decided to attack America’s Pacific Fleet based out of Pearl Harbor to prevent American interference in its plan for accessing the resources of these other countries.
2. Among the fallen were the remains of a baby girl. In 1937, Chief Yeoman Albert Wagner’s wife gave birth to premature twins, one of whom died two days later. Wagner planned to scatter his daughter’s ashes at sea, storing the urn in his locker on the U.S.S. Utah. But he never got the chance. While he survived Pearl Harbor, the daughter’s remains were lost with the sunken ship, along with the lives of 58 sailors.
A funeral was never held for baby Nancy until 2003, when her twin sister, Mary, gathered friends and family to the site of the memorial to say an official goodbye.
“I feel nothing but pride and pleasure that she’s in such magnificent company,” Mary said. “I could not ask for anything better than for her to be tenderly, carefully looked after by America’s finest.”
3. A conspiracy theory developed about newspaper ads warning of the attack. Two weeks before the December 7 attack, the New Yorker published an ad promoting a mysterious board game called “The Deadly Double,” which featured people in an air raid shelter playing dice — two of which were numbered 12 and 7 — and included words like “alert” and “warning.” After Pearl Harbor, people saw the ad in a different light, convinced it was a coded message to Japanese spies warning them of the impending assault.
However, the conspiracy theory was quickly debunked when it was discovered that Roger Paul Craig had indeed invented such a game and created the ads, with the numbers on the dice amounting to coincidence. Despite its notoriety, the game never sold well, and Craig ironically ended up working for the Office of Strategic Services — the U.S.’s intelligence agency during World War II.
4. Months later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor again. After the success of its initial attack, Japan began plans for bigger targets like mainland America. But first, the military decided to do a reconnaissance flight over Pearl Harbor to see how the repair operations were going and to drop some bombs while there. Less than 90 days after the first attack, Japanese bombs once again fell on Oahu. Fortunately, bad weather stymied the pilots’ efforts and the bombs missed their targets, hurting no one. Though less damaging than “the date which will live in infamy,” the second attack was kept secret from the public for decades.
5. Elvis Presley helped raise money for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Fund. A few years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the building of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, the project struggled to raise enough funds. Elvis Presley decided to help by putting on a benefit concert, performing classics like “Hound Dog” for thousands of fans at Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena. The event brought in more than $54,000 and helped raise public interest in the memorial, which was dedicated a year later in 1962.
6. A Japanese and American soldier, both Pearl Harbor survivors, later became friends. Zenji Abe, a Japanese pilot that dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor, didn’t learn until decades later that the attack had come before Japan’s declaration of war. Viewing Japan’s wartime leaders’ actions as immoral, he worked to engage in reconciliation efforts between Japanese and American veterans. In 1991, at the 50th anniversary of the attack, Abe visited the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii where he came to apologize to his former foes. He found reconciliation, forgiveness and friendship from American Pearl Harbor survivors like Richard Fiske. Fiske and Abe became close friends and agreed to honor the memorial each month with roses until Fiske’s death in 2004.